ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature
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Introduction to Theory of Literature
ENGL 300 - Lecture 24 - The Institutional Construction of Literary Study
Chapter 1. Identity in Theory [00:00:00]
Professor Paul Fry: We’ve been passing through a variety of discourses concerning the nature of identity, the way in which identity is constructed–incidentally with varying degrees of emphasis, the way in which identity is constructed in literature. I’m going to come back to this perhaps missing link, literature, in a minute. In the meantime, I just wanted to point out something that I’m sure you’ve inferred for yourselves: namely that each one of these approaches to identity has a history, and that the history results in a recent chapter which is something like what you might call a deconstructive moment, signifying on theory itself such that the claim of theory as a mainstream discourse to hold certain views is something that in and of itself, from a subversive perspective, needs to be deconstructed and undermined. There is the idea in postcolonial studies of hybridity as the undermining of cultural binaries–that is, the double consciousness in which one experiences simultaneously a kind of identification with a state apparatus and a will to subvert it.
By the way, I thought I’d give you another example of how that works because it applies to me. I don’t actually watch talk shows very often, but should I be watching a talk show, they often invite people on to these shows whom they call professors. I just wanted to point out to you the degree to which the sly civility, the hybrid sly civility with which people are called “professors,” is for a professor one of the most discouraging sounds in the language, because they know very well when someone is addressed by a talk show host as “professor” what they mean is you are a pedant. You don’t know how to park a bicycle straight. You have no understanding of the real world. I don’t know why I’ve invited you on this show in the first place, [laughter] except somebody told me you were an expert. That’s what it means in the public sphere to be a professor.
Bhabha perhaps exaggerates a little bit when he says the discourse of hybridity has an element of terrorism about it. Bhabha is writing long ago before 9/11 and so on and perhaps uses the term a little loosely, but I have to say when I hear somebody addressing me, someone not in the academy–because of course, people have contempt for me in the academy, too, but it’s a more complicated thing. They may not have contempt for other professors, if you see what I mean, so that’s more complicated. But when someone not in the academy addresses me as “professor,” I suppose I can’t say that I feel terrorized exactly, but I do feel depressed. [laughter] That’s an important part of the double consciousness of the subaltern, as Bhabha expatiates on it. Then in any case, finally there is the deconstructive moment of gender theory in which gender is understood not as something essential but as something performed–something brought into existence not just by verbal discourse but by all the semiotic systems, including gesture, dress, and all the rest of it that constitutes the way in which gender comes into being.
Now in each case you have instances of knowledge as negation. I’m just trying to pull this back into the perspective of what we recognize perhaps more readily as literary theory. By “knowledge as negation” I mean semiotic knowledge, something that I’ve been trying to stress really as a central theme throughout this course. “I am–well, I don’t know what I am, but I’ll tell you this: I’m not that.” In other words, the way in which I come to understand myself as not that–and I, of course, am the person who possesses hegemonic discourse, so I see myself, I come to understand myself for the first time in the argument of a Toni Morrison or an Edward Said or, in a certain sense, of a Judith Butler. I come to understand, in a way, for the first time when I reflect on what I’m not–that is to say, when I try to objectify or to pigeonhole that which I’m not, which is of course not what I’m really not but what I suppose myself not to be. In all of these ways then, you can see that the way in which, according to the sorts of thinking we have been reviewing in recent weeks, one comes to understand oneself is precisely negative in the tradition of semiotic and formalist understandings of language. I am not at all necessarily what I am. I am precisely as I understand it not that, not the other; and I grasp myself perhaps in ways that deepen my alleged understanding of myself as a result of this negative process.
All right. So I say all these things again to reassure you that we still are talking about literary theory, that the ways of thinking about things that we’ve encountered recently really do arise out of issues given to us by deconstruction and by negation in the semiotic and formalist tradition. We can understand what has happened basically–this in terms of the overall structure of the course–not as a change in the structure of thought we examined when we took up language as the primary determinant of understanding, but as a transformation of language–the determinant of social understanding–into what we call “a social text”; so that our head now is not the repository of Saussure’s langue, that is something that just sits there in and of itself as a system, but rather it’s full of other people’s language. It is a space in which society itself understood as discourse jostles for attention and struggles somehow or another to shape itself into intelligibility. That’s the fundamental change.
Language is still preeminent in the kinds of thinking that we’ve been doing. We haven’t really gotten away from language, but we have altered our understanding of language. Language is now a social text. It is now, in Bakhtin’s words, other people’s language, and we understand it therefore not–and of course, semiotics and deconstruction don’t understand it as our own either, because language always precedes us; but we understand it more clearly as something that is given to us as a social formation that in turn forms us.
In a way that does bring us to our topic today because this topic, almost the last topic of the course, has to do with the preconditions of interpretation. What makes it possible for us to think something? How is it that we come to think one thing as opposed to another thing? How is it that there are areas of agreement among us? How is it, for that matter, that there are areas of disagreement among us and indeed that these areas characteristically seem to be so nonnegotiable? [laughs] The point arises at which we just can’t find ourselves in agreement on things just as the point arises when we realize that we are in some profound way in agreement about other things. How is it that all of this comes to be?
Chapter 2. Identity in Tony the Tow Truck [00:09:14]
In order to do that, let’s first go back to Tony the Tow Truck. Because we’ve said all along that it’s about whatever it is that we happen to be talking about, let’s think about Tony once again as being about the things we’ve been discussing recently. We can say, for example, that Tony is a Marxist contestation of the social determinacy of identity in other forms. It’s a realist text because, as we’ve said before, nothing happens. There is no change in the social formations that are the givens of the story, but it nevertheless does lay out the relationship among social norms in ways that show that life goes on despite social inequality, despite–of course here I’m going to throw something at you that you perhaps hadn’t thought of so much in terms of Tony before–despite ethnic and gender difference.
Now what happens then in Tony, to move to a slightly different way of thinking about it, is we can see that it’s a global story masked as a story of hybridity in the American melting pot. It should have been perfectly plain to you all along that Tony is an Italian American with the complex personality of the subaltern. On the one hand, he believes in the American dream. He likes his job. He buys into the system, in other words, but on the other hand he recognizes that he has his own place in the world, the little yellow garage. It’s his niche in the world and it’s something that is partly what affords him his identity.
Neato, of course, on the other hand is the neurotic WASP in the manor house, sort of representing that sort of class, and Speedy very interestingly is a member of what John Guillory calls “the professional/managerial class.” What’s interesting about Speedy is that suddenly we realize that his ethnic origins, his class origins, and even his gender–because he may be a woman–are not perhaps as relevant as one might have imagined them to be because the professional/managerial class is interesting–as Guillory’s source, Alvin Gouldner, points out at length–precisely as the emergence of a body of people with common interests who really can’t be said, at least, to derive from, or perhaps in a way even to belong to, a common class. Speedy is certainly in Tony the Tow Truck a representative of this new emerging class. Perhaps it’s no accident that Neato comes first. I think memory serves me in saying that Neato comes first in the sort of folkloric triad because Neato represents an older class, a class which in a certain sense is giving way to the professional/managerial class. It makes sense that first you get Neato and then you would get Speedy.
So then we can also think of Tony the Tow Truck, of course, in terms of gender. We’ve said there are no women in it, and yet at the same time you do have those frowning and smiling houses sort of embodying the angel in the house, but it’s not just that. Obviously, Neato–I’ve never drawn a picture of Neato but with his little bow tie and his prissy “Oh, I don’t want to get dirty” he’s just a bundle of gay stereotypes. [laughter] Then obviously with Bumpy, he pushes and pushes–you don’t even want to go there. [laughter] In any case, this is plainly a story about gender, and so you can see that it’s about all these things.
Chapter 3. Introduction to Interpretive Communities [00:13:24]
So then here is the question, and it really does provide us with our transition to today’s materials: what have I been doing all this time with Tony the Tow Truck? I’ve been doing exactly, as you can see now, what Fish does with Jacobs, Rosenbaum, Levin, Thorne, Hayes, and Ohmann. I’ve been showing that if you bring a certain supposition to what you’re reading, you’re going to perform a certain kind of hermeneutic act, not with any particular strain but more or less spontaneously because that’s what you are conditioned to do.
Now Fish’s class had no trouble construing the assignment for his previous class as a poem, and you can see, of course, that it was sort of ready to hand to be construed that way. Fish admits that, but he’s lecturing some people in Kenyon College and he just sort of runs his finger down the list of faculty names and says, “Look what I could do with these names.” I think he does make his point because you can do it with absolutely anything. We can see, of course, that his class actually missed a few points. It forgot to mention that an ancient and important meaning of the word “Levin” is lightning, so that a flash of revelation is entailed in any religious understanding of the poem. It’s almost impossible to understand why his class was stumped by the word “Hayes” because “Hayes”–well, we see things through a glass darkly. We see them in a haze, and that’s exactly the way in which we’re likely to respond to instances of religious revelation as they are given in the devotional poetry of the seventeenth century.
In any case, what we’ve been doing with Tony the Tow Truck is of this kind. We’ve taken a text with a–by the way, you may want to know whether I think Tony is really about something as opposed to about all those things. Well, I actually do, and I mentioned it in passing, but it’s only an intuition and it really doesn’t arise out of any particular predilections I have for psychoanalysis. It does seem to me, however, that a story written to that age group in which the climactic line is “He pushed and he pushed and I’m on my way” is pretty obviously about one thing as opposed to a lot of other things. If you really pushed me about what Tony the Tow Truck is about, I would say, “Well, I think it’s an anal phase parable and that Robert Kraus very possibly wrote it for that purpose. In other words, this would engage the attention of the toddler who is having the story read to him or her, and its meaningfulness probably is going to come across to the toddler in that way perhaps in more pronounced fashion than in any other–certainly and obviously in a more pronounced fashion than most of the ways in which we’ve been talking about the text.
So that’s what I think. Of course, I’ve disclaimed any connection with psychoanalysis but nevertheless I know something about it, and so that’s part of my interpretive community. We’ll get back to that. In any case, we’ve been treating Tony the Tow Truck in this way and we have been, well, nodding our heads and saying, “Yeah, yeah, it’s about that, too,” and “Guess so, yeah. Interesting, isn’t it? Wonder what it’s going to be about on Thursday.” We’ve been doing this because we belong to an interpretive community.
Now I want immediately to add here two caveats. I would say that within the interpretive community that makes up this room, a community of people who are interested in interpretation, you probably have suspected all along that interpretation was a mug’s game and therefore wanted to take a course of this kind to find out just how bad it was. All of us at least have in common a concern with the potential complexity of those circumstances that surround interpretation. We are an interpretive community that’s interested in interpretation, so we play the game. However, I would hazard that within this interpretive community there are two sub-communities which probably, in a certain sense, while they see the significance of the exercise, nevertheless want to hold out against it.
One of them is the community which either always has or has now come to have a very, very strong commitment to one or another point of view that’s been passed in review in this course and who therefore finds it demeaning of the important point of view that it would be treated simply in a survey in a serial way with all sorts of other points of view that may or may not supplant or jostle with it. Now this takes us back to the remarks I was making at the beginning about the way in which one can perhaps acknowledge the usefulness of a survey course but nevertheless bridle at the very idea of a survey course when, after all, the only thing that matters is Marx’s thought. Why do we spend any time with all of these other approaches to things and so on–just sort of whichever form of thought is the only thing that matters to you. This would probably lead you to say not so much that Tony is only about this one thing but “Oh, this is a really facile and irrelevant exercise because the important thing is to take this one thing seriously.” The implication is that if you take a lot of other things in review, you’re not taking this one thing seriously.
So that might be one sub-community within our interpretive community. Another one might be a sub-community that is still committed, as one’s tempted to say, to high culture and says, “I think we should have used ‘Lycidas’ or ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.’ It was demeaning to high culture to use Tony the Tow Truck and furthermore,” this sub-community might very well say, “if we had used ‘Lycidas’ or ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,’ a certain approach, a certain way of reading either of those poems, would have made sense self-evidently–meaning that all of the other approaches are trivial.” If your commitment is not so much to one point of view as to some idea of high culture, you’re not going to say in advance which approach it is, but you’re going to suppose that somehow or another such is the value and nature of high culture that it will be possible to arrive at a sort of consensus view of what’s going on in one of its products. This is what Guillory is talking about at least in part in his review of defenses of Western civilization, Western culture and so on. They have a meaning. They have a continuity. They have a stability which is worth preserving and which ought to be the central business of the schools to promulgate.
So those are possible sub-communities within our interpretative community, but we all do have in common the recognition that it’s possible to riff on a text in this way. If somebody does it, we recognize that whether we like it or not, we ourselves could probably do it ,too–which is proof, from Stanley Fish’s point of view and also from John Guillory’s point of view, because we’re in a school that we have a great deal in common. It’s what we have in common that brings the text into visibility in the variety of ways that we’ve performed on it.
Chapter 4. Stanley Fish: First Take on Interpretive Communities [00:22:17]
Now with all of this said, let’s talk a little bit more about what an interpretive community is first, according to Stanley Fish, and then move to the point where we may wish to suggest one form or another of criticism of this idea. Let’s begin with Fish’s first sentence, which is on page 1023, the upper left-hand column. This is a series of lectures, and so he begins by saying:
I don’t know that he really carries his argument all that much farther forward in this lecture, which is why I think it’s worthwhile to begin with this sentence because in some ways it does anticipate what he then lays out once more in this lecture.
Now an interesting thing about the career of Stanley Fish is that he actually, in the course of that quite high-visibility career, changed his mind twice. His changes of mind are actually recorded residually in this essay that you read, “How Do We Recognize a Poem when We See One?” which, by the way, is a completely disingenuous title because we don’t see poems. [laughs] That’s the whole point. There is no poem there. If it’s there, it’s because you put it there. In any case, these changes of mind are residually present in this text. They are actually manifest in the peculiar vagary of the argument of an earlier essay he wrote called “Interpreting the Variorum,” which is what was in the second edition of [laughs] the Richter anthology and the one that I used to teach, but I think it’s still worth harkening back to those changes of mind. When I was his student at the University of California, he held his first opinion. This was just before he publishedSurprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, a book for which a seminar that I was in was a kind of guinea pig. To give you an example of what he meant by saying that a stable text produces a reader, which was his first belief, I give you an example that he uses from Milton about Satan’s spirit. This is Satan standing by the fiery lake. He’s just pulled himself up to his full height, he has a spear, and Milton writes about it [points to board]:
Then you realize that the sequence of sizes is completely reversed and what you thought, what you’d already filled your consciousness with–the tallest pine–is just a wand compared with the size of Satan’s spear. So what’s he saying? He’s saying you think that your mind can grasp the magnitude of Satan, you think you know how big Satan is, but the language of Paradise Lost is going to teach you, is going to educate you into realizing that you shouldn’t mess with Satan because Satan is much bigger than you think he is.
What I didn’t write here, and what continues the passage, shows that even here Satan is absolutely at his weakest. The passage continues [points to board]: “He walkt with to support uneasy steps…” In other words, he’s just risen from the fiery lake. He’s as weak as he’s ever going to be right now [laughs] and yet he’s already a lot more than you can handle. That is the way the syntax of Paradise Lost educates us into realizing that every time we think we grasp the point of a text, we prove that we are fallen readers, that we have prematurely understood what’s there, and that only understanding it in the long run can prevail upon us to realize the fallen condition, which the text is obviously after all about.
Chapter 5. Stanley Fish: Second Take on Interpretive Communities [00:27:15]
That was Fish’s first opinion. Not too long after that, in the course of writing a book called Self-Consuming Artifacts, he began to have a different opinion which more or less reversed the first one. He decided it isn’t the text that brings the reader into being–that is to say, brings about the self-realization on my part that I’m a fallen being in the case of Paradise Lost. It isn’t the text that brings the reader into existence. It’s the reader that brings the text into existence. It’s the reader, after all, who performed this act of reading, and it’s the reader who made visible in the text the possibility that this is what Milton is doing. So he reverses his field while retaining the same structure of argument and the same range of insight about what one can think about a text.
Well, that was fine until he realized that a reader has to come from someplace. A reader isn’t just an autonomous being. This is where he realized that the third step in his development, his second change of mind, means this: it’s not the text that produces the reader, it’s not the reader that produces the text, but it’s the community that produces the reader who in turn produces the text. Those three points in other words map the progress of his thinking on these issues. Take a quick look at page 1025, the right-hand column. He says, bottom of the paragraph: “Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them.”
When he says that, he’s only at phase two of his thinking, because there is still the possibility open to the reader of thinking that the interpreter is an autonomous being whose thoughts, whose interpretive powers, and whose strategies of reading emanate from something from within. Then on page 1027 he clarifies, toward the bottom of the right-hand column: “This does not, however, commit me to subjectivity…” In other words, it’s not just a question of whatever I think is in a text is in a text. I’m the one who makes the text, and you make the text, and the other person makes the text. We all make different texts because we all have different subjectivities–that’s not what he’s saying.
In other words, I can’t have an off-the-wall interpretation of anything if anyone else ever hears it. Yeah, if I’m [laughs] just in my room, surrounded by yellow wallpaper or something like that, I suppose I can have an off-the-wall interpretation of something, but if I try to publish it, forget it. When I try to publish, when I try to express myself, when I expose myself to any aspect of the public sphere, my interpretation–if it’s to be judged as an interpretation at all, if it’s to count as an interpretation, and if it’s to count as an opinion–must already be enmeshed in the interpretative community to which it’s addressed. It must have some sort of link with that community. It must involve some sort of membership or relationship with that community, so that what Fish concludes is that there are neither subjects nor objects.
In other words, this is Fish’s way, following Derrida and deconstruction, of attacking the Western metaphysical tradition. As long as we suppose that understanding is a matter of parsing or coming to terms with subject-object relations, we’re on the wrong track to understanding. We have to understand the way in which neither the subject nor the object can be said to have a stable existence, to have integrity of any kind, before we can come closer to grasping how it is that interpretation is made and achieved. We’ve seen this before all the way back at the beginning of the semester when we talked about fore-having in Heidegger and Gadamer, about the way in which we always see something as something: we never see it as an object, we never see it in and of itself. We’ve seen this before, but there is a slight difference because Heidegger and Gadamer hold out the object as a standard against which one’s opinions about it can be tested. In other words, the hermeneutic circle is a movement back and forth between interpretation and what’s being interpreted, so that what’s being interpreted is a constant check on the process of interpretation just as interpretation, as it deepens, is a finer and finer outlining of the nature of the object.
So the hermeneutic circle which resembles, which anticipates the thinking of Fish in that it insists on the way in which all interpretation begins as preconception, nevertheless does also entail that subtle difference in that the object is there. It’s not that Fish denies the existence of objects–although sometimes his rhetoric makes it seem that way. He simply denies that we can know them as objects at any point. We bring them into being, and in bringing them into being we construct them in whatever way it is that we construct them.
Chapter 6. The Limits of Interpretive Community [00:33:52]
Okay. Interpretive community. What do we make of this idea of interpretive community? I have just said we all belong to an interpretive community. We sitting here all belong to an interpretive community. There may be a couple of sub-communities here, but basically we’re an interpretive community. We understand each other, and yet at the same time it’s equally the case, as I’m sure all of you are thinking to yourselves, that no one of us has exactly the same set of opinions as anyone else. We say we belong to an interpretive community. We can in fact, according to a certain weak form of the argument, understand the way in which yes, we do bring things into being according to certain habits that have evolved through our membership in such a community; but at the same time we say, “Guess what? I don’t quite interpret [laughs] Jacobs, Rosenbaum and the rest of them in the way Fish’s class did. I still don’t interpret it in the way that Professor Fry supplemented their interpretation. I interpret it a little differently, and furthermore I knew all along it wasn’t a poem. You can’t fool me,” and so on. Each of us says to ourselves, “Okay. Yeah, we have certain things in common, but there are also ways in which we differ.”
What would Fish say to that? I think what he would say is this, and I do think this needs to be acknowledged: it weakens his position. He would say, “All right, granted: in a rough sense, we belong here–just as John Guillory says in a rough sense we’re all in a school–we belong to an interpretive community; but there’s another sense in which we are each of us the sum total, the composite, of all the interpretive communities to which we now in some way or another have an affinity and from which, in all the variety of ways one can mention, we have emerged. Yes, we’re each different because the sum of the interpretive communities to which we belong, constituting the ultimate interpretive community that indeed we are, is always going to be a little different from the sum of the communities to which other people belong. This reduces the idea of interpretive community to a kind of atomism whereby we all concede and all say, “Yes, it’s true. I am in a certain sense a community.”
That’s all Bakhtin said: “I am a community. I am a community and, of course, what communities do when they think is interpret.” Thinking is interpretation. But at the same time “What’s the point,” we then say, “of saying I’m a community if, in fact I’m a little different from everybody else?” Why not retain a certain sense of subjectivity, or why not at least retain that sense of individuality which results from the fact that none of us ultimately or completely on every particular agree with anybody else–the reason being that the sum of our interpretative communities that makes up that fundamental community to which we say we belong is always a little bit different?”
Now there is another argument against this position which might be called radical constructivism. We hear very frequently from sociobiological thinkers like Edward O. Wilson, for example, who point out that consciousness is hard wired to do and to recognize all sorts of things. It has been shown in the lab that aesthetic preference, which of course was always held up to derision as anything like an objective standard–“There is no disputing tastes,” we always say–but even aesthetic preference, it’s been shown in the lab, involves certain predilections we all do have in common. We all prefer the so-called golden section, we love arches, and this can explained in all sorts of ways. The most common explanation has to do with what’s called shelter theory. We like shapes that somehow or another offer shelter or protection. In any case, the fairly conclusive evidence is that in a variety of ways, we are hard wired to recognize things. Darwin’s last book is all about how we recognize each other’s expressions, we recognize the expressions of animals with which we have a great deal in common, and that we do this from infancy–in other words, all sorts of evidence to this effect.
I’m not sure Fish’s argument is vulnerable to that position because, after all, hard wiring is communitarian. [laughs] The point is precisely that we all have it and that it’s not something that we can call individual, not something that we can call autonomous to any one of us as individuals. So it seems to me that although the argument against so-called radical constructivism usually does take this form, it actually is not a very good argument, and that the argument objecting to the mere weakness of the way in which interpretive community as a concept ultimately becomes atomistic is a stronger argument; because what does it matter if I’m an interpretive community if I’m still a community of one? In some measure, it’s something that seems less worth talking about once one’s put it in those terms.
Chapter 7. Guillory: The School and Other Interpretive Communities [00:39:52]
Very quickly then on Guillory whose argument actually ended the very debate that he thinks is going to intensify and get worse. In other words, he thought that the big, hot-button topic in the academic world for the next twenty-five years or more would be the canon wars: canonical, non-canonical, cultural, and multicultural–he thought this would be the fundamental point of contention in the academic world. Well, it wasn’t, and the reason it wasn’t is that his argument was so brilliant everybody came to their senses and realized [laughs] that they were barking up the wrong tree, literally. His book, Cultural Capital, simply silenced not the public, because nothing ever silences the public, [laughter] but simply silenced the debate about the culture wars in the academy. In some ways Guillory amusingly undermines his own prophecy, which by the way is on page 1477 in the upper right-hand column if you care to read it.
Now Guillory’s main preoccupation–which he takes largely from Pierre Bourdieu but also, as he argues in a long constructive digression, from Antonio Gramsci–his main preoccupation is with the school as a means of establishing and proliferating what Gramsci called “hegemony.” The school, in other words, on this argument doesn’t typically–and we’ll come back to the exception that Guillory himself does make–doesn’t typically send out into the world minds armed with specific bodies of knowledge or understanding. It sends out into the world, especially when it’s a question of the humanities–which Guillory thinks are painting themselves into the corner in their obtuseness–the school sends out into the world people endowed with a certain quantum of cultural capital. It repeats, in other words–in Bourdieu’s term it “reproduces”–a structure of class, but really class in the sort of super-structural sense: class superiority that regardless of the specific content that a person supposes himself to have been mastering, simply replicates an orientation to the ruling class that the school in Western culture, according to Guillory, has always had. What the school reproduces is not knowledge so much as itself, the attitude that it embodies, its reason for being, its reason for continuation, and its relation to power and state apparatus. That’s Guillory’s basic position and it’s why he says that the culture wars simply play into the hands of the monolithic ideology of the school.
What happens when you embrace multiculturalism as the only means of inculcating what Guillory calls “progressive pedagogy”–what happens when you embrace multiculturalism, according to Guillory, is that you deracinate the objects of your intention from the culture to which they belong in precisely the way that the great monuments of Western civilization have long since been deracinated from their historical and cultural circumstances. You reduce both Western Civ and alternative canons to the same deracinated, rootless sort of nature as cultural capital. “I have read this. I have a certain status and negotiability in the world as having read this.” In the case of Western Civ, it’s quotations from the poets and after-dinner speeches. In the case of multicultural curricula, it’s the opportunity to allude in precisely the same way on largely the same occasions, and in either case it has nothing to do with learning anything, according to Guillory, about the historical and social circumstances in which any kind of cultural production are grounded.
Now the argument depends, of course, on supposing that the way in which the great works are taught is as though they embody certain ideas of principles. That is to say, they’re taught as messages, in Guillory’s view, whatever form of message it might be. The Western canon has a message about the importance of being an American. The multicultural canon has a contestatory message about the importance of being whoever happens to be speaking, but in each case they’re merely messages. They’re not cultural artifacts. They don’t emerge from the real sort of historical and living circumstances in which they are written, which of course is, most broadly speaking, simply an appeal to method, a new way of teaching.
Guillory’s own deepest commitment is, in fact, to the great works. Guillory began as an early modern scholar. He wrote a very, very fine first book on Spenser and Milton. His later work in literary sociology in no ways discredits or undermines the fact that earlier in his career he was interested in a cultural canon. In fact, probably the most interesting chapter inCultural Capital is maybe not this introductory theoretical one but an amazing chapter in which he shows how Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” came to predominate in English curricula even though it was written in the vernacular, in English. He shows in other words how “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” in the way in which it situated itself in culture at that time, actually undermined the premium place on the classics, on Latinity, and helped the emergence of a vernacular national curriculum. It’s an absolutely brilliant argument in which “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” is itself constantly and steadily and fascinatingly invoked.
In other words, Guillory himself likes the classics. Perhaps the most interesting part of this argument is the way in which the Western Civ mavens are simply fooled about their own understanding of what a canon is because perpetually, history changes canons. The more books you get, the fewer you can read, and the more gets dropped out of any curriculum, including the Western Civ curriculum. Today we’re proud if we’re proponents of great books. We’re proud of reading Plato and Aristotle. In the old days, people didn’t stop with Plato and Aristotle. They read everything there was to read in Greek and Latin culture and then they read such few books as may have been published in English. Well, a great deal has happened since then, and perforce modern languages and literatures have altered the canon always to the end of thinning it out. More and more gets left out. This is an inevitability even in the so-called “canonical” and therefore itself needs to acknowledge the centrality of historical change.
Guillory’s argument obviously hinges on the failure of anybody involved in these debates to distinguish between the two forms of culture. [laughs] There is culture, the kind of culture on which a person without any education at all and the new professional/managerial class can meet, the kind of culture in which precisely literature doesn’t matter. Who needs literature? “I’m running Hewlett-Packard. Do I need literature?” At the same time, there is the kind of culture with a capitalK, as we say, which is all about the great books, high culture, the monuments of civilization, and so on. Guillory says the total disconnect in the way in which we understand the relations between these two forms of culture is what leads to the kinds of deracination in teaching that he complains about. He himself finally thinks that anything is fair game to be taught, and it can be taught progressively as long as it is taught in terms of its social and historical circumstances. He points out that a great book–I will quote this and then I’ll leave you–is great in part because it can’t possibly be reduced to the silliness that the advocates of Western Civ attach to it. He says, page 1482, right-hand column:
The Odyssey is full of lying, trickery, class betrayal. In The Iliad, perhaps the most interesting character, as I’m sure you’ll all agree, is Thersites who is scarcely an advocate of the values that we associate with Western culture. In any case, this is what Guillory means by saying that you cannot monumentalize anything in this way if you read it carefully and attentively enough. So ultimately it’s simply a program for reading.
Okay. Next time we’ll talk about the idea that we shouldn’t have theory at all.
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