24. The Institutional Construction of Literary Study

Prof: 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,>
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.>
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
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? 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.
Then obviously with Bumpy,
he pushes and pushes–you don’t even want to go there.
In any case,
this is plainly a story about gender, and so you can see that
it’s about all these things. 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. 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: Last time I sketched out an
argument by which meanings are the property neither of fixed
and stable texts nor of free and independent readers but of
interpretative communities that are responsible both for the
shape of a reader’s activities and for the texts those
activities produce. 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
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
>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
published Surprised 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]:
His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine [okay:
spear, pine about the same size]
Hewn… to be the Mast of some great Ammiral [well,
let’s see, mast-pine-spear] were but a wand…
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>
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.
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. This does not,
however, commit me to subjectivity because the means
by which they are made are social and conventional.
In other words,
I can’t have an off-the-wall interpretation of anything if
anyone else ever hears it. Yeah, if I’m
>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.
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
>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.>
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. 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
>that they were barking up the
wrong tree, literally. His book, Cultural Capital,
simply silenced not the public, because nothing ever
silences the public,>
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 in Cultural 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.
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 capital K,
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: No cultural work of any
interest at all is simple enough to be credibly allegorized in
this way, because any cultural work will
objectify in its very form and content the same social
conflicts that the canon debate allegorizes by means of a
divided curriculum. 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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