U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Canon Canon

As I have described it in my Blogger profile, my dissertation will present “an intellectual history of an infamous, emblematic but still inadequately understood battle in the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s: the ‘Great Books’ debate at Stanford University.”

One of the major ideas I am/will be paying attention to is the idea of canonicity — literary canons, cultural canons, disciplinary canons.  This is why both E.D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom, the Mutt and Jeff of cultural literacy during the 1980s, are on my reading list.  They are two among many primary sources that I will be using in order to sketch out the broader cultural landscape within which and/or against which the particular debate at Stanford took place.

At some point — and I haven’t quite identified that point yet — the debate about canons and canonicity shifts from a historic moment that I am examining to a current critical discourse into which I am, as the argot of academe has it, “making an intervention.”  This is one of the (many!) tricky methodological challenges of my dissertation.  In order to manage this move — and I think it will be an oscillation, a move back and forth between what I might call “the historic debate” and “the current debate about the stakes of the debate” — I need to develop my own canon (or, if I simply must abandon irony for the good of the collective, my own list) of works that address notions of canonicity and cultural value since the 1980s.*

So far, my list includes such authors as John Guillory, Evan Watkins, Walter Benn Michaels, Gerald Graff, and Henry Louis Gates. I should probably add Stanley Fish too.  Lawrence Levine fits here as well — Highbrow/Lowbrow was published after the Stanford kerfuffle, though very close to it.  And the wonderful anthology edited by David Richter, Falling into Theory,  points toward a number of authors with whom I will need to be in conversation.

But I would be more than happy to hear from our readers (and my blog colleagues!) on this question.  If you can think of other works that ought to be on my radar screen, feel free to add them in the comments section below.

*Now, my canon on the canon question before the 1980s is an entirely separate list.  So far it includes, among others, guys like Matthew Arnold, F.O. Matthiessen, Leslie Fiedler, Lionel Trilling.  And yes, they are all guys.

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lawrence Levine’s *The Opening of the American Mind* is a must (Beacon Press, 1996). He discusses the Stanford Affair. And of course you should consider a Mortimer J. Adler book, probably his second autobiography *A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror*. As for before the 1980s, you could go with John Erskine—his *My Life as a Teacher* discusses Great Books. You could also use Adler’s first autobiography, *Philosopher at Large*. In these works by Adler he discusses both his work with Britannica and his “at large”, non-Britannica work. …I’ll think of more later, but this is a start while writing under hurried circumstances.

  2. Thanks Tim — and thanks to the reader who sent me a .pdf via email. I’m especially interested in literary criticism/theory on the idea of canon/canonicity. Hence Walter Benn Michaels, Stanley Fish et. al.

  3. LD: I wrote my chapter on the canon wars a month ago. I’ll go ahead and post a bibliography of the most important books I used and/or analyzed in that chapter (in order of citation):

    Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).

    E. D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987).

    Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: The Free Press, 1991).

    Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, third edition (1990; Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008).

    Lynne Cheney, Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense—and What We Can Do About It (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

    Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995).

    Francois Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

    Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981).

    Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).

    Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969; New York: Routledge, 2002).

    William J. Bennett, To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education (Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1984).

    Herbert Lindenberger, The History in Literature: On Value, Genre, Institutions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

    W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).

    Lawrence Levine, The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

    Robert L. Stone, ed., Essays on the Closing of the American Mind (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1989).

    Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).

    Gerald Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1993).

    Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (New York: Viking, 2000).

    Richard Rorty, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” reprinted in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).

    Richard Rorty, Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

    James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).

    Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

    David Lehman, Sign of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).

    Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1967; Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

    Derrida, Positions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

    Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).

    De Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

    Paul Berman, ed., Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses (New York: Dell Publishing, 1992).

    Michael Bérubé, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (London: Verso, 1994).

    Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).

    Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (New York: Picador USA, 1998).

    Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

  4. Thanks Anderw! This is both informative and illustrative. Your list instantiates exactly the oscillation I see ahead — a toggling between immediacy and remove, a scholarly debate as a historic “event” and “detached” scholarship about the event. I had most of the books you’ve listed here in the bibliography for my first paper on the subject (from Spring 2011), but I didn’t have Cusset — I need to get my hands on that Cusset for a paper I am writing *right now.* Amazon.com 2-day shipping FTW!

  5. It is great that scholars are continuing to historicize these debates and issues.

    A very important component missing from the discussion here are Latina/o, and queer critiques of the “Western” canon and how the canon wars were shaped by these critiques, alongside Gates and company in African American Studies. People like Ilan Stavans and Chela Sandoval in Latina/o Studies and Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick and Lauren Berlant in queer studies were central in these debates.

  6. Cusset is good, although I’m not sure I understand the addition here? I suggest also in a more deflationary vein a now-classic (maybe not canonized) paper by Michele Lamont (who is always worth reading) about Derrida: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/soc/faculty/lamont/Derrida.pdf

    so, the issue with the canon and literary studies would presumably have to do with the question of literature as such (which, even by saying ‘literary studies’, i guess i’m taking a stand about). given that, the arguments of the 1960s-1980s are special. but of course there are arguments about this going back very far (you mention Arnold already). I don’t know about the debate at Stanford specifically, did it have this Cultural Studies vs Literature shape?

    What has always interested me most is the counter-argument (Benn Michaels, for instance), from the more Marxist left to the effect that Cultural Studies in its deconstructionist modes (as opposed to the originally marxish ones) is in fact simply a new elitism, a cover for the neoliberal project…

    I’m also curious about this oscillation you mention. Of course historians are always engaging in contemporary debates even as they engage in historiographic ones. Sometimes more explicitly, more consequentially…Are you suggesting that to write about the canon debate (or a canon debate) is a more dangerously contemporary topic than others? just because of its proximity? because it’s also about the academy? Or is it that you are, under the guise of intellectual history, really writing critical theory in a genealogical mode?

  7. Umberto Eco has written some excellent pieces on book lists and how they instantiate larger human longings and sensibilities. I don’t have a direct reference on hand, but here’s an interview that appeared in Spiegel online. – TL

  8. Clarification wanted: What *kind* of canon interests you—e.g. literature as in non-fiction, scientific canons, philosophy canons, history canons, or what? I ask because the end will dictate the theory/philosophy you seek. The great books idea, for instance, is a specific kind of canon that developed to include works of science, philo, theo, fiction, etc. Adler and his community of discourse developed a particular philosophy (i.e. great ideas) to work out the kinks of their canon. – TL

  9. Eco: “for young people…Google is a tragedy”

    Also, provoked by luvicallejas’ excellent point, and Tim’s question about kinds of canon–another term to add in might be the *syllabus*. A professor of mine once sighed, at the end of one of these debates about ‘classics’ and literary canons and cultural studies, that at the end of the day (or, rather, about this time in the semester preparing for the next one), professors have no choice but to make an executive decision about what texts to include on a syllabus and therefore oblige students to (at least pretend to) read. that’s a practical and a value judgement, however mediated it might be by disciplinary differentiation. what is it better for students to read? i think even if it’s most sharply posed in literature and english classrooms, it’s something that obviously comes up in history classrooms as well (for instance here, in at least an oblique way, with Lauren’s posts on teaching).

    in the form of a question: what is the relationship between a canon and a syllabus?

  10. Great comments all. Keep ’em coming. The questions are good too. I’m probably not prepared to provide full answers — still thinking about all this stuff, and holding a few cards close to my vest. But, briefly…

    For the purposes of this particular list I’m making, assume that I’m looking at discourse related to the/an idea of something like “the Western literary canon.” That is not necessarily what was at issue at Stanford, but it’s a useful enough way for me to think about “canon debates” generally.

    On the methodological challenges — don’t want to go down that rabbit hole just yet, but in its most compressed form, I would say the main challenge with a project like this is to write about and historicize the academy from within the academy. I’ll have to save the rest of my reflections on the problems of perspective and methodology for later.

    On the relationship between a canon and a syllabus — that was one of the questions at the heart of the Stanford debate. For a 3-quarter course sequence required of all freshmen, what, if anything, ought all students be required / encouraged to read. That was the immediate curricular issue. And, in the abstract, that’s always the issue, any time any institution of higher education or governing body of a university system makes decisions about the core curriculum. That is part of what I am looking at.

    Mostly I’m just enjoying thinking about my dissertation — which is still a good year away — rather than this seminar paper I’m working on right now. Poor benighted William James. Fortunately, he won’t know what hit him.

  11. I actually think, given your interests here, that the Cusset fits in nicely. It is both an account of the constitution of a canon and a critique (misguided, in my opinion) of the canon. Cusset, if I remember correctly, finds “French Theory” to be, in the end, an inauthentic use of those texts.

  12. i have a great author: Michael A. Bellesiles. Right in line with the fantastic scholarship and ironic detachment you are balancing.

  13. LD – I want to speak to the “point” you refer to, that at which the historic debate you’re studying “shifts” to the contemporary discourse in which you’re participating while historicizing it.

    In a perhaps parallel project, exploring the genealogy of identity discourse, I found the “point” at once essential and impossible. Most instances of that discourse, much of it critical of other work that had been done, also included some narrativizing remarks, efforts to put it in some historical context, and there was no easy way to demarcate the thing itself from at least partial histories of it, or participants from historicizers. At the same time, historicizing efforts contemporary with my project were also critical events in the ongoing discussion, even as, like myself, they claimed a certain historiographical and/or analytical distance.

    Either way, there didn’t seem to be a non-arbitrary way to mark the point of distance or difference we conventionally assume when positioning ourselves as historians outside some subject matter by virtue of coming “after” it — or to neatly differentiate historians’ narratives from those produced by others. And establishing a temporal frame of beginning and end depended in part on the terms I used to describe the subject matter, including their specificity, level of abstraction and scope, and how I conceptualized the relation between term and meaning. [eg, the “Culture War,” or “culture wars” or “x” that means what we mean by either.]

    I seemed to be at once inside and outside of the process I was studying; and until some indeterminate future arrived, there was no way to know where I stood in the total history. At the least, though, it seemed right to think of current discussions as something short of the final word. Our temporal location — changing as we experience, and a moment or decade later refer to it — may lead us to identify as a discrete moment with an end-point what may at a later time appear as a phase or stage of a longer-term process. Analogously, our relative proximity to daily life as we experience it makes each day seem particular and distinct, while after twenty or thirty years, we may see only a phase or stage.

    Perhaps it would be helpful for us to think less of a discrete point or boundary, and more of a continual mutual interaction or co-constitution of past and present, not a division between different kinds of discourses, but a balance of elements always present, in always-changing proportions.

  14. It’s far from your chronological or geographical focus, but just for fun you might want to check out Grafton and Jardine’s From Humanism to the Humanities, on education during the Renassiance. It came out in 1986 and Grafton later reflected that even though it was not their intent, the book ended up caught up in debates about culture and education that were going on in the mid-1980s:

    “But by the time our book finally appeared, ignorant-and learned-armies were clashing by night over the canon. Both our conservative and our radical readers often interpreted our book in ways hardly consonant with our intentions-and connected it with intellectual movements that had not existed when we began work.”

  15. Thanks to Bill and Andrew for these comments. Andrew, I will check out the Grafton/Jardine book and uses of the same.

    Bill, I hardly know where to begin with your comment, it is so wonderfully framed and so helpful at getting at the trickiness and complexity of any historical inquiry, the discursive relationship one has to discourse, etc. Wheels within wheels. In any case, this is a helpful way to think about the problem — the constantly repositioned and repositioning sets of problems and perspectives — that await me.

  16. LD – I’m glad you thought my comments were helpful. Hopefully more discussion will develop on how historians think of time, past, present and future, etc.

    After posting, I serendipitously encountered the first virtual issue of “History and Theory,” August 2012, which includes freely downloadable adobes of articles in recent volumes that deal with what Ethan Kleinberg, in a nice overview introduction, calls “the new metaphysics of time.” He writes –

    “These works all share a common starting point as well as overlapping concerns but, perhaps more important, they articulate some radical divergences in terms of their suppositions and assertions about the status of the past as well as our relationship to it. In short, while in all cases the topic is ‘time,’ the presentation of how time works in relation to the project of history is a contested subject.”

    I’d certainly encourage bloggers to take a look!

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