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.