Prior entries in my Guillory series: one. A caveat: I am currently up to p. 56. Some of the following reflections are subject to change. As I noted in my first post, the point of this series is to “explore, explain, and—hopefully—avoid excuses.”
When I sliced and diced the 79 pages in chapter one of John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, there were three or four sections I suspected would be topically more engaging than others. One was a 17-page “Multicultural Interlude.” Guillory calls it an “interlude” but it’s no accident that it sits at the heart of the chapter. And he makes you work to get here. Those 38 pages of preface to that section are not easy reading. I found the prose awkward at times, but his argument begins to come together in the opening section’s two final subparts: “Canonical and Noncanonical Values,” and “The Pedagogic Imaginary.”
The Lead Up
In the first of those two Guillory posits three propositions about the relation of culture and value that he claims are shared by progressives and reactionaries in the canon debate:
(1) “Canonical texts are the repositories of cultural values” (p. 22);
(2) The selection of texts is the selection of values” (p. 28); and
(3) “Value must be either intrinsic or extrinsic to the work” (p. 26).
These are shared despite the differences between progressives and reactionaries on the “narrative of hegemony and resistance” (p. 22).
Guillory sees all three as problematic. On (1), he argues that “the pedagogic relation between value and the literary work is very much keyed to the level of the education system” (graduate v. undergraduate v. secondary approaches). Guillory contends that Homeric, patriarchal, and misogynist values, as well as the “ideals of Western civilization,” are “enormously attenuated when spread over thousands of years. Classroom values, goals, and objectives, furthermore, cannot be conflated with the contents of historical works (whether ancient or modern) (p. 22-23)). This of course leads to problems with (2) as related to classroom work.
On (3) and intrinsic/extrinsic value, it feels tautological, but Guillory’s point is that both progressives and reactionaries measure great works by both subjective (i.e. relative, contingent, contextual) and seemingly objective (i.e. transcendent, universal) values (p. 26). He goes on to say that this judgment can now (i.e. 1993) come from what Stanley Fish termed the consensus of “interpretive communities,” or a “community of readers” (pp. 26-27). This mostly imaginary shift then obscures, in a seemingly democratic fashion, the real “institutional agendas” by the formation of various canons (and countercanons) (p. 28).
The section titled “The Pedagogic Imaginary” contains Guillory’s argument that “the canon is an imaginary totality of works.” He adds that “this fact is true in the trivial sense that no one ever reads every canonical work; no one can, because the works invoked as canonical change continually according to many different occasions of judgment or contestation.” Guillory asserts that “no one has access to the canon as a totality,” and that “it never appears as a complete and uncontested list in any particular time and place” (p. 30).
This last point seems to ignore the claims of the creators of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. Indeed, Guillory’s neglect of Britannica and Adler prevents Guillory from seeing certain arguments from progressives and reactionaries. And that neglect also keeps him from seeing evidence about critical thinking and literacy that could support some of Guillory’s other points. But I’ll come back to my project and its relation to Guillory in later post. Today is about conveying Guillory’s own arguments to show how he might be appealing to those working on print culture, education, canons, the cultural hierarchy, and the Culture Wars.
In the process of assessing the canon as imaginary Guillory brings up the Stanford Debates. He starts his argument with the title of the course—the apparent terms of debate (bolds mine):
I would suggest that it would be better to begin a critique of this course with the notion of Western culture, the umbrella term under which all these different texts take shelter from the labor of critique, the labor of reading. (It is perhaps worth noting here that the concept of Western culture is itself of relatively recent origin—perhaps no earlier than the eighteenth century—and that it is constructed by suppressing the elements of African and Asian culture it has assimilated, as well as the difficult suturing of the Judaic and the Hellenic…). The homogenizing concept of Western culture hints that all these texts are in accord about certain fundamental issues. …However much they may all be worth reading, one would have to say that they do not necessarily share anything in the way of fundamental notions. (p. 33)
And here’s Guillory’s perspective on the Stanford course’s syllabus (emphases his):
The construction of a syllabus begins with selections; it does not begin with a “process of elimination.” What is excluded from the syllabus is not excluded in the same way that an individual is excluded or marginalized as the member of a social minority, socially disenfranchised. What is wrong with the Stanford curriculum has less to do with its inclusions or exclusions than with the fact that it is not and cannot be a course on Western culture. It is because the construction of the syllabus works backward from this notion that it takes the form it does. Hence, as soon as any of these works begin to be taught as expressive of a homogeneous and overarching culture extending from the fifth century B.C. to the present, the begin to be misread. (p. 33)
The Stanford course, then, was an allegory of desired Western unity.
The Education System
These assertions about Stanford’s course go with Guillory’s argument, stated in passages not fully presented here but hinted at in value (3) above, that it is the institutional matrix in education that matters the most in relation to the formation of an imaginary canon (i.e. “regulating the practices of reading and writing by governing access to the means of literary production…[and] consumption” (p. 19)). Even so, it is “the school itself” that transmits “a kind of culture” that is, in fact, the “culture of the school” (p. 38). Guillory elaborates (in a representative sample of some of his awkward wording):
School culture does not unify the nation culturally so much as it projects out of a curriculum of artifact-based knowledge an imaginary cultural unity never actually coincident with the culture of the nation-state. In this way the left hand of the educational system—the dissemination of a supposedly national culture—remains ignorant of what the right hand is doing—the differential tracking of students according to class or the possession of cultural capital. (pp. 38-39)
Guillory then builds this point up to the system of higher education (emphases his):
If the structure of the system, its multiple levels and its division between public and private institutions, divides the population in this way, the culture of the university produces (as opposed to other kinds or levels of school), can only be “national” for that plurality which acquires this level of education. What this group may learn to think of as a national culture is always a specific relation to the knowledge defined by the university curriculum.
And this confusion gets worse with William Bennett, who deliberately conflates school culture, university culture, national culture, and Western culture. He also conflated culture and civilization (p. 39).
Before moving on to Guillory’s arguments about multiculturalism (and its allegories) in next week’s post, allow me to relay a final point he makes about canon confusion and cultural fragmentation that will sound quite familiar to USIH readers. It’s a point I underscore in my book through a quote from Daniel Bell, who noted that the canon battles were “the most rancorous” of the “cultural war.” But here’s Guillory (emphasis his): “The critique of the canon responds to the disunity of the culture as a whole, as a fragmented whole, by constituting new cultural unities at the level of gender, race, and more recently ethnic subcultures, or gay and lesbian subcultures” (p. 34).
This is Guillory in 1993 prefiguring Dan Rodgers in 2011—cultural fracture and little platoons indeed. And it will feel somewhat familiar next week when I relay how Guillory approaches multiculturalism. But rather than seeing a “contagion of metaphors” around the canon, Guillory sees another literacy device in operation: allegory. He sees an allegorized canon—books reduced to representation, as allegories of multiculturalism and diversity.
 The title of chapter one (pp. 3-82) is “Canonical and Noncanonical: The Current Debate.” It’s divided into three sections, two of which have multiple parts. I’ll make this explicit here because Guillory makes you hunt this down in the text.
I. Imagining Politics of Representation (3-38)
a. Social Identity (3-15)
b. Canon Revision or Research Program? (15-19)
c. Canonical & Noncanonical Values (19-28)
d. The Pedagogic Imaginary (28-38)
II. Multicultural Interlude (38-55)
III. Literature as Cultural Capital (55-82)
a. School & the Reproduction of Social Relations (55-63)
b. Literary Language as Linguistic Capital (63-71)
c. Historical Forms of the Literary Canon (71-82)
 Guillory does not cite Martin Bernal’s Black Athena either in this passage or in the book. Bernal recently passed away in Cambridge, England. He was 76.
 Daniel Bell, “The Cultural Wars: American Intellectual Life, 1965-1992,” The Wilson Quarterly (Summer 1992): 96.