U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Allegories of Multiculturalism: Further Reflections on Guillory, the Canon, and the Culture Wars–Part I

Guillory-Cultural-CapitalPrior 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.[1] 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.

Stanford Debates

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[2], 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.”[3] 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.


[1] 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)

[2] 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.

[3] Daniel Bell, “The Cultural Wars: American Intellectual Life, 1965-1992,” The Wilson Quarterly (Summer 1992): 96.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If you’re wondering about bigger reasons one might might care about Guillory and/or read this book, check out this article/interview from The Minnesota Review (2004). The interview reveals Guillory to be something of a historian of literature. In this way he’s not unlike those older, first-generation intellectual historians such as Parrington.

    Here’s a relevant excerpt (note the first para of Guillory’s reply and compare it what we know about the Culture Wars):
    Williams: Most people know your work through Cultural Capital. Indeed, it was a big book, stamping an endpoint to some of the debate about the canon. As I take it, you deliberately shifted the terrain from saying one book is better than another to the social function of literature in producing cultural capital. What is your retrospective take on it?

    Guillory: This is the “ten-years-after” comment. Obviously I was trying to push the debate on to different questions; the idea was to push the debate off the term “identity,” or social identity, and move it more in the direction of considering schools, institutions, language, the discourse of literature, the discourse of criticism. I wanted to bring all of those terms into the debate—not to end the debate itself, or to end discussion of the historical process of canon formation, which I believed and continue to believe is a lively subject for consideration. I’m interested in the history of literature, the history of the book, and how certain works rise and fall.

    I wanted to bring in these other terms about the driving force of canonization, at least up to the point in the later twentieth century when the discourse of social identity emerged by way of reflection on the relation of literary criticism to the new social movements. I thought those identity concepts were the wrong terms for thinking about the long history of canon formation, because they emerged only at the end of a long historical process. That way of thinking about canon formation and the history of literature in relation to the category of social identity had actually effaced the real historical conditions for that process.

  2. It’s hard to comment on your reading notes in process since I don’t know where you are in the text. This comment might deserve a “spoiler alert” — hard to say.

    In any case, I don’t think Guillory neglects Adler — Guillory’s focus throughout the book is on the reproduction of the culture and cultural capital via the classroom. Knowledge of “the canon” acquired outside of the classroom does not carry value within that economy.

    I suppose one might view Adler’s Great Books project as a tool by which autodidacts might acquire the purported “content” of a liberal education. But Guillory is saying that in terms of cultural power/legitimacy/leverage, the substance/value (cultural, economic) of a liberal education has been less a matter of the particular texts taught than the fact that the teaching and learning happen within the privileged/exclusive setting of the university seminar room.

    • You’re previewing what is developing as one of my critiques of Guillory’s analysis (i.e. his neglect of adjunct-like educational institutions such as the Great Books Foundation, Newberry Library, Public Libraries, and other conveyors of education—autodidactism too—outside the teacher-student paradigm). The great books idea is tough because it exists/existed both in *and* outside of formal education (at all levels). And, there are at-large intellectuals who praise and advocate for works to convey literariness—which is what professors protect/convey (when those professors don’t teach novels with a heteroglossic touch). – TL

    • And of course I’m with you on the teaching-learning point of your final paragraph. But Adler and his community of GBs promoters did something rarely recognized by J.S Rubin and others who have written on them—to wit, GBs promoters sought to teach *critical reading* outside of classroom via *How to Read a Book*. So this is another emerging comment on Guillory’s take (i.e. that type of teaching-learning can indeed take place outside the k-16 school context). – TL

  3. Guillory sees another literacy device in operation: allegory. He sees an allegorized canon—books reduced to representation, as allegories of multiculturalism and diversity.

    Yes, as selected by whom?

  4. Tim, if I understand you and Guillory correctly, your observations about the kind/quality of teaching/learning that can happen outside the K-16 classroom (while true) are beside the point of Guillory’s argument. It’s not what is learned, but where and with whom the learning takes place.

    While self-directed or self-acquired education may be invaluable to the person who works for it, that education is not valued by society in the same way that a “college education” (a degree) is valued — valued in the job market, valued by improved social standing, etc.

    All other things being equal, someone who has gone through Adler’s entire Great Books course but who does not have a college degree is less “educated” in the eyes of society than someone who skated/snoozed through not just an ivy but even a local state college.

    To some, this state of affairs may reflect a radical disconnect between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” value. But Guillory is taking pains to show that the locus of value in the university has never been on the contents of the syllabus, but on the control of / access to the pedagogy represented by the syllabus.

    Really can’t say more than that about Guillory because it would be a total spoiler.

    • You’re totally right that he’s *primarily* talking about group function—cultural capital obtained in our sociological context, signaled to society by credential and linguistic “literariness” (where he dives into Bakhtin and Russian formalism).

      Of course I have more reading to do. And my commentary is developing. But I’m nevertheless feeling that I’m glad I did my own work *before* reading this book. I’m seeing more potential for commentary and critique because I did my own work independently—I feel I have some empirical evidence that both contradicts and affirms some of Guillory’s well-thought-out speculation and research. He didn’t do the work on Adler and his community like I did, and that helps me (and sometimes, rarely, hurts him a little). – TL

    • Also, don’t worry about spoilers in relation to me. This ain’t a movie or a novel for me. It’s all happy intellectual work. So spoil away—and I may or may not agree once I’ve reached your point (or the book’s completion).

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