There is a familiar narrative – or perhaps a set of related narratives – about why particular social identities’ “representation” in the canon or on a syllabus mattered during the 1980s. The common theme of that narrative situates the university as a proxy battleground for a fragmented Left political movement that had been unable to achieve broader social transformations toward economic and political equality.
This was the main (and somewhat bitter) thrust of Todd Gitlin’s take on the culture wars. Gitlin blamed the Left’s political failure on internal (and, interestingly, generational) divisions, distinguishing between an “Old Left” politics of “universalist or cosmopolitan bent” with a “late New Left politics of separatist rage,” a “politics of interest groups” based on notions of social identity. “Cut off from ecumenical political hopes,” Gitlin wrote, “the partisans of identity politics became preoccupied with what they might control in their immediate surroundings – language and imagery.” In Gitlin’s view, energy spent revising or even replacing the Western canon with one that included Black authors or women authors or gay authors was wasted energy, because it was “mistaking a ‘culture’ for a politics.” The effort to see personal identity mirrored and affirmed in the ethnic or gender demographics of the authors on a reading list was a waste of time when pressing structural inequalities demanded concerted political action.
Others argued for a more substantial link between curricular reform and broader political and economic empowerment. Guillory, writing before Gitlin, did share a similar view of what prompted the Left to focus its activist energy on the university curriculum. “In retrospect,” he wrote, “it was only in the wake of liberalism’s apparent defeat in American political culture that such agendas as ‘representation in the canon’ could come to occupy so central a place within the liberal academy.” Because battles to secure rights for “new social identities” in the broader culture were largely unsuccessful, the site of the political struggle for representation was “displaced to new arenas of contestation,” including the academy. “But that displacement,” Guillory added, “[left] unclarified the question of the precise relation between a politics of representation in the canon and a democratic representational politics.”
In Cultural Capital, Guillory sought to clarify that relation, arguing that what the canon – or, rather, the syllabus — represented and reproduced was the authority to convert cultural capital into economic power. The effective political work of canon revision, in Guillory’s view, was not to expand a reading list but to expand access for the economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized to the entire educational system as an institution and technology of (re)producing cultural capital. For Guillory, the presence of particular groups on the syllabus seemed far less important than their presence in the university classroom. Nevertheless, as I mentioned last week, Guillory gladly conceded that the work of recovering or otherwise bringing into the curricular mainstream particular texts or authors that had occupied only a marginal position (or no position at all) in the culture of the academy was a “necessary” project.
In his essay, “The Master’s Pieces: On Canon Formation and the African-American Tradition,” Henry Louis Gates made a strong case for this “necessary work of canon deformation and reformation.” In a sense, Gates’s somewhat amused view of the Left politics of the curriculum anticipated Gitlin’s more annoyed take. “As writers, teachers, or intellectuals,” Gates wrote, “most of us would like to claim greater efficacy for our labors than we’re entitled to…The recent move toward politics and history in literary studies has turned the analysis of texts into a marionette theater of the political, to which we bring all the passions of our real-world commitments,” but through which, Gates cautioned, scholars did not seem to achieve significant real-world results. However, laying down a line that would mark a path to the argument not of Gitlin but of Guillory (though both of those authors cited him approvingly), Gates suggested that while “the relation between our critical postures and the social struggles they reflect upon is far from transparent,” that did not mean that there was no such relation, but simply that it was “a highly mediated one.”
Gates elucidated that relationship through an examination of the longer tradition of “black canon formation.” Anthologies of Black authors assembled by James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, and V.F. Calverton shared as their common goal “the demonstration of the existence of the black tradition as a political defense of the racial self against racism.” A tradition of thought within the Western canon – a tradition of thought evident, Gates argued, in the works of Hume, Kant, Jefferson, and Hegel – equated Blacks’ “access to natural rights with [their] production of literary classics.” In that tradition, the purported absence of Black writers within the Western literary (or, more properly, philosophical) canon — a canon constructed, as Peter Park has provocatively and persuasively argued, with the aim of deliberately excising and excluding the work of non-white authors – justified the denial of their full political equality. For that reason, Gates wrote, the Harlem Renaissance “can be thought of as a sustained attempt to combat racism through the very production of black art and literature.”
By foregrounding the intellectual accomplishments, the cultural production, of Black authors, the anthologists of the 1920s – or, for that matter, the 1990s – were refuting the racist assumption that Blacks had produced no serious work of art or thought and thus did not deserve to be taken seriously as full participants in democratic society. “This is one case,” Gates argued, “where we’ve got to borrow a leaf from the right, which is exemplarily aware of the role of education in the reproduction of values.” The syllabus, he argued, reproduced “an aesthetic and political order.” Thus, the inclusion of Black authors and women authors within “the canon,” or an anthology, or a core reading list, would deploy the semiotics of aesthetic hierarchies not simply to recognize but to valorize the political voices of Blacks and women and other previously “silent” or absent subjects.
 Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995), 146.
 Gitlin, 152.
 John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1993) 4-5.
 Henry Louis Gates, “The Master’s Pieces: On Canon Formation and the African-American Tradition,” Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 36.
 Gates, 19.
 Guillory, 344n1; Gitlin, 177.
 Peter K. J. Park, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2013).
 Gates, 27.
 Gates, 35.