U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“An Aesthetic and Political Order”

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6]

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.[7] 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.”[8]

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.”[9] 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.


[1] Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995), 146.

[2] Gitlin, 152.

[3] John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1993) 4-5.

[4] 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.

[5] Gates, 19.

[6] Guillory, 344n1; Gitlin, 177.

[7] 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).

[8] Gates, 27.

[9] Gates, 35.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks so much for this post, I found it quite informative! I have a quick question: have you find any push back on Gates’ idea of canon formation from, say, African American scholars? I only ask because of your earlier work looking at Afro-centrism, as an example, which seems to me (and I’m not saying this is entirely the case–not at all) a rejection, or at least a re-phrasing, of what the canon should be and who the canon(s) should be for.

    It seems Gates is dedicated to making sure Black authors (and other marginalized groups) are part of the Western canon–reminding critics that, yes, canon formation does matter because it determines (in a small way) who is part of the West. I apologize if this seems incoherent, but I really enjoyed this post. It has me thinking a great deal about my own education!

  2. This is really great. Very very lucid and helpful, and resonates fascinatingly with Christoper Cameron’s recent post here.

  3. Thanks Robert! As you may be able to tell, this post is a chunk lifted straight out of the chapter I’m writing. I’m working backwards chronologically here in a way that is a little weird, and working back along just one facet of Gates’s thinking on canon formation (the “political stakes” angle, I guess.) Along that line, he takes a stand in this essay that addresses “separatist” critiques along identitarian lines (i.e, Black literature does not need legitimation by being “added” or “included” in “the canon,” but deserves to be considered as its own rich tradition – a critique that was very much present in some of the sources I am looking at). But he also pushes back a bit against Theory (here specifically, Derrida and Foucault) that raised arguments against canon formation from a different direction – basically, the argument that defining a specifically black American canon simply reinscribes the social construct of the racial Other. Gates’s argument against this assertion is a reversal, as he says, of Audre Lorde: “only the master’s tools will ever dismantle the master’s house.” Overall, Gates’s solution to navigating these countervailing currents is, it seems to me, a kind of DuBoisian “twoness” – Black literature in the U.S. as part of a larger American tradition (in dialogue with other works of the “American canon” and the Western canon more broadly) and Black literature in the U.S. as its own distinct tradition (in dialogue with Black culture and the Black vernacular), with Gates’s project (and Gates’s own identity as a scholar working in/from two traditions) trying to bridge (or transcend) that divide.

    Hope that gives a bigger picture. As to pushback against a “Gatesian” view of the importance of canon formation, I’m going to look at that from the other direction chronologically – that is, I’m going to start with my primary sources and follow the lines of argument forward to Gates (and probably past him), if that makes any sense. (Though, TBH, I am going to hitch a ride for part of that journey on Andrew Hartman’s forthcoming book.) In any case, I have just got to finish this chapter before I end up posting another chunk of draftitude to the blog!

Comments are closed.