Winter 1994, Volume 11.1
Reviewed by Phillip A. Snyder, Department of English, Brigham Young University
Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation by John Guillory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, 408 pp., $36.00 (cloth).
The "theory wars" raging on college campuses across the country have directed much attention, academic and public, to the question of curriculum, or canon, reconstruction. The politically correct language movement has received more publicity, perhaps, but various calls for canon revision, such as those implicit in the Afrocentrism movement, have challenged more thoroughly the tradition of "great literature" on which our English, humanities, and other departments have been founded and perpetuated. E. D. Hirsch's notion of "cultural literacy" as the prerequisite for participation in the "great conversation" of Western civilization has been assaulted by those who seek more "representation" from other traditions in an "opening" of the canon to include texts by people of color, women, and other previously marginalized groups. John Guillory's Cultural Capital critiques this canon debate by examining the ideological assumptions underlying it, deconstructs the inclusion/ exclusion binary of "representative text" that has characterized both the traditionalist and nontraditionalist positions in the debate, and refocuses our attention on the social sites outside academia where "cultural capital" is produced and distributed according to class. Guillory's study depends on the "post-Marxist" theory of Pierre Bourdieu. particularly and builds on careful and extensive research which supports virtually every point he makes. Cultural Capital may not be the definitive study of canon formation, but it represents a significant benchmark, literally the latest, if not last, word on the issue, and constitutes required reading for anyone in the profession of literary studies. In his preface, Guillory writes that the "debate about the canon has been misconceived from the start" and proposes a reconception of the debate as follows:
Where the debate speaks of the literary canon, its inclusions and exclusions, I will speak of the school, and the institutional forms of syllabus and curriculum ... how works are preserved, reproduced, and disseminated over successive generations and centuries. Similarly, where the debate speaks about the canon as representing or failing to represent particular social groups, I will speak of the school's historical function of distributing, or regulating access to, the forms of cultural capital. By insisting on the interrelation between representation and distribution, I hope to move beyond. . . a confusion between representation in the political sense . . . and representation in the rather different sense of the relation between an image and what the image represents. (vii-viii)
Following Bourdieu, Guillory argues that, unlike race and gender, the category of class has been underemphasized in the canon debate when it should be one of the primary points of discussion, because class involves the "constitution and distribution of cultural capital" (ix), linguistic and symbolic, within the specific context of the educational system and the larger social context, both of which have "distribut[ed] cultural capital unequally" (ix) Guillory sees the real canon crisis as an issue of declining market value, where the old notion of canon "literacy" as a means of bourgeoisie upward mobility has become obsolete for the current "professional managerial class" which privileges technological literacy. Guillory divides Cultural Capital into three main sections: "Critique" which discusses the current canon debate; "Case Studies" which includes three chapters, the first on how the inclusion of Gray and Wordsworth in the vernacular canon shows the connection between the "articulation of the school's institutional agendas with social struggles in the society at large" (x) the second on how the rise of New Criticism and "close reading" resulted in the canonization of the moderns and the revaluing of the metaphysical poets, and the third on the constitution of theory as the new canon; and "Aesthetics" which "reconstruct[s] the historical relation between aesthetics and political economy to demonstrate the origin of the value concept in the struggle to distinguish the work of art from the commodity (xiii).
Guillory successfully recasts the canon debate in terms of "cultural capital," moving toward what he calls a "sociology of judgement," and he makes many incisive and insightful points along the way, such as the following, among many others far too numerous to mention here: that contemporary postmodern theory argues against the possibility of authentic textual representation of individual authors or the groups to which they belong through literary works; that the university's canon revision cannot reorder society; that the general canonical exclusion of women resulted from a denial of access to literacy as a means of distribution of cultural capital and not from a deficient quality in women's writing; that the "ideals of Western civilization" inherent in the canon have always been an imaginary construct and a fallacious totality of value resulting mostly from institutional influences rather than individual or community ones. In short, after Cultural Capital we can no longer engage the canon debate in the same naive and even simplistic manner; Guillory reveals it to be socially larger and more deeply historical and value-laden than we had thought.