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Reviewed by:
  • Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation
  • Thomas Reinert
John Guillory. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993. xv + 392 pp.

John Guillory’s Cultural Capital is a wonderful, clarifying book. It forcefully expresses the nagging doubts that surround the canon debate and its pretensions to importance as a political issue. For many observers this debate has seemed a disconcerting mix of political seriousness and theatrical handwaving; Guillory’s book brilliantly and exhaustively explains how to make sense of such suspicions.

According to Guillory, canon debaters on both sides assume that [End Page 221] literary works represent cultural communities as politicians represent constituencies. Inclusion in the canon is crucial because it gives voice and authority to a community; or, conversely, works that subvert canonicity should be read because they represent the interests of the oppressed against the institution of the canon itself, which elaborates the power of the dominant culture. Canon debaters think of the community as a locus of values which its population embraces; people are oppressed when a rival community obstructs the free expression of their values. Ideally, all communities ought to be separate; and though everyone is bound to belong to many at once, it ought to be possible to move among them frictionlessly.

Guillory argues on Marxist grounds against this view of literature’s representational function. A work does not speak on behalf of a community, for the very idea of a “community” as it appears in the canon debate is a mirage. Guillory argues that social groups define themselves not as static independent entities, but as participants in a social struggle. Their values do not seek expression against oppressive forces that aim to smother them; rather, their values are constituted in the course of struggle with such oppressive forces. Consequently, literature should be understood as the symptom of cultural conflict, not as the voice of a constituency. Contrary to what both sides of the canon debate suggest, literature, canonical and noncanonical alike, is ideologically ambivalent.

Guillory argues that reforming school syllabi offers only a kind of symptomatic relief for cultural discrimination. Much more important is the exclusivity of schools themselves, and, with them, the forces that work to make literature feel exclusive. In chapters on eighteenth-century literature and pedagogy, on the New Criticism, and on Paul de Man, Guillory argues that schools have repeatedly reconstituted not just the canon but the general practice of literary study so as to align it with the changing interests of the bourgeoisie. In each case, there was a struggle over what it meant socially to study literature, and in each case schools restricted that study to an educated elite by way of insuring literacy’s prestige, class affiliation, and what Guillory calls its “cultural capital.”

Even as Guillory elaborates a fiercely politicized argument about the ideological effects of literature studies, he manages to acknowledge the power of aesthetic experience and the importance of aesthetic [End Page 222] judgment. He rejects the view of relativists who believe that aesthetic judgment merely reflects in a roundabout or mystified form a community’s practical interests. The aesthetic has its peculiar feeling and density, he claims; it cannot be reduced to a purely economic effect. On the other hand, neither does it appear apart from political and economic struggle. This is literally true, he argues, in the intellectual history of aesthetic and economic theory. Aesthetics emerged in the eighteenth century as a crucial element in the birth of modern economics, which resolved the problem of the relationship between production and consumption by construing it as an analogue to the harmonizing of elements in a work of art. Guillory shows that this theoretical dependency on the aesthetic shaped economic theory from Smith to Marx.

The attempt to isolate one domain from the other can be understood as an ideological symptom. Literary theorists are generally familiar with the ideological significance of attempts to cordon off the world of art from its economic and social context. But Guillory provocatively argues that, conversely, a liberal bourgeois ideology drives the contemporary cultural relativism that would interpret aesthetic experience as a mere mystification or misprision of economic forces...