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John Guillory with Jeffrey J. Williams Toward a Sociology of Literature: An Interview with John Guillory Though schooled at Yale in the heyday of deconstruction, John Guillory has forged a sociology of literature. His book Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (U of Chicago P, 1993), one of the most influential critical books ofthe 1990s, turned the question ofaesthetics toward the social uses ofeducation. It also brought sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu into the mainstream ofliterary studies. Trained as a Renaissance scholar, Guillory'sfirst book was Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (Columbia UP, 1983). In the early 90s he developed his sociologicalframe in essays such as "Literary Critics as Intellectuals: Class Analysis and the Crisis ofthe Humanities" (in Rethinking Class: Literary Studies and Social Formations, ed. Dimock and Gilmore [Columbia UP, 1994]) and "Bourdieu's Refusal" (MLQ 58 [1997]). In particular, he looked at the position ofgraduate students in a well-known essay, "Preprofessionalism: What Graduate Students Want" (ADE Bulletin 113 [1996]; rpt. Profession 96) and a sequel "The SystemofGraduateEducation"(PMLA115[2000]).Morerecently,hehassurveyed the early history ofthe discipline ofliterature in essays such as "Literary Study and theModern System ofthe Disciplines" (in Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle, ed. Anderson and Valente [Princeton UP, 2002]), "The Sokal Affair and the History of Criticism" (Critical Inquiry 28 [2002]), and "The Memo and Modernity" (Critical Inquiry 30 [2004]). He has also continued to write on early modern poetryandprose , in articles such as "'To Please the Wiser Sort': Violence, Philosophy, and Hamlet" (in Psychoanalysis, Historicism and Early Modern Culture, ed. Mazzio and Trevor [Routledge, 2000]), "The Ethical Practice ofModernity: The Example ofReading" (in The Turn to Ethics, ed. Garber [Routledge, 2000]), and "The Kingdom of the Bachelors: Bacon's New Atlantis" (forthcoming in Politics and the Passions, ed. Kahn [Princeton UP, 2005]). He has taught at Yale, Johns Hopkins, and NYU, where he is currently chair ofEnglish. This interview took place in John Guillory's book-filled office at NYU in Manhattan on 28 April 2004. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, editor of minnesota review, and transcribed by Jason Arthur, editorial assistant for the review and a doctoral student at University ofMissouri. 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 96 the minnesota review 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. Williams: Which were? Guillory: Which had to do with phenomena like vernacularization, the way in which language became stratified around the distinction between those who read and those who do not read, however fuzzy the line between the two. So the history of literacy was, for me, a set...


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