Thursday, August 23, 2007

guillory - cultural capital (1993)

Cultural Capital is very much a product of its times; I’m not sure how much of what Guillory says remains relevant (never mind true) in 2007. The book appeared in 1993, and is essentially a Bourdieusian intervention in the debate on the canon. The starting point is the reasonable observation that it is extremely problematic, in terms both of theory and practice, to talk about representation in the ‘canon’ in the same way one discusses political representation. Indeed, Guillory thinks that to do so is both nonsensical and politically pernicious. He seems to regard this move as a symptom of the total political defeat of the left in Reagan-era America. (As an aside, I think it might be very interesting, very productive, to think about what really has changed in the past 15 years. Everything or nothing? Were the Clinton years just a hiatus? What would have happened if the Twin Towers had fallen the first time they were bombed?)

There’s much business in the middle of this big fat book. He makes and then takes back a number of interesting comparisons. For instance, the idea that the syllabus is the constitutive element of the canon, that really the canon is an imagined totality, never realized, impossible to realize—I want to elaborate, to say that no doubt a canon cannot be some mythical aggregate of all syllabi, that there must always be a remainder, an missing something...

The strong point seems to me to be that it is indeed theoretically incoherent and (therefore) politically destructive to insist on ‘representative’ canon formation. Think instead about syllabi. Rather than being concerned about inclusion or exclusion from a mythical canon, think rather about the distribution of ‘objectively’ measurable cultural capital.

The conclusion of the book was, for me, quite unsatisfying. Having established, I think convincingly, that Bourdieu’s general perspective is best, Guillory seems to have no larger point to make—no solutions to offer, or even directions in which to move. After a lightly critical account of Bourdieu’s ideas on the relative autonomy of cultural production, Guillory, all innocence and wide-eyes, introduces a thought experiment. What if there was only cultural capital? Happily, this exact thought-experiment was performed by Marx in The German Ideology. The world after the revolution will not have designated intellectuals of any kind, because ‘intellectual’ and its variants are positions in the social field determined by a special intersection of cultural and material capital. That is, to be an intellectual today is (generally) also to be of a privileged social class. The thrust of the argument is that since it is theoretically impossible either to disconnect cultural from material capital, or to do away with differences in the distribution of cultural capital, the least we can do is the relatively simple job of eliminating the uneven distribution of material capital. Oh, if that’s what literary critics are supposed to be doing.

I’m no doubt not doing justice to Guillory. He makes a number of good points. But the conclusion of the book, if it can even be called a conclusion, is a shot off into the wild blue, and doesn’t match the hard-headedness of the earlier sections. Also, as is I suppose inevitable, he has constructed quite a straw man in the simplistic ‘representationalist’ view of canon formation. Surely there’s more to it? Surely more of an effort could have been made to tie the actual social world in to the debate, since he is perfectly willing to throw the ‘politically ineffective’ stone at his opponents. He quotes Henry Louis Gates Jr. on previously excluded minorities who hear no voice they recognize in ‘canonical’ literature—and no doubt it is better to say that these people have been excluded from the means of cultural production, no doubt worthwhile to point out that in practice, class only rarely enters the picture (race and gender are easier to essentialize)—but it isn’t a response. Guillory may be right, probably is right, that ultimately the solution to certain ailments of the academy are really much larger than the academy. Still, don’t blame us isn’t a great message.

Also, and for a number of reasons, I’d like to commit myself right now to being very, very careful in my use of the word ‘precisely.’ One should be especially wary of the ever-alluring ‘it is precisely not...’ construction, because it rarely is.

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