Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Anxiety of Canon


I stole my title from Harold Bloom's term/title "anxiety of influence." This is the last thing I should be doing right now as I've only finished one out of five papers due in the next week. That sounds like a lot, but only one of them is serious business (a 20 pager). Anyhow, if I don't take some time out to write about someone besides Heidegger (you've seen him all over me lately), Habermas (yay! everyone we read this year problematizes capitalism!), Milton (all I can say is "I'm tired"), or Wharton (oh Lawrence!), I just might go mad. I expect the gratuitous parentheses and exclamation marks to continue.

Last Saturday night I hung out at the Barnes and Noble so I could read things I don't own for free. Typically, I skulk into the store, usually with my own tea and not a glance toward the Starbucks or much of anything on the shelf. I head straight to the back corner where there are two tiny shelves on a four foot section that are labeled "Literary Criticism and Theory." Most of what you find there are anthologies and overviews and maybe a "For Dummies" book. They do keep in stock one copy each of Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and Barthes' Mythologies, but the rest are not worth looking at. I don't expect much from big bookstores. But what I always hope to find there are the returns! Special order books or internet purchases returned by reluctant literature students -- their second-thoughts are my Saturday evening entertainment.

To further complicate my already complicated relationship with Harold Bloom (which sounds terrible considering he had some actual complicated relationships with his students -- but that's a story for another time...), I grabbed a copy of The Western Canon and settled into a miniature chair in the kids' section where the music is actually less annoying than in the rest of the store.

Harry and I go way back. I have always enjoyed reading him because he manages to be very clear without reducing anything he has to say for "dummy" consumption. So I started reading his books even before I realized I wanted to be a bespectacled university type. I met him through our shared friend Shakespeare (who knows just about everyone), and from the beginning we had our differences. But for some reason, I never got angry with Harold. I just agreed to disagree with him, and felt like I got something cognitive and world-expanding out of my imaginary arguments with him and his words. He can be a curmudgeon and he can be a snob. But he is my shield from the cultural studies people.

This is where we get into the canon anxiety. As a liberal who would likely be called a commie and be promptly deported if I announced all my leanings in some poilitical forum, I value cultures from all over the globe. I love that people do things differently, that there are different types of rationality depending on your hemisphere, that languages are so varied yet so connected...etc. All the things I would need to say to tell you that I care about non-Anglo, non-white, non-Christian, non-western culture, and that some of those cultures are even near and dear to me -- insert them here.

However, (oh here comes the guilt), I also love my western canon. I love studying literature that people have studied for centuries. I love being able to identify with the way the English speak, the way the French think, the way the Germans philosophize, and the way the Americans react. And I think it is important to my understanding and connection with this literature that I can find all these things familiar in it.

Now I'm going to move away from that defense completely, and take up Bloom's tack (we'll use Harry's last name now, since we're discussing his work). Regardless of the culture from which a literature emerges, there is a somewhat unrelated standard by which the literature needs to be judged -- the standard of the aesthetic.

(Before I move on: I say "unrelated" because the aesthetic study of literature and the cultural study of literature can be and have been split into different methods, college classes and even departments. I say "somewhat," because the prevailing aesthetic is obviously influenced by our very western ideas of what makes pretty and worthwhile language and art. I don't know yet if I am prescribing this, but I am describing what I see.)

For me, ideally, the aesthetic should be permeated by some culture, and allow new ideas (and tastes, although that word is a can of worms) to factor in to its judgment of what is literary. It should not, however, be abandoned and give over the study of literature to a system that will likely end up being reductionist in its attempt to include X number of Asian-American works, Y number of Mexican folktales, etc. On a very simple level, this is how the system works now. Many undergrads are required one "non-Anglo" or "non-western" course for the English major. This course is a separate course studying only multicultural literature or a sample* of literature from a specific culture, and it factors in as a percentage of total English credits. The core "white" education is not really affected by the multi-ethnic mini-education, and the canon is not transformed.

I think perhaps if all literature of the world was surveyed with an eye for the aesthetic rather than for "relevance" or for its testament to our wondrous plurality, we would begin to include those works that work, that are literary, into a broadened canon, simply because of their merit. Culture can get into the Literature Club through the "back door," I suppose, but not by being introduced as "Culture" up front. The aesthetic bouncers will turn "Culture" away unless he has an invite, but they will handle him with kid gloves of course -- we don't want any riots with the well-publicized Culture Club down the street. (Excuse my attempt at a conceit here.)

* Sample: This is where one of the problems begins. We do not have an established aesthetic by which we can judge these unfamiliar literatures. And the aesthetic that each emerges from may be totally different. Personally, I have read some very bad novels and poems simply because they were written by someone of the "required ethnicity" for the class. Westerners cannot claim the privilege of being the only kind of culture that produces bad writers!

I just checked out a hardcover of The Western Canon from the library. Now I don't have to give Barnes and Noble my $17, nor do I have to pay an ex-Bloomite on Amazon.com to mail me their copy full of notes (although you can read here how that can be extremely entertaining). On the first page of "An Elegy for the Canon" he mentions "canonical anxieties," so I guess I didn't coin that term either. Men almost always set the terms.

So while the weight of my little copy of Legitimation Crisis holds big Bloom open, I'll find some quotes. Since Bloom and I are not exactly eye to eye, these don't say what I am saying, but something close that could support my ideas about the canon.

"Every teaching institution will have its department of cultural studies...and an aesthetic underground will flourish, restoring something of the romance of reading."

Being the underground is cool. I just hope, like Bloom, that there will continue to be jobs teaching from the canon and teaching the canon as literature, not as some kind of artifact. (And lo! I have reduced this to having a job!) The "romance of reading" is important here, because he will go onto talk about how literature cannot be defined in philosophical or social terms. It's existential, it's spiritual, and yeah it's pretty goddamn romantic.

"Literary criticism is an ancient art...Cultural criticism is another dismal social science, but literary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon."

No one can make you feel good about being an elitist the way Bloom can! Maybe that's why I like reading him. He gives me hope and validation in a world of skeptics and relativists. Anyhow, the key here is art/science. (A "dismal" social science! You know how I feel about the sociologists.) A purely cultural study of literature can only be descriptive and cannot help us with any kind of canon. It must examine how all the systems that make up culture interact (i.e. history, society, religion, race) and consider them all at work together shaping or responding to the world out there. An aesthetic is for the reader or the lover of literature and his soul, not for society.

"Beneath the surfaces of academic Marxism, Feminism, and New Historicism, the ancient polemic of Platonism and the equally archaic Aristotelian social medicine continue to course on. I suppose that the conflicts between these strains and the always beleagured supporters of the aesthetic can never end."

Here's where I'll start to disagree because I find much in Marxism and Feminism (and in good New Historicism that is informed by these methods) that broadens my understanding of a work. These methods do not typically appeal to cultural studies outside of their having risen up out of political and gender differences. The Marxists and Feminists mostly stick to texts and what happens in them, and the literary New Historicists seek to contextualize a text, but not to stamp it as a historical or sociological document, as Bloom laments has happened to so much emotive poetry. These methods of looking at a text are, of course, at odds with a pure aesthetic as Bloom said. But there is no need for the polemos to rage on among lovers of literature! Different viewpoints can give us a benficially multi-faceted look at great works. A purely cultural viewpoint, however, does not seem to be reconcilable with anything that we would like to admit into the "art school" of literary criticism. So let's make war on "them" and not one another.

"The purpose is clear enough in my profession's flight [from the aesthetic]: to assuage displaced guilt."

And there it is. My favorite: guilt. I have guilt for being "elitist." I have guilt for liking my canon the way it is, as white and old and masculine as it may be. As a young person in an increasingly global culture, I am aware of the disadvantages of rigidity in the canon, and I do not in any way believe that it needs to stay exactly the way it is. Even hoary Bloom notes some positive changes that came about in the canon just in the past century. But discarding any aesthetic approach to literature in order to ensure that what we read is culturally "relevant" rather than literary, or worse, to discard literature and literariness as altogether irrelevant, and replace the whole art of literary study and criticism with cultural studies is a denial of what is most basic to any art -- that it is autonomous, spiritual, and romantic, just as Bloom (and Heidegger, Schiller, Holderlin, etc and NOT Plato and Aristotle) would have it.

I know I have confused the terms literary and aesthetic here, but I am equating them at times because I don't think anyone that believes in the literary can separate themselves from the aesthetic. It is the rage against (or flight from) the aesthetic that characterizes those who wish to abolish literariness. Even the most committed Marxist studies literature because it is beautiful. If not, the Marxist should go to work with the sociologists across campus. The less of us there are, the less fighting we'll have to do over the copy card to make sure we don't go over the English department copy budget.

Of course the triumphant feeling I have now will fade to guilt soon after publishing this. I am not anywhere near having worked this out.

"We are losing now, and doubtless we will go on losing, and there is a sorrow in that because many of the best students will abandon us for other disciplines and professions, an abandonment already well under way. They are justified in doing so, because we could not protect them against our profession's loss of intellectual and aesthetic standards of accomplishment and value."

2 comments:

  1. This is a great post! Bloom is a wonderful thinker--who is best when he is being grand and polemical--and your consideration of what he has to say here is so clear (again!) and illuminating!

    I think what you say about a sort of approach...

    that will likely end up being reductionist in its attempt to include X number of Asian-American works, Y number of Mexican folktales, etc...is absolutely right: however much we can learn by treating literature as a document, it will eliminate many of the reasons we engage with it in the first place and, moreover, probably engage us in a very dubious sort of identity-politics game. Indeed the approach has engaged us in this game, as you rightly note--though I would also say a lot of these problems might also emerge from other areas, like the coverage-model upon which American literary departments are based (Gerald Graff has a lot to say about this: somehow we ended up thinking that if we could all work in enough "fields," we could efficiently address shifting concerns in literary study without dissolving whole departments--this principle gets taken to extremes though when we actually begin dividing up these fields into even smaller categories and then requiring X amount of them "be represented"). And this approach has had a very large influence from cultural studies--in its American form (cultural studies seems a bit different in the UK). You see I'm trying to 1) hold off calling this "approach" anything more specific, in order to 2) perhaps ask that Bloom specify more what he means by "cultural studies." Are the effects of destroying the canon into little identity-chunks a necessary consequence of cultural studies? As opposed to the new historicism, say? Perhaps it's so. But while the solution seems clear--return some notion of the aesthetic to literature, which I agree with and I'll come to in a bit--I'm not sure it is clear what precisely Bloom is blaming for this. I only harp on this point because Bloom is so fatalistic--especially in your last quote (though for reasons tied to guilt which you so interestingly elaborate--I'll come back to that in a sec). It perhaps seems more helpful to talk about the treating-of-literature-as-document as an approach or perhaps a practice that can be taken up by all sorts of people with all sorts of larger allegiances.

    That said, yes, cultural studies probably has a lot of the blame: in America it has (or only perhaps has: I too am just describing what I've seen) turned from a basically Marxist analysis of newer forms of media as expressions of ideology (cf. Raymond Williams) into a colonization of all sorts of varying expressions--an inclusion of them under the uncomfortable umbrella of "literature," in a process you describe so well. As you say--and this is what I mean to get at above--it is the retroactive effect of this effort of "inclusion" (and whether it is indeed this remains another question which I meant to broach by characterizing it as "colonization") upon the other literatures now beside it, which actually renders everything into a document. This is how I take your awesome comment here: "Culture can get into the Literature Club through the "back door," I suppose, but not by being introduced as "Culture" up front." Everything becomes culture, and then we're all screwed--because as you say the notion of value then has been basically done away with: specifically, it is conceived in terms that are merely negative (how will this disrupt the old canon).

    But I'm talking in circles. The solution does seem clear, as I said: get back to the literary of literature, its aesthetic, rather than merely documentary, essence. But it is how to characterize this literariness that is the key. On this point, I'm a little taken back by "elitist" as a way to think of what the proper reading of literature entails:

    Literary criticism is an ancient art...Cultural criticism is another dismal social science, but literary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon.

    On the first point--I'll just note--Bloom is absolutely right: and more knowledge of hermeneutics as a tradition (indeed of this tradition as traditions, including things like midrash, legal argumentation or oratory, etc.) would probably give us some more specific sense of how young "departments" of literature actually are (say, only around 1890-1910ish, if that). This might prevent certain efforts to "fix" literature--like including X amount of Y--which seem so slapdash right now: that is, so effective because they are merely efforts to put off the tough decisions; or so effective because they exploit the disorganization and non-rigorous aspects of what we do. You'd think having a department on top of an ancient tradition would actually make these changes more programmatic, more coherent--but the opposite may be the case.

    But then there's the bit on being elitist, which you gloss (and interpret in your own way) so well:

    No one can make you feel good about being an elitist the way Bloom can! Maybe that's why I like reading him. He gives me hope and validation in a world of skeptics and relativists. Anyhow, the key here is art/science. (A "dismal" social science! You know how I feel about the sociologists.) A purely cultural study of literature can only be descriptive and cannot help us with any kind of canon. It must examine how all the systems that make up culture interact (i.e. history, society, religion, race) and consider them all at work together shaping or responding to the world out there. An aesthetic is for the reader or the lover of literature and his soul, not for society.I think you're probably right that "a purely cultural [and especially sociological] study of literature can only be descriptive and cannot help us with any kind of canon." My experiments with sociology recently have only been attempts to see what kind of canon might emerge if this sort of descriptive work could indeed determine a canon--in short, just to try and test how far this statement about what descriptive work can and cannot do actually goes--but that's only an experiment and I don't think a canon really can be formed in this way. But to then say that only a few can form this canon and appreciate it--hmm. I'm not objecting to the thing in principle: I'm just puzzled at the word "elite." Why not call these few people "skilled," say? Or like Nietzsche say that they are those that are self-overcoming, and therefore will most likely be few? In short, "elite" makes it seem like the scarcity isn't so much a necessary effect of the understanding and appreciation of the aesthetic, but the cause. Does that make sense? It makes it seem as if the understanding of art have to exclude--which seems just as arbitrary as the cultural studies people saying that we have to include... And neither you nor Bloom actually say this either: I think calling it an "elitist phenomenon," or something "for the lover of literature and his soul, not for society" precisely means that being one of the few is an effect of appreciating art. I'm just objecting to the word "elitist" (sorry I'm being a bit of a nominalist today) because it actually seems to limit the ways in which we can think of the properly aesthetic experience, the experience between "the lover of literature and his soul."

    Perhaps Bloom uses the word to bring out that sense of guilt to which you are attuned. But having "guilt for being 'elitist,'" as you say later, can be something different than having "guilt for liking my canon the way it is, as white and old and masculine as it may be." Guilt might also then just be a function of having a very discerning, inquiring soul, say. As you can see, I just want to refine "elitist" a bit, because it brings in an active opposition to society as the precondition for loving/appreciating art/literature, where what you're saying seems to me to be that this opposition might also be an effect of this appreciation--and that appreciation might just take place alongside society, who may not see it for what it is.

    All of this I think tempers the fatalism of Bloom, and also the sense that he is talking to an "us" there that just gets elected, out of nowhere. The "us" is only constituted by certain choices--which is what I think you're getting at in your last paragraph (concerning the copy card).

    This is great! It seriously got me thinking. I hope I didn't misconstrue your brilliant points. But don't feel guilty (unless you want to!)! It is naive to suppose that literature has no autonomous, spiritual, and romantic dimension--and you bring out the serious consequences of that naivete!

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  2. Mike, you point out exactly where my problem lies with all the guilt. I gave over to using that word "elitist" because I feel the weight of being one of these aesthetic dinosaurs and I react by defining readers like myself with "their" word for us. I understand your critique of the "elitist" and I also agree that this word only makes an uglier separation between what is perceived as "people who like to exclude things" and "the average reader." I was jumping on Bloom's grand fatalism train I suppose. When he gets carried away it's fun to go along for the ride.

    You're also right that Bloom needs to define "cultural studies." For this post I just echoed his use of that term, but I was thinking right afterward that I would really need to write separately (or at more length) about all the different species of "cultural studies" i.e. gender studies, queer studies, multicultural literature inclusion, cultural criticism, and so on, to be able to explain exactly why I feel threatened by this stuff.

    Your observation about English departments and their woes is hilarious. They really do have problems with all of the sub-departmenting and split factions within them, which, like you said, is an attempt to cast a wider net for lit students and money, or to appear to be keeping up with the status quo of "progress." A better stewardship of our "ancient tradition" is indeed in order!

    And thanks for looking at this guilt from a fresh perspective. I don't want the guilt, but for now it comes with the territory for me. I'm hoping when I get to grad school I can have a community (or at least a small parcel) of readers around me that make me think of my literary choices as traditionally valid yet rightfully personal, rather than choices made merely as an opposition or resistance to the dominant view of literature. Then I can be less polemical all around, and just enjoy the books. Who am I kidding, I'm sure there's lots to be polemical about in grad school too! But anyhow, when I read Bloom I feel like I've found a fellow "student" with a crazy amount of enthusiasm.

    This gives me a lot to move forward with in my thinking about cultural studies (and why they frighten me so). I want to respond more fully to your comment, but I just finished a 10 pager and there's another one on the back burner. Thanks for your insights, and you are too kind, you know!

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