Three academics debate: What is great? US scholars are arguing about `the canon' - those books considered most important to study. David Lloyd says: Abolish the canon. Wayne Booth says: Let's wait. Gerald Graff finds a compromise. ...Wayne Booth responds to David Lloyd

EVERY writer should stand before the class and repeat aloud, 100 times, the worst sentence in that day's essay, explaining it clause by clause. Short of that, will David Lloyd please come forward and explain just one of his sentences: ``Since the moment of its [modernism's] emergence, more or less in time with the American and French Revolutions, the primary function of aesthetic culture has been to give a developmental form to the manifest contradiction between the universal claims of Western bourgeois states and their systematic exclusion of certain classes of humans.'' What these piled abstractions seem to mean is that there was a vast though unconscious conspiracy among ``modernists,'' American and French revolutionaries, bourgeois political leaders, and ``aesthetic culture'' - among all the writers, composers, painters, and readers, listeners, and viewers, since the late 18th century. In preferring these works over those works, they all expressed the same ``primary function'': to exclude ``certain classes.'' These works embodied an inescapable contradiction between everybody's claims to speak for everybody and everybody's rejection of everyone outside the center.

Can anyone really claim to have evidence for such a melting down of all ``differences'' but one? Does my skepticism about Lloyd's wild conceptual lumpings spring simply from a blindness imposed by having lived with some monstrous ``canon,'' from being one of those ``white, bourgeois, masculine'' folks Lloyd deplores? Naturally I prefer to think that it springs from a respect for ``difference,'' a palpable, resistant, cultural diversity'' that contrasts sharply with his monolithic abstraction, aesthetic-bourgeois-Western-white-civilization-culture. My skepticism springs in part from reading Marx (surely part of Lloyd's canon), with his profound deconstruction of words like ``self.'' It springs from reading Montaigne, who cast a cold eye on universalist claims. It springs from reading Hume and Voltaire, Fielding and Jane Austen, Derrida and Foucault - and finding that I can't put them all together as any kind of monolithic cultural inheritance. They contradict each other, in me.

In short, ``the canon'' - works now widely studied - teaches us that there is no canon and that what we must fear most is the imposition, from cultural right or left, of some universalist dogma.

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