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. A canon must include works of many cultures
Berkeley, Calif. — RECENT debates on literary canons, courses in ``Western civilization,'' and core curricula have focused on the content of syllabuses as indicating the values they express. While it would be foolish to underestimate the urgency of the need to expand the canon, focusing solely on the list of canonical works obscures what is really at issue. The inclusion of third-world or minority writings in the present canon is a primary act of intellectual affirmative action, and thus far more valuable, but in itself is limited to a minimal reparation for past ignorance. For the canon expresses more than its immediate content. It is founded on certain principles to fulfill specific functions. Liberal, and even conservative, upholders of the canon frequently emphasize its expansive and assimilative capacities. The literary canon, they say, has successively incorporated American writers, Irish writers, lower-class writers, women writers, even a few Afro-American writers. Someday even some Asian-American or Chicano writers may be absorbed. They forget that the assimilative function of the canon has always been its essence and that this assimilation takes place according to a quite determinate model of human development. Individual works or the literary productions of whole peoples become canonized insofar as they seem to represent the attainment of an ethical selfhood defined in terms of disinterest and universality.
All that is excluded from the canon is defined as primitive, uncultivated, underdeveloped, or political. Only after the excluded classes, whether racially, sexually, or politically defined, have undergone ethical cultivation and traded their identity for identification with dominant models of culture can they be canonized.
This is the tale told in the founding texts of cultural education, from Schiller's ``Letters on Aesthetic Education'' to Arnold's ``Culture and Anarchy.'' It has not been significantly modified by modernism. The tale is intrinsically political and imperialist.
Since the moment of its 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. According to this scheme, all will be included in time, but in time with their assimilation to a singular model of ethical subjectivity not so improperly characterized as a white, bourgeois, and masculine ideal. A more generous version of this canon has little consequence, serving only to confirm the absorptive capacities of a culture to which all difference is subordinated. In the meantime, cultural education will continue to legitimate the most insidious myth of Western civilization, that it represents the apex of a preordained scheme of human development.
Paradoxically, the famous claim that culture transcends politics turns out to be its most with the values traditionally expressed by cultural education - universality, disinterest, freedom - lies not in those values so much as in the fact that culture itself functions to prevent their genuine realization. The various representative works of the canon substitute for any approach to cultural diversity, while purely formal rehearsals of ethical disinterest and autonomy indefinitely defer the struggle to forge a society in which self-determination at all levels might be achieved. That deferral, founded on a premature declaration of human reconciliation, is the political function of culture.
Any revision of the processes of cultural education must take seriously Walter Benjamin's famous remark that every document of civilization is at one and the same time a document of barbarity. Teaching the canon must give way to a critical history of the exclusions and oppressions on which the ``civilizing process'' has depended. If we would really know Western civilization, we should know the terms and costs on which it has come to dominate and not merely the catalog of fetishized cultural commodities which PR men of neo-conservatism extend to us.
David Lloyd is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.