John Guillory from “Preface” and “Canonical and Noncanonical: The Current Debate,” Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993)

  • Lee Morrissey


The largest thesis of this book is that the debate about the canon has been misconceived from the start, and that its true significance is one of which the contestants are not generally aware. The most interesting question raised by the debate is not the familiar one of which texts or authors will be included in the literary canon, but the question of why the debate represents a crisis in literary study. [ ... ] I will argue that evaluative judgments are the necessary but not sufficient condition for the process of canon formation, and that it is only by understanding the social function and institutional protocols of the school that we will understand how works are preserved, reproduced, and disseminated over successive generations and centuries. Similarly, where the debate speaks about the canon as representing or failing to represent particular social groups, I will speak of the school’s historical function of distributing, or regulating access to, the forms of cultural capital. By insisting on the interrelation between representation and distribution, I hope to move beyond a certain confusion which both founds and vitiates the liberal pluralist critique of the canon, a confusion between representation in the political sense—the relation of a representative to a constituency—and representation in the rather different sense of the relation between an image and what the image represents. The collapse of the latter sense into the former has had the unfortunate effect of allowing the participants in the “symbolic struggle” over representation in the canon to overestimate the political effects of this struggle, at the same time that the participants have remained relatively blind to the social and institutional conditions of symbolic struggles.


Cultural Capital Literary Production Evaluative Judgment Capital Flight Literary Curriculum 
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  1. 2.
    The concept of the “New Class” invokes Alvin Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. John Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” in Between Labor and Capital, ed. Pat Walker (Montreal: Black Rose Press, 1979).Google Scholar
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    Cited in Mary Louise Pratt, “Humanities for the Future: Reflections on the Western Culture Debate at Stanford,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 89 (1990), p. 14.Google Scholar
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    Allan Bloom, The Closing ofthe American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 352.Google Scholar
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    Patrick Brantlinger, Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America (New York: Routledge, 1990), 7.Google Scholar

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© Lee Morrissey 2005

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  • Lee Morrissey

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