The Cultural Politics of English Studies

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2015

63 Pages




The English Canon: Boundaries of Cultural Politics

Works Cited

F.R. Leavis and the English Canon

Works Cited

Reading Edward Said re-reading Conrad

Works Cited

Colonialism in the Canon: A New Look at Great Expectations

Works Cited

Beginning the Novel: A Saidian Mediation

Works Cited

Selected Bibliography


Contemporary research has proved beyond doubt that the formal study of English Literature as a subject started much earlier in India than England. Though it sounds unbelievable or paradoxical, in the Universities in England earlier, language and literature meant Greek and Latin along with other classical languages, and not English. English was the mother tongue, but not the scholar’s tongue—so to say.

Interestingly, quite similar situation prevailed in India, if we remind ourselves. Though languages like Assamese, Bengali and Hindi had become distinctive by the 16th Century CE with a considerable body of commendable literature, these languages were not taught in the indigenous academic institutions like tolas and madrassas. Actually, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian were the languages taught in the indigenous academic institutions. The formal study of vernacular languages started with the setting up of the three universities after 1854.

English Schools and Departments in India started functioning well before English was grudgingly recognized as a subject in England. But in India, it was the master’s voice, the colonizers tongue, and not a neglected discipline at all. A discipline and subject thought to be of little importance in its own country assumed prime importance in its colonial underbelly. However, shortly following this, there have been tireless attempts in England to turn English into a subject of respect within the University and beyond. A group of critics, scholars and poets worked in close collaboration to consolidate English.

This book is an exploration of the story of English in England and beyond. I am indebted to Prof Bijay Danta of Tezpur University for his ever inspiring academic guidance. I am bound in gratitude to my wife Mousumi and son Jayartha for giving me space and care.

The English Canon: Boundaries of Cultural Politics

“For my purposes, the core of humanism is the secular notion that the historical world is made by men and women, and not by God, and that can be understood rationally according to the principle formulated by Vico in New Science, that we can really know only what we make or, to put it differently, we can know things according to the way they were made.”

Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2003)

Literary canons are always-already implicated in the politics of exclusion and are not mere aesthetic domains. The canon—ecclesiastical, aesthetic or otherwise—universalizes recurring archetypes in specified topoi. It is often seen that the defenders of a particular canon seek to universalize the values it represents. Interestingly, however, the users or promoters of specific canons do not admit, canonical or otherwise, that all texts are the products of specific political and cultural contexts. Any attempt to canonize a particular set of texts as representative of timeless aesthetic or human values are, more often than not, masks for hiding political interests.

To this extent, to talk about the canon is to enter a world of political and social formations. Given that every national or cultural corpus has its own canonical writers and texts, defined within a particular discursive practice, the canon is not only privileged but also universally accepted as a “given” rather than a “constructed” category. Cultural theory has interrogated this givenness of the canon and argued for either locating the canon in a specific situation or addressing it as a cultural, racial or social need.

It has now been more or less accepted that the greatness of the “great” texts that comprise canons is grounded in a politics of authority, which, in turn, is embedded in issues such as nationalism, patriarchy, nation, race, gender etc., issues not directly or transparently related to aesthetic value or validity. In fact, postcolonial theory has shown that the canonical texts of what Leavis once called the “Great Tradition” are often complicit with colonialism. Contemporary criticism has mapped the historical trajectory of colonialism alongside the history of the English novel. Such readings oppose the given dynamics of English novels such as Persuasion, for example, and aim at interrogating the English novelistic canon from various ideological perspectives. To this extent, the dissertation examines the link between the English novelistic canon and British imperialism while contending that the “greatness” of many of the English novelists needs to be qualified in specific frames and cannot be universalized without specific framing practices.

The English word “canon” is generally believed to have originated from the Greek “kanon,” which means “rule” or “measure,” and implies “authenticity” or “authority.” However, allowing for the fact that contemporary debates on the canon are of recent origin, the concept of canonicity is fairly well established. Interestingly, by the very nature of its signification, the canon is already always part of a politics of exclusion. As this dissertation concentrates on Said’s oeuvre as a sustained interrogation of the Western canon, it is interesting to note that he has even resisted the Eurocentric etymology of the term canon itself. In Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2003), Said suggests that the term could have come from the Arabic word “quanon” (law or act) which can be seen as an interrogation of the Eurocentric concepts of the canon (HD 25). The immediate origin of the term, however, is related to the debates within the Church about the authenticity of certain books of the Bible. As Jeremy Hawthorn puts it:

“The term originates in debate within the Christian Church about the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible and books of the New Testament. That which was termed canonical was accepted as having divine authority within the church, while writing of no, or doubtful authority was termed apocryphal. Thus, the Protestant canon and apocrypha differ slightly from those of the Catholic Church “(34)

Thus, going back to the origin, it is clear that even the apparently divine canons are human constructs under historical-political necessities, though canons, literary or otherwise, have often been seen as universally given, and not historically and politically constructed. When the Bible, as one sees it today, was compiled, the Old Testament mostly accepted the Jewish holy book. But the New Testament, which can be cited as a paradigmatic instance of canon-formation, had to canonize four particular versions of Jesus’ life as “holy” or “authentic.” The four synoptic gospels in the New Testament excludes what would appear to be uncomfortable versions of Christ’s life, eventually put aside by the Roman Church as “Gnostic” or “apocryphal.” In a related frame, “canonization” is also the term used to signify elevation to sainthood or holiness. It is not difficult to see that this sense has been carried into the process of elevating authors as “great.”

In contemporary critical theory, canons, whether sacred or secular, are seen as ideologically grounded. It is suggested that canons are ideological constructs, and not unproblematic, universally accepted domains of standard and value. Critical theory foregrounds the socio-cultural configurations of canonicity, attributable to political rather than literary considerations. It is seen, interestingly, that the critique of the canon is pluralistic, given that the canon is interrogated from multiple ideologies and positions.

In his introduction to Canons (1989), Robert von Hallberg says that the positioning of the canon can be three-fold, which, in turn, could provide an interesting point of reference: “Canons are discussed here from three perspectives: how artists determine canons by selecting certain styles and masters to emulate; how poet-critics and academic critics, through the institution of literary study, construct canons; and how institutionalized canons effectively govern literary study and instruction” (2). We can see how the construction of the canon by poet-critics and academic critics leads to the institutionalization of literature. The first perspective given by Hallberg, however, is best seen as related to the question of an artist’s “imitation” of the masters he or she has chosen.

The transparency in the link between literary and national canons in Europe can be seen to have emerged during the Renaissance. This has to be seen in connection with the rise of the nation state in Europe. The Renaissance, as is well-known, provided Europe with a distinct political identity by directly or indirectly promoting nationalisms and subnationalisms. Against this backdrop, Shakespeare can be seen as the first English author to be hailed as the greatest literary figure of all times. Ben Jonson’s presentation of Shakespeare as an author for all ages can be, in this sense, linked to the Elizabethan-Jacobean need for finding a representative poet to strengthen England’s nascent nationalism. In this sense, the canonization of Shakespeare by Jonson can be seen the first instance of canon-formation of English literature.

However, the trend of canonization set in by Jonson was not seen much after him, and a sustained chain of criticism arguing for the values of a literary text started only in the eighteenth century. It is interesting to note that the eighteenth century, generally seen as the classical period in English literary history, is also the period not only of enlightenment but also rapid colonial expansion of Europe. Wendell V. Harris, in this connection, speaks of the importance of selective canonicity from the renaissance to the eighteenth century:

Further perspective comes from recognizing that, until the Renaissance, selective canons in literature were generally of little importance, that selective canons of European vernacular literature blossomed only in the eighteenth century . . . , and that selective canons of English and American literature are more recent still. (113)

The intellectual milieu of the eighteenth century is built upon the concept of Enlightenment, which can also be seen as a process of canonization of certain values and systems. In fact, as canons are constructs based on ideologies, Enlightenment itself has become a canon with its choice of rationality as the only valid form of understanding human experience and expression. The idea of Enlightenment, as formulated by Immanuel Kant and others, has mostly been a system of value judgement classifying “knowledge” from “ignorance,” “reason” from “madness” and “maturity” from “immaturity.” Michel Foucault, whose influence on Said cannot be overstated, sees this valorization of reason as complicit with the ideology of the ruling elite in his Madness and Civilization (1967). Postcolonial criticism shows how the logic of Enlightenment is in essence the logic of imperialism (see Gandhi 30-37). It has been argued that Enlightenment led to the consolidation of a binary between the “mature” West and the “immature” East. In fact, all valorizations of a set of beliefs or ideas or texts are deeply implicated in some political investment or the other. To this extent, the eighteenth century elites of England aimed at creating a distinct metropolitan culture that would be different from, and eventually hope to replace, the peripheral English life.

Dr. Johnson’s attempts at recording and evaluating English poetry in The Lives of the Poets, commonly seen as the first canonical account of English literature, are best viewed against these assumptions. As the distinction between the country and the city, between “true wit” and “false wit,” becomes the order of the day, it is not surprising that Dr Johnson, the leading critic of his times, should also be conscious and anxious about formulating a canon of English literature that would both inform and enlighten. It should be added that while the exploration of eighteenth-century value judgement is not within the scope of the article, it is important to note that it is Dr. Johnson who is responsible for the first visible canon of English literature.

The exploration of the problematic of institutionalization of English literary studies as a discipline during the high tide of imperialism leads one to Arnold, and not Johnson, as the key forebear. It is possible, however, to argue that the Arnoldian way of judging the greatness of texts owes much to the neoclassical age, which is carried forth to the time of Leavis. Leavis, in turn, is interrogated by Raymond Williams, and then by Edward Said. The fact that Arnold’s strategy of judging the greatness of literary texts is dependent on the use of select classical texts as “touchstones” connects him to the eighteenth century critical idiom. The attributes “Augustan” or “neoclassical” given to the writings of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are validated by the classical bias of the age. It is held in this kind of thinking that the only canon is that of Greek and Roman literature. Naturally, a contemporary work was good only if it tried to emulate the original masters, where “originality” meant being a replica of the “original.”

Given that it is Dr. Johnson’s “practical criticism” that reflects the dominant critical spirit of the age, and sets the standard for succeeding generations, the stakeholders in the culture-canon debate often go back to Johnson for validation of their respective positions. Identifying Johnson’s Dictionary and Lives of the English Poets as the first standardization of English language and literature respectively, Cary Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose in The Canon and the Common Reader (1990), suggest that the Johnsonian canon is actually a canon for the common man (see 32-33). By doing this, they seek to subvert the elitism connected with the English canon which is traditionally traced back to Johnson’s works. In his attempt to read the canon in terms of selective memories of traditions or ideals, Charles Altieri holds that “Samuel Johnson is the canonical figure most useful for thinking about canons” (4). Lawrence Lipking does not seem to be overstating Johnson’s role when he says “Johnson set the standards for which earlier critics had asked, and against which future critics would be measured” (426).

It is interesting to note that the standards set by Johnson in Lives of the English Poets and “Preface to Shakespeare” remain influential well into the twentieth century. A crucial case, for instance, is the rejection of Donne and the metaphysical poets, which resulted in the traditional exclusion of the metaphysical poets from canonical anthologies for a long time. The best instance of the exclusion can be verified from Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury, a Victorian anthology of poems that has survived its own generation of bias and emerged as a model book of English poems. It is true that T. S. Eliot has returned the metaphysical poets into the great tradition of English poetry, but has not really rejected the spirit of the canon that Dr. Johnson epitomized. In fact, it can be argued that Eliot remains faithful to Dr. Johnson’s “general” truths while remaining attentive to Dryden’s “particular” truths (see Eliot, On Poetry and Poets 57). Cary Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose comment on the implications of this link:

The longing for order and legitimacy for, as it were, a literary Great Chain of Being for which T.S.Eliot, among others, yearns . . ., has converted Johnson’s Lives into a Pentateuch of literature, individual portions of which one may question, as one questions the literal interpretation of Genesis, but the essence of which is ineluctable. (Canon 28)

To this extent, it is possible to see the nineteenth century institutionalization of English literature as the consolidation of the Johnsonian canon. Matthew Arnold, for instance, promotes the idea of “high seriousness” as the main constituent of the greatness of literature and provides us with a historically extended version of the Johnsonian canon in his “The Study of Poetry.” The essay actually entails Arnold’s practical criticism of significant English poets including Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Gray which can be seen as a consolidation of the poetic canon. Arnold’s insistence on a “high seriousness” about life and reality as a criterion of greatness, it can be argued, translates into the moral seriousness of Leavis’ novelistic canon.

In addition, Arnold brings in the question of a national literature transparently when he makes a distinction between historical importance and intrinsic value of books. Arnold argues that works like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are important because they contribute to the growth of a national literature. However, this historical position does not make them universally great, “the class of the truly excellent.” Arnold primarily refers to four poets— Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton—as great European poets, prefiguring Leavis’ choice of four novelists as part of a great tradition. It would appear that devotion to truth and seriousness marks their work from that of the others. However, Arnold does not, and possibly cannot, offer a verifiable definition of “truth” or “seriousness.” Each of the four poets offers, even within their works, heterogeneous and paradoxical stakes on truth and reality. Thus, it appears as if the choice points more towards an urgent need on Arnold’s part to create a pristine England out of literary figures than to discover inherent greatness of the poets. He wants to present an ideal, moral world for others to emulate and valorize, a project Leavis attempts in turn, to continue and consolidate half a century later in his academic and cultural pursuits.

Canonizing certain literary figures as great on the parts of Arnold and Leavis suggests that “greatness” is more a “naturalized” than a natural category. In his essay “From New Criticism to Structuralism,” Graham Martin points to the critical continuum from Arnold to Leavis .In fact, the moral dimension sought to be given to literary pursuits by Arnold and Leavis is best read against the backdrop of nationalism and imperialism (see Bhabha, Nation1-23). As the search for a great cultural past in literature becomes an unconscious part of a nationalist agenda in the late nineteenth- and the early twentieth- century England, one can see the emergence of quite a few critical texts canonizing selective works as great. The privileging of the “moral” over the “historical” or the material brought in by Arnold was influenced by the need of the times. In fact, it can be seen that this trend continued through his successors like Bradley. To this end, the selection of four Shakespearean tragedies as “great” by A.C. Bradley in his Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), is an important event as it shaped Shakespeare studies till the 1970s. Critics like Sidney Lee, L.C. Knights and George Wilson Knight expand and continue the canonical criticism initiated by Bradley that concentrates mostly on the character’s personal problems in a liberal humanist idiom. As Shakespeare was made “the centre of the canon” (Bloom 45-75), the idioms and assumptions of Shakespeare criticism informed other works as well. Histories of literature came up and presented the chronology of disparate individuals since the time of Chaucer, or even the Anglo-Saxon period, as a continuous growth of a great literary tradition. This serves the purpose of integrating the nation at home. Further, the literary canon is also used to present a superior image of the colonizer to the colonized. Postcolonial studies have focused on this nationalist-imperialist ideology of the English canon. Gauri Viswanathan in her Masks of Conquest (1990), for instance, shows how the English canon was offered to the Indian student with a view to presenting a respectable yet formidable image of the ruling class: “the English literary text, functioning as a surrogate Englishman in his highest and most perfect state, becomes a mask for economic exploitation … successfully camouflaging the material activities of the colonizer” (20).

Further, Said’s exploration of the interlacing of literature and imperialism leads Homi Bhabha and others to examine the role of literature in nation building. It is possible to argue that imperialism is actually the result of an intensified and aggressive nationalism imposed on and transposed to other nations, cultures and peoples. Contemporary thinkers like Benedict Anderson have argued that any nationhood requires a body of narratives which would justify the homogenization as well as the discriminatory atrocities required to build and sustain a nation. Literature here becomes a crucial ideological tool. The fact that the epic is postulated as the highest form of literature—which in fact records either real or symbolic wars between races and cultures, where the winner emerges as the ideal—points to its nationalist undertones. This can be seen in the political nexus between narrative and state that is played out in Odyssey and The Ramayana. It is argued that the novel substitutes the epic in nation building in the modern world. One would do well to recollect at this point Lukacs’ famous paper in Theory of the Novel on the novel as the modern or epic (see 103). In “The National Longing for Form,” Timothy Brennan, for instance, argues that the novel goes hand in hand with the rise of nationalism:

It was the novel that historically accompanied the rise of the nations by objectifying the ‘one, yet many’ of national life and by mimicking the structure of the nation, a clearly bordered jumble of languages and styles. Socially, the novel joined the newspaper as the major vehicle of the national print media, helping to standardize language, encouraging literacy, and remove mutual incomprehensibility. But it did much more than that. Its manner of presentation allowed the people to imagine the special community that was the nation. (49)

Said on his part suggests that this imagining of the nation also includes imagining the colonies of the nation as its legitimate parts. In Culture and Imperialism (1993), Said states that he is “trying to show throughout this book, [that] the literature itself makes constant references to itself as somehow participating in Europe’s overseas expansion, and therefore creates what Williams calls ‘structures of feeling’ that support, elaborate and consolidate the practice of the empire” (14). In fact, it is in the English novel that one finds such complicity with colonialism.It is evident that Brennan and Said are trying to see the novel as a reflection and articulation of two political ideologies, nationalism and imperialism.

While postcolonial interrogators of the canon like Said, Spivak or Bhabha, in their readings of the politics of the canonical texts, do not seem to support either the rejection of the canon or the adoption of an alternative canon, more radical interrogations of the canon have come from other quarters. It is remarkable that writers from among the postcolonial groups have pleaded for doing away with English as a mark of decolonization. This is now a fairly well-known position associated with the Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong’O in his Decolonizing the Mind (1986). Achebe, on the other hand, is for appropriating English and rewriting the canonical texts from the periphery. Gayatri Spivak similarly advocates the opening-up of the canon, while having reservations about projects such as decanonization and decolonization of the canon. In an interview to Boundary 2, she says:

The canon—I’m less certain about the canon debate. The canon debate in the social sciences and in the humanities is, as far as I understand it, the idea of introducing work that is not necessarily just the great work of Western culture. I am at once with that impulse. I always give support to it. I try to bring in whatever else can be brought in. I’m just not satisfied with the possibility of fully decanonizing or decolonizing the canon within the US university structure. (41)

It is likely that Spivak’s discomfort with the idea of completely dismantling the canon, is due to her realization that political complicities may not take away the merits of a good text. Said, similarly, does not ask one not to read the western canon, but to read it differently. In fact, in Culture and Imperialism, he makes it clear that ideologies of texts do not negate whatever aesthetic merit the texts themselves may have, but make them more meaningful. Regarding the method of reading the canon, he says:

The novels and other books I consider here I analyze because first of all I find them estimable works of art and learning, in which I and many other readers take pleasure and from which we derive profit. Second, the challenge is to connect them not only with that pleasure and profit, but also with the imperial process of which they were manifestly and unconcealedly a part; rather than condemning or ignoring their participation in what was an unquestioned reality in their societies, I suggest that what we learn about hitherto ignored aspects actually and truly enhances our reading and understanding of them. (Culture and Imperialism xv)

In other words, for Spivak and Said the great texts are important in themselves. They seem to focus on more comprehensive and alternative readings of existing texts. This could be seen as the median position between critics like Leavis, Trilling and Bloom, on the one hand, and nativists, radical feminists or black activists like Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, Carey Kaplan, Elaine Showalter, Julia Kristeva, Paul Lauter, or Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on the other.

It is imperative at this point to take into account the major arguments against the western canon seen in these positions. Feminism seems to have been the first challenge to the western canon and canonical criticism, and it makes sense to make connections between the Saidian critique of the canon and contemporary feminist position on what is supposed to be “great.” In course of arguing for an exclusive feminist canon, Kaplan and Rose suggest that not only the canon, but literature itself no longer seems to have the relevance it once had:

In fact, the new common reader may very well not care about literature and humanities at all, valorizing instead science, the social sciences, and business as sources of useful knowledge and looking to music, video, film, and television for the entertainment and instruction formerly supplied by literature. (23)

More than any inherent merit in the western canon, Kaplan and Rose go on to argue, the enthusiasm shown for its preservation by the rightist critics like Alan Bloom, Harold Bloom and E. D.Hirsch betrays their need for an authoritative voice for themselves (see Canon 24). Interestingly, they see the same agenda behind different leftist critics and schools. They also see the emergence of theory as a patriarchal intellectual conspiracy, given that almost all prominent theorists are white, male, and European. These theories, they argue, do not bring any social change, whereas feminist theory and practice is arguably rooted in real life and committed to change. Feminist interrogation of the western canon, according to them, is more on the ethical than philosophical side:

In this fragile balance of interests, feminist canon revision and its concomitant feminist literary theory, criticism and pedagogy are dangerous to the unstable power structures. Since its inception, feminist critical theory has esteemed personal experience and popular taste. For the most part, feminist scholars—even the most theoretical of them—are committed to real social change. Feminist pedagogy … constructs the bridge between the community and the academy that deny the latter’s exclusivity and superiority. (24)

In spite of their different approaches to the canon, it is evident that feminists like Kaplan on the one hand, and Said on the other, have a major point in common: dismantling the barrier between theory and praxis, epistemology and ethics.

In Left Politics and Literary Profession, Lillian S. Robinson also suggests that feminist criticism forces us to rethink literary tradition and consider “not only the works of women but also the works of all of those other excluded groups who do not fit into the established norm of what great literature ought to be” (147). In fact, as the title of her essay, “Canon Fathers and Myth Universe” suggests, she argues that the canon, by its very origin among the Church fathers, is a patriarchal construct that has remained so in its literary manifestation as well. Further, radical and exclusivist feminists argue for the lesbian canon, which connects them to queer theory and practice. Such identities and canons, however, often engage in a vitriolic rhetoric of blame, which becomes anti-human and replicate the inequalities created and sustained by the patriarchal canon. In “History as Explanation: Writing About Lesbian Writing,” Julie Abraham points to “restrictive assumption” of all canonicity:

A lesbian tradition was self-evidently radical both because of its assumption—shared with other studies of women’s writings and, for example, Afro-American writing—that content mattered as well as form, and because of the socially proscribed nature of “lesbian” content. By the late 1980s we must also allow that discussion of the “lesbian” is not in itself enough, that it does not in a literary context, obviate, for example, the restrictive assumptions behind canonicity. (271)

At this point, it is worth remembering that feminist criticism at times differs from other modes of interrogations of the canon, like the Marxist. In an essay titled “Literature of Resistance: The Intersection of Feminism and the Communist Left in Meridel Le Sueur and Tilie Olsen,” for instance, Constance Stance indicates how the 1930s leftist criticism fails to do justice to women’s working-class literature. Stance’s foregrounding of the absence of women’s issues from the leftist critique is, in fact, a pointer to the fact that no interrogation of the canon, even as totalitarian as Marxism, can afford to be free from the politics of exclusion

Along with feminism and postcolonialism, African-American literature has also come up with claims for a distinct canon of its own. Given that the canon of English is premised on racism, it has systematically marginalized the black people both in literature and society. African-American studies therefore foregrounds race, argues for political rights of the black people, and interrogates the Eurocentric assumptions of the western canon (see Gates, Race, 1-21: Said “Ideology,” Gates38-58). Their efforts at forming an alternative canon are primarily aimed at creating a distinct, independent black identity. In his Loose Canons (1992), Henry Louis Gates, Jr, makes connections between the emergence of black poetry and the end of white racism. Against the African-American backdrop, Gates relates race to the canon even as he canonizes anthologies and histories of the black people:

Suffice it to point to such seminal attempts at canon-formation in the 1920s as James Weldo Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), Alain Locke’s The New Negro An Anthology of American Negro Literature (1929), each of which defined as its goal the demonstration of the existence of the black tradition as a political defense of the racial self against racism. (26)

Gates points to the racist undertones in the writings of “great” European philosophers and thinkers like Hume, Kant, Jefferson, and Hegel in much the same way as Said sees them providing the ideological basis for colonialism in his works such as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, to mention the two most obvious cases. In fact, Said prescribes that we read Black writers and theorists along with “great” texts for a proper understanding of humanity: “To read Austen without also reading Fanon and Cabral—and so on and on—is to disaffiliate modern culture from its engagements and attachments. This is a process that should be reversed” (Culture and Imperialism 71). In other words, canons, hegemonic or counter-hegemonic (like the black or the feminist or the queer canon), can be said to form part of the politics of culture that informs nations and societies.

It would be pertinent at this point to examine John Guillory’s presentation of canonicity as the ideological tool of a particular interest group, a “cultural capital.” In his Cultural Capital: the Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993), Guillory points out that value is thrust into books by institutions and interpretive communities. Guillory says that the attributes of value and significance of the texts are not necessarily dependant on the aesthetic merit of the texts themselves. In asserting this, Guillory not only focuses on “canonicity” as an institutional issue related to curriculum or syllabus but also contends that it is a class struggle related to the possession of the “canon” as capital. His argument can be related to Leavis’ efforts at institutionalizing the English novelistic tradition. The materialist position taken by Guillory is fairly logical in the context that he builds for projecting the canonicity of culture. However, his difference from Said needs to be noted as the latter focuses more on individual texts and the western canon as supportive of colonial values, than on the institutionalization of literary practices. Gauri Viswanathan’s work, among others, on the institutionalization of English in India can be said to have supplemented Said’s work in this regard.

Further, as Guillory argues, a visible site where the idea of canonicity gets consolidated is the syllabus, given that schools and universities often act as what Althusser calls the “ideological state apparatus.” Viswanathan’s research, informed and influenced by Said, stakes that English studies was formalized in India before its institutionalization in England. The purpose behind this, she argues in what is now a well-known position, was to create a class of Indian elites who would help England have a longer and surer stay in India. The process of imposing the superiority of British culture through the canon was very subtle. As Viswanathan argues, the literary texts that represented Christian values were re-presented as carrying a universal morality which was clearly illusory. At a later stage, it was interpellated that English education in fact helped the Indians achieve self-determination and identity. This was clearly a colonial self-fashioning that was attained by a complex process, where the English canon was gradually set up as a given that was always authentic. In comparison, all non-western knowledge was seen as obsolete and unscientific. English was presented as the medium through which Indians could attain selfhood and connect themselves to the progressive, civilized Europe:

English education, fighting to stave off the appearance of imposing an alien culture on native society, gained subtle redefinition as an instrument of authenticity. A historical consciousness was intended to bring the Indian in touch with himself, recovering his true essence and identity from the degradation to which it has become the subject through native despotism. Far from alienating the Indian from his own culture, background and traditions, English education gained the image of being an agency for restoring Indian youth to an essential self and, in turn, reinserting him to the course of European civilization.(Viswanathan 134)

In conformity with the colonial ideology, the Indian curriculum preferred topics related to history, culture and literature to mechanical skills like grammar. Even within that, what was preferred was a totalized estimate of literature, culture and society rather than specific texts. Topics for essays and debates, especially in Missionary schools, always hit at indigenous religion and cultural pattern; “On the disadvantages of Caste and the benefits of its abolition,” “On the internal marks of Falsehood in the Hindu Shastras,” “On the Physical Errors of Hinduism,” and even “On the Merits of Christianity and the Demerits of Hinduism” (135-6). There is a close parallel between Said’s contention about the connection between the novel and the empire, and Viswanathan’s imputation that from the very beginning, English studies in India, irrespective of variations and changes, was aimed at justifying the cruder business of the empire. Again, the anxiety of spreading a “moral” culture and literature has got more to do with the Englishman’s own depravation than that of the Indians. But ironically, the Indians (and the other ex-colonies) have not been able to counter the ideology of English studies:The politics of presenting an idealized image of England and the English was just the other side of the Orientalist representation of the East as the inferiorized other. To unearth this nexus, Said offers concepts such as “worldliness” as well as “contrapuntal reading,” which, in turn, expose the oppressive ideologies in the texts of European high culture.

Said has also argued that European superiority and self-righteousness, which were givens with the colonial rulers , particularly affected the syllabus designing for different courses taught in the Indian imperial institutions and universities. The canon became an agent for degrading the colonized people. Said presents the situation as follows:

In the system of education designed for India, students were taught not only English literature, but also the inherent superiority of the English race. (Culture and Imperialism 121)

The defenders of the western canon, in the face of all these challenges, have chosen to strengthen the canon by returning to claims of aestheticism and universality. However, they do not define these attributes as any definition would naturally demystify them. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon is an attempt to re-integrate the “loose canons” into the Western Canon. Bloom has no sympathy for political readings, and forces a distinction between literary criticism and cultural criticism. Cultural criticism here refers to the study of literature as ideology which he brushes aside with the title “school of resentment.” Interestingly, the fact that Bloom invokes an idiom that may appear provocative in his assessment of the canon signifies that the centrality of the western canon is in danger. The idea of an exclusive Afro-American or feminist or postcolonial canon, for that matter, is unacceptable to him because he sees these as “unhealthy” responses to the western canon. It is not difficult to see that by asserting the secondary nature of non-European or non-canonical literatures, he is making a case for the continuation of the western canon as a cultural and curricular category. Bloom’s denigration of any interrogation of the western canon is suggestive of a counter-offensive, which can arise only out of insecurity:

Interestingly, Bloom selects twenty six authors from the western tradition as canonical. The selection itself shows how he wants to preserve what the critics of the canon call the dead male white European Christian authors. The fact that his list includes figures like Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Milton, Johnson, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Proust should indicate the paradigms of selection. It seems that these authors are chosen because they are great, and are aesthetically rewarding. But aestheticism, as Bloom sees it, cannot be explained to those who do not have a feel for it, and need not be explained to those who have. Bloom’s paradoxical statement on aestheticism is in fact the central paradox of canonicity itself, which, in a way, highlights the dilemma of the liberal humanist tradition of great texts and concomitant reading practices: “Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensation and perception” (17).


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The Cultural Politics of English Studies
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Jaydeep Chakrabarty (Author), 2015, The Cultural Politics of English Studies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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