Critical Theory and the Literary Canon

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Critical Theory and the Literary Canon

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Critical Theory and the Literary Canon E. Dean Kolbas

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All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Copyright © 2001 by Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group Published in 2001 in the United States of America by Westview Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colorado 80301-2877, and in the United Kingdom bv Westview Press, 12 Hid's Copse Road, Cumnor Hill, Oxford OX2 9JJ Visit us on the World Wide Web at Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Kolbas, E. Dean. Critical theory and the literary canon / E. Dean Kolbas. p. cm. Revision of the author's thesis (doctoral)—Cambridge University. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-8133-9813-4 1. Criticism—History—20th century. 2. Canon (Literature). 3. Literature, Modern— History and criticism—Theory, etc. I. Title PN81 .K595 2001 801'.95'0904—dc21 00-053181 The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials Z39.48-1984. PERSEUS












Contents Acknowledgments Introduction Part One 1

vii 1

History, Politics, and Culture

Canons Ancient and Modern


Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 12 Modern Literary Canonizing, 17 Canonical and Cultural Crises, 21 2

The Contemporary Canon Debate


Justifying the Western Canon, 26 Opening the Canon, 36 Representation and Pragmatism, 44 Conclusion: Ideological Proximity, 56 3

Cultural Reproduction


The Familiarity of Canonical Works, 61 Canon Formation and Social Relations, 72 Whither Aesthetics?, 79 Part Two Critical Aesthetic Theory 4

Critical Theory and Canonical Art


Aesthetic Autonomy and Radical Critique, 84 The Dialectic of Aesthetics and Politics, 92 Historical Content and Canonical Change, 98 5

Subverting the Canon: Sociology, New Historicism, and Cultural Studies


The Anti-Aesthetic Impulse of the Sociology of Art, 104 v



New Historicism and Aesthetic Heteronomy, 113 The Extorted Reconciliation of Cultural Studies, 119 6

The Boundaries of a Critical Theory of Canon Formation


Limited Literary Horizons?, 126 Canonical Reproduction and the Limits of Critical Theory, 133 Conclusion: A Canon of Art, a Politics of Ends Notes

References Index

139 145 167 179

Acknowledgments This book is the result of research done at Cambridge University that was originally submitted as a doctoral thesis. Although it has been substantially modified and rewritten to be more suitable for publication, its essential content remains the product of work that was done there. Even the most hermetic research is never a purely solitary endeavor, and 1 owe a great deal of thanks to friends, faculty, and administrators for their advice, encouragement, and patience. Above all, I am indebted to my supervisor, Simon Jarvis, for his invaluable guidance and critical attention. I am also grateful to Graham McCann, Silvana Dean, and the Fellows, porters, and staff of Queens' College for all of their help, as well as Christopher Norris and Ato Quayson for examining my work so closely. I would also like to thank my editors at Westview Press, David McBride and Kay Mariea, and my reviewers, Noah Isenberg, Geoffrey Gait Harpham, and Douglas Kellner for their suggestions and support. I am also grateful to Sharon Dejohn for her meticulous copyediting. A number of friends deserve special thanks for their help and advice over the years: Mark Fenwick, Richard Jones, Alex Rehding, Paul Stephenson, Despina Christodoulou, Julian Murphet, David Mikosz, Tiffany Stern, Heather Wolfe, and Sam Gibson. In ways that are perhaps less direct, but no less valuable for being so, many wonderful teachers and professors have also influenced me throughout my education: David McLellan, Chris Taylor, Sean Sayers, Thomas Cox, Ed McCann, Richard Prizant, Carole RosenKaplan, and the late Chet Lieb. Finally, I want to thank my wife, Paula, and my parents, Eugene and Deanna Kolbas, for their love and support. This book is dedicated to them. £. Dean Kolbas


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Philosophy that satisfies its own intention . . . has its lifebiood in the resistance against the common practices of today and what they serve, against the justification of what happens to be the case. -Tlieodor Adonio, "Why Still Philosophy" 0962)

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Introduction A "literary classic" is a work considered first-rate or excellent of its kind, and therefore standard, fit to be used as a model or imitated. —The Oxford Companion to English Literature