Impossible spanners

I read a book about the thought of Pierre Bourdieu to prepare for reading this, since I knew it leaned heavily on Bourdieu’s theories – ‘cultural capital’ is a concept that Bourdieu introduced and defined. In Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation John Guillory is not discussing that concept in general, but specifically as it figures in the ways that particular written works are included in or excluded from the official histories of literature. I found his arguments quite difficult to follow despite my preparation!

The reason I became aware of this book, some years ago, relates to my interest in music, and my attempts to write rigorous and objective reviews of recordings. I became aware that it was considered de rigueur to mention a number of other artists or recordings in order to situate the work under review; which is all very well if they are so fabulously well-known that you can be certain your readers will know them, but if the music under review is at all off the beaten track stylistically such famous examples are unlikely to be useful. And that is assuming intellectual good-faith on the part of the reviewer, which I came to suspect was often lacking.

I came to realise that unless the music in question was a particular focus of interest for me, I was unlikely to have heard of any of the artists mentioned for comparison. This was also at a time when online distribution and social marketing were revolutionising the ways in which lesser-known artists connected to their audience, and I was gripped by a certain zeal for independent and organic processes of music discovery; without digressing hugely, it was a matter of political necessity for me to maintain that there was no reason to assume anybody had heard of anything in particular, other than, say, The Beatles, or Beethoven.

It seemed to me that the function of other artists mentioned in music reviews was rarely to help me understand what the recording in question sounded like, and that they instead served to signal to particular in-groups, those for whom a knowledge of the artists mentioned constituted cultural capital, that this music was for them. Conversely, such lists signal to anyone unfamiliar with the names on them that the music under review is not for them – unless they want to do the work necessary to join that in-group.

This is clearly a complex matter, which is why I looked around for anything that had been written on the topic already. There are big differences between the social fields of popular music and literary pedagogy, not least the pronounced fragmentation of the former, but I hoped to gain from Guillory’s book an understanding of the mechanisms and processes that might underly both scenes, and the ways that particular interests are served by particular distributions of cultural capital (and yes, I was already thinking in Bourdieusian terms, despite never having read his theories directly – another example of cultural capital and canonisation at work!)

It took me quite a number of years to get around to reading Cultural Capital, and by the time I have, I am no longer writing about music. I’m still interested in this issue, however, and with a more specifically literary focus, relating to the marginal valuations accorded to writing that is classified as ‘genre fiction’. However, despite my direct interest in literature, I would have been interested in a rather more sociological approach to the question than the one that Guillory takes here.

This is a book situated very firmly within the discourse and discipline of literary studies, specifically American post-graduate literary pedagogy and literary theory. Large parts of it take the form of literary-critical analyses of written works, examining the ways in which they relate to or help to constitute the idea of the canonical. This is clearly relevant to the question, and Guillory’s great theoretical erudition makes me hesitate to question his methods, but I would still have felt more informed by an analysis that focussed more on the power relations and dispositions of capital within academic institutions.

He does spend a lot of words on a discussion of Paul De Man, one of the leading post-structural critics in American literary studies, and examines the relationship between his critical and pedagogical work, his considerable following (discussed in terms of discipleship), and distributions of capital within the literature departments of American universities. This discussion is marred for me, however, by a relatively uncritical approach to psychoanalysis and its presence in literary theory. Guillory compares the situations of De Man and  the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, but he leans heavily of psychoanalytic theory and terminology to do so. While that discourse would need to figure prominently in his discussion (as it figures prominently in the literary theory of that period), there seems to be no sense that psychoanalysis presents a fundamentally inutile and empirically unsupportable model of the human mind, and as such I felt like I was struggling to squeeze down a narrow blind alley reading this chapter.

His final chapter, on the origin of the discourse of aesthetics in a bifurcation of moral philosophy into two parallel disciplines, was more engaging and illuminating. The idea that there was no concept of aesthetic value, as distinct from the experience of beauty, or the sensual pleasure experienced in respect of an object, text or performance, prior to Adam Smith’s development of the ideas of use and exchange value, is a fascinating one. I won’t bother to elaborate it further, as the best I could hope to achieve would be a shaky paraphrase.

It is this final chapter that offers, to the diligent and persistent reader, some tools with which to consider the question of the canon, however. The idea of aesthetic value is re-framed in an inextricable, historically situated relationship, with that of economic value, which is shown to be both dependent on, and constituent of, the aesthetic. Of course I’m in no position to query Guillory’s reasoning, or his choice of theoretical sources – that would involve a very considerable effort of scholarship. I’m barely able to follow along as he leaps from idea to idea.

Throughout the book, and especially its discussion of aesthetics, I often found myself thinking that I did not share the sense of artistic value that seemed to be in play. It was pleasing, therefore, to realise that currently mainstream ideas of aesthetics can be exposed as economically interested, and that Cultural Capital contains the tools to do so. To a bear of little brain such as myself those tools resemble a selection of impossible spanners, with three heads and Möbius strip geometries, but it’s nice to know they’re there…

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