Cultural Literacy:

Culture as a Field of Contest

from Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993):

manuscript vs. printed textual transmission

"The standard terms for characterizing print and manuscript cultures--as `closed' or `open'--find their extension . . . in Barthes's opposition between the `readerly' and `writerly' text. . . . [T]he two competing modes of literary transmission during the Renaissance carried strongly marked class implications" (11).

"[G]entlemen and aspirants to gentility wrote English poetic works [that were circulated in manuscript] as part of social commerce and entertainment in the domain of the private coterie, a group that J. W. Saunderson describes as `a finishing school where members polished each other's art, which, like the taste for clothes, or the ear for a compliment, or the aptitude for dancing or fencing or riding, was very much a matter of doing the right things in the right way, in a game where every man tried to dazzle and outvie his competitors. More seriously a group restricted, ideally at least, to those who were equals or near-equals in social status . . . cooperated in the formulation of critical principles, a sense of values' [The Profession of English Letters, Routledge 1964, 43]. The political benefits of these `finishing schools' may now seem obvious: poetry, imagined as the product of an aristocratic social ethos, sustained and policed the social boundaries that defined `equals or near equals in social status.' Writing private [not printed] poetry was thus an act of social classification. . . . , [prompting writers to either avoid printing their works, or to voice] the language of authorial reluctance and shame. Such writers confirmed the prestige given to the genteel system of manuscript exchange, a system that protected social capital through staged poetic rivalry among men" (13-14).

"My interest is in complicating the humanist postulate that print's massive single effect was to disseminate knowledge and spread literacy" (20-21).

Wlad Godzich, The Culture of Literacy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1994):

"[In] the medieval polity, . . . . [the] illiterate sphere of linguistic praxis . . . . was a sphere of immediate contact and transactions within a community of shared values and social orientations, however hierarchically differentiated. The variability of the languages represented the variability of social interactions: full knowledge of the language of a craft or a guild was a mark of one's participation in it and of one's rights to its privileges . . ." (6).

"The introduction of print technology ensured that the ideological commitment of humanism to linguistic universalism would receive the purport of literacy, itself a requirement of the avast expansion of the state and of the economic sphere" (7).

"[T]he ideology of linguistic universalism and its secondary elaboration into the values of what we know as humanism presupposes more direct and unimpeded access to all the spheres of the polity for all the members of the (presumably universal) linguistic community, while on the other hand, its very advent is due to the impossibility of such an access and to the need for linguistic mediation. Literature as we know it, and more generally the aesthetic function of art, have come to occupy the space left gaping by this contradictory pull upon language, universalizing according to strict humanistic principles the particular instances of mediation necessitated by further extension of the imperative toward expansion and absorption of what had remained heterogeneous and particular" (7-8).

from Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: the Books and School of Ages (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1994):

"I am not concerned with . . . the current debate between the right-wing defenders of the Canon, who wish to preserve it for its supposed (and nonexistent) moral values, and the academic-journalistic network I have dubbed the School of Resentment, who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change. I hope that the book does not turn out to be an elegy for the Western Canon, and that perhaps at some point there will be a reversal, and the rabblement of lemmings will cease to hurl themselves off the cliffs" (4).

"[L]iterary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon. It was a mistake to believe that literary criticism could become a basis for democratic education or for societal improvement" (17).

from Lionel Gossman, "Literary Education and Democracy," MLN 86.6 (December 1971): 761-789.

"[L]iterary education, while it appears to mark a recognition of the importance of teaching codes by which artistic productions can be deciphered, merely perpetuates and in a way consecrates the cultural inequalities which in our society correspond to social divisions and inequalities. . . . [Schools cannot make up for whatever] cultural education [has] been provided by the home . . . . What mass literary education does, therefore, is make a cultural distinction, which in itself rests on social inequality [--on what kind of place "home" is], appear natural, grounded in inequalities of natural endowment and merit. `. . . . the privileged members of middle-class society replace the difference between two cultures, historic products of social conditions, by the essential difference between two natures, a naturally cultivated nature and a naturally natural nature.' Almost all Pierre Bourdieu's work, from which the preceding sentence was quoted, has tended to show how literary and artistic `education' plays its part in the consecration of the social order . . ." (787).

"The mere existence of public museums, cheap books, schools and teachers, in short, does not guarantee that literary education will be democratic" (787).

"In so far as literary education . . . refuses to be the servant of the present social conditions, I am not sure that it can be content with a combination of historical criticism and creative criticism--what Michael Hancher calls the science of interpretation (explaining the works of the past in the light of their own context, trying to recover their `essence') and the art of interpretation (reviving and interpreting them in the light of our present culture, making them usable, so to speak, by reactivating selected elements in them)" (788).

"It is not clear, as matters stand, how literary education can stop serving as a conservative ideological force. Perhaps a first step might be the adoption of a radically critical and alienating stance, from which the intimate relation of ideology and rhetoric could be explored and revealed, so that nothing in the literary tradition could any more seem innocent. . . . But it would be foolish, I think, to imagine that techniques of demystification will in themselves produce the conditions for democratic culture or democratic literary education. They may easily become only another cultural commodity to be appropriated and used as a sign and confirmation of privilege" (789).

from John Guillory, Cultural Capital: the Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993):

"It has proven to be much easier to quarrel about the content of the curriculum than to confront the implications of a fully emergent professional-managerial class which no longer requires the cultural capital of the old bourgeoisie. The decline of the humanities was never the result of the newer noncanonical courses or texts, but of a large-scale `capital flight' in the domain of culture. The debate over what amounts to the supplementation (or modernization ) of the traditional curriculum is thus a misplaced response to that capital flight, and as such the debate has been conducted largely in the realm of the pedagogic imaginary. I would propose, then, that the division now characterizing the humanities syllabus--between Western and multicultural, canonical and noncanonical, hegemonic and nonhegemonic works--is the symptom of a more historically significant split between two kinds of cultural capital, one of which is `traditional,' the other organic to the constitution of the professional-managerial class" (45).

"The professional-managerial class has made the correct assessment that, so far as its future profit is concerned, the reading of great works is not worth the investment of very much time or money. The perceived devaluation of the humanities curriculum is in reality a decline in its market value" (46).

"[In] an integrated curriculum . . . , it is just as important for both minority and nonminority students to study historical works as it is for both groups to study modern works. The study of historical works need not be justified as an apotropaic exercise--because these works are supposed to embody hegemonic values--but because they are historical works. The cultures which give rise to them are as other to all of us as minority cultures are to some of us" (53).

"If the current educational institution does indeed (like every other social institution) reproduce social inequities, it achieves this effect by the unequal distribution of cultural capital, or by presenting cultural works in the classroom as the organic expression of the dominant classes' entitlement to those works. This effect cannot be undone by changing the university curriculum alone, because it is an effect of the educational system, of which the university is only a part. Does this mean that curricular reform is pointless, or that it has no social consequences? On the contrary, the university curriculum is at this moment a privileged site for raising questions about the educational system as a whole, just because it is the site at which a `crisis' of cultural capital (or the `humanities') has occurred. . . . In the present regime of capital distribution, the school will remain both the agency for the reproduction of unequal social relations and a necessary site for the critique of that system" (55).

from Fredric Jameson, "Actually Existing Marxism," Polygraph 6-7 (1993): 170-195.

"The longing to be integrated into the world market is clearly enough perpetuated by world information circuits and exported entertainment (mainly from Hollywood and American television), which not only reinforce just such international consumerist styles but even more importantly block the formation of autonomous and alternative cultures based on different values or principles (or else, as in the case of the socialist countries, undermine whatever possibilities for the emergence of such an autonomous culture might have existed).

This clearly enough makes culture into a far more central political issue and stake than it ever was in previous moments of capitalism; . . . it confirms Stuart Hall's idea of `discursive struggle' as the primary mode in which ideologies are legitimated and delegitimated today" (173).


Back to top Back to the  
Twentieth-Century Anthologies Page
  Anthologies and Miscellanies
Laura Mandell, Dept. of English, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056; Laura Mandell's Home Page.