This clip is actually pretty old now, but I think it’s an interesting side-bar comment on what is considered canon and why.
This clip is actually pretty old now, but I think it’s an interesting side-bar comment on what is considered canon and why.
Huggan’s treatment of Salman Rushie puts him in an interestingly vocal position in relation to Bourdieu’s claims about the ilusio. Specifically, Lindsay Mackie’s brief article titled “Indian wins the Booker” says a lot about his function as both a representative of his nation (exiled from, but not mentioned there) and his function in the political Booker game. If the Booker prize intends to “reset” the definition of the ideal reader, which would exist outside gender, class, and nation, to instead represent the ideal upper-middle-class, British, white, heterosexual cis-male, Rushdie’s role is represented as re-positioning India “as a subject and not as the background,” while simoutaneously reasserting his authority as a British subject, which Mackie not-so-subtly implies by ending the article thus: “[Rushdie] had embarked, he said, on another very long novel, this time set in Britain. He lives with his English wife and small son in Kentish Town, London.”
Coleman’s article introducing the prize highlights a few different aspects of “value” in literature. First, the author is introduced as having value – one of the aims of the prize is cited to be “to encourage and reward authors”. Placing value on the author obviously has its socio-literary problems, thinking back to Barthes and Foucault, and the goal to “reward” authors places the author on an even higher pedestal in regarding the individual “creator” as the chief producer of cultural work. Coleman then goes on to criticize the award’s scope – in limiting the the awardable work to novels, he says, you continue to limit prize-branded literary work to the type of work that already monopolizes prizes. Here we see another dimension of literary “value”, as Coleman clearly contends that awards are an evident mark of the novel’s domination over cultural rewards. This demonstrates not only the cultural pedestal that the novel is on, like the author, but also returns to the question of what literature is. Coleman cites “laundry lists and football coupons” as fitting under the definition of literary work, which demonstrates the continuing tension of defining literature. The importance of “value”, however, separates such types of literature from the novel.
In thinking about the illusio, all of these distinctions in “value” hinge upon Huggan’s summation of “value” as a construct. Literary work has no intrinsic value – a work’s distinction (and in this case, prize-branding) as valuable rests upon the cultural schema of what is valuable. The two distinctions in literary value Coleman’s article outlines demonstrates the cultural relativity of value – in valuing the author we emphasize the individual creator (and often, their identity) in the process of production, and in valuing the novel over other forms, we value one structure of writing over many others.
“As Hugh Eakin has suggested, the Booker, despite the development its ‘multicultural consciousness,’ has arguably done less to further the development of non-Western and /or post-colonial literatures than it has to ‘encourage the commerce of an “exotic” commodity catered to the Western literary market'” (414).
As a response to this Sarah Chruchwell’s comments on the process of awarding the Booker prize and states, “If out of those 156 books, publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture. The same point goes for racial diversity: either we six people, all of whom work on behalf of literacy and education, are sexist, racist troglodytes, or we live in a racist, sexist world and the publishing culture reflects that.”
There are many things at stake found in both comments. Besides the obvious (the writer’s life and possible outcomes from winning such a prestigious award), the community of those who read (the “public”), and future winners of this prize are all influenced by past choices and decisions made. The decision to include or exclude is an important one both authors make, but Churchwell notes that its a failure of the system and note hers. This seems to be a careless notion as publishers send specific copies that they deem worthy because they resemble past works that have been “critically acclaimed”. The argument goes full circle, and rather than changing the process she would rather claim its not her fault. Eakin will then have it right because its not a development at all, but rather another similar book sold based on an old framework.
The Booker prize grants a literary work a level of authenticity and authority which it might not really earn. It also commodities works of literature that are believed to represent the exotic “other”. Although books that are awarded the Booker Prize end up gaining a larger reader audience, these readers don’t always receive these books in the manner that they are meant to be received.
The prestige of the award causes the audience to presume that the work being awarded, especially when it revolves around ethnic and culture groups that are regarded as the “other”, presents a factual and complete representation of the group the work revolves around. For instance Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” after wining the Booker Prize Award, is referenced to in the Guardian as a “historical tragedy”, which would cause many readers to misguidedly mistake it or group it with guidebooks and travel narratives. When in reality the book was written as a form of anti-imperial writing which reshapes history in order to suit it’s purpose. The award manipulated the way the book was meant to be received, causing people to read it as an exotic novel, instead of an oppositional work.
While reading Bourdieu’s explanation of how some kids have an advantage in school because they are part of the dominant (class) culture, my honest reaction was: My friends and I have been talking about how this works since middle school.
Then again, perhaps Bourdieu’s discussions of institutional power seem instinctual to me only because some of his ideas are prominent ways of thinking about social difference. But to go back to my middle school, the question was not about who was reading certain higher-status-signifying books, but which children chose to read at all. There was no simple social and academic domination of the elite children over the children of the working class. The cool kids were white, working class kids, and they said they didn’t read; so no child, regardless of class background, could openly admit to such behavior with impunity (regardless of how beneficial it might be for job prospects). The dominant culture of the school was not that of the “dominant class,” and the tastes that would make one accepted among the majority were certainly not something that could be acquired in school.
Bourdieu’s analysis feels as disconnected from the American Midwest public school experience as it does to Rutgers, where learning “high status cultural signals” is near impossible and potentially not beneficial. As Lamont and Lareau note, there is “a greater autonomy of lower class high status cultural signals from middle class ones” (162). Perhaps Bourdieu’s discussion makes more sense in an elite university, where upper class American students are able to have a jumpstart on academic culture, than any of the schools I have inhabited.
Even if I’m not that impressed by Bourdieu, I can recognize that Lamont and Lareau are (dare I say it) enchanted with him. For example, as they are painstakingly disentangling Bourdieu’s inconsistent and unclear use of the term “cultural capital” over the course of several books and articles, they say:
“Subtle shifts across these analytical levels are found throughout the work. This polysemy makes for the richness of Bourdieu’s writings, and is a standard of excellence in French academia.” (156) I wonder what it is about Bourdieu that makes them defend his style, even as they seek to “rescue” the term cultural capital.
“American research suggests that class culture are weakly defined in the U.S.; that ethnic and racial minorities reinterpret mainstream culture into their own original culture; that high culture is being debased by commercialization; that the highly educated consume mass culture, but also have a wider range of cultural preferences which distinguishes them from other groups “(161).
In the U.S., the question of literature and its place in high culture is relevant because our society is one that consumes and creates different forms of literature. In a society with many different identities and ideals, one cannot help but confront mass culture. The educated elite of Ivy League schools are familiar with Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. These individuals mainly of traditionally high cultured lifestyles live and function within a society that recognizes these types of works as widely influential and even “brilliant.” Despite the fact that works such as these have achieved global critical acclaim, have been adapted into films featuring Academy Award recognized actors, and have earned the kind of dollars the high cultured cultural capitalists wish they could have, conformists to Lamont and Lareau’s new definition of cultural capital reject HP and HG as “pop literature” since their existence reverberates within mass culture and because they have become forces unto themselves that reach all levels of American social strata.
“It is important to note in this context that we believe that lower class high status
cultural signals (e.g., being streetwise) perform within the lower class the same exclusivist function that the legitimate culture performs in the middle and the upper-middle class. However,for the purpose of clarity, the term cultural capital is not applied to these signals because they cannot be equated with the legitimate culture. A new concept needs to be coined for these signals; “marginal high status signal” is a potential candidate” (157).
This part stood out to me…I think they were wise to pick up on the differences in what is considered, “legitimate culture” in the U.S. and in France. In this passage there is attention paid to the fact that power dynamics exist within all classes. One of the things they did not point to with the same level of attention is the very American brand of racism we have here and how that works on acceptance of different types of culture or the appropriation of certain cultural expressions. I tend to think in terms of music, but as far as literature goes, I would say even using the dialect/slang of the deep south or the city and the stories that expose some of this history of (and present) racism in literature does some work in crossing boundaries and broadening access to information that has been suppressed. For example, “Praisesong for the Widow”, a story of a Black American woman’s struggle with upward mobility and identity formation in a white supremacist society points to some of the ways in which people must learn to navigate multiple cultures and also the power dynamics within each competing culture. There needs to be some discussion about why people become turned off of “high” culture in the U.S. What does it represent and to whom? We also have a culture of animosity towards those awful “elitist” college folk trying to shove their liberal propaganda down people’s throats…Even the very wealthy right (especially in the political realm) are compelled to align themselves with the white working class (i.e. sports knowledge, country music, perhaps Mitt Romney donning a cowboy hat…) There is very rarely any public (mass media) discussion of literature or philosophy. We don’t even have a poet laureate in this state anymore because it became too political and that also has to do with race and class politics.
In their essay on Cultural Capital, Lamont and Lareau begin by explaining the many different concepts associated by the term “cultural capital.” They propose a new definition, defining it as institutionalized, as in “widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preference, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials) used for social and culture exclusion” (156). This definition becomes problematic when discussing American society where there is no single cultural center. One modification they set out to make is in response to the micro-political dimension that they believe should be preserved in the American study of cultural capital. They say that “the relative absence of interest in the micro-political facet of cultural capital in the U.S. literature parallels the traditional resistance of American sociologists to deal with exclusion as a form of power relations; they tend to conceive it as an unintended consequence of action, and to understand power as involving coercion” (161). In this sense, Lamont and Lareau seem to be saying that American literature reinforces the negligence that Americans give to exclusion as a form of power relation. It seems that literature has helped maintain this idea – that power relations is simply not a thing in America.
To avoid reiteration, I’ll simply add the disclaimer that I also think the point of this article is not to choose sides, but rather to tear several arguments apart from their inherent paradoxes. I’d like to add to the discussion a moment where I think I found the sort of answer Guillory is searching for throughout his meticulous working-out of the canonical problem of representation:
“Acknowledging the conditional force of literacy in the history of canon formation would thus disallow us from ever assuming that the field of writing is a kind of plenum, a textual repetition of social diversity, where everyone has access to the means of literary production and works ask only to be judged fairly” (18).
Since most of his ideas as so compounded, it took some extra time to wheedle out the meaning from this moment, but what what struck me the most was the idealistic scenario that emerges in the last part of his sentence. Much of the paradoxes surrounding canonical and noncanonical literature maintain this vision of an ideal space impossible because of the problems surrounding inclusion/exclusion. However, the ideal canon would reflect the ideal social empowerment of all minorities, thus becoming a shared reflection of “social diversity,” and where the canon is not the only type of “literary production” that everyone would share equally. And, finally, it would result in the judgment of subjects/pieces/academic objects “fairly,” as in, not simply as a stand-in for the aspired-but-perpetually-unachieved-political/social-representation-of-minorities.