Critical Theory and the Literary Canon

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Westview Press, 2008 - Social Science - 182 pages
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Kolbas stakes out new territory in assessing the war over literary canon formation, a subject that contemporary polemicists have devoted much ink to. Throughout this succinct manuscript, Kolbas ranges through the sociology and politics of culture, aesthetic theory, and literary theory to develop his point that texts not only must should be situated in the historical and material conditions of their production, but also evaluated for their very real aesthetic content. One reason the is an important issue, Kolbas contends, is that the canon is not simply enclosed in the ivory tower of academia; its effects are apparent in a much wider field of cultural production and use. He begins by critiquing the conservative humanist and liberal pluralist positions on the canon, which either assiduously avoid any sociological explanation of the canon or treat texts as stand-ins for particular ideologies. Kolbas is sympathetic to the arguments of Bourdieu et. al. regarding positioning the canon in a wider "field of cultural production" than the university, but argues that theirs are purely sociological explanations of aesthetics (i.e., there is no objective aesthetic content) that ignore art's autonomous realm, which he argues -- a la Adorno -- exists (if only problematically). Ultimately, he argues that critical theory, particularly the arguments of Adorno on aesthetics, offers the most fruitful path for evaluating the canon, despite the approach's clear flaws. His vision is a sociological one, but one that treats the components of the canon as possessing objective aesthetic content, albeit content that shifts in meaning over history.--Publisher description.

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Page 88 - For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.
Page 91 - The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.
Page 45 - the" canon, the high canon of Western masterpieces, represents the return of an order in which my people were the subjugated, the voiceless, the invisible, the unrepresented, and the unrepresentable. Who would return us to that medieval never-never land?
Page 118 - is the product of a negotiation between a creator or class of creators, equipped with a complex, communally shared repertoire of conventions, and the institutions and practices of society . . . the process involves not simply appropriation but exchange.
Page 59 - Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them every where, one is intimate with him by instinct. — No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays, without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.
Page 25 - LORD DARLINGTON. A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. CECIL GRAHAM. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of any single thing.
Page 52 - The closest we will come to joining these two quests is to see the aim of a just and free society as letting its citizens be as privatistic, "irrationalist," and aestheticist as they please so long as they do it on their own time — causing no harm to others and using no resources needed by those less advantaged.
Page 72 - I propose that the problem of what is called canon formation is best understood as a problem in the constitution and distribution of cultural capital, or more specifically, a problem of access to the means of literary production and consumption.
Page 93 - It is well known that certain periods of the highest development of art stand in no direct connection to the general development of society, or to the material basis and skeleton structure of its organization.
Page 103 - Now let us imagine an extreme case: that a book speaks of nothing but events that lie altogether beyond the possibility of any frequent or even rare experience—that it is the first language for a new series of experiences.

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