Three academics debate: What is great? US scholars are arguing about `the canon' - those books considered most important to study. David Lloyd says: Abolish the canon. Wayne Booth says: Let's wait. Gerald Graff finds a compromise. David Lloyd responds to Wayne Booth...
WHAT Wayne Booth writes of his reading habits is generous, liberal minded, a little Utopian even. Unfortunately, it misses the point. The issue concerning the canon has little to do with anyone's informal list of preferred reading matter. It is not a question of love, but one of power, though in a Utopian scheme of things one would like to believe that love would displace power. Missing the point, however, and in the name of private delectation, is right now a political act of a precisely aesthetic nature. The formation of taste is private only in its immediate appearance, and the liberal appeal to private experience masks the social mediation of taste through institutions for which the individual is a primary ideological category and of which any given canonical ``list'' is no more than a symptom. Private acts of love have little directly to do with the apparatus of pedagogy, though they may be and are intended to be reproduced as one of the ends of a normalizing education.
Opponents of the canon are its opponents not in order to establish their preferences in some alternative list of essential works, but in order to dismantle the universal normative claims disseminated through canons of however variable a content. That certain writers whose experience is that of minorities have produced works that contribute to this critique does not imply that they are to be reevaluated for a new canon. Rather, the facts of marginalization and exclusion which their works explore and the resoluteness of their rhetoric of negation give us grounds and means to move outside the educational and hegemonic assumptions that the canon represents.
In the meantime, if the discussion has an academic flavor, it is as well to remember that the issues more widely broached here are not irrelevant to the continuing business of ``daily life.'' Much of the pathos surrounding the defense of the canon may come, not from the viciousness of attacks on a cherished institution, but from the fact that the ideological function of high culture has been largely superseded by the mass cultural institutions that carry on its hegemonic work. In conjunction with the critique of the canon, its opponents will have to concern themselves with what already has gone beyond it, though in not so different forms, namely, the formation of ``private'' subjects through the most powerful assimilatory media of our time.