04 Apr 2019

The Left’s Attack Upon the Canon

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Alexander Zubatov, PR’97, describes, and explains, in a must-read article, the crazy Continental Left’s takeover of the Humanities.

Here… is another common sense truth, a proposition so obvious that it is bizarre that I should even need to set it forth: the race, gender, religion, sexuality or physical ability or disability of its creator is not a legitimate component of an art work’s quality. In fact, these are the very kinds of irrational social considerations that have sometimes regrettably distorted the picture of what has—and, more importantly, has not—been deemed canonical but which we, whenever we become cognizant of such errors, should try to discount.

But, in recent times, a strange inversion has taken hold of our thinking on the subject of canonicity. Instead of viewing such superficial aspects of the author’s identity as illegitimate variables the influence of which we should resist as far as possible, we have opened the floodgates in order to admit authors to the canon precisely on the basis of such considerations. Entire courses and majors have grown up around these superficial identitarian affiliations, and works of art—mistaken, perhaps, for democratic legislative bodies—have been lavished with praise because of their success in representing—in the sense of political rather than aesthetic representation­—the experience of this or that subgroup. Moreover, the same people who advocate for this identity genre literature also make a habit of assailing the canon for failures of representation, as though the quality of works could be gauged through a demographic survey. This form of philosophically unsound willful self-blinding to the hard truths of aesthetic superiority—which I would call aesthetic denialism—has become as pandemic in many segments of academia and the left as climate change denialism is on the right and has done great harm to the reputation and status of the humanities.

Lending an air of gravitas to this aesthetic denialism, there has been a proliferation of various branches of continental theory—largely post-structuralist and Marxist—that espouse a generally critical attitude towards existing hierarchies—aesthetic hierarchies included—seeing in these either the reification of indefensible and arbitrary distinctions (post-structuralism) or the pernicious reflections of power (Marxism). To adapt the argument advanced by John Guillory in his Pierre Bourdieu-inspired landmark work, Cultural Capital, during the decades between the downfall of the hereditary aristocracy and the emergence of our modern-day techno-financial elite, university education, particularly classical humanities education, came to serve as a dividing line between an educated aristocracy and common rubes and plebs. In the era of high modernism and prestigious print journalism, university departments conferring such knowledge and its attendant degrees enjoyed substantial cultural cachet and, to dispense such cachet, needed to agree upon a more or less unitary body of learning—the canon—as a boundary between education and inadequacy. But, as the old literary aristocracy gave way to a new moneyed elite, which elbowed its way into the ranks of the upper crust through highly compensated tech and finance industry jobs and needed to know how to read and write nothing more sophisticated than an office memo or PowerPoint presentation, the high school composition curriculum became more than adequate to its needs. Traditional high culture and university humanities were rendered supererogatory, becoming the devalued province of effete and useless intellectuals. Stripped of its most obvious practical function, the university’s role in what Marxist theorist Louis Althusser would have called the ideological state apparatus, serving to reproduce existing power relations—and the humanities professoriate drifted off unmoored into the great unknown. A unitary canon was no longer indispensable because the humanities themselves were no longer indispensable.

This led to two related developments. First, with the humanities no longer closely tethered to prevailing power structures, the stability and traditionalism that a close link to power demands fell away, and prominent humanities scholars with radically anti-establishment views were free to crawl out of the woodwork. Second, the new attitude of disrespect—and, increasingly, open scorn—that the techno-financial elite and much of the rest of society came to exhibit towards humanities academics led to a natural tit-for-tat. If you are disrespected, you are likely to seethe and lash out at your tormenters. You may, in fact, adopt your own posture of hauteur and disrespect, as if those people were hopelessly beneath you and will never understand you, since they are either too committed to the power relations in which they are embedded or else simpletons, blind to those power relations.

In this fertile ground for resentment, the attitude of critique took root, building on philosophical currents which first surfaced in the late nineteenth century and began to assume a simulacrum of their present-day form during the countercultural era of the 1960s. Bloom regularly fulminated against what he aptly termed these “schools of resentment,” which I discuss in more detail here. The approach of these peddlers of critique—sometimes known as the hermeneutics of suspicion—was to question all established norms and power structures, including the hegemonic structures that had allegedly informed the composition of the canon. Thus, instead of looking up toward the works they studied, these new anti-humanist humanitarians looked at them askance and endeavored to expose and unravel their inner tensions and contradictions and the hierarchies that had produced those works and entrenched them as objects of veneration. If the old humanities had once offered access to the upper echelons of society, what the new anti-humanities marketed was an attitude of superiority towards the society that had scorned them.

As new generations of students reared under the tutelage of these scholars entered the workforce and academia, the cultural capital enjoyed by the posture of critique predictably increased. Canonical lists were blown open, infiltrated by works that were aesthetically second-rate, but politically favored. A bevy of majors and departments in all sorts of identitarian oppression studies departments crystallized. Critique went corporate. Diversity became an industry: spawning seminars, consultants, initiatives and company retreats. At a time when our society had never been more tolerant, open and inclusive, media organizations, now staffed by graduates of these radicalized humanities departments, began to make a living trafficking in identitarian hysteria about racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.

The numbers confirm this story. They show a pronounced leftward shift in humanities departments since 1990, around the same time when the tech sector, which contributed markedly to the marginalization of the humanities, began its economic takeover.


HT: Katarina Apostilides.

One Feedback on "The Left’s Attack Upon the Canon"


There is a major university, highly rated, where one can get a degree in theater without taking a single course on Shakespeare. And it’s highly possible that the can also get a degree in theater without reading any plays by Shakespeare for any of their classes.

That’s worse than sad or pathetic.


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