Friday, May 03, 2013

HT Mockingbird: Too Much Sociology
The chief virtue of critical sociology, to its American adopters and apostles, was its ability to account for the paradox of greater (cultural) diversity within greater (economic) inequality, without ignoring either. In Cultural Capital, one of the first academic books to import Bourdieu’s ideas into literary and cultural studies, John Guillory made the counterintuitive suggestion that the exhausting canon debates of the 1980s culture wars were really “a crisis in the market value of [the literary curriculum’s] cultural capital, occasioned by the emergence of a professional-managerial class which no longer requires the [primarily literary] cultural capital of the old bourgeoisie.” In other words, the canon debates were not about empowering women and “non-Western” or minority cultures through education, but a sign that these previously subordinate groups already had increased in power to the point where they could create alternate canons, literary or postliterary, which reflected their new status within a capitalist order. Canon formation and reformation being something elite groups did whenever they became aware of themselves as elites. [emphasis added]

It’s worth slowing down Guillory’s and Khan’s arguments to make explicit certain assumptions they share about the university and the culture it promotes: that its purpose is to train a professional-managerial class or a technocratic elite; that those who attend such schools do so with an intention, no matter how unconscious, of becoming members of either the professional-managerial middle class or the elite managers of those managers; and that such groups need distinguishing markers, the equivalent of secret handshakes, that allow them to recognize themselves as a class, and which, apart from their professional training, are provided by “culture,” which offers, at best, a way for people with shared interests to frame their lives to themselves, and for one another, in ways that are mostly flattering to their self-esteem.

In other words a fairly straightforward left critique that universities as systems establish the intellectual and cultural boundary-markers of hierarchy and that sociological analyses, which at one point attempted to observe how this process took place in economic and social terms, has been so utterly co-opted into the academia that establishes the arbiters of hegemony that sociology in any fashion is incapable of remedying the problems it can observe because it is itself symptomatic of and inextricably bound to that which it could critique, academia as the arm of how a hegemony perpetuates itself. 

From the right a critique of contemporary academia is that they pressure people to spend absurd quantities of money earning degrees that have little to no value in the job market, degrees in which discussions of the hegemonic nature of just about everything except academia is likely to be a point of discussion.

Having said that, the part in bold is worth emphasizing.  It does make sense to frame debates about canons less in terms of the traditional white Anglo-European canon being assaulted by multiculturalism as much as reframing the subject of artistic canons in terms of canons emerging within other traditions.  For those to whom the emergence of any artistic canon is equivalent to hierarchy, hegemony and evil it's just gonna suck that Armstrong, Basie, Morton, Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Parker, Coleman, and Coltrane and Davis are all part of a jazz canon that gets defended by any Marsalis.  There's a rock and roll hall of fame into which some people want some people to never be inducted.

Maybe the left and right are both actually correct in their assessments of what's been flagging American academia.  Who says these separate criticisms have to never somehow overlap in a Venn diagram? 

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