Friday, July 29, 2011

"Cultural Studies" as the Reinforcer of the Traditional Canon

I have been perusing Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory, and he makes an observation that I have also suspected for a while:

...theory has reinvigorated the traditional literary canon, opening the door to more ways of reading the "great works" of English and American literature. Never has so much been written about Shakespeare; he is studied from every angle conceivable, interpreted in feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, historicist, and deconstructive vocabularies. Wordsworth has been transformed by literary theory from a poet of nature to a key figure of modernity. What have suffered neglect are "minor" works that were regularly studied when literary study was organized to "cover" historical periods and genres. Shakespeare is more widely read and vigorously interpreted than ever, but Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, Dekker, Heywood, and Ben Jonson--Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists who used to surround him--are little read today. (p. 64; emphasis original)

While on the one hand, "cultural studies" and newer forms of literary theory set texts next to other cultural objects--films, architecture, other art forms, etc.--it often re-privileges the canon even as it "deconstructs" it. Perhaps an exception to some of this is the work of M. M. Bakhtin, who is claimed by people of multiple theoretical bents and is one of my favorite literary critics (or cultural critics if you prefer, or even linguist since his work is in direct opposition to Saussure), who often worked through his theory in reference to more obscure works as well as better known ones, especially for his longer essays.

I often find that biblical and Shakespearean scholarship has a lot of overlaps, not least of which is the intensive attention both receive. Would you agree that this also is occurring in biblical studies, where cultural studies and the blanket-term "theory" have reinforced the canon it deconstructs?

1 comment:

John Hobbins said...

Hi Jared,

First of all, I regret having missed you when you pilgrimed through Wisconsin. I would have loved to have touched base if only briefly.

On the question at hand, I guess I would say you could be right, but cultural studies are a minor blip on the radar relative to other causes behind the perennial centrality of the Bible in our culture.

To put in language you will understand without explanation I believe, the Bible has extraordinary mantic value for millions and perhaps billions of people in the world today.

I don't think that is going to change, however much we might want people to read Akkadian and Ugaritic and Egyptian literature with anything like the same level of interest.