Cultural Criticism

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Cultural criticism and the canon

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The first generations of cultural critics helped shape the literary canon—those works of literature generally described as most important and most worthy of being read and taught. Later cultural critics challenged the very notion of a canon, consciously expanding their focus to include neglected or marginalized works to demonstrate how poetry and fiction previously excluded from serious study actually helps reveal the biased nature of both canonical works and the ideologies that influenced critics in promoting them as great literature. Where Arnold, Leavis, and their fellow humanists and moralists valued poems that seemed to be universal in appeal, modern cultural critics celebrate difference and diversity in poetry.

Most poststructuralist cultural critics are leftist but not necessarily Marxist. They reject any attempt to read poetry as part of a comprehensive worldview or to have poetry’s meanings limited by any one critical approach. Poststructuralists are often concerned with who or what has been marginalized in a text and with discrepancies in a work that seem to challenge the dominant political or moral ideology at work during the time a poem was written. The new generation of cultural critics shares affinities with scholars engaged in ethnic, race, gender, gay and lesbian, and class studies, in that it is particularly interested in what texts reveal about issues of oppression, discrimination, marginalization, or exclusion. In fact, some of the best cultural criticism comes from feminists, who have painstakingly exposed the male-centered ideology that has dominated Western culture. The efforts of feminist cultural critics have led to the rediscovery of a number of early women poets, for example, whose work provides insights into political, social, and moral issues important at the time these works were composed.

The foregoing discussion is not meant to suggest that traditional or conservative cultural criticism has disappeared or fallen out of favor. A notable contingent of intellectuals, including Allan Bloom and E. D. Hirsch, Jr., continues to trumpet the superiority of Western civilization and culture. The former two have written about literature, including poetry, and have lauded the Western canon as developed and codified during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Politics (1964) is an example of mainstream conservative cultural criticism of dramatic poetry, examining the political philosophy of four plays. Hirsch’s major contribution to cultural criticism is Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), which contains an extended argument in favor of the study of canonical texts.

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Poststructuralist and postmodern cultural criticismCriticism;postmodern