BEFORE THE WESTERN CANON
MARGALIT FINKELBERG AND GUY G. STROUMSA
The future of the so-called Western Canon is one of the most hotly debated issues of the day. For some, the canon is an instrument of the racial, class, gender, and other forms of cultural domination, which has led to arbitrary exclusion from our consciousness of the entire domains of our cultural legacy.1 For others, it is perceived as the quintessence of this legacy, the revision of which will endanger the very existence of Western civilization.2 There is reason to believe that what is perceived today, somewhat unhistorically, as a unique crisis, can be put into perspective by students of ancient societies.
Although one of the main objectives of current cultural canon theories is to create a universal typology of cultural phenomena, the modern cultural situation, surprisingly enough, is in fact the only one that these theories are prepared to envisage. The historical horizons addressed in the rapidly growing field of cultural canon studies rarely reach further back than the French Revolution, which means that their framework of reference is principally confined to the historical period to which these theories themselves belong. By all standards, this reflects a faulty methodology. In so far as contemporary canon studies claim to propose universal models of canonformation, and in so far as the historical models they actually take into account are the modern ones, the only typological approach they are able to embrace is that of an a priori generalization of the modern situation and its uncritical application to other cultures and other historical periods. This is what makes the material offered by civilizations of the ancient world potentially so important. The ancient
1 The theory of the “cultural capital” belongs to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It was applied to the issue of the Western Canon in J. Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago, 1993).
2 See for example H. Bloom, The Western Canon (New York, 1994).