He is perhaps best known for his book The Western Canon, to its supporters a work defending art for art’s sake, the absoluteness of aesthetic value and literary genius; to its detractors a defense of elitism and dead white males. This makes Bloom is a cultural critic in the tradition of Matthew Arnold who stated that “[culture is] the best that has been said and thought in the world” (Culture and Anarchy, 1869).
I discovered Bloom in the early 2000s in a period I was researching the nobrow concept.
His death has been a good occasion to dig into the university library and bring home The Western Canon and The Anxiety of Influence.
The bulk of today’s research went to The Western Canon, it is arguably Bloom’s best-known work and it has had relevance outside of the lit crit world.
The notion of a canon has also recently shown itself the object of a political debate in Flanders, the region I live and where the right (NVA) has managed to include it into to the policy of the Jambon Government The opposition (the left) was against it. The culture war fought in our region is one akin to the clash of civilizations of Huntington, more specifically the west and how it tries to come to to terms with the renewed religiosity in the form of Islam.
That Bloom’s canonization of 26 authors was an apolitical process can be read on page 4:
“I am not concerned with . . . the current debate between the right-wing defenders of the Canon, who wish to preserve it for its supposed (and nonexistent) moral values, and the academic-journalistic network I have dubbed the School of Resentment, who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change.”
If you’re not familiar with Bloom and what to catch up quickly, you may want to check the interviews Bloom gave to Charlie Rose.
Here [above] is one in which he makes a couple of amusing and astute observations on the western canon and its detractors:
For me, Jencks’s death was a good occasion to score a copy of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture at my university library.
I got hold of a first edition, which is important because it features the introduction which is not part of subsequent editions (it’s not, for example, in the 2002 edition which I also lent).
This introduction is the one which reflects on the adequacy of the new term postmodernism in these words:
“The phrase ‘post-modern’ is not the most happy expression one can use concerning recent architecture. It is evasive, fashionable and worst of all negative – like defining women as ‘non-men’.”–p. 9
The second section of the book, titled “The death of modern architecture” has a poignant criticism on modern architecture, more particular a criticism of Purist ‘living machine‘ Corbusier style architecture. The critical analysis of this type of architecture, which reminds me of the progressivism-skeptic discourse of John Gray states:
“[The] Purist style, […] was meant to instil […] corresponding values in the inhabitants. Good form was to lead to good content, or at least good conduct; the intelligent planning of abstract space was to promote healthy behavior. Alas, such simplistic ideas, taken over from philosophic doctrines of Rationalism, Behaviourism and Pragmatism, proved as irrational as the philosophies themselves. Modern architecture, as the son of the Enlightenment, was an heir to its congenital naivities […] These shortcomings are now well known, thanks to the writings of Ivan Illich, Jacques Ellul, E. F. Schumacher, Michael Oakeshott and Hannah Arendt.”–p.10
This second section also contrasts the “not the most happy” genesis of the term postmodernism with the happiness of being able to determine the exact moment of the “death of modern architecture”:
“Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt–Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite.”–p.9
Jencks was not the first to criticize modern architecture and certainly not the last. “Machines for living” schemes such as the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, for various critics, including Tom Wolfe, illustrated both the essential unlivability of Bauhaus-inspired box architecture, and the hubris of central planning.