Literary criticism in the 21st century : theory renaissance - Vincent B. Leitch 2014


There are four major claims that I want to state at the outset. First, despite all the talk about posttheory and after theory that has been floating around for several decades, there is a theory renaissance underway. Granted, it is difficult to see at first glance. Second, as my map on the flyleaf suggests, twenty-first-century theory is knowable but unmasterable (Figure 1). This chart contains 94 subdisciplines and fields circling around 12 major topics (reminiscent of planets and satellites), which can change spheres and fuse into original combinations. Third, the twenty-first-century theory renaissance takes a characteristically postmodern form, namely disorganization or disaggregation of many subdisciplines, fields, and topics. In a world in which there are 6,800 mutual funds, 20,000 wines reviewed annually in Wine Spectator, and innumerable sneakers to choose from—with guides for dummies everywhere to assist us in these arcane areas—proliferation and fragmentation should come as no surprise. Fourth, the 15 or so earlier well-known twentieth-century schools and movements of theory from Marxism, psychoanalysis, and formalism to postcolonial theory, New Historicism, and queer theory are, strictly speaking, a twentieth-century phenomenon. Schools and movements do not pertain to earlier centuries of theory or to the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, they remain important today as sources and resources not only for practical literary criticism but also for teaching theory. By way of simplification, the 106 items constituting my inventory of theory can be regarded as the cultural studies movement in its disaggregated form. The take-away message of my initial set of claims is that with literary and cultural criticism today, theory, for good and ill, is everywhere and nowhere.

I anticipate several questions at this point. Is the recent transformation another victory of theory following its triumph in the 1980s? Why in any case call this complex spread “theory”? To answer the first question, I would characterize the dissemination and leveling underway as neither a triumph nor a disaster but rather a mixed blessing. Theory now occupies the role of regular practice as opposed to shocking and disruptive vanguard. Gone are the high excitement and energy revolving around theory during the cultural wars of the fin de siècle. Yet a second glance at the map, however initially befuddling, reveals that most of the current practices raise very precisely targeted critical questions of a fundamental sort. Theory, as in the past, continues to prompt and underwrite productive research and publication projects for criticism across an expanded spectrum of topics and fields. But the fractalization of theory has meant that there are very few jobs in the area. These days theory serves as an adjunct, a helpful toolkit, a secondary but indispensible strength for long-established fields and areas of literary and cultural study.

Why continue calling this proliferation “theory”? In a word, parentage. All the items on the map stem directly from recognizable contemporary schools and movements of theory. In addition, no one has successfully proposed an alternative term. I can’t think of one. “Cultural studies,” a likely contender, doesn’t fit; it remains too amorphous, plus it lacks historical foundations and precisions of “theory.” Considered comparatively, “theory” is a neutral term whereas “cultural studies” has inherited a vaguely engagé orientation linked to the social sciences. Figure 2 below offers some clarification. Here twenty-first-century theory includes distinctive methods and approaches. One among others is cultural studies.



While cultural studies and theory overlap, theory includes items not generally welcomed by cultural studies such as formalism, phenomenology, and narrative poetics, all experiencing revivals today. Although fusions abound, theory today maintains its legacy of autonomy. That said, I have nothing against, and I personally support, ongoing contemporary linkages of theory and cultural studies.

The chapters in this book follow a trajectory from statements of personal belief to return visits to key debates to recent monumentalizations of French theory to futures for theory. Chapter 1 previews the major topics, sentiments, and arguments of the book by means of a credo. It blends the professional and the personal, my work in theory and my family life, to illustrate the range of concerns pertinent to contemporary criticism. For example, the chapter dramatizes the increasingly important role during recent decades of financialization and free-market political economy as they shape family, self, and society. Here I argue for, while defining intimate critique, an adjunct to cultural critique, both of which should continue to play a central role in today’s literary and cultural criticism. This chapter provides preliminary definitions of theory and postmodernism in their current versions.

Chapter 2 provides a critical account of the antitheory phenomenon that started in the 1970s and is still with us. The heterogeneous antitheory front constitutes a neglected part of the history of contemporary criticism and theory filled with contending definitions and alternative missions for theory. In exploring half a dozen exemplary indictments of theory, I develop my own critique of theory as well as clarify my own theoretical ideas and principles. In addition, I show what is at issue in the sacred antitheory oath “I love literature.”

Many calls to return to close reading and renounce ideology critique have popped up in the new century. They go under various names such as uncritical, reparative, appreciative, surface, and generous reading. Chapter 3 argues against such head-in-the-sand calls. Instead it advocates and defines a program of critical reading that blends ideology critique, close reading, cultural critique (attended by intimate critique), and pleasure reading. It refuses the either/or option of close reading versus ideology critique in favor of a both/and choice suited to criticism and education in an age of intensifying class antagonisms, disruptive reconfigurations of the family, and spreading social tensions and wars.

Chapter 4 offers a challenging interview of me conducted by a prominent Chinese professor of American literature and theory teaching at Nanjing University. His outsider perspective, skeptical and informed, allows for a set of wide-ranging questions about the status nowadays of Western multiculturalism; the pertinence of New Critical formalism over against cultural studies; the situation of theory; changes to the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001, 2010); and justifications for teaching theory today. Where Chapters 1 to 3 offer declarations of my positions in argumentative contexts, Chapters 4 and 5 provide inventories of current trends and methods through dialogue. In both cases I advocate while illustrating the merits of blending theory and cultural studies with literary criticism in our still postmodern moment.

Rather than a standard interview, Chapter 5 enacts an engaged conversation initiated by a mid-career academic literary critic of American literature and culture. While he does not identify with theory, he is open and curious about it. The chapter offers a panoramic dialogue, on one hand, of insiders talking about teaching and textbooks; scholarly methods and writing styles; cultural studies approaches versus formalist close reading; the corporatization of the university; plus many facets of theory. Beyond academe, on the other hand, we discuss media, politics, and economics in the context of early twenty-first-century cultural conditions and the role of criticism today.

Chapter 6 opens up the question of the future of theory, a concern that recurs in subsequent chapters. In this initial case, it is the future of French theory. The chapter documents the unnoticed yet impressive array of ongoing posthumous publications of French theorists and the likely futures and revisions given the number of archives containing unpublished audio and visual as well as written sources, not to mention bootleg materials (some online). It illustrates the stakes of this question by examining the posthumous book publication of Jacques Derrida’s last seminar. In this work Derrida puts on display for his audience not only his influential style of writing and his excessive mode of textual analysis, but his final reflections on smart reading and living on after death. In assessing Derrida’s work, I show that deconstruction enacts, in an eccentric way, the work of critique in its combined ideological, cultural, and intimate registers. Derrida’s distinctive mode of close reading, linked to the productive concept of a textual unconscious, will, I wager, continue to provoke theorists and antitheorists alike as the remaining 40-plus posthumous volumes of his seminars roll off the presses in coming years.

Chapter 7 extends the inquiry into the current second wave of French theory, its futures and its revisions, by addressing not the continuing avalanche of writing on it, but the surprising phenomenon of big biographies of French theorists like Barthes, Bourdieu, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and Levinas. The chapter gives pride of place to Benoît Peeters’s Derrida (2010; trans. 2012), a biography steeped in the unpublished mammoth Derrida archives. Of particular note is this work’s dispassionate documenting of innumerable telling real-life events including secrets. We readers get copious details on Derrida’s politics, vexed lifelong relations with French educational institutions, and complicated relationships with peers especially Althusser, Bourdieu, and Foucault. We learn about Derrida’s parents and siblings, wife and three sons (one illegitimate), and decade-long extramarital affair with philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, to whom he apparently wrote 1,000 letters. If this restrained biography had a thesis, it would be that Derrida, an outsider, lived life in excess. It’s worth highlighting that the lives of celebrity academic intellectuals today merit biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. People including scholars want to know about the real lives, no longer considered as private, behind the learned works. When asked in the documentary film Derrida (2002) what he himself would most like to know about past thinkers, Derrida said their sex lives.

If the turn of criticism and theory to life writing is surprising, the recent return of postmodernism as a period concept is altogether unexpected. So much had been written on postmodernism particularly during the 1990s that critics had tired of it by decade’s end. Chapter 8 documents and supports the return, which started sometime around 2010. It reviews and refines seven examples, citing among others Ihab Hassan, Linda Hutcheon, and Christopher Jencks, pioneer theorists of postmodernism, all returning recently to the topic. In this chapter I argue for retaining yet rehistoricizing the postmodern concept.

Chapter 9 fleshes out the account of the twenty-first-century theory renaissance by focusing on half a dozen exemplary major books (personal favorites), discussing their strengths and weaknesses. While these texts address a wide range of pressing topics and illustrate a variety of current approaches, they share a focus on neoliberal political economy, identity politics, and today’s corporate university. The chapter concludes with summary cameos on the renaissances of literary, critical, and cultural theory, plus a portrait of theory’s relation, both productive and vexing, to today’s corporate university.

In the form of an investment advisory letter, Chapter 10 sketches productive futures awaiting theory, highlighting its many strengths and contributions. It distinguishes between Theory Incorporated and the Theory Market, that is, between institutionalized theory courses, programs, and textbooks, on one hand, and theory fashions, hot topics, and jobs, on the other hand. It situates theory inside the corporate university, portraying the problems and promises of that location for the future of literary and cultural criticism.

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Initial versions of several of my chapters appeared earlier in journals: Chapter 1 in Minnesota Review, Chapter 4 translated into Chinese in Wai Guo Wen Xue Yan Jiu (Foreign Literature Studies), Chapter 5 in Symplokē, Chapter 6 in Genre, Chapter 7 in SubStance, and Chapter 10 in Works and Days. I am grateful for permission to revise and reprint. For professional interest and support, I thank colleagues Ronald Schleifer, Eve Bannet, Daniel Morris, and Zhu Gang, plus my research assistant Nancy El Gendy. I remain especially grateful to colleague and close friend Jeffrey Williams, who read and commented on the chapters.