Theory crossroads

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

Theory crossroads

(A conversation)

This engaged conversation was initiated by Daniel Morris, Professor of English at Purdue University and specialist in modern American literature and culture.

Daniel Morris: Your 2008 Blackwell Manifesto is called Living with Theory. A cunning title. It could mean a grudging acceptance, as in “OK, I’m an old school literature guy, but, I give in, I’ll learn to apply bits and pieces of theory in my survey of canonical masters.” Or, it could be a kind of virus, an affliction: “Darn, I’ve got this theory bug, but, I’m learning to live with it.” Or, and this is what I assume to be the Leitch approach: Knowing theory has somehow changed or enabled or informed your daily life. Could you reflect on how you “live” with theory? Can you ever turn the “theory head” off and, to commercialize this conversation, “Just Do It”? You mention in your book how even your decision to wear a suit and tie to class is a meaningful, a theoretical, gesture, one that allows you to go undercover as a subversive “dangerous professor.” What is it like for you “living with theory”? It must inform the way you read the paper in the morning, the food you eat, the way you watch TV, the car you drive, your interpersonal relations. I guess it could be described as a bit of a viral disease, this living with theory!

Vincent B. Leitch: Let me respond several indirect ways. When Fredric Jameson discusses the features of postmodern culture in his landmark Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, he mentions architecture, film, music, food, literature, art, philosophy and, of course, political economy. The pastiche at the heart of the postmodern aesthetic, he suggests, recurs across the different domains of culture, high and low, from the 1950s onwards. Here are some examples from me. Wolfgang Puck’s putting Asian-Style shrimp on Italian pizza in 1970s Los Angeles resembles the sampling of rappers, who at the same time are mixing and matching odd musical tracks, which is what some leading LANGUAGE poets are also doing. The same goes for the neo-expressionist painters, especially David Salle, whose zones of collaged images copied from pornography, popular culture, and later aristocratic interiors jostle against one another on the same untextured matte canvas. Gene splicing and recombinant DNA come to mind as technoscientific analogues. The rise of the assemblage as the dominant new genre of contemporary art substantiates the implosion of borders and fusions typical of the postmodern era. This is the period when literary and cultural critics start talking about intertextuality, deconstructed hierarchies, interpretive communities, multiple subject positions, heteroglossia, and hybridity. We label it “theory,” a postmodern formation. And yes it’s gone viral. Today the typical Web 2.0 page mixes formats derived from newspapers, videos, radio, graphic designs, and advertisements. But theory or no theory, such fusions are happening. Well, so, my point is the disaggregation and pastiche characteristic of postmodern times might be spotted anywhere in the culture. Other instances: rock operas, channel surfing, the mixed family, the family of 157 mutual funds offered by Vanguard, the Cremaster Cycle of Matthew Barney. We need to account for these phenomena. Theory, itself a fusion, does that effectively.

I can make my claim another more historicist way. The autonomies of art, science, religion, and politics characteristic of modernity have been collapsing all around us, for good and ill. The autonomy of art seems now a distant dream of the historical avant-gardes. Likewise with the ideal of separation of church and state. What kind of criticism best responds to such neo-baroque historical mutations? Cultural studies, I believe. Itself a hodgepodge—a postmodern interdiscipline—it consists of customizable mixtures of sociology, anthropology, history, Marxism, media studies, gender studies, popular culture studies, and so on. This kind of theory responds to its time.

Let me come at this question from one last angle. The notion of “everyday life,” fundamental for cultural studies and theory, requires of critical inquiry investigation into the quotidian, the vernacular, the commonplace. No restrictions. Now, if you add to that the ancient philosophical admonition to self-reflection, you end up with a criticism and theory extending into your personal everyday life: eating, dressing, reading, going and coming, working, maintaining relationships, watching television, managing money, exercising, sleeping, etc. This version of “theory,” self-reflective contemporary cultural studies—a postmodern concoction par excellence—takes to a limit the venerable idea that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” It brings it home (an example of the implosion of the domestic and public spheres). It’s a mixture of intimate personal criticism with cultural and ideological critique rooted in analysis and meditation. This is what, I believe, living with theory involves for our time and place. The Do-It-Yourself vernacular version of living with theory is 24/7 “street smarts.”


I hope this question doesn’t sound too “New Critical,” but I notice how often you consciously confront the ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions in your own work as a theorist. I’m thinking, for example, of your important comments on the current state of the corporate university. As an endowed distinguished professor, you exist as something of a “Brahmin”—one of those with what Stanley Aronowitz calls “the last good job in America”—but you hail from a working-class background and in the context of the downsizing and casualizing of much of a professoriate whose working conditions crumble around you. You describe the current situation in academia as a reflection of a postmodern condition of “disaggregation,” and yet your major scholarly contributions have come in the form of crystal clear maps, and you the organizer without fellow of often wildly disparate texts ranging from Aristotle to Žižek. You are a profound critic of a consumer society in which “the new” is fetishized and a 24/7 work ethic is promoted, and yet perhaps more than anyone I know you have devoted much of your adult life to producing books and textbooks that feed the desire of publishers and readers alike to know where to look for the cutting edge. You are a first-class theory head and yet in places I get the sense of your soft spot for literature, poetry especially, as when you critique Mikhail Bakhtin for his blindness to poets such as Whitman who are every bit as heteroglossic as are the Russian novelists. Are such paradoxes in the category of “of course, what do you expect in an all-consuming postmodern era”? Do you struggle with these paradoxes, or accept them as inherent contradictions of our time? Do these contradictions weigh on you, encouraging you to alter your stances, work habits, critical approaches?


I don’t see any contradiction between the disaggregation characteristic of postmodern culture and clear, well-organized maps of it. This reminds me of that useful formula from cybernetics: information overload equals pattern recognition. Perhaps more pertinent models here would be contemporary theories of fractals, chaos, and catastrophe, all seeking the underlying mathematical order of apparent disorder.

On the question of the late capitalist market obsession with the new and my profiting off that demand, there is a paradoxical relation. My books and courses (re)package the newest theory in manageable formats and profit in doing so. At the same time I empower my students and readers. It’s a mission. As a socialist, I want changes to the current extremist free-market political economy. On the day that I am responding to you during the Great Recession, my brother is long-term unemployed without health insurance. His benefits ran out long ago, except for food stamps. My sister lives off a skimpy Social Security check with her ailing husband in a house subsidized by one of her children. They lost their house through bank foreclosure. There can be a better world. But the terms and conditions of engagement in our current neoliberal hegemonic order are more or less clearly set. One negotiates with them as an insider-outsider. In a way, the task of any critic is paradoxical, weighing the good against the bad. T. W. Adorno once memorably characterized the contemporary cultural critic as a hired hand of the culture.

For me there is no contradiction or tension between doing cultural theory and loving literature. Antitheorists perceive a contradiction. Yet most theorists don’t. Especially in the 1980s, there was animosity between these two camps at the time of the rise of theory in the US university. That tension has more or less subsided in most places. But it can and does flare up at a moment’s notice. I have never stopped teaching literature, which I enjoy. I did vow very early in my career not to publish any more literary criticism, having published a few articles on poetry. Instead, I dedicated myself to “theory” conceived as a postmodern specialty. Starting in 1970, the declining “job market” prompted intensified career planning, especially pre-occupation with the curriculum vitae, its fullness, quality, and coherence. I decided to build a profile as a theorist, with no second area as backup. That was a professional calculation driven by the genuine passion of a convert. I imagine immunologists, biochemists, and computer scientists of the time followed a similar path out of general medicine, chemistry, and mathematics into their emerging new fields, without renouncing the traditional disciplines.

But, yes, there is a contradiction between my starting point and my present position. However, it is not what it appears. I have written about my transformation from a poorly paid assistant professor at a small private Baptist university to an endowed professor at a public research university. Believe it or not, I applied for and received government food stamps in the earliest days in protest against low faculty salaries. But my career provides an image of class mobility. In my first steady academic job, obtained after receiving my PhD and after doing one year of postdoctoral teaching as an Interim Assistant Professor of Humanities, I spent thirteen years at this Southern liberal arts Christian university of middling rank. Married with two children, I managed to complete two books and “publish my way out of there.” So I am an example for others of how you can publish yourself out of a lower-tier institution. The idea of meritocracy lives on. American culture desperately clutches to that idea, a core ideology, no matter what. For doctoral students these days, I am an example of what a successful career looks like—good compensation, low teaching load, ample research assistance, lots of publications, big title, international travel. But given the actual labor situation of the post-Welfare State corporate university, all endowed professors are positioned as Brahmins amongst untouchables. The corporate university, a pyramid, has exorbitantly multiplied the number of temporary workers and added some endowed (i.e., privatized) professorships in tandem. Nowadays there are so few tenure-track full-time jobs in academic humanities teaching and so many job candidates and insecure casualized temporary workers. It’s an era of disposable workers. The contradiction I have most in mind comes in this: percentage-wise very few academics will publish themselves out of lower-tier institutions, and even fewer will attain distinguished research chairs. But note: this contradiction comes at the level of the corporate university system, however much it is lived personally and singularly.


You began your studies as a traditional English literature major in the 1960s and 1970s, trained in the New Criticism. You taught in what sounds like a quite traditional “Great Books” style program as your first job, a one-year postdoctoral position, at the University of Florida right out of grad school. As your past comments about your work as editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism indicate, your knowledge of classical rhetoric is impressive. In a previous question, I mentioned your obvious admiration for poetry, as demonstrated in your essay detailing the contemporary poetry scene in Living with Theory.

My question has to do with generational differences, backgrounds, trainings, and emphases as pertains to the relation between literature and theory. How would you compare your training and background with your experience of how theory-oriented graduate students and newly minted PhDs are trained today? From your comments on the several stages of job hiring over the last three decades, it sounds like you feel theory is “winning,” but in something of a covert manner, as literature departments, inherently conservative, continue to hire in traditional periods, literary genres, and national literatures, but more or less demand a consciously held theoretical expertise among new hires. Do you feel this merging of theory and literature in contemporary hiring practices takes us full circle, producing younger generations of scholars who, like you, represent knowledge bases that include theory and literature? Is this for you a healthy development, when compared, for example, to the more rigidly demarcated lines drawn between theory and literature during the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s? Would you contrast today’s hybridization of theory/lit scholars to your progression (or conversion) from literature to theory, a process that required you to self-educate in part by seeking out alternative educational venues such as NEH seminars and the School for Criticism and Theory? Do you feel your strong training in a conservative tradition of literary study has proven helpful—or perhaps inhibiting—to you as a scholar, editor, teacher, and mentor, even as you have strongly critiqued the limitations and blind spots of New Critical training and a theory of canons as little more than the pantheon of Great Male Authors?


During my student days in the 1960s, American literary criticism entailed scrupulous stylistic analysis typically focused on short canonical poetic texts and passages. It required painstaking attention to aesthetic detail and pattern in well-made works, that is, formalist close reading. I remain grateful for this analytical training and the immersion in canonical literature. It is empowering and gratifying, I have found, not only with literature but also with painting and music. Careful, patient looking and listening informed by tradition can be immensely rewarding. I always teach students the importance and techniques of textual explication of individual works in the context of tradition. However, I do emphasize that there are many modes and styles of close reading and many strands of tradition, with the latter subject to revisions.

The limitations that come along with strict formalist criticism became increasingly suffocating for me. I have in mind the infamous strictures against meaning (art for art’s sake and the heresy of paraphrase), biographical inquiry (the intentional fallacy), and personal response (the affective fallacy). But most vexing was the general taboo on “extrinsic” concerns. I had an adverse reaction early in my career to all this dogma. Mind you, I sympathize with the depoliticizing-aestheticizing move of formalism during the interwar years when socialist realism became a government-sponsored compulsory literary mode and when so-called “degenerate literature” was being burned in public squares by organized authoritarian political forces. It’s strategic formalism. I accept that. It had the effect of protecting literature, particularly non-realist avant-garde works, from extirpation and extermination. Such circumstances help explain the long-standing purifying mentality of formalism, too often accompanied by a quasi-religious effort to separate art from worldliness.

The rise of theory during the past generation, the postmodern era, has had a range of notable effects. Theory in all its plurality has penetrated every academic literary specialty and subspecialty more or less thoroughly. I think of this progression as Theory Incorporated. Less completely in Medieval compared to Modernist literary studies, I observe. I am thinking here mainly of the publication apparatus (conferences, reviews, articles, books, grant proposals). Most publications explicitly indicate theoretical affiliations and employ tools of theory. In that sense, they are placeable, identifiable. In addition, theory runs through many literature courses more or less continuously and explicitly. Unlike during my graduate training, students nowadays pick up theory both in literature and in separate theory courses. But this disparate immersion can be a hit-or-miss process. The solution: graduate students can do a major or minor, a certificate, or a self-directed program in theory. None of these conditions and options existed when I was a student.


We are conducting this conversation in the wake of the extraordinarily mediated death and burial of pop icon Michael Jackson. The range of responses in various print, TV, and online media is dizzying. A journalism professor from the University of Pennsylvania has criticized the judgment of journalists, particularly the major news networks, for covering this story wall to wall while such stories as the passage of a (watered down) legislative bill on global warming, an international summit, arms talks between the US and Russia, a US Supreme Court nomination involving the first Hispanic and one of the first women, revolutionary movements in Iran, and other crises such as in China took a back seat. Leading black intellectuals like Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson have framed Michael Jackson in the context of the nineteenth-century Romantic genius and as a troubled modernist “master,” likening Jackson to Vincent van Gogh. Jackson gave others pleasure because he couldn’t himself experience pleasure, they argued. As expected, Fox TV reactionaries such as Bill O’Reilly have taken the opportunity to bash Jackson as a selfish drug addict and pedophile. Others have seen Jackson’s death as a symbol of an age where the easy access to prescription drugs has become a national epidemic. For me the most interesting analysis of Jackson has been in placing him as a postmodern “self,” a metamorphic cyborg performative self that upsets essentialist conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality. If you were currently teaching a course on contemporary theory or cultural studies, would you see “Michael Jackson” as a useful site to discuss these and other responses? Do you have a personal take on Michael Jackson, the media frenzy surrounding his death, and, in general, what seems at this time to be (even by recent standards) a mainstream media obsession with the indiscretions of celebrities?


At the moment I am responding to your question, it has been a short time since the unexpected tragic death of pop music icon Michael Jackson at the age of 50. This happening involved a continuous spectacle like no other, exceeding in media saturation the infamous murder trial of celebrity O. J. Simpson in 1995.

If I were to employ a cultural studies framework here, as you suggested, I would depict this multifaceted phenomenon not as a unique and unprecedented event, but as a culturally symptomatic case. The death of Michael Jackson is well suited to a case study undertaken collectively by an undergraduate or graduate class engaged in cultural studies and using ideology and cultural critique. Off the top of my head, I would list as major interlocking domains for inquiry (as potential chapters in a study): family, pop music industry, media, psychology, medicine, law, race, social class, fashion. A book could be composed by the students supported with photographic stills, music clips, and videos stored on an accompanying compact disc.

Among the more arresting facets of the Michael Jackson phenomenon is his postmodern “volatile body”: straightened hair; lightened skin; surgically altered face (especially the nose); anorexic body; gender-bending outfits (effeminate gloved hand covered in signature sequins); rumored pedophilic sexuality (despite high-profile heterosexual marriages); and amazingly fluid dancer’s bearing on stage and in video (his patented moon walk). What role drugs played in this whole long career remains fuzzy.

The visual features of Michael Jackson’s cyborg body seem perfectly matched to our era of spectacle. I would hypothesize that media values very early penetrated Michael Jackson’s child star psyche, shaping his self-image and his sense of being looked at 24/7. Being became appearing.

To generalize beyond the Michael Jackson case, celebrity entails the presence not only of permanent publicity, but also of self-surveillance gauged to prevailing norms (conscious and unconscious). Swarms of paparazzi keep watch, forming part of the larger surveillance society. Cameras are everywhere. In addition to surveillance, they prompt exhibitionism while facilitating the rapid spread of information. This is a mixed blessing.

As an aside, a contrast, what could one say in this context about the African American hip-hop nation and rap music? What kind of attention would a death in its higher ranks entail these days or back in its 1990s crossover heydays? I suppose mainstream media would offer less coverage by comparison. Even now thirty plus years after its onset, US black male hip-hop appears too macho, too vulgar, too alienated; it’s too “black.” Its central icon is the pimp in the post-Civil Rights era role formerly occupied by the outspoken black preacher. The pimp represents black separatism and nationalism. He’s a gangster and a threat. In contrast, Michael Jackson, a glamorous Hollywood star, stands for the harmony of ebony and ivory—for non-threatening integration—and savvy business enterprises. He personally purchased the Beatles catalogue of songs for several hundred million dollars. Despite his creative aberrations, mainstream media can embrace that kind of figure. It represents little real threat to white middle- and ruling-class cultures. My point is these images reveal swirls of social values in motion through media. From its outset in the 1970s UK, cultural studies was and remains designed to analyze moral panics, mass-mediated spectacles, and stereotypes. Theory has a role to play.

One other point I would like to stress. I don’t take the media’s obsession with the death of Michael Jackson as simply distracting from more serious realities such as the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the senate confirmation hearings for the first Latina Supreme Court justice, or the post-election street revolts against the reigning political order in Iran (home of Islamic revolution). Distraction, I reckon, is symptomatic and central to our media-drenched, visually oriented, multichannel, multitrack, multitasking society. I figure the collective MJ case study sketched a moment ago would reveal a considerable amount about contemporary culture—its mechanisms, dispositions, and values (ideology). This would doubtlessly include such things as the relation between entertainment and now permanently embedded media. My point is that the media frenzy over celebrity presents stark evidence about postmodern reality, maybe most notably its intimacy with simulation and with passive viewing that is pleasurable yet repressive. Umberto Eco’s idea of the “authentic fake” is perhaps illuminating in the Disney-like theatricalization of Michael Jackson’s life and his highly ritualized passing.


Although it would require its own interview, I want to ask you a bit about your work revising the Norton Anthology for a second edition. Based on my reading of prior interviews with you and your published thoughts on the first Norton, it seemed to me there were at least three main areas you wanted to consider in a revision: (1) the possibility of including more non-Western-oriented theorists; (2) adding theorists born more recently than 1957, the birthdate of Stuart Moulthrop, the youngest inclusion in the first edition; and (3) allowing the Norton to move more in the direction of a postmodern disaggregation by including such things as an electronic archive that would enable interested readers to, in a sense, create their own anthology based on materials unavailable in the limited space of the printed text. Looking backward, were you able to make headway on any or all of these tasks? It sounded like the issue of electronic copyrights was a problem in the first go-round. Did you address that with Norton in the contract for the revision? Since you did go in the direction of more non-Western theories, did you need to enlist a new band of editors to help with the choices? Did you continue to self-educate on materials you were unfamiliar with? Given that you selected work from scholars born after 1957, how did you grapple with the issue of their impact on theory in the long run (if there is such a thing as a long run)?


The main problem with publishing a printed anthology of theory selections nowadays that would be richly backed up by an electronic archive (ideally a complete library) concerns permissions costs (intellectual property). Currently, fees range wildly from $10 to $450 per printed page. To reprint a ten-page article or chapter might cost $4,500. There is no way to pay for such a vast electronic resource under present conditions. Note that in the case of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, we six editors remain committed to the best contemporary editions and translations, not simply those out of copyright protection and without fees. We have expensive versions, for example, of Aristotle’s Poetics, Plato’s Republic, Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, and quite a few others, even though cheap and free versions are available. So maintaining quality over against reducing costs is an issue too—one that increasingly haunts higher education in our profit-maximizing era.

On the question of contemporary theorists born in the post-WW II period, we editors added to the second edition twenty new figures of whom roughly a dozen are our own contemporaries. Starting from the year of birth 1950, the anthology contains selections from Henry Louis Gates, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Franco Moretti, Dick Hebdige, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, bell hooks, Lisa Lowe, Judith Butler, Paul Gilroy, Andrew Ross, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, Michael Hardt with Antonio Negri, plus Judith Halberstam. Unlike mathematicians and music composers, academic literary and cultural theorists tend to mature later, generally after 40. These figures have all had an impact on contemporary theory; and we were able to find resonant as well as theoretically rewarding, plus teachable selections from each of them.

We did add four new non-Western theorists, choosing selections from the late twentieth century that fuse peculiarly “foreign” and mainstream concerns. From the Arabic tradition, we have a piece on modernity from the poet Adūnis’s An Introduction to Arab Poetics. The Chinese tradition is represented by Zehou Li’s Four Essays on Aesthetics: Toward a Global View, which weaves a hybrid aesthetic theory out of stands from Kant and Marx as well as Chinese traditions. C. D. Narasimhaiah’s essay “Towards the Formulation of a Common Poetic for Indian Literatures Today” integrates ideas from T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and other Westerners with an array of Sanskrit concepts from Medieval times. Kōjin Karatani’s opening chapter of Origins of Modern Japanese Literature shows how the alien modern Western concept of “literature” traumatically entered the Japanese world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I hasten to add that these four new figures of global theory join several handfuls of others (some carried over from the first edition) who address non-Western topics. I am thinking of Giambattista Vico, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Frantz Fanon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Gilroy, Lowe, and Paula Gunn Allen.

Yes, we did hire consulting editors, specialists, for the Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese selections. They each presented us with a range of materials to consider that we six editors discussed in detail. The consulting editors went on to draft the headnotes, bibliographies, and annotations that accompany the final selections.

Since I had started thinking in the 1990s about “going global” with theory, I had done preliminary research and reading. The traditions in question go back a thousand or more years so, not surprisingly, there exist massive amounts of materials. This is what led to recruiting consulting editors, experts in the different languages, literatures, and traditions.


I wonder if you could reflect on a few aspects of your own writing style. How do you manage to “sound” so objective and even sincere when rehearsing arguments or complaints about theories or positions that I am sure you hold dear? I am thinking, for example, of parts of the chapter on “Theory Retrospective” concerning cultural studies: “It renounces scholarly objectivity in favor of engaged activism … . It is overly ambitious, even imperialistic, in the range and scope of its objects of inquiry” (Theory Matters, 13). Perhaps the point is to show skeptical readers that a cultural theorist CAN be “objective”? You then in the same essay shift gears by turning to writing in the first person, thus owning the “complaints” against cultural studies. “I have my own personal complaints about cultural studies” (13). Can you reflect on this kind of ventriloquism? Would you describe your own critical “voice” as heteroglossic, even as it “sounds” unified?

On the matter of writing style, I consider your “voice” to be unusually humble and at the same time unusually self-confident. By humble I mean that you are willing, as in the example above, to rehearse the arguments of others without feeling that your work is somehow not “original.” By confident I mean that you are willing to make large declarations in authoritative tones about your field: “There are five ways to construct histories of contemporary theory” (Theory Matters, 35, a sentence selected almost randomly). I am particularly interested in how you gained the confidence to write with such confidence. Like you, I am not from a background that would have predicted that I became an author and an academic. It has been a great struggle for me to overcome my fear that someone who belongs in the club is still looking over my shoulder, waiting to correct mistakes or point out overlooked important information. (Talk about living in a surveillance society!) I bet a lot of graduate students and assistant professors would be interested in how you learned to perform yourself on paper.


I see myself mainly as a historian of literary and cultural theory. The history of theory, especially in the modern and postmodern periods—those in which I do most of my work—is extremely complex with innumerable voices in contention. Arguments define the field. At any given time numerous schools, movements, and positions coexist in tension. Differences persist not only within and between schools and movements, but also within individual careers and the careers (or phases) of schools. To write a history of contemporary theory and criticism, you absolutely need to ventriloquize many different voices. Not incidentally, I very much like Walter Benjamin’s idea of history as an assemblage of quotations. Being able to recount a critical position is what critical understanding amounts to. It’s a mode of justice. It produces objectivity effects.

But I think of my way of doing history as being critical, not objective or neutral. It operates on several levels, two of which I’ll single out. First, rather than personally enumerating the problems and limitations of a particular movement, figure, or theory, I survey the complaints of other critics, sometimes many other critics. It’s a classic review of the research. This provides density as well as nuance and balance. It feels like a trustworthy knowledgeable insider’s account. I think of it as communal micro history. Second, I offer first-person assessments from my own standpoint, which I picture to myself as moments of solo work in larger choral ensembles. The effect is of a leading voice separate from others yet in the context of the others. It’s thick history with multiple critical edges and tones.

As a historiographer, I have developed some heuristics. I talk about these mainly in my book Cultural Criticism, Literary Theory, Poststructuralism. I’ll mention a few here, distilling them as imperatives for historians: atomize, totalize, pluralize. In depictions above of contemporary theory, I self-consciously provide a more or less complete list of movements and schools (I totalize). But I also quickly deconstruct these projects into the work of numerous internally different figures (I atomize). Taken far enough, atomization leads to pluralization (poststructuralisms, Marxisms, feminisms). Not surprisingly, I extend this protocol of pluralization to key literary and cultural concepts such as literatures, poetries, and readers. It is often helpful and revealing programmatically, I find, to add an “s.” These heuristics play a role in the tone of my work. They assist in establishing a sense of authority, openness, and confidence. And, of course, long hours in archives must also figure somewhere in this account.

Along the way I picked up some specific writing skills that, no doubt, contour my voice and style. From formalism and Geneva phenomenology, I gradually learned to paraphrase respectfully, if not economically and elegantly. Perhaps more pertinent, early in my career I wrote several hundred abstracts for Abstracts of English Studies and other publications. If you write enough 150-word summaries of dense 20-page scholarly articles, you come to appreciate not just clarity, but cogency in scholarly writing. You get to the heart of the matter and to aberrations very quickly and economically. What else? I have grown fond, perhaps too fond, of lists and maps, earned generalizations and slogans. They can do good work. Finally, I make it a point—a program, let’s say—to end paragraphs with snappy conclusions: what business people and politicians label “take-away points” suited for our too rushed society.

The question of originality has vexed me off and on throughout my career. Here’s my main concern. Should a historian aim for originality? I wonder. Did my predecessors, for example René Wellek, seek to be original? One kind of originality comes from the archive. My American Literary Criticism is the first panoramic history to include in separate chapters the New York Intellectuals; the existentialists and phenomenologists; the hermeneuticists; and the Black Aesthetics movement. It is a question not merely of (re)discovery, but of breadth of vision. What counts? My concern with internal differences—micro histories—also brings something new to the history of twentieth-century schools and movements of theory that perhaps registers with only a few insiders. Like most historians of my generation, I do history from below and the margins, a new postmodern mode of history of criticism that includes discourses by women, ethnic minorities, “queers,” and working classes. This is the work of cultural critique. Lastly, I am a comparatist by instinct. For example, without foregrounding the first-person, I compare and contrast American and Frankfurt School Marxism; Slavic and American formalism; American and Geneva-style phenomenology; Martin Heidegger’s and E. D. Hirsch’s hermeneutics; European Neo-Marxism and the US New Left; American and German (East as well as West) reception theories; French versus US deconstruction; and American and French feminisms. I remain in the background and render a service. One final thought on originality. Among scholars of literature, graduate students included, histories and anthologies of theory fulfill a service function. These works are not genres where one expects to or readily perceives original treatments. They are “brown cover” texts that you do not acknowledge having read or consulted. It is something of a curse for authors.


I enjoyed your essay on “Blues Southwestern Style” in Theory Matters. It is exciting to hear of such a thriving music scene in Oklahoma City. I’m jealous. Nonetheless, I have questions about the essay. Given my current research interests in Jewish cultural studies, I am sensitive to the issue of the relation between such “African American” musical contributions as blues and jazz and their appropriation by “whites.” Scholars such as Jeff Melnick in Right to Sing the Blues have criticized Jews such as Irving Berlin for benefiting from the commercialization of African American music, and scholars such as Eric Lott and Michael Rogin have focused on the issue of “passing,” how Jews in effect enhanced their ambivalent status as “white” by ventriloquizing/masking blackness. Obviously your interest in the blues subculture of Oklahoma City is not motivated by financial profits or passing as white, but still I wondered if you are ever self-conscious about being a well-paid white guy whose subcultural identity revolves around a music that traditionally deals with themes such as poverty and homelessness and social injustice. Maybe in an emotional sense you have experienced many “Stormy Mondays” and sometimes feel that “The Thrill is Gone,” but the cause of your distress must be quite different than it was for a B. B. King or a Howlin’ Wolf. (Of course, B. B. King is no longer suffering financially, even as he sings about a kind of pain and suffering that he wrote about as a black man coming up in the Jim Crow era.) I realize one does not need to be poor or an African American to suffer. You mention that your daytime identity and job status are checked at the door when you enter the blues scene, implying that the blues subculture thus enables you to participate in a kind of democratic meritocracy in which esteem in the group is based on such things as dedication to the blues and participation in various blues events. You do mention the sharp divide between the African American clubs (which you are able to enter through your friendship with Miss Blues), the main interracial blues scene you inhabit, and the more commercialized blues events that bring in legends such as B. B. King. Do you feel the utopian, non-hierarchical (in terms of day job status) elements of the blues subculture also mask the serious disparities among the participants? Is this a case of a Bakhtinian carnival that turns the tables on power relations for a short time only to enforce the status quo in the end? Does it trouble you that you are in a sense going “under cover” to perform “informal interviews” with various blues people that you then convert into a participant-observer case study that was in part funded by the Oklahoma Humanities Council and the University of Oklahoma and then published in a book—Theory Matters—that will allow you, not the others in the blues scene, to accrue cultural capital? Does it matter to you whether or not they know your interest in the blues scene is at least in part a scholarly pursuit?


I want to start by giving a quick thumbnail sketch of the history of blues music. It matters very much here. And, after all, I am a historical critic and theorist by inclination. The way I conceive it there are five, maybe more, distinct periods or phases. Blues goes postmodern along the way. The first period involves rural acoustic blues from World War I to World War II, followed by a second phase of urban electric music from WW II into the mid-1960s. You can think of these geographically as Chicago preceded by Mississippi Delta blues, both stemming from the African American community. In the third period, young white blues musicians begin to appear during the 1960s and gain prominence. Examples would be the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, and Johnny Winter, each having a separate regional identity, but a national white audience. A fourth period witnesses the contemporaneous international spread of blues especially to the UK, which begins in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A fifth period commences in the 1970s and 1980s when interracial blues societies and festivals start to appear all across the US and scattered around the globe. As I am having this conversation with you, there are approximately two hundred blues societies, several hundred annual blues festivals, and an extensive infrastructure of blues clubs, record labels, magazines, radio shows, Web sites, etc. And although there exist remnants of the all-black chitlin circuit, the blues scene has been integrated and globalized, postmodernized, for many decades.

White people like me have been devoted to blues music since the 1950s and 1960s. Many leading musicians are white such as Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In all of this, there are elements of emulation and appropriation. But the same dynamic operates for numerous artistic genres. Japanese haiku stems from an ancient alien aristocratic milieu. Yet school children have for decades tried their hand at the form. The same goes for the sonnet, an Italian Renaissance genre soon picked up by English and French poets, but today present on Hallmark cards as well as in creative writing classrooms. It would be a mistake to characterize such transmissions and survivals as thefts, pure and simple. That characterization depends on questionable notions of private property, exclusive ownership, and copyright—all ideas postdating and foreign to haiku, sonnetry and, I would argue, original rural blues.

This question of cultural theft gets us into the history of music copyrighting and recording in the US. Regarding the blues, the main narrative holds that white college students, who in the early 1960s instigated a revival of acoustic blues (cast as folk music), helped elderly black musicians to secure audiences and copyrights. Among older black blues artists today there exists a range of opinions on the issue of appropriation. But not a few seem grateful as well as surprised and proud to have crossed over into the white world and also to have gone global. This transformation has provided much support for blues musicians. Would it have been better or even possible for the blues, including its creation, distribution, and consumption, to remain exclusively within the African American community across the twentieth century? No, I think not.

Blues festivals and shows do approximate carnival. One indicator is that no one asks what you do for a living. I am never asked. And I don’t ask. The festivals mix all social classes. But so does walking down a city sidewalk, attending a movie, riding urban mass transit, or dancing in a club. In all this, there is a suggestion, a utopian hint: we can live together.

One of my favorite strands of cultural studies is analysis of subcultures. Undergraduate students enjoy doing research projects in this area. A lot of it entails participant observation and insider accounts. Personally, I’ve received papers on Goth, emo, rave, hip-hop, fraternity and sorority life, etc. This research talks about such topics as music, dress, body language, sexual conventions, social hierarchies, and cultural politics. Students enjoy writing about what they know while taking distance through critique. But this strand of ethnography, really autoethnography and intimate critique, doesn’t approximate going undercover since immersion precedes written formulations. That’s how it was for me writing about the blues in a one-off chapter—with no monetary rewards in sight. I got interested in the music many years before I wrote about the blues. My original interest had nothing to do with wanting to publish on the music. As it happened, while I was planning my chapter on the local blues subculture, as an example of cultural studies work, I received a flyer encouraging applications from scholars to the State Humanities Council for $500 research grants. I applied and used the money for travel and materials. I believe local subcultures and cultural scenes are worthy of critical study and support. Certainly, motives for doing so are subject to question.

The subculture research I’ve seen from undergraduate students tends toward celebration, not critique and not betrayal. This raises questions for class discussion concerning various matters, including the ethics and objectivity of participant observation, plus especially the nature and essential role of critique.


We are arguably in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. As a historian of theory, how would you compare and contrast the response of literary critics in the 1930s to that economic meltdown to how you are seeing critics/theorists deal with the financial crisis today? My sense is that there were plenty of “writers on the Left,” to borrow a phrase from Daniel Aaron (Steinbeck, Odets, Rukeyser, Hughes), but wasn’t literary criticism in the 1930s dominated by formalism? I realize there were left-leaning public intellectuals surrounding the Partisan Review as well as figures such as Granville Hicks. You have been calling for a kind of theory that takes economics into account. I think you are not only referring to institutional studies of an imploding academic profession, but also you are encouraging theorists to take on macroeconomic questions such as globalization and the flows of capital. How should a scholar like myself, trained in literary analysis, re-tool for such a daunting task? Math was not my strength even in high school, and I nearly flunked Econ 101 in college.


I distinguish between political economy and economics. Mainstream academic US economics, a social science, sold its soul to mathematics many decades ago. It got a divorce from political science. Econometrics seeks to be a pure science. It’s the leading edge of this autonomous discipline. Economics belongs to the school of business and to laissez-faire finance capitalism in its virulent post-1960s neoliberal form. You cannot find a Marxist or socialist economist in any department of economics, with few exceptions. During the past three decades, Keynesians have gone into the closet. It’s part of the retreat of liberalism and the dismantling of the Welfare State, the latter an accomplishment of civilization worth defending. The way I see it politics, psychology, and sociology now have the job of cleaning up the mess created by economics.

I offer fuller critiques of mainstream American economics in my Postmodernism—Local Effects, Global Flows and subsequent books. So I won’t rehearse that work here. But one place to turn for an alternative is ecological economics.

Concerning the 1930s, Western Marxism of the French, German, and in part Italian traditions made a “cultural turn” in that decade away from Soviet Marxism. With the 1939 pact between the Nazis and Soviets to divide up Europe into separate spheres, US Marxists fled the Communist Party and its Popular Front in droves, turning away from the proletarian revolution along with its aesthetic doctrines. That is what both the Frankfurt school in exile and the post-1937 regrouped Partisan Review represent. During the 1960s, many segments of the Western left bid farewell to the working class as the vanguard of revolution. It’s the hardhat phenomenon where leading segments of the proletariat turn conservative, nativist, and nationalist. At this time the new social movements became the cutting edge of “transformation” (no longer “revolution”). Here I am thinking of student radicals, civil rights campaigners, women’s liberation activists, environmentalists, etc. Jumping ahead, the 1999 protests in Seattle against the non-democratic World Trade Organization symbolize the prominence in the struggle against neoliberal globalization and the New World Order of the expanded new social movements, the “multitude,” to use Hardt and Negri’s memorable term, a worldwide rainbow coalition, an affective alliance, represented by the World Social Forum built up from micropolitical forms. This is the Popular Front in a viral twenty-first-century form. Other more recent instantiations of the multitude include the Arab Spring, the worldwide Occupy movements, and the antiausterity protests in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. So, while I understand nostalgia for the 1930s, I believe it is going to be only of limited help given our post-industrial, highly financialized, nondemocratic economy. Also it is worth noting that the intelligentsia is now largely inside the university and not outside. Although this embourgeoisement is cooptation, what really matters is the increasing enclosure of everything—including nature, the unconscious, and the imagination—by capitalism. The avant-garde is history. Bohemia is part of the creative class now. Meanwhile, proletarianization and deprofessionalization of the lower tiers of the professions proceed apace. The directors of the global economy—the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations, World Trade Organization, Group of Eight, World Economic Forum (Davos), plus transnational corporations and non-governmental organizations—all postdate the 1930s.

To repeat an earlier point but now with an added twist, the idea of everyday life, a productive concept for theory and cultural studies, deliberately carries thinking and feeling out of the universities, think tanks, and regulatory agencies into the streets and ordinary homes, especially kitchens. The mission of cultural studies is to rebarbarize theory, bringing it home. If you want to know what’s going on in society, check out your own intimate surroundings (financial, emotional, aesthetic) and include family and neighborhoods near and far. At the same time, be wary of the media’s purchased and truncated coverage of economics. I don’t recommend simply going to the economics department of a US university: the well-being of the populace is not its concern. I advise against moralizing the Great Recession or any other boom-bust crisis. There is rampant greed, yes. But more important is the whole system of regulation. It is an intricately rigged system, thanks in part to the corruption visited upon politics by lobbying and money. It doesn’t take an economist to tell you that, for example, the lifting in 1980 of the cap on the maximum interest charged on loans (usury) by Congress would soon create disturbances in the linked realms of money-banking-credit. Floods of credit and debt follow. Banks on every corner. Widespread manipulation of credit standards and ratings. Bankruptcies everywhere. Foreclosures. Vast redistributions and accumulations of wealth. The economics of everyday life, broadly construed, is probably as good a gauge of the real economy as the standard technical indicators.