- Specialized Materials
Continuing the discussion that I began several years ago in this review column, I want to glance at yet another ongoing series that may be of interest to this journal's readers. Unlike previously discussed series, this one, however, does not center on monographs devoted to individual theorists or critical movements. Instead, it is comprised of volumes that examine current critical topics within an interdisciplinary framework. Blackwell's "Manifestos" series is a somewhat diffusely conceived but certainly very interesting attempt to offer internationally known theorists and critics the opportunity to make major polemical statements in their areas of expertise. It is laudable because it allows its participants the freedom to "have their say" without much restraint, though certainly the lack of a heavy editorial hand, or even clear editorial vision, does mean that volumes can vary widely in their polish and clarity of purpose.
The series has published two or three entries per year since it began in 2000, with a total of eight to date. Unlike other series reviewed here, it does not have an assigned editor with an academic affiliation, rather it is edited out of Blackwell's own acquisitions office and has the briefest series mission statement that I have ever seen. The two-sentence series overview promises that in it "major critics [will] make timely interventions [that] address important concepts and subjects," ones that are "written accessibly and with verve and spirit, . . . [and that] follow no uniform prescription but set out to engage and challenge the broadest range of readers." Some succeed admirably, others do not.
The first volume published, Terry Eagleton's The Idea of Culture (2000), is perhaps the one most in need of a bit more editorial intervention. As its title suggests, its discussion ranges widely over the concept of "culture," addressing changing definitions of the term from the Renaissance to the present. Victorian Poetry's readers will appreciate its attention to Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin in its discussion of nineteenth-century theorizations of aesthetic and cultural value. However, when one encounters the term "manifesto" printed boldly across a volume cover (as is the case with all series entries here), one at least expects a clear thesis or set of bold, polemical assertions. Eagleton's meandering book is finally held together by his rejection of postmodern identity politics, which he considers socially fragmenting, and an argument for Raymond Williams' notion of a "common culture" of "affection, relationship, memory, kinship, place, community, emotional fulfillment, [and] intellectual enjoyment" (p. 131). While I find these swipes at identity politics overly broad and [End Page 321] even insensitive, my larger criticism is that the book's purpose remains unclear for over a hundred pages. A "manifesto" should not be diffuse or opaque in intent.
Happily, the next series entry, Marjorie Perloff's 21st-Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics (2002), does not evince these problems; indeed, it is one of the series' best volumes. Again, there is much here that will interest readers of Victorian Poetry as Perloff not only glances back on occasion to the nineteenth century but offers detailed and lovely close readings of numerous turn-of-the-century writers. Her purpose is crystal clear, as she argues for the timeliness, indeed the payoff, of modernist principles in the new poetics of the late twentieth and now twenty-first century. Of all of the volumes in the series, this one has one of the clearest and best realized interdisciplinary scopes. Perloff's superb discussion of the "conceptual poetics" of Marcel Duchamp spans the greater part of the twentieth century in its probing of interconnections between the visual and the literary. Her final chapter references that discussion, as well as the work of Eliot and Pound, in a tour-de-force examination of Steve McCaffery's art and poetry from the 1990s and its relationship to modernist theory. This is a volume that could be assigned in genre-based seminars or those devoted to twentieth-century aesthetic theory. Perloff is perhaps the best close reader of poetry writing today.
Valentine Cunningham's Reading After Theory (2002) is also manifesto-like in its clarity of purpose and precision. Cunningham is at...