restricted access The Current in Criticism: Essays on the Present and Future of Literary Theory (review)
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Reviewed by
Clayton Koelb and Virgil Lokke, eds. The Current in Criticism: Essays on the Present and Future of Literary Theory. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1987. 391 pp. $27.50 cloth; pb. $12.95.

The great guru of the New Criticism, John Crowe Ransom, used to use the terms "critical" and "speculative" interchangeably. The energy carried by the "current in criticism," as the editors have titled their snapshot representation of the characteristic critical/theoretical styles of our particular moment after the New Criticism, is a speculative energy in the best sense (leaving aside the challenge of Utopian speculation, which remains a deeply problematical site in the modern traditions, whether it is occupied or evacuated). In short, this volume is a good read, a useful aid to advanced pedagogy, and a proper addition to the library of anyone in the academy interested in the concerns and directions of the antifoundational wing of the literary institution.

True to the transmutations in the fields of literary study over the past two decades, the objects of investigation or reference range across disparate cultures, and they include literary, philosophical, critical, and theoretical texts—for example, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Goethe, and Xu Lun, or James, Habermas, Derrida, and Deleuze, or Empson, Fish, and de Man, or Jakobson, Bakhtin, Gilligan, Kristeva, and Luhmann. Among the fourteen contributors, meanwhile, can be found so many of the familiar stars of the hour (such as Culler, Fish, Girard, Jameson, Lentricchia, and Spivak) as to satisfy amply the reader's desire for (sign) value for money: not only do the texts presented here supply examples of what is "current" in criticism, but they also, by the very presence of their particular authors in familial contiguity, authorize the essays in the current collection as exemplary criticism.

As an intervention, mis volume will not play the pioneering role of something like Harari's anthology in the 1970s, Textual Strategies, which first grouped poststructuralist texts together in an influential must-see gallery exhibition. The essays here are neither major nor pathbreaking in the same way. On the other hand, neither do they display the disabling extravagances of an earlier period of deconstructive enthusiasm. Both the ecstatic and the despairing voices of the skepticism and nihilism of just a few years ago would be anomalies within the frame of this volume and the solid—at times, masterful—work that these essays perform. The text testifies to that same consolidation current in the field that will soon see the production of encyclopedias, dictionaries, glossaries, and other referencing apparatus for literary criticism and theory. The confidence presupposed in such enterprises can be cashed for a salutary breather from the short-circuit of polemical claims and counter-claims, and the reader benefits by gaining access to a matured critical world where steady theoretical sophistication and steady scholarly craft reciprocally support one another.

All the essays here presuppose a different universe of discourse from that of the previous literary generation that could still rely on the simulacrum of a secure text and a stable relation between a stable author and a stable reader. [End Page 736] They start from a critique of the communications model that sustained that simulacrum, and they all open up to the situations or contexts—ineluctable yet undecidable, impossible to escape yet impossible to render transparent—whose full play undermines the stabilities of formalism and restores them to an unfinalizable economy of forces.

Given such parameters, then, the essays debate the New Pragmatism and the case "against theory" (Fish, Lentricchia); they deal with Bakhtin's theories of the novel (Emerson and Morson), the rhetoricity of fictional discourse (Koelb), or the conventions of onomatopoetic naturalism in literature (Graham); they point to the anthropological force of mimetic desire (Girard) or the intertext of imperialism, race, and gender (Spivak); they offer feminist correctives to the regulative ideal of Habermas' communicative utopia (Schweikart), Third Worldist correctives to the ethnocentrism of the Western literary canon (Jameson), and methodological correctives drawn from Luhmann's systems theory to the deconstruction of communication.

In all this, these texts enact, even as they thematize, the sense to which Jonathan Culler gives voice: that the domain of advanced literary studies—including the theoretical perspectives...


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