restricted access Contemporary Literary Theory, and: Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism (review)
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Reviewed by
G. Douglas Atkins and Laura Morrow, eds. Contemporary Literary Theory. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989. 263 pp. $40.00 cloth; pb. $12.95.
Andrew Ross, ed. Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism. Vol. of " Cultural Politics," a Social Textseries. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. 318 pp. $35.00 cloth; pb. $14.95.

Comparison between these two books cannot be fair. Both begin with a perception that major cultural changes over the past two or three decades, including and perhaps especially "theory," demand response from cultural critics. Both express serious reservations about the airy extremes of theoretical textualism. And both try, therefore, to ground criticism in some anchoring aspect of society, everyday life, politics, constituency, common sense. Given so much divergence between the two books, these common points say something about the current critical mood. But the differences are more revealing still.

Contemporary Literary Theorypresents itself as a pedagogical tool. A collection of twelve essays, each surveying a fashionable (or, like the New Criticism and "archetypal" criticism, less than fashionable) theory or approach, it takes as its premise and standard the student's desire for a lucid, nonspecialized, intelligent introduction to matters notoriously susceptible to other sorts of treatment. In this way theory is brought down to earth. The essays are on the whole eloquent, wellmannered, and useful; some, like those of Peter Rabinowitz on "reader-response," Michael Ryan on Marxism, and Don Bialostosky on Bakhtin (and, in fact, on Marxism), achieve something more. Equally useful are the bibliographies that follow each essay. If the references are not always up-to-date and some depend more on secondary than primary sources, if there is not always the original thinking or polemical edge that would raise the book above the level of the survey, this is perhaps attributable to pedagogical imperatives.

Or is it? What dostudents really want? Do they want, for example, a collection in which each writer finds some means of praising and defending the worthiness of his or her theoretical turf without engaging the conflicting claims of the others? What does this protocol of compartmentalized reverences accomplish? It might be argued that, whatever students think they want, a menu of separate-but-equal [End Page 856]theories, neither forced nor even invited into confrontation with each other, lacking indeed even the formal linkage of an index, can bestow upon students only the "self-consciousness" (theory's major selling point on the general market) of the detached consumer who knows, deep down, that nothing much is riding on the choice. According to Gerald Graff, it is not this ceremonious bow to theoretical pluralism-as-consumerism but rather a seriously staged pedagogical encounter betweentheories that students deserve and perhaps even desire.

Consumerism is one of the many politically thorny topics taken up in Universal Abandon?If pedagogy is the foundation of Contemporary Literary Theory, its own foundation is politics. What precisely politics might mean in the postmodern context, however, is immediately and repeatedly thrown into question. Is consumerism a distraction from politics, for example, or does it permit new forms of contestation that we have yet to learn to recognize as political? A would-be politics of the local and the particular, inspired by movements on behalf of color, sex, region, and nationality, finds itself suspicious of supposed universals like "rationality" and "the proletariat." Does this mean it can abandon all universals while remaining a politics? Or does it leave us with "universal abandon," a generalized pluralist chaos in which manifold and multi-directional resistances never agglutinate into any single decisive change? These are among the questions aboutthe book's foundation that its contributors subtly and strenuously debate.

Theoretical poststructuralism figures here as only one aspect of the more general social situation and/or cultural sensibility (the distinction marks the issue of how far postmodernism must be seen as economic—a stage of capitalism—rather than simply cultural) called postmodernism. In an opening interview Fredric Jameson, the foremost theorist of postmodernism as a (largely unfortunate) stage of capitalism, nuances his well-known commitment to "totality," which receives measured support from Cornel West (brilliantly interviewed, like Jameson, by Anders Stephanson) and...