Murray Krieger is an insider who promoted literary theory as an “instrument” (p. 80) and watched it go on to become an “institution” (p. 80). In this volume he recounts its rise, assesses it, and suggests its revision.
For Krieger, theory is a continuation of traditional institutional battles. The debate between the old historical scholarship and the new criticism, which he describes in his first chapter, parallels the current debate between new historicism and deconstruction (p. 25). But Krieger shows that there is a much older parallel in the debate between the Tories with their myth of the Golden Age and the Whigs with their myth of progress (p. 27). American criticism divides itself between formalists who emulate “the great literatures of the West” (p. 35) and historicists who value literature “shaped by and . . . reflect[ing] American experience” (p. 35). For Krieger, the ancient quarrel between formalism and historicism is the real context for this century’s debate between new criticism and the older and newer historicisms (p. 38–40).
The first of his four chapters describes the old historicism’s resistance to theory, especially its resistance to the formal principles of the new criticism, the preinstitutionalized theory of the 1950s. The new criticism could be defended as being “for the text” (p. 8), but the theories that came after it—structuralism, poststructuralism, and their “interdisciplinary mixtures” (p. 10)—established successive hybrids built upon “the domain of contingency” (p. 12). Krieger argues that this process, coupled with the rise of human sciences and the demystification of literary values, has resulted in a full-scale assault upon institutions, advancing the “anti-institutional institution” (p. 19) of theory and replacing discipline-based “academic structures” (p. 19).
Thankfully, Krieger mitigates these relatively crude oppositions by discussing how poststructuralism has energized the intramural debates within the theoretical camps. In the end he finds the current opposition between deconstruction (with its embrace of textuality) and new historicism (its embrace of contingencies) to be an either/or fallacy. The “poem . . . helps create history,” he asserts, “even as . . . history had to help create the poem” (p. 45).
In his third chapter, Krieger relies upon this “middling” insight to describe [End Page 403] the fight between those who see literary works as tools of ideology and those who regard them as resistant to ideology (p. 48). The tradition of resistance may support “a given ideological structure,” but at the same time it believes that literature is a “structure of complexities that eludes any attempt to make [it] into an ideology’s servant” (p. 55). And so Krieger escapes from “unified meaning” (p. 64), an escape he traces through a history of literary thought that culminates in Paul de Man.
Krieger is now ready for some classifying of his own: the new historicism in one category, grouped with the ideological (closed, totalizing, and controlling traditions); deconstruction in a separate category, grouped with the counterideological (open and liberating traditions). He does not reject ideological theories out of hand; he proposes “a balancing act [of letting] loose the counterideological potential of” certain texts “while resisting the universalizing thematic consequences” of this very process (p. 76).
Having traced the institutionalization of theory, having contextualized and thus legitimized the many sides of contemporary theory’s debates, Krieger concludes by uttering an enlightened “plea for theory to reengage the lingering promise of the aesthetic [and] to allow a chance for the extraordinary particular, which is not already contained within a ruling universal” (pp. 90, 91). If this were possible—and he has shown it to be both historically and theoretically defensible—then one should also acknowledge “the authority of human consciousness” (p. 91), for it alone is receptive to that “extraordinary particular.”
More than the usual powder for theory’s morning-after headache, Krieger’s volume is a compelling argument for theory to acknowledge the very traditions it has sought to discredit and exclude.