This issue marks the fortieth anniversary of College Literature, and also sees the publication of the first essay handled entirely by the new editorial team under our revised Editorial Policy. While an exciting landmark in the life of the journal, this anniversary also offers a broader opportunity for reflection on the project of ‘critique’ signaled in the journal’s subtitle (as “a journal of critical literary studies”). Like a number of other journals in the discipline founded at North American universities in the early 1970s, the lifespan of College Literature approximates to the period of disciplinary reconstruction and paradigm change that has come to redefine literary studies in the Anglo-American academy, a period associated with the influx of what was once called ‘critical theory’ but is now more often termed simply ‘theory.’ However, what differentiates College Literature from other journals is our concern to understand and rethink (that is, to re-cognize) our current position in relationship to the upheavals of this period, rather than either simply taking them for granted or running ever onwards (or backwards) in search of novelty and ‘innovation.’
It is not possible in this short space to summarize the myriad changes involved in the disciplinary shifts of the last forty years, but it is possible to identify a broad realignment in the way in which ‘critique’ is articulated and understood across a number of positions, ‘schools,’ tendencies, and approaches, a realignment that is rooted in some of the central assumptions of contemporary ‘theory.’ One of the most exorbitant (in the legal sense) moves made by theory has been its rejection of any external criteria for critique, a rejection whose sweeping nature seems to unify all those positions against which it has erected itself. Traditionally, the story goes, critical judgments have always required an external set of criteria to calibrate and orientate judgment, whether in the guise [End Page 7] of a formal principle (proportion, non-contradiction, complexity, or the beautiful), a set of moral claims (the good, individualized freedom, or humanistic compassion), or a historical narrative (the triumph of the West, the achievement of liberal democracy, or the struggle for socialism). Such external criteria are said necessarily to imply an illegitimate and predatory universalism that results in the violent liquidation of difference, a conceptual violence that has widely come to be seen as consanguineous with the political and social violence of modernity.
This critique of ‘traditional’ modes of critique has been so successful because it offers not just a rejection of such modes, but also an alternative to them. Instead of calling on external criteria to address the text, theory reconceives the operation of critique as purely internal to the text understood as the bearer of its social determination: as ‘deconstruction’ (Derrida), the unraveling of the text’s own semantic tracery; or as ‘resistance’ (Foucault), the necessary doubleness of social systems when conceived as closed circuits, or topoi of pure immanence. This approach proved especially conducive to the political and social movements that came to the fore in this period, which in various ways premised political critique on the covert exclusions enabled by the language of universalism. Indeed, theory’s staying power has in part lain in its ability to offer itself not just as another critique of one form of universalism, but as a critical mode that rejects the externality seen as underlying the universalism of all earlier modes of critique, however radical they may have claimed to be. For in relocating critique within the perennially mobile transactions of meaning-making, theory takes on a politically self-reflexive dimension signaled by the widespread critique of ‘essentialism.’ Where social movements had looked to the particularities excluded by any statement of universalism (whether as ‘femininity,’ ‘blackness,’ ‘queerness,’ or the numerous yet inadvertently composite ‘non-Western’), theory has fastened onto the particularity underlying such critiques of universalism and identified in them a homologous appeal to externality in the guise of ‘essence.’
The point of these brief (and necessarily reductive) remarks is not to diminish the critical work done by recent theory, nor to devalue the very significant critiques developed by different social movements over this period. But after forty years...