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Historicizing Theory

Peter C. Herman

Publication Year: 2003

Historicizing Theory provides the first serious examination of contemporary theory in relation to the various twentieth-century historical and political contexts out of which it emerged. Theory—a broad category that is often used to encompass theoretical approaches as varied as deconstruction, New Historicism, and postcolonialism—has often been derided as a mere “relic” of the 1960s. In order to move beyond such a simplistic assessment, the essays in this volume examine such important figures as Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Stephen Greenblatt, and Edward Said, situating their work in a variety of contexts inside and outside of the 1960s, including World War II, the Holocaust, the Algerian civil war, and the canon wars of the 1980s. In bringing us face-to-face with the history of theory, Historicizing Theory recuperates history for theory and asks us to confront some of the central issues and problems in literary studies today.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Historicizing Theory

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii

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INTRODUCTION: The Resistance to Historicizing Theory

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pp. 1-16

“Always historicize!” commanded Fredric Jameson at the start of The Political Unconscious (1981).1 Yet curiously, this imperative, which I take to mean the investigation of the complex, reciprocal relations between texts and sociological, political, and/or economic events, has largely bypassed theory itself. Even though the last thirty years or so have witnessed a resurgence of historical studies, a resurgence largely predicated upon rejecting the New Critical ...

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1. The Holocaust, French Poststructuralism, the American Literary Academy, and Jewish Identity Poetics

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pp. 17-47

At a 1980 colloquium honoring Jacques Derrida entitled “The Ends of Man,” Jean-François Lyotard delivered a lecture, “Discussions, or Phrasing ‘after Auschwitz,’” in which he spoke the epigraphic phrase that I just cited. During the discussion that followed, Derrida enjoined: “if there is somewhere a One must, it must link up with a one must make links with Auschwitz; . . . I mean to say that the unlinkable of Auschwitz prescribes that we make links.”1 Over the next decade, French intellectuals—especially leading poststructuralist philosophers, textual critics, and social theorists—voluminously obliged.

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2. Michel Foucault and the Specter of War

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pp. 49-67

The last two decades of critical reflection on the legacy of Michel Foucault have given us a substantive and dynamic portrait of the theorist as Parisian intellectual, sexual revolutionary, and political dissident—all roles Foucault consciously adopted and polished, while leaving the factual skeleton of his life deliberately unfleshed. Indeed, critical views of Foucault have often reproduced his own reluctance to connect his thought to a life: ...

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3. Historicizing Paul de Man’s Master Trope Prosopopeia: Belgium’s Trauma of 1940, the Nazi Volkskörper, and Versions of the Allegorical Body Politic

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pp. 69-97

The recovery of Paul de Man’s wartime writings spurred a flurry of research that seemed to end quickly.While some theorists still concentrate on decoding the arcane vocabulary in de Man’s mature work, the task of understanding the presence of his earlier in his later work remains. As an exemplar of de Manian “arcanism” we might take Tom Cohen; as the exemplar of historicizing the mature de Man as an often ghostly refraction of the young de Man, ...

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4. “Nostalgeria” and “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”

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pp. 99-111

More than thirty years after Jacques Derrida first read his essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966) at the Johns Hopkins Conference on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” it may seem redundant to return to the “originary” moment of Derrida’s spectacularly successful—and simultaneously remarkably simplified—American reception. However, now that, reportedly, “deconstruction . . . is dead in literature departments today”—as Jeffrey T. Nealon writes in ...

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5. Jean Baudrillard and May ’68: An Acoustic Archaeology

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pp. 113-135

Georges Perec’s Les choses (1965) has become a canonical reference for the discussion of the displacement of history and the existential subject in postwar France. In this novel, identity and historical consciousness pass into the vacuous world of signs: British-made shoes for Jérôme, a handmade cashmere twin-set for Sylvie, a chesterfield couch, some “para-scientific trifles” for the home, and so on.1 Sylvie and Jérôme are young market researchers whose aspirations begin

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6. Stephen Greenblatt’s “X”-Files: The Rhetoric of Containment and Invasive Disease in “Invisible Bullets” and “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”

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pp. 137-157

Stephen Greenblatt’s essay “Invisible Bullets”—subtitled “Renaissance Authority and its Subversion”—first appeared in print in 1981, a year after the election of Ronald Reagan. In this essay, Greenblatt offered his now famous double reading of the Elizabethan philosopher, scientist, and New World colonist Thomas Harriot’s seemingly subversive encounters with Algonquian culture and Prince Hal’s seemingly subversive encounters with London’s underworld culture. Both instances, Greenblatt argued, ...

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7. New Historicizing the New Historicism; or, Did Stephen Greenblatt Watch the Evening News in Early 1968?

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pp. 159-189

On 1 February 1968, in the early hours of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, somewhere on the streets of Saigon, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese National Police, raised his right arm to within inches of the head of a man dressed in dark shorts and a checked shirt, and fired a single bullet. The man grimaced and then slumped to the pavement with a jet of blood splashing from a hole in the side of his head. In the chaos of Tet, this man was not the only suspected Vietcong (VC) sympathizer to be disposed of ...

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8. The End of Culture

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pp. 191-208

Walter Benn Michaels’ Our America (1995) works to expose uncomfortable connections between doing and being in American discourses of identity, arguing persuasively that if “culture” describes what we do, then “race”— whether we like it or not—describes who we are. Michaels performs this exposure by complicating the shift from racial essentialism to cultural pluralism in the early twentieth century.Whereas the standard logic has been that this was a good thing insofar as it worked toward purging American race ...

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9. Literature, Incorporated: Harold Bloom, Theory, and the Canon

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pp. 209-233

What is there to say, at this late date, about Harold Bloom?1 The polemics are over, history has moved on—yet was anything ever said in a timely fashion about him, even back in the distant seventies? Has it not always been too late or too early in the day to figure him out? Such questions no doubt risk sounding tendentious: surely Bloom has received more than his share of attention over the years. And though he likes to complain (as what author doesn’t?) of ...

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10. The Sixties, the New Left, and the Emergence of Cultural Studies in the United States

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pp. 235-254

It is often assumed that Cultural Studies in the United States is the North American branch of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. This judgment is hard to prove, because assumptions are usually left unstated and no one had argued the point in so many words. Others have noticed the same thing, however. For example, Richard Ohmann, writing in 1991, asserted that Cultural Studies “felt almost like a British export” at what we must now recognize as U.S. Cultural Studies’s coming out party, the ...

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11. The Postcolonial Godfather

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pp. 255-275

One of Peter C. Herman’s premises for this volume, Historicizing Theory, receives confirmation in postcolonial theory, since historical events patently inspired it. The other premise runs into some very particular difficulties. For while it is true, for the most part, that critics prefer to suppress their own historicity—who wouldn’t, after all, rather be a cause than an effect?—the very name of postcolonial theory ties it to its historical origins, and its principle critics ...

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12. The Spectrality of the Sixties

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pp. 277-299

The utopian impulse contributed to social movements like People’s Park, but it was also a “structure of feeling” that inspired critical theory from the sixties to the present day. Utopia was not always the lucid ideology exemplified by Bardacke’s “image of a new society”; it also appeared as an unspecified desire or hope for major systemic change or what Raymond Williams calls “affective elements of consciousness.”1 The academics of the “next generation,” who did ...

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13. Afterword: Historicism and Its Limits

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pp. 301-314

When I began teaching English at Columbia University in the fall of 1966, the campus atmosphere was alive with conflict but the revolution that would transform scholarship in the humanities was still in its infancy. National politics and the role of the university were the issues, not the methodology of any discipline. Every month brought demonstrations and teach-ins against the Vietnam War, the draft, the ROTC, and defense research, but the coming battle in literary and cultural studies was barely on the horizon.


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pp. 315-317


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pp. 319-324

E-ISBN-13: 9780791485682
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791459614
Print-ISBN-10: 0791459616

Page Count: 324
Illustrations: 1 b/w photograph
Publication Year: 2003