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Page 2: Don’t Fear the Reaper

From: American Book Review
Volume 35, Number 2, January/February 2014
pp. 2-25 | 10.1353/abr.2014.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

A lot has been said of late about the death of theory, but not so much on the death of theorists.

Sure, there have been obituaries and legacy volumes—and even some biographies of theorists—but not much discussion about what the death of theory’s progenitors means for the institution of theory.

In the case of literature, when a major author passes, they are immediately pulled from the contemporary and embalmed in literary history. Their books are often reissued in paperback with fancy new covers—and a volume or two of their letters comes out after a respectful waiting period.

If in life they were more like Rock Stars than Writers, then every last fragment of their estate will be culled for publishable material. The most absurd and sad recent cases are the shameful finishing and exploitative publication of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King (2011), and the publication of few dozen index cards that Vladimir Nabokov was shuffling around into a 280 page “novel in fragments” called The Original of Laura (2009).

In short, the marketplace of literature takes care of its dead poets.

But theorists are neither novelists nor poets—let alone major ones. The work of theory has always been a small market endeavor—and in fact the best-selling books in the field are guidebooks such as Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory (1983) and anthologies such as Vince Leitch’s Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001, 2010).

To be sure, even the most well-known and highly—regarded theorists only have audiences a fraction of the size of towering literary figures such as Wallace and Nabokov. So, publishing their unfinished and underfinished work posthumously is not a wise marketing decision for presses interested in selling books—that is to say, most solvent presses today. So, even though David Foster Wallace’s master’s thesis was published complete with an introductory essay, don’t expect Stanley Fish or Barbara Johnson to receive the same treatment.

So, what can we expect? Let’s see.

Theory has always struck me as being a living entity.

Perhaps it was because its major figures always seemed so full of life and lively—most of all in their writing. Not staid and static creatures like the philosophers, but dynamic and dangerous individuals who by the power of their personalities and enchantment of their intellect brought to life a body of thought that straddled but was never at home in any of the traditional humanities disciplines.

This disciplinary homelessness created a continuous institutional anxiety about theory. Departments who allowed it entry did so at their own peril—a peril fraught with the potential of disrupting their traditional self-identity. But they also opened up their department to a continual sense of new possibilities and knowledge formations as well as to closer ties with other areas of knowledge and academic disciplines.

Through the eyes of theory, traditional disciplinary lines such as philosophy, English, comparative literature, and foreign languages blur via elegant readings that continuously ignore disciplinary stop signs. Moreover, theory always seemed to have a different relationship with history than its associated disciplines.

From the vantage point of theory, the institution of philosophy always appears to be unfolding backward into the call and response of its history, whereas theory always appears to remain in the present—and, in effect, resist the pull of history. It might even be said that efforts to map out “the history” of theory or to capture it “in history” are merely attempts to normalize it, that is, to bring it in line with the histories of more traditional areas of inquiry such as philosophy or science.

Most certainly, when history finally gets a grip on theory it will be history—in the same way that alchemy and philology are history.

But, the distinction here is not between the historical and the ahistorical—the drama the institution of philosophy still plays out over and over again, namely, is philosophy a historical or an ahistorical enterprise? Choosing sides here leads to very different types of philosophical discourse. Rather, in the case of theory, the distinction is between the historical and the present—or, more precisely, the...


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