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Reviewed by:
  • Theory after “Theory.”
  • Nicholas Birns
Theory after “Theory.” Derek Attridge and Jane Elliot, eds. London: Routledge, 2011. Pp. xxiv + 321. $145.00 (cloth); $39.95 (paper).

It is an amusing gesture to have me write a review of this book, since I am the author of a book called Theory After Theory (without the quotation marks). The difference is perhaps in the word “after,” which can be both spatial and temporal. My book, which tried to combine a sense of iterability in the Derridean sense with the traditional continuity of intellectual history, used “after” in the more serial sense; this collection uses the word more in the successive way.

Thus one might find here, as expected, a focus on theorists who reemerged in the English-speaking world after 1990: Agamben, Žižek, Badiou, Rancière. Of these only Žižek is really of a generation subsequent to Derrida and Foucault’s; Agamben, Badiou, and Rancière were all born only a few years after Derrida, and indeed Badiou was born earlier than figures such as Kristeva and Todorov, who were given full membership in the first wave of theory. Indeed, Rancière and Badiou are mentioned as younger but comparable colleagues in Louis Althusser’s memoir The Future Lasts Forever.1 Their Anglophone currency, however, came later. Of the new big names only Quentin Meillassoux, born in 1967, is a veritable baby as far as European high theorists go. This sort of late theoretical eminence has even been achieved by some of the contributors to the book: namely, Bernard Stiegler, Adriana Cavarero, Elizabeth Povinelli, and Brian Massumi. In their introduction, though, Elliot and Attridge make clear that this will not be simply “Theory”: The Next Generation. Although all these thinkers, especially Agamben and Meillassoux, figure prominently in the arguments of several of the contributors, Attridge and Elliot assert that their volume will not “draw obsessively on the work of certain oracular figures,” and that if certain famous names come up with regularity, they are likelier to be “far from new” (3). In this regard, the editors mention Amanda Anderson’s citations of Lionel Trilling, Rey Chow’s mention of Brecht (and for that matter Benjamin), and Adriana Cavarero and Linda Zerilli’s citations of Hannah Arendt. To this could be added Laurent Dubreuil’s discussion of the poetry of D. H. Lawrence, Henry Staten’s and Stiegler’s respectful evocation [End Page 831] of the aesthetics of Paul Valéry, and even Staten’s unlikely revival of Leon Trotsky as providing, intriguingly, “the best brief statement of the relative claims of formalism and history” (235).

Indeed, the book’s primary effect is to make the twentieth century the backdrop to contemporary theory. True, writers such as Borges and Proust had prominent roles in, say, the work of Paul de Man. But romanticism and the long nineteenth century were at the core of the emphases of the Yale school and the work of Edward W. Said and Fredric R. Jameson. The thinkers anthologized by Attridge and Elliot, though, privilege the short twentieth century, its ethical gaps and formal challenges—it is this period that offers the theoretical imperative. As Peter Hallward’s essay perceptively asserts, this is a gesture of hope, not of resigned despair to the permanence of post-1980 global capitalism. Arendt’s work is central to this, bridging what Zerilli called the “generative power of imagination” (127) and what she, in late-Wittgensteinian mode, calls “the mutual attunement of language” (130). Subjectivity, personhood is reasserted, though not naively, as Roberto Esposito’s brilliant treatment of the latter concept shows.

With this Arendtian turn comes a revised sense of the political. In the 1980s, what sufficed as “the political” was a vague Marxism combined with a rebuke of formalism (disappointingly, this vagueness recurs towards the end of Staten’s essay, which until then provides an exhilarating discussion of how the idea of techne can widen the romantic base of neo-aestheticism). J. Hillis Miller and a few others tried to counter this tendency with a sense of the ethical that was both rhetorically aware and which contained an incipient political pluralism. The Soviet collapse and the delegitimizing...


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