Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 61-81
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Why Did Modern Literary Theory Originate in Central and Eastern Europe?
(And Why Is It Now Dead?)
At the outset of the twenty-first century, we seem at last positioned to recognize and admit the demise of literary theory as a distinct discipline of scholarship. Even the most dedicated proponents of theory are busy spelling out the dimensions of its irremediable crisis. 1 In retrospect, one can locate literary theory within a period of some eighty years, from its inception in the late 1910s until perhaps the early 1990s. The beginnings of the discipline were marked by the activities of the Russian Formalists. Wolfgang Iser's turn in the late 1980s from reception theory and phenomenology of reading to what he called "literary anthropology" presaged the end of literary theory per se, and the death of Yuri Lotman in 1993 confirmed it. Lotman had in any case come gradually to embrace semiotics as a global theory of culture rather than a narrowly conceived theory of literature. 2
The earlier chronological boundary is by now commonly recognized: the [End Page 61] Russian Formalists were the first to see literature as an autonomous domain for theoretical investigation, and in their work they steered away from aesthetics, sociology, psychology, and history, while seeking support in linguistics. There were, in Germany, earlier attempts to take an autonomous approach to art, but these involved music and the visual arts rather than literature. Heinrich Wölfflin's dream of a history of art without names was echoed in Osip Brik's belief that, had Pushkin never existed, Eugene Onegin would have written itself. 3 Such was the sway of Wölfflin's innovation that when Oskar Walzel essayed to free the study of literature from the dominant framework of cultural history, he fell victim to parallels with art history. In proclaiming the theory of the "mutual illumination" of various arts, Walzel escaped the dangers of social and cultural history at the expense of allowing categories established as tools of art history ("style," for example) to intrude on the study of literature. 4 The Russian Formalists, however, were determined to discuss literature in terms of "literariness," a feature that they presumed or hoped would provide an explanation for whatever was distinctly literary. By concentrating on the literary "device," especially in the early phase of their work, the Formalists were leaving literature to its own devices, uncontrolled by, and irreducible to, ethics, religion, or politics.
The later chronological limit, the early 1990s, I have set primarily with developments in philosophy and cultural theory in mind. The 1910s signaled the ambition of literary studies to emancipate itself from the master discourses of philosophy (though even then, literary studies worked, not infrequently, in tactical collaboration with aesthetics). But from the mid-1970s onward, and especially in the 1980s, literary theory was once again—now through the powerful impact of deconstruction—swerving back in the direction of philosophy. In championing ideas originating with Nietzsche and Heidegger, deconstruction set a new agenda, for which literature was no more than a business among others. Thinking and writing about literature thus lost the edge of specificity and uniqueness, and the boundary between literary and nonliterary texts, solemnly guarded since the Formalists' time, was rendered porous and eventually insignificant. Similarly, feminism, postcolonialism, and New Historicism were all ways of reading more than just literary texts; they were strategies of cultural theory, and many literary theorists tried to avoid them out of fear lest these methods conjure back the spirit of Geistesgeschichte. By the 1970s, however, there were clear signals, particularly in the writings of the Tartu School, that literary theory would itself try (in an increasingly ambitious union with semiotics) to assume the role [End Page 62] of a general theory of culture, though success would mean by definition the end of literary theory proper.
Hence my assumption that the early 1990s represents the last stage in the protracted demise of literary theory as an autonomous branch of the...