- Literary Criticism in the 21st Century: Theory Renaissance by Vincent B. Leitch
Theory is dead. Long live theory! The contemplation (theoria) of its own status—ontological, intellectual, institutional, cultural, and otherwise—seems to have always been a constitutive element of theory, but recently it seems this tendency toward self-assessment has kicked into high gear. In the last year or so alone we have had an account of theory’s medieval birth (Andrew Cole’s The Birth of Theory) and an elegy (a titular elegy, if not an actual one) for theory from a prominent film theorist (D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory)—not to mention many other such works situated somewhere between theory’s birth and death. Vincent B. Leitch’s new book Literary Criticism in the 21st Century: Theory Renaissance is a welcome addition to the genre, and is recommended to anyone interested in thinking about, to paraphrase Trollope, the way(s) we theorize now.
Like some of Leitch’s earlier books, especially 2003’s Theory Matters, Literary Criticism in the 21st Century assembles a versatile assortment of disparate discursive forms while still retaining a coherent and lucid perspective on the current and future status of theory. The ten chapters of the book range over genres like the interview, autobiography, manifesto (or “credo”), book review, interpretive essay, and a “letter to my young colleagues” (151)—but all are exemplary exercises in cultural and cognitive mapping, and a showcase for Leitch’s relentlessly taxonomic and cartographic mind. Indeed, the first page of the book, before even the title page, is an extensive diagram of the contemporary “theory renaissance,” listing over one hundred fields and subfields old and new—many of which are discussed in the pages of the book, but many which are not. Leitch himself confesses at one point that he is “perhaps too fond of lists and maps, earned generalizations and slogans,” but one is grateful for his Virgilian guidance through the “disaggregated” and pluralistic labyrinth of contemporary theoretical discourse (82).
As the “renaissance” in the book’s title implies, Leitch is refreshingly optimistic about theory’s intellectual and institutional future, though he tempers this cheeriness with a grimly realistic account of contemporary neoliberalism and its corporate university marked by “demands for productivity, its onslaught of publications, its 55 hour work week, its addiction to cheap adjunct labor, its proliferation of student debt, and its obsession with research innovation and grants” (25-26). As Leitch points out, there is no getting around theory (G.K. Chesterton: “Theory is always unavoidable”), and we need it now more than ever: “there is no after theory” (16). While never losing sight of the ambivalent status of the corporate university as a frenemy of academic theory (pharmakon, Derrida might say), the book also takes up theory’s intellectual and political opponents in Chapters 2 and 3, which contain fascinating summaries of and responses to major challenges to theory from right, left, center, and less classifiable positions. Leitch is especially good on the facile nature of antitheoretical calls for a “return to close reading.” Who, indeed, was a closer reader than Derrida?
As for Derrida, he features prominently in the middle chapters of the book, which include an extensive, thoughtful review essay on Benoît Peeters’s recent biography of the French thinker, and a provocative if brief account of Derrida’s last seminar The Beast and the Sovereign. This latter chapter, entitled “French Theory’s Second Life,” is a nice supplement to the recent book length treatments of Derrida’s endlessly fecund [End Page 513] text by David Farrell Krell and Michael Naas. For Leitch, French Theory’s second life consists not, as one might have assumed, in the new wave of compelling, invigorating, and influential contemporary thinkers coming out of France right now—i.e. what Ian James has dubbed “The New French Philosophy” in a fine book of that name (this was somewhat disappointing for this reviewer, who had hoped to see mentions of the likes of Malabou, Laruelle, Stengers, Meillassoux, Latour, Tristan...