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Reviewed by:
  • A William V. Spanos Reader: Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative ed. by Daniel T. O’Hara, Donald E. Pease, Michelle Martin
  • Robert Ryan
Daniel T. O’Hara, Donald E. Pease, Michelle Martin, eds. A William V. Spanos Reader: Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2015. 728 pp.

The arrival of A William V. Spanos Reader: Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative marks a sort of defining moment in what we might call William V. Spanos’ “late period.” This term is of course borrowed from Edward Said (who himself borrowed it from Adorno), who defines in On Late Style an artist or critic’s late style in terms of “a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against…” (2006, 7). Indeed, the work collected in the Reader tells the story of a scholar whose investments become increasingly urgent, and whose later output refuses to “reflect a…spirit of reconciliation and serenity” (2006, 6). The invocation of Said here is deliberate, for he remains the thinker (second only to Heidegger) to whom Spanos has dedicated the most interpretive energy, the most care, and with whose thought Spanos has produced the most Auseinandersetzung, a Heideggerian term that Spanos translates as “loving strife.” It is further deliberate to invoke Said and Heidegger together, for one of the most edifying features of this volume is Spanos’ sustained fidelity to Heidegger, against the backdrop of an emergent, increasingly institutionalized field of “theory.” Spanos’ careful readings make Heidegger think with and against critics as diverse as Kierkegaard, Foucault, Derrida, Said, Agamben, and others, offering a Heideggerian counter-history of critical and literary theory.

To refer to the Reader in terms of a defining moment, though, (something that calls to mind the fulfillment of a teleological project, the monumentalization of a historical arc) may strike the reader as patently un-Spanosian. But in a time when interest in Heidegger either takes the tack of various object oriented ontologies or appears as a renewed tracing of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, Spanos’ insistence on the continued relevance of the question of being throughout his work can be thought precisely in terms of the “unproductive productiveness of going against.” We might thus cautiously and provisionally speak of a “defining moment” in order to do justice to the restless, inventive, and enduring relevance of Spanos’ critical life.

The Reader appears nearly alongside Spanos’ newest critical work, Redeemer Nation in the Interregnum: An Untimely Meditation on the American Vocation, and two years after boundary 2—the field-defining journal of post-modernism that Spanos founded with Robert Kroetsch in 1972—dedicated a special issue to his work. All this, along with his most recent works—The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor (2011), Exiles in the City: Hannah Arendt and Edward W. Said in Counterpoint (2012), Shock and Awe: American Exceptionalism and the Imperatives of the [End Page 567] Spectacle in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (2013), numerous articles, interviews, and still more forthcoming work—constitutes the image of an unremittingly engaged and agile thinker and scholar.

Throughout, “agile” remains, perhaps unexpectedly, the adjective best suited to describe the work collected in the Reader. Editors Daniel T. O’Hara, Donald Pease, and Michelle Martin deftly arrange a broad, sometimes difficult body of work that spans slightly over four decades (1970-2012). Ranging from inaugural essays on the postmodern (“The Detective and the Boundary”) to the relationship between Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger (“Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and the Hermeneutic Circle”), comparative work on Jane Austen and Herman Melville (“Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: The Imperial Violence of the Novel of Manners”) and contemporary political critique (“Arab Spring, 2011”), these interventions draw together strikingly different commitments, staging what Mina Karavanta in “William V. Spanos’ Ontopolitical Criticism” (2015) rightly calls the “ontopolitical”; criticism that affirms and thinks together sites of textuality, ontology, and politics. It is then fitting that the three sections are presented as a series of thematic “turns”—existentialism and the postmodern turn, humanism and the poststructuralist turn, American exceptionalism and...


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