Meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts.—Lyn Hejinian1
Scholars toiling within Anglo-American literature departments have long heard the heroic story of how, sometime during the early 1980s, the theoretically motivated project of poetics displaced old-fashioned hermeneutics, turning us away from the production of endless new interpretations and drawing our attention instead to the conditions of possibility—the grounds—that underlie interpretation in the first place. Though we know a bit more about Saussurian linguistics, Jakobsonian poetry axes, and Barthian reading codes, we might reasonably wonder why these grounds seem almost as murky as they did half a century ago. One answer is that, even for the minority of theorists who have remained engaged directly with literature—like, say, Jonathan Culler—literature's "grounds" tend to be a matter of conventions, or principles of intelligibility that, operative from the seventh century BCE to the present, are framed as inevitably independent of any synchronic social or historical inflection.2
Meanwhile, an emergent historicist would-be corrective in poetics, associated with the confusing name of "lyric theory," asserts that actually poetry means only within a series of [End Page 653] discrete synchronic horizons determined by a variety of genres and circulation systems, and that the only rigorous relation we can have to such writing across substantial historical gaps is the reconstruction of these determinate and individual contexts.3 You will have noticed, perhaps, that the lyric theory position is the symmetrical opposite of Culler's version of poetics; together these positions constitute a strangely stark opposition in which discourse on poetry currently finds itself: here an overly binding historicism, there an all-but-unbound theory.4
The contextual problem, to put it somewhat differently, is that theorists have not found a way to suggest, contra Culler, that poetry is also bound up with social and historical energies that require some provisional synchronic framing without ceasing to be theorists—without moving, that is, from timeless conventions to an understanding of poetry, or the arts and literature more generally, as a series of would-be determinate expressions of shifting social and historical conditions.5 And yet being a theorist, or even "doing theory," seems to have shifted its purview over the last several decades to the extent that among the most prestigious theorists of late—such as Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière—routinely stage doubts about the authority, scope, and methods of theory. Indeed, their prestige itself might be seen to emerge precisely from the ways they seem to turn theoretical authority over to their objects of study: "things" for Latour; workers and students for Rancière. Theirs are both worlds in which models are no longer substantiated anywhere the theorist might look; rather, these models meet resistance, qualification, and downsizing in scenes of generative, spark-producing contact with their recalcitrant objects of study. So far, so good; the problem (which I will return to at the end of the essay) is that critics now tend to appeal to the authority of Latour and Rancière in order to further the project of ceding authority, reciting the magical name "Latour" in order to allow things or object to do their part; solemnly pronouncing "Rancière" before even thinking about learning from a student or a worker.6 My goal in what follows is not to make theory disappear so that things and students, workers and poems can finally have their say, but to suggest how the productive qualification of theory that we see in the work of these two thinkers, and widely in the humanities beyond them, can be realized in a more direct and less genuflecting manner. What I am seeking to cultivate, [End Page 654] in other words, is a non-isomorphic relationship between objects and contexts, examples and paradigms, details and wholes. This gap or residue produced by the lack of perfect fit is significant not because it simply disproves theories, but because it turns them, too, into objects of inquiry (with limits and edges) and not just unquestioned machines of explanation. In such a world, theory can be qualified and illuminated by literature, for instance, and not only the reverse.