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  • The Book History of Theory
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio)

The rise of theory is a familiar story, and most histories account for particular theories and theorists, for instance Derrida critiquing the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss or Saussure on the way to inventing deconstruction. That is, most histories see theory as a chain of ideas. The commonplace figure of "the conversation" tacitly frames it that way—it is a dialogue of what's said, of statements and arguments. It is of course that, but it is not only that; the conversational model largely abstracts theory from its institutional and historical situations. Those situations might loom in the background—we often hear that the sixties provided the air that made contemporary theory breath—but they seem atmospheric.

One way we might account for the institutional situation of theory is through its book history, and I think we need to develop this dimension of critical history. The books and journals and other publishing apparatuses of theory form the material channels that generate criticism, and they provide a concrete way to look at the operation of the institution and how it bounds the field and makes the rules for criticism in its time. Institutions sometimes seem to designate large impersonal forces or constraining disciplinary ogres, but like the rules of a game, they both create the conditions for, as well as limit the possibilities of, criticism.

There is relatively little scholarly work on the book history of theory. As a point of contrast, there is a great deal of scholarship on the literary magazines and journals of modernism, and by extension there is a good deal of scholarship on the journals of the New Criticism.1 But there is little on what I have called the theory journal, even though the brief period between 1969 and 1979 saw more than thirty new such journals founded, as well other print channels of theory.

One avenue of research might be looking at publishers. For instance, it would be telling to look in more depth at presses like Routledge, Minnesota, and Duke and the shift in academic publishing in the U.S. during the 1980s [End Page 443] and 90s.2 For instance, the rise of theory was not only recorded by Routledge, but Routledge spurred and shaped it, especially after the founding of its New York office in the late 1980s.3 I got a firsthand glimpse of its operation in 1989-90, when I was in the limbo between PhD and a proper academic job and worked there as an editorial assistant. I saw Bill Germano, the editorial director and commissioning editor for literature, and the other editors at work, and the parade of books they published around that time, such as H. Aram Veeser's collection The New Historicism (1989), Donna Haraway's Primate Visions (1989), Andrew Ross' No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (1989), Diana Fuss' Essentially Speaking (1989), Gayatri Spivak's The Postcolonial Critic (1990), Stephen Greenblatt's Learning to Curse (1990), and Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990).4 While he doesn't appear in most histories, I think Germano had a significant hand in making theory what it became and overseeing its development as a publishing category. I'd first heard of Germano when I was in graduate school and starting to read the main texts of deconstruction. It was the moment just after de Man's death, after he had just received a front-page obituary in the New York Times (1983) but before the front-page revelations of his journalism from World War II and two anti-Semitic articles (1987), and his influence was probably at its peak. In September 1985 there was a major memorial conference at CUNY, and in the lobby of the lecture hall was a table with stacks of de Man's recently published The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984). De Man had published only two books during his lifetime so the volume was something of an event, and perusing the preface I was intrigued to read that, according to de Man, the volume owed its existence to Germano, who was a young editor at Columbia University Press and had suggested it (1984, vii...


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pp. 443-449
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