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Citation shapes literary and cultural theory and practice in two distinct but intertwined ways: it drives the dissemination of texts and concepts; and it offers a theoretical framework for understanding literary and cultural continuity and change. Citation is an act of power and often prejudice that produces the winners and losers, the stars and the "also-rans" of the academy, not just in literary and cultural studies but across all scholarly disciplines from astrophysics to neuroscience. In literary and cultural studies, many of the most highly cited—largely Anglo-American and European—theorists of the past fifty years have in turn emphasized, often above all else, the role of repetition, reiteration, and citation in language, literature, and our social lives.
This essay shows how alternative lines of citation might offer alternative understandings of the citational nature of literature and culture. The habitual citation of theorists like Derrida, I argue, obscures other genealogies for citation theory. I take as my example Kamau Brathwaite, who in the 1960s developed a citational account of Caribbean cultural history that drew inspiration from Akan drumming, the work of Ghanaian musicologist J. H. Kwabena Nketia, and new technologies, such as the tape recorder. Such alternative citation chains suggest the need to rethink both the history of literary theory and our theories of world literature. On the one hand, they highlight how the privileging of literary theorists working within the Western tradition (and the corresponding treatment of texts from other traditions as mere material on which to test Western theories, rather than as themselves sources of theoretical ideas) belies the actual historical complexity of cross-cultural exchange and impoverishes our theories of literature and culture. On the other hand, citation theories such as Brathwaite's themselves offer an alternative theoretical model for understanding the circulations of literary theory and practice. Their stress on the repetition and adaptation of existing texts and ideas—rather than on celebrated points of origin—allows us to think world literature, theory, and citation otherwise.