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Review of Nicholas Birn's Theory After Theory

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Review of Nicholas Birn's Theory After Theory
Theory after Theory. An Intellectual History of Literary Theory from 1950 to the Early 21st Century. Nicholas Birns

Published in Chasqui 39.2 (Nov. 2010): 201-06

Review

Ignacio López-Calvo

University of California, Merced

Theory after Theory. An Intellectual History of Literary Theory from 1950 to the Early 21st Century. Nicholas Birns. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2010. 345 pp.

Nicholas Birns’s Theory after Theory is an accessible and eloquent survey of the undeniable impact that the major theoretical figures and schools have had on literary studies since 1950. According to Birns, the arrival of theory per se (which he sees as an intrinsic part of intellectual history) came thanks to the prominence of five notable intellectuals: Roland Barthes, Harold Bloom, Wayne C. Booth, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. The study has a preface that examines literary theory during the 1950s, seven chapters presented in chronological order from the 1960s to the 2000s, and an index. Only the first two chapters are devoted to specific theorists, Derrida and Foucault, who are heralded as the most influential ones in the theoretical era, while the rest of the chapters focus on movements, with subchapters dedicated to other theorists, as was done in the first two chapters. As the author explains in a note, Theory after Theory is intended both as a handbook for students and as an intellectual history of literary criticism. Rather than creating new theories or presenting literary theory as a dogmatic method, Birns defends theory as an analytical tool that has had great influence in the history of literary studies. In his view, despite numerous criticisms, “theory’s ultimate effect on intellectual history has been emancipatory” (41). Likewise, several paragraphs defend some of the theorists, both as professionals and as individuals, from attacks they have received.

As to the New Intellectuals (a group often ignored in similar books on theory), their main concern, according to Birns, was the relationship between the novel and society. They were also keen on generalizations such as “great works of literature being about the individual versus society” (19). Leavisism was the longest lasting of the three ideologies and, unlike the previous two schools, embraced both fiction and poetry. They tended to select the novelist’s “mature” work because, according to Birns, “the whole emphasis on ‘maturity’ ran parallel to the 1950s being an era in which reproductive heterosexuality was the only publicly acknowledged mode of human sexual conduct. ‘Maturity’ was heteronormative” (26). Leavis’s canon revision was inspired, in Birns’s view, by resentment against the upper class.

Harold Bloom’s major contributions were his refutation of the New Critics’ canon and his notion that critical interpretation was an act of creation. His concepts of “misreading” and “the anxiety of influence” also brought back the importance of individuality and subjectivity in literary history. In turn, Roland Barthes saw the art-object as an interactive text. Birns argues that in supporting interdisciplinarity and in claiming that everything that could be read in a literary way could be a text, Barthes should be considered the father of modern cultural studies. The chapter closes with Wayne C. Booth’s major contributions: his introduction of the concepts of the “implied author” and the “unreliable narrator.”

Chapter one concentrates on Michel Foucault, whose theories are considered here part of the deconstructive movement: “But Foucault, when read attentively, is no less deconstructive than Derrida in the way he makes impossible glib generalizations about historical periods and temporal causation that previously reigned rampant in academia” (76). As Birns explains, Foucault, along with Derrida, dominated literary theory in the English-speaking world for a good part of the twentieth century, but their effect took place mostly within the academia. These two thinkers, as well as French theory in general, contributed, according to the author, to incorporate more abstract or philosophical ideas and frameworks (including those of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud) into literary studies. Theorists, therefore, brought new interdisciplinary methodologies that sought to go beyond the appearances, the surface, and the obvious. However, the fact that neither Foucault nor Derrida advocated any positive alternative to their critique of earlier thinkers brought about accusations of cynicism. Whereas Foucault was usually seen as more sociopolitically relevant, Derrida was thought of as being only preoccupied with form and language. In any case, both problematized the way in which categories had been created and intellectual inquiry had been conducted in the West. As Birns explains, “Derrida and Foucault sought instead to reframe the terms by which systems are set up and understood” (47).

The rest of the chapter deals with the different periods in Foucault’s opus, focusing on his key books and articles in each period. Birns highlights Foucault’s interest in cultural transition, how he helped bridge the sciences (medicine, psychiatry, sociology) and the humanities, and how he focused on issues related to sex, soul and the body, always questioning the neutrality of institutions, the teleological nature of intellectual history, and the processes and methods of classification used by those in power. One of the subchapters also includes a commentary on Foucault’s brief analysis of Don Quixote, subtly noticing vestiges of nineteenth-century French espagnolerie in his approach to Spanish cultural production.

Birns considers Foucault’s discourse on what can be said and done socially in different periods (i.e., meaning as defined by historical difference) a complement of Derrida’s study of the instability of meaning as manifested in language (meaning as defined by textual gaps). The second chapter of the book is dedicated to this other great thinker of the theoretical age and it opens with an analysis of Jewish traits in Derrida’s technique. Then, it explains the way Derrida put binary oppositions into an infinitely postponed play and took Saussure’s ideas further by claiming that the relation between the signifier signified was almost an impossibility. One of the subchapters is dedicated to the discussion of Derrida’s terminology, including terms such as “deconstruction,” “écriture,” “différance,” “supplement,” “logocentric,” “trace,” “grammatology,” “textuality,” “pharmakon,” and “destinerrance.”

Another subchapter, which focuses on American deconstruction and, in particular, on the Yale School (Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller), ends in one of the numerous acute and interesting statements in the book: “it can be argued that, eventually, much of deconstruction will be seen as a delayed or extended intellectual response to the war and the Holocaust, as a questioning of philosophical absolutes generated by the trauma in their wake. It may not have beem May 1968 so much as May 1945” (101). Subsequent subchapters are devoted to the scandal of de Man’s pro-Nazi writings during his youth and to deconstruction’s rival theories: reader-response theory, which repealed New Criticism’s idea of the affective fallacy, and new historicism, with its emphasis on social background. Again, Birns concentrates on key terms and authors, such as Wofgang Iser’s “implied reader” and Hans Robert Jauss’s “horizon of expectations.” Likewise, he explores Mikhail Bakhin’s concepts of “dialogism” and “carnivalization,” Hans-Georg Gadamer’s idea of “the consciousness of the working of effects,” and Fredric Jameson’s “national allegory.” The chapter closes with a commentary of Derrida’s so-called “ethical turn” and his more personal writings during the 1990s. The last paragraph provides a high-spirited praise of this theorist as the most influential thinker in the twentieth century.

Chapter three deals with feminist theory. Among the many achievements of feminist criticism, Birns underscores how it opened the canon to women writers, brought attention to female characters in literary works, and opened the door for the full acceptance of women into a hitherto openly misogynistic academic community. In his view, Victorian studies were the seedbed of feminism, but women were also successful in Medieval and Renaissance studies. The exclusion of women from the canon, he argues, was related to a hierarchical organization of periods: “periods with a ‘good’ reputation were gendered male. Those with a ‘bad’ reputation were gendered female” (134). According to Birns, the masculinist emphasis on philology, the Anglo-Saxon period, and other choices in the canon were also related to the fact that women had been the primary readers of modern fiction for a long time, and the academia was guarding its reputation from the frivolity associated with this readership. He also looks at the inclusion in or exclusion from the canon of Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austin, and other women writers.

The Anglo-American feminism of the 1970s provided a renewed interest in Freud’s and Lacan’s psychoanalytical theories. Kate Millet, Shulman, Juliet Mitchell, and others used it to expose and reverse patriarchy, and to overturn historical assumptions. Écriture feminine, “a certain kind of writing that is less methodical, more irrational, less intellectual, and more experiential” (142), is the concept in French feminism (considered here a more gender essentialist approach) that is given more emphasis in the chapter. Besides Julia Kristeva’s theories, Luce Irigaray’s notions of “phallogocentrism” and “woman,” and Cixous’s idea of “jouissance” are also discussed.

After this first wave of the 1970s, Birns turns to the second wave feminism of the 1980s, which was more centered on the past, on discovering a history of resistance and rescuing forgotten women writers. Here, the author contrasts Carol Gilligan’s difference feminism, which emphasized motherhood and women’s nurturing and communitarian tendencies, with Donna Haraway’s cyborgian feminism, “which emphasized the unnaturalness over the naturalness of women’s bodies” (150). The third wave of the 1990s, continues Birns, claimed a more open attitude about sex and women’s sexuality, and criticized the whiteness and socioeconomic privilege of the second wave. It was also more involved with queer issues and substituted the notion of “woman” for that of “gender.” Yet Birns criticizes the third wave for lacking the theoretical orientation of the second wave or its “degree of fructifying connection to larger cognitive and administrative thought bodies” (161). The feminist figures from the 2000s that are highlighted in the last subchapter are Rossi Briadoti and Kelly Oliver, who separated feminism from identity politics.

Thanks to theory, claims Birns in the fourth chapter, issues of race and racism began to be considered in literary criticism. In the midst of widespread objection in the academia, this anti-racist criticism incorporated works by minorities, such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Ismael Reed. Birns considers W.E.B. Du Bois, Benjamin Mays, and Stephen Henderson pioneers of criticism on African American literature. Then, he continues with the emergence of African American criticism in the 1970s and early 1980s, focusing, in particular, on Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s books The Signifying Monkey and Figures in Black. He also considers the building of the African American canon during the 1980s and Paul Gilroy’s key notion of the “Black Atlantic.” The questioning of race in the public sphere is brought about through the exploration of theoretical discourses of Kwame Anthony Appiah, Stuart Hall, and Cornel West. In particular, West’s book Race Matters is contrasted with Gilroy’s Against Race.

Birns discusses Asian American criticism in the next subchapter, focusing on notions such as “the model minority” and the different types of discrimination suffered by the Chinese and the Japanese: “Although ‘Asian Americans’ experienced a shared history of discrimination in the United States, the nature and severity of this discrimination varied as a consequence of the very different national histories of China and Japan generating different Euro-American responses. Also, Chinese and Japanese people defined themselves as distinct” (194). This is followed by a brief discussion of the relation between literary theory and Native American literature, mentioning critics such as Gerald Vizenor, and writers such as Zitkala-Sa, Mourning Dove, D’Arcy McNickle, and N. Scott Momaday.

One of the virtues of Theory after Theory is that it incorporates critics and theorists from usually ignored parts of the world, such as the Brazilian Antônio Cândido, the Spanish Américo Castro, the Italian Giorgio Agamben, and the Nigerian Chinweizu, among many others. Likewise, he goes beyond the usual surveys of British, American, German, French, and Russian theory, to incorporate writers, critics, and theorists from Canada, Australia (Birns is a specialist in Australian literature), and other parts of the world. From this perspective, chapter four includes a review of Latin American and U.S. Latino theory that is often absent from similar books in the market. It considers several Latin American thinkers’ theoretical discourses, including Ángel Rama’s notion of “the lettered city,” Fernando Ortiz’s concept of “transculturation,” Antonio Cornejo Polar’s understanding of “heterogenity,” and Néstor García Canclini’s idea of “hybridity.” Birns also discusses the different approaches to the notion of mestizaje, as seen in the works of José Enrique Rodó, José Martí, José Vasconcelos, José María Arguedas, José Carlos Mariátegui, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, Jorge Icaza, and others. Brazilian criticism and theory are also incorporated through the works of Paulo Freire, Antônio Cândido and Roberto Schwartz, as is U.S. Latino theory, through Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of the “borderland” and Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s “life in the hyphen.” A review of the literature of several Chinana/o authors, including José Antonio Villarreal, Alurista, Tomás Rivera, and Helena María Viramontes, and a remark of the significance of Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential elections close the chapter.

The fifth chapter is devoted to post-colonial theory, which, as Birns reminds us, began in the Francophone world with the writings of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Frantz Fanon. The latter (like Homi Bhabha) established a link between post-colonial theory and psychoanalysis in his works, The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks. Birns then summarizes historic landmarks that ended up in the failure of the Third World Project that had begun in the Bandung conference in 1955. Moving on to the 1980s, he reviews the writings of several critics from Africa, Australia, and Canada. In a subchapter titled “Open Borders,” he analyzes how Homi Bhabha’s notion of “mimicry” has been applied to Salman Rushdie’s novels. He also highlights The Empire Writes Back, by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, as one of the key texts in post-colonial theory, as it showed how in post-colonial literature, “the colonized did not imply rebut or refute the colonizer but rather took the colonizer’s game and replayed it on the former colony’s turf” (237). Another important publication, co-edited by Paul Gilroy, was The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in ‘70s Britain, which dealt with black British identities. As expected, Edward Said’s seminal text, Orientalism, is also hailed as one of the most influential studies of this period, as it exposed western demonizing of the “oriental” and proved that knowledge about the East in the West had a clear imperialist agenda. Another influential text, Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, is also addressed. Birns explains the non-military meaning of the term “subaltern” itself, although he never connects its origin to the writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. The author mentions other critics from South East Asia who have followed in Spivak’s footsteps, such as Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Gauri Viswanathan.

Along with Said and Spivak, Bhabha is the third major post-colonial critic studied in this chapter. His theory of mimicry, Birns explains, showed how colonized people parodied and exposed the colonizers: “the colonized subjects imitated the colonizer but consciously so, turning mimicry into an active, ironic dissent” (248). This mimicry created a “third space” of hybridity and difference. The concept of “diaspora” is addressed through the autobiographical references in Ien Ang’s On Not Speaking Chinese. The chapter ends with an analysis of Hard and Negri’s influential study Empire and Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters. Coinciding with Aihwa Ong’s assessment in Flexible Citizenship. The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, Birns argues that one of the mistakes of the rhetoric of both post-colonialism and globalization was “underrating the persistence of nationalism and how the nation, despite being ‘imagined,’ may be productive of meaningful discourse” (257).

Queer theory is surveyed in chapter six. Gay and lesbian studies, as Birns points out, focus mainly on revealing different sides of mainstream writers, such as Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein, regardless of whether they are straight or gay. One of the main accusations against queer theory has been that it “was reading sexual scenarios into texts where they did not manifestly exist or polluting innocent stories with perverted agendas” (262). It has also been accused of anachronistically disregarding the time when the text being analyzed was published. On the other hand, one of the biggest successes of queer theory, in Birns’s opinion, has been that it “has helped give protection and dignity to a population historically stigmatized and denied equality” (267). One of the pivotal texts in queer theory was Eve Kosofsky Sedwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, which explored homoerotic relations among men, who trade women to satisfy their homosocial desire. For lesbian critics, the fight has been even harder, explains Birns. Judith Butler’s theories of gender performativity, as elaborated in Gender Trouble, were among the most influential in this field. Transgender theory, in books such as Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, furthered Butler’s ideas by discussing issues of sexuality in transgendered people. The chapter, which is considerably shorter than the previous ones, ends by mentioning masculinity studies.

The final chapter considers the state of theory in the twenty-first century as well as the reasons it lost its influence on literary studies. Birns even points at the Paul de Man scandal as the beginning of the end for theory’s hegemony. It also looks at the new movements within and without the academia that have tried to replace theory. Cultural Studies and historicism are two of them. Historicism analyzed texts thought to be non-literary and focused on publishing history, book history, history of copyright, and relations to external political history: “People began to study poems and serialized novels in their original magazine-published form, no longer privileging the final book as the ultimate structure of the text” (288). Among the critics associated with this movement, Birns mentions Stephen Greenblatt and Frederic Jameson. Special attention is paid to Franco Moretti’s work, particularly to his book An Atlas of the European Novel, which privileges collectible and quantifiable data and sees “literature as congeries of historical and geographical patterns” (289). However, Birns argues that Moretti’s “distant reading” “often makes the experience of reading novels seem rather unidimensional” (289), as it “provides no perspective on how what is put before us is postulated, on how we come into a position to be able to analyze data” (290). Other thinkers briefly studied in this chapter are Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, and Giorgio Agamben, and his ideas of the interstitial, potentiality, and state of exception. Birns also comments on the efforts to “resuscitate” religion as a force in literary studies, Bill Brown’s “thing studies,” and “contrafactual studies.”

The study of the rise of literary journalism focuses on the writings of the literary critic James Wood, who consciously avoids using theoretical jargon and rejects recent writers known for their experimentation and self-reflexivity. Birns also mentions Dave Kickey and Jacque Khalip’s claims that literary studies should make a return to aestheticism. The book ends with a survey of Darwinian literary criticism, Thomas Sebeok’s “biosemitics,” Bruno Latour’s actor network theory, Alain Badiou’s use of mathematics in literary theory, cognitive criticism, and other attempts to connect science and literary studies. Birns argues, in his last paragraphs, that theory was useful and that we need to keep theorizing, “in whatever way possible” (316). In order to do that, we need to be familiar with the different theoretical movements studied in his book. He proposes, as an example of a successful new alternative, Sianne Ngai’s study Ugly Feelings.

Birns livens up this study with a reader-friendly language that is not exempt from humor in some passages. He also provides a wide historical and intellectual background and contextualizes the world of literary theory through the incorporation of numerous anecdotes that humanize the image of these theorists. Exhibiting an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the world of theory, Birns includes comments about the theorists’ personalities, religious beliefs or lack thereof, sexual tendencies, writing styles, ethnic backgrounds, and political affiliations. He also explores their reception in different parts of the world, why they were read in this way, and even how the university where they worked influenced the way they were read. Similar remarks address the reception of literature from different countries: “If Canada and Australia had bigger armies, the US intellectual establishment, for all its peace-loving rhetoric, would heed their literature more. It is not surprising that Indian literature, even Indian diasporic literature, began to gain popularity only when India, as a polity, began to show it was a global force in geostrategic terms” (252). In this way, this book is different from similar ones in the market. Like others before him, Birns does not shy away from expressing his political or theoretical preferences and dislikes. Thus, whereas it could be argued that Terry Eagleton’s introductions to literary theory tend to privilege Marxism, perhaps Theory after Theory tends to favor deconstruction, a fact that is already noticeable in the table of contents, where all the titles of the chapters include the word “deconstruction.”

Birns wisely connects the developments of different theories and provides rigorous summaries and key examples that enable the understanding of complicated ideas. The discussions are also animated by bold and clever statements that make them more interesting, such as the following one in the preface: “Had the Russian formalists and Adorno been translated, read, and generally ventilated in intellectual terms in the 1950s and 1960s, theory probably would not have been needed, and it certainly would have proclaimed its arrival less melodramatically” (24); or this other one in the second chapter: “both Derrida and Foucault are better described as post-existentialists than post-structuralists” (85). In addition, Birns provides clear explanations of the meaning of the most popular terms and phrases in literary theory (“implied author,” “unreliable narrator,” “episteme,” “discourse,” “biopower,” “the sublime,” “the pleasure of the text,” “the prison house of language”) as well as clarifications about the widespread reductive use of other recurrent phrases such as “will to power” and “eternal recurrence.” Thanks to their contextualization in an intellectual history, these explanations are usually far more useful than the typical dictionaries of theoretical terms.

If I had one small quibble with this impressive study, it would be that I believe it would have benefited from a more extensive editing, as some passages sound somewhat untidy and repetitive, or include typographic errors. Along the same lines, in some passages Birns tends to overemphasize the importance of the nationality of the theorists: “Hegel was German, and Génet French. Each of these two embodied aspects of their respective countries that were incomprehensible to the other; each seemed to personify national intellectual traditions” (93). There are also some minor errors, such as calling Borges a “fabulist,” calling Don Quixote’s muse “Dolores del Toboso” instead of Dulcinea del Toboso (or Aldonza Lorenzo), or thinking that Diego Velázquez, in “Las Meninas,” was “shown painting the very canvas the viewer sees,” (when, in fact, what Velázquez is really painting are the king and the queen reflected in the mirror shown in the background).

In any case, Theory after Theory is a must-read guide for professors and students interested in learning about the theories of the past and—as the title of the study suggests—the possibilities for creating theory in the present and future.

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