The Birth and Death of Literary Theory
Regimes of Relevance in Russia and Beyond
Published by: Stanford University Press
272 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9780804785228
- Published: July 2019
Until the 1940s, when awareness of Russian Formalism began to spread, literary theory remained almost exclusively a Russian and Eastern European invention. The Birth and Death of Literary Theory tells the story of literary theory by focusing on its formative interwar decades in Russia. Nowhere else did literary theory emerge and peak so early, even as it shared space with other modes of reflection on literature. A comprehensive account of every important Russian trend between the world wars, the book traces their wider impact in the West during the 20th and 21st centuries. Ranging from Formalism and Bakhtin to the legacy of classic literary theory in our post-deconstruction, world literature era, Galin Tihanov provides answers to two fundamental questions: What does it mean to think about literature theoretically, and what happens to literary theory when this option is no longer available? Asserting radical historicity, he offers a time-limited way of reflecting upon literature—not in order to write theory's obituary but to examine its continuous presence across successive regimes of relevance. Engaging and insightful, this is a book for anyone interested in theory's origins and in what has happened since its demise.
The Prologue introduces the reader to the goals of the book and its methodology. The death of literary theory is discussed, in Derridean sense, as opening up the much more important question of its multiple legacies. The precise meaning of "literary theory" is also clarified, in comparison with recent meta-discourses that draw on "theory" understood, more broadly and less specifically, as Continental philosophy.
The chapter explores the birth of literary theory in the years around World War I through a chronotopic prism: this birth took place at a precise moment in time and in a precise location – and for good reasons. The multiple (and overlapping) scenarios that best describe the emergence of literary theory point to the disintegration and modification of mainstream philosophical discourses (phenomenology; Marxism); the need to respond to new experimental developments in literature; exile, polyglossia, and the productive estrangement from a single (one's own national) language in which literature is thought. Asserting its radical historicity, one can observe that literary theory emerged in Eastern and Central Europe in the interwar decades as one of the conceptual by-products of the transition from a regime of relevance that recognizes literature for its role in social and political practice to a regime that values literature primarily for its qualities as art.
This chapter is an exploration of the complex relationship between Formalism and Marxism, and between the different regimes of relevance and valorization of literature—and their respective argumentative logics—at work in Formalism and Marxism. To detail this, the chapter offers three case studies framed by the question of Formalism's impact and its encounters with intellectual formations that had their own (larger) stake in the political debates of the time: the 1927 public dispute between Formalism and Marxism; Viktor Shklovsky's theory of estrangement and its multiple echoes; and the mediated presence of Formalism in Eurasianism, a Russian exilic movement that sought to reconcile Formalism and Marxism, as well as the distinct regimes of relevance within which they operated.
This chapter takes the discussion of the different regimes of relevance and valorization of literature into new territory: it reveals how the more traditional regime of relevance that insisted on literature's wider social commitment and significance operated in a milder and more diffuse fashion in the 1920s as an invitation to interpret literature, not through the prism of literary theory—which would have entailed an insistence on the uniqueness of literature grounded in the specific way it uses language—but rather through the less radical screen of aesthetics and philosophy of art. Gustav Shpet is very much a thinker who participates in this process, but his place in it is contradictory and inconclusive: although foreshadowing some important tenets of Structuralism, he remained in the end poised between innovation and regression, and his ultimate loyalty tended to be with a philosophical and aesthetic approach to literature and the arts.
During the 1930s, Mikhail Bakhtin arrived at a new way of capturing the relevance of literature, different from the regimes of relevance that sustained the work of either the Russian Formalists or Gustav Shpet. Bakhtin's transition in the 1930s from ethics and aesthetics to philosophy of culture, analyzed in the first section of this chapter, is crucial for understanding this new regime. The chapter then proceeds to offer a case study of Bakhtin's positioning in relation to the 1930s Soviet debates on the classical and the canon; this prepares the ground for returning to the question of Bakhtin's impact and later appropriations of his work, especially through the lens of postmodernism and post-Structuralism. Ultimately, this chapter seeks to grasp the specific regime of relevance that sustained the significance of literature in Bakhtin's writings of the 1930s, still centered around the importance of language, but not around "literariness."
The presence of semantic paleontology in literary studies and its importance for the methodological debates of the 1930s have never before been examined systematically. The chapter thus begins by outlining the foundations of semantic paleontology and its interventions in the study of literature during the 1930s; the analysis then focuses on the principal methodological distinctions that semantic paleontology sought to draw in order to assert its own identity vis-à-vis other trends, especially Russian Formalism. Attention then turns to the central question: what was the place of semantic paleontology in the 1930s polemics on how and where one should draw the boundaries of modernity, and how did this shape the way its practitioners assigned significance to literature. The final section explores the impact of semantic paleontology on cultural and literary theory; this impact persisted into the early 1980s, at times paradoxically reinforced by the critique semantic paleontology triggered.
This chapter returns to the importance of exile and discusses literary theory not per se, but in its interactions with another distinct discourse, that of literary criticism, which had its own dynamic and its own conventions. The symbiosis of literary theory and criticism was a palpable feature of literary life in the diaspora, where the social and professional makeup of the new intelligentsia encouraged this conversion to a greater degree. The chapter is thus an examination of the ways in which émigré literary criticism between the world wars sought to extend an inherited regime of relevance that would conceive of literature as speaking directly to the traditional collective concerns of its creators and readers—in contrast to a radically different perspective that sought to endorse a regime of relevance in which literature would be denationalized so as to address the private concerns of the exile.
Today the legacy of modern literary theory is not available in a pure and concentrated fashion; instead, it is dispersed, dissipated, often fittingly elusive. This inheritance is now performing its work in a climate already dominated by a different regime of relevance, which it faces directly and must negotiate. The patrimony of literary theory is currently active within a regime of relevance that thinks literature through its market and entertainment value, with only residual recall of its previously highly treasured autonomy. This regime of relevance has engendered the interpretative framework of "world literature" that has recently grown and gained popularity. Looking at Russian literary theory during the interwar decades, we are struck by the fact that many of its major trends were, obliquely or more directly, relevant to this new framework of understanding and valorizing literature in the regime of its global production and consumption.
"Committed both to rigorous historical contextualization and to the clear analysis of ideas, Tihanov's highly original book addresses a topic of major concern to the humanities, the rise of literary theory, showing the central contribution of Russian thinkers to it. This is the first book one should read on its subject." ~William Mills Todd III, Harvard University
"The foundational status of literary theory in twentieth-century Russia has never been described with greater attention to detail than in Galin Tihanov's new book. And this extraordinary historical groundwork results in the ultimate challenge for literary criticism today: can and should the discipline survive under epistemological conditions that are now so radically different?" ~Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Stanford University
"Up to now, no one has woven together the many threads of Russian literary thought—Formalism, Socialist Realism, Marxism, the Bakhtin Circle, and the many groups, domestic and émigré, that shaped modern theory. With a large cast of characters and a sharp, cumulative argument, Tihanov renders obsolete numerous received judgments about theory's origins and impact." ~Haun Saussy, University of Chicago
"Tihanov has written an excellent book that provides a plethora of substance for reflection, and most importantly reminds us of the time when literature and the study of literature was taken seriously to an extent that to most readers today seems like an act of defamiliarization in itself." ~Eli Park Sorensen, Hong Kong Review of Books
"Eloquent and erudite, Galin Tihanov offers us a magisterial account of twentieth-century Russian literary theory. His book is not a survey but a careful analysis of diverse movements and theorists whose unexpected juxtapositions put familiar concepts and people in an entirely new light. This is intellectual history at its best." ~Michael Wachtel, Princeton University
"There are few literary critics and theorists that delve into the afterlives of past theories and theoretical trends as dazzlingly and lucidly as Galin Tihanov does." ~Daiana Gârdan, Metacritic
"[One] senses that Tihanov, whose own intellectual range is staggering, could have chosen any number of examples to demonstrate his thesis....[A] rich and generous book." ~Caryl Emerson, The Russian Review
"If literary theory is your thing, and you're feeling uninspired by what the Anglo-American academy has to offer, The Birth and Death is a fine showcase for what is, in effect, another world of literary theory, largely untapped." ~Ken Hirschkop, Textual Practice
"Tihanov's journey across past intellectual landscapes is engaging and helpful: it allows us to understand a great deal about the past, the present, and ourselves in that present." ~Galina Babak, New Literary Observer