In a recent PMLA article, Peter McDonald gives us much to think about regarding the possibility and consequences of academic culture after theory. Distinguishing first between the essentialist and antiessentialist camps of literary criticism, and then further between "skeptical" and "enchanted antiessentialists" (his terms) that have come to dominate critical discourse in the wake of theory, McDonald productively outlines the limits of both views: viewing texts as merely the products of culture "underestimates the unpredictability of writing" and ignores the unique aesthetic demands each text makes of the reader, while viewing texts as imaginative worlds that demand our inhabiting discounts the historical and cultural contingencies that bear on the meanings a text can take (218-19, 226). In the final third of this essay, he introduces book history as a potential site of mediation between these antiessentialist views, even between theory and history. Rather than rehearse the "fractiousness" that typifies the exchanges between the polarized camps, McDonald suggests the need to pursue "the various potential and actual connections between these two modes of inquiry, which, if they do not amount to an untroubled common ground, at least put the debate on a more constructive footing" (222). The questions that theory entertained during its heyday, in other words, have not disappeared even if they have come to be supplanted, replaced, given over to newer modes of scholarship (also underwritten by theories, of course) whose empirical, historicist, positivist, even populist attributes save them from the stigma of cultural elitism and irrelevance often associated with high theory (particularly French).

Enamored of the ways theory and book history have empowered our thinking, and proceeding in the spirit of McDonald's essay, we (here writing together) want to expand the borders and ramifications of these academic debates. Book history is newly coalesced, and still coalescing, but its temperament, its strictures, its dictates, its tools, its discoveries have always been waiting to have been discovered. How have critical theorists of earlier generations anticipated book history? What does their thought already presuppose, or explicitly address? How has theory overlooked books as meaningful objects and how has has it given us indispensable ways of thinking them? And as critical theory yet survives-it is still a required component of most graduate degree programs in a variety of humanities disciplines-how does its lingering inform the progress of book history, and how might book history offer life-giving ways of rethinking theory?

"Let us not begin at the beginning, nor even at the archive" (Derrida Archive Fever 1).

You may be reading this page last, at last. You may be re-reading this page too soon. It means to introduce you to this (what shall we call it?) essay, exegesis, performance, archive, project, discourse. (Can this page stand outside the rest, above the rest of the others while remaining one of them? Are there edges to hypertext? Is the frame of the monitor on which this writing appears the same as the picture frame, the camera frame? Does it mask, and therefore suggest, the remainder? Or does it contain, give form to a discursive space?) But if this is what you have come to (returned to) after all the rest perhaps this is instead or also a conclusion.

Ancient Evenings: Ka Libretto by Matthew Barney


I started out thinking that McDonald was doing something really innovative here in “Ideas of the Book and Histories of Literature: After Theory.” Now I’m not so sure. The more I think about the merging of book history and high theory, the with-theory rather than the after-theory of book history, the more I wonder what his article accomplishes. Certainly, the two “enterprises” as McDonald calls them (I’m still searching for a better word) needed to be reconciled, if not for humanities scholars in general, then at least for the book historians. But does McDonald offer a methodology, a way, a demonstration of how book history can be merged with high theory? Or is he merely retracing the steps of each in order to demonstrate that both begin from the same basic question and have as their ends a common goal? McDonald encourages us to think of the period of high theory “less as a rise and fall, epochal, or betrayal narrative and more as a particularly disputatious episode” (215). Rather than deploring this period or lamenting its passing, McDonald asserts that we should approach the era of high theory with “a view to making the most of the sites that theory cleared and the agendas for research it set but sometimes failed to develop” (216). He begins by commending high theory’s investigation of the “question of literature,” and, indeed, his main agenda here is to show that book history as an area of study has been conceived and developed, as it were, by way of theory, precisely because of its focus on this same investigation. Both movements begin from a common question: What is literature? And it is only through the combination of both lines of thought, I think McDonald is saying, that we can arrive at an answer that comes close to the truth.

But is it even this ambitious? McDonald says that revisiting the debates surrounding the question “Qu’est-ce que la litterature” “allows us to reorient the debate by identifying unexpected intersections between the apparently opposed enterprises of theory and the history of the book” (217). Intersections. What do we do with intersections?

And no doubt McDonald’s intersections are not mere comparisons. You’re simplifying the text so that you can get out of it easier and faster. Sit in it for a while, especially if it puts you out of ease. McDonald locates the connection between the seemingly polarized views of skeptical anti-essentialism espoused by Fish, Eagleton and Barthes, and enchanted anti-essentialism espoused primarily by Blanchot in the work of Derrida, who I am now convinced is the undiscovered father of Book History. In Acts of Literature, Derrida writes that “for the literary work as such to emerge” (qtd. in McDonald 221) it must utilize certain “framing” devices. Here he is talking about paratexts, contexts, intertexts, cotexts. And the law, as it were, of those paratexts, that’s what we call Book History! This for me is one of the pivotal points in the article, but McDonald does not acknowledge it as such. In an act which is decidedly after-and-not-with-theory, he breaks off this discussion of skeptical anti-essentialism and enchanted anti-essentialism and begins an entirely new section to introduce a new “interdisciplinary mode of inquiry:” (222) book history. This is to say that he begins again, and, it seems to me, entirely anew as if he forgot what occurred in the previous section, as if it was worth forgetting.

But he remembers as he goes on. He calls theory back.

But only to reenact the very real separation of it and book history in the academy and to redefine the ostensible differences between these two modes.

But when he gets there, when he finally brings them together, it’s through Derrida again who says Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. This statement that emphasizes the hors-text, a bookmaking term and the hors-text “the outside of the text” “illustrates how [Derrida’s] thinking connects rather than separates theorists and book historians by pointing to their shared interest in radically rethinking the idea of the book” (223).

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