This essay provides a new interpretation of the major methodological movements in literary scholarship since World War II, especially in the United States. The overarching claim is that these movements comprise displaced repetitions of moments in the early modern mourning for lost absolutes (the “death of God”), a mourning that, as the recent “return of religion” reveals, is far from complete. In the history of the secularization of reason in the West, the rationalist and empiricist traditions constitute the two main (and opposing) forms in which reason attempts to mourn for God, and to replace him. The essay argues that rationalism involves a melancholic gesture, whose structural representative in Freudian terms is obsessive-compulsive discourse. Empiricism, in turn, arises as a manic phase of attempted (and failed) mourning, stabilized in what will come to be known as hysteria. Contemporary theory has taken shape in and around these two modes of response to the disappearance of the absolute addressee. The four movements considered are New Criticism, structuralism (and post-structuralism), New Historicism (and Cultural Studies), and what I call the “New Vitalism” (represented here by Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek). The essay initially understands New Criticism as focused on formal traits, (post)structuralism as concerned mainly with epistemology, New Historicism/Cultural Studies as privileging history, and the New Vitalism as seeking the realization of the subject. Going beyond this initial, standard determination, the essay characterizes each movement in terms of the concepts provided by all of them, on the assumption that the “totality” of these movements cannot be exceeded at this time, but that it can be displaced by being relativized through such a description. As a result, New Criticism appears as ironic in its privileged representational mode, criticist (in the Kantian sense) in its epistemology and aesthetics, aestheticist in literary-historical or history of ideas terms, and phobic in psychoanalytic terms. The (post)structuralist moment appears formally as allegorical, philosophically as rationalist, historically as akin to Enlightenment, and psychoanalytically as obsessional. New Historicism and Cultural Studies embrace (despite appearances) a symbolist mode of presentation and an empiricist epistemology, recapitulate the literary-historical tendencies of realism, and take, in psychoanalytic terms, a hysterical stance. The New Vitalism, finally, has faith in polemic as its privileged mode of presentation, takes a neo-idealist position philosophically, echoes neo-Romantic vitalisms of the late nineteenth century, and positions itself as perverse in psychoanalytic terms. Where critical theory goes from here remains an open question. Completion of mourning for the socially sanctioned delusion we still evidently have difficulty doing without remains a methodological desideratum.
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Jeffrey S. Librett; The Finitude of Method: Mourning Theory from the New Criticism to the New Vitalism. Comparative Literature 1 June 2012; 64 (2): 121–149. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00104124-1590110
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