Two decades ago, Naomi Schor, founding coeditor of differences, published a collection of essays titled Bad Objects. Admittedly contrarian, Schor confessed to being drawn to what “the carefully policed precincts of the academy” deemed taboo or critically unworthy. And underpinning all her bad objects (universalism, essentialism, feminism, and so on) was her mourning for the literary, a sense that her work, and feminist theory more generally, had broken off from the textual readings in which they were grounded. She asked, “Will a new feminist literary criticism arise that will take literariness seriously while maintaining its vital ideological edge?” (xiv).
The “bad object” in this issue of differences is “literariness.” Indeed, the very word, which in Schor’s problematic entailed language, the signifier, may well be illegible to many of today’s readers. So successful was the thematized reception of the “linguistic turn” that critical studies have happily made several new turns since its demise. Language is once more a medium, more or less transparent depending on one’s disciplinary perch. More or less illegible as well today, then, Catherine Belsey’s 1999 essay “English Studies in the Postmodern Condition: Towards a Place for the Signifier,” which tells us that language is precisely not a medium and that “meaning is neither referential nor psychological: on the contrary, it is an effect of language” (135).
This is not a thematic issue; we did not ask contributors to address the question of language, or the new formalism, or debates about reading, nor to engage literary texts—though all those things were welcome. Our wager was that the essays, collected as a “Bad Object,” would be at once an invigorating and unsettling reading experience and would thus “speak for themselves.”