Claire Parnet: [ . . . ] and you, for example [ . . . ] you know there are people who announce the death of thinking, the death of cinema, the death of literature [ . . . ] [Deleuze laughs]–this makes you laugh?
Gilles Deleuze: It makes me. . . . There is no death; there are assassinations.–Deleuze and Parnet
In 2010, a differences issue addressed “the question of theory” by exploring “the distinction, in this theoretical moment, between what is and what is not theory” (Weed and Rooney). The present issue returns to the question of the distinction of theory. It takes as its point of departure Galin Tihanov’s recent book The Birth and Death of Literary Theory: Regimes of Relevance in Russia and Beyond. It includes essays that evolved out of a series of discussions about the book by an informal group–the Sofia Literary Theory Seminar–as well as Galin Tihanov’s response, which reiterates some of the major claims of his book and introduces additional arguments and material.
The very title of Tihanov’s book presupposes at least three limiting stipulations that inevitably inflect the discussion. First, it is a book about literary theory, which Tihanov juxtaposes to Theory as “an important but somewhat softly defined object of analysis that gravitates toward a full overlap with Continental philosophy” (Birth 6). Second, Tihanov does not reject (literary) theory per se–as many others have done before him–but, approaching it in terms of “radical historicity,” situates it as a “particular time-limited episteme” (7). This episteme is demarcated by a specific “regime of relevance,” which, as he recaps in the present issue, bestows on literature “a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency, without which the semblance of timelessness constituted in the act of theoretical reflection would not be possible” (“Exilic” 133). The sense of timelessness paradoxically defines the regime of relevance of literary theory as limited in time (somewhere between World War I and the end of the Cold War). Today, with the sense of literary autonomy obsolete and literature recognized in a “rather low-key way, for the (largely individual) entertainment and therapy it can provide” (Birth 23), literary theory is no longer relevant.
To the temporal distinction, Tihanov adds a spatial limitation although a rather turbulent one: he traces the “exilic inscriptions” (not so much in Russia as beyond it), which circumscribe the vicissitudes of literary theory as he conceives it. The charting of the trajectories of cosmopolitism and polyglotism that frequently accompanied the intellectual adventures of literary theoreticians is one of the most exhilarating aspects of Tihanov’s work. Nevertheless, exilic though it is, literary theory, with its claim to universalism, is, according to Tihanov, no longer viable in the contemporary world, mindful as we are today of different histories and identities. This emphasis on literary theory as exerting Western hegemonic pressure through claims for universalism is more prominent in Tihanov’s present article than in his book.
From their various perspectives, the essays discussing Tihanov’s approach tackle the problematic standing of these three demarcations on which it rests. The first two essays turn to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, on whom Tihanov relies for the presuppositions of his study and for his definition of regime of relevance. In “The Den of Theoretical Monsters,” Darin Tenev questions the divisions and, in fact, argues in favor of necessary connections between literature and literary theory, as well as between literary theory and Theory (with a capital T). Engaging Derrida and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, among others, Tenev elaborates his concept of potentiality as highlighting the infinite in literature. The infinite in literature–not as actual infinity but as infinite potentiality–allows a literary work to be read in different contexts and still be relevant. To be able to do so, however, potentiality calls for theorizations, “not for a particular theory but for the movement of theoretical thought” (22). Without this movement, the inner condition of unconditionality, which opens up literary potentiality, is jeopardized. Tenev’s claim is reinforced by the next essay, “Regimes of Relevance: On Their Use for Literary Theory,” in which Bogdana Paskaleva juxtaposes Tihanov’s concept of “regime of relevance” with Foucault’s concept of “regime of truth.” In The Birth and Death of Literary Theory, Tihanov reduces the regime of relevance to social-political conditions–which Paskaleva accepts to be the case with the “contemporary human sciences as they have been established in academic circles” (49). And yet, from within Foucault’s own reflection, the question may arise of “the inner conditions of possibility of a certain way of valorizing literature” (49), which would provide “a radically nonhistorical approach that would traverse the parallel planes of historically established formations” (49). Paskaleva’s analysis of the inner conditions of possibility thus reiterates Tenev’s defense of literary potentiality.
The problem with radical historicity as Tihanov applies it to literary theory is not only in foreclosing potentiality as the aspect that bonds literature to literary theory and literary theory to Theory. Notoriously interdisciplinary from the start, the very historicity of literary theory may turn out to be a bundle of intertwining genealogies. Tihanov’s approach comprises a trajectory from Viktor Shklovsky to Yuri Lotman, with Ferdinand de Saussure and linguistics as presiding deities. This trajectory uncovers a plethora of forgotten or neglected thinkers and is undoubtedly a major contribution to the study of this field. Yet another trajectory might also be followed, as Matías Martínez and Michael Scheffel have done, from Sigmund Freud to Judith Butler, with psychoanalysis, philosophy, sociology, and gender theory taken into the picture along with Tihanov’s protagonists, and with the further specification that this genealogy comprises the “classics of modern literary theory”: thus, unlike Tihanov’s position, which relies on narrow temporal and disciplinary restrictions, such a genealogy might presuppose a literary theory before and after its modern classics.
Working in this direction, the next two essays in this special issue problematize the temporal delineations of Tihanov’s definition of literary theory. In “Literary Theory as Radical Historicism?” Enyo Stoyanov explores the overlap between Tihanov’s “regime of relevance” and Jacques Rancière’s broader conceptualization of regime, with its insistence on the paradox of the “aesthetic regime”: the reflexive turn toward the specificity of art and literature results in the complete dispersal of any stable specificity. The autonomy and self-sufficiency of literature was debated rather than sustained during the regime of relevance explored in Tihanov’s book: a closer radically historical look at these debates reveals a picture quite different from the “seemingly timeless form of dogmatic doctrines” and “affords us the freedom to select a new and unexpected, previously unconceivable relevance” (67). In a similar gesture with respect to historicity and temporality, Kamelia Spassova evokes Friedrich Nietzsche, Erich Auerbach, and archstructuralist Roman Jakobson in order to inscribe literary theory in the longue durée of philology. She thus destabilizes the opposition, in Tihanov’s book, between literary theory and the return to philology in contemporary conceptualizations of world literature: for her, the return to philology is a return to theory. Thus while Tenev and Paskaleva oppose, to Tihanov’s politically and socially conditioned regimes of relevance, a transversal regime of unconditionality, which they nevertheless perceive as fragile, threatened, and hence not at all timeless, Stoyanov and Spassova draw a much more optimistic perspective precisely from their historical approach to conditionality, which shows that, simply put, the work of theory is not done.
In fact, unconditionality emerges as indispensable from the very perpetuity of those other regimes, the regimes of political and social conditionality, which shift and mutate and might, of course, take the shape of totalitarian rule but could, as the case might be, manifest themselves as rules of the market or, indeed, as new and undreamed-of forms. In my own essay, I bring up this issue in connection with communist repression in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. My emphasis on the versatility of literary theory–in support of Tenev’s articulation of potentiality–comes with a tentative suggestion: in order to take into account both the conditional and the unconditional in theory, while taking into account their temporal but also spatial vicissitudes, we need, perhaps, to conceptualize world theory the way world literature has been conceptualized ever since Goethe.
In his response to the discussion, Tihanov focuses much of his critique on this suggestion. I will tackle here one point of this critique, which is given greater emphasis than in his book. It concerns the objection to (literary) theory as a discourse that, under the guise of “disembodied and universalizing thinking,” smuggles in “(Western) situatedness and embeddedness” (“Exilic” 140). In addition to the end in time, then, Tihanov takes note of literary theory’s confinement in space. Bumping into other literary territories–Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, and so on–literary theory has to acknowledge “the nonbinding nature of the Western aesthetic and cultural experience” (“Exilic” 141). Tihanov’s arguments rest on an opposition between literary theory (as Western) and poetics (as universal?). He illustrates his point through the hegemonic nature of the Western expectation for the “release of a ‘Chinese’ literary theory” (145). When confronting Chinese colleagues with this expectation, Tihanov tells us, “the reaction would be unfailingly polite, but not without a hint at the superfluity (or even harmfulness) of such attempts: attempting to produce a literary ‘theory,’ from a Chinese perspective, runs the risk of having to accept the discursive rules of the West (giving up the belief in China being different–read: independent–from the West)” (“Exilic” 145). Now, China is a big place, and so is the West: I have certainly met colleagues (and read books) claiming theory is not French, American, British, Bulgarian, Polish, you name it. Tihanov himself tells us it is “exilic”: from his own narrative, it would appear that “universalizing thinking,” rather than emanate from some dark center of cultural power, has no problem and, indeed, tends to flourish among the marginalized, the persecuted, and the displaced. Hegemony, however, is a tricky thing. In an essay written in 1970, Bulgarian theoretician Tzvetan Stoyanov delineates three obstacles that Goethe’s “ideal of world literature” faces. There is, first, the overarching “Alexandrian universalism” that levels all differences, subdues all colors, and destroys uniqueness. There is, on the other hand, the marketing demand for mandatory cultural uniqueness, relegating differences to the “zoo of exotic animals.” And then, there is the no less problematic antidote to those two evils: isolationism. Building Chinese walls around one’s unfathomable distinctiveness (65–66).
Only on condition that these obstacles are removed will literature be sustained as the “grand conversation of humanity” (T. Stoyanov 66). Yet how? Closer to our time, an article by Shunqing Cao addresses this question and provides a summary of an ongoing exchange among Chinese scholars on the “basic principles for the dialogue between heterogeneous literature theories” (33). Intercommunity, independence, equality, (the unavoidability of) misreading, and “two-conceptuality” are among these principles, needed not only in the dialogue between civilizations but also in the dialogue of a civilization with itself. For how can uniquely different literatures “ferry across time and language,” to quote one of Tihanov’s titles, without the movement of theoretical thought opening up their potentiality, the unconditional in their conditionality?
I have tried to outline the frontiers of disagreement between Tihanov and the other contributors to this special issue, but the texts themselves are much richer and provide not only polemics but also deconstructive reading and continuation of many of Tihanov’s theses. One of the essays–Maria Kalinova’s “Dead Point of Translation: Otherness, Seduction and Literary Theory”–arrived too late for him to read. This, however, is not the sole reason for placing it last. Bringing together Mikhail Bakhtin and Jean Laplanche, among others, Kalinova nonchalantly waives aside most of the arguments on both sides. So literary theory is dead? Endlich! Finally!–she says in an echo of Freud’s “Analysis Terminable and Interminable.” Now its true work of freedom may begin.