The Birth and Death of Literary Theory
Regimes of Relevance in Russia and Beyond
Galin Tihanov



What This Book Is and Is Not About

This is a book about the foundational paradoxes of literary theory and the regimes of relevance in which it is embedded. The narrative I construct is as much an exercise in intellectual history as it is an attempt to grasp what thinking theoretically about literature involves over longer segments of time, which—because of their continuance and sheer duration—create an illusion of timelessness. Chronologically, the examination I offer is clustered around the interwar decades of the twentieth century, since I am interested in the twenty or so years in which literary theory first takes shape in competition with aesthetics and philosophy. Russian literary theory is the terrain I choose to explore, for there is no better and more compelling example of literary theory seeking to come into its own by trying to negotiate its space in constant engagement not just with philosophy but with pervasive grand narratives, such as Marxism and (to a lesser extent, and a point on which I do not dwell) psychoanalysis. This focus on the interwar decades, vital as it is if we want to understand how literary theory operates early on, is supplemented by attention to the present day: what happens once literary theory is no more, how can one capture its elusively seminal afterlives?

The presuppositions of this book are partly Foucauldian, partly Derridean. The meaning I invest in the term “regime of relevance” harks back to Foucault, but here it has a more specific semantic compass: it refers to a historically available constellation of social and cultural parameters that shape the predominant understanding and use of literature for the duration of that particular constellation. I submit that literary theory is the product of one specific phase in the evolution of one particular regime of relevance. Methodical reflection on literature, known to have existed in the Western tradition at least since Plato, should not be confused with literary theory. Literary theory is only a particular shade of that phenomenon; disciplined, rational thinking about literature does not come to an end with the demise of literary theory as a unique and time-limited episode in that disciplined, rational reflection. What makes this episode both characteristic and important is that it unfolds within the bedrock of a distinct, equally unique and time-limited, regime of relevance that posits and circumscribes literature’s significance. To put it briefly, and in anticipation of the more elaborated argument I offer in the book, this specific regime of relevance sees literature as an autonomous discourse that tends to differ—in various ways and to a varying degree—from other discourses: journalistic, philosophical, quotidian, and so forth. This regime of relevance commences with the wider discursive formation we still refer to as Romanticism. But literary theory, I contend, was born later. Romanticism channels the notion of the autonomous worth of literature almost exclusively through the figure of the writer. With his doctrine of the literary field, Bourdieu has memorably rearticulated a long Romantic tradition of positioning literature as beneficially marginal, the product of writers who are both extraordinarily talented and unmistakably relegated to the periphery of society: prophets, madmen, outcasts. The Romantic notion of the writer as singled out, unusual, exceptional, and ultimately isolated—which casts its long shadow into the mid-nineteenth century (Carlyle, one example instead of many) and beyond (the potency of the writer-destroyer in Italian Futurism and in Dada is only the opposite version of this image)—translated the autonomy of literature through the language of personal autonomy that often assumes the form of painfully individual effort. Our modern notion of exile was, not by chance, born in the folds of Romanticism: not only because the nascent European nationalisms eventually drew the boundaries of belonging to, and exclusion from, the polis and its culture, but because it was in the literature of the long eighteenth century that the writer was first consistently cultivated as an exile, an outcast from the habitual conventions of that same polis, not through forceful removal from it but by dint of his or her newly acquired burden of exceptionality.

Exile remains a key aspect in the formation of literary theory, as I demonstrate in this book; it does so because literary theory seeks, of necessity, to flee the constraints of thinking about literature through the prism of a national culture and a single national language; it wants to go further and establish what constitutes literature beyond the singularity of the language in which it happens to be written. Literary theory begins to do all this about a century after Romanticism had become a wider European phenomenon: precisely one hundred years separate the publication (in London) of Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne (1813), which signals the expansion of the Western core of Romanticism beyond England and France, from Viktor Shklovsky’s public proclamation, in a Saint Petersburg’s cabaret, of his belief in the “resurrection of the word” (1913), as the title of his speech (to be published as an essay the year after) read. Literary theory thus emerges at a later stage in the life-span of this particular regime of relevance that defines literature and its significance with reference to its autonomy. What is so distinct about literary theory is that it contemplates this autonomy (and the resulting uniqueness of literature as a discourse) not through the figure of the writer per se, but through language. This, in a sense, is the great breakthrough of the Russian Formalists around World War I: literature presents a specific and autonomous discourse, not because of the exceptionality of the writer who writes it, but because of the specific way in which language functions in it. Of course, after Derrida, we know that this is a claim that is not always possible to uphold: not because language in literature is not metaphoric or figurative, but because it is so not only in literature. Yet what the Formalists did, amounted nonetheless to a veritable revolution: the writer was taken out of the equation; for the first time what really mattered was the text and its language.

This regime of relevance, in which literature is valued for its autonomy and uniqueness as a discourse that is unlike other discourses, breaks with previous regimes of relevance in which literature’s significance is linked to its capacity to convey ideas, emotions, or knowledge of the world, or to instigate socially and politically oriented actions. Those previous regimes of relevance foreground forms of writing that still preserve the links of literature to an earlier state of symbiosis with philosophical, historiographical, pedagogical, and political discourses. Suffice it to point to the genre of the philosophical novel (recall Voltaire) in the eighteenth century, or the novel of education and the historical novel in the next century, and we promptly obtain a good sense of this different regime of relevance in which literature is still an allegory, a tool of cultivation, and a transmission mechanism for values and ideas formed elsewhere—with the language of literature consistently taking a back seat, seldom seen as the prime reason why literature itself should be taken seriously. Even the Romantic notion of the writer as a guarantor of the autonomy of literature—through his or her own position of freedom, often at the price of voluntary exile and marginalization from society—still bears the marks of this older regime of relevance: a seer and a prophet, the distance of the artist from the polis, his independence, is, paradoxically, a form of moral engagement, of serving the public good by enunciating painful truths and exemplifying an unpalatable stance. All this changed around World War I with the work of the Russian Formalists, which was concomitant with artistic developments that emphasized the value of language as such, making it “difficult” (think of the Russian Futurists, whose formative impact on Formalism is well known) or “absurd,” deliberately denying it the status of a medium that expresses logically advanced arguments (think of Tzara’s Seven Dada Manifestos, which celebrate the power of literature to contradict itself, to be a safe haven for the absurd and the illogical). This new regime of relevance, with its insistence on grounding literature’s significance in the autonomy it derives from the special way in which language is used in it, sustained literary theory’s dominant position among other modes of reflecting on literature into the late 1980s.

Of course, no one regime of relevance is ever available in pure form; rather, it is an abstraction that has heuristic purpose: to highlight that particular regime among others that are co-present and compete with it. The story of literary theory as a historically bounded way of thinking about literature can thus be told as the story of adaptive interaction, often also competition, with other ways of thinking about literature nurtured by these co-present regimes of relevance. Things are further complicated by recognizing the fact that literary theory itself incorporates competing strands; it evolves through divergence away from what might—in retrospect—be identified as its prevalent version at any one time.

My book, then, essays to tell the story of literary theory in the twentieth century by focusing on the formative interwar decades. Russia is the natural terrain to explore, since nowhere else did literary theory emerge and peak so early, sharing room with other modes of reflecting upon literature. In fact, until the 1940s, when global awareness of Russian Formalism began to spread,1 literary theory remained almost exclusively a Russian and Eastern European invention (I write more about this in the Introduction). Under pressure from the grand narratives of Marxism—probably the most resilient manifestation of a regime of relevance hostile to recognizing the autonomy of literature and its presumed “literariness,” embedded in the workings of language—literary theory was eventually to be canonized in the Soviet Union in the 1940s as what it didn’t want to be: a perspective on literature that would go back to the old regime of relevance, highlighting the social and political significance of literature and attending to language as little more than technical matter. But I do not seek to essentialize the “Russianness” of Russian theory; as a matter of fact, in the Introduction I dwell at length on what I call the radical historicity of literary theory, and throughout the book I draw substantive parallels between intellectual and artistic developments in Russia, Germany, and Eastern and Central Europe.

Alongside the Foucauldian presupposition, there is also, as I signaled before, a Derridean premise on which my narrative builds. When I insist that literary theory is a historically circumscribed mode of thinking about literature—a specific mode that has a birth date and a point of dissolution—this is not necessarily a call to rejoice in its transitoriness. The death of literary theory has to be met with the same sanguinity with which one should register its birth. For the historian of intellectual formations, radical historicity is the only credible approach; I would even submit that our understanding of literary theory has been greatly skewed and impoverished by our reluctance to historicize it. The temptation to think of it as a timeless procedure rather than a form of reflection on literature shaped by a particular, historically valid regime of relevance has meant that over many decades literary theory has been perceived and taught as a phenomenon that is divorced from culture and society at large; what is worse, literary theory had often been decoupled from literature itself, forgetting that the former tracks developments and innovations in the latter.

When we thus talk of the demise of literary theory, an inevitable offshoot of one particular regime of literature’s relevance coming to an end by the late 1980s, we do so not in order to indulge in the art of composing its obituary (undoubtedly a morbid business), nor even to sound an elegiac note of nostalgic appreciation,2 much as this might itself be an act of intellectual gallantry, but in order to pose—with due sanguinity, cultivated by the resilient practice of radical historicism—the important question of its legacy. In recognizably Derridean terms, it is only by acknowledging the death of literary theory that we can open up the conversation about its continuous significance. This legacy, as I demonstrate in the Epilogue to this book, is not available in a pure and concentrated fashion; instead, it is dispersed, dissipated, and often fittingly elusive. The reason for this is that this inheritance is now performing its work in a climate already dominated by a different regime of relevance, which it faces directly and which it must negotiate. As the last part of this book argues, 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. The enduring legacy of literary theory is present in a spectral way: instead of assuming reliably material form, it is available solely relationally; it disintegrates every time one forgets that it is the volatile product of a past regime of relevance still at work within a new regime vis-à-vis which it is no longer dominant.

My book, then, is perhaps best read not simply as an account of various exfoliations of literary theory in Russia during the interwar decades of the twentieth century—although this, too, could be a profitable way of approaching it. Ideally, it ought to be read as a narrative that selectively highlights versions of literary theory that help us understand its work and multiple impacts at the cusp of intersecting, often competing, regimes of relevance.

Perhaps one final note of caution might be in order. The project I pursue here is demonstrably different from recent attempts to locate the birth of Theory. I use a capital T, for these are projects that understand by “theory” an important but somewhat softly defined object of analysis that gravitates toward a full overlap with Continental philosophy. There are two versions on display here, each represented by a seminal recent work. One is the equation of “theory” with French post-Structuralism; in this version, “theory” with a capital T unfolded in France in the second half of the 1960s and migrated to the United States in the mid-1970s. François Cusset, who has studied the process of this migration, has written persuasively about “French Theory” (to quote the title of his book published in France in 2003, in which the words “French Theory,” in English, drive home his point about the transformative power of Theory). Cusset makes an excellent argument about the possible reasons for this equation, or substitution. On reaching the shores of America, dominated as it was (and still is) by the traditions of analytic philosophy, French philosophy was appropriated not as philosophy per se but as a powerful method of analyzing (and putting in question) narratives: literary, religious, legal. Theory, in Cusset’s words, became “mysteriously intransitive”: no longer a theory of something, but “above all a discourse on itself.”3 The second version is the equation of Theory with the dialectical method, honed by Hegel but detectable before him (right down to medieval philosophy and letters, in Andrew Cole’s reconstruction). The linguistic element here remains as significant as it is evasive; what matters most is that Theory, in this second version, allows one to perform a move within philosophy away from philosophy, as Andrew Cole would have it when he associates the birth of Theory with Hegel.4 Again, the ensuing claim is all-encompassing: “theory historicizes thought, studying its materialization across disparate forms of human expression—music, literature, art, architecture, religion, philosophy—either in a diachronic or synchronic analysis—or, aspirationally, both at once.”5

My narrative evolves differently. It wants to tell the multiple story of emergence, disappearance, and trace that focuses on a particular time-limited episteme. In this account, theory is a specific mode of reflection on literature, and hence “literary theory.”6 I begin by locating the birth of this episteme in the work of the Russian Formalists; then I proceed to examine a situation of abortive inception, in which literary theory does not manage to emancipate itself from the master discourses of aesthetics and philosophy that continue to keep their hold on Shpet’s approach to literature; in the chapters on Bakhtin and on Semantic Paleontology I am interested in exploring another scenario, in which what begins as reflection on literature swerves into the domain of philosophy of culture. Across all these chapters, language and its peregrinations are a major protagonist. The final chapter seeks to explain how established regimes of relevance are maintained, reworked, and challenged in the diasporic being of literature, while the Epilogue reattaches the historical narrative to current concerns and our current debates on world literature. Throughout the book, as I reflect on the fortunes of literary theory, I am in fact at pains to capture the contours of that which, in Walter Benjamin’s words, “emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance.”7


1. In the United States, the Polish émigré literary scholar Manfred Kridl published a fine English-language summary of the ideas of the Formalists in 1944 (Kridl, “Russian Formalism”), which was the first article in English to deal exclusively with Russian Formalism. In the same year, another émigré intellectual, Otto Maria Carpeaux (born Otto Karpfen in Vienna), who had fled to Brazil in 1939 and was to remain there until his death in 1978, mentioned Shklovsky’s book Theory of Prose in an essay on Dostoevsky in the Diário de Pernambuco (see Gomide, Dostoiévski, 257). Carpeaux was a prolific, encyclopedically knowledgeable literary critic; he frequently drew on the Formalists in his later work (for a biography, see Ventura, De Karpfen). In China, Qian Zhongshu cited Shklovsky as early as 1948, drawing attention to his theory of the canonization of minor genres (cf. Zhang, From Comparison, 129). Articles on Russian Formalism had appeared in Europe (foremost France, Germany, and Poland) during the 1920s–30s; Dawid Hopensztand, who perished in 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto, has emerged as arguably the shrewdest Central-European commentator on Russian Formalism in the interwar decades.

2. See, e.g., David Rodowick’s elegant Elegy for Theory (2014).

3. Cusset, French Theory, 99.

4. See Cole, Birth of Theory.

5. Cole, “Function,” 810.

6. For a terminological distinction between “literary theory” and “theory of literature,” see Compagnon, Literature, Theory, and Common Sense, 11–12.

7. Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 45.