Volume 15, 2010

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Vincent B. Leitch et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010. $79.75 hardback). Pp. xl, 2758. ISBN: 978-0-393-93292-8

The consolidation of theory in the United States is an undisputable fact, but that does not necessarily mean it is free from contradictions. The very title of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism is a clear indication that Theory no longer finds itself constrained by the demands of literary works, and is now able to produce unparalleled objects through a synergy of ideas from extremely diverse fields of knowledge. On the other hand, this theoretical sophistication may ultimately lead to a total disappearance of those very objects, which could lose all traces of singularity as they become mere excuses for the application of concepts, for the display of the interpreter’s ability to prove other theories false, or for sheer interpretative virtuosity.i

The Norton Anthology under review here is a second edition of the same anthology, originally published in 2001; despite the relatively short interval between these two editions, there are some notable changes from the first to the second one. This could be viewed as a sign of Theory’s intrinsic need for constant reformulations, which results in the fast obsolescence of a whole range of texts that need to be replaced with more up-to-date theoretical positions. The Introduction (2010: 1-33), on the other hand, has remained largely untouched, which conveys a slightly contradictory note to certain changes to the roster of authors: references to several Medieval, Renaissance and Classical authors that appeared in the first edition and were cut off from the second have remained in the introduction. They are thus being considered a point of sedimentation of classical theories whose importance is simultaneously affirmed and denied, since those who were excluded are still being addressed by their names. This is the case of authors such as Quintilian, Plotinus, Macrobius, Hugh of St. Victor and Pierre de Ronsard. This small contradiction is another sign of the anthology’s predominant tendency, which remains clearly focused on authors from the second half of the twentieth century: the first edition dedicated 1067 pages – approximately two fifths of the volume – to authors chronologically situated after Roland Barthes, while the new one increases this number to 1337 pages – approximately half of the volume – to that same period. The number of authors has remained almost the same – 148 in the first one, 149 in the second –, but its distribution has become even more irregular: the “oldest” author added to the anthology is Auerbach, among the twenty new ones, and only six authors from this period were excluded, while there were thirteen other exclusions spread throughout the anthology.

This growing emphasis on contemporaneity could be defended based on the very nature of Theory: Jameson – who is anthologized in the volume – dates the rise of Theory back to the 1960s, linking the increasing centrality of language to capitalism’s contradictory expansions (2009: 483-515). Since Theory is a recent phenomenon, the predominance of recent texts seems perfectly reasonable. Yet, this reasoning generates some ambiguity with relation to all the other texts from the more distant past: the Norton Anthology is not an anthology of Theory – despite almost being one –, since that would result in half of the anthologized texts becoming unnecessary, or indeed opposed to the volume’s organization. Rather, this first half of the volume could be seen as being composed by Theory’s background texts, or maybe its antecedents – even its precursors. In this sense, the relationship between these two halves of the anthology is marked, to use a Freudian term, by ambivalence.

The aforementioned ambivalence becomes explicit in the individual introductions to each of the anthologized texts. The very existence of these introductory notes is often puzzling: each author is accompanied by a brief introduction that sets out to situate him in relation to other authors, while succinctly approaching his main ideas and concepts; in addition to that, there is also a small bibliography on the author – secondary or tertiary, one might ask –, which once again intensifies the loss of the literary in theory: the commentary is on the theoretician, the literary texts remaining farther away, and Theory becoming increasingly intransitive. The quality and acuity of the notes are undeniable, certainly deserving of Jonathan Culler’s praise, registered on the fourth cover. However, one cannot help but notice subtle variations in the notes’ approaches to authors from critical schools favorable or opposed to the volume’s general orientation. An illustration of this dynamic is the introductory text to Cleanth Brooks, one of the most iconic figures of New Criticism: after a brief exposition of the school’s constitutive principles, especially of close reading, the editors list some of the main objections to the new critics, summed up in the idea that Brooks’ approach “misguidedly narrowed the field of literary criticism and pedagogy by brushing aside biographical and historical contexts”, while also making “a fetish of form” (2010: 1215). From this single note, one could infer their general structure, that is, a theoretical contextualization of authors that also leaves room for criticism. However, a number of further notes differ from that structure, which becomes clear in a somewhat random example taken from the introduction to Donna Haraways’ “A Manifesto for Cyborgs”, an essay aligned to the Norton Anthology’s theoretical inclinations: again we have an exposition of concepts and some criticism of the author; yet, unlike in Brooks’ case, the editors choose to defend Haraway’s ideas against her detractors, with arguments such as “but her enthusiasm is usually qualified by sobering discussions of the various impacts of modern and postmodern technosciences on our lives” (2010: 2188). The last word on Haraway is not one of criticism, but of defense, and the initial surprise caused by this change of posture is easily dissipated: in Living with Theory (2008), Vincent B. Leitch, the general editor of the Norton Anthology, is able to declare right from the beginning that New Criticism’s view of literature and art is exceedingly narrow, a sterile and unproductive formalism (2008: 1), while authors such as Haraway would embody the Renaissance of Theory, embracing broader views of literature and culture that leave formalism behind (2008: 9). The clear imbalance between the number of pages dedicated to authors from distinct periods, thus, is just the most apparent sign of the anthology’s conflicting relationship with authors that diverge from its fundamental theoretical orientation, that is, the affirmation of Theory.

Something still remains to be said about the anthology’s organization: it would be probably unnecessary to list a number of authors left out of the volume – the total absence of texts originally written in Spanish is particularly striking – to realize its evident anglocentrism. The preface to the Norton Anthology’s second edition states the need to widen its horizons, drawing attention to the inclusion of authors from Indian (Narasimhaiah), Arabic (Adūnīs), Chinese (Zehou Li) and Japanese (Karatani Kōjin) traditions; yet the result is questionable at best, since just as in the case of the split between “classical” and contemporary authors, the absolute predominance of the latter is only strengthened by the semblance of other cultural traditions. And this reasoning could be extrapolated as a way to approach Theory itself, which is adequate in a commentary on the Norton Anthology: one of its undeniable strengths is the ability to configure new objects, and the act of mobilizing some of its own interpretive techniques against the anthology that undoubtedly helped to consolidate Theory in the United States comes across as a gesture of self-reflexivity and self-criticism often absent from it. While this absence lasts, Theory might keep moving forward unaware of its own fissures.


State University of Campinas (UNICAMP)


i For some productive insights on the intransitiveness of Theory, as well as its contradictory relationship with literature, see Fabio A. Durão, “On the Rise of Theory: Promisses, Shortcomings and the Place of Literature,” American British and Canadian Studies, vol. 8 (2007): 10-21.


Works Cited

Durão, Fabio A. “On the Rise of Theory: Promisses, Shortcomings and the Place of Literature.” American British and Canadian Studies, v.8 (2007): 10-21.

Jameson, Fredric. Ideologies of Theory. London and New York: Verso, 2009.

Leitch, Vincent B. Living with Theory. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Leitch, Vincent B. et al., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.


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