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


Contents and Abstracts
Prologue: What This Book Is and Is Not About
chapter abstract

The Prologue introduces the reader to the goals of the book and its methodology. The death of literary theory is discussed, in Derridean sense, as opening up the much more important question of its multiple legacies. The precise meaning of "literary theory" is also clarified, in comparison with recent meta-discourses that draw on "theory" understood, more broadly and less specifically, as Continental philosophy.

Introduction: The Radical Historicity of Literary Theory
chapter abstract

The chapter explores the birth of literary theory in the years around World War I through a chronotopic prism: this birth took place at a precise moment in time and in a precise location – and for good reasons. The multiple (and overlapping) scenarios that best describe the emergence of literary theory point to the disintegration and modification of mainstream philosophical discourses (phenomenology; Marxism); the need to respond to new experimental developments in literature; exile, polyglossia, and the productive estrangement from a single (one's own national) language in which literature is thought. Asserting its radical historicity, one can observe that literary theory emerged in Eastern and Central Europe in the interwar decades as one of the conceptual by-products of the transition from a regime of relevance that recognizes literature for its role in social and political practice to a regime that values literature primarily for its qualities as art.

1 Russian Formalism: Entanglements at Birth and Later Reverberations
chapter abstract

This chapter is an exploration of the complex relationship between Formalism and Marxism, and between the different regimes of relevance and valorization of literature—and their respective argumentative logics—at work in Formalism and Marxism. To detail this, the chapter offers three case studies framed by the question of Formalism's impact and its encounters with intellectual formations that had their own (larger) stake in the political debates of the time: the 1927 public dispute between Formalism and Marxism; Viktor Shklovsky's theory of estrangement and its multiple echoes; and the mediated presence of Formalism in Eurasianism, a Russian exilic movement that sought to reconcile Formalism and Marxism, as well as the distinct regimes of relevance within which they operated.

2 A Skeptic at the Cradle of Theory: Gustav Shpet's Reflections on Literature
chapter abstract

This chapter takes the discussion of the different regimes of relevance and valorization of literature into new territory: it reveals how the more traditional regime of relevance that insisted on literature's wider social commitment and significance operated in a milder and more diffuse fashion in the 1920s as an invitation to interpret literature, not through the prism of literary theory—which would have entailed an insistence on the uniqueness of literature grounded in the specific way it uses language—but rather through the less radical screen of aesthetics and philosophy of art. Gustav Shpet is very much a thinker who participates in this process, but his place in it is contradictory and inconclusive: although foreshadowing some important tenets of Structuralism, he remained in the end poised between innovation and regression, and his ultimate loyalty tended to be with a philosophical and aesthetic approach to literature and the arts.

3 Toward a Philosophy of Culture: Bakhtin beyond Literary Theory
chapter abstract

During the 1930s, Mikhail Bakhtin arrived at a new way of capturing the relevance of literature, different from the regimes of relevance that sustained the work of either the Russian Formalists or Gustav Shpet. Bakhtin's transition in the 1930s from ethics and aesthetics to philosophy of culture, analyzed in the first section of this chapter, is crucial for understanding this new regime. The chapter then proceeds to offer a case study of Bakhtin's positioning in relation to the 1930s Soviet debates on the classical and the canon; this prepares the ground for returning to the question of Bakhtin's impact and later appropriations of his work, especially through the lens of postmodernism and post-Structuralism. Ultimately, this chapter seeks to grasp the specific regime of relevance that sustained the significance of literature in Bakhtin's writings of the 1930s, still centered around the importance of language, but not around "literariness."

4 The Boundaries of Modernity: Semantic Paleontology and Its Subterranean Impact
chapter abstract

The presence of semantic paleontology in literary studies and its importance for the methodological debates of the 1930s have never before been examined systematically. The chapter thus begins by outlining the foundations of semantic paleontology and its interventions in the study of literature during the 1930s; the analysis then focuses on the principal methodological distinctions that semantic paleontology sought to draw in order to assert its own identity vis-à-vis other trends, especially Russian Formalism. Attention then turns to the central question: what was the place of semantic paleontology in the 1930s polemics on how and where one should draw the boundaries of modernity, and how did this shape the way its practitioners assigned significance to literature. The final section explores the impact of semantic paleontology on cultural and literary theory; this impact persisted into the early 1980s, at times paradoxically reinforced by the critique semantic paleontology triggered.

5 Interwar Exiles: Regimes of Relevance in Émigré Criticism and Theory
chapter abstract

This chapter returns to the importance of exile and discusses literary theory not per se, but in its interactions with another distinct discourse, that of literary criticism, which had its own dynamic and its own conventions. The symbiosis of literary theory and criticism was a palpable feature of literary life in the diaspora, where the social and professional makeup of the new intelligentsia encouraged this conversion to a greater degree. The chapter is thus an examination of the ways in which émigré literary criticism between the world wars sought to extend an inherited regime of relevance that would conceive of literature as speaking directly to the traditional collective concerns of its creators and readers—in contrast to a radically different perspective that sought to endorse a regime of relevance in which literature would be denationalized so as to address the private concerns of the exile.

Epilogue: A Fast-Forward to "World Literature"
chapter abstract

Today the legacy of modern literary theory is not available in a pure and concentrated fashion; instead, it is dispersed, dissipated, often fittingly elusive. This inheritance is now performing its work in a climate already dominated by a different regime of relevance, which it faces directly and must negotiate. 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. This regime of relevance has engendered the interpretative framework of "world literature" that has recently grown and gained popularity. Looking at Russian literary theory during the interwar decades, we are struck by the fact that many of its major trends were, obliquely or more directly, relevant to this new framework of understanding and valorizing literature in the regime of its global production and consumption.