The Empirical Turn of Literary Studies Chapitre d’ouvrage - 2018

Alexandre Gefen

Alexandre Gefen, « The Empirical Turn of Literary Studies  », in Nicoletta Pireddu (ed.), Reframing Critical, Literary, and Cultural Theories, 2018, pp. 119-135. ISBN 978-3-319-89990-9. 〈〉


By the end of the 20th century, literary theory had acquired the mythified value of a universal explanatory framework, placing theories of the text in original ways at the roots of the tree of knowledges, and turning their academic analysts into the masters of such knowledge. With French Theory, textual and narrative theories, as well as rhetoric and semiology, were used to decoding the most disparate social facts, be it to understand a lover’s discourse for Barthes, to deconstruct philosophy through literature for Jacques Derrida, to rethink historical narrative in Hayden White, or to analyze the poetics of science for Fernand Hallyn. Pursuing the linguistic turn that had affected philosophy, literary theory had led textual categories and logics to a universal and hegemonic ambition : everything was language, everything constituted discourse, everything represented a sign. In that respect, literary theory was more than a theory of literature, more than an epistemology or a « critique of critique ». It was, indeed, a « critique of ideology" inseparable from an explicitly Foucauldian and secretly Marxist critical social thought, be it in its American culturalist version or in its more directly political French formulation. The critiques erected against this kind of literary theory have been clearly identified, and the cultural war against the cultural studies and their social constructivism centered around sexual and racial issues have resulted in a stagnation of theory, at least in the most prominent U.S. universities. The alliance of formalism and of left-wing ideologies in the service of an identitarian discourse, or the adoption of Derridian deconstruction as an anticapitalist weapon have been the object of fierce criticism, since the debate initiated the 1980s by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’ ruthless article « Against theory » which triggered Richard Rorty’s and Stanley Fish’s counterattack , down to Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral’s Theory’s Empire : An Anthology of Dissent (2005).

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