Framing Theory’s Empire

by John Holbo on December 6, 2007

[X-posted at the Valve]

I’ve got a book out! Framing Theory’s Empire [amazon]; or support your local independent publisher by buying direct. You can buy the paperback or download the entire book as a free PDF from the Parlor Press site. UPDATE: and it’s been marked down! Now Parlor direct is cheaper than Amazon. $17.60 vs. $22! A bargain! I’m still waiting for my paper copy to show. (Any of you contributors out there gotten yours yet?) I think the cover is rather handsome. But, then: a father should love his child. The lovely Belle Waring and I designed it together.

A book, eh? See here! What’s all this about? ‘Theory’? Yes, exactly! In the English/humanities department sense: the idiomatically ofless sort, you might say; as in, ‘I do theory’. The stuff that started in the 60’s, got really big in the 80’s. Then either went away or is still hanging around, depending who you ask. (If you ask me: it’s still hanging around.)

If you spent late 2005 in a coma and missed all the glory, at the Valve we staged a ‘book event’, round-table reviewing the Patai and Corral edited Theory’s Empire (Columbia UP, 2005). Framing Theory’s Empire contains contributions to that event, cleaned up, polished up, edited. (I’ve written an introduction, talking about these issues. If you care to read it.)

The contributors are: Scott McLemee (he generously contributed a preface), John Holbo, Mark Bauerlein, Michael Bérubé, John McGowan, Scott Kaufman, Sean McCann, Daniel Green, Adam Kotsko, Tim Burke, Amardeep Singh, Jonathan Mayhew, Jonathan Goodwin, Chris Cagle, Christopher Conway, Kathleen Lowrey, Brad DeLong, Matthew Greenfield, Morris Dickstein, Jeffrey Wallen, John Emerson, Mark Kaplan, Jodi Dean, Kenneth Rufo, Daphne Patai, Will H. Corral. (Patai and Corral were kind enough to contribute an “Afterword”. At the moment Amazon is giving them erroneous prominence, in the author line. I’ll have to see whether I can get Amazon to correct that. Not that I mind so very much. They themselves will probably be even more annoyed, because it might create some product confusion with Theory’s Empire itself.)

It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for the humanities graduate student on YOUR list!

I think it turned out to be a really great book. In addition to several posts that turned out to be just plain solid essays, there are lively, sharp exchanges between several participants. There’s intelligent back and forth, actual addressing of critical points and hashing of differences, which is not something one always gets in themed anthologies. I think the informal quality of many of the pieces turns out to be a real virtue as well. It suits the topic. But you tell me. What do you think of the book? What do you think about our event, two years on?

I’m glad to get this done as well because, frankly, my Glassbead Books efforts for Parlor haven’t been quite rolling off the assembly-line, as I had originally hoped. It turns out making books is hard and time consuming, and folks don’t do stuff when you tell them to, and it’s hard to get folks to commit to helping out. Academics are always busy. (Including myself.) I’m hoping that, with a grand total of TWO titles out now we’ve actually got a series. That is, a line, not just a point. Next comes our Franco Moretti event – I think. We’ll see how it goes. I want to get these things rolling out a lot faster.

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Crooked Timber » » Theory’s Emperor
12.06.07 at 3:30 pm



Christopher M 12.06.07 at 5:53 am

Cool. Do you want to hear about typos? Or would that just be depressing?


John Holbo 12.06.07 at 5:57 am

Ha! I know about a few already, thank you very much! (Suit yourself. I am fairly immune to depression.)


foolishmortal 12.06.07 at 6:26 am

Beautiful cover. I couldn’t comment on the interior, but given the blog all-stars listed among the authors, I’d predict yelling.


belle waring 12.06.07 at 10:22 am

waal, I constructed that whole shadow box and photographed it, but John did stick the words on the top. I suppose ‘designed together is technically accurate here, but I think I’m going to angle for more credit over dinner.


Tracy W 12.06.07 at 10:45 am

As someone who is interested in books but never took a humanities course at uni, is there a simple definition of what theory is?

Like foolish mortal, I admire the cover.


jholbo 12.06.07 at 11:23 am

In my defense, I came up with the basic conception, Belle did almost all the construction, including making a light box. She did most of the photography, whereas I did most of the Photoshopping. (I came up with the anagrams, but Belle stuck them on their pins.)


sanbikinoraion 12.06.07 at 11:47 am

As #5. There are a lot of words in this post, but none of them make me any wiser as to the contents of the book.


richard 12.06.07 at 12:58 pm

5 and 7 are the most concise critique of the whole field of Theory I’ve ever read. I’m guessing the book dances on these questions with great wit and grace. If it answers them, it will be a unique contribution to the field, and may collapse it. My hat’s off to anyone who tries.


John Holbo 12.06.07 at 1:17 pm

Very sorry for confusions induced by oblique jokiness.

I wrote the post for the Valve, where this stuff is more familiar, academic inside baseball as it were. I might have expanded it for CT, somewhat as follows:

Theory is shorthand for that cluster of philosophically-inflected styles and intellectual sensibilities, that whirring buzzing profusion, that tangle of metaphysical flotsam that started washing up on the shores of American humanities departments, especially English departments, starting in the 60’s. It mostly spoke French. Even though its grandfathers were all German. Structuralism, post-structuralism and beyond. The highwater mark was surely the mid-eighties celebrity of Derrida and deconstruction. It’s a bit hard to say how much the water receded. Or maybe everyone just learned to swim, and the fish is last to know he’s in the water, after all. (Especially the Stanley Fish.)

Theory is all tangled up with the culture wars, too.

“Theory’s Empire” is an anthology of broadly anti-Theory writings, spanning several decades. Criticism, skepticism. Many of the contributors to “Framing Theory’s Empire” were at least conditionally sympathetic to the skeptical or anti-Theory stance. (I am.) But several also take the line that all the complaining about theory is nonsense because there is no such thing. Or because it’s necessary. Or because it was generally a good thing because the New Criticism got rather dull after a while, you know. Or possibly complaints about Theory are just misplaced grumbles about institutional deformities and academic David Lodgian crotchets that don’t really have anything essential to do with reading maybe more Foucault than is good for you.


foolishmortal 12.06.07 at 1:28 pm

Still, pretty cover.


John Holbo 12.06.07 at 1:34 pm

I am glad you think so, foolishmortal.


richard 12.06.07 at 1:45 pm

wow. I was going to write an apologetic retraction of 8, saying that it was sparked by my dislike for Derrida, Spivak, Bhabha and their ilk, but that I hadn’t come across any such nonsense in the writings of the contributors to this book. After John’s clarification at 9, maybe I don’t have to.


a very public sociologist 12.06.07 at 2:47 pm

Good luck with the book, John. If a copy makes itself known to me at a nearby well-known sociology journal’s office, I’ll see if I can tear myself away from blogging and the PhD to write a review for it. It does sound very interesting and right up my street.


Tom Scudder 12.06.07 at 4:35 pm

6 – so you co-designed the book in the same sense that Stan Lee co-created Spiderman


Tracy W 12.06.07 at 5:21 pm

9. Hmm, not quite the simple definition I was hoping for.

Though I am reminded of my Systems and Control lecturer’s advice that ypu should never call anything you’ve invented “new” or “modern”.


Hogan 12.06.07 at 7:55 pm

I remember Theory as a move away from direct textual exegesis to consideration of how texts and exegeses are produced in the first place: interrogation of reading and writing as embedded in and inflected by the cultural, intellectual, institutional etc. settings in which they take place. Once that becomes your topic, literary texts (e.g., Balzac’s Sarrasine) become occasions for self-conscious displays of exegetical virtuosity (e.g., Barthes’s S/Z) or meditations on the not always conscious sources of one’s own typical interpretive moves (e.g., every deconstruction of a literary text was supposed to end with a deconstruction of the deconstruction), and the real action is not in those texts but in theories of and approaches to interpretation (if “interpretation” is the word I’m looking for), at which point your main interest is Continental philosophy or cultural anthropology or Lacanian psychoanalysis, but not Tennyson’s prosody or Woolf’s imagery or the philology of the East Midlands dialect of Middle English. It was kind of a return of the repressed after the “New Criticism,” which ruled out any consideration of the context of literary production as one or another fallacy, had attained total scholastic aridity .

It made for some brilliant intellectual work, a lot of jargon-based posing, bitterly fought institutional politics, and excellent departmental cocktail parties. My contribution was mainly to the posing and the cocktail parties.

Hope this helps the beginners. The book sounds like difficult fun.


Great Zamfir 12.06.07 at 8:09 pm

16. What is ‘Systems and control’ about? I once had a subject with exactly the same name, but your post made me think about the myriad of other subjects that could be treated under that name (mine was about feedback loops to, well, control systems)


ajl 12.06.07 at 8:16 pm

16 –

Speaking as a lay person wedded to a disillusioned ex-practitioner of capital-T Theory, I’d define it thusly:

“Theory” is a broad term for all the myriad ways of reading literature that involve ignoring the narrative completely and focusing on the political, sociological, philosophical, psychosexual, metaphysical, anthropological, and possibly gastronomical implications of the book. Also, you are required to call it a “text” instead of a “book.”

Hope that helps.


SEK 12.06.07 at 8:25 pm

Also, you are required to call it a “text” instead of a “book.”

Not true. You’re merely required to have strong feelings as to whether you call it a “text” or a “book.”


ajl 12.06.07 at 8:26 pm

Ah, I see. As a book partisan, I must have been going to cocktail parties on enemy turf.


Hogan 12.06.07 at 8:49 pm

I call it a “work.” Makes me feel more Marxist.


John Holbo 12.07.07 at 3:42 am

“co-designed the book in the same sense that Stan Lee co-created Spiderman”

I DID make sure to put her name first, which is more than Stan the Man ever did. (Lee and Kirby. Who thinks that’s the right order?) I think my dear wife twitted me because she feels entitled to more praise for having done the actual construction. (Assembling boxes is a chore.) This is fair enough. I conceived it. We designed it. She constructed it.


Michael Bérubé 12.07.07 at 4:46 am

It turns out making books is hard and time consuming

And if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it.


magistra 12.07.07 at 7:07 am

23 – never mind theories on literature, there is a whole theory of ‘who the artist is’ just in that one comment.


Tracy W 12.07.07 at 9:25 am

18. Great Zamfir – your definition sounds like my course. Feedback loops to control systems. Poles and zeros and jokes about simple Poles in a complex plane.


Tracy W 12.07.07 at 9:27 am

Thanks to Ajl and Hogan for the explanations.


GreatZamfir 12.07.07 at 10:17 am

26: I was sort of hoping there was a course with this name that taught about the System and how it controls people. It would be nice if there existed both courses that teach how you can control systems, and courses that teach how the systen controls you.


Tracy W 12.07.07 at 3:27 pm

28: I’ve often pondered that myself, greatzamfir.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a course was taught with the same name in some media studies department somewhere.

Actually it would be interesting to read a book on political philosophy that focussed on analogies between effective government and good system design in the engineering sense. One of the advantages of democracy strikes me as being the feedback loop.

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