The Johns Hopkins Guide to Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory
Edited by Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth & Imre Szeman
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012
Paperback. xii+521 pages. ISBN: 978-1421406398. $45.00
Reviewed by Alice Braun
Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense
Ever since it was first published in 1994, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory has been a key work of reference for literary scholars and students alike. One of its main aims was to take stock of the development of literary theory and criticism and in particular the growing influence of theory in the field of literary studies. The editors of the book explain in the introduction that one of the main features of the development of criticism is the widening of the field in general. Its object now reaches over and beyond literature to address different forms of cultural production (with the emergence of cultural studies, for example), and its discourse now intersects with that of other fields such as “anthropology, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, political science, and much else besides” [ix]. In addition, the guide aims to contextualize the works of many oft-quoted critics, whose ideas have allegedly been distorted through a perfunctory reading of their writings, as well as the emergence of a number of new concepts or critical approaches by providing information about their historical grounding and development. Another key concern in the editors’ preface is accessibility, as their stated aim is to propose an at once detailed and systematic approach to some of the concepts and ideas associated with a field that has been criticized by some for its obscurity (the Sokal affair broke out only two years after The Johns Hopkins Guide was first published). The very form of the dictionary and the choice of cross-referencing all lend scientific authority to its subject matter, making theory an academic tool in its own right.
The third edition does not introduce any fundamental changes to the concept of the guide, yet it widens the perspective to newer concepts and authors which had not been covered by the previous editions in an effort to take account of the main developments in theory in recent years. The editors claim that they have tried to remain as objective and inclusive as possible in their selection of entries, thereby providing an advance response – in a field of academics where political and ideological tensions run high – to any criticism based on their choosing to include one particular author and exclude another. The guide is made up of eighty or so entries that are roughly divided between individual authors and critical movements or concepts, and are presented mainly by scholars from North American universities. One methodological feature shared by all the entries is a strong focus on literature and the way the study of literary texts fits within the work of an author, or features as a type of praxis within a given movement. This approach is limiting at times, as many of the authors discussed in the guide have not focused their whole work on literary texts per se, but have nevertheless produced theory that remains highly relevant to the field of literary studies (for example, the entry on Agamben focuses as a result mostly on his reflections on literature, while his major political works, such as the Homo Sacer series are left out of the presentation as if they belonged to a different category of work, causing the reader to lose sight of the internal coherence of his work).
While the internal content of the entries on individual authors is chronologically ordered for the most part, the entries which deal with a particular theoretical approach or movement are organized along a number of different lines. Some of the latter entries are divided into historical periods, as is the entry on Marxist Theory and Criticism, for example, while others are organized along geographical lines (Cultural Studies) or even gender-based lines (Queer Theory and Criticism). While these differing choices may be justified intellectually by the desire to provide context for a discussion on the emergence of new concepts and ideas, a clear explanation for these methodological choices would, in some instances, have made for greater internal coherence. The choice of sharing the treatment of some of the entries among different scholars also poses a similar problem at times, as the various specialists often focus on different aspects of a particular question, which sometimes make it difficult to get an idea of the bigger picture. However, overall, the structure chosen enhances the clarity and precision of the entries and provides a highly detailed and comprehensive presentation of the different critical concepts discussed in the dictionary. Each entry is in the end written in an effort to make the building blocks of theory, and even some of the most inaccessible among them, as clear and as easy to use as possible, all the while providing the reader with an introduction to some of the most essential works by modern-day philosophers. The very thoroughness and high quality of each entry, as well as attentive editing, are what makes The Johns Hopkins Guide to Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory an essential tool for anyone looking for an at once in-depth and accessible study of some of the major concepts of literary theory today.
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