Hannah Sullivan’s outstanding book The Work of Revision came out last year and got less attention than it deserves — though here’s a nice article from the Boston Globe. My review of the book has just appeared in Books and Culture, but it’s behind a paywall — and why, you may ask? Because B&C needs to make ends meet, that’s why, and if you haven’t subscribed you ought to, post haste.
Anyway, here’s the link and I’m going to quote my opening paragraphs here, because they relate to themes often explored on this blog. But do find a way to read Sullivan’s book.
Once upon a time, so the village elders tell us, there reigned a gentle though rather dull king called Literary Criticism, who always wore tweed and spoke in a low voice. But then, on either a very dark or very brilliant day, depending on who’s telling the story, this unassuming monarch was toppled by a brash outsider named Theory, who dressed all in black, wore stylish spectacles, and spoke with a French accent. For a time it seemed that Theory would rule forever. But no king rules forever.
One can be neither definitive nor uncontroversial about such matters, given the chaotic condition of the palace records, but if I were in the mood to be sweeping, I would suggest that the Reign of Theory in Anglo-American literary study extended from approximately 1960 (Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization) to approximately 1997 (Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative). Its period of absolute dominance was rather shorter, from 1976 (Gayatri Spivak’s English translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology) to 1989 (Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England). Those were heady days.
The ascendance of Theory brought about the occlusion of a set of humanistic disciplines that had for a long time been central to literary study, especially the various forms of textual scholarship, from textual editing proper to analytical bibliography. To take but one institutional example: at one time the English department of the University of Virginia, under the leadership of the great textual scholar Fredson Bowers, had been dominant in these fields, but Bowers retired in 1975, and by the time I arrived at UVA as a new graduate student in 1980, almost no one on the faculty was doing textual scholarship, and I knew no students who were interested in it. This situation would begin to be rectified in 1986 with the hiring of Jerome McGann, who renewed departmental interest in these fields and played a role in bringing Terry Belanger’s Rare Book School from Columbia to Virginia (in 1992). Now Virginia is once more seen as a major player in textual scholarship, bibliography, the history of the book, and what was once called “humanities computing” — a field in which McGann was a pioneer — but is now more likely to be called “digital humanities.”
Theory is still around; but its skeptical, endlessly ramifying speculations can now seem little more than airy fabrications in comparison to the scrupulous study of material texts and the very different kind of scrupulosity required to write computer programs that data-mine texts. The European theorist in black has had to give way to new icons of (scholarly) cool. Literary textual scholarship is back: more epistemologically careful, aware of the lessons of theory, but intimately connected to traditions of humanistic learning that go back at least to Erasmus of Rotterdam in the 16th century — and maybe even Eusebius of Caesarea in the 4th.