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Structure and Conjuncture Literary Study and the Return to Althusser


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  • 1  For an excellent account of this renewed interest in Althusser’s work up to 1998, see Gregory Elli (...)

1To return to the work of Louis Althusser in the present conjuncture is, as Jacques Bidet noted a decade ago, to confront a discourse that seems to come from another age, but one which still retains an unassailable and singular power of theoretical provocation (Bidet, 5). The power of this discourse to speak and to intervene in the current post-poststructural, post-postmodern, post-postcolonial, and always already globalized critical climate is perhaps all the more surprising when we are reminded that the Althusserian project was so fully eclipsed in the years leading up to Althusser’s death in 1990 that Etienne Balibar could observe in his presentation to a conference on “the Althusserian legacy,” held at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, in 1988 that “such a conference would be unthinkable in France” (Balibar, “Non-Contemporaneity,” 1). However, in the fifteen years since Althusser’s death there has been a striking return to Althusser’s work, and for many, particularly in the field of cultural criticism, this return has signaled a rendez-vous with some nagging, unfinished business.1

  • 2  James Kavanagh’s review essay “Marxism’s Althusser: Toward a Politics of Literary Theory” provides (...)

2In a short essay from 1988, now available on the Internet, the American Althusserian critique, Michael Sprinker, attempts to contrast the shortcomings of Russian Formalism and Prague Structuralism, particularly the formalist work of Jan Mukarovsky, with a properly historical materialist aesthetics, and his example of the latter is of course the work of Louis Althusser, or, more precisely, Althusser’s work provides Sprinker with “indications” (his term) of what logic a historical materialist aesthetics might embrace, and the necessary direction for any “consequent materialist science of literature” (Sprinker, paragraphs, 22, 29). What Sprinker points toward in his brief discussion is an aesthetics grounded in the by now well rehearsed nodal points of Althusserian structural Marxism– contradiction and overdetermination, and ideology, and he is of course not the first to have attempted an elaboration of this program. In fact, the Althusserian program might be said to have first resonated outside the fields of philosophy and militant politics in the domain of literary and cultural studies, as reflected in Pierre Macherey’s Pour une théorie de la production littéraire (Paris: Maspero, 1966), and in the essays and introductions devoted to the object of literature that Macherey published with Étienne Balibar in the mid-1970s. The themes of this discourse are justly well known and part of the everyday vocabulary of students of left-inflected literary criticism. For Macherey and Balibar, literature is an historically constituted practice of reflection, whose aesthetic effect is to provide imaginary solutions to irresolvable ideological contradictions, even as it is engaged in a vast process of ideological reproduction that allows subjects to recognize the discursive world of the literary text through an hallucinatory process of identification, or, more simply, to borrow from a closely allied vocabulary, through a mode of misrecognition (Balibar and Macherey, 19-23, 32-4, 39-41, 45-6). These are also the principal themes of the materialist science of the literary text that inform the first wave of Althusserian-inspired Anglophone literary criticism. Tony Bennett’s Formalism and Marxism (1979), for example, brings together Russian Formalism and Althusserian theory to construct a materialist theory of the literary text, one that is at once critical of certain assumptions of the Althusserian account of the aesthetic object, while endorsing Macherey and Balibar’s insistence upon literature and the literary effect as thoroughly conventionalized and historical practices. Terry Eagleton’s work in the 1970s, Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976) and Criticism and Ideology (1978), is also central to this first wave of Althusserian-inspired theoretical discourse in English, as is Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, which owes much of its construction of the socially symbolic character of the literary text to Althusser’s structural causality.2 But while this work has long been incorporated into the mainstream of literary and cultural theory, the Althusserian problematic has persisted as the still incomplete materialist interrogation of the literary project.

3In his Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), Terry Eaglet asserts that the aesthetic emerges in modernity as bourgeois culture’s most ideologically charged category, at once guaranteeing the most profound ground of inter-subjective harmony in the intuitive and unmotivated common appreciation of the aesthetic object, while providing an alibi for the contradictory lived experience of emerging social order, of its atomistic solitude and the indifference of possessive individualism (Eaglet, Ideology, 22-26). In Eagleton’s words, “The aesthetic in this sense is no more than a name for the political unconscious: it is simply the way social harmony registers itself on our senses, imprints itself on our sensibilities. The beautiful is just political order lived out on the body, the way it strikes the eye and stirs the heart “ (37). In the long tradition of Marxist cultural criticism, the notion that the aesthetic is an ideological category is simply unexceptionable, but it is the specifically Althusserian formulation of that relation between aesthetics and ideology that looms large in Eagleton’s reading of the history of the aesthetic. It does so, I would argue, because the Althusserian problematic had not been fully assimilated, and the recent outpouring of previously unpublished and late texts by Althusser has only cast that moment of assimilation further into the future. Nonetheless, my argument properly begins here, drawing upon both the Althusser of the structure and the later Althusser of the conjuncture, in an attempt to sketch the possibilities for a distinctly Althusserian critique of the aesthetic or an Althusserian construction of a materialist aesthetics.

4To give a sense of where that later Althusser might take us in the realm of literary and cultural criticism, we might begin by considering Pierre Macherey’s remarks on Foucault’s “Preface” to Histoire de la Folie. Macherey observes, “What is remarkable in this conception of discourse as event, which produces itself instead of being produced, is that it literally overturns the traditional established relationship between production and reproduction: the event, which is everything but the act of a subject who would be its Author, precedes the work, which is itself only the repetition, in a relationship which is not that of massive identity but of insensible difference. Thus, the work, with the effects of meaning attached to it, is not only strictly speaking the result of a production but of a reproduction, the latter resting on the aleatory event of the discourse supporting it” (Macherey, “For a Theory,” 46-7). What I would draw your attention to here is not Macherey’s delight in Foucault’s formulation, but rather his association of the event with the aleatory (“the aleatory event:”), of the singular irretrievable moment of necessity and inevitability with the logic of the aleatory, because that connection is central to Althusserian materialist aesthetics, particularly as they are sketched, implicitly at least, in Althusser’s own late work on the notion of an aleatory materialism.

  • 3  I am not the first to note the importance of this essay. See, for example, Marc-Vincent Howlett, “ (...)

5Althusser’s direct engagement with cultural and literary criticism forms a relatively small part of the material that he published in his lifetime and of the material that has been published posthumously; however, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of this engagement both for literary criticism and for the role that it plays in the trajectory of Althusser’s own thought. After all, Althusser’s For Marx, his “one great book,” as Étienne Balibar has described it, gives central place to his essay “The Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht, Notes on a Materialist Theatre,” ” in which Althusser engages in a close reading of the Piccolo Teatro’s 1962 staging in Milano of El Nost Milan, a melodrama written by the nineteenth-century Milanese playwright Bertolazzi.3 What so intrigues Althusser about this production is the way that the melodramatic central action that involves a few figures is physically moved to the margins of the stage, which is then largely given over to the aimless comings and goings, indifference, and superfluity of the late nineteenth-century Milanese proletarian population. These two times of the play do not interact dialectically, Althusser observes, and so the overall effect is one in which “the people’s time and the time of the tragedy,” the modes of non-dialectic and dialectic temporarily, coexist and interconnect but never come together (Althusser, For Marx, 141, 142). For Althusser, “The dynamic of this specific latent structure, and in particular, the coexistence without any explicit relation of a dialectical temporality and a non-dialectical temporality, is the basis of a true critique of the illusions of consciousness (which always believes itself to be dialectical and treats itself as dialectical), the basis for a true critique of the false dialectic (conflict, tragedy, etc.) by the disconcerting reality which is its basis and which is waiting for recognition,” (For Marx, 142-3). As Althusser then goes on to observe, “I wonder whether this asymmetrical, decentred structure should not be regarded as essential to any theatrical effect of a materialist character” (For Marx, 143). Althusser’s reading of the Piccolo Teatro production of El Nost Milan, particularly his account of the ways in which the production stages the limits of ideological consciousness and mimetically reproduces the logic of a social formation, is also representative of many of the important themes of For Marx.

6In “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” for example, the major essay that immediately precedes “The ‘Piccolo Teatro’” in For Marx, Althusser presents the notion of a decentred structure in the mode of overdetermination, a notion that forms the core of much of Althusser’s work in this period. Contradiction, Althusser argues, “is inseparable form the total structure of the social body in which it is found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence, and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them, determining but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates; it might be called overdetermined in its principle” (101). The second argument reformulates this proposition at the level of theory, so that, for Althusser, Marx’s dialectic is to be distinguished from the structures of the Hegelian dialectic principally by its insistence upon the fundamental axiom that “contradiction is always overdetermined,” or as Althusser explains, “overdetermined contradiction” “is inevitable and thinkable as soon as the real existence of the forms of the superstructures and of the national and international conjuncture has been recognized–an existence largely specific and autonomous, and therefore irreducible to a pure phenomenon” (113). Overdetermination, Althusser continues, “does not just refer to apparently unique an aberrant historical situations [...] but is universal; the economic dialectic is never active in the pure state; in History, these instances, the superstructures, etc.–are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the Time comes, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the `last instance’ never comes.” However, Althusser will also argue that the non-arrival of the last instance should not be read as projecting the economic as that which is external to the accidents amid which it asserts itself, but rather that the economy is the internal essence of these accidents” (121). In “On the Materialist Dialectic,” the penultimate essay in For Marx, Althusser completes this exposition of the logic of social forms by drawing upon Mao’s 1937 text “On Contradiction” in order to insist that “the unity discussed by Marxism is the unity of the complexity itself, or “that the complex whole has the unity of a structure articulated in dominance,” and that this dominance is to be conceived not as a simple structural hierarchy but as an complex unity of differentially articulated contradictions and their uneven relations.(Here Althusser actually uses the term “totality,” and is quick to distinguish the properly Marxist totality from what he terms, “the simple principle of Hegelian totality,” or totality as it is found in Gestalt psychology or in the work of Sartre). Thus, Althusser argues, Lenin’s attempt to account for the revolutionary situation in Russia in 1917 through an appeal to the exceptional national conditions of capitalism’s “weakest link” should be read not as a lapse into empiricism, but as an effort to provide an account of the complex whole of the then current situation. In this context, Lenin’s appeal to exceptional circumstances is simply an acknowledgment of the unevenness of every social formation. As Althusser argues, every complex unity is necessarily an exception or, more precisely, the articulation of the interior logic of its own contradictions, and this “great law of unevenness,” as Althusser terms it, “suffers no exceptions” (212).

7These notions of contradiction and overdetermination, particularly the unevenness of the complex whole, are also central to Althusser’s reading of the cultural artifact. As Michael Sprinker once observed in a sharply focused discussion of this point, “The key concepts in the Althusserian theory of art are nothing other than contradiction an overdetermination, which underpin the quite un-Artistotelian and anti-aesthetic (in the classic usage of the term) notion that the formal relations among elements in an artifact are untotalizable. Art works mobilize ideological material in a structure that foregrounds their mutual incompatibility” (§ 27). The object of literary study in this context, Sprinker suggests, is to trace or uncover “the overdetermned structure of contradiction, the formal means of representation, that literary texts can be shown to exhibit. The contradiction is presented on the literal level of the text, in thought, character, and action, but its motivation lies elsewhere–in the ideological signifies [sic] for which these are the overdetermined signifiers. It therefore follows that literary scholarship is a sub-discipline of the global scene of the history of social formation which marxism has always claimed to be [sic], and that the investigation of the formal structure of literary texts is subjacent to the study of ideologies” (§ 28). As Sprinker insists, “This need not diminish or belittle the importance of literary study,.” but it does raise the question of the dynamic of ideological reproduction in cultural representation and its relation to knowledge.

8This is the question that Althusser takes up in his 1966 “Lettre sur la connaissance de l’art (réponse à André Daspre),” in which he famously observes, “je dirais que l’art nous donne ‘à voir’ des ‘conclusions sans ‘prémisses’” (“Lettre,” 584). This is so, Althusser tells us, because art (which is represented entirely by the novel in his letter) enjoys, on the one hand, a particular relationship with ideology, and, on the other hand, a differential relation to knowledge (“Lettre,” 582). Strictly speaking, novels do not provide us with knowledge, understood in terms of Althusser’s distinction between science and ideology, but what is represented in fiction is“le ‘vécu’ spontané de l’idéologie dans son rapport propre au réel.” (“Lettre,” 583). A work of fiction, as Althusser maintains, can give us only “l’idéologie dont il naît, dans laquelle il baigne, dont il se détache en tant qu’art, et à laquelle it fait allusion,” but as a representation of a lived relation to real conditions of human existence, fiction, in Althusser’s account, provides us with “une vue qui suppose un recul, une prise de distance intérieure sur l’idéologie même dont [les] romans sont issus. Ils [les auteurs] nous donnent à ‘percevoir’ (et non à connaître), en quelque sorte du dedans, par une distance intérieure, l’idéologie même dans laquelle ils sont pris.” (“Lettre,” 582). Of this stepping back (un recul) or interior distance, Althusser remarks, “On peut certes dire qu c’est un ‘effet’ de leur art de romanciers, que de produire cette distance, intérieure à leur idéologie,” but that is only possible, Althusser maintains, if we insist, as in the case of Balzac, for example, that there is no novelist’s art (and no form of cultural production for that matter) that is not always already caught up in the reproduction of “ses conceptions politiques” (“Lettre,” 585). It cannot be otherwise, as Althusser emphatically maintains, “c’est parce qu’il adhère à son idéologique poliltique qu’il peut produire en elle cette ‘distance’ intérieure qui nous donnera sur elle une ‘vue’ critique” (“Lettre,” 585).

9In one sense, Althusser’s attempt in the “Lettre” to characterize the ‘percevoir’ of cultural representation simply recalls Marx’s own distinction in the 1857 “Introduction” to the Grundisse between the “The totality as it appears in the head,” a product of the “thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can: and the very different modes of “the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world,” a passages that Althusser himself comments upon at some length in Reading Capital (Marx, 101, Althusser, Reading Capital, 54-5). But for the purposes of my present argument, I want to focus on Althusser’s “Lettre” and its careful description of the logic of an interior distance (une distance intérieure) in narrative representation and his account of how art (the novel) figures the lived experience of the social totality. In his “Lettre,” Althusser suggests that this interior distance comes from the novelist’s art, or from the way in which the work of art as such detaches itself from ideology, but what the novel represents ultimately is the spontaneous lived experience of ideology in its connection with the real. More precisely, we might suggest, what the novel represents is the structuring logic of ideology, experienced not as a spontaneous lived experience but as an elaborated system of representations of a specific structure in dominance. The interior distance produced by or in a work of art is the recognition of the logic of ideology apprehended as a representational content, not as a “connaître” nor as a series of “premisses,” but as a critical effect, a perception and feeling. In other words, the representational content of narrative is the lived experience of ideological structuration, which shows, on the one hand, how subjects, as Althusser famously terms it elsewhere, “`work by themselves’,” and how ideological structuration is itself a system of representations connected to the real of a social totality, but apart from it, a system that narrative can never apprehend as knowledge, in the Althusserian sense. (“Ideology,” 181).

10But this reading, and it is a conventional reading of Althusser’s text, needs to be broadened if it is not to fall into endless hand wringing about the oppositional possibilities for a system of cultural production that reproduces its own ideological surround. And I would argue that Althusser himself points to the ways in which we might more productively read culture and ideology in his 1966 text, “Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses,” a text not published in Althusser’s lifetime but circulated shortly after its composition to Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, Yves Duroux, and Pierre Macherey as something of a prospectus for a subsequently unrealized collective project. In these three notes, Althusser’s focus is on the relation between the subject of ideology and the subject of the unconscious. “I would like to put forward the following proposition,” he announces in the fourth section of Note 2: “the interpellation of human individuals as ideological subjects produces a specific effect in them, the unconscious-effect, which enables these human individuals to assume the function of ideological subjects” (56). As Althusser explains earlier in the “Note,” “the subject-function which is the characteristic effect of ideological discourse in turn requires, produces or induces [...] a characteristic effect, the unconscious-effect, or the effect subject-of-the-unconscious, that is, the peculiar structure which makes the discourse of the unconscious possible. The latter function makes it possible for the subject-function to be guaranteed amid misrecognition” (53). Ideological formations constitute the material (situation) in which the formations of a particular unconscious “take hold,” even though ideological discourse, Althusser cautions, is not to be read as the genesis of the unconscious, nor is the subject of the unconscious articulated with the ideological subject alone (59, 56, 57). The discourses of psychoanalysis and that of ideology are proximate discourses, but they articulate their subjects differentially. Specifically, psychoanalysis for Althusser is a regional theory, like linguistics, which rests upon an absent general theory of the signifier, which would allow us to think the existence and articulation of different types of discourse” (64). In a similar way, Althusser suggests that art does not merely reproduce ideology, but enjoys a differential relationship with it through a general theory of the signifier. Like all forms of discourse, aesthetic discourse, Althusser explains, has its own “assignable differences of structure” and its own “subject-effect”; characteristically, it “possesses an ambiguous structure of cross-references, in which each presumable u r explainsideyehled). As Althusser explai-csis forscis to calleject-el eff 101/span>But tmyreal condcen hare is not Mith the irder tf evfects but whth the reaation between todes of iscourse asd goneral theoryes. TI Althusser’s account, prychoanalysis for example, tould alpearsto purticuipte isntwo toneral theoryes.,that of ihe signifier.and that of iistorical materialistm The latter Althusser explains, hntervene in the fourmr tfrprovides uhe fourmr thth tlements ,categoryis, and soructural helations ahat ofer,aps so that, for Axample, to can nharacterize the iscourse of the unconscious ps inconscious pecause at is a ticulated with tdeological discourse i59,. In auch ohe sime may, A would luggest, wh might mead ahe reaation between trt asd ideology, bot as a eproduction of epresentation and histance, iut as a repation of degional tsd goneral theoryes.(and nare io can negin bo think the eanswr to the auestion toses by Machael Sprinker oith tespectfto the maans ob which irt amnaghe to provuce ind internor distance ) More oer, A would argue, bf we ian nrace ohis realtional cnderstond ng of a t asd ideology,Althusser’s liter Aork, wten we acn alesonegin bo tonceivedof a made of oonstructiog thei relation toat maght meadh ibeyod the serly toructural hogic of its oormulation,

10In a s1977essay in the alt of tLuiou Fnti- Althusser remurns th the auestion tf the interior listance produced by o r.

81 “ISurpLuiou Fnti- (61-3). AWile this wssay iould luem th return tu th the aerms of Ahe 1866 “Lettrr oncArt ” Althusser s stbject aare is not Mdeological reproduction ipr see but theydistrupive protntial rf AFnti-s lecalting onfrSvide itage., and sore prrticularly thth the rcoitique of toficaal rSvide iiscourse,.an one sense,this wimply rarks olthusser’s own tolitical oxperience on the puriod.and his adeepsense,ty the niter A970s,of the cuisin in tarxism an a roth fatheorytical dradition ond a nilitant povement, But fhis reading,rf AFnti-s l t asesonarks oor Au the discance ietween the slthusser of the structure ,of ior Marx, Aem>Reading Capital, 5nd aThe three Notes on tDscourse” (nd the sirst mssays ao cultura, and the nater Althusser of the conjuncture, iwho,ty the niter1970s, 10TCntral to this frehinking hi olthusser’s oecogsiderition of the faterialist cogic of iistory .aWeneadsin For Marx,and ieading Capital (he discanction between sdeology and tcience arovidesdsupportiior ahs not ons of acience ans As Altivle ed icience of the lroduction of nowledge (nd his aonstruction of ahilosophy an the corceptiul meataheory of tcience ,rhe stelf-ritical elthusser of the cerly t970s,owll incist tnly thet the nhilosophy as “Llass=strucggl on the past instance sn the field of cteory” pFSelf-riticism 39-) More oer, Althusser’s oonception of dhe stene of thei=strucggl oill also ae reahought, cs Althusser fill aow wnsist that “tistory,is a rrocess and acpricess oithout anstbject /em>” FSelf-riticism 351. It cs not alauestion tf tuman ieing smakeng hestory, tut nevi-el es nistory o conmbnatory ptructure ;cs Althusser fput it, istory oas almotio.and that ootio.ais ilass=strucggl ” Aomething , h remindesAu thea does not mhlpea in the 1air and so tne smst rttentdclosely ao the marerial (asis ahei=strucggl ond ant to the realtions of aroduction that rroduce idtpFSelf-riticism 350-51. INvi-el ehe lroduction of uman iubjects, aor asconmbnatory pf iterminatnttlements ,che faterialist cogic of iistory for the suelf-ritical elthusser os adrven oy coass=strucggl ond goiernsd by o nexplicit y apinozist Botion of aausality.FSelf-riticism 3141. This iuelf-ritical erehinking hf ihe faterialist croject wespdes altthe corr of Althusseris liter Ahought, cven though ids ooul efaboration os tnly tuggest,vely rb complllengulyproposid in his list, tnfinished bhilosophycal temxt.

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Althusser, Louis. “Contradiction and Overdetermination.” in For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Verso, 1996. 87-128.

——. “Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre.” Écrits philosophiques et politiques. Tome I. Textes réunis par François Matheron. Paris: Éditions STOCK/IMEC, 1994. 539-79.

——. Essays in Self-Criticism. London: New Left Books, 1976.

——. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation.” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

——. “Lettre sur la connaissance de l’art,” Écrits philosophiques et politiques. Tome II. Textes réunis par François Matheron. Paris: Stock/IMEC (Le Livre de Poche), 1997. 579-88.

——. “The ‘Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht.” in For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Verso, 1996. 129-152

——. “Sur Lucio Fanti.” Écrits philosophiques et politiques. Tome II. Textes réunis par François Matheron. Paris: Stock/IMEC (Le Livre de Poche), 1997. 611-5.

——. “Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses.” in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings. Ed. François Matheron. Trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003. 33-84.

Althusser, Louis and Étienne Balibar. Reading Capital. New York: Verso, 1997.

Balibar, Étienne. “The Non-Contemporaneity of Althusser,” in The Althusserian Legacy. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker. New York: Verso, 1993. 1-16.

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1  For an excellent account of this renewed interest in Althusser’s work up to 1998, see Gregory Elliott, “Ghostlier Demarcations: On the Posthumous Edition of Althusser’s Writings.”

2  James Kavanagh’s review essay “Marxism’s Althusser: Toward a Politics of Literary Theory” provides an excellent short account of the work of Bennett and Eagleton in relation to that of Macherey and Althusser.

3  I am not the first to note the importance of this essay. See, for example, Marc-Vincent Howlett, “Le Thêatre n’est-il pour Althusser qu’un ‘Risque Fictif’?” and Max Statkiewicz, “Theatre and/of Ideology: The Notion of Spostamento in Althusser’s Theory of Theatrical Praxis.”

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Thomas CARMICHAEL, « Structure and Conjuncture Literary Study and the Return to Althusser », E-rea [En ligne], 3.1 | 2005, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2005, consulté le 16 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.618

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University of Western Ontario
Thomas Carmichael is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Western Ontario. He is co-editor of Constructive Criticism: The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 1995), and Postmodern Times: A Critical Guide to the Contemporary (Northern Illinois University Press, 2000). He has also published widely in journals and contributed to several volumes on theory and criticism, and contemporary American literature and culture.

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