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The Birth and Death of Literary Theory: Regimes of Relevance in Russia and Beyond by Galin Tihanov

Reviewed by Byron Taylor, University College London

The Birth and Death of Literary Theory: Regimes of Relevance in Russia and Beyond, Galin Tihanov. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2019. £50. ISBN: 9780804785228.


Galin Tihanov’s new book, The Birth and Death of Literary Theory (2019), chronicles the birth of theory, yet begins and ends with its death. In most anthologies of literary theory, Russian Formalism holds a comparable place with silent cinema in the history of film: dusty, old, neglected, and often seen as more an antiquated precedent than a substantial area of interest. As the George Steiner Professor of Comparative Literature at Queen Mary (University of London), Tihanov has long sought to alter this view, reframing debates in Comparative and World Literature with German and Slavic contexts.

            The book’s title, however, may be misleading. This book is not another paean to the end of theory but is, altogether, more impressive and circular in its elaboration. It is a brilliant distillation of theory’s inception, concluding with an argument for its circularity with present movements, namely World Literature. Alongside this, Tihanov encourages us to interpret theories through the historical contexts that informed them. ‘For the historian of intellectual formations’, he insists, ‘radical historicity is the only credible approach; I would even submit that our understanding of literary theory has been greatly skewed and impoverished by our reluctance to historicise it’ (5).

            When faced with theorists, Tihanov complains, we are ‘more willing to inscribe’ them ‘in current debates than to contextualise’ their ideas in their ‘historical ambience’ (132). In doing this himself, Tihanov argues elegantly over the course of this book that our understanding of literary theory must do the same. Despite the plethora of titles declaring the death of literary theory, few have concentrated on its ambivalent and troubled birth, or prioritised its historical evolution so rigorously. Tihanov locates the birth of theory in interwar Eastern and Central Europe, and Russia. Until the 1940s, he reminds us, it existed nowhere else.

            Throughout, Tihanov structures his narrative according to what he calls  a ‘regime of relevance,’ meaning a criterion or norm under which literature functions. By this key term, the author refers to ‘a prevalent mode of appropriating (both interpreting and using) literature in society at a particular time’ (20). He remarks how, in our own time, literature ‘is no longer endowed with special status’ but instead ‘competes for attention as one of the many commodities of the leisure industry’ (30). Just as these various regimes of relevance alter and overlap over time, he continues, ‘so too there are distinct forms of conceptualising’ them ‘and the transitions between them’ (22). Suggesting that critics be mindful of the ‘regime of relevance’ they themselves occupy, Tihanov believes that we ought to give works of theory the radically historical treatment they deserve – without this, his book confirms, our understanding remains limited.

            Beginning with an analysis of Viktor Shklovsky, which seeks to foreground ‘his embeddedness in the context of World War I’ (41),  Tihanov argues that we ‘have not been paying sufficient attention to his political biography, which is an indispensable key to his text’ (41). His analysis alternates between reinterpretations of Shklovsky’s famous notion of estrangement, its inheritances in Brecht and Althusser, with biographical texts that open Shklovsky to more socio-political and poetic dimensions.

            The next chapter moves on to Gustav Shpet, whose influence over literary translation and theatre deserves, he argues, more contemporary recognition. As with Shklovsky, Tihanov argues that Shpet’s work reflects a strange mixture of conservatism and adventurousness: ‘Shpet’s reflections on literature thus come into view as a complex amalgam of innovation and regression, a stirring mixture that embodies the turns of intellectual history at its most attractive and challenging’ (95).

            The next chapter, on Mikhail Bakhtin, is the most extensive and impressive. Tihanov presents him as a deeply misunderstood thinker of humanism – that is, of humanism without ‘the individual human being at its core’ (107). Bakhtin’s highest achievement, Tihanov suggests, was his ‘gradual forging of a theoretical platform informed by what I wish to call humanism without subjectivity’ (109). The scope of Tihanov’s study covers a revelatory variety of historical contexts and sources, lectures and correspondences, formulating the genealogies that led to Bakhtin’s discoveries, including the exile to Central Asia so informative to his work (yet so often unconsidered in its appraisals). Within each of these analyses, the theorists emerge as rounded, multidimensional and problematic.

            The final two chapters follow movements rather than individuals, and resultingly lack the depth of analysis that the previous three chapters afford. The former introduces the short-lived (but reemergent) field of Semantic Paleontology: a movement which ‘questioned the very core of literature by enquiring into what was there before literature, and asking how literature came to be’ (139). Tihanov traces the Moscow seminars and lecture halls where this movement took place, in all its heat, character, and drama; yet, among all its proponents, ‘language, as we can see, was the main protagonist in Russian literary and cultural theory after World War I, and into the 1930s’ (147).

            The subsequent chapter turns to Russian émigrés. For those in exile, the dilemma was stark: ‘Soviet literature enjoyed a wide audience and state protection but no freedom, whereas the émigré writers had freedom but no readership and no economic security’ (166). Yet, as Tihanov points out, this area has suffered severe neglect. While these chapters lack the depth of the previous case studies, they still compliment them with a broad and vivid insight into their academic, political, and philosophical origins.

            Tihanov’s epilogue is less a summary than it is an address, one directed to the burgeoning field of World Literature. ‘World Literature’, he argues, ‘usually refers to a particular liberal Anglo-Saxon discourse grounded in assumptions of mobility, transparency, and a recontextualising (but also decontextualizing) circulation’ of texts, which ‘supports the free consumption and unrestricted comparison of literary artefacts’ (174). Yet it is within the birth of literary theory that a discernible circularity occurs: ‘the current discourse on “world literature” is an iteration of the principal question of modern literary theory at the time of its birth: should one think literature within or beyond the horizon of language’ (182)?

            Tihanov concludes by historicising the present, tracing this current discipline to the Formalism that made it possible. His final thoughts are stunning – constituting an eloquent but righteous address to the discipline, one that cannot go unheeded. The book offers an exhaustive account of literary theory’s birth in interwar Russia, and Central and Eastern Europe, positioning Russia as the birthplace of what has become today the most prominent topic in Comparative Literature.

            The rigorously researched history that Tihanov advances demonstrates an ambition unparalleled in much literary history and criticism. However, for a project that attempts to radically historicise theory, and whose validity depends on the overarching idea of a ‘regime of relevance,’ it is curious that Tihanov does not expand upon this notion to better articulate what this has meant in different eras and in different places. As convincing as a ‘regime of relevance’ may be as a conceptual scheme or criteria, much like the regimes that ruled over the theorists in this book, one assumes there were those who deviated from its laws and escaped its prescriptions; yet this receives surprisingly scant attention. Even if literature does not exist under the same ‘regime of relevance’ as it did in interwar Russia, does treating literature critically in today’s time not itself constitute a deviation from our present regime? Such questions go unanswered - had they been, they could have rendered Tihanov’s argument more contemporaneous. The book otherwise depends on its impressive opening and closing dialogue with the field of World Literature to instate its own relevance, whereas more expansion on this concept would have been welcome.

            Nevertheless, the dialogue that begins and ends the book condenses an authoritative knowledge of its field into a contemporary demand, bookending a narrative that rigorously substantiates this period for reappraisal. As such, it proves as indispensable for World Literature as for Slavic Studies more specifically. Russian Formalists, who often occupy a marginal role, are framed convincingly as pioneers of theories they anticipated. Each figure’s challenges are brought to life: difficult governments and secret police loom over their writings, and their projects are sometimes cut tragically short. Tihanov masterfully forces us to reengage with these figures through contexts as much as concepts, then ends with the more fascinating intervention of depicting World Literature as derivative of these moments.

            Many of the proponents of World Literature have expressed their desire to ‘decentre the centre,’ in other words, to shift the attention of critical analysis away from the Western metropolitan centres and toward the areas that have previously been more marginal, peripheral, or undervalued. Do such declarations prepare the field to accept Tihanov’s brilliant conclusions, and to reconfigure the history of the discipline according to this new periodisation? Tihanov’s reception within this field, and how it deals with this intervention, will prove a fascinating measure for how genuine (and obtainable) this desire is.