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Saturday, 01 April 2006


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Scott -- why Saint Foucault? Why not Macey, Eribon, Miller, Deleuze, Dreyfus & Rabinow, or Han? (D&R is ofteen seen as the standard introduction.)

Scott Eric Kaufman

That's an example of "the first thing I read" logic, i.e. the reason I'm soliciting opinions. It was a sound enough intro. to get me to read more, so I thought I'd throw it up there. So you'd vote for the Dreyfus and Rabinow? Or is that just the standard one, but not necessarily the best?


It's tricky, though, because you first introduction often turns out to have been the best--for you. If not, after all, you'd never have continued.

Thus my introduction to "Theory" was Richard Harland's Superstructuralism, which I found invigorating and inspiring. But I'd surely hesistate before recommending it to an undergraduate. Still, it did the job for me. (OK, I'd already read Eagleton's Introduction to Literary Theory, which is great in many ways except as, um, an introduction to literary theory.)

NB I wrote a paper once about these "introductory" texts. It's in Angelaki somewhere. We all read them, but also deny reading them.

And in the spirt of such denial, let me suggest that the best introduction to structuralism is in fact Roland Barthes's S/Z. (Though that, too, is also an autobiographical suggestion.)

And the best introduction to "Freudian Psychoanalytic" is Freud's Introductory Lectures to [on?] Psychoanalysis.

Here, of course, "introduction" is far from being "general history." It's a way in, an entry point.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Jon, you're certainly correct, but I think you point to the usefulness of such lists when you're able to acknowledge the difference between the "best" and the "best for you." I'm more than willing to admit that I don't think Saint Foucault the "best" introduction out there, and am thus more than happy to revise it off the list.

Also, I'm trying to keep works by primary figures off the list because, well, they're not so good at contextualizing the shortcomings of a particular approach. The work should be representative not only of the thought but of its place in the field, I think. Plus, jumping into S/Z (which, I now realize, is a very difficult title to italicize) is far more difficult and potentially unproductive than reading an account of it, no?


I don't know. If the issue is, what should we recommend to our students, then perhaps it's about what'll keep them reading, rather than what will be most comprehensive. Eagleton's book, then, is woeful as a serious introduction to literary theory; but it gives its reader a sense that theory matters.

And as an 18 year old I found S/Z gripping. Much more so than any account of it would have been. But perhaps I was strange...

Of course, if the issue is, what should I read for a crash course to cover my own ass, then it's different.

By they way, what's the noun to which all these adjectives refer? "Criticism"? "Theory"?

And file Brian Massumi's Introduction to Schizoanalysis (or whatever it's called) under "rhizomatic."


Oh, and one more thing... again, I'm interested in the phenomenon of the introduction, and I'm not really against them. But one thing that their prevalence does suggest is that the texts about which they speak are necessarily hard and therefore require an introduction, some kind of mediation. But that's very often not the case. It's certainly not when it comes to, say, Marx and Freud.

Along these lines, then, under "Semiotic," put Saussure's Course in General Linguistics. Reading it is a breeze and a pleasure. And yet I bet that hardly anyone bothers, and that it's hardly ever set for undergraduates.


Leitch? No no no. Even with his faults, Norris is far better. As is Caputo. Or Barbara Johnson. Or the _French Theory in America_ book, whoever that was edited by. But then "deconstructive" is a misnomer to some degree, such that it would probably be irresponsible not to expose one's students to at least a *little* of teh Man himself, as he often took the time in any number of mostly "jargon-free" interviews, answer sessions, etc.

As unpopular as it may be, I would actually support using Eagleton in such a context. I may as well confess my debt to him. Only I'd balance it out with some T.S. Eliot and Derrida, of course, letting them and others speak for themselves, even if it's only a bit.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Jon, first, I was torn between the Massumi (I assume you mean that one) and DeLanda, which was the one that Had Me At Hello. But yes, you're pointing out some basic flaws in my theory, in that there's a tension between invigorating reads and solid introductions. I suppose I want to aim more toward the latter, since I want to not only create enthusiasm but channel it in the right direction.

The nouns to which all these adjectives refer is, rotatingly, "literature" or "criticism" or "theory." That variety is not my fault, though; it's the profession's. And yes, I agreed whole-heartedly with the Saussere endorsement; only still, one is liable to not see The Big Picture reading it. (You won't get any Jakobson, for one.)

Matt, I'm surprised you're not a fan of the Leitch, esp. as pertains to literary studies. He's a (perhaps excessively) rigorous reader of Derrida; works through the arguments of the seminal texts in an unembarrassing fashion; and concludes with a couple of sparkling examples of the dividends a literary scholar with a deconstructive approach earns. Eagleton, however, doesn't take Derrida that seriously as a thinker; doesn't present the strong form of his argument; and denigrates deconstruction for being insufficiently Marxist.

I'm not necessarily opposed to Eagleton as a general introduction; only I want to compose a list of works which put best faces forward, so to speak.


Scott, yes, I meant the User's Guide. DeLanda... ugh. Or rather, his readings of Deleuze and Guattari aren't too bad, and he does pretty interesting things with them, but it is quite extraordinary how much he makes them apologists for what is, and so by implication a kind of superior justification for capital and even state organization.

For Lacan, by the way, who is one thinker who does in fact need an introduction (because otherwise he makes no sense at all; compare the "mirror stage" essay with what we all in fact know that that essay is supposed to say...), again autobiographically I found Jane Gallop's Reading Lacan a revelation.

And cultural studies has no good introductions, IMO. Extraordinary but true. You'd have to make do with a few essays by Stuart Hall--"The Toad in the Garden" and "Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms" and the like.

Anyhow, more generally, the Methuen "New Accents" series was meant to fulfill exactly this purpose for (what was then) contemporary theory in the 1980s. The series wasn't published as such in the US, I believe, but it included Norris's Deconstruction, Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics, Elizabeth Wright on Freud (I think), the aforementioned Superstructuralism, among many others. As an undergraduate I had the ambition to collect the lot, though this disappeared when I realized that many of them were pretty uninteresting after all.

Roger Mexico

It seems to me that with Romanticism you can't go wrong with M.H. Abrams -- either Mirror and the Lamp or Natural Supernaturalism (probably the former if you had to choose one).

Also, this might succumb to your "representative" fallacy but there's a collection of four canonical Russian Formalist essays that's really good:
You get two Shklovsky's and the Boris Eichenbaum essay is pretty programmatic if I remember correctly -- hey if Gadamer counts for phenomenological, then why not?

Finally, I think Gene Bell-Villada's Art for Art's Sake is excellent on Aestheticism, though it might be more wide-ranging than you really want, e.g., it starts with Kant and Shaftesbury and ends with de Man, making detours on Wilde and Baudelaire -- but on the idea of aestheticism, at least, it's great.

Christopher Hellstrom

This is an interesting and constructive thread, Scott. Put some links to Amazon so you can get a cut when the comprehensive list is done!

For Post Human:

Ray Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near” with a supplemental reading of Bill Joy’s Wired article“The Future Doesn’t Need Us”, to temper Kurtzweil’s optimism. I am sure there may be more comprehensive works on the topic, but that’s my pick. I know it will be shot down by those who know more (outside of the humanities.) I’d like to see the alternative so I can buy and read it as a better intro to the subject.

Roger Mexico

Oops, almost forgot. With regard to the "Platonic" category -- there are only two books I know of that deign to take Plato's aesthetics seriously, and not simply use it as a punching bag for newer, better aesthetics.

Iris Murdoch has a lecture -- now collected -- called "The fire & the sun," and then there's Christopher Janaway's "Images of excellence: Plato's critique of the arts." Both of these spend time talking about Republic, Ion, etc.

Rodney Herring

Some literary interventions:

Adam Roberts

There are whole series of books aimed at providing the sort of good-plus-bad points critical overview and introduction you're talking about. For instance (though it's kind of special pleading on my part) this one.

Ricoeur and Said vols are especially good. The Freud and Lacan vols are also v. useful; Deleuze does a good job; the Derrida book divides people, though some people rate it highly.

Or is this not the kind of thing you're thinking of?


Well I wasn't suggesting Eagleton as an honest introduction to Derrida, Scott, as you well know. For that I still think Norris (or in a more religious vein Caputo) is by far preferable.


so Leitch would be my third or so choice then. but obviously before Teagle. (only i thought you might have been trying to compete with the norton, is all.)

Scott Eric Kaufman

It is, sort of, Adam. (I can't believe they let you write that book despite the, um, "unfortunate" proposal. You must be even more charming in person.) I'm really looking for the book everyone who "really knows" thinks is the best introduction to a subject. Not a series so much as . . . inside information? The first book everyone who really knows tells you to read when you express interest. I'm being more than a little vague, I know, but I'm walking a "do you catch my ambiguous drift" wire here.

Rodney, I'm all on board the Sundquist--I led a committee to get him to come here and do a CTE seminar a few years back--the Brown and the Tompkins, but do you think the Matthiessen's still the best introduction to the current state of the field? Same with Harraway, I think, since isn't Hayles usually considered more illustrious (not to mention readable) now? I'm surprised by the second Thomas nomination, however; I mean, it makes me feel a little better about my chances. The Howard, though, I'm going to have to disagree with, as I found that book wholly unconvincing and, well, way too structuralist in a cleverly post-structuralist way. Then again, this is my problem with all the naturalist works I can think of: because it's what I actually work on, I have nits to pick with all of 'em.

Roger, I'm taking those into advisement--by which I mean, when I edit the list tomorrow, I'll add them as the two contenders for the crown. I didn't think anyone would notice the Gadamer, but really, he's an exception, isn't he? Truth and Method is a history more than anything else, no? (I ask these questions largely out of shame for having been caught violating my own strictures.) And yes, Abrams. Can't believe I punted that one. (Again though, this is why I value the distributed quality of distributed intelligence reviews.)

Jon, I agree with you about DeLanda not quite getting the whole line-of-flight or deterritorialization thing, but he did a damn fine job with using Deluezian thought as a means to describe the development of urban spaces and urban warfare. I see what you mean though: by turning it into a descriptive system, he necessarily vitiated it of all its revolutionary potential. And you're spot on about cultural studies: every book people have said would turn me on to it was beyond terrible; and yet, here I am years later in the midst of writing what's very much a cultural studies dissertation.

Yes, it came down to a death-match between Gallop and Felman and I went with Felman in the end because of the autobiographical component of Gallop's book (one which, I've come to learn, is common in her works). But it was a close race, and I'm more than willing to be democratic about it. If more people find the Gallop useful, then the Gallop it is.

I'll update the list tomorrow. Y'all are something else.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Matt, boats in the night, man, boats in the night. I'm not trying to compete with The Norton, really, but offer something different, something more substantial and, well, typical. Professors recommend the Norris when you ask them about deconstruction; they don't tell you to re-re-re-read the original text until you get it. The Norton's greatest failing, then, is that it lacks the scholarly edifice required to acquire entry into these vast bodies of thought. Also, given the limited pages it can devote to each school, a book-length work covering a larger swath of intellectual history will give one a better idea of its importance than a 15 page essay by one of said tradition's dignitaries, no?

Ralph Luker

Er, ... twelve hours later, Ralph has still not received said e-mail. I spend quite enough time already, answering questions that no one has asked. Trying to channel what S.E. Kaufman has flung in c-space to my general direction is beyond my capabilities.


Why wouldn't you just read some New Critics if you wanted to be introduced to them?

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