A spot of help with your alterity

Critical Keywords in Literary and Cultural Theory. First edition
May 28, 2004

Julian Wolfreys has been one of the most prolific purveyors of literary theory over the past ten years. He never seems to get bored of explaining what " différance " doesn't mean. No sooner has he finished one book on the subject than he starts another. He is a kind of Max Clifford for celebrity thinkers.

This latest venture is a dictionary that is described as "essential" for today's students. We may have conquered monetary inflation, but there seems to be no stopping the linguistic variety. And what are we to make of the fact that this dictionary contains an entry for "interpellation" but not for "irony", despite its trumpeting the virtues of ambiguity, paradox and contradiction?

Well, everything changes, apparently. Today's student dares not approach her Shakespeare or her Dorothy Sayers unless she knows her alterity from her iterability, her identity from her subjectivity. Wolfreys is suspicious of plain speaking and is often remarkably successful in his determination to avoid it. He patiently explains how difficult each term is and then, to reinforce the point, surrounds it with quotations that make its meanings even more uncertain. At the end of each entry is a section entitled "questions for further consideration". Here is one of mine. Is it just coincidence that the term "performativity" enjoys as high a profile in literary and critical theory as "performance" does in the brand-new privatised world? If there is one thing wrong with this type of theory, it is that very few of its practitioners consider how their work endorses the wider management culture.

Anyone who teaches literary theory will find this book a useful supplement to their course. But as a reflection of the state of the subject, it left me feeling rather abject, however you define that term.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

Critical Keywords in Literary and Cultural Theory. First edition

Author - Julian Wolfreys
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 295
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 333 96058 0 and 96059 9

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