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About this book

This book is an invaluable reference guide for students of literary and cultural studies which introduces over forty of the complex terms, motifs and concepts in literary and cultural theory today.

Critical Keywords in Literary and Cultural Theory
- gives students a brief introduction to each concept together with short quotations from the work of key thinkers and critics to stimulate discussion and guide genuine comprehension.
- supplies helpful glosses and annotations for each term, concept or keyword which is discussed
- offers reflective, practical questions at the end of each entry to direct the student to consider a particular aspect of the quotations and the concept they address
- provides explanatory notes and bibliographies to aid further research

This essential volume is ideal as both a dip-in reference book and a guide to literary theory for practical classroom use.

Table of Contents

Critical Keywords

Abjection is employed by Julia Kristeva1 in an effort to destabilize the binary2 logic of much psychoanalytic thought, where the notions of (desiring) subject and object (of desire) often represent a co-dependent oppositional pairing. In order to understand Kristeva’s point it is necessary that we recognize ‘subject’ and ‘object’ not only as opposed locations or two halves of a logical model, but also as supposedly discrete and complete identities in and of themselves. Each figure in the pair is accorded its own self-sufficient meaning with definable boundaries. Such boundaries are the psychic limits by which the self separates itself from its other within the psychoanalytic framework of Kristeva’s text. Indeed, another way of positing the subject/object dyad would be to comprehend it, as already implied, in terms of ‘self/other’. The abject, says Kristeva, is ‘neither subject nor object’; instead it opposes the ego by ‘draw[ing] me to the place where meaning collapses’. While the subject/object structure makes logical meaning possible, the abject produces, or is otherwise comprehensible as, an uncanny effect of horror, threatening the logical certainty of either the subject/object or self/not-self binarism. Abjection is thus the process or psychic experience of a slippage across the boundaries of the self, and with that a partial erasure of the borders of the psyche which define the ego. The abject is, amongst other things, the fluid locus of forbidden desires and ideas whose radical exclusion is the basis of the subject’s cultural determination; in comprehending the process of abjection thus, we come to see, as Kristeva makes apparent, that that which threatens the self is not simply, necessarily locatable outside the self but rather emerges or erupts within subjectivity.
Julian Wolfreys


Literary and Cultural Theory: The Contested Ground of Critical Language or, Terms, Concepts and Motifs
Consider, for a moment, the title of this essay: Literary and Cultural Theory: The Contested Ground of Critical Language or, Terms, Concepts and Motifs. The first part appears straightforward enough, and I have no wish to complicate this here. ‘Literary and cultural theory’ names — if it names at all1 — one particular, and particularly overdetermined,2 field or area of study, albeit a field which is internally heterogeneous, not to say fraught,3 in what are called the humanities. More specifically, and to cite the words of Tom Cohen, I understand ‘theory’ to indicate ‘a philosophically inflected amalgam of programs interfacing linguistic concerns with the redefinition of “history” … human agency, meaning, impositions of power4 … [also displaying] a certain auto-reflexivity associated with its linguistic preoccupations’ (Cohen, 1998: 5). The language of this citation might be read by some as typical in a certain way of what is perceived as literary theory. It might be read by some — neither you nor me — as opaque, dense, resistant, obscurantist. A particularly antagonistic and negative response might suggest that its language is ‘cumbersome and verbose’, while even a more positive reading might call this ‘oblique and difficult’. It is a truism, if not exactly true, that literary theory is often characterized, if not caricatured, in such terms. The debates concerning the language of theory have always been carried on so, they have always been contested.
Julian Wolfreys
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