Galin Tihanov: Literary Theory vs. Poetics. On the Recent Skepticism towards Theory

Doctoral study Comparative study of ideas and cultures, module Literature in Context and the ZRC SAZU Institute of Slovenian Literature and Literary Studies invite you to a guest lecture on Tuesday, 8 December 2020, at 11.30.


Galin Tihanov

(Queen Mary University of London)


will speak – via video link (Zoom link, Meeting ID: 883 2795 5020, Passcode: 188945) – on the topic:


Literary Theory vs. Poetics: On the Recent Skepticism towards Theory.


His lecture addresses some of the reasons for the resistance to theory we have been living with over the last few decades. One of these reasons is the realisation that theory (specifically literary theory in this case) has not had universal applicability. Theory has not been the primary mode of reflection on literature beyond the Western tradition (however risky in its generality, and open to accusations of essentialism, this notion might be). In other, equally powerful (but non-Western in their formation) cultural zones (China and the Middle East would be good examples), there has not been, historically speaking, much demand for theory; instead, literature would be reflected upon through the equally enabling prism of poetics – a very different prism indeed. Literary theory derives its specificity from being the outcome of a particular historical negotiation over the place literature occupies vis-a-vis the state and its institutions, vis-a-vis religion, and other important societal factors – and only in conjunction with (and sometimes in the invisible shadow of) these larger emancipatory developments does literary theory emerge as a specific mode of reflection on literature. This negotiation – or, if you prefer, emancipatory struggle – took place in the West in ways it would not occur in China or the Middle East until very recently, and even when it did occur there, the outcome has been less clear-cut and more circumspect. China and the Middle East remained over a very long time cultural zones in which sophisticated poetics thrived (and its impact in these cultures has endured), but literary theory, in the European (including Russian) understanding of it, was not a major presence. All this is just a neutral description of a historically induced difference – a profound difference – in how these cultures have related to the place and tasks of literature in society. In the rest of the lecture, I try to develop a distinction between literary theory and poetics that could accommodate the specific experience of large and powerful cultural zones, such as China and the Middle East (and to this one should also add Persia and, to some extent, the Indian Subcontinent).


Galin Tihanov is the George Steiner Professor of Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. He has held visiting appointments at universities in Europe, North and South America, and Asia. He is the author of five monographs, including The Birth and Death of Literary Theory: Regimes of Relevance in Russia and Beyond (Stanford UP, 2019). Tihanov’s research interests range from Russian, German, and Central-European intellectual history to world literature, cultural theory, cosmopolitanism, and exile. He is elected member of Academia Europaea, past president of the ICLA Committee on Literary Theory, and member of the Executive Board of the Institute for World Literature at Harvard University; he is also honorary scientific advisor to the Institute of Foreign Literatures, CASS (Beijing). He is currently completing Cosmopolitanism: A Very Short Introduction, commissioned by Oxford UP.