Literary theory

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Literary theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature.[1] However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of intellectual history, moral philosophy, social prophecy, and other interdisciplinary themes.[1] In the humanities, the latter style of scholarship is often called simply "theory." As a consequence, the word "theory" has become an umbrella term for a variety of scholarly approaches to reading texts. Most of these approaches are informed by various strands of Continental philosophy.



Literary theory and literature

One of the fundamental questions of literary theory is "what is literature?", though many contemporary theorists and literary scholars believe either that "literature" cannot be defined or that it can refer to any use of language. Specific theories are distinguished not only by their methods and conclusions, but even by how they define a "text." For some scholars of literature, "texts" comprises little more than "books belonging to the Western literary canon." But the principles and methods of literary theory have been applied to non-fiction, popular fiction, film, historical documents, law, advertising, etc., in the related field of cultural studies. In fact, some scholars within cultural studies treat cultural events, like fashion or football riots, as "texts" to be interpreted. By this measure, literary theory can be thought of as the general theory of interpretation.

Since theorists of literature often draw on a very heterogeneous tradition of Continental philosophy and the philosophy of language, any classification of their approaches is only an approximation. There are many "schools" or types of literary theory, which take different approaches to understanding texts. Most theorists, even among those listed below, combine methods from more than one of these approaches (for instance, the deconstructive approach of Paul de Man drew on a long tradition of close reading pioneered by the New Critics, and de Man was trained in the European hermeneutic tradition).

Broad schools of theory that have historically been important include the Historical & biographical Criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, and structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism.


The practice of literary theory became a profession in the 20th century, but it has historical roots that run as far back as ancient Greece (Aristotle's Poetics is an often cited early example), ancient India (Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra), ancient Rome (Longinus's On the Sublime and Horace's Ars Poetica) and medieval Iraq (Al-Jahiz's al-Bayan wa-'l-tabyin and al-Hayawan, and ibn al-Mu'tazz's Kitab al-Badi),[2] and the aesthetic theories of philosophers from ancient philosophy through the 18th and 19th centuries are important influences on current literary study. The theory and criticism of literature are, of course, also closely tied to the history of literature.

The modern sense of "literary theory," however, dates only to approximately the 1950s, when the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure began strongly to influence English language literary criticism. The New Critics and various European-influenced formalists (particularly the Russian Formalists) had described some of their more abstract efforts as "theoretical" as well. But it was not until the broad impact of structuralism began to be felt in the English-speaking academic world that "literary theory" was thought of as a unified domain.

In the academic world of the United Kingdom and the United States, literary theory was at its most popular from the late 1960s (when its influence was beginning to spread outward from elite universities like Johns Hopkins and Yale) through the 1980s (by which time it was taught nearly everywhere in some form). During this span of time, literary theory was perceived as academically cutting-edge , and most university literature departments sought to teach and study theory and incorporate it into their curricula. Because of its meteoric rise in popularity and the difficult language of its key texts, theory was also often criticized as faddish or trendy obscurantism (and many academic satire novels of the period, such as those by David Lodge, feature theory prominently). Some scholars, both theoretical and anti-theoretical, refer to the 1970s and 1980s debates on the academic merits of theory as "the theory wars."

By the early 1990s, the popularity of "theory" as a subject of interest by itself was declining slightly (along with job openings for pure "theorists") even as the texts of literary theory were incorporated into the study of almost all literature. As of 2004, the controversy over the use of theory in literary studies has all but died out, and discussions on the topic within literary and cultural studies tend now to be considerably milder and less acrimonious (though the appearance of volumes such as Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, edited by Nathan Parker with Andrew Costigan, may signal a resurgence of the controversy). Some scholars draw heavily on theory in their work, while others only mention it in passing or not at all; but it is an acknowledged, important part of the study of literature.

Differences among schools

The intellectual traditions and priorities of the various kinds of literary theory are often radically different. Even finding a set of common terms to compare them by can be difficult.

For instance, the work of the New Critics often contained an implicit moral dimension, and sometimes even a religious one: a New Critic might read a poem by T. S. Eliot or Gerard Manley Hopkins for its degree of honesty in expressing the torment and contradiction of a serious search for belief in the modern world. Meanwhile a Marxist critic might find such judgments merely ideological rather than critical; the Marxist would say that the New Critical reading did not keep enough critical distance from the poem's religious stance to be able to understand it. Or a post-structuralist critic might simply avoid the issue by understanding the religious meaning of a poem as an allegory of meaning, treating the poem's references to "God" by discussing their referential nature rather than what they refer to.

Such a disagreement cannot be easily resolved, because it is inherent in the radically different terms and goals (that is, the theories) of the critics. Their theories of reading derive from vastly different intellectual traditions: the New Critic bases his work on an East-Coast American scholarly and religious tradition, while the Marxist derives his thought from a body of critical social and economic thought, and the post-structuralist's work emerges from twentieth-century Continental philosophy of language. To expect such different approaches to have much in common would be naïve; so calling them all "theories of literature" without acknowledging their heterogeneity is itself a reduction of their differences.

In the late 1950s, Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye attempted to establish an approach for reconciling historical criticism and New Criticism while addressing concerns of early reader-response and numerous psychological and social approaches. His approach, laid out in his Anatomy of Criticism, was explicitly structuralist, relying on the assumption of an intertextual "order of words" and universality of certain structural types. His approach held sway in English literature programs for several decades but lost favor during the ascendance of post-structuralism.

For some theories of literature (especially certain kinds of formalism), the distinction between "literary" and other sorts of texts is of paramount importance. Other schools (particularly post-structuralism in its various forms: new historicism, deconstruction, some strains of Marxism and feminism) have sought to break down distinctions between the two and have applied the tools of textual interpretation to a wide range of "texts", including film, non-fiction, historical writing, and even cultural events.

Bakhtin argued that the "utter inadequacy" of literary theory is evident when it is forced to deal with the novel; while other genres are fairly stabilized, the novel is still developing.[3]

Another crucial distinction among the various theories of literary interpretation is intentionality, the amount of weight given to the author's own opinions about and intentions for a work. For most pre-20th century approaches, the author's intentions are a guiding factor and an important determiner of the "correct" interpretation of texts. The New Criticism was the first school to disavow the role of the author in interpreting texts, preferring to focus on "the text itself" in a close reading. In fact, as much contention as there is between formalism and later schools, they share the tenet that the author's interpretation of a work is no more inherently meaningful than any other.

Schools of literary theory

Listed below are some of the most commonly identified schools of literary theory, along with their major authors. In many cases, such as those of the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the authors were not primarily literary critics, but their work has been broadly influential in literary theory.

See also


  1. ^ a b Culler 1997, p.1
  2. ^ van Gelder, G. J. H. (1982), Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem, Brill Publishers, pp. 1–2, ISBN 9004068546 
  3. ^ Bakhtin 1981, p.8


Further reading

External links

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Full name Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Born 1942
Calcutta, British India
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Post-colonial theory
School Post-colonial theory
Main interests History of ideas · Literature · Deconstruction · Feminism · Marxism
Notable ideas "subaltern", "strategic essentialism"

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (born February 24, 1942) is an Indian literary critic and theorist. She is best known for the article "Can the Subaltern Speak?", considered a founding text of postcolonialism, and for her translation of Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology. Spivak teaches at Columbia University, where she was tenured as University Professor—Columbia's highest rank—in March 2007. A prolific scholar, she travels widely and gives lectures around the world. She is also a visiting faculty member at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.



Life and Work

Spivak was born Gayatri Chakravorty, in Calcutta, India, 24 February 1942. She received an undergraduate degree in English at the University of Calcutta (1959), graduating with first class honours. After this, she completed her Master's in English from Cornell University, and then pursued her Ph.D. while teaching at the University of Iowa. Her dissertation was on W.B. Yeats, directed by Paul de Man, titled Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats. At Cornell, she was the second woman elected to membership in the Telluride Association. She was briefly married to Talbot Spivak in the 1960s. The Bride Wore the Traditional Gold by Talbot Spivak is an autobiographical novel that deals with the early years of this marriage.

It was her subsequent translation of Derrida's Of Grammatology that brought her to prominence. She included a translator's introduction which has since been described as "setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces." After this, she carried out a series of historical studies (as a member of the "Subaltern Studies Collective") and literary critiques of imperialism and international feminism. She has often referred to herself as a "Practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist,". Her overriding ethico-political concern has been the tendency of institutional and cultural discourses/practices to exclude and marginalize the subaltern, especially subaltern women. Edward Said has noted that "She pioneered the study in literary theory of non-Western women and produced one of the earliest and most coherent accounts of that role available to us."[1]

Her recent work, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, published in 1999, explores how major works of European metaphysics (e.g., Kant, Hegel) not only tend to exclude the subaltern from their discussions, but actively prevent non-Europeans from occupying positions as fully human subjects.

Spivak coined the term "strategic essentialism," which refers to a sort of temporary solidarity for the purpose of social action. For example, the attitude that women's groups have many different agendas makes it difficult for feminists to work for common causes. "Strategic essentialism" is about the need to accept temporarily an "essentialist" position in order to be able to act.

Spivak had taught at several universities before arriving at Columbia in 1991. She has been a Guggenheim fellow, received numerous academic honors including an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College[2], and has been on the editorial board of academic journals such as boundary 2. On March 9, 2007, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger appointed Spivak University Professor, the institution's highest faculty rank. In a letter to the faculty, he wrote,

Not only does her world-renowned scholarship--grounded in deconstructivist [sic] literary theory--range widely from critiques of post-colonial discourse to feminism, Marxism, and globalization; her lifelong search for fresh insights and understanding has transcended the traditional boundaries of discipline while retaining the fire for new knowledge that is the hallmark of a great intellect.

Spivak's writing has been described by some as opaque.[3] It has also been suggested that her work puts style ahead of substance.[4]

In her defense, it has been argued that this sort of criticism reveals an unwillingness to substantively engage with her texts.[5] Judith Butler has noted that Spivak's supposedly inaccessible language has, in fact, resonated with, and profoundly changed the thinking of, "tens of thousands of activists and scholars." ,[6] And Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, who has called her writing "inaccessible," noted nevertheless that "there can thus be few more important critics of our age than the likes of Spivak.... She has probably done more long-term political good, in pioneering feminist and post-colonial studies within global academia than almost any of her theoretical colleagues."[7]

In speeches given and published since 2002, Spivak has addressed the issue of terrorism. Clearly stating that her intention is to bring an end to suicide bombing, she has explored and, "tried to imagine what message [such acts] might contain." [8]. These ruminations have included descriptions such as: "suicide bombing is an act inscribed on the body when no other means will get through."

One critic has suggested that this sort of stylized language may serve to blur important moral issues relating to terrorism. [9] However, she stated in the text of the speech that "Single coerced yet willed suicidal 'terror' is in excess of the destruction of dynastic temples and the violation of women, tenacious and powerfully residual. It has not the banality of evil. It is informed by the stupidity of belief taken to extreme."[10]


Spivak founded The Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty Memorial Education Project, a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization, in 1997, to provide a primary education of quality for children in some of the poorest regions of the globe, continuing work that Spivak had started doing in 1986. The Project currently operates schools in rural areas of West Bengal, India. By setting up schools and giving sustained training to local teachers who operate them with the help of local supervisors, the Project seeks to offer children in these areas the resources to enter the mainstream education system for high school and beyond. The Project is committed to using the existing state curriculum and textbooks to train teachers, in the belief that by using these materials they can better enable their students to enter the national education system on equal terms with others. "Since India constantly brags about being the world's largest democracy, and this is a large sector of the electorate, what I'm trying to do is develop rituals of democratic habits," she said of the Project.[11]




See also

External links


  1. ^ Dinitia Smith, "Creating a Stir Wherever She Goes," New York Times (9 February 2002) B7.
  2. ^ [1] Commencement Address
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ [3] New Statesman
  5. ^ [4] London Review of Books
  6. ^ [5]
  7. ^ Terry Eagleton, "In the Gaudy Supermarket," London Review of Books (13 May 1999).
  8. ^ [6] See p. 93
  9. ^ [7]
  10. ^ Gayatri Spivak, "Terror: A Speech After 9-11," boundary 2 31.2 (2004).
  11. ^ Quoted in Liz McMillen, "The Education of Gayatri Spivak," Chronicle of Higher Education (14 September 2007) B16.

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe

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Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in The Ister
Full name Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
Born March 6, 1940
Died January 27, 2007 (aged 66)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Main interests Deconstruction · Tragedy

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (March 6, 1940, Tours – January 27, 2007, Paris) was a French philosopher. He was also a literary critic and translator.

Lacoue-Labarthe was influenced by and wrote extensively on Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, German Romanticism, Paul Celan, and deconstruction. He also translated works by Heidegger, Celan, Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Walter Benjamin into French.

Lacoue-Labarthe was a member and president of the Collège international de philosophie.



Collaboration with Jean-Luc Nancy

Lacoue-Labarthe wrote several books and articles in collaboration with Jean-Luc Nancy, a colleague at the Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg. Early collaborations included Le Titre de la lettre: une lecture de Lacan (1973; trans., The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan) and L'Absolu littéraire: théorie de la littérature du romantisme allemand (1978; trans., The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism).

In 1980 Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy organized a conference at Cerisy-la-Salle, centered around Derrida's 1968 paper Les fins de l'homme. Following this conference and at Derrida's request, in November 1980 Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy founded the Centre de Recherches Philosophiques sur la Politique (Centre for Philosophical Research on the Political). The Centre operated for four years, pursuing philosophical rather than empirical approaches to political questions. During that period Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy produced several important papers, together and separately. Some of these texts appear in Les Fins de l'homme à partir du travail de Jacques Derrida: colloque de Cerisy, 23 juillet-2 août 1980 (1981), Rejouer le politique (1981), La retrait du politique (1983), and Le mythe nazi (1991, revised edition; originally published as Les méchanismes du fascisme, 1981). Many of these texts are gathered in translation in Retreating the Political (1997).

On Martin Heidegger

In 1986 Lacoue-Labarthe published a book on Celan and Heidegger entitled La poésie comme expérience (1986; trans., Poetry as Experience). Lacoue-Labarthe received his doctorat d'état in 1987 with a jury led by Gérard Granel and including Derrida, George Steiner and Jean-François Lyotard. The monograph submitted for that degree was La fiction du politique (1988; trans., Heidegger, Art, and Politics), a study of Heidegger's relation to National Socialism. These works predate the explosion of interest in the political dimensions of Heidegger's thought which followed the publication of a book by Victor Farías.

In Poetry as Experience Lacoue-Labarthe argued that, even though Celan's poetry was deeply informed by Heidegger's philosophy, Celan was long aware of Heidegger's association with the Nazi party and therefore fundamentally circumspect toward the man and transformative in his reception of his work. Celan was nonetheless willing to meet Heidegger. Heidegger was a professed admirer of Celan's writing, although Celan's poetry never received the kind of philosophical attention which Heidegger gave to the work of poets such as Friedrich Hölderlin or Georg Trakl. Celan's poem "Todtnauberg," however, seems to hold out the possibility of a rapprochement between their work. In this respect Heidegger's work was perhaps redeemable for Celan, even if that redemption was not played out in the encounter between the two men.

Lacoue-Labarthe considered that Heidegger's greatest failure was not his involvement in the National Socialist movement but his "silence on the extermination" and his refusal to engage in a thorough deconstruction of Nazism. He also believed, however, that Heidegger's thought offers pathways to a philosophical confrontation with Nazism, pathways which Heidegger failed to follow, but which Lacoue-Labarthe did attempt to pursue.

Theatrical work

Lacoue-Labarthe was also involved in theatrical productions. He translated Hölderlin's version of Antigone, and collaborated with Michel Deutsch to stage the work at the Théâtre national de Strasbourg on June 15 and 30, 1978.[1] Lacoue-Labarthe and Deutsch returned to the Théâtre national de Strasbourg to collaborate on a 1980 production of Euripdies' Phoenician Women.[2] Lacoue-Labarthe's translation of Hölderlin's version of Oedipus the King was staged in Avignon in 1998, with Charles Berling in the title role.[3]

See also


  1. ^ The performance was attended by, among others, Sarah Kofman, who wrote a review in response. Cf., Sarah Kofman, "L'espace de la césure," Critique 34/379 (December 1978), pp. 1143–50; Tina Chanter, "Eating Words: Antigone as Kofman's Proper Name," in Penelope Deutsche & Kelly Oliver (eds.), Enigmas: Essays on Sarah Kofman (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 189–202; and Andrew Bush, "María Zambrano and the Survival of Antigone," diacritics 34 (3–4) (2004): 90–111.
  2. ^ Website about Michel Deutsch.
  3. ^ Actor's Metamorphosis Into Oedipus the Tyrant.


Primary literature

French English
Le Titre de la lettre: une lecture de Lacan 1973 ISBN 2-7186-0002-0 w/ Jean-Luc Nancy The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan 1992 ISBN 0-7914-0962-7 trans. François Raffoul and David Pettigrew
L'Absolu littéraire: théorie de la littérature du romantisme allemand 1978 ISBN 2-02-004936-8 w/ Jean-Luc Nancy The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism 1988 ISBN 0-88706-661-5 trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester
Portrait de l'artiste, en général 1979 ISBN 2-267-00162-4
Le Sujet de la philosophie: Typographies 1 1979 ISBN 2-08-226011-9 The Subject of Philosophy 1993 ISBN 0-8166-1698-1 trans. Thomas Trezise, Hugh J. Silverman et al.*
Les Fins de l'homme à partir du travail de Jacques Derrida: colloque de Cerisy, 23 juillet-2 août 1980 (ed.) 1981 ISBN 2-7186-0207-4 w/ Jean-Luc Nancy see Retreating the Political below for translations of their contributions
Rejouer le politique (ed.) 1981 ISBN w/ Jean-Luc Nancy see Retreating the Political below for translations of their contributions
La retrait du politique (ed.) 1983 ISBN w/ Jean-Luc Nancy see Retreating the Political below for translations of their contributions
Retrait de l’artiste en deux personnes 1985 ISBN 2-904546-04-9
L'Imitation des modernes: Typographies 2 1986 ISBN 2-08-226011-9 Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics 1989 (Harvard), 1998 (Stanford) ISBN 0-8047-3282-5 ed. Christopher Fynsk*
La Poésie comme expérience 1986 ISBN 2-267-00438-0 Poetry as Experience 1999 ISBN 0-8047-3427-5 trans. Andrea Tarnowski
La Fiction du politique: Heidegger, l'art et la politique 1988, revised ISBN 2-267-00531-X Heidegger, Art, and Politics: the Fiction of the Political 1990 ISBN 0-631-17155-X trans. Chris Turner
Sit venia verbo 1988 ISBN 2-267-00565-4 w/ Michel Deutsch
Musica ficta: figures de Wagner 1991 ISBN 2-267-00863-7 Musica ficta: Figures of Wagner 1994 ISBN 0-8047-2385-0 trans. Felicia McCarren
Le mythe nazi 1991 ISBN 2-87678-078-X w/ Jean-Luc Nancy
Pasolini, une improvisation : d’une sainteté 1995 ISBN 2-84103-037-7 "Pasolini, an improvisation: Of a Saintliness" Umbr(a) 2005 ISBN 0-9666452-8-6 trans. Steven Miller
Retreating the Political 1997 ISBN 0-415-15163-5 w/ Jean-Luc Nancy, ed. Simon Sparks**
Métaphrasis; suivi de Le théâtre de Hölderlin 1998 ISBN 2-13-049336-X
Phrase 2000 ISBN 2-267-01561-7
Poétique de l'histoire 2002 ISBN 2-7186-0578-2
Heidegger: la politique du poème 2002 ISBN 2-7186-0593-6 Heidegger and the Politics of Poetry 2007 ISBN 0-2520-3153-9 trans. Jeff Fort
Agonie terminée, agonie interminable 2004 ISBN 2-7186-0626-6
Le chant des muses: Petite conférence sur la musique 2005 ISBN 2-2274-7528-5
L’«allégorie»: Suivi de Un commencement 2006 ISBN 2-7186-0724-6
Préface à la disparition 2009 ISBN 2-2670-2033-5
Ecrits Sur l'Art 2009 ISBN 2-8406-6282-5

* contents of this book do not correspond exactly to those of the book it otherwise translates

** collects essays from 1979, 1981, and 1983 and others not previously published

Secondary literature

External links

Avital Ronell

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Avital Ronell
Full name Avital Ronell
Born 15 April 1952(1952-04-15)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Deconstruction
Main interests Philosophy of language · Literary theory · Ethics · Ontology

Avital Ronell (born 15 April 1952) is Professor of German, comparative literature, and English at New York University, where she directs the Research in Trauma and Violence project, and has also written as a literary critic, a feminist, and philosopher.




Ronell was born in Prague to Israeli diplomats and was a performance artist before entering academia. She gained a B.A. from Middlebury College and studied with Jacob Taubes at the Hermeneutic Institute at the Free University of Berlin. She received her Ph.D. under the advisement of Stanley Corngold at Princeton University in 1979, and then continued her studies with Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous in Paris. She joined the comparative literature faculty at the University of California, Berkeley before moving to NYU. She is also a core faculty member at the European Graduate School. Themes of her work include technology (Test Drive, Telephone Book) and Stupidity/Idiocy. In addition to her own writing, she has produced English translations of Derrida's work.[1]

Major works

Ronell's major works include The Telephone Book, Crack Wars and Test Drive. The author's deconstructive approach (wherein close reading of texts unveil hidden power structures) is informed by Derrida, who was a close friend of Ronell's. The Telephone Book focuses on three themes: technology, schizophrenia and electric speech. The book begins with a sustained examination of Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi Party and proceeds through a history of the telephone in light of Heidegger's "call to being." Ronell demonstrates the complexity of "the call" and its presence throughout contemporary culture including technology, psychology and art. In The Telephone Book, Ronell rejects the authoritarian position of the author and instead refers to herself as the "operator" of the text.

Crack Wars likens addiction to literature to drug addiction. Ronell avers that the work is a political gesture against the hysteria of the "racist" war on drugs. Beginning with an extensive survey of philosophical works on intoxication, including writings by Nietzsche, Baudelaire and Benjamin, Crack Wars then examines Heidegger's descriptions of want, wishing and "being towards".

The Test Drive investigates the underlying logic of contemporary scientific discourses and their ethical and political implications. It does so by focusing on the idea of "the test" as a basis for discovering knowledge.


See also


  1. ^ The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation: Books: Jacques Derrida, Christie McDonald, Peggy Kamuf, Avital Ronell

External links