The Barbara Johnson Reader

The Surprise of Otherness

The Barbara Johnson Reader

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

More about this series

Book Pages: 488 Illustrations: Published: May 2014

Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Theory and Philosophy > Critical Theory

This Reader collects in a single volume some of the most influential essays written by Barbara Johnson over the course of her thirty-year career as a pioneering literary theorist and cultural critic. Johnson achieved renown early in her career, both as a brilliant student of the Yale School of literary criticism and as the translator of Jacques Derrida's Dissemination. She went on to lead the way in extending the insights of structuralism and poststructuralism into newly emerging fields now central to literary studies, fields such as gender studies, African American studies, queer theory, and law and literature. Stunning models of critical reading and writing, her essays cultivate rigorous questioning of universalizing assumptions, respect for otherness and difference, and an appreciation of ambiguity.

Along with the classic essays that established her place in literary scholarship, this Reader makes available a selection of Johnson's later essays, brilliantly lucid and politically trenchant works exploring multilingualism and translation, materiality, ethics, subjectivity, and sexuality. The Barbara Johnson Reader offers a historical guide through the metamorphoses and tumultuous debates that have defined literary study in recent decades, as viewed by one of critical theory's most astute thinkers.  


“Johnson’s real gift was to tackle the ‘dead white males’ of the canon and re-read them, looking for the women, ever alert to what she called ‘muteness envy’ in canonical poetry. She directed her attention to popular works, too, to films such as Thelma and Louise and The Piano, happy to bring Keats into the discussion as she did so. Such essays stress critical and creative vitality in the midst of death, and are still life-giving today, still radical, angry and passionate, yet always disciplined. Johnson asks acute questions, inserts the personal into her academic essays, and gives us new ideas about ‘how to read.’” — Lesley McDowell, TLS

“Reading these essays, one finds them as sprightly, brilliant, and revelatory as ever. Johnson’s style—famous for the clarity that paradoxically masks and illuminates the argumentative complexity of the writing—is brisk, orderly, and economical. … Perhaps this is the moment to return to the intellectual upheaval of deconstruction, that almost forgotten art of reading and rereading. There is no better place to begin rereading than right here, with Barbara Johnson’s own startling and writerly prose.” — Judith Brown, Modernism/modernity

“Essays on abortion, corporate personhood, and many other still contemporary issues show that, for Johnson, deconstruction was always deeply intertwined with lived political reality, and many of the best essays in the collection bridge the gap between readings of poems and analysis of life in various forms of political relation, often in the context of the surprising strangeness of the textual or human encounter. For Johnson, ‘the undecidable is the political. There is politics precisely because there is undecidability. And there is also poetry’ (p.227). The forms of her own essays, intriguing in the turns they take, the conclusions they draw, and the interpretations they bring forth from the texts they examine, highlight and perform this causal relationship in consistently insightful and surprising ways.” — Forum for Modern Language Studies

"Barbara Johnson was a wonderful writer and an extraordinarily engaging thinker. This collection makes easily available her most important essays, which get at central issues in structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, gender studies, and cultural studies, among other fields. The Barbara Johnson Reader will become the best way to obtain her crucial work and take its place alongside The Foucault Reader and The Butler Reader on students' shelves." — Jonathan Culler, author of The Literary in Theory

"Having Barbara Johnson's seminal essays gathered in a single book, where they can play off each other so brilliantly, makes clear her unparalleled mastery of the essay as a critical genre. Brought together at last, they constitute a fully realized oeuvre, a contribution to theory as ambitious and accomplished as any in the last half-century." — Lee Edelman, author of No Future and, with Lauren Berlant, of Sex, or the Unbearable

"The late Barbara Johnson remains one of the most influential literary theorists of the last fifty years. This collection of iconic essays reminds us why. Her powerful, polymathic investigations of genre and its limits still resonate across a wide field of disciplines. And her extraordinary insights about the politics of language are unparalleled in their subtlety yet lucidity." — Patricia J. Williams, author of The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Barbara Johnson (1947–2009) was Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature and Fredric Wertham Professor Emerita of Psychiatry and Law in Society at Harvard University.

Melissa Feuerstein is a Research Associate at the Davis Center at Harvard University.

Bill Johnson González is Assistant Professor of English at DePaul University.

Lili Porten has taught in the writing programs at Harvard, Boston University, and Boston College.

Keja Valens is Associate Professor of English at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Editors' Preface xi

Personhood and Other Objects: The Figural Dispute with Philosophy / Judith Butler xvii

Barbara Johnson by Barbara Johnson xxvii

Part I. Reading Theory as Literature, Literature as Theory

1. The Critical Difference: BartheS/BalZac 3

2. Translator's Introduction to Dissemination (abridged) 14

3. Poetry and Syntax: What the Gypsy Knew 26

4. A Hound, a Bay Horse, and a Turtle Dove: Obscurity in Walden 36

5. Strange Fits: Poe and Wordsworth on the Nature of Poetic Language 44

6. The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida 57

Part II. Race, Sexuality, Gender

7. Euphemism, Understatement, and the Passive Voice: A Geneaology of Afro-American Poetry 101

8. Metaphor, Metonymy, and Voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God 108

9. Moses and Intertextuality: Sigmund Freud, Zora Neale Hurston, and the Bible 126

10. Lesbian Spectacles: Reading Sula, , Thelma and Louse, and The Accused 141

11. Bringing Out D. A. Miller 147

12. Correctional Facilities 155

13. My Monster/My Self 179

Part III. Language, Personhood, Ethics

14. Introduction to Freedom and Interpretation (abridged) 193

15. Muteness Envy 200

16. Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion 217

17. Anthropomorphism in Lyric and Law 235

18. Using People: Kant with Winnicott 262

19. Ego Sum Game 275

20. Melville's Fist: The Execution of Billy Budd 289

Part IV. Pedagogy and Translation

21. Nothing Fails Like Success 327

22. Bad Writing 334

23. Teaching Deconstructively 347

24. Poison or Remedy? Paul de Man as Pharmakon 357

25. Taking Fidelity Philosophically 371

26. The Task of the Translator 377

27. Teaching Ignorance: L'Ecole des femmes 401

Afterword. Barbara's Signature / Shoshana Felman 421

Bibliography 433

Index 437
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5419-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5403-1
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