Literary and Critical Theory Barbara Johnson
Keja Valens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0078


Barbara Johnson (b. 1947–d. 2009) bridged the heyday of deconstruction and the turn to theory in the 1970s and the ascendance of cultural studies and the turn to ethics in the early 21st century. As Johnson moved the insights of deconstruction into areas such as feminisms, African-American studies, and cultural studies, her attention to “differences within” engaged not only language and rhetoric but also politics, popular culture, and the power of differentiation to both oppress and express particular subjects. Johnson’s career, cut short by a neurodegenerative disease, is framed by her work in translation of Derrida’s Dissemination at the beginning of her career and Mallarmé’s Divagations toward its end. She cast her critical and theoretical project as the translation of structuralism and poststructuralism into literary insight, a process that is easily recognizable in her most anthologized, reprinted, and oft-cited essays, “The Frame of Reference,” “Melville’s Fist,” “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion,” and “Metaphor, Metonymy, and Voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Johnson’s work transports critical frames and moves across a variety of genres and fields, from psychoanalysis to law and from Romanticism to 20th-century American popular culture. Her unparalleled readings—of words, concepts, stories, poems—examine how texts do, and undo, what they say. In the process, Johnson’s writing playfully and often surprisingly displaces authority (even her own) to reveal the poetic and political work of multivalence. The wide range of anthologies that include essays by Johnson attest to the tremendous scope of her work and to the difficulty of summarizing even where its major contributions lie.

General Overviews

Barbara Johnson frequently published essays in journals and books and then gathered that work together so that her introductions to her own books (The Critical Difference, A World of Difference, and The Feminist Difference; see Johnson 1980; Johnson 1987; Johnson 1998, all cited in Books) serve as overviews of her engagement with deconstruction, poetry and poetics, and feminisms. Culler 2004, a special issue of Diacritics, collects overviews of Johnson’s contributions as a scholar with articles by some of her most important interlocutors. Brown 2006, a special issue Differences devoted to Johnson, includes essays inspired by Johnson’s thinking that invoke her work in ways that are both central and passing and as well as essays that explicitly explain Johnson’s contributions to and potential for the fields of deconstruction, African-American studies, feminisms, and queer theory. Culler 2007 also takes up Johnson as an exemplary writer of criticism who moves between theoretical traditions, approaches texts, and employs an invitingly incisive style that performs the complexities it analyzes. Turning to Johnson in an investigation of the intersections of literature, psychoanalysis, morality, politics, and ethics, Solomon 2010 examines Johnson’s analyses of narcissism to show how she understands literature and the political as coextensive. Posthumous publications edited by Johnson’s students and colleagues both collect and provide broad overviews of her work. The Barbara Johnson Reader: The Surprise of Otherness (Johnson 2014a, cited under Books), with an introduction by Judith Butler and an afterword by Shoshana Felman, offers a comprehensive collection of her works divided into four areas of focus: reading theory and literature, literature as theory; race, sexuality, and gender; language, personhood, and ethics; and pedagogy and translation. The Barbara Johnson Reader also includes a comprehensive bibliography of Johnson’s publications, quite a few of which are not collected in her books. A Life with Mary Shelley lists Johnson as the sole author but is actually a posthumously edited collection of Johnson’s works on Shelley from the 1980s along with her last manuscript in conversation with pieces on Johnson and Shelley by Cathy Caruth, Mary Wilson Carpenter, Judith Butler, and Shoshana Felman.

  • Brown, Wendy, ed. Special Issue: Difference: Reading with Barbara Johnson. Differences 17.3 (2006).

    The essays in the section “Reading” draw Johnson’s work into topics from “The Metamorphosis of Commodities in Shaw’s Pygmalion” (Porten) to “The Politics of Translation in Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo” (Johnson González). “Barbara Johnson” is comprised of essays by Avital Ronell on Johnson’s roles in the Yale School and African-American studies, Jane Gallop on Johnson’s articulation of the value of deconstruction, Mary Helen Washington on Johnson and African-American studies, Pamela Caughie on Johnson’s displacement of authority, and Lee Edelman on Johnson’s “Art for Something’s Sake.”

  • Butler, Judith. “Personhood and Other Objects: The Figural Dispute with Philosophy.” In The Barbara Johnson Reader. Edited by Melissa Feuerstein, Bill Johnson González, Lili Porten, and Keja Valens, xvii–xxvi. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

    This introduction to The Barbara Johnson Reader delineates Johnson’s place in contemporary literary theory, arguing that she brings together literary and philosophical study by asking about the terms in which philosophical questions are formulated as much as about how those questions are addressed in and by texts. Butler focuses on Johnson’s attention to figurative language in questions of personhood.

  • Culler, Jonathan. The Literary in Theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.

    In the chapter “Writing Criticism,” Culler describes Johnson’s skills as a writer of criticism.

  • Culler, Jonathan, ed. Special Issue: The Differences Barbara Johnson Makes. Diacritics 34.1 (2004).

    Introduced by Susan Gubar, this collection of five essays by Jonathan Culler, Jane Gallop, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, and Hortense Spillers details Johnson’s contributions to the critical mode, translation studies, deconstruction and gender, epistemology, and African-American studies.

  • Felman, Shoshana. “Afterword: Barbara’s Signature.” The Barbara Johnson Reader. Edited by Melissa Feuerstein, Bill Johnson González, Lili Porten, and Keja Valens, 421–432. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

    Written shortly after Johnson’s untimely death from a neurodegenerative disease, this essay considers the scope of Johnson’s thinking through an examination of the instructions Johnson left for her memorial service.

  • Solomon, Samuel. “‘The Necessity of Reading and Being Read’: Barbara Johnson and the Literary Politics of Narcissism.” Differences 21.5 (2010): 97–111.

    DOI: 10.1215/10407391-2010-011

    Examining Johnson’s work on narcissism, allegory, and identity politics, traces Johnson’s understanding of the relationship between literature and politics through her analysis of narcissism. Explores how Johnson brings multiple fields and modes of reading to bear on one another. Argues that drawing on psychoanalysis, ethics, and morality, Johnson establishes literature and politics as coterminous.

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