Review of Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press). ISBN: 019285383X.
Other Voices, v.2, n.2 (March 2002)
Text copyright © 2002, Eugene O'Brien, all rights reserved.
Introductions to literary theory are so prolific that they could almost be seen to constitute a sub-genre in themselves. Given that literary theory is generally seen to be somewhat difficult terrain, there is a perceived need for such introductory material. However, the value of such books is relative in the extreme, given their diverse readership and diverse teleologies. To set out the epistemological parameters of what is generally seen as an arcane discipline (or perhaps multi-discipline, and already we enter the difficult terrain to which I have alluded), while at the same time retaining, in some respect, the intellectual rigor of the theoretical discourse under consideration, is a difficult enterprise. In this regard, Culler's introduction serves the purpose that is indicated in the Latin etymology of this term, intro"into" and ducere"to lead." If one is looking for a reductionist potted guide to theory, this book is not what one requires. Instead, we are led into the cognitive and epistemological imperatives that underwrite the discourse of theory. As he puts it towards the conclusion of the book, theory offers "not a set of solutions but the prospect of further thought" (122).
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction is an excellent discussion of the parameters and difficulties of a broad range of viewpoints. Indeed, in some 35,000 words, Culler succeeds in offering what is both an overview and a telling critique of the Weltanschauung of theory. This series from Oxford University Press is aimed at a non-specialist audience: those undergraduates who feel the need of an overview, and who have been a receptive audience for such books. However, Culler's book is differentiated from the numerous other introductions to theory by a self-consciously topic-centered—as opposed to school- or movement-centered—approach.
In his preface, Culler makes the point that to talk about "theory" as opposed to "theories" presupposes that there is much in common between the different theoretical schools and perspectives. This is a valid point, as there seems to be an aporetic relationship between singular and plural here: most theorists see themselves as practising "theory" while at the same time remaining ignorant of other types of theoretical discourse. Culler attempts to set out the epistemological parameters of theory through his focus on topics as opposed to schools. He explains his reasons as follows:
This broad challenge to common sense that is at the core of theoretical writing is exemplified in Culler's book by the number of questions posed as a stylistic device throughout the different chapters. This proliferation of questions reinforces the central tenet of his study, namely that "theory is itself the questioning of presumed results and the assumptions on which they are based" (17). In introducing theory in these terms, Culler both avoids the à la carte approach of other introductions as well as placing his own book as a work of theory in that he is asking a number of questions about the nature and domain of theory itself, questions which will be of interest to readers who are familiar with theory as well as those who would be the target audience of such an introduction.
To question the assumptions that are sincerely (if unthinkingly) held can be a difficult and dangerous endeavour, and in a number of cartoons scattered throughout the book, Culler makes clear his awareness of different resistances to theory. In the first of these, a party host is speaking to a man (not unlike Culler in appearance), and we catch the middle of their conversation where his interlocutor says, in tones of relief, "You're a terrorist? Thank God. I understood Meg to say that you were a theorist" (16). The phonetic connections between "terrorist" and "theorist" suggest that theory is often seen as a subversive enterprise, unsettling the political hegemony of dominant movements in society. This subversive potential of theory which is underlined in this cartoon is one of its major epistemological qualities, according to this book. Dealing with areas such as subjectivity, politics, and culture, theory persistently asks awkward questions which take a deal of answering. As Culler puts it, "the nature of theory is to undo, through a contesting of premises and postulates, what you thought you knew," and this unravelling function of theory can be quite disconcerting if applied to sincerely held, or unexamined, beliefs.
The opening chapters themselves are framed as questions: "What is Theory?" and "What is Literature and Does it Matter?". In the opening chapter, Culler offers the answer that works regarded as theory are those which have an effect beyond their original field (3), and goes on to cite the consequent impossibility of ever mastering this "unbound corpus of writings" (15). The interdisciplinary nature of theory, Culler suggests, is part of its epistemology, as the desire for mastery is constantly subverted and interrogated. New writers and opinions are inevitably added to the corpus of works, and different disciplines also become relevant. In this book, the areas discussed include literature, ideology, philosophy, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, cultural studies, gender, and psychoanalysis, as well as the different schools of theory. The benefits of this interdisciplinarity are that what Culler terms the "ongoing project of thinking" (122) is facilitated and enabled by theoretical discourse, interrogating as it does, the assumptions and givens of common sense, and ideological positions.
In this point, I would suggest that Culler is focusing on the value of the theoretical enterprise from an epistemological perspective. Often, the domino-like chain of theoretical debates (i.e. Gasche on de Man on Rousseau) can obscure the nature of what is actually taking place, and Culler's introduction foregrounds the teleology of theory (given that this teleology is more a process than a terminus ad quem). This book—through its setting out of a number of key questions concerning the nature of theory and literature; the relationship between literature and cultural studies; issues of meaning, interpretation; generic studies of poetry and narrative and discussions of performativity and subjectivity—illustrates the consensus of concerns that underlie theoretical projects of different types; hence, his discussion of "theory" as opposed to the different theoretical schools.
However, Culler is careful in his leading into theory to flag a warning that theory "does not give rise to harmonious solutions" (121). He is not guilty of a reductive writing which sees theory as providing some kind of master-discourse. Instead, he defines its project as a process of moving between different perspectives, shifting "between alternatives that cannot be avoided but which give rise to no synthesis" (122). One might here expect to see some mention of Theodor Adorno's models of negative dialectics and the logic of disintegration, as both seem to gesture towards Culler' dynamic grasp of the relationship between different perspectives or standpoints which are present in the theoretical reading. However, Culler chooses not to cite Adorno (he is not mentioned in the index), perhaps illustrating his own point that while theory makes one "desire mastery" by pointing towards concepts which will help one "organize and understand the phenomena that concern you," it also makes such mastery impossible as there is always more to know (16-17). Despite this non-synthetic dialectical interchange that Culler sees as indicative of the process of theory, he does offer some more concrete qualities in terms of the nature of theory.
Culler cites four such qualities: theory is interdisciplinary, it is analytical and speculative, it involves a critique of common sense and finally it is reflexive, involving thinking about thinking (15). But the more effective definition of what one might call, along with J. Hillis Miller "good reading as such" comes in Culler's answer to the question posed in the title of his second chapter: "What is Literature and Does it Matter?" He begins by giving a brief historical overview of the term, alluding to the connection between historical knowledge and narrative; noting the change in meaning of the term "literature" over the past two centuries, as opposed to the previous twenty; observing the influence of the German Romantic theorists of the eighteenth century and pointing to Madame de Staël's On Literature Considered in its Relations with Social Institutions as a seminal source of the notion of "literature as imaginative writing" (21). However, it is in the epistemological turn of the question "What is literature?" that Culler leads the reader into the discipline (interdiscipline, multi-discipline) of theory.
He poses the analogous question "What is a weed?" and goes on to answer it in a similar manner. Like literature, there doesn't seem to be a specific quality of "weedness" which will allow us to discriminate between weeds and plants or flowers. In this example, he is embodying his own later discussion of metaphor as "a way of knowing," of seeing "something as something else" (72) uses the technique of exemplification to good effect, making the point that such a seemingly ontological question is similar to "What is a weed?" Here he demonstrates what Derrida, in Deconstruction and Pragmatism has termed is a feature of deconstruction in that it is always "a question of reconsidering the protocols and the contexts of argumentation, the questions of competence, the language of discussion" (78). For Culler, what differentiates a weed from a plant is a series of choices made by people who have certain measures of power in gardening circles. What might have been a valued plant in the sixteenth century has become a pest in the twentieth. Culler then extrapolates this notion into the genre of literature in a manner which questions essentialist criteria in that both are defined by elements of choice as opposed to essential qualities.
Of course, the question then changes to who makes theses choices and what criteria are used. Issues of context are also important, as are generic structures of expectation and explicit literary features (foregrounded language which draws attention to itself; integrated and synthetic linguistic structures; fiction; language as aesthetic object and intertextual references). There is also the complex relationship between literature and ideology; it is both a creative force of hegemony and also a powerful tool of social and ideological critique. Culler's point here is that there are no simple answers, but that theory will constantly point our mode of inquiry in new directions. It is an ongoing project of thinking which demands that we challenge presuppositions and question the assumptions on which we proceed.
Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this book to that "ongoing project" is its ability to address the core questions with which theory deals, but which are all too often obscured in the endless process of response to previous readings. Having raised the issue of how choices regarding the nature of literature and the value of meaning are made, he goes on to discuss them in more detail. Writing of "meaning" and how this might be determined, he speaks of the "hyper-protected cooperative principle" (25) which assumes that, at some level or levels, there is relevance in the material set out in works of literature. The criteria which might determine such issues of relevance are precisely what literary theories attempt to set out, and Culler gives an accurate conspectus of this by outlining what different theoretical positions see literature as being "about":
In other words, meaning can be determined by the perspective from which it is being sought; meaning is "context-bound." However, Culler refuses to be cast in this relativist position, as he goes on to add the coda: "meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless" (67). Hence, the study of changing shifts of contextual positions inevitably leads to the creation of new meanings which in turn alter the ongoing process of thought. Even in so short a book, Culler refuses to simplify, and he introduces classifications and sub-classifications to demonstrate the necessary complexity of dealing with the creation of meaning and the project of theory. His point here and throughout the book is that theory as such, does not attempt to produce simplified kernels of meaning: it offers "not a set of solutions but the prospect of further thought" (122). In this sense, he is making a point analogous to Paul de Man, who noted that theory often deals with the same issues as philosophy, but from a different perspective, and it is this connection between theory and the "ongoing project of thinking" that distanciates Culler's book from most of the other introductions. In his thematic approach, he demonstrates the validity of his thesis, as he teases out issues of interpretation, subjectivity, gender, cultural codes, language, ideology and meaning. That such processes are of necessity complex, and categorized by classification and sub-classification, is a central tenet of Culler's argument.
Hence, he differentiates between poetics (which starts with meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved) and hermeneutics (which starts with texts and seeks to discover what they mean) (61). Similarly, in dealing with hermeneutics, he distinguishes between a hermeneutics of recovery (which tries to reconstruct the original context of the work) and a hermeneutics of suspicion (which looks for unexamined assumptions on which a text may be based) (68). While looking at narrative, he distinguishes between the oppositions of events and plot and those of story and discourse (86) as well as looking at point of view, or focalization, in terms of the following questions: Who speaks?; Who speaks to whom?; Who speaks when?; Who speaks what language?; Who speaks with authority? and Who sees? (87-9). He also cites Anthony Appiah's differentiation of the concepts of subject position and agency as a means to illuminate contentious debates about the nature of individual choice and the amount of our subjectivity which is predetermined by other factors (120-1). For Culler, it is the interaction of such complex categories that provides the value of theory; these demonstrate the complexity of thought required to understand issues of meaning, ethics, subjectivity, ethics and politics with which theory is concerned. Hence, he refuses to address the claims of primacy of individual theories per se; instead, he views the different schools as parts of a project whose terminus ad quem is the ongoing interrogation of the "givens" of our cultural conversation.
Consequently, this book—while very much part of the genre of "Introductions" in its theme and objective—differs significantly in its style and methodology. Culler's book becomes part of the process of critical thought even as it introduces readers to the terminology of that thought. By incorporating different theorists within the same section and by refusing to see the different schools of thought as self-contained and in competition, Culler defamiliarizes this area of study. In effect, he is creating a view of theory as what Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin might term a constellation: a series of juxtaposed clusters of changing elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, essential core, or generative first principle.
For Culler, the ultimate driving force behind theory is ethical inasmuch as it strives to "see how far an idea or argument can go, and to question alternative accounts and their presuppositions" (121). The ethical position involved here is that through different literary genres we can put ourselves in the place of the other: through fiction and poetry, we can come to some understanding of positions which are not ours. Through "devices of focalization" we can see things from "other vantages" (93), and this allows for an increased understanding between self and other. Of course, narrative topoi can also reinforce ideological presuppositions which validate self at the expense of the other, and this is yet another of those tensions brought to light in Culler's analysis. As he puts it, "novels are a powerful device for the internalization of social norms. But narratives also provide a mode of social criticism" (93), and here his view of theory as a form of constellation is exemplified. Theory does not attempt to set out which mode of narrative is the more correct or the more desirable; instead, it attempts to demonstrate the underlying assumptions and approaches which allow the same literary genre to achieve two conflicting effects.
This process is achieved by an oscillation between conflicting positions which produces movement and progress, but no easy synthesis. Instead theory—in all its forms—questions common-sense assumptions and tests the validity of ideas and cognitive models through debate, interrogation and critique. It calls, says Culler, for "commitment to the work of reading, of challenging presuppositions, of questioning the assumptions on which you proceed" (122). If this is indeed the value of theory (and I would agree that it is), then this book itself brings about such a challenge to the assumptions that have been widely held about theory itself. It is not a metanarrative, providing a transcendental vantage point from which to criticize other activities; instead it is a non-synthetic dialectic in which there is a commitment to reading, questioning, and accepting alternative positions as valid and possibly in need of being taken on board in terms of our own arguments.
"Jonathan Culler has always been about the best person around at explaining literary theory without oversimplifying it or treating it with polemical bias," notes Yale University's J. Hillis Miller. This is undoubtedly true, but it sells Culler's achievement a little short. If one were asked to guide someone through the labyrinthine world of theory, Culler's book would be an ideal place to start, because having read it, one would not just have an introductory grasp of the topic; instead, one would have engaged at a serious level, with much that is fundamental to what has been termed "the theoretical turn." As he puts it, towards the end of a chapter appropriately entitled, "What is theory?":