Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction - Jonathan Culler 2000
Theoretical Schools and Movements
I have chosen to introduce theory by presenting issues and debates rather than ’schools', but readers have a right to expect an explanation of terms like structuralism and deconstruction that appear in discussions of criticism. I provide that here, in a brief description of modern theoretical movements.
Literary theory is not a disembodied set of ideas but a force in institutions. Theory exists in communities of readers and writers, as a discursive practice, inextricably entangled with educational and cultural institutions. Three theoretical modes whose impact, since the 1960s, has been greatest are the wide-ranging reflection on language, representation, and the categories of critical thought undertaken by deconstruction and psychoanalysis (sometimes in concert, sometimes in opposition); the analyses of the role of gender and sexuality in every aspect of literature and criticism by feminism and then gender studies and Queer theory; and the development of historically oriented cultural criticisms (new historicism, post-colonial theory) studying a wide range of discursive practices, involving many objects (the body, the family, race) not previously thought of as having a history.
There are several important theoretical movements prior to the 1960s.
The Russian Formalists of the early years of the twentieth century stressed that critics should concern themselves with the literariness of literature: the verbal strategies that make it literary, the foregrounding of language itself, and the ’making strange' of experience that they accomplish. Redirecting attention from authors to verbal ’devices', they claimed that ’the device is the only hero of literature'. Instead of asking ’what does the author say here?' we should ask something like ’what happens to the sonnet here?' or ’what adventures befall the novel in this book by Dickens?' Roman Jakobson, Boris Eichenbaum, and Victor Shklovsky are three key figures in this group which reoriented literary study towards questions of form and technique.
What is called the ’New Criticism' arose in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s (with related work in England by I. A. Richards and William Empson). It focused attention on the unity or integration of literary works. Opposed to the historical scholarship practised in universities, the New Criticism treated poems as aesthetic objects rather than historical documents and examined the interactions of their verbal features and the ensuing complications of meaning rather than the historical intentions and circumstances of their authors. For new critics (Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, W. K. Wimsatt), the task of criticism was to elucidate individual works of art. Focusing on ambiguity, paradox, irony, and the effects of connotation and poetic imagery, the New Criticism sought to show the contribution of each element of poetic form to a unified structure.
The New Criticism left as enduring legacies techniques of close reading and the assumption that the test of any critical activity is whether it helps us to produce richer, more insightful interpretations of individual works. But beginning in the 1960s, a number of theoretical perspectives and discourses - phenomenology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism, feminism, deconstruction - offered richer conceptual
frameworks than did the New Criticism for reflecting on literature and other cultural products.
Phenomenology emerges from the work of the early twentieth-century philosopher Edmund Husserl. It seeks to bypass the problem of the separation between subject and object, consciousness and the world, by focusing on the phenomenal reality of objects as they appear to consciousness. We can suspend questions about the ultimate reality or knowability of the world and describe the world as it is given to consciousness. Phenomenology underwrote criticism devoted to describing the ’world’ of an author's consciousness, as manifested in the entire range of his or her works (Georges Poulet, J. Hillis Miller). But more important has been ’reader-response criticism’ (Stanley Fish, Wolfgang Iser). For the reader, the work is what is given to consciousness; one can argue that the work is not something objective, existing independently of any experience of it, but is the experience of the reader. Criticism can thus take the form of a description of the reader’s progressive movement through a text, analysing how readers produce meaning by making connections, filling in things left unsaid, anticipating and conjecturing and then having their expectations disappointed or confirmed.
Another reader-oriented version of phenomenology is called ’aesthetics of reception’ (Hans Robert Jauss). A work is an answer to questions posed by a ’horizon of expectations’. The interpretation of works should, therefore, focus not on the experience of an individual reader but on the history of a work’s reception and its relation to the changing aesthetic norms and sets of expectations that allow it to be read in different eras.
Reader-oriented theory has something in common with structuralism, which also focuses on how meaning is produced. But structuralism originated in opposition to phenomenology: instead of describing experience, the goal was to identify the underlying structures that make it possible. In place of the phenomenological description of consciousness, structuralism sought to analyse structures that operate unconsciously (structures of language, of the psyche, of society). Because of its interest in how meaning is produced, structuralism often (as in Roland Barthes's S/Z) treated the reader as the site of underlying codes that make meaning possible and as the agent of meaning.
Structuralism usually designates a group of primarily French thinkers who, in the 1950s and 1960s, influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of language, applied concepts from structural linguistics to the study of social and cultural phenomena. Structuralism developed first in anthropology (Claude Levi-Strauss), then in literary and cultural studies (Roman Jakobson, Roland Barthes, Gerard Genette), psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan), intellectual history (Michel Foucault), and Marxist theory (Louis Althusser). Although these thinkers never formed a school as such, it was under the label ’structuralism' that their work was imported and read in England, the United States, and elsewhere in the late 1960s and 1970s.
In literary studies structuralism promotes a poetics interested in the conventions that make literary works possible; it seeks not to produce new interpretations of works but to understand how they can have the meanings and effects that they do. But it did not succeed in imposing this project - a systematic account of literary discourse - in Britain and America. Its main effect there was to offer new ideas about literature and to make it one signifying practice among others. It thus opened the way to symptomatic readings of literary works and encouraged cultural studies to try to spell out the signifying procedures of different cultural practices.
It is not easy to distinguish structuralism from semiotics, the general science of signs, which traces its lineage to Saussure and the American
philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Semiotics, though, is an international movement that has sought to incorporate the scientific study of behaviour and communication, while mostly avoiding the philosophical speculation and cultural critique that has marked structuralism in its French and related versions.
Once structuralism came to be defined as a movement or school, theorists distanced themselves from it. It became clear that works by alleged structuralists did not fit the idea of structuralism as an attempt to master and codify structures. Barthes, Lacan, and Foucault, for example, were identified as post-structuralists, who had gone beyond structuralism narrowly conceived. But many positions associated with post-structuralism are evident even in the early work of these thinkers when they were seen as structuralists. They had described ways in which theories get entangled in the phenomena they attempt to describe; how texts create meaning by violating any conventions that structural analysis locates. They recognized the impossibility of describing a complete or coherent signifying system, since systems are always changing. In fact, post-structuralism does not demonstrate the inadequacies or errors of structuralism so much as turn away from the project of working out what makes cultural phenomena intelligible and emphasize instead a critique of knowledge, totality, and the subject. It treats each of these as a problematical effect. The structures of the systems of signification do not exist independently of the subject, as objects of knowledge, but are structures for subjects, who are entangled with the forces that produce them.
The term post-structuralism is used for a broad range of theoretical discourses in which there is a critique of notions of objective knowledge and of a subject able to know him or herself. Thus, contemporary feminisms, psychoanalytic theories, Marxisms, and historicisms, all partake in post-structuralism. But post-structuralism also designates above all deconstruction and the work of Jacques Derrida, who first came to prominence in America with a critique of the structuralist notion of structure in the very collection of essays that brought structuralism to American attention (The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, 1970).
Deconstruction is most simply defined as a critique of the hierarchical oppositions that have structured Western thought: inside/outside, mind/body, literal/metaphorical, speech/writing, presence/absence, nature/culture, form/meaning. To deconstruct an opposition is to show that it is not natural and inevitable but a construction, produced by discourses that rely on it, and to show that it is a construction in a work of deconstruction that seeks to dismantle it and reinscribe it - that is, not destroy it but give it a different structure and functioning. But as a mode of reading, deconstruction is, in Barbara Johnson's phrase, a ’teasing out of warring forces of signification within a text', an investigation of the tension between modes of signification, as between the performative and constative dimensions of language.
In so far as feminism undertakes to deconstruct the opposition man/ woman and the oppositions associated with it in the history of Western culture, it is a version of post-structuralism, but that is only one strand of feminism, which is less a unified school than a social and intellectual movement and a space of debate. On the one hand, feminist theorists champion the identity of women, demand rights for women, and promote women's writings as representations of the experience of women. On the other hand, feminists undertake a theoretical critique of the heterosexual matrix that organizes identities and cultures in terms of the opposition between man and woman. Elaine Showalter distinguishes ’the feminist critique' of male assumptions and procedures from ’gynocriticism', a feminist criticism concerned with women authors and the representation of women's experience. Both of these modes have been opposed to what is sometimes called, in Britain and America, ’French feminism', where ’woman' comes to stand for any radical force that subverts the concepts, assumptions, and structures of patriarchal discourse. Similarly, feminist theory includes both strands that reject psychoanalysis for its incontrovertibly sexist foundations and the brilliant rearticulation of psychoanalysis by such feminist scholars as Jacqueline Rose, Mary Jacobus, and Kaja Silverman, for whom it is only through psychoanalysis, with its understanding of the complications of internalizing norms, that one can hope to comprehend and reconceive the predicament of women. In its multiple projects, feminism has effected a substantial transformation of literary education in the United States and Britain, through its expansion of the literary canon and the introduction of a range of new issues.
Psychoanalytic theory had an impact on literary studies both as a mode of interpretation and as a theory about language, identity, and the subject. On the one hand, along with Marxism it is the most powerful modern hermeneutic: an authoritative meta-language or technical vocabulary that can be applied to literary works, as to other situations, to understand what is ’really' going on. This leads to a criticism alert to psychoanalytic themes and relations. But on the other hand, the greatest impact of psychoanalysis has come through the work of Jacques Lacan, a renegade French psychoanalyst who set up his own school outside the analytic establishment and led what he presented as a return to Freud. Lacan describes the subject as an effect of language and emphasizes the crucial role in analysis of what Freud called transference, in which the analysand casts the analyst in the role of authority figure from the past (’falling in love with your analyst'). The truth of the patient's condition, in this account, emerges not from the analyst's interpretation of the patient's discourse but from the way analyst and patient are caught up in replaying a crucial scenario from the patient's past. This reorientation makes psychoanalysis a poststructuralist discipline in which interpretation is a replaying of a text it does not master.
In Britain, unlike the United States, post-structuralism arrived not through Derrida and then Lacan and Foucault but through the work of the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser. Read within the Marxist culture of the British left, Althusser led his readers to Lacanian theory and provoked a gradual transformation by which, as Antony Easthope puts it, ’post-structuralism came to occupy much the same space as that of its host culture, Marxism'. For Marxism, texts belong to a superstructure determined by the economic base (the ’real relations of production'). To interpret cultural products is to relate them back to the base. Althusser argued that the social formation is not a unified totality with the mode of production at its centre but a looser structure in which different levels or types of practice develop on different time-scales. Social and ideological superstructures have a ’relative autonomy'. Drawing on a Lacanian account of the determination of consciousness by the unconscious for an explanation of how ideology functions to determine the subject, Althusser maps a Marxist account of the determination of the individual by the social onto psychoanalysis. The subject is an effect constituted in the processes of the unconscious, of discourse, and of the relatively autonomous practices that organize society.
This conjunction is the basis of much theoretical debate in Britain, in political theory as well as literary and cultural studies. Crucial investigations of relations between culture and signification took place in the 1970s in the film studies magazine Screen, which, deploying Althusser and Lacan, sought to understand how the subject is positioned or constructed by the structures of cinematic representation.
New Historicism/Cultural Materialism
The 1980s and 1990s in Britain and the United States have been marked by the emergence of vigorous, theoretically engaged historical criticism. On the one hand, there is British cultural materialism, defined by Raymond Williams as ’the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production'. Renaissance specialists influenced by Foucault (Catherine Belsey, Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, and Peter Stallybrass) have been particularly concerned with the historical constitution of the subject and with the contestatory role of literature in the Renaissance. In the United States, new historicism, which is less inclined to posit a hierarchy of cause and effect as it traces connections among texts, discourses, power, and the constitution of subjectivity, has also been centred on the Renaissance. Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose, and others focus on how Renaissance literary texts are situated amid the discursive practices and the institutions of the period, treating literature not as a reflection or product of a social reality but as one of several sometimes antagonistic practices. A key question for the new historicists has been the dialectic of ’subversion and containment': how far do Renaissance texts offer a genuinely radical critique of the religious and political ideologies of their day and how far is the discursive practice of literature, in its apparent subversiveness, a way of containing subversive energies?
A related set of theoretical questions emerge in post-colonial theory: the attempt to understand the problems posed by the European colonization and its aftermath. In this legacy, post-colonial institutions and experiences, from the idea of the independent nation to the idea of culture itself, are entangled with the discursive practices of the West. Since the 1980s a growing corpus of writings has debated questions about the relation between the hegemony of Western discourses and the possibilities of resistance, and about the formation of colonial and post-colonial subjects: hybrid subjects, emerging from the superimposition of conflicting languages and cultures. Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), which examined the construction of the oriental ’other' by European discourses of knowledge, helped to establish the field. Since then post-colonial theory and writing has become an attempt to intervene in the construction of culture and knowledge, and, for intellectuals who come from post-colonial societies, to write their way back into a history others have written.
One political change that has been achieved within academic institutions in the United States has been the growth of study of literatures of ethnic minorities. The main effort has been to revive and promote the study of black, Latino, Asian-American, and Native American writing. Debates bear on the relation between the strengthening of cultural identity of particular groups by linking it to a tradition of writing and the liberal goal of celebrating cultural diversity and ’multiculturalism’. Theoretical questions swiftly become entangled with questions about the status of theory, which is sometimes said to impose ’white’ questions or philosophical issues on projects struggling to establish their own terms and contexts. But Latino, African-American, and Asian-American critics pursue the theoretical enterprise in developing the study of minority discourses, defining their distinctiveness, and articulating their relations to dominant traditions of writing and thought. Attempts to generate theories of ’minority discourse’ both develop concepts for the analysis of specific cultural traditions and use a position of marginality to expose the assumptions of ’majority’ discourse and to intervene in its theoretical debates.
Like deconstruction and other contemporary theoretical movements, Queer theory (discussed in Chapter 7) uses the marginal - what has been set aside as perverse, beyond the pale, radically other - to analyse the cultural construction of the centre: heterosexual normativity. In the work of Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and others, Queer theory has become the site of a productive questioning not just of the cultural construction of sexuality but of culture itself, as based on the denial of homoerotic relations. As with feminism and versions of ethnic studies before it, it gains intellectual energy from its link with social movements of liberation and from the debates within these movements about appropriate strategies and concepts. Should one celebrate and accentuate difference or challenge distinctions that stigmatize? How to do both? Possibilities of both action and understanding are at stake in theory.