- Theory of What?
Although this book is, as its subtitle indicates, a very short one, it is also a major publication. This is not only because of its author’s eminence in literary studies, but because there is almost nothing comparable to it currently, and certainly nothing of comparable quality or interest.
Literary Theory is part of Penguin’s new series of Very Short Introductions, and presumably Jonathan Culler was following the publisher’s guidelines in pitching his book at the beginner level. It is clearly meant to be accessible to undergraduates: even disregarding the cartoons used to illustrate it in places, the tone of the exposition makes that clear. In itself, of course, Culler’s willingness to address a general audience hardly guarantees that he will succeed at this kind of writing, but in fact he has, by two different measures of success. On the one hand, nothing in the book requires prior specialized knowledge to be understood; but on the other, there is nothing fatuous, cheap, or slick in the book. One of the familiar complaints about literary theory is that its practitioners conceal the weakness or implausibility of their ideas with inflated, pretentious jargon. And although this charge may be justified in many cases, Culler has never—in seven books and many essays previously published—resorted to obscurantism. In Literary Theory he has limited himself more severely than ever to articulating in plain [End Page 206] language what he takes to be some leading assumptions and insights of contemporary literary theory. Whatever shortcomings theory as it has recently been practiced may have, there is no place for them to hide in this presentation of Culler’s. It is both the strength and the weakness of his book that, in it, “literary theory” stands open to view.
Literary Theory consists of eight chapters, along with a chapter-length appendix offering brief descriptions of “Theoretical Schools and Movements.” This arrangement results from Culler’s decision to survey theory as a matter of issues and problems rather than methods and programs. This is a very sensible organizational decision on Culler’s part (though hardly the stroke of genius that some of the jacket-blurbs suggest: the appendix preserves a vestige of the standard approach, after all). If, beyond just practicing criticism, there is any value to theorizing about it, that value consists in encouraging thought about criticism, literature, and their relations. What has become the standard expository approach to literary theory, in which, for example, a chapter on Marxism succeeds a chapter on psychoanalysis, followed by one on reader-response theory, etc., tends to discourage critical reflection on the part of the student who has enough to do simply absorbing the series of doctrines presented and keeping them straight. But by beginning as he does with such general questions as what theory is, what literature is, how culture is to be understood, and how language functions, Culler requires of his readers to do more than absorb a series of party-lines (as if to say, e.g., “here is the reader-response take on authorial intention”): readers of Literary Theory are put at risk of having to think for themselves. All surveys of critical theory should be organized like this, regardless of length.
This is not to say that there are no major problems with Literary Theory—but it is to say that the difficulties lie with the topic itself, and Culler’s understanding of it, rather than with his presentation. Having begun by emphasizing the notable success of his presentation, however, I want to devote most of this discussion to some of the problems with theory according to Culler.
The most apparent and indeed spectacular of these problems is that Culler is not sure about what the title of his book means. This uncertainty is not only Culler’s, but arises from the vocabulary of contemporary literary studies: as Culler quite rightly begins his book by pointing out, when “theory” is mentioned, discussed, taught, or attacked, in, say, English departments, what is usually meant by the term is something...