- From the Editor:The Novel and the Lyric
One measure of important works of criticism and theory involves how they can resonate in unexpected ways, even defying an author's intentions. Jonathan Culler's Theory of the Lyric possesses exactly such a quality, bearing on debates ranging far and wide beyond its discrete focus of poetry studies. This special issue arose from an effort to engage Culler's 2015 study along such lines, enlisting it to make sense out of different conversations and a different genre than Culler envisions—namely, novel criticism and theory. In a project whose first incarnation was the conference "Theorizing the Lyric: The World Novel" that Grant Farred and I coorganized at Cornell University in January 2017, that approach to Theory of the Lyric indeed furnished a wealth of insights into not only novel studies but also the state of novel-writing in the twenty-first century. In diverse applications, the essays that follow extend Culler's analyses in a series of unanticipated directions, drawing on his account of the lyric to theorize the poetics of novelistic style; the limits of certain regimes of theory and interpretation; the ways lyricism can disrupt the dominance of narrative; and the ultimate politics or ethics of poetic interludes within texts that otherwise conform to the formal and structural conventions of the novel as a genre.
Yet Theory of the Lyric's relevance is even more extensive. Recent years have witnessed a flourishing of attempts to rethink method, some calling into question what have represented foundational premises within criticism and theory over the past decades. These are conversations that Theory of the Lyric also joins—although likewise in ways not necessarily foreseen by Culler. Perhaps above all, Culler's study is concerned with how certain interpretive dictates can dampen or deplete the ways we read and experience literature, and Culler instead crafts a poetics geared precisely to revive those encounters, which Theory of the Lyric effectuates through readings of poetry. Culler accordingly issues his own diagnosis of how and why academic criticism can get things wrong, yet that assessment also contains a recipe for how we might reengage with literature. That agenda is one that the following essays equally participate in.
In many ways, one could not imagine a more fitting forum than Diacritics for a tribute to this latest episode in Culler's wide-ranging and seminal career. The philosophical canon is filled with testaments to Culler's formidable influence. (Last week, for me, rereading key works by, first, Jürgen Habermas and, then, Richard Rorty and pausing to contemplate their separate dialogues with Culler offered a window onto that prominence.) Given how Culler helped to pioneer many breakthroughs and shifts in the history of criticism and theory, it is not surprising that Theory of the Lyric would place him at the forefront of debates about the status of the literary again today. [End Page 3]
But perhaps even more, the setting of Diacritics is a reminder of Culler's irreplaceable impact on the humanities at Cornell. Like few (if any) other faculty, Culler has caringly cultivated and molded not only literature and language study but the humanities broadly, shepherding us through joys and crises alike. That unflagging dedication to the spirit of humanistic inquiry is also a guiding force within Theory of the Lyric, which is to say that it conducts its own subtle defense of why and how literary studies must remain the lifeblood of the university in the twenty-first century. [End Page 4]