Sunday, 14 August 2016

'Sampling the Pleasures of Thought' - Professor Culler on 'What is Theory?'

Well, this is an interesting and fascinating description of what Theory is all about, from the point of view of the renowned Structuralist, Theorist, Linguist, Intertextualist - Professor Jonathan Culler of the Department of English, Cornell University.

Over to Culler... 

Theory in literary studies is not an account of the nature of literature or methods for its study. It’s a body of thinking and writing whose limits are exceedingly hard to define. The philosopher Richard Rorty speaks of a new, mixed genre that began in the nineteenth century: ‘Beginning in the days of Goethe and Macaulay and Carlyle and Emerson, a new kind of writing has developed which is neither the evaluation of the relative merits of literary productions, nor intellectual history, nor moral philosophy, nor social prophecy, but all of these mingled together in a new genre.’ The most convenient designation of this miscellaneous genre is simply the nickname theory, which has come to designate works that succeed in challenging and reorienting thinking in fields other than those to which they apparently belong.
This simple explanation is an unsatisfactory definition but it does seem to capture what has happened since the 1960s: writings from outside the field of literary studies have been taken up by people in literary studies because their analyses of language, or mind, or history, or culture, offer new and persuasive accounts of textual and cultural matters.

Theory in this sense is not a set of methods for literary study but an unbounded group of writings about everything under the sun, from the most technical problems of academic philosophy to the changing ways in which people have talked about and thought about the body.

The genre of ‘theory’ includes works of anthropology, art history, film studies, gender studies, linguistics, philosophy, political theory, psychoanalysis, science studies, social and intellectual history, and sociology. The works in question are tied to arguments in these fields, but they become ‘theory’ because their visions or arguments have been suggestive or productive for people who are not studying those disciplines.

Works that become ‘theory’ offer accounts others can use about meaning, nature and culture, the functioning of the psyche, the relations of public to private experience and of larger historical forces to individual experience.

The main effect of theory is the disputing of ‘common sense’: commonsense views about meaning, writing, literature, experience. For example, theory questions

Ø  the conception that the meaning of an utterance or text is what the speaker ‘had in mind’,
Ø  or the idea that writing is an expression whose truth lies elsewhere, in an experience or a state of affairs which it expresses,
Ø  or the notion that reality is what is ‘present’ at a given moment.

Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as ‘common sense’ is in fact a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don’t even see it as a theory.

As a critique of common sense and exploration of alternative conceptions, theory involves a questioning of the most basic premisses or assumptions of literary study, the unsettling of anything that might have been taken for granted: What is meaning? What is an author?

What is it to read? What is the ‘I’ or subject who writes, reads, or acts? How do texts relate to the circumstances in which they are produced?

Theory involves speculative practice: accounts of desire, language, and so on, that challenge received ideas (that there is something natural, called ‘sex’; that signs represent prior realities). So doing, they incite you to rethink the categories with which you may be reflecting on literature. These examples display the main thrust of recent theory, which has been the critique of whatever is taken as natural, the demonstration that what has been thought or declared natural is in fact a historical, cultural product. What happens can be grasped through a different example: when Aretha Franklin sings ‘You make me feel like a natural woman’, she seems happy to be confirmed in a ‘natural’ sexual identity, prior to culture, by a man’s treatment of her. But her formulation, ‘you make me feel like a natural woman’, suggests that the supposedly natural or given identity is a cultural role, an effect that has been produced within culture: she isn’t a ‘natural woman’ but has to be made to feel like one. The natural woman is a cultural product.

So what is theory?

Four main points have emerged.

1. Theory is interdisciplinary – discourse with effects outside an original discipline.
2. Theory is analytical and speculative – an attempt to work out what is involved in what we call sex or language or writing or meaning or the subject.
3. Theory is a critique of common sense, of concepts taken as natural.
4. Theory is reflexive, thinking about thinking, enquiry into the categories we use in making sense of things, in literature and in other discursive practices.

It is an unbounded corpus of writings which is always being augmented as the young and the restless, in critiques of the guiding conceptions of their elders, promote the contributions to theory of new thinkers and rediscover the work of older, neglected ones. Theory is thus a source of intimidation, a resource for constant upstagings: ‘What? you haven’t read Lacan! How can you talk about the lyric without addressing the specular constitution of the speaking subject?’

The unmasterability of theory is a major cause of resistance to it. No matter how well versed you may think yourself, you can never be sure whether you ‘have to read’ Jean Baudrillard, Mikhail Bakhtin, Walter Benjamin, Hélène Cixous, C. L. R. James, Melanie Klein, or Julia Kristeva, or whether you can ‘safely’ forget them. (It will, of course, depend on who ‘you’ are and who you want to be.) A good deal of the hostility to theory no doubt comes from the fact that to admit the importance of theory is to make an open-ended commitment, to leave yourself in a position where there are always important things you don’t know. But
this is the condition of life itself.

Theory makes you desire mastery: you hope that theoretical reading will give you the concepts to organize and understand the phenomena that concern you. But theory makes mastery impossible, not only because there is always more to know, but, more specifically and more painfully, because theory is itself the questioning of presumed results and the assumptions on which they are based. The nature of theory is to undo, through a contesting of premisses and postulates, what you thought you knew, so the effects of theory are not predictable. You have not become master, but neither are you where you were before.

You reflect on your reading in new ways. You have different questions to ask and a better sense of the implications of the questions you put to works you read.

This very short introduction will not make you a master of theory, and not just because it is very short, but it outlines significant lines of thought and areas of debate, especially those pertaining to literature. It presents examples of theoretical investigation in the hope that readers will find theory valuable and engaging and take occasion to sample the pleasures of thought.

Excerpted from OUP’s ‘A Very Short Introduction’ Series, Jonathan Culler: Literary Theory.
Cartoon Strip: OUP

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