Jonathan Culler

              

1-Who is Jonathan Culler?

2-Culler’s definition of Contemporary theory.

3-A literary text must be “worth it”; it must amuse, please, make a point or otherwise invite engagement.

 

4-Theorists’ points about literature:

 

v     Literature calls attention to language itself.

v     It brings various aspects of language into complex relationships with each other making a whole, whether harmonic or dissonant.

v     Literature creates a fictional world of speakers, actors, events, time and audience that leaves open for interpretation what the text is really about, what its relationship is to its social context.

v     Literary texts are aesthetic objects that are ends in themselves.

v     Literature is intertextual, existing in constant dialogue with other texts, especially other literary texts.

 

5-"Theory is intimidating and one of the most dismaying features of theory today is that it is endless”.

6- "Theory presents itself as a diabolical sentence condemning you to hard reading in unfamiliar fields, where even the completion of one task will bring not respite but further difficult assignments”.

 

JONATHAN CULLER

(Professor of English and Comparative Literature)

 

Jonathan Culler is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University and a leading figure in the world of literary theory. He is praised for his 'remarkable expository skills.

Regarding the significance of literature, Jonathan Culler argues that contemporary theory does not connect the question of “What is literature?” Culler says this is because theory’s interdisciplinary nature leads to inquiry relating literature to other disciplines, and, second, literariness exists outside literature. If Culler rejects the proposition of defining literature through some unique qualities, neither does he accept that literature is simply what cultural arbiters call it at any given time. He proposes, instead, to restate the question, reflecting instead on what is involved in treating texts as literature in our culture.

Readers read a text as literature when it is presented as such, thus context affects expectations. Such presentation often involves an absence of any apparent purpose other than to reflect on the text itself, to consider the words and their meanings and the relationship between what is said and how it is said. Thus a literary text must be “worth it”; it must amuse, please, make a point or otherwise invite engagement.

Culler returns to the contradiction between, on the one hand, the notion that unique qualities signal a text's literariness, and on the other, the idea that readers treat a text as literary when it is presented as such. He calls the problem a puzzle of two positions, both of which must hold some truth. Culler summarizes five points theorists have made about literature, all of which move between the two positions:

(1)    Literature calls attention to language itself.

(2)   It brings various aspects of language into complex relationships with each other making a whole, whether harmonic or dissonant.

(3)  Literature creates a fictional world of speakers, actors, events, time and audience that leaves open for interpretation what the text is really about, what its relationship is to its social context.

(4)  Literary texts are aesthetic objects that are ends in themselves.

(5)  Literature is intertextual, existing in constant dialogue with other texts, especially other literary texts. While each other these five points reflects on the activity of reading texts as literary; none describes a definitive quality of literature.

 

Other paradoxes challenge reflections on the nature of literature. Literary theory makes irreconcilable claims about literature. Literature is seen both as serving social and political functions and as an aesthetic object with no practical function, creating liberal subjects through imaginative exercise. Literature has been described as promoting solitary reflection and isolating individuals, but it has also been seen as dangerous, encouraging readers to question social relations and bond together to change society.

Culler concludes that it is important to reflect on the reading practices that literary texts draw out: namely “the suspension of the demand for immediate intelligibility, reflection on the implications of means of expression, and attention to how meaning is made and pleasure produced”.

Culler indicates that "Theory is intimidating and one of the most dismaying features of theory today is that it is endless. It is not something that you could ever learn so as to 'know theory.' Theory is thus a source of intimidation, a resource for constant upstagings.

Regarding "What is literature and the relation between literary and cultural studies; meaning in literature; performative language; identity and identification; the analysis of narrative; and the study of poetry, Culler writes, "theory presents itself as a diabolical sentence condemning you to hard reading in unfamiliar fields, where even the completion of one task will bring not respite but further difficult assignments.

Culler really does seem to understand the pain of some readers. "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.

Culler further says, "The nature of theory is to undo, through a contesting of premises 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,"

 

 

By

 Dalal Bader Al-Sabah