Jeffrey Williams with Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler
Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler is a leading expositor of contemporary literary theory. His book, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Cornell UP, 1975; Routledge Classics, 2002), brought the terms and concerns of the Continental theory to an Anglo-American audience. It won the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize and has been a standard work in the field. He followed it with two books of influential essays, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Cornell UP, 1981; enl. ed., 2002; Routledge Classics, 2006) and On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Cornell UP, 1982; 25th Anniversary ed., 2008). Alongside those, he published several books focused on particular figures, including Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (Cornell UP, 1974; rev. ed. 1985; Davies, 2004), Roland Barthes (Oxford UP, 1983; rev. ed. Roland Barthes: A Very Short Introduction, 2002) and Saussure (Fontana, 1985; rev. ed. Ferdinand de Saussure, Cornell UP, 1986).

Beginning in the late 1980s, Culler turned to more general statements about literary study, considering its institutional context in Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions (U of Oklahoma P, 1988) and providing the guidebooks, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 1997) and Literary Theory (A Brief Insight) (Sterling, 2009). He also published On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (Blackwell, 1988) and The Literary in Theory (Stanford UP, 2007), which gathers essays on narrative, the fate of theory and the future of comparative literature. In addition, he edited, with Kevin Lamb, Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Stanford UP, 2003). This interview with Jonathan Culler took place on August 27th, 2007, in Culler’s office at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York). It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, then editor of the minnesota review and transcribed by Heather Steffen and Marisa Colabuono.

Jeffrey Williams: One could see you as a kind of a personification figure of contemporary theory. I came across a line in your recent book, The Literary in Theory, where you talk about becoming fascinated with the New Criticism when you first went to college. How did you first start in criticism, and what was the scene like?

Jonathan Culler: I guess my interest in criticism started after I graduated from high school. My father was on sabbatical in England, and I went along. I went two terms to an English public school, and in the spring went across to Paris. During those two terms we were concentrating on a handful of books that were set books for English A-level exams. We read Othello and then Henry IV, Part II and Donne, and there may have been another collection of poems, but what I especially remember was the Donne. We were reading, for a whole semester, a small group of poems, and we also read criticism and arguments about them. It was the sort of thing that most people would have done only in college, but I got a taste of it before I entered college. I hadn’t thought about criticism before; as a high school student, criticism was something you read in order to get an idea for a paper, but you weren’t interested in criticism as such.

And then when I came to Harvard. . .

JW: What years are these?

JC: I started at Harvard in 1962, so it was ’61-62 that I was in England. At Harvard I was majoring in history and literature, and I had a tutor my freshman year because I had sophomore standing. He was a grad student named Ricardo Quinones who turned out to be a Renaissance scholar, and he assigned exercises in which we were supposed to compare two critical treatments of a single poem and identify the arguments, which I found very interesting. That was the way I really got into New Criticism. It was a moment when New Criticism at Harvard was something a little bit dangerous, a little racy. Reuben Brower’s course, “Hum 6,” attracted the most ambitious students and was clearly an enclave at odds with the general ethos of the Harvard English department, with people like Walter Jackson Bate and others, who did much more intellectual history. Brower’s ethos was very serious, close attention to the text, not talking about biography, not talking about authors. He had a small group of very smart graduate students and assistant professors who worked with him and taught with him, people like Richard Poirier, Anne Ferry and David Kalstone.

So I worked with those people throughout my time at Harvard. Anne Ferry was my tutor one year, and David Kalstone was director of my honors thesis, so I was very much in the New Critical line of work. I took several courses with Anne Ferry and one year had weekly tutorials with her, and the New Critical reading did feel like a carrot that was slightly out of reach. I could never feel confident that what I did for Anne Ferry would get an A. I always knew there was going to be something crucial that I had missed. She would always find something that I had failed to grasp or some matter of tone that I had gotten wrong.

But by the end of my time at Harvard I came to feel that I knew how to do this sort of criticism.

But then my senior year Joseph Frank, the Dostoyevsky scholar from Princeton, came to Harvard as a visiting professor. He taught a graduate seminar on trends in contemporary criticism, which I managed to get into. That was the first course I had that was explicitly focused on criticism itself as a topic. They didn’t have things like that at Harvard in those days. We read Auerbach—it was mostly Continental—and Spitzer and Sartre, and some phenomenological criticism, Poulet, and we ended up at Hillis Miller’s Disappearance of God or Poets of Reality. That was what got me interested in thinking of this not just as a matter of method, but as a real subject that one could study and where there were trends. And for the first time I realized that there were philosophical implications and underpinnings and different sorts of criticism. So that’s what led me to go on to work on that kind of topic in graduate school.

JW: Your father, Dwight Culler, was an English professor at Yale and a fairly well-known one. Did that make it easier to do this, or was literature the last thing you wanted to do when you started out?

JC: It certainly made it easier in some sense. The idea of studying literature was not something foreign or weird. I didn’t have to convince my parents, as some students do, that it’s okay to take literature courses rather than engineering courses or something of that sort. My father was a Victorianist, and I did resolutely avoid the Victorian period throughout both undergraduate and graduate school. I didn’t ever take a course in Victorian literature. That was my minor revolt, I guess. I also did not think of myself as an English major; I majored in history and literature, and my formal concentration at Harvard was actually on early modern Europe—England, France, and Italy in the Renaissance and the seventeenth century. I chose the early modern period partly because I was interested in Donne and seventeenth-century poetry. I wrote my honors thesis on George Herbert, and I did a certain amount of work on the Italian Renaissance and seventeenth-century Italian and French. I guess at the time I did think of myself as working in a different area, partly with the foreign languages and partly the earlier period.

JW: Although then the heart of accreditation in the field was in Renaissance and early periods, whereas now that has changed. What did you do after you graduated from Harvard?

JC: I went to England because I got a Rhodes scholarship. I graduated in ’66, so from ’66 to ’69 I was in Oxford on the Rhodes. There was a Harvard fellowship to the École Normale Supérieure, and if they had told me I could choose, I might have gone to France, but obviously you don’t turn down a Rhodes on the possibility you might win something else later. I certainly didn’t go to England because I had a particular desire to study in England; it was because of the fellowship. I ended up doing what was called a BPhil. It was a two-year graduate degree with some exams and a short thesis. For a BPhil in comparative literature, you had to choose two subjects, as well as do what they called a general paper, but which was a kind of literary theory and criticism paper, and you had to write questions of a general theoretical order. You didn’t actually have to read anything in order to be able to talk about, “What is literature?”

So by the time I was in Oxford, the center of my studies was shifting to the more modern period, especially to literary theory. For the short thesis, I wrote about phenomenology and literary criticism, especially Merleau-Ponty, and then there was a final chapter about Poulet and other critics of consciousness.

JW: Did you get your PhD there as well? At the time it wasn’t unusual for people to just have the MPhil and become professors.

JC: You could do that. It was starting to change at that point. My plan had been, when I went to England, to spend two years doing this and then come back to graduate school in the States. But during those two years, I felt I’d just as soon stay on rather than starting over back at Yale—I’d been accepted at Yale.

JW: You’d be in your father’s department.

JC: Well, I would have been in Comparative Literature, but still it could have been awkward. I decided to stay on at Oxford. I wanted to do a DPhil, the English version of the PhD, so I had to come up with a topic. In those days you had to come up with a topic and apply to be kept on to do research on it. For a long time I was thinking of working on the Collège de Sociologie, and I went to talk to a guy named Alex de Jonge, who knew about modern France. Alex was enthusiastic and said he’d be happy to supervise me, but he himself did biographical criticism (he went on to write biographies of Rasputin and Stalin, among others), and the idea of spending three years working under him as my Doktorvater was not especially attractive.

Then I learned that Stephen Ullmann, who wrote books on style and French prose and linguistics and literature, had just been appointed as the new professor of romance languages at Oxford. He was at Leeds at that point. So I wrote to him and said that I’d been working on phenomenology and was thinking of staying on, and would he be interested in supervising a thesis on structuralism and the application of linguistic models to literary studies, and he said yes, he would. I think the faculty at Oxford would never have accepted that theoretical topic in those days, except for the fact that I was going to be the first student of the newly-elected professor of romance languages. They couldn’t really say no to that, since he had approved the topic and was willing to work with me, and since I had passed my BPhil exam they couldn’t say that I was incompetent. The topic was certainly unusual; nobody did theoretical dissertations in those days.

So I stayed on for a year in Oxford doing that, and then got a job in Cambridge teaching French while continuing to work on the dissertation. I stayed in England for eleven years altogether, from ’66 to ’77. I was a student in Oxford for three years, and then I taught at Cambridge for five years, and then came back to Oxford, where I was a university lecturer in French, then a fellow at Brasenose College for three years, before I came back to the States.

JW: What generated your interest in structural linguistics?

JC: Well, I had been working on the phenomenologists and Merleau-Ponty, and a lot of that had to do with theories of language and perception. A big question at the time was the relation of structuralism to a phenomenology of language. In France in those days, there were structuralism and phenomenology, and they were sort of put together as different strains of La Nouvelle Critique, which was in revolt against the history of ideas or biographical criticism that previously reigned in French universities. Certainly in those days, in the late ’60s, there was a sense of something momentous happening in criticism and literary studies, and in les sciences humaines generally, and linguistics was always cited as the model discipline, as what was going to make possible a transformation of les sciences humaines.

Since I had just done this thesis on the phenomenological underpinnings of criticism of the Geneva School, to write and think about the importance of the linguistic models to literary criticism seemed like a logical step and an interesting problem.

JW: I know the British system is very different from ours. There’s less focus on, and less of an arduous process for, graduate students. It seems slightly less professionalized. Maybe you could comment on the British system and how it formed you, moving through it for eleven years.

JC: Of course the British system has changed quite radically since the time when I entered it. When I was there it was in some ways resolutely anti-professional. University teachers didn’t necessarily have to have a PhD, and there were many whose reputation was based on the fact that they’d gotten a brilliant First as undergraduates and then gone on doing some research and teaching. Even publication for many was thought of as vulgar. I had a very good friend in the neighboring college when I was teaching in Oxford—we shared students and dined together frequently during vacations when they would close one kitchen and we would dine in one or the other college. He was a French medievalist, a man with great intellectual interests. He was always doing something like learning Turkish or studying Byzantine architecture, but he had absolutely no interest in ever publishing about medieval French literature. To him that seemed vulgar, the sort of thing Americans do. I remember his saying to me, “Jonathan, I understand that Americans have something called a curriculum vita, in which you keep records of everything you do in lists. Is that true?”

Now it’s much worse for them than for us. They have to document everything. They’re always being rated and have to prove that they’re doing research; they have five-year plans and universities hire people to get their publications on their five-year assessments. But there was the notion, in the days when I was there, of literary studies as a kind of gentlemanly pursuit, and you chatted. The undergraduate system was one of tutorials and exams at the end of three years, so they would go weekly and chat with their tutor about whatever topic he or she had set. Usually they wrote an essay, but they read it out loud; they didn’t hand it in. I think this actually improved students’ writing—they had to read what they had written, so it had to be articulate and make sense—and it certainly saved time for the tutors. You listened to something and you made some comments, then sent them along. It did give the whole thing a sort of gentlemanly social dimension that is often lacking in the American university. And in those days the graduate degrees were, for the most part, simply research degrees, where you had a topic and you had a supervisor.

The BPhil, which I did, was a degree where there were some seminars and classes on various topics, but not very many, and it was mostly exams and a short thesis. You worked with tutors on the topics that you were studying, but now they’ve brought in graduate degrees that they call “taught degrees,” and you do have to do more courses. The quantification of everything in the British educational system is doubtless producing more professionalization among the students too. But in the old days there wasn’t as much.

When I moved back from England to the U.S. in ’77—actually I had spent a semester at Yale as a visiting professor in 1975—I was working on structuralism and was much in demand, and I gave talks all over the place in the States. At that point, one of the things I wanted was a much more professionalized academic life, and in America there were all these conferences and invitations to speak with reasonable fees. In England I would often be invited to talk to some kind of undergraduate club. They would have a literature club, and they would offer me my second-class rail fare and perhaps a hotel room if I needed to stay overnight. It did feel very amateurish and not well-organized, whereas in the States there was this professional discourse. Professionalism, as you know well, is not an unalloyed good, and since then I often have felt a bit silly for my enthusiasm for returning to the professionalized academic system of the U.S. But of course it arrived later in Britain anyway, in a much worse form, so I wouldn’t have gained anything by staying on.

One of the great differences was—I was teaching French literature both at Cambridge and Oxford—that the students had all done French as a subject at A-level, so they were really quite proficient in the language when they came. There were language classes, though I didn’t ever have to teach those; we had “lecteurs” who would teach those classes. So you really were able to teach courses about French literature. That made a big difference in foreign language departments. Here in the States you can’t count on proficiency among the undergraduates who happen to end up taking your courses on foreign literatures. That’s one of the reasons why being in an English department here was preferable to being in a French department.

JW: I was at a conference in Manchester last year, and one thing that struck me about the British model was how good people were on their feet. I thought it might be from a debating tradition, but I can see how it might also come from the tutorial method. The downside is that things can seem off-the-cuff and unscholarly. I’m curious about what you think the effect was on you. You’re known for your clarity of style and a certain explanatory skill. I was wondering if it came from the British model.

JC: I think it was also being a foreigner. Being a Yank in England certainly was an important factor in my wanting to pay attention to my language, trying to sound more concise, more elegant, than I might otherwise have done, to try not to appear sloppy and vulgar according to the caricatures of Americans in those days. Also, the college system in Oxford and Cambridge means that you’re spending a lot of time with colleagues in other disciplines—if the people you’re talking to at lunch and dinner are all in other fields, you have to be ready to talk about what you’re doing with them. You see more of colleagues in other fields than you do of colleagues in your own field, which may have had an impact. Certainly I do think those years were important.

I do think that I wrote better in those years than I do now. It may be partly the fact of working on a typewriter instead of a computer, and trying to compress and be succinct, and hoping that this time typing this page would be the last time. With a typewriter, I would try to get through it more quickly by making it shorter and cutting out more things that were unnecessary. On the computer, the temptation is just to leave things in. I do think that this writing process was important for my style.

Another important influence is perhaps harder to describe. I’ve certainly been aware of the fact that if I’d gone back to Yale, I would have been sitting at the feet of people who knew more about these subjects that I was working on than I did, whereas I did have the feeling in Oxford that I knew more than anyone about structuralism. Even though Ullmann was quite receptive to my work on structuralism, he wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about it or especially interested in it. So I did quickly come to have the feeling that I knew more about my subject than anybody else in Oxford, and that gave me a certain confidence that I think would have been lacking in a graduate student at Yale or elsewhere back in America.

Also, I started reviewing early on for the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) and for other papers and journals in England, and would dash off authoritative-sounding responses to the latest publications. I think it did give me a confidence in writing that was quite important—certainly by contrast with, say, students of de Man, who often were very worried about saying the wrong thing. The relationship to a powerful, knowledgeable figure can be paralyzing in writing, whereas my situation made it easier to write authoritatively. In England, especially in those days, there was a relationship to the public culture, and even now their academic culture is much more entwined with it; it seemed a normal sort of thing to be reviewing for papers and the TLS.

JW: It struck me that your work doesn’t fall under the umbrella of Yale, even though what you’ve written has similar coordinates. It probably gave you a certain freedom. Another thing I was curious about was that you were not in the U.S. in ’68, so you have different coordinates for your generation. You lived in England for eleven years, so that must have made a difference.

JC: I think that was part of the reason that I stayed in England. My last year at Harvard—I graduated in 1966—it seems to me that all we did was talk about Vietnam and go to demonstrations and wonder about what was going to happen to us after we graduated. It was a relief to get to England and talk about something else for a change, and not be so totally obsessed about Vietnam. We did still go to London for demonstrations and discuss what to do, but it was in a context where it didn’t loom quite so large. I think that part of the attraction of England was that America in those post-68 years was a place that one would not be particularly happy to be associated with.

Also, I spent a lot of time in France. It was easy to get back and forth during vacations or other times. That was important because I was in a minority position, trying to champion French ideas in England at a time when the normal attitude among literary scholars was, “We don’t need all this French nonsense.” Even if I felt occasionally marginalized or on the defensive, it was a sort of comfortable marginalization.

JW: That brings us up to Structuralist Poetics. 1975 is when you’re back at Yale, and Structuralist Poetics comes out.

JC: I taught at Oxford from 1974-77 but spent the fall of 1975 at Yale as a visiting professor. Structuralist Poetics was based on my dissertation, but then after finishing it, I put it aside and wrote a little book on Flaubert, The Uses of Uncertainty, which came out in ’74. At that point I had done quite a lot of reviewing and that was probably the way in which my name had become established enough for the people at Yale to invite me to come as a visiting professor for a semester, though I guess Structuralist Poetics had already come out in the spring. Certainly in the fall of 1975, I was getting all kinds of invitations to travel around the country and talk about “What is structuralism?” That’s what people were interested in.

But the Flaubert book, which I still like quite a lot, is a book that I wrote quickly and in the enthusiasm of what felt like a revolution in literary criticism. It was basically focusing on conventions of the novel and saying, if you are expecting Flaubert to be like Balzac, you’re in for a surprise; Flaubert is subverting the conventions of the novel, especially conventions about the articulation of meaning and meaningfulness. Fiction is one way in which the meaningfulness of life gets constructed but also, as we could now say, deconstructed, through various narrative techniques. I am still very fond of that book.

JW: I think it would be interesting to do a survey about people’s own favorite books, and also about books written in a burst or short time, rather than the usual long haul.

JC: I think that’s probably part of it too. I suppose people are likely to say that their favorite book is something other than what they are best known for. It’s not that I don’t like On Deconstruction, which I still think is a good book. I’m very fond of it, but I don’t have quite the fondness for that that I do for the Flaubert book.

JW: It must have been an exciting time, when Structuralist Poetics came out and you were giving talks and bringing new dispatches about structuralism. Then Structuralist Poetics won the Lowell Prize from MLA, and you got the job here at Cornell. How do you reflect on that?

JC: I think one way of reflecting on it is that there was a sense that things were happening here in a way that they weren’t in Britain; people were interested in theory in a way that they weren’t really in Britain. When I was teaching in Cambridge—I was the fellow in French and director of studies in modern languages at Selwyn College but not a university lecturer—I kept applying for university jobs, and they would tend to make me a finalist and in the end couldn’t bring themselves to hire me. I remember Muriel Bradbrook, who was then a grand old dame in English studies and was the Mistress of Girton College, asking me, “Dr. Culler, you have been in three different universities, how do you account for this?”—as if I were a dangerous interloper. There was a sense that things were happening but a strong resistance to helping them along.

At Oxford I had what was basically a tenured position—the letter of appointment said I was appointed until something like 2011, which was a scary prospect: it looked like a straight run to the grave, doing the same thing from 1974 until 2011. Also, the system of many hours of tutorials was wearing. Though it’s not difficult work, it’s not intellectually interesting because you’ve got a whole afternoon of basically one student after the other. Your book falls open at the same page and you say, “Let’s look at this passage,” or you hear their essays and you give them some general remarks, but you’re not working to get new ideas the way you would be for a class here.

When I spent a term at Yale I suddenly had none of the tutorials, and a seminar on literary theory was what I was basically being paid for, so that just seemed like a much better arrangement. It was partly a question of the allocation of my time but also, as I said, the sense that there was a professional world here of people who were interested and where literary studies was going to be transformed, and that I would have a role to play in that. Those were the most important reasons for my move back.

JW: Structuralist Poetics served to inform the American scene of various structural theories, although you’re not favorable to deconstruction in it. After you came back to the U.S. it seems you turned more toward deconstruction, culminating in the essays in On Deconstruction. Also, in between there’s a fine book, The Pursuit of Signs, which has an essay on narrative theory that I particularly like, showing how the distinction between plot and story breaks down. Did you move to deconstruction because you encountered the Yale school? How did that happen?

JC: That’s a good question. I’m not sure how accurate memory is. I suppose if I’m asked to produce a narrative about that, I don’t have any confidence about its veracity as a description of what was actually happening at the time. I would say that the final chapter of Structuralist Poetics, ” ‘Beyond’ Structuralism” (“beyond” in quotation marks) is mostly about the Tel Quel group and various critiques of structuralism, especially ones that I took to be rather facile and ill-informed—by Kristeva for example, arguing that Chomskian linguistics was dynamic, unlike structuralist linguistics, which was supposed to be static. My chapter certainly wasn’t a critique of structuralism; the attempts to reject the structuralist project as excessively scientific or scientistic seemed to me ill-informed. For instance, at moments Barthes claimed to be trying to analyze how texts comply with conventions, but the texts he would pick would generally be like Balzac’s “Sarrasine”—a text which is subversive of gender codes, for instance. Barthes was especially interested in the ways in which that text seemed at some level to subvert the codes and conventions of literature, and hence, even though Balzac was known as a readerly writer, Barthes made his text into something like a writerly text. I think that was characteristic of structuralism in general: it was always interested in moments that were anomalous in terms of the conventions that its allegedly scientistic procedures were trying to describe.

At that time I didn’t have a good understanding of Derrida, but I feel fortunate that my remarks about Derrida in that last chapter don’t seem to me wrong. I managed somehow to say things about Derrida that I don’t find embarrassing and would still support.

The engagement with deconstruction arose in part from an interest in complicating the accounts of conventions. I tended to think of structuralism as an enterprise that was taking place within the general context of phenomenology—an attempt to spell out as explicitly as possible the rules and conventions that made experience possible. I also wanted to treat deconstruction not as a rejection of structuralism, but as a movement that could be situated within the problematic of structuralism. The first chapter of On Deconstruction, which people probably don’t read so much these days, was really an attempt to set the stage for deconstruction by relating structuralism to reader-response criticism, so this book didn’t feel to me like a major break. There wasn’t a moment of conversion when I said, “Oh, I’m no longer a structuralist, I’m a deconstructionist.”

Derrida’s writing became increasingly interesting to me as I was following and thinking about what was happening in contemporary criticism and theory, but I guess at some level I do still remain at least theoretically committed to the project of a poetics. I do think that poetics rather than more interpretation is what literary studies ought to be doing. I do resist moments, as in de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric,” which seek to place the structuralist project on one side, in opposition to a rhetorically-oriented operation of reading and interpretation. For me they are much more continuous, and I also think that if you’re doing interpretation, you require an understanding of the conventions that enable you to interpret and discriminate among interpretations, and so require a poetics.

JW: I can see how ” ‘Beyond’ Interpretation” is your move away from the New Criticism that you encountered at Harvard. I’m curious about whether you see it in relation to Sontag’s 1964 essay “Against Interpretation.” It does seem as if there was a concerted move against interpretation at the time. On the other hand it seems like deconstruction is a move back toward a kind of interpretation.

JC: I guess there are points in common with the argument that Sontag makes in “Against Interpretation,” though I do think of my focus as fundamentally different, because for me the alternative to interpretation is a systematic poetics and that’s something that Sontag was not interested in. Often for people who are arguing against interpretation, both in those days and at other moments, the alternative is something like pleasure—let’s not interpret, let’s enjoy, let’s appreciate. That was certainly not my focus.

My intent was to try to understand how these things function, instead of attempting to produce new interpretations, and thus to produce a theoretical account of them, even while recognizing that the very nature of literary language and literary discourse is always to try to outplay any theoretical account that can be provided. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be working to provide the theoretical account, so I don’t feel on the same wavelength as Sontag, despite that commonality at that point. This is partly due to our different relationships to Barthes. For Sontag, the goal was to interpret Barthes as a writer, not as an academic critic, whereas for me I wanted Barthes to stick with the structuralist project a bit longer and not immediately renounce it as soon as he’d gotten underway.

Barthes had a lot of productive ideas that were not carried through. I think that is one of the reasons for his relative eclipse; though he was very influential at a certain point, one reason for the eclipse of his earlier work is that he was so quick to renounce it. It’s hard for other people then to go on and say, “I’m going to continue working in this fruitful vein,” when the person who inspired you has already said this is a mistaken line of work or “just an obsession.”

JW: I want to ask a slightly different question about that time and what was going on. Beginnings came out in ’75, and in a way Said was doing the same thing that you were in Structuralist Poetics, bringing major strands of Continental work to an American audience. That also brings up what you think of politics and criticism. How would you compare what you were doing with what Said was doing?

JC: Well, Beginnings is a book that I don’t like partly because it seemed to me to fail to do what it ought to have done, which is to talk about the problem of beginnings. It seemed to be a very rambling essay in many ways, sloppy and ill-formed. Said’s later work, of course, is extremely important and valuable, but I don’t see that as getting underway with Beginnings. I don’t think that the political directions of Said’s work were evident yet in 1975.

The political questions in 1975 often revolved around Marxism, to an extent that students now don’t recognize. Except for Fredric Jameson, Marxist criticism has been eclipsed, but in those days, there was always a Marxist strain within French structuralism, with Althusserian theory, which was especially important in England more so than in the States. Also, Lacan got assimilated and came into the discursive space in England through Althusser and his account of ideology. In those days, Jameson was extremely important as someone who was sympathetic to and interested in French theory, articulating its Marxist orientations. He was conversant with all the French developments and wrote about structuralism and narratology, highlighting political possibilities.

JW: He was at Harvard in the early ’60s, and Yale in the early ’80s.

JC: Right, so Jameson was on the scene, working alongside de Man and others, and providing us with an alternative direction. Marxism and Form, for example, could be assimilated to general projects of working out a poetics and the functioning of narrative forms. There were many claims made for the radical character of structuralist and deconstructive work in the humanities, insofar as it upset received notions of the subject and humanistic discourse. Much of the political debate at the time was with Marxism, about how far the disruption of bourgeois assumptions could count as radical, how far it needed to be tied to a vision of movement towards a classless society, and the primacy of the economic over the cultural and discursive.

The advent of postcolonial discourse and, in the U.S. especially, the rise of minority studies of various kinds transformed that situation and produced much more concrete versions of political programs for criticism and theory. Of course feminist theory was a very important part of that too.

JW: Sometimes it seems as if certain moments, like 1975, are pivotal. To bring the story to the next phase, you have taken a more institutional focus than most people, in the 1980s writing “Criticism and the University” [in Framing the Sign]. I have a lot of affinity for that essay, and I think it’s one of the best accounts, with Graff’s Professing Literature, of an institutional history. They came out in the late ’80s and represents a broadening out from language to institutional matters.

JC: Since criticism these days is primarily located in universities, the question of the implications of its institutional setting is one that naturally arises. I did at one point, early in my time at Cornell, teach a graduate seminar together with Neil Hertz on criticism as a profession. We read texts about professionalization, like Bledstein, and work on English departments, such as Richard Ohmann’s English in America.

The piece in Framing the Sign started out as an essay for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I was asked to produce a piece about the history of criticism and about the organization of knowledge in American society, and I did it since the American Academy is an important institution. I think Mike Abrams had recommended me. The Academy held a conference at which the papers were circulated and discussed, but somehow something went wrong. My piece never got into the volume, and I was quite annoyed. I had done a lot of work in reading sources that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise bothered to do, though it was valuable for me in the end. I imagine there were senior people who decided that I was presenting a fallacious representation of the history of criticism, with the implicit narrative of progress from the benighted positions of old to the great new future of literary theory.

JW: I particularly like that essay because you give an account of the course of criticism but also an account of the university, without either being heavy-handed or underplaying the importance of institutional things. It would have been a good book.

JC: Perhaps this was a vein I should have pursued further. I would now say that I was rather too positive about the capitalistic model of the university in this essay produced before Bill Readings’ University in Ruins and similar works. At that time it did seem to me that a good consequence of the capitalistic model was that it made the American university much more receptive to new trends in criticism, because deans and administrators generally didn’t really care what you did as long as you published things and received attention, whereas in England the situation had been rather different—”We should not encourage this foreign nonsense in our universities.” Here the institution was seen less as the guardian of traditions than as an entrepreneurial operation that should try to hire people who were doing things that attained visibility. “Visibility” was the magic word here, whereas “soundness” was much more the magic word in England, when they were debating whether to hire someone in Oxford and Cambridge. Brilliance was good, but soundness was more important. Visibility was not a positive term there—now that’s all that counts—whereas in the U.S. if you could publish, get grants, attract students, even publish things that people were attacking, that was seen as a positive thing. I think now, especially in the wake of Readings’ account, I would be more nuanced about my enthusiasm for the system he brilliantly describes—for instance, “excellence” as a contentless measure serving administration.

JW: It does seem that, while perhaps not a narrative of progress, you do strike a triumphalist note about theory, particularly in your recent book, The Literary in Theory, and also in the Very Short Introduction.

JC: I do think, especially in the context of the university and of graduate education, that theory remains the space in which people are debating the most interesting questions about what it is we’re doing and what we should be doing. Certainly the content of the theory that they’re reading changes from one moment to another, and I’m getting old enough to be grumpy about the things that people are reading today—why are they reading Alain Badiou instead of Derrida or de Man? But the younger generations have to have their own theorists, just as we had to have our own theorists to set against the non-theorists of our elders, so I try not to be too grumpy. It is, as you say, harder to feel triumphalist about theory than it was when it was clearly succeeding and transforming literary study, opening it up to all sorts of discourses, such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, philosophy, linguistics. And of course theoretical enterprises, broadly conceived, opened it up to all kinds of political questions and the broadest questions of social justice that for many people, for a certain time, made literary studies a very exciting realm—something that smart kids gravitated to because they wanted to explore these issues and found that they could do it more interestingly and flexibly than in a department of philosophy or a department of political science.

I’m not quite sure to what extent the difficulty of feeling triumphalist about this now has to do with a certain marginalization of the humanities in universities generally, and to what extent it might be due simply to the fact that now I’m older. I do have a feeling that I’m working on projects that are interesting and significant, but I don’t have the feeling of being on the cutting edge of anything. I hope that there are younger people out there who do, who think that they are engaged in some type of transformation.

One of the things that does surprise me is—and I would never have predicted it at the time of Structuralist Poetics—that now, thirty years later, literature departments would still be advertising their jobs by literary periods. I could have imagined many other things staying the same, but I certainly thought that poetics would produce different organizations of intellectual labor and of departments. Of course there are new fields that have arisen, but you just add on postcolonial, then you add on something else. That is amazing to me. The articulation of “fields” doesn’t seem an accurate reflection of what actually goes on in departments, but it’s certainly a conservative force and you always have to tell your graduate students that they have to have a period, no matter what their interests are, because they will need to search for a job in that period. Maybe it’s a function of the job market, and if it were to loosen up, then departments could advertise more broadly. But theory has not affected departmental organization, even though it has certainly triumphed in some ways and is diffused throughout departments now.

JW: It seems, as I mentioned, that you were first a commentator on theory, then moved toward institutional concerns and issues through the ’80s, and, especially with Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, you moved to more pedagogical concerns—although one thing that is consistent is that you always have written fairly nimbly. Maybe you could comment on that.

JC: I’ve always enjoyed writing pedagogical, introductory works like my Barthes and Saussure books in the Modern Masters series. My Very Short Introduction is a continuation of this mode. Also, one thing that we haven’t spoken about is writing for a commission. I find that is actually a very productive thing—you have a task, and then you set out to do it. I was commissioned to write a book on Flaubert, for example, and that was one of the reasons I was able to do it quickly. I signed a contract to do it for a series; there was somebody who wanted it and a deadline, so I sat down and did it. It’s much easier to write a book that way, especially with first books, than to labor over it and never know when it’s finished or to be open to doubts about how to conceive it and whether anyone is interested. Word limits and deadlines are a very efficacious strategy.

The Very Short Introduction has been extraordinarily successful. It’s been translated into more than twenty languages. They’re doing a Kurdish translation right now, and Latvian, and there is a recording of it for the blind in Norway.

JW: That’s amazing. Do you know how many it has sold?

JC: I don’t know how many copies of translations have been sold, but for the regular English edition it’s over a hundred thousand (there are even separate English editions in India and in China). It’s the best seller in that series of Very Short Introductions, which is interesting.

I don’t think of my orientation as having become more pedagogical. I teach literary theory all the time, but the book is not a transcription of the way in which I’ve been teaching literary theory.

I’ve been working on Baudelaire for many years. I’ve published articles here and there, and it has become a bit embarrassing, because I’ve had various fellowships and grants to do this and not succeeded in doing it. I think the problem has been that I haven’t come up with the right scheme and the right organization. My new book, The Literary in Theory, is a rather miscellaneous collection of essays about theoretical topics of one sort or another that I’ve published through the years. I’m quite pleased by the essay on omniscience, which is a return to narratology, which I haven’t worked on for quite some time, not since The Pursuit of Signs. Recently, I have been working primarily on the lyric, and that’s the project that I have underway at the moment, a book called Theory of the Lyric, partly because there isn’t really such a thing, and there should be. I hope it will be an actual continuous book rather than just a collection of essays about the lyric.

JW: One last question I’d like to ask is about style. In The Literary in Theory, you have an essay about difficulty in academic writing, and you edited the recent collection called Just Being Difficult? On one hand, I think you sensibly defend difficulty and show that people who are known to be clear, if you look at some of their sentences, are not clear at all. But on the other hand, you are known to be a very clear writer, almost in the British tradition of letters, as we talked about.

JC: Certainly I do in general believe that critical writing should be as clear as possible. But I think that many of the complaints about the obscurity of critical writing are displaced versions of something else, and that becomes annoying when it becomes the supposed ground for rejecting x or y. Many of the most important texts in the history of philosophy, for example, are notoriously difficult—from Kant and Hegel on down—and we have decided that they are worth it and repay the effort.

Just Being Difficult? was not a project that I imagined myself doing. Judith Butler had originally undertaken it and I was one of the participants, but when the essays started coming in, too many of them were a defense of Judith Butler against various attacks, and she thought it was not right to edit the collection herself, so I agreed to take it over. I enlisted the help of a very smart graduate student, Kevin Lamb, and we were quite draconian in insisting that we couldn’t have everyone defending Judith Butler against Martha Nussbaum or criticizing the bad writing contest. It would have been a very boring book, so we had to ration those references. I’m not trying to disown the collection, but I probably wouldn’t myself have set out to edit a book that was fundamentally a defense of difficulty in literary criticism, though I certainly share, as we say in our introduction, impatience with the people who complain about obscurity and have no interest in having the obscurity explained. You don’t have the feeling that they’ve even read the text about whose obscurity they are complaining. Certainly for myself, and in my work with graduate students, I try to get critical writing to be as clear as possible.


Born in 1944, Jonathan Culler grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father was a professor at Yale and a leading scholar of Victorian literature. Culler attended Harvard University as an undergraduate (BA, 1966) and, under the auspices of a Rhodes Scholarship (1966-69), migrated to Oxford for his graduate work in modern languages (BPhil, 1968; DPhil, 1972). He taught at Cambridge and Oxford until 1977, when he joined the faculty of Cornell, where he has remained and where he is Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

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  1. […] I detect in Culler a sort of closet New Criticism; a symptomatic reading of the chapter under consideration indicates a closeness to New Criticism which its surface manoeuvres distance, perhaps because Culler’s purpose at that time, quite reasonably, was to explain what was new and productive about Structuralism, rather than to build an argument for a rapprochement between Structuralism and New Criticism. In an interview with Jonathan Culler published in the Minnesota Review in 2008, he indicates that his attraction to literary theory predated his involvement with Structuralism, and that he was to some extent already trained in New Critical modes of thought prior to Structuralism’s rise; see […]

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