6 questions to… Jonathan Culler

On the occasion of this year’s Histories and Theories of Reading, GEMS welcomes six interesting and inspiring academics: we’ll offer them a coffee, have a chat, and ask the same six questions to each of them.
Just before the easter holidays, Jonathan Culler (Cornell University) visited us. Here is how he answered:

1. What was your dissertation about and who was your supervisor?
My dissertation was called “Structuralism: The Development of Linguistic Models and Their Application to Literary Studies,” and my supervisor was Stephen Ullmann, a linguist and stylistician who wrote books such as Principles of Semantics, Style in the French Novel, and The Image in the Modern French Novel. At the time when I decided I wanted to write a thesis on structuralism, he had just been appointed to the Chair of Romance Languages, and I wrote asking him if he would agree to supervise such a dissertation. He said “yes,” so the Faculty could scarcely reject me and my topic, as the first student of their new professor.

2. Who do you consider as your master?
(Who (dead or living, real or fictional) taught you the most and/or a very important thing? Who has inspired you, and/or is still inspiring you?)

This is a hard question. When I was an undergraduate I learned most from and was inspired by Anne Ferry, who was a lecturer at Harvard (they did not have any women professors in English until the 1980s!). She had been a student of Reuben Brower’s and did close readings of Renaissance poetry, with a resourcefulness that I found deeply impressive. It was exchanges with her and her comments on my papers that were important for me, not her publications, though she wrote very good books (including books on Milton), and later in my career I was chair of a jury that gave her the Christian Gauss Award for the best book in literary studies.

Later, Roland Barthes was a great inspiration, but only for the essays in Essais critiques and then his Critique et Vérité. His vision of literature and of poetics oriented my own thinking, though I found his continual changes of direction and mocking of his earlier systematic ambitions extremely annoying and frustrating, so I never took him as any kind of personal model.

3. What’s the relation between history and theory, according to you? Could you imagine writing about theory without writing a history simultaneously?
In general, those who argue for a historical approach to literature have presented this as an antidote to theory, as if theory were always ahistorical and universalizing, so it has been easy to think of history as a resistance to theory, but in fact any thoughtful approach to history must be theoretical, since history is never just a given but must be constructed (according to what principles? to what end?). On the other hand, while there are theories which present themselves as anti-historical (this is how language works; this is how subjects are produced), ever since Hegel much theory is historical in one sense or another, either a theory about historical change or a theory about how things function in particular historical conditions. So when they are opposed, I am on the side of theory, but I do think that this is too simplistic.

4. Digital library/archive or the real stuff?
(or both, of course, but in that case I would like to know your ideas about the interaction between the two)
My thoughts here are purely pragmatic. I have too many books and periodicals, but I find it hard to convince myself to throw away my runs of Critical Inquiry and New Literary History, just because it is often easier to find articles online than to go to my shelves and find them, so clearly I have some visceral attachment to these objects (however if someone wanted them, I’d give them away in a flash). Though Internet searches are great and make us all so much more knowledgeable – no relying on memory any more, which is a great boon as you get older! – still I prefer reading actual books, which are a great technology, easy to skim, to move around it, to turn down pages and mark up. Doubtless all this can be done with electronic texts but I haven’t learned how to do that.

5. Which novel are you reading right now, or which is the last one that you have read?
I just finished an amusing novel by Julie Schumacher called Dear Committee, which is a novel entirely composed of letters of recommendation. A clever idea. Of course the writer of these letters – a disgruntled novelist and creative writing teacher recommending his students, puts more of his personal reflections into these recommendations than most of us would allow ourselves, but you get quite a full evocation (funny and sad) of the trials of academic and the tribulations of this particular character.

6. What is your unrealized project? (inside or outside academia)
(a project that you would like to realize one day, be it realistic or not)

Well, I often have thought that I ought to write a little textbook/handbook of narratology, since I am usually dissatisfied with what is out there for class use, but now I would have to learn about all the developments in cognitive narratology if only to assess them properly, so I don’t imagine I will ever actually try to do this. I should have done it before the cognitivist turn came along!

by Britt Grootes