Jonathan Culler (born 1944) is an American literary critic. He was Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His published works are in the fields of structuralism, literary theory and literary criticism.
|Born||October 1, 1944|
|Alma mater||Harvard University|
St. John's College, Oxford
|Institutions||Selwyn College, Cambridge|
Brasenose College, Oxford
Culler attended Harvard for his undergraduate studies, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in history and literature in 1966. After receiving a Rhodes scholarship, he attended St. John's College, Oxford University, where he earned a B. Phil (now M. Phil) in comparative literature (1968) and a D.Phil in modern languages (1972). His thesis for the B. Phil., on phenomenology and literary criticism, recorded Culler's first experiences with structuralism. The thesis explored the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the criticism of the "Geneva School" using the ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Ferdinand de Saussure. Culler's "expanded, reorganized and rewritten" doctoral dissertation, "Structuralism: The Development of Linguistic Models and Their Application to Literary Studies," became an influential prize-winning book, Structuralist Poetics (1975).
Culler was Fellow in French and Director of Studies in Modern Languages at Selwyn College, Cambridge University, from 1969–1974, and Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford and University Lecturer in French from 1974-77. He was Visiting Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Yale University in 1975. He is a past president of the Semiotic Society of America (1988), the American Comparative Literature Association (1999-2001), Secretary of the American Council of Learned Societies (2013-17), and Chair of the New York Council for the Humanities (2016-17). He has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2001-), the American Philosophical Society (2006-), and the British Academy (2020-). Currently, he is Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, at Cornell University.
Culler's Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature won the James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Language Association of America in 1976 for an outstanding book of criticism. Structuralist Poetics was one of the first introductions to the French structuralist movement available in English.
Culler's contribution to the Very Short Introductions series, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, received praise for its innovative technique of organization. It has been translated into 26 languages, including Kurdish, Latvian, and Albanian. Instead of chapters on critical schools and their methods, the book's eight chapters address issues and problems of literary theory.
In The Literary in Theory (2007) Culler discusses the notion of Theory and literary history's role in the larger realm of literary and cultural theory. He defines Theory as an interdisciplinary body of work including structuralist linguistics, anthropology, Marxism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism.
His Theory of the Lyric (2015) approaches the Western lyric tradition, from Sappho to Ashbery, exploring the major parameters of the genre and contesting two dominant models of the lyric: lyric as the intense expression of the author's affective experience, and lyric as the fictional representation of the speech act of a persona. Both these models, according to Culler, are extremely limiting and ignore the specifically poetic aspects of lyric poetry, such as rhythm and sound patterning.
Culler believes that the linguistic-structuralist model can help "formulate the rules of particular systems of convention rather than simply affirm their existence." He posits language and human culture as similar.
In Structuralist Poetics Culler warns against applying the technique of linguistics directly to literature. Rather, the "'grammar' of literature" is converted into literary structures and meaning. Structuralism is defined as a theory resting on the realization that if human actions or productions have meaning there must be an underlying system that makes this meaning possible, since an utterance has meaning only in the context of a preexistent system of rules and conventions.
Culler proposes that we use literary critical theory not to try to understand a text but rather to investigate the activity of interpretation. In several of his works, he speaks of a reader who is particularly "competent." In order to understand how we make sense of a text, Culler identifies common elements that different readers treat differently in different texts. He suggests there are two classes of readers, "the readers as field of experience for the critic (himself a reader)" and the future readers who will benefit from the work the critic and previous readers have done.
Culler's critics complain of his lack of distinction between literature and the institution of writing in general. John R. Searle has described Culler's presentation of deconstruction as making "Derrida look both better and worse than he really is;" better in glossing over some of the more intellectually murky aspects of deconstruction and worse in largely ignoring the major philosophical progenitors of Derrida's thought, namely Husserl and Heidegger.