Barry & Culler: An Introduction to Literary Theory

Literary theorist Peter Barry discusses the historical evolution of English studies and literary theory in his piece entitled Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.  Fellow theorist Jonathan Culler seeks to explain and define literary theory in his work Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. These two pieces touch upon the influence(or lack of influence) of human nature and everyday life on literature. However, the differing historical account of and analytical approach to theory share characteristics in their addressing of language and action in tandem with literature. Though incongruent at times, the writings of these two theorists make one thing clear in regards to literary theory: it spans across all disciplines and has no concrete definition.

Barry tackles the “traditional approach to English studies”, beginning with A. Richards, whose methodology of English studies “made a decisive break between language and literature”(Barry, 16/19). Practical criticism, as it is called, removes a text from history and context in order to simply study the words on the page. This is in contrast with Culler, who feels that theory is not so much about the words themselves, as it is about the meaning or the implications behind them, and what thoughts they provoke in the reader. This idea is expressed in the performative, which is later discussed in chapter 7 of Literary Theory.

Culler writes “Theory signals speculation… an explanation that is not obvious… It’s a body of thinking and writing whose limits are exceedingly hard to define”(Culler, 2-3). In other words, literary theory is like a hypothesis that you are trying to come up with after reading a text. What does the text “say” or “mean” that is not obvious, but is important? Literary theory is an attempt to understand why a text was written and why it matters. This is difficult, Culler explains, because theory is about “everything under the sun… Theory is interdisciplinary… analytical and speculative… a critique of common sense… and is reflexive”(Culler, 3/ 15-16).

According to Barry, for theory: “Politics is pervasive, Language is constitutive, Truth is provisional, Meaning is contingent, Human nature is a myth”(Barry, 32). This is a “critique of common sense”, especially acknowledging human nature as a myth. For the most part, society considers knowing that human nature is a fundamental part of the functionings of mankind to be “common sense”. Culler stresses how human nature and personal experiences influence how we read and interpret texts in order to find those not- so- obvious possible meanings.

Barry contradicts himself in his own writing when he cites Aristotle, who says “literature is about character, and that character is revealed through action”(Barry, 23).  Culler’s modern performative and the importance of the self as an agent of meaning for a text can be found in the early development of literary theory. This lack of continuity in Barry serves as a testament to the indefinable- ness of literary theory- that neither in history nor in practice can we fully understand its ever- expanding sphere.



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