Jonathan Culler makes what has become the standard contemporary argument that the question “what is literature?” is best answered functionally rather than ontologically—that is, that "literature,” as the critic Terry Eagleton has argued, cannot be said to exist "as an 'objective,' descriptive category." Do you agree with this claim?  If not, why not? And if you do agree, have you always held that opinion, or is it of more recent vintage?  What was your “conversion experience,” if you had one?





From Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (2nd ed., 1996)


With this reservation, the suggestion that 'literature' is a highly valued kind of writing is an illuminating one. But it has one fairly devastating consequence. It means that we can drop once and for all the illusion that the category 'literature' is 'objective', in the sense of being eternally given and immutable. Anything can be literature, and anything which is regarded as unalterably and unquestionably literature - Shakespeare, for example – can cease to be literature. Any belief that the study of literature is the study of a stable, well-definable entity, as entomology is the study of insects, can be abandoned as a chimera. Some kinds of fiction are literature and some are not; some literature is fictional and some is not; some literature is verbally self-regarding, while some highly-wrought rhetoric is not literature. Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared inherent properties, does not exist. When I use the words 'literary' and 'literature’ from here on in this book, then, I place them under an invisible crossing-out mark, to indicate that these terms will not really do but that we have no better ones at the moment.

    The reason why it follows from the definition of literature as highly valued writing that it is not a stable entity is that value-judgements are notoriously variable. (9)



The point is whether it is possible to speak of 'literary theory' without perpetuating the illusion that literature exists as a distinct, bounded object of knowledge, or whether it is not preferable to draw the practical consequences of the fact that literary theory can handle Bob Dylan just as well as John Milton. My own view is that it is most useful to see 'literature' as a name which people give from time to time for different reasons to certain kinds of writing within a whole field of what Michel foucault has called “discursive practices,” and that if anything is to be an object of study it is this whole field of practices rather than just those sometimes rather obscurely labelled 'literature'.  I am countering the theories set out in this book not with a literary theory, but with a different kind of discourse - whether one calls it of 'culture', 'signifying practices' or whatever is not of first importance - which would include the objects ('literature') with which these other theories deal, but which would transform them by setting them in a wider context. (178)



Theory of this early seventies kind - Marxist, feminist, structuralist - was of a totalizing bent, concerned to put a whole form of political life into question in the name of some desirable alternative. It went all the way down, and thus belonged in its intellectual verve and daring with the insurgent political radicalisms of the day. It was, to adapt a phrase of Louis Althusser's, political struggle at the level of theory; and its ambitiousness was reflected in the fact that what was very soon at stake was not simply different ways of dissecting literature, but the whole definition and constitution of the field of study. The children of the sixties and seventies were also the inheritors of so-called popular culture, which was part of what they were required to put in suspension when studying Jane Austen. But structuralism had apparently revealed that the same codes and conventions traversed both 'high' and 'low' culture, with scant regard for classical distinctions of value; so why not seize advantage of the fact that, methodologically speaking, nobody quite knew where Coriolanus ended and Coronation Street began and construct an entirely fresh field of enquiry ('cultural studies') which would gratify the antielitist iconoclasm of the sixty-eighters and yet appear wholly in line with 'scientific' theoretical findings? It was, in its academicist way, the latest version of the traditional avant-garde project of leaping the barriers between art and society, and was bound to make its appeal to those who found, rather like an apprentice chef cooking his evening meal, that it linked classroom and leisure time with wonderful economy.

What happened in the event was not a defeat for this project, which has indeed been gathering institutional strength ever since, but a defeat for the political forces which originally underpinned the new evolutions in literary theory. (192)