In chapter 3 of the second edition of Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, we find the following paragraph:

Theory has enormously enriched and invigorated the study of literary works, but... theory is not the theory of literature. If you had to say what 'theory' is the theory of, the answer would be something like 'signifying practices', the production and representation of experience, and the constitution of human subjects - in short, something like culture in the broadest sense. And it is striking that in the field of cultural studies, as it has developed, it is confusingly interdisciplinary and as difficult to define as 'theory' itself. One could say that the two go together: 'theory' is the theory and cultural studies the practice. Cultural studies is the practice of which what we call 'theory' for short is the theory.

This paragraph defines literary theory in terms of cultural studies while simultaneously admitting that cultural studies is just as difficult to define as literary theory itself. This left me somewhat confused as to how he's defining literary theory itself: if he's defining it in terms of something else that is equally difficult to define, has that actually clarified what theory actually is?

He later goes on to state that "...cultural studies includes and encompasses literary studies, examining literature as a particular cultural practice." This left me somewhat confused; in the previous paragraph, it seemed like literary theory was also cultural studies theory, and in this paragraph it seems to treat literary studies as merely a subdiscipline of cultural studies.

Later, he implies that cultural studies effectively originated as literary theory: "An early work of cultural studies by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes..."

This left me somewhat at a loss as to how he's actually defining theory, and how exactly he's claiming that theory and cultural studies are related. Can someone help me understand this? In particular, is literary theory also cultural studies theory? Is literary studies a subdiscipline of cultural studies? If so, how can those two statements be true at the same time?

3 Answers 3


tl;dr No. Cultural studies are focused on specific cultural phenomena, including literature. Theory is at a level of abstraction from those phenomena.

Culler makes the following statements here:

  1. Culture, broadly defined, is "'signifying practices', the production and representation of experience, and the constitution of human subjects".
  2. Cultural studies is the study of culture thus defined.
  3. Theory is an abstraction that draws upon insights and techniques from a wide range of fields to discuss the mechanisms of signification, cultural production and representation, and subject-formation.

We could map the relationships and explain them with this analogy:

theory : cultural studies : culture ::
theoretical sciences : applied sciences : nature

Consider the term "applied sciences". We know roughly what the term means, and how those sciences differ from theoretical sciences. But is it easy to define "applied sciences" exactly? At best, we could come up with a broad definition that would tell us very little about what exactly is entailed in the actual practice of an applied science. Even the subject of study is not particularly well-defined: "nature" and "culture" are extremely wooly terms. If "applied sciences" is difficult to define, so is "cultural studies", and for the same reason. They're umbrella terms that cut across disciplinary boundaries.

Literature is, of course, a cultural phenomenon, in the sense that Culler defines culture. That is to say, it involves "signifying practices"; "the production and representation of experience"; and "the constitution of human subjects".

  • As a linguistic expression, literature is a signifying practice. Insofar as literary language is thought of as a special use of language, literature is even its own signifying practice. As a very basic example, a poet who writes a sonnet is relying on a whole tradition of sonnet-writing. The meaning of her sonnet depends on the fact that it is a sonnet, and readers know what to look for: is it a Shakespearean or a Petrarchan sonnet? Something else? Where is the volta? Is there a couplet at the end? Is it a stand-alone sonnet or part of a sequence? These sorts of questions arise simply because the choice of this particular form signifies something. It's not arbitrary, but it makes meaning for the writer and the reader.
  • Literature depicts aspects of experience, and the act of reading itself is an experience. So literature is involved with "the production and representation of experience".
  • "The constitution of human subjects" is difficult to explain easily. One example might be that if a child reads a book about someone in a wheelchair who leads a full life, or about another child who has two parents of the same sex, that child becomes a certain sort of person—one who does not see disability as a limitation, or who accepts same-sex parents as being as unremarkable as opposite-sex parents. Literature shapes what kind of person we are. A more sophisticated way of thinking about this is to consider the reading subject. Let’s say someone asks two people how they're spending their time in quarantine. If one person says, "I've been watching a lot of TV" and the other says "I've been reading a lot of poetry", we draw certain conclusions about the kind of person each of those individuals is. More tellingly, the speakers might present themselves as specific sorts of individuals: for example, “I’m just not a poetry person”.

These are all very reductive ways of explaining literature as a cultural practice in Culler's sense, but they're at least a starting point. To study literature in this way—as a signifying practice, as producing and representing experience, as constitutive of the human subject—is to make literary studies a part of cultural studies. This approach breaks down the barriers between the "literary" and the "non-literary". Someone studying, say, Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, which deals with the Luddite revolt, from a cultural perspective might spend as much time on these as on the specifics of Brontë's novel:

  • the representation of craftsmanship as opposed to mass production in the Victorian era
  • the way in which “women’s work” such as spinning and weaving became part of men’s labor in the factories
  • what was said about the Luddites in sermons, newspapers, or pamphlets
  • the government’s response to the Luddites.

Shirley becomes, in this sort of reading, a cultural artifact that responds to and shapes the discourse around the Industrial Revolution. Its value lies in how it illumines its specific historic moment rather than on some aesthetic criteria peculiar to literature.

But this is to study literature from a perspective informed by theory. It isn't theory per se, which involves a layer of abstraction from the object of study. For example, a theoretically informed reading of Shirley might say that its characterization of textile workers laid off due to industrialization as "good" or "bad" individuals permits systemic causes of inequality to be disguised as character defects. (Note: I'm not making this argument, I'm saying it could be made about that novel.) A theoretical argument, on the other hand, would be something like:

Dominant cultural discourses represent the dispossessed in a way that disguises social iniquities as character flaws. They do so by positioning the subject as an autonomous agent capable of moral choice rather than as a constrained position determined by economic forces.

(Again, I'm not making this argument, I'm saying it theoretically could be made.) Such an argument would require insights from economics, particularly Marxist-inflected; psychology; moral philosophy; and semiotics, or the study of representation. None of these far-ranging fields is specifically literary. Just as there is no barrier between literary studies and cultural studies, there is no specifically literary theory that can be set off from wider theoretical arguments about cultural forces generally.

With regard to Roland Barthes, calling him a "literary theorist" simply acknowledges that the focus of some of his best known writings (e.g., The Death of the Author) was literature. However, Barthes's writings do not assume that the literary is a separate realm. They work to undermine the tenets of traditional literary criticism, such as the notion that the author's intention determines the meaning of the work. Barthes is a transitional figure whose work marks the movement from a purely literary theory to the broader realm that we now call simply "theory".

To sum up: Cultural studies is an applied field, where theoretical insights are brought to bear on specific cultural phenomena. Literary works, both individually and collectively, are among the phenomena that fall under the remit of cultural studies. They do not have a special status within cultural studies. Theory is a more abstract field. It draws upon insights and techniques from a wide range of subjects: philosophy, economics, psychoanalysis, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, for example. There is no specifically literary theory that is set apart from this amorphous and flexible set of insights and techniques that fall under the umbrella of "theory".


I came away from reading that chapter with the idea that literary studies and cultural studies are two different but overlapping fields and that "theory" is a feature that both have in common.

The reasons why I think Culler seems to resist the idea that literary studies may be a subset of cultural studies can be found in the same chapter. (I am quoting the first edition from 1997).

First, Culler writes that

Cultural studies dwells in the tension between the analyst's desire to analyse culture as a set of codes and practices that alienates people from their interests and creates the desires that they come to have and, on the other hand, the analyst's wish to find in popular culture an authentic expression of value.

Literary studies is not simply the literary counterpart of this, neither in my own perception, nor in Culler's, who points out on the next page that literary studies has never been unified in this or a similar way.

Second, in the subchapter "Models of analysis", Culler points to a difference in methods, e.g. cultural studies' reluctance to use methods such as close reading. Culler writes,

Freed from the principle that has long governed literary studies—that the main point of interest is the distinctive complexity of individual works—cultural studies could easily become a kind of non-quantitative sociology, treating works as instances or symptoms of something else rather than if interest in themselves, (...).

To someone who studied literature at a university where literary studies were still taught as if cultural studies had had no influence on literary studies, this sounds like a big, yawning gap between the two disciplines. (I studied literature in the 1990s.)

Culler does not deny the value of cultural studies but points out that we would lose something if we abandoned methods such as close reading for

a socio-political analysis, in which all the serials of a given era have the same significance, as expressions of the social configuration.

By contrast, literary studies approach their subject in a different way:

The suspension of the demand for immediate intelligibility, the willingness to work at the boundaries of meaning, opening oneself to unexpected, productive effects of language and imagination, and the interest in how meaning and pleasure are produced—these dispositions are particularly valuable, not just for reading literature but also for considering other cultural phenomena, though it is literary study that makes these reading practices available.

Even if one claims that "theory" is the theory of signifying practices and that literature is one such signifying practice, it turns out that literary studies and cultural studies approach their respective objects of study in different ways. They may share certain socio-politically oriented theories, e.g. feminist theory, Marxist theory, post-colonial theory and queer theory, but if ideas about how objects of study should be analysed are considered are considered to be an essential part of "theory", one must conclude that the theory of literary studies and the theory of cultural studies do not overlap entirely.

  • What do you make of the fact that Culler pulled this distinction out from the 2e? It seems he changed his mind?
    – verbose
    Dec 20, 2020 at 2:45
  • @verbose I'm not sure. I would like to read some of his more recent publications to see if they contain any other clues.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 20, 2020 at 10:25

First of all, it doesn't have to be just a merely subset of cultural studies. We can theoretically assume for now that the set theory allows for having a common part.

That would mean there are some parts that both have in common but at the same time there are parts that differ from each other or at least are independent. Is that justified? We cannot escape from the cultural aspect when talking about literature. This does not come only to theory but also to other fields - like history e.g. Literature is a product of an entity entangled in their culture. Everything that happens in literature is a given cultural mirror. We cannot create anything in isolation from the world we know and live in. The same goes with some theoretical concepts - especially today when many conceptions mingle with each other and seem to have impact on theoretical contructs (like gender studies e.g.). But at the same time there might be some aspects that do not really bother with cultural studies.

Can we talk e.g. about semiotics without knowing anything about our culture? Can we talk about semiotics without knowing anything about literature. Nope. Maybe. But this is something really not clear enough. Anyway that understanding would be impoverished. At the same time, literature can exist in its own world and would not be necessarily interested in taking part in any clearly visible social discussion as it is enough for literature to tell a story of one individual being entangled in their inner and outer world.

So it also comes down to the inner world placement. This is just a huge field of interconnections as I see it and I think this can be the reason for your confusion.

I find the part about origins pretty simple. First, people started creating. All the reflections about their works came much later. So at first only literary pieces in isolation were analysed and probably no cultural impact was taken in consideration at that point. But then it started to go deeper and deeper. Basically a view that literature theory is cultural studies is a product of... cultural studies. If we change our point of observation there might be no culture at all but the very piece of literature only. Our cultural conscioussness today however tells us that might not always be the thing.

Not sure if that helps you anyhow :)

  • Thanks, good answer. Welcome to the site by the way - good to have you. Dec 19, 2020 at 16:05
  • thanks for your welcoming message :)
    – kuska
    Dec 20, 2020 at 11:12

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