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Literary into cultural studies

Literary into cultural
A reply to Martin Ryle
Antony Easthope

To parody a well-known saying, I shall say that a little
formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot
brings one back to it.

Roland Barthes
In ‘Long Live Literature?’ (RP 67) Martin Ryle explores
the implications ofthe outcome ofthe crisis in ‘English’,
saluting the development of a cultural studies committed
to the reading of texts in a historical context but
proposing nevertheless that a separate place should be
maintained for a different, literary reading of literary
texts (or ‘literary’ texts). Ryle further develops in
suggestive outline an account of such literary reading as
based in a ‘humanist identification’ (p. 26) of the reader
with the text from which may ensue a sense of what he
terms the ‘complex interplay between discursive
construction of identity and refusal of that construction’


While welcoming this intervention by RP into the
arena of literary/textual theory I am a bit disappointed
that it has taken the expression it does, and some of that
disappointment returns in what may be an over-harsh
close reading of ‘Long Live Literature?’ (though the title
alone bodes ill). Despite important qualifications and
refinements, and, I think, a certain amount of denegation
(it’s not enough to put some words in scare quotes),
Ryle’s argument tends to privilege an abstracted notion
of ‘the literary text’, to be apprehended, he says, ‘at once
in itself’ (p. 23), so that he ends up with a conservative
legitimation of the aesthetic in textual studies of just the
kind he – and others beside him – have hoped to avoid.

To hold his position in place Ryle relies upon a series of
oppositions: between literary and cultural studies;
between the aesthetic and the historical; between form
and content. I shall aim to show that none of these
oppositions is stable in the way Ryle’s main argument
presumes, and that his position is seriously damaged by
the degree of its adherence to an older paradigm of ‘the
text’, a view which has insufficiently taken on board the

recent shift to a more radical notion of the text as always
in a relation to its reader, implying a text/reader dialectic.

Ryle identifies cultural studies very much with a
version of reading the text as historical, ‘as instances of
discourse in a given social and historical conjuncture’ (p.

21). Although cultural studies must be concerned with
ideology and the historical conjuncture of the text, I
would argue that this is not and should not be its
exclusive and defining concern, and certainly not as Ryle
describes it. His account of the historical takes up a
number of positions which don’t properly cohere. In
writing of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Ryle says that our
sense of the versions of feminine identity the book
proposes must be rejected because of ‘our conviction that
real women, at the time of the book’s writing; could not
be reduced to one or other of the available positions’ (p.

26). This humanist and essentialist appeal to ‘real
women’ disregards the fact that we only have access to
this reality on the basis of a historical narrative, a
narrative which necessarily implicates and finds a point
of address in the reader of that narrative in the present. I
don’t want (and for present purposes don’t think I need)
to get further into the complex questions around
metahistory in order to register the point that here as
elsewhere Ryle’s argument is not firmly and
unequivocally dedicated to an acknowledgement that all
texts are read in a continuous present.

Ryle rightly warns against the ‘high theoretical
discussion of literature and ideology’ in which an elite,
‘possessed of the master-discourse of the ideological’

and the ‘benefit of hindsight’ carried out ‘forensic
procedures’ on the dead body of the text (p. 25). What I
would call British Cultural Studies Phase 2 and date
1970-1980, the Althusserian-semiological moment in
cultural studies, did assume it spoke from the position of
a worldless subject situated outside the text within a
metadiscourse which allowed it to assess precisely the
degree to which a given text was – simultaneously progressive and conservative in effect. Yet at the same

Radical Philosophy 70 (March/April 1995)


time as distancing himself from it Ryle seems to wish to
return to this moment, for he writes that ‘an overarching
theorisation of the literary in relation to the social/
historical is not within our grasp at present’ (p. 22, my
italics). Well, I would say that the lonely hour when we
achieve a totalising theory of the literary in relation to
the social/historical will never come because the subject
as master of a historical narrative and the subject as he or
she now experiences the text to be defined by that
narrative can never be in the same place.

In 1975 with great enthusiasm I began teaching a
quite new combined English/History degree, combined
in that history students took history courses and literature
students literature courses (each syllabus, though,
followed roughly the same historical chronology) and
then brought their separate concerns together in a core
syllabus of ‘Common Courses’ taught by both historians
and literature teachers together. What I rapidly learned
was that the perspectives and interests of the two
disciplines were radically disjunct. While literary
students became engaged with Chartist hymns, chapters
of Dickens and passages from Samuel Smiles in terms of
their meanings and effects (including fantasy effects) in
the present, now, to the group sitting in the room, the
history people, though they would listen politely, really
thought that all that mattered – to them – was connecting
any such insights with their grasp of a historical
narrative, the texts then. (I don’t think this problem can
be simply deposited at the door of the crushing empirism
still prevalent in historical studies in England.)
Ryle also acknowledges this disjunction between the
literary and the historical but goes on to try to make it a
foundation for his opposition between a historically
conceived cultural studies and an aesthetic study of
literature which is ‘in principle (or in part) transcultural’

(p. 22). In support of the other side of his imposed split
he claims that ‘literary works’ have ‘qualities (“aesthetic
qualities”) that cannot be replicated in any account or
paraphrase of their discursive and denotative aspect (their
“content” and “meaning”)’ (p. 22). I would ask what text
– philosophic, legal, literary or whatever – can ever be
‘replicated’ by paraphrase?

Recently, having asked students to choose a text to
discuss in a graduate seminar, I was delighted when Anita
played us Marilyn Monroe singing ‘River of No Return’

from the film The River of No Return. To replicate its
content: she has lost her heart to a man on the river of no
return and nothing will ever be the same. Yet seminar
discussion showed this ‘trivial’ and non-literary text to
be replete with unparaphrasable meanings and effects.

What is a river of no return? If there was a river so
immediate and present that time stopped, there was no


before and no after, a sameness absolutely without
repetition, how would we ever know about it? What
should we make of the way the last two words of
Monroe’s assertion (‘I lost my heart on the river of no
return’) are themselves in the chorus repeated twice by
male voices (‘No return! No return!’)? And by male
voices (Echo and Narcissus in reverse)? How would we
replicate the grain of Monroe’ s voice, the indelible husky
tones of someone who can’t ‘really’ sing? If every text
has qualities that cannot be replicated in a paraphrase of
their content, every text is aesthetic and the attempt to
police a frontier between aesthetic and non-aesthetic
begins to come unstuck.

Later, in a fairly traditional way, Ryle tries to retrieve
this situation by redefining the aesthetic, but as far as I’m
concerned the attempt fails. Such texts, it’s said, have
‘the power of exceeding our predetermined interrogative
framework’ (p. 23). So does Monroe’s song. Leaning on
Mukavovsky and the Prague school with their notion of
the aesthetic as foregrounding, Ryle marks offthe merely
historical text from ‘another kind of work, which
fore grounds the text in order to engage with its internal
and contradictory play of meaning in and establish its
detailed relations with other cultural practices’ (p. 25).

As Terry Eagleton explains in the first chapter of Literary
Theory: An Introduction (1983), the trouble is that what
foregrounds today for one set of readers may not
foreground tomorrow or in ten years’ time for another
collective. Foregrounding is less a matter of texts than
reading (text and reading again!).

Crucially, and again following a well-marked path,
Ryle affirms that “‘aesthetic” valuation’ will focus on
texts in terms of ‘their formal properties – narrative
organisation, descriptive density and precision, vigour
of language and so on’ (p. 23). But all texts have formal

properties, all narrative texts have narrative organisation,
all texts are dense, precise and vigorous in certain ways.

The traditional formalist Kantian aesthetic drawn on to
underwrite this position surfaces explicitly when Ryle
says that the aesthetic text, ‘indissolubly both “form” and
“content”, is to be apprehended at once and in itself’ (p.

23), whereas in the non-aesthetic ‘cultural’ text ‘it will
be above all and in principle … their content/meaning’

which ‘engages us’ (p. 23).

Now Ryle might well reply that my citations are
unfair because at certain points he does distinguish
between what the text is said to be in itself and the kind
of reading in which the text is taken up. My complaint
then is that he has sanctioned my misreading because he
has failed to assert, clearly and consistently, that he is
talking about aesthetic and cultural as different contexts
or procedures for reading within which the reader takes
up the text, perhaps even the same text (the ‘same’ text).

Before returning to that central issue let me indicate
two further difficulties ensuing from Ryle’s tendency to
equate the ideological with content (the signified) and
the aesthetic with form (or the signifier). One is that it
sidesteps some important ways of addressing literary/
non-literary distinctions without relying on the category
of the aesthetic. Semiology has a number of reasonable
and useful if not conclusive ways of differentiating texts
merely in terms of their specific formal, generic and
linguistic features before and apart from the notion of
aesthetic value. Any Victorian text written in heroic
couplets, whether by Tennyson or an anonymous
Chartist poet, is by” that fact situating itself on the terrain
of the literary. A cultural studies which refuses to deploy
semiology to make necessary specific distinctions
between a Milton sonnet and a Civil War prose pamphlet,
a Wordsworth lyric and a song from Madonna, a
Hollywood movie and a story about Oliver Reed in ‘The
Sun’, does not in my account merit the name cultural

Ideology as content?

The reason for Ryle’ s blindness here is both familiar and
instructive. With Alan Sinfield he believes that
progressive developments in textual studies in Britain
have been facilitated by a ‘move away from formalism’

(Sinfield, cited p. 24). Insofar as this is the case it is a
matter for regret because, for instance, it encourages Ry le
to identify the cultural reading with a reading for
ideology defined exclusively as content. I would argue
that, since all texts depend upon the operation of the
signifier, their formal properties are always ideological
and historical, are in fact more deeply and intractably
historical than anything they say. The English poetic

canon’s post-Renaissance use of iambic pentameter is
profoundly historical, as is the deployment of the now
conventional lyric-confessional mode in Monroe’s song.

Formal questions, if pursued (as my epigraph from
Barthes states), turn out in the end to be ideological
questions; a progressive textual studies should not
consign them, forgotten, to the enclave of the literary.

Ry le’s opposition between literary and cultural is
becoming widely breached.

In the final and most engagingly suggestive part of
his essay, Ryle unequivocally opens up the issue of the
text in its reading, the text as address to its reader (though
even here a number of formulations seem still to hanker
after the inherent aesthetic qualities of the text allowing
it to be apprehended at once in itself). The cultural studies
reading, on this showing, seeks ‘to analyse as a problem
(rather than to expound as a truth) the social and
discursive construction of identity’ (p. 26), whereas the
literary reading requires an act of ‘humanist
identification’ defined as an ‘authentic subjective being
… created within the text itself’ when we are faced with it
not as construction but enjoy it as lived, given, real.

I find this invocation of humanism unnecessary and
unnerving. Ryle cites in support Coleridge’ s phrase about
the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ prerequisite to
literary experience, a line I have never understood and
still don’t. A much better theoretical account would apply
Lacan’s domains of the imaginary and the.symbolic,
particularly as these have been developed in an English
context with reference to film by the work of the journal
Screen. To summarise: insofar as the reader finds a point
of coherent identification in and with the text, that
reading takes place within the imaginary, but it can only
do so because it is an effect of the symbolic order, the
operation of the signifiers promoting that effect of
identification. There is no need, then, for recourse to the
dubious ally of humanist common sense (still less the
even more dubious Coleridge) to support the view that a
cultural studies reading can carry forward from literary
studies a main aspect of its claims to experiential – as
against merely cognitive – engagement of the reader. A
context for reading can be set up in which the reader
discovers in relation to the text how far their ‘immediate’,
‘direct’ and familiar experience is the effect of social,
semiological and historical construction. I concur
entirely with Ryle (though do not myself find his
argument for this very original) that a cultural studies
reading may thus afford a ‘complex interplay between
discursive construction of identity and refusal of that
construction’ (p. 26). Except that this is not exactly what
Ryle says, since he actually concludes that this ‘complex
interplay’ is offered by ‘many literary texts’, so sailing


back up the river of no return towards the aesthetic.

To sum up: the oppositions I have been trying to
unsettle – literary/cultural studies, aesthetic/historical,
form/content – should be shaken as hard as they can be
because their effect is to retain willy-nilly a traditional
place for art, the text in itself, beyond any use but that
conferred on it by the aesthetic. The way forward, as I
see it, is to go the whole hog, reclaiming (as I’ve
outlined) much of the traditional territory ofthe aesthetic
for the ideological while in the same move discovering
in formal aspects of textuality much of what has come to
be analysed as ideological. The best way to do this is to
approach all the texts in question within a paradigmatic
principle I would shorthand as: T R (the reader
within a context of reading reads the text as much as the
text reads the reader). What we get then is not so much
an opposition between literary studies and cultural
studies as a transformation of literary into cultural

Reply to
Martin Ryle
In some particular places, Antony Easthope misrepresents
my argument: readers who turn to my original article will
note, for instance, that he has strategically truncated
several quoted sentences. Overall, he tends to present me
as wanting to defend the distinctiveness of the literary
text, whereas my argument (as he eventually concedes)
has a rather different shape: I suggest distinctions
between modes of reading, and only then consider how,
within the ‘cultural studies’ mode, some (ex-)canonical
texts – not all texts that can be called ‘literary’ – might be

Nonetheless, I welcome Easthope’s rejoinder, and
recognise that he identifies a number of points where my
argument is unsatisfactory. I also welcome this
opportunity to take the debate further. Sometimes, in this
response to his remarks, I am insisting on a disagreement;
sometimes I hope Easthope may find we are on the same
ground. My underlying concern is to assert that after the
decomposition of ‘English’ (which I charted in the first
part of my article), we still need a language in which
distinctions of kind and quality can be made, regarding
both texts and ways of reading; and to provoke thought
about the terms of such a language. I do not at all regret
the eclipse of an exclusively aesthetic evaluation of
literature, and I am far from urging that the academic


study of texts should be restricted to a literary canon,
however defined. But I am equally far from believing
that, whether as teachers or as critics and cultural
historians, we can work with an undifferentiated notion
of ‘textuality’ or ‘cultural production’.

Form, content, aesthetics
Easthope argues that all texts (‘philosophic, legal, literary
or whatever’) have non-discursive properties which
disappear in paraphrase. This is true, but it does not
follow that these properties are always equally prominent
and important. I claim that non-discursive properties tend
to be especially important in literary texts, where they
are among the elements which constitute the work’s
aesthetic quality – or, if you prefer, which allow readers
to experience an aesthetic effect. Easthope seeks to
counter my claim by discussing ‘River of No Return’.

But this is a lyric; it is precisely the kind of text which on
my own argument we should read, as he reads it, with a
close eye on non-discursive elements. It may be ‘trivial’

– his word, his scarequotes – but it is manifestly literary.

(Unfortunately, Easthope confuses the issue by
introducing the quite distinct question of qualities which
appear only in performance.)
I don’t in any case seek to ‘police a frontier’ between
texts, but to distinguish a reading (‘Englit’) which
privileges aesthetic qualities and attends mainly to
formal and non-denotative aspects, from a reading
(,cultural studies’) which attends mainly, I argue, to
‘what the work is about’ .

I am happy to agree with Easthope that this latter
formulation is inadequate. Cultural studies does need to
‘deploy semiology’: questions about genre and form are
necessarily engaged in textual analysis. I’m not sure how
far we get by noting, in his very general terms, that ‘the
English poetic canon’s use of iambic pentameter is
profoundly historical’, or that formal properties are
‘always ideological’. But we do need an awareness of
large generic conventions, in relation to long-run
historical situations and audiences. Then we need a much
more particular reading of texts in contexts, noting how
the deployment of particular formal conventions
interacts with what I would again, at this point, want to
call the work’s content and meaning.

The ‘cultural studies reading’, as I understand it,
differs from ‘Englit’ first of all because it extends our
sense of that content and its meaning. It invites us to
consider how this text is situated with respect to many
other texts (written and visual, formal and informal,
literary and non-literary, high and low … ); and so also
with respect to the larger cultural and historical moment.

In my article I cited, as an instance of this kind of work,

Paul Brown’s essay on The Tempest (in Political
Shakespeare), which sets the play within a frame of
colonial discourse.

Given this extended knowledge of ‘content’, we can
also turn (as Easthope and I agree we should, but as
Brown tends not to) to questions involving form, genre,
‘semiology’: such a question, for instance, as ‘How,
exactly, does the use by Shakespeare, for Prospero’s
curtain speech, of an archaic couplet form, within the
anachronistic and disingenuous convention of an actor’s
plea for praise, affect, at the close, our reading of
Prospero’s authority?’ How, we can go on to consider,
does that then work back into the meanings of The
Tempest as a whole, and modify our sense of the
confidence and the basis of the colonial, patriarchal and
discursive authority whose problematic operation has
been displayed? If we chose, we might then go on to
make some judgements of quality, and pay some tribute
to the playwright, by recognising that ‘form’, here,
cannot be understood as the inert self-perpetuation of
established convention, but must be seen as the choice,
by Shakespeare, of an unexpected and significant option.

Ideally, I hope we can agree, cultural studies would
pay that kind of ‘semiological’ attention, but it would
not (as in some kinds of literary criticism) fetishise
‘form’ as the criterion of a purely aesthetic evaluation.

Reading and history
In some of his criticisms of my article, Easthope relies
on a position defended at length in his Literary into
Cultural Studies: that no reading can be presented as
authoritative, because we have only a plurality of
readings, deriving from the plurality of subject positions.

For Easthope, the plurality of readings subverts the old
idea of the ‘unified text’ (there is no text except ‘the text
… in a relation to its reader’), and this marks the originary
moment of Easthope’s kind of ‘cultural studies’. By the
same token, he wants to reject claims we might make to
historical understanding, and interpretations or
arguments which rely on readerly identification. These
in his view rely on ideas of a single meaning, accessible
to an ideal humanist subject who would be at once
outside the text in a position of mastery, and able to
identify with the particular occasions and subjectivities
which the text represents.

I agree that we cannot see the text as a self-sufficient
object, and I do not suggest that we should pursue a single
authoritative reading. Readers actively negotiate with
texts’ available meanings – a negotiation whose terms
derive partly from readers’ differing sUbjectivities. But it
does not follow from this that just any reading will do. In
Literary into Cultural Studies, Easthope offers an

entertaining diversity of readings of Hopkins’ s The
Windhover. Most of these are very plausible: he does not,
though, claim that the poem is about an old steam engine,
or a donkey put out to grass. Teaching – discussion and
argument about texts – involves attempts to arrive at a
consensus, not about which is the reading, but about what
readings are and are not possible, illuminating, valuable.

Some of the most interesting work in cultural and
literary studies is concerned to explore who, across what
frontiers of gender, class, geography, ethnicity, history,
can read/speak the language of which texts, and how they
read/speak it. But the text surely does not consist of the
sum of its disparate readings, any more than a language
consists of the sum of its individual speakers’ idiolects.

The text, like the language in which it is written, is the
condition of common communication, even as it is the
object in terms of which differences of meaning are

Here we get into the argument about readerly
identification. In my view, fictive texts oblige us, if we
are to read at all, to read through a kind of provisional
humanist identification: a particular form of a general
‘willing suspension of disbelief’, which invites and
compels us to identify with subject positions which are
not our own. Easthope quotes Lacan on this (with the
implication, extraordinary to me, that Lacan is a safer
guide than Coleridge on literary matters); but I think
Lacan, in the passage quoted, says no more tban ‘I gotta
use words when I talk to you’. Identification certainly is
via the ‘imaginary’ of language, inevitably; it is also,
with fictions, especially and explicitly illusory; but at one
level its mechanisms are what make the text readable.

But even though we ‘can read’ the text, we can also
refuse to read it. We can learn not to read (though this, it
often seems, is the hardest skill to teach our students) to deconstruct texts and show how in purporting to
represent real subjects and real occasions, they represent
something else. The presence/absence of that ‘something
else’ is already implied by the notion of ‘representation’:

the text is a version of something which is not the text,
but which does not exist independently of the text either.

I believe that the ways of reading which have been
developed as ‘literature’ has been moving into the orbit
of ‘cultural studies’ allow us to work towards a much
more interesting and adequate sense of ‘representation’

and of this ‘something else’: more comprehensive
(because it attends to more aspects of the text), more
socially and historically grounded (because it is alert to
intertextualities and contexts, both those in play when
the text was written, and those in play when it is read).

There are no isolated texts and no isolated readers, as I
am sure Easthope would concur.


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