Terry EAGLETON: LITERARY THEORY: An Introduction —Outline/Handout
"Introduction: WHAT IS LITERATURE?" (1-14)
"What Is Literature?" Eagleton explores several possible answers:
|1. Is it simply fiction/imaginative literature?—vs. facts & history [similar to the Classical/Renaissance division of the truths of "poetry" vs. the truths of "history"] (1)?|
|—The humorous reference to Thomas Browne (1) concerns his Hydrotaphia, or Urn Burial, a very weird book of highly stylized meditative prose.|
|* Rebuttal #1 (1-2): this answer is "questionable"; some "Literature" (with a capital "L") is not = fiction. [Can you think of some American-Lit rebuttal examples? —uh, Thoreau? Emerson's essays? recent "creative non-fiction"?]|
|* Rebuttal #2 (2): some fiction is not = "Literature": "if 'literature' includes much 'factual' writing, it also excludes quite a lot of fiction" (2).|
|2. Is it a special (formal) "literariness," language used in "peculiar ways"?—via "deviant"/defamiliarizing poetic "devices"? This is the answer of formalists, and of Russian Formalism in particular, which invented the term "defamiliarization" (aka "estrangement") to describe literature's main effect (2-4). Thus literature "estranges or alienates ordinary speech"; "literary language" is "a set of deviations from a norm, a kind of linguistic violence" (4).|
|* Rebuttals: but "literariness" is relative to time, place, & context (4-6); also, "to spot a deviation implies being able to identify the norm from which it swerves. . . . The idea that there is a single 'normal' language, a common currency shared equally by all members of society, is an illusion. . . . Even the most 'prosaic' text of the fifteenth century may sound 'poetic' to us today because of its archaism. If we were to stumble across an isolated scrap of writing from some long-vanished civilization, we could not tell whether it was 'poetry' or not merely by inspecting it, since we might have no access to that society's 'ordinary' discourses; and even if further research were to reveal that it was 'deviatory', this would still not prove that it was poetry as not all linguistic deviations are poetic. Slang, for example" (4). In any encounter with a poem or novel, it is still the "context" that "tells me that it is literary; but the language itself has no inherent properties or qualities which might distinguish it from other kinds of discourse"; and in fact, to "think of literature as the Formalists do is really to think of all literature as poetry" (5). [Likewise, American New Criticism dealt mostly with poetry, and it was much less successful dealing with fiction, especially long fiction (see 44).] . . . Furthermore, "there is no kind of writing which cannot, given sufficient ingenuity, be read as estranging" (6).|
|—Eagleton's rebuttal includes one of his many marvelous sentences: "Anyone who believes that 'literature' can be defined by such special uses of language has to face the fact that there is more metaphor in Manchester than there is in Marvell" (5; referring to the colorful working-class slang of Manchester, England).|
|—Eagleton's example of finding any language act to be "estranging" is also pretty funny: "Consider a prosaic, quite unambiguous statement like the one sometimes seen in the London Underground system: 'Dogs must be carried on the escalator.' This is not perhaps quite as unambiguous as it seems at first sight: does it mean that you must carry a dog on the escalator? Are you likely to be banned from the escalator unless you can find some stray mongrel to clutch in your arms on the way up?" (6)!|
|—Eagleton's rebuttal also employs a bit of reader-response theory in the following: "'literature' may be at least as much a question of what people do to writing as of what writing does to them" (6; including assumptions about genre, etc.).|
|3. Is "Literature" non-pragmatic—vs. pragmatic texts that merely inform/educate (≈ Thomas Carlyle's 19th-c. distinction between the "literature of power" vs. the "literature of knowledge") (6-7)? Thus "Literature" is "a kind of self-referential language, a language which talks about itself" (7; in Russian Formalist terms, a literary text foregrounds its literariness).|
|* Rebuttal: any text can be used/read either way (7-8). For example, "I might read Robert Burns's poem because it is not clear to me, as a Japanese horticulturalist, whether or not the red rose flourished in eighteenth-century Britain" (7)!|
|—Moreover, what is deemed "literary" changes with history: "Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them. Breeding in this respect may count for a good deal more than birth. What matters may not be where you came from but how people treat you. If they decide that you are literature then it seems that you are, irrespective of what you thought you were" (7-8). [Notably, Shakespeare was deemed a near barbaric hack until nearly 200 yrs. after his death.]|
And so Eagleton's preliminary conclusion: "There is no 'essence' of literature whatsoever. Any bit of writing may be read 'non-pragmatically', if that is what reading a text as literature means, just as any writing may be read 'poetically'" (8).
|—"Perhaps 'literature' means something like the opposite [of 'weed']: any kind of writing which for some reason or another somebody values highly. As the philosophers might say, 'literature' and 'weed' are functional rather than ontological terms: they tell us about what we do, not about the fixed being of things. They tell us about the role of a text or a thistle in a social context, its relations with and differences from its surroundings, the ways it behaves, the purposes it may be put to and the human practices clustered around it. 'Literature' is in this sense a purely formal, empty sort of definition" (8).|
|—The notion of "Literature" is also culturally specific: "In many societies, 'literature' has served highly practical functions such as religious ones; distinguishing sharply between 'practical' and 'non-practical' may only be possible in a society like ours, where literature has ceased to have much practical function at all[!]. We may be offering as a general definition a sense of the 'literary' which is in fact historically specific" (8).|
|4. Is "Literature" synonymous, then, with "belles lettres," that is, "fine writing" (9)? [By this point, the reader already anticipates possible problems with this!?] "This answer has the disadvantage of being largely untrue . . . but it has the advantage of suggesting that by and large people term 'literature' writing which they think is good. An obvious objection to this is that if it were entirely true there would be no such thing as 'bad literature'. I may consider Lamb and Macaulay overrated, but that does not necessarily mean that I stop regarding them as literature. You may consider Raymond Chandler 'good of his kind', but not exactly literature." Ultimately, all such assertions are subjective "value-judgements" (9).|
Eagleton's (more adamant) Conclusion: "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. . . . Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared inherent properties, does not exist" (9).
|—And as for "the so-called 'literary canon'"—it "has to be recognized as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a certain time. There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what anyone might have said or come to say about it" (10).|
|—Borrowing a page from Nietzsche (& Foucault), Eagleton then declares that there are no disinterested valuations (10-13): "The fact that we always interpret literary works to some extent in the light of our own concerns —indeed that in one sense of 'our own concerns' we are incapable of doing anything else—might be one reason why certain works of literature seem to retain their value across the centuries" (10). HOWEVER—and her Eagleton applies some more reader-response theory ["reception theory," to be more specific]—each text changes with each generation of readers: "'Our' Homer is not identical with the Homer of the Middle Ages, nor 'our' Shakespeare with that of his contemporaries; it is rather that different historical periods have constructed a 'different' Homer and Shakespeare for their own purposes, and found in these texts elements to value or devalue, though not necessarily the same ones. All literary works, in other words, are 'rewritten', if only unconsciously, by the societies which read them; indeed there is no reading of a work which is not also a 're-writing'" (11).|
|—Eagleton's discussion of how even the use of "facts" is ultimate biased and values-laden (11-12) is well done and (important), issuing as it does from Nietzsche, who perceived that "there are no facts, only interpretations": Eagleton notes "the unconscious system of value-judgements which underlies" even our factual assertions. "Statements of fact are after all statements, which presumes a number of questionable judgements: that those statements are worth making, perhaps more worth making than certain others, that I am the sort of person entitled to make them and perhaps able to guarantee their truth, that you are the kind of person worth making them to, that something useful is accomplished by making them, and so on" (11). My own example of this is the FACT that Columbus landed in the West Indies in 1492. Nietzsche & his poststructuralist heirs aren't denying that this happened; but as soon as it is expressed—as, say, the first sentence in an American history textbook—it is immediately embedded in a bundle of self-interests, unconscious motivations, etc.—involving, in this example, a whole Euro-American values system concerning colonialism, race, et al.|
|—"In this sense, there is no possibility of a wholly disinterested statement. . . . All of our descriptive statements move within an often invisible network of value-categories . . . . Interests are constitutive of our knowledge, not merely prejudices which imperil it. The claim that knowledge should be 'value-free' is itself a value-judgement" (12)!|
As a Marxist, Eagleton has steered this entire introductory chapter to his main thesis, that "Literature" is, and is all about, IDEOLOGY (12-14), which he first defines as "that fundamental structure of beliefs and interests which I am born into as a member of a particular society" (12), then as the "largely concealed structure of values which informs and underlies our factual statements"—especially "those modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving and believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power" (13).
|—Applied to literary criticism: what strikes Eagleton as most interesting about I. A. Richards' "experiment" with his literature students is "just how tight a consensus of unconscious valuations underlies" their supposedly individual serendipitous readings. In other words, they were expressing the general ideology of "young, white, upper- or upper-middle-class, privately educated English people of the 1920s." Nor does Eagleton blame them for this: "there is no critical response which is not so entwined, and thus no such thing as a 'pure' literary critical judgement or interpretation" (13).|
In conclusion: "If it will not do to see literature as an 'objective', descriptive category, neither will it do to say that literature is just what people whimsically choose to call literature. For there is nothing at all whimsical about such kinds of value-judgement: they have their roots in deeper structures of belief which are as apparently unshakeable as the Empire State building. What we have uncovered so far, then, is not only that literature does not exist in the sense that insects do, and that the value-judgements by which it is constituted are historically variable, but that these value-judgements themselves have a close relation to social ideologies. They refer in the end not simply to private taste, but to the assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others" (14)
Chapter 1: "THE RISE OF ENGLISH" (15-46)
This chapter on the history of the origins of English as an academic discipline expressly aims at demonstrating Eagleton's central thesis that not only literature, but literary studies, has always been a political animal.
|—In 18th-c. England, for example, the "criteria of what counted as literature, in other words, were frankly ideological: writing which embodied the values and 'tastes' of a particular social class qualified as literature, whereas a street ballad, a popular romance and perhaps even the drama did not." Even then, "literature did more than 'embody' certain social values: it was a vital instrument for their deeper entrenchment and wider dissemination," and those values were predominantly those of the upper class: "With the need to incorporate the increasingly powerful but spiritually rather raw middle classes into unity with the ruling aristocracy, to diffuse polite social manners, habits of 'correct' taste and common cultural standards, literature gained a new importance. It included a whole set of ideological institutions: periodicals, coffee houses, social and aesthetic treatises, sermons, classical translations, guidebooks to manners and morals" (15).|
Romanticism (late 18th c./early 19th c.): "It was, in fact, only with what we now call the 'Romantic period' that our own definitions of literature began to develop. The modern sense of the word 'literature' only really gets under way in the nineteenth century, Literature in this sense of the word is an historically recent phenomenon: it was invented sometime around the turn of the eighteenth century"—and it had a specific political rationale, however buried that was in poetry about birds, flowers, and dear, dear sisters: "'Poetry' comes to mean a good deal more than verse: by the time of Shelley's Defence of Poetry (1821), it signifies a concept of human creativity which is radically at odds with the utilitarian ideology of early industrial capitalist England." Moreover, much of this mythos built around poetry and poetic inspiration & genius and "Imagination" with a capital "I" lives on to this day: "Since we ourselves are post-Romantics, in the sense of being products of that epoch rather than confidently posterior to it, it is hard for us to grasp just what a curious historically particular idea this is [i.e., the 'Imagination']" (16).
|—This is, after all, a time when England, with its "slave trade and its imperial control of the seas," has become "the world's first industrial capitalist nation." And thus the feelings-&-creativity based philosophy of the Romantics "enter into potentially tragic contradiction with the harsh realities of the new bourgeois regimes. In England, a crassly philistine Utilitarianism is rapidly becoming the dominant ideology of the industrial middle class, fetishizing fact, reducing human relations to market exchanges and dismissing art as unprofitable ornamentation. The callous disciplines of early industrial capitalism uproot whole communities, convert human life into wage-slavery, enforce an alienating labour-process on the newly formed working class . . . . In the face of such forces, the privilege accorded by the Romantics to the 'creative imagination' can be seen as considerably more than idle escapism. On the contrary, 'literature' now appears as one of the few enclaves in which the creative values expunged from the face of English society by industrial capitalism can be celebrated and affirmed. 'Imaginative creation' can be offered as an image of non-alienated labour; the intuitive, transcendental scope of the poetic mind can provide a living criticism of those rationalist or empiricist ideologies enslaved to 'fact'. The literary work itself comes to be seen as a mysterious organic unity, in contrast to the fragmented individualism of the capitalist marketplace . . . . Literature has become a whole alternative ideology, and the 'imagination' itself, as with Blake and Shelley, becomes a political force" (17).|
|—The Romantic author/"artiste" becomes a pretty pathetic creature, In Eagleton's history: "the 'transcendental' nature of the imagination offered . . . the writer a comfortingly absolute alternative to history itself. Indeed such a detachment from history reflected the Romantic writer's actual situation. . . . he existed more and more on the margins of a society which was not inclined to pay high wages to prophets[!]" (18). . . . In sum: "The assumption that there was an unchanging object known as 'art', or an isolatable experience called 'beauty' or the 'aesthetic', was largely a product of the very alienation of art from social life" (19).|
|—As we'll see when we get to Kant & Hegel, who helped usher in "the rise of modern 'aesthetics', or the philosophy of art": "It is mainly from this era, in the work of Kant, Hegel, Schiller, Coleridge and others, that we inherit our contemporary ideas of the 'symbol' and 'aesthetic experience', of 'aesthetic harmony' and the unique nature of the artefact" (18).|
|—"At the centre of aesthetic theory at the turn of the eighteenth century [i.e., circa 1800] is the semi-mystical doctrine of the symbol. . . . It was the keystone of an irrationalism, a forestalling of reasoned critical enquiry, which has been rampant in literary theory ever since." (I'm assuming that Eagleton is beckoning towards New Criticism here, for whom the "symbol," as a metaphor par excellence, was the master trope.) Even here Eagleton brings to bear his Marxist theme of economic class: "It was a unitary thing, and to dissect it—to take it apart to see how it worked—was almost as blasphemous as seeking to analyse the Holy Trinity." (As we shall see, Eagleton finds early literary studies & criticism as pretty much displaced religion, snuck in the side door.) "All of its various parts worked spontaneously together for the common good . . . . If only the lower orders were to forget their grievances and pull together for the good of all, much tedious turmoil could be avoided" (19).|
Therefore—Eagleton's main thesis again: "Literature, in the meaning of the word we have inherited, is an ideology. It has the most intimate relations to questions of social power. But if the reader is still unconvinced, the narrative of what happened to literature in the later nineteenth century might prove a little more persuasive" (19-20).
Key subthesis: Eagleton's "single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century" is "'the failure of religion'. By the mid-Victorian period, this traditionally reliable, immensely powerful ideological form was in deep trouble. It was no longer winning the hearts and minds of the masses, and under the twin impacts of scientific discovery and social change its previous unquestioned dominance was in danger of evaporating. This was particularly worrying for the Victorian ruling class, because religion is for all kinds of reasons an extremely effective form of ideological control." Religion supplied "an excellent social 'cement'"; it was a "pacifying influence" (20). [There is an obvious Marxist reason why this is so: we can't have them "imagining there's no heaven"!—or they'll see no reward in being wage slaves for their whole lives in this world, this mere "veil of tears."]
|—So we need a replacement: "Fortunately . . . another, remarkably similar discourse lay to hand: English literature" (20). It is a striking thought that had it not been for this dramatic crisis in mid-nineteenth-century ideology, we might not today have such a plentiful supply of Jane Austen casebooks and bluffer's guides to Pound" (20-21)! And so—"'English' is constructed as a subject to carry this ideological burden from the Victorian period onwards" (21).|
|—The key figure here is Matthew Arnold, always preternaturally sensitive to the needs of his social class . . . . The urgent social need, as Arnold recognizes, is to 'Hellenize' or cultivate the philistine middle class . . . . The true beauty of this manoeuvre, however, lies in the effect it will have in controlling and incorporating the working class"; in sum (and another great sentence by Eagleton): "If the masses are not thrown a few novels, they may react by throwing up a few barricades" (21).|
|—And so "Literature" would persuade the masses "to acknowledge that more than one viewpoint than theirs existed—namely, that of their masters[!]. It would communicate to them the moral riches of bourgeois civilization, impress upon them a reverence for middle-class achievements, and, since reading is an essentially solitary, contemplative activity, curb in them any disruptive tendency to collective political action. It would give them a pride in their national language and literature" (22). And "so the pill of middle-class ideology was to be sweetened by the sugar of literature." And any thought of revolt allayed: "The actually impoverished experience of the mass of people . . . can be supplemented by literature: instead of working to change such conditions . . . you can vicariously fulfil someone's desire for a fuller life by handing them Pride and Prejudice"! Thus it was "significant, then, that 'English' as an academic subject was first institutionalized not in the Universities, but in the Mechanics' Institutes, working men's colleges and extension lecturing circuits. English was literally the poor man's Classics—a way of providing a cheapish 'liberal' education for those beyond the charmed circles of public school and Oxbridge. . . . the emphasis was on solidarity between the social classes, the cultivation of 'larger sympathies', the instillation of national pride and the transmission of 'moral' values" (23)!|
In the early 20th century, then, "literature becomes more than just a handmaiden of moral ideology: it is moral ideology for the modern age"—as Eagleton's lengthy discussion of the (socio-historical background leading to the rise of) British humanist-moral critic F. R. Leavis demonstrates (24). . . . [Later:] "Literature . . . was important because it was nothing less than a whole social ideology" (32).
|—More social background to this era: "The working class was not the only oppressed layer of Victorian society at whom 'English' was specifically beamed. English literature, reflected a Royal Commission witness in 1877, might be considered a suitable subject for 'women . . . and the second- and third-rate men[!] who . . . become schoolmasters.' The 'softening' and 'humanizing' effects of English, terms recurrently used by its early proponents, are within the existing ideological stereotypes of gender clearly feminine." In fact, "the ideological conditions which make English a popular University subject for women" remain intact (24).|
|—Then there is nationalist imperialism: "As British capitalism became threatened and progressively outstripped by its younger German and American rivals, the squalid, undignified scramble of too much capital chasing too few overseas territories[!], which was to culminate in 1914 in the first imperialist world war, created the urgent need for a sense of national mission and identity. What was at stake in English studies was less English literature than English literature: our great 'national poets' Shakespear and Milton, the sense of an 'organic' national tradition and identity to which new recruits could be admitted by the study of humane letters" (24). And so—as intimated in our reading of Said—"armed with this conveniently packaged version of their own cultural treasures [including the politically motivated canon of English literature], the servants of British imperialism could sally forth overseas secure in a sense of their national identity, and able to display that cultural superiority to their envying colonial peoples" (25).|
|—More marvelous zingers from Eagleton: "It took rather longer for English, a subject fit for women, workers and those wishing to impress the natives, to penetrate the bastions of ruling-class power in Oxford and Cambridge. English was an upstart, amateurish affair as academic subjects went . . . since every English gentleman read his own literature in his spare time anyway, what was the point of submitting it to systematic study? Fierce rearguard actions were fought by both ancient Universities against this distressingly dilettante subject: the definition of an academic subject was what could be examined, and since English was no more than idle gossip about literary taste it was difficult to know how to make it unpleasant enough to qualify as a proper academic pursuit" (25)!|
|—Again, history—and the history of imperialism—was crucial: "the first imperialist world war . . . also signalled the final victory of English studies at Oxford and Cambridge" (25). WHY? " One of the most strenuous antagonists of English—philology—was closely bound up with Germanic influence; and since England happened to be passing through a major war with Germany, it was possible to smear classical philology as a form of ponderous Teutonic nonsense with which no self-respecting Englishman should be caught associating[!]" (26).|
|—Finally, there was "the deep trauma of the war, its almost intolerable questioning of every previously held cultural assumption," which "gave rise to a 'spiritual hungering' . . . for which poetry seemed to provide an answer. It is a chastening thought that we owe the University study of English, in part at least, to a meaningless massacre. . . . English Literature rode to power on the back of wartime nationalism; but it also represented a search for spiritual solutions on the part of an English ruling class whose sense of identity had been profoundly shaken, whose psyche was ineradicably scarred by the horrors it had endured. Literature would be at once solace and reaffirmation, a familiar ground on which Englishmen could regroup both to explore, and to find some alternative to, the nightmare of history" (26).|
Leavis himself now, and his literary journal Scrutiny: "Scrutiny was the title of the critical journal launched in 1932 by the Leavises, which has yet to be surpassed in its tenacious devotion to the moral centrality of English studies, their crucial relevance to the quality of social life as a whole." It tried to replace dilettantism with a seriousness study of its topic: "In the face of such whimsical 'taste', they stressed the centrality of rigorous critical analysis, a disciplined attention to the 'words on the page'. They urged this not simply for technical or aesthetic reasons, but because it had the closest relevance to the spiritual crisis of modern civilization. Literature was important not only in itself, but because it encapsulated creative energies which were everywhere on the defensive in modern 'commercial' society" (27-28). Indeed: "To be a certain kind of English student in Cambridge in the late 1920s and 1930s was to be caught up in this buoyant, polemical onslaught against the most trivializing features of industrial capitalism. It was rewarding to know that being an English student was not only valuable but the most important way of life one could imagine[!]—that one was contributing in one's own modest way to rolling back twentieth-century society in the direction of the 'organic' community of seventeenth-century England, that one moved at the most progressive tip of civilization itself" (28).
|—The English lit. canon itself, then, was redrawn, with a range from Chaucer to D. H. Lawrence. "Dickens was first out and then in; 'English' included two and a half women[!], counting Emily Bronte as a marginal case; almost all of its authors were conservatives" (28). [Eagleton will accuse American New Criticism of a similar conservativism; notably, their American lit. canon included pretty much only one woman poet. (Guess who.)] . . . [Later passage:] "There was no question of seeing such re-mapping of the literary terrain as simply one arguable construction of a tradition, informed by definite ideological preconceptions: such authors, it was felt, just did manifest the essence of Englishness" (32).|
|—"Scrutiny was not just a journal, but the focus of a moral and cultural crusade: its adherents would go out to the schools and universities to do battle there, nurturing through the study of literature the kind of rich, complex, mature, discriminating, morally serious responses (all key Scrutiny terms) which would equip individuals to survive in a mechanized society of trashy romances, alienated labour, banal advertisements and vulgarizing mass media" (29)! . . . But "the only real hope was that an embattled cultivated minority might keep the torch of culture burning in the contemporary waste land and pass it on, via their pupils, to posterity. There are real grounds for doubting that education has the transformative power which Arnold and Leavis assigned to it. It is, after all, part of society rather than a solution to it; and who, as Marx once asked, will educate the educators? Scrutiny espoused this idealist 'solution', however, because it was loath to contemplate a political one" (29). [Ooh.]|
|—And so Leavis & Co. had its strengths and weaknesses, according to Eagleton's Marxist view (above all, it remained coopted by the capitalist system): "Spending your English lessons alerting schoolchildren to the manipulativeness of advertisements or the linguistic poverty of the popular press is an important task, and certainly more important than getting them to memorize The Charge of the Light Brigade[!]. Scrutiny actually founded such 'cultural studies' in England, as one of its most enduring achievements. But it is also possible to point out to students that advertisements and the popular press only exist in their present form because of the profit motive. 'Mass' culture is not the inevitable product of 'industrial' society, but the offspring of a particular form of industrialism which organizes production for profit rather than for use, which concerns itself with what will sell rather than with what is valuable. There is no reason to assume that such a social order is unchangeable; but the changes necessary would go far beyond the sensitive reading of King Lear[!!]. The whole Scrutiny project was at once hair-raisingly radical and really rather absurd" (29-30). At last, the ideology behind Scrutiny "was inescapably elitist: it betrayed a profound ignorance and distrust of the capacities of those not fortunate enough to have read English at Downing College" (30).|
|—Most damning, to a political theorist like Eagleton: "Many people were indeed deep in high culture, but it would transpire a decade or so after the birth of Scrutiny that this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe. The strength of Leavisian criticism was that it was able to provide an answer . . . to the question, why read Literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps some years after the founding of Scrutiny, to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do" (30). . . . At last, the status of English studies now "was a profoundly ingrown isolationism: Scrutiny became a defensive elite which, like the Romantics, viewed itself as 'central' while being in fact peripheral" (31).|
The towering figure of Anglo-American modernism, T. S. Eliot: Eliot's own privileging of the Metaphysical poets (the most famous of whom were "conservative Anglicans"), the French Symbolistes, etc., was yet another "whole political reading of English history." (Milton was spurned as a "puritan revolutionary" !) Romanticism had ruined English Lit. with too much "personality" and emotionalism and other "anarchic doctrines of a society which had lost collective belief and declined into an errant individualism. It was not until the appearance of T. S. Eliot that English literature began to recuperate[!]" (34). (Later, the Imagists, too, favored "laconic" verse, since "[e]motions were messy and suspect" !) "Eliot's own solution is an extreme right-wing authoritarianism: men and women must sacrifice their petty 'personalities' and opinions to an impersonal order. In the sphere of literature, this impersonal order is the Tradition." [Not surprisingly, Eliot and other Modernists like him have been dubbed a new version of Neo-Classicism.] "Like any other literary tradition, Eliot's is in fact a highly selective affair: indeed its governing principle seems to be not so much which works of the past are eternally valuable, as which will help T. S. Eliot to write his own poetry[!]" (34).
|—Eliot's attack on poetry of strong emotions (& strong politics) reinforced the proclivities of early 20th-c. formalism: "Poetry was not to engage the reader's mind: it did not really matter what a poem actually meant" (35).|
|—He also advanced a mystifying, obscurantist arationalism: "The erudite Eliot, author of intellectually difficult poems, in fact betrayed all the contempt for the intellect of any right-wing irrationalist. . . . Middle-class liberalism had failed; and the poet must delve behind these discredited notions by evolving a sensory language which would make 'direct communication with the nerves,'" including "suggestively enigmatic images which would penetrate to those 'primitive' levels at which all men and women experienced alike. [Did someone say Carl Jung?!] Perhaps the organic society lived on after all, though only in the collective unconscious; perhaps there were certain deep symbols and rhythms in the psyche, archetypes immutable throughout history, which poetry might touch and revive. The crisis of European society—global war, severe class-conflict, failing capitalist economies—might be resolved by turning one's back on history altogether and putting mythology in its place. Deep below finance capitalism lay the Fisher King" (35; this last is a key mythic image of The Waste Land). And so "Eliot accordingly published The Waste Land in 1922, a poem which intimates that fertility cults hold the clue to the salvation of the West. His scandalous avant-garde techniques were deployed for the most arrière-garde ends: they wrenched apart routine consciousness so as to revive in the reader a sense of common identity in the blood and guts." (As "blood and guts" suggests, Eagleton reading is rather a—now common—revisionist view of the high Modernists as much more politically reactionary than revolutionary. Ezra Pound, after all—as Eagleton pointedly notes—discovered his politics "in fascism" .)|
|—But the lines of demarcation aren't so easily drawn: yes, D. H. "Lawrence shared with Eliot and Pound" some "extreme right-wing features," including "a raging contempt for liberal and democratic values, a slavish submission to impersonal authority" (36-37). And yet "Lawrence, like Leavis himself, was among other things an inheritor of the nineteenth-century lineage of Romantic protest against the mechanized wage-slavery of capitalism, its crippling social oppressiveness and cultural devastation. But . . . both Lawrence and Leavis refused a political analysis of the system they opposed . . . . As it became less and less apparent how responding to Marvell around the seminar table was to transform the mechanized labour of factory workers[!], the liberal humanism of Leavis was pressed into the arms of the most banal political reaction"—including holding hands with conservative Modernism (37).|
New Criticism—By way of segue: Leavis was also/already associated with "close reading." What this meant is "hat you could judge literary 'greatness' and 'centrality' by bringing a focused attentiveness to bear on poems or pieces of prose isolated from their cultural and historical contexts" (37). "There was no need There was no need to examine the work in its historical context, or even discuss the structure of ideas on which it drew. It was a matter of assessing the tone and sensibility of a particular passage, 'placing' it definitively and then moving on to the next. [Another great zinger of a sentence:] It is not clear how this procedure was more than just a more rigorous form of wine-tasting, given that what the literary impressionists might call 'blissful' you might call 'maturely robust'" (37-38). (Thus the New Critics would at least attempt more analytical rigor in their "close reading.")
|—BUT: "in dispelling such anecdotal irrelevancies [of the author's life, etc.], 'close reading' also held at bay a good deal else: it encouraged the illusion that any piece of language, 'literary' or not, can be adequately studied or even understood in isolation. It was the beginnings of a 'reification' of the literary work, the treatment of it as an object in itself, which was to be triumphantly consummated in the American New Criticism" (38).|
|—I. A. Richards, as a transitional figure—for whom poetry was something like a psychological re-adjustment (or soporific?!): "Society is in crisis, Richards argues, because historical change, and scientific discovery in particular, has outstripped and devalued the traditional mythologies by which men and women have lived. The delicate equipoise of the human psyche has therefore been dangerously disturbed; and since religion will no longer serve to retrim it, poetry must do the job instead. Poetry, Richards remarks with stunning off-handedness, 'is capable of saving us; it is a perfectly possible means of overcoming chaos'. Like Arnold, he advances literature as a conscious ideology for reconstructing social order" (39).|
|—(More) I. A. Richards: Following the old division of "poetic" truths vs. the truths of history—and now science—Richards dubbed the former "pseudo-statements" (maybe an unfortunate word choice?!). "[U]nless some pseudo-answers are supplied to such pseudo-questions [as 'What is life?,'] society is likely to fall apart. The role of poetry is to supply such pseudo-answers. Poetry is an 'emotive' rather than 'referential' language, a kind of 'pseudo-statement' which appears to describe the world but in fact simply organizes our feelings about it in satisfying ways. The most efficient kind of poetry is that which organizes the maximum number of impulses with the minimum amount of conflict or frustration." In sum, it is a "psychic therapy" (39).|
|—New Criticism per se, "which flourished from the late 1930s to the 1950s, was deeply marked by these doctrines. New Criticism is generally taken to encompass the work of Eliot, Richards and perhaps also Leavis and William Empson, as well as a number of leading American literary critics, among them John Crowe Ransom, W. K. Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Monroe Beardsley and R. P. Blackmur" (40).|
|—Eagleton emphasizes its (U.S.) Southern Christian roots: "Significantly, the American movement had its roots in the economically backward South —in the region of traditional blood and breeding . . . . In the period of American New Criticism, the South was in fact undergoing rapid industrialization . . . but 'traditional' Southern intellectuals like John Crowe Ransom, who gave New Criticism its name, could still discover in it an 'aesthetic' alternative to the sterile scientific rationalism of the industrial North. [This is becoming a familiar story, right?] Spiritually displaced like T. S. Eliot by the industrial invasion, Ransom found refuge first in the so-called Fugitives literary movement of the 1920s, and then in the right-wing Agrarian politics of the 1930s. The ideology of New Criticism began to crystallize: scientific rationalism was ravaging the 'aesthetic life' of the old South, human experience was being stripped of its sensuous particularity, and poetry was a possible solution. The poetic response, unlike the scientific, respected the sensuous integrity of its object: it was not a matter of rational cognition but an affective affair which linked us to the 'world's body' in an essentially religious bond" (40). (I've always loved the irony—or appropriateness—of the name "Fugitives": what were they fleeing from?! [On a more literal level, the name came from the name of the literary journal at Vanderbilt that several of the future New Critics commandeered to develop & disseminate their ideas.])|
|—And so: "Like Scrutiny, Like Scrutiny, in other words, New Criticism was the ideology of an uprooted, defensive intelligentsia who reinvented in literature what they could not locate in reality. Poetry was the new religion, a nostalgic haven from the alienations of industrial capitalism. The poem itself was as opaque to rational enquiry as the Almighty himself[!—like Kant's "thing in itself?!]: it existed as a self-enclosed object, mysteriously intact in its own unique being. The poem was that which could not be paraphrased, expressed in any language other than itself: each of its parts was folded in on the others in a complex organic unity which it would be a kind of blasphemy to violate" (40-41).|
|—New Criticism's formalism (continued): "If the poem was really to become an object in itself, New Criticism had to sever it from both author and reader." As for the author: "Did he himself [Shakespeare] know what he had in mind? Are writers always in full possession of their own meanings? The New Critics broke boldly with the Great Man theory of literature, insisting that the author's intentions in writing, even if they could be recovered, were of no relevance to the interpretation of his or her text" (41).|
|—And the reader?: "Neither were the emotional responses of particular readers to be confused with the poem's meaning: the poem meant what it meant, regardless of the poet's intentions or the subjective feelings the reader derived from it" (41-42).|
|—The Poem as (Autotelic) Artifact (and its political import): the New Critics were also driven "to convert the poem into a self-sufficient object, as solid and material as an urn or icon. The poem became a spatial figure rather than a temporal process. Rescuing the text from author and reader went hand in hand with disentangling it from any social or historical context. . . . Literature was a solution to social problems, not part of them; the poem must be plucked free of the wreckage of history and hoisted into a sublime space above it" (42).|
|—The Poem as Religious Fetish!?: "What New Criticism did, in fact, was to convert the poem into a fetish. . . . The New Critical poem, like the Romantic symbol, was thus imbued with an absolute mystical authority which brooked no rational argument. Like most of the other literary theories we have examined so far, New Criticism was at root a full-blooded irrationalism, one closely associated with religious dogma (several of the leading American New Critics were Christians), and with the right-wing 'blood and soil' politics of the Agrarian movement" (42).|
|—BUT—New Criticism also had a (pseudo-)"scientific" thing going: " the New Critics deliberately cultivated the toughest, most hard-headed techniques of critical dissection. The same impulse which stirred them to insist on the 'objective' status of the work also led them to promote a strictly 'objective' way of analysing it. A typical New Critical account of a poem offers a stringent investigation of its various 'tensions', 'paradoxes' and 'ambivalences', showing how these are resolved and integrated by its solid structure" (42). WHY?: "New Criticism, moreover, evolved in the years when literary criticism in North America was struggling to become 'professionalized', acceptable as a respectable academic discipline. Its battery of critical instruments was a way of competing with the hard sciences on their own terms" (43).|
|—Reasons for NC's Success: "There were at least two good reasons why New Criticism went down well in the academies. First, it provided a convenient pedagogical method of coping with a growing student population. Distributing a brief poem for students to be perceptive about was less cumbersome than launching a Great Novels of the World course[!]. Second, New Criticism's view of the poem as a delicate equipoise of contending attitudes, a disinterested reconciliation of opposing impulses, proved deeply attractive to sceptical liberal intellectuals disoriented by the clashing dogmas of the Cold War. Reading poetry in the New Critical way meant committing yourself to nothing: all that poetry taught you was 'disinterestedness', a serene, speculative, impeccably even-handed rejection of anything in particular. It drove you less to oppose McCarthyism or further civil rights than to experience such pressures as merely partial, no doubt harmoniously balanced somewhere else in the world by their complementary opposites. It was, in other words, a recipe for political inertia, and thus for submission to the political status quo" (43). [This last, of course, is anathema to a Marxist.]|
|—Genre (and politics again!): "Most literary theories, in fact, unconsciously 'foreground' a particular literary genre, and derive their general pronouncements from this; it would be interesting to trace this process through the history of literary theory, identifying the particular literary form which is being taken as a paradigm. In the case of modern literary theory, the shift into poetry is of particular significance. For poetry is of all literary genres the one most apparently sealed from history, the one where 'sensibility' may play in its purest, least socially tainted form. . . . Even within poetry, however, the critics I have just reviewed are strikingly uninterested in what might rather simplistically be called 'thought'. The criticism of Eliot displays an extraordinary lack of interest in what literary works actually say: its attention is almost entirely confined to qualities of language, styles of feeling, the relations of image and experience" (44).|
The final section on William Empson feels a bit afterthoughtish, since Eagleton finds him rather uncategorizable. For one thing, his study of "ambiguity"—while also a favorite buzzword of New Criticism—suggests ways of reading that anticipate poststructuralism?: "Empsonian ambiguities, on the other hand, can never be finally pinned down: they indicate points where the poem's language falters, trails off or gestures beyond itself, pregnantly suggestive of some potentially inexhaustible context of meaning." Or even reader-response theory?: "an ambiguity as Empson defined it is 'any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language'. It is the reader's response which makes for ambiguity, and this response depends on more than the poem alone" (45). Finally, "Empson sees that the meanings of a literary text are always in some measure promiscuous, never reducible to a final interpretation"; and in the opposition between his 'ambiguity' and New Critical 'ambivalence' we find a kind of early pre-run of the debate between structuralists and post-structuralists which we shall explore later" (46).
"Conclusion: POLITICAL CRITICISM" (169-189)
Of course: "There is . . . no need to drag politics into literary theory: as with South African sport, it has been there from the beginning. I mean by the political no more than the way we organize our social life together, and the power-relations which this involves; and what I have tried to show throughout this book is that the history of modern literary theory is part of the political and ideological history of our epoch. From Percy Bysshe Shelley to Norman N. Holland, literary theory has been indissociably bound up with political beliefs and ideological values" (169-170).
|—In fact, "pure" theory "is an academic myth: some of the theories we have examined in this book are nowhere more clearly ideological than in their attempts to ignore history and politics altogether. Literary theories are not to be upbraided for being political, but for being on the whole covertly or unconsciously so&&8212;for the blindness with which they offer as a supposedly 'technical', 'self-evident', 'scientific' or 'universal' truth doctrines which with a little reflection can be seen to relate to and reinforce the particular interests of particular groups of people at particular times" (170).|
|— The BAD News: "It is not the fact that literary theory is political which is objectionable, nor just the fact that its frequent obliviousness of this tends to mislead: what is really objectionable is the nature of its politics. That objection can be briefly summarized by stating that the great majority of the literary theories outlined in this book have strengthened rather than challenged the assumptions of the power-system some of whose present-day consequences I have just described" (170). And again: "My own view, as I have commented, is that literary theory has a most particular relevance to this political system: it has helped, wittingly or not, to sustain and reinforce its assumptions" (171).|
|—"The story of modern literary theory, paradoxically, is the narrative of a flight from such realities into a seemingly endless range of alternatives: the poem itself, the organic society, eternal verities, the imagination, the structure of the human mind, myth, language and so on" (recall the Fugitives!). "Even in the act of fleeing modern ideologies, however, literary theory reveals its often unconscious complicity with them, betraying its elitism, sexism or individualism in the very 'aesthetic' or 'unpolitical' language it finds natural to use of the literary text" (171).|
A Return to the Intro: "I began this book by arguing that literature did not exist. How in that case can literary theory exist either? There are two familiar ways in which any theory can provide itself with a distinct purpose and identity. Either it can define itself in terms of its particular methods of enquiry; or it can define itself in terms of the particular object that is being enquired into [that is, "Literature," which Eagleton has already dismantled]. Any attempt to define literary theory in terms of a distinctive method is doomed to failure. Literary theory is supposed to reflect on the nature of literature and literary criticism. But just think of how many methods are involved in literary criticism. You can discuss the poet's asthmatic childhood, or examine her peculiar use of syntax; you can detect the rustling of silk in the hissing of the s's, explore the phenomenology of reading, relate the literary work to the state of the class-struggle or find out how many copies it sold. These methods have nothing whatsoever of significance in common. In fact they have more in common with other 'disciplines'—linguistics, history, sociology and so on—than they have with each other. Methodologically speaking, literary criticism is a non-subject. If literary theory is a kind of 'metacriticism', a critical reflection on criticism, then it follows that it too is a non-subject" (171-172).
|—Is is the "OBJECT," then?: "as I argued in the Introduction, literature has no such stability. The unity of the object is as illusory as the unity of the method. 'Literature', as Roland Barthes once remarked, 'is what gets taught'" (172).|
|—Can't we just be done with THEORY, then, and return to some impressionistic mumbling?: "one should not take this modest disowning of method altogether seriously, since what glimmers and hunches you have will depend on a latent structure of assumptions often quite as stubborn as that of any structuralist. It is notable that such 'intuitive' criticism, which relies not on 'method' but on 'intelligent sensitivity', does not often seem to intuit, say, the presence of ideological values in literature"! Also, it's "difficult to engage such critics in debate about ideological preconceptions, since the power of ideology over them is nowhere more marked than in their honest belief that their readings are 'innocent'. It was Leavis who was being 'doctrinal' in attacking Milton, not C. S. Lewis in defending him; it is feminist critics who insist on confusing literature with politics by examining fictional images of gender, not conventional critics who are being political by arguing that Richardson's Clarissa is largely responsible for her own rape" (173)!|
"[W]hat is at issue in the contention between different literary theories or 'non-theories' are competing ideological strategies related to the very destiny of English studies in modern society. The problem with literary theory is that it can neither beat nor join the dominant ideologies of late industrial capitalism" (174). . . . "Liberal humanism has dwindled to the impotent conscience of bourgeois society, gentle, sensitive and ineffectual; structuralism has already more or less vanished into the literary museum" (174; this last may be an overstatement?!).
"Departments of literature in higher education, then, are part of the ideological apparatus of the modern capitalist state. They are not wholly reliable apparatuses, since for one thing the humanities contain many values, meanings and traditions which are antithetical to that state's social priorities, which are rich in kinds of wisdom and experience beyond its comprehension. For another thing, if you allow a lot of young people to do nothing for a few years but read books and talk to each other then it is possible that, given certain wider historical circumstances, they will not only begin to question some of the values transmitted to them but begin to interrogate the authority by which they are transmitted" (174-175)!
|—However (and this is very much influenced by Foucault): "Becoming certificated by the state as proficient in literary studies is a matter of being able to talk and write in certain ways. It is this which is being taught, examined and certificated, not what you personally think or believe, though what is thinkable will of course be constrained by the language itself. You can think or believe what you want, as long as you can speak this particular language. Nobody is especially concerned about what you say, with what extreme, moderate, radical or conservative positions you adopt, provided that they are compatible with, and can be articulated within, a specific form of discourse. It is just that certain meanings and positions will not be articulable within it. Literary studies, in other words, are a question of the signifier, not of the signified. Those employed to teach you this form of discourse will remember whether or not you were able to speak it proficiently long after they have forgotten what you said. Literary theorists, critics and teachers, then, are not so much purveyors of doctrine as custodians of a discourse" (175). And later: "critical discourse is power. To be on the inside of the discourse itself is to be blind to this power. . . . It is the power of policing writing itself, classifying it into the 'literary' and 'non-literary', the enduringly great and the ephemerally popular. It is the power of authority vis-à-vis others—the power-relations between those who define and preserve the discourse, and those who are selectively admitted to it. . . . Finally, it is a question of the power-relations between the literary-academic institution, where all of this occurs, and the ruling power-interests of society at large" (177).|
Also, critical theory now engages in "any kind of writing"; "If you have nothing better to do at a party you can always try on a literary critical analysis of it, speak of its styles and genres, discriminate its significant nuances or formalize its sign-systems. Such a 'text' can prove quite as rich as one of the canonical works, and critical dissections of it quite as ingenious as those of Shakespeare. So either literary criticism confesses that it can handle parties just as well as it can Shakespeare, in which case it is in danger of losing its identity along with its object; or it agrees that parties may be interestingly analysed provided that this is called something else: ethnomethodology or hermeneutical phenomenology, perhaps. Its own concern is with literature, because literature is more valuable and rewarding than any of the other texts on which the critical discourse might operate. The disadvantage of this claim is that it is plainly untrue: many films and works of philosophy are considerably more valuable than much that is included in the 'literary canon.'" In fact, "Shakespeare was not great literature lying conveniently to hand, which the literary institution then happily discovered: he is great literature because the institution constitutes him as such. This does not mean that he is not 'really' great literature—that it is just a matter of people's opinions about him—because there is no such thing as literature which is 'really' great, or 'really' anything, independently of the ways in which that writing is treated within specific forms of social and institutional life" (176).
So what shall we do?: "to recognize that literary theory is an illusion too" may be the "best possible thing . . . to do"! "We must conclude, then, that this book is less an introduction than an obituary, and that we have ended by burying the object we sought to unearth" (178).
And so—your Marxism, now?: "My intention, in other words, is not to counter the literary theories I have critically examined in this book with a literary theory of my own, which would claim to be more politically acceptable. Any reader who has been expectantly waiting for a Marxist theory has obviously not been reading this book with due attention. There are indeed Marxist and feminist theories of literature, which in my opinion are more valuable than any of the theories discussed here" (178)!
Eagleton's ultimate call is for a new "Cultural Studies": "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 the [sic] 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).
|—In fact, this new Cultural Studies would have great similarities to the ancient discipline known as rhetoric: "its horizon was nothing less than the field of discursive practices in society as a whole, and its particular interest lay in grasping such practices as forms of power and performance" (179). . . . "Rhetoric, or discourse theory, shares with Formalism, structuralism and semiotics an interest in the formal devices of language, but like reception theory is also concerned with how these devices are actually effective at the point of'consumption'; its preoccupation with discourse as a form of power and desire can learn much from deconstruction and psychoanalytical theory, and its belief that discourse can be a humanly transformative affair shares a good deal with liberal humanism. The fact that 'literary theory' is an illusion does not mean that we cannot retrieve from it many valuableconcepts for a different kind of discursive practice altogether" (180).|
|—"[T]here must be a reason why we would consider it worthwhile to develop a form of study which would look at the various sign-systems and signifying practices in our own society, all the way from Moby Dick to the Muppet show, from Dryden and Jean-Luc Godard to the portrayal of women in advertisements and the rhetorical techniques of government reports" (180).|
Despite his claim that he won't be preaching Marxism here, Eagleton then slams liberal humanism again, as complicit in the "system": "Its view of individual freedom is similarly abstract: the freedom of any particular individual is crippled and parasitic as long as it depends on the futile labour and active oppression of others. Literature may protest against such conditions or it may not, but it is only possible in the first place because of them. As the German critic Walter Benjamin put it: 'There is no cultural document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism'" (181).
Likewise (and not surprisingly), Eagleton has little time for a retreat to aestheticism: "The Romantic opposition to the utilitarian ideology of capitalism has made 'use' an unusable word: for the aesthetes, the glory of art is its utter uselessness" (181; compare this to Kant's "purposiveness-without-a-purpose").
"Every literary theory presupposes a certain use of literature, even if what you get out of it is its utter uselessness. Liberal humanist criticism is not wrong to use literature, but wrong to deceive itself that it does not. It uses it to further certain moral values, which as I hope to have shown are in fact indissociable from certain ideological ones, and in the end imply a particular form of politics" (182).
In defense of FEMINISM & MARXISM: "The feminist critic is not studying representations of gender simply because she believes that this will further her political ends. She also believes that gender and sexuality are central themes in literature and other sorts of discourse, and that any critical account which suppresses them is seriously defective. Similarly, the socialist critic does not see literature in terms of ideology or class-struggle because these happen to be his or her political interests, arbitrarily projected on to literary works. He or she would hold that such matters are the very stuff of history, and that in so far as literature is an historical phenomenon, they are the very stuff of literature too" (182). . . . "Socialist and feminist critics are quite at one with them [liberal humanists] on this: it is just that they wish to point out that" the "deepening and enriching" of life that literature provides also "entails the transformation of a society divided by class and gender" (183).
CULTURAL STUDIES encore: Eagleton now asks "how the reinvention of rhetoric that I have proposed (though it might equally as well be called 'discourse theory' or 'cultural studies' or whatever) might contribute to making us all better people. Discourses, sign-systems and signifying practices of all kinds, from film and television to fiction and the languages of natural science, produce effects, shape forms of consciousness and unconsciousness, which are closely related to the maintenance or transformation of our existing systems of power. They are thus closely related to what it means to be a person. Indeed 'ideology' can be taken to indicate no more than this connection—the link or nexus between discourses and power" (183).
|—"It may seem best to look at Proust and King Lear, or at children's television programmes or popular romances or avant-garde films. A radical critic is quite liberal on these questions: he rejects the dogmatism which would insist that Proust is always more worthy of study than television advertisements" (183). . . . "Radical critics are also open-minded about questions of theory and method: they tend to be pluralists in this respect. Any method or theory which will contribute to the strategic goal of human emancipation, the production of 'better people' through the socialist transformation of society, is acceptable. Structuralism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, reception theory and so on: all of these approaches, and others, have their valuable insights which may be put to use" (183-184). But such "radical" political criticism is often "dismissed as 'ideological', because 'ideology' is always a way of describing other people's interests rather than one's own" (184)!|
|—Moreover: "One reason why I have not ended this book with an account of socialist or feminist literary theory is that I believe such a move might encourage the reader to make what the philosophers call a 'category mistake'. It might mislead people into thinking that 'political criticism' was another sort of critical approach from those I have discussed, different in its assumptions but essentially the same kind of thing" (184; however, I don't find his distinction here entirely convincing).|
In Eagleton's new Department of Cultural Studies, "Such a strategy obviously has far-reaching institutional implications. It would mean, for example, that departments of literature as we presently know them in higher education would cease to exist" (185). . . . Whatever would in the long term replace such departments—and the proposal is a modest one, for such experiments are already under way in certain areas of higher education—would centrally involve education in the various theories and methods of cultural analysis. The fact that such education is not routinely provided by many existing departments of literature, or is provided 'optionally' or marginally, is one of their most scandalous and farcical features. (Perhaps their other most scandalous and farcical feature is the largely wasted energy which postgraduate students are required to pour into obscure, often spurious research topics in order to produce dissertations which are frequently no more than sterile academic exercises, and which few others will ever read.)" (186)!
|— Those who work in the field of cultural practices are unlikely to mistake their activity as utterly central. Men and women do not live by culture alone, the vast majority of them throughout history have been deprived of the chance of living by it at all, and those few who are fortunate enough to live by it now are able to do so because of the labour of those who do not. Any cultural or critical theory which does not begin from this single most important [Marxist!] fact, and hold it steadily in mind in its activities, is in my view unlikely to be worth very much. There is no document of culture which is not also a record of barbarism" (187).|
Eagleton then identifies FOUR major contemporary "moments"—or areas, or avenues—for such criticism:
|1. Colonialism (& Poco theory): "Culture, in the lives of nations struggling for their independence from imperialism, has a meaning quite remote from the review pages of the Sunday newspapers. Imperialism is not only the exploitation of cheap labour-power, raw materials and easy markets but the uprooting of languages and customs—not just the imposition of foreign armies, but of alien ways of experiencing" (187).||2. Feminism: "The second area where cultural and political action have become closely united is in the women's movement. It is in the nature of feminist politics that signs and images, written and dramatized experience, should be of especial significance. Discourse in all its forms is an obvious concern for feminists, either as places where women's oppression can be deciphered, or as places where it can be challenged. In any politics which puts identity and relationship centrally at stake, renewing attention to lived experience and the discourse of the body, culture does not need to argue its way to political relevance. Indeed one of the achievements of the women's movement has been to redeem such phrases as 'lived experience' and 'the discourse of the body' from the empiricist connotations with which much literary theory has invested them" (187).|
|—However, some of you may fiend that Eagleton isn't entirely enthusiastic about feminism (or [especially?] poco theory) in these concluding chapters. I suspect that he finds them as yet more rivals for his Marxist monomania?|
|3. Pop Cultural Studies: "The third area in question is the 'culture industry'. While literary critics have been cultivating sensibility in a minority, large segments of the media have been busy trying to devastate it in the majority; yet it is still presumed that studying, say, Gray and Collins is inherently more important than examining television or the popular press. Such a project differs from the two I have outlined already in its essentially defensive character: it represents a critical reaction to someone else's cultural ideology rather than an appropriation of culture for one's own ends. . . . The democratic control of these ideological apparatuses, along with popular alternatives to them, must be high on the agenda of any future socialist programme" (188). (Obviously, Eagleton sees this "arena" as largely one of Marxist intervention. "Culture industry" is a term from the Marxist Adorno; "ideological apparatuses" is from the Marxist Althusser.)|
|4. Proletarian "Literature": "The fourth and final area is that of the strongly emergent movement of working-class writing. Silenced for generations, taught to regard literature as a coterie activity beyond their grasp, working people over the past decade in Britain have been actively organizing to find their own literary styles and voices. The worker writers' movement is almost unknown to academia, and has not been exactly encouraged by the cultural organs of the state; but it is one sign of a significant break from the dominant relations of literary production" (188).|
In Conclusion: "These areas are not alternatives to the study of Shakespeare and Proust. If the study of such writers could become as charged with energy, urgency and enthusiasm as the activities I have just reviewed, the literary institution ought to rejoice rather than complain. But it is doubtful that this will happen when such texts are hermetically sealed from history, subjected to a sterile critical formalism, piously swaddled with eternal verities and used to confirm prejudices which any moderately enlightened student can perceive to be objectionable. The liberation of Shakespeare and Proust from such controls may well entail the death of literature, but it may also be their redemption" (188-189).
And then a very odd final "ALLEGORY": "I shall end with an allegory. We know that the lion is stronger than the lion-tamer, and so does the lion-tamer. The problem is that the lion does not know it. It is not out of the question that the death of literature may help the lion to awaken" (189; Of course it's only odd if one hasn't followed Eagleton's own politics thruout the book! [Note, also, that these are the last sentences of the original edition.]).
P.S.: As Eagleton reminds us in the Afterword, this chapter was written "way back" in 1982, and obviously his call or/prediction of English's transformation (in large part) into "Cultural Studies" has happened. (And see our own course text, The Cultural Studies Reader.) In the 1990's, for instance, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" studies, etc., became fairly popular. Moreover, Eagleton seems to conveniently have forgotten that, in his own Great Britain, the neo-Marxist pop-culture-centric Birmingham School of Cultural Studies had been running since the 1960s.
A decade and a half later, Eagleton can look back at the "times" he was describing with more distance, especially that social ferment that was the late 1960's (of student protests, the Vietnam War, et al.): "the late 1960s and early 1970s was a period in which new social forces were consolidating, certain global struggles (such as revolutionary nationalism) were intensifying, and a new, more heterogeneous body of students and teachers was flooding into academia from backgrounds which sometimes put them at odds with its governing consensus. Unusually, then, the campuses themselves became for a time hotbeds of political conflict; and this oubreak of militancy coincided in the late 1960s with the first emergence of literary theory. The first pathbreaking works of Jacques Derrida appeared just as French students were gearing themselves up for a confrontation with state power. . . . [N]either was it quite so easy to take for granted the liberal disinterestedness of academia itself, in an era when, not least in the Vietnam adventure, the Western universities themselves seemed increasingly locked into structures of social power, ideological control and military violence" (191).
|—"What was perhaps most in question was the assumption that literature embodied universal value," which could be ascertained "from the vantage-point of some classless, genderless, non-ethnic, disinterested universal subject. This was an easy enough operation to pull off when those individual histories sprang from roughly the same kind of social world; but it was becoming much less apparent to those from ethnic or working-class backgrounds, or those from sexually dispossessed groups, that these supposedly universal values were in any real sense theirs. It is no wonder, then, that the Russian Formalists, French structuralists and German reception theorists were suddenly in fashion; for all of these approaches 'denaturalized' certain traditional literary assumptions in ways congenial to the academic newcomers" (191).|
CULTURAL STUDIES encore: "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 [a Brit soap opera] began and construct an entirely fresh field of enquiry ('cultural studies') which would gratify the anti-elitist iconoclasm of the sixty-eighters and yet appear wholly in line with 'scientific' theoretical findings?" (192).
But then a conservative backlash (think "the Reagan years"): "Much of this rather brash theoretical buoyancy was soon to be dispersed" (192). . . . "What happened in the event was not a defeat for this project [of radical Cultural Studies/critical theory], 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. The student movement was rolled back, finding the political system too hard to break. The momentum of national liberation movements throughout the Third World slackened in the early 1970s . . . . Social democracy in the West, apparently unable to cope with the mounting problems of a capitalism in severe crisis, gave way to political regimes of a distinctly right-wing tenor, whose aim was not simply to combat radical values but to wipe them from living memory. By the close of the 1970s, Marxist criticism was rapidly falling from favour, as the world capitalist system, with its back to the economic wall since the oil crisis of the early 1970s, aggressively confronted Third World revolutionary nationalism abroad, and at home launched a series of virulent onslaughts on the labour movement and the forces of the left, along with liberal or enlightened thought in general. As if all this were not enough, the Almighty, evidently displeased with cultural theory, stepped in and picked off Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan" (192-193)!!
FEMINISM encore: "What held the fort of political criticism was feminism, which had rapidly come into its own; and it is no accident that this was also the heyday of post-structuralism. For though post-structuralism has its radical wing, its politics have been on the whole somewhat muted and oblique, and so more in keeping with a post-radical age." (However, Eagleton later qualifies this: "Post-stucturalism is in many respects a much more subversive project" than its fate, its practice, in American universities —where, it can be argued, it rather became just a "hipper" version of New Criticism?!)
|—"Feminist theory, then as now, was near to the top of the intellectual agenda, and for reasons not hard to seek. Of all such theoretical currents, it was the one which connected most deeply and urgently with the political needs and experience of well over half of those actually studying literature. Women could now make a unique, distinctive intervention in a subject which had always, in practice if not in theory, been largely theirs" (193). . . . "[I]t also made room for much that a male-dominated high theory had austerely excluded: pleasure, experience, bodily life, the unconscious, the affective, autobiographical and interpersonal, questions of subjectivity and everyday practice. It was theory brought home to lived reality" (193-194).|
|—(Of course a Marxist scholar can't be entirely glowing about this rival ascendancy?!:) "Theory had shifted almost overnight from Lenin to Lacan, Benveniste to the body; and if this was a salutary extension of politics into areas it had previously failed to reach, it was also, in part, the result of a deadlock in other kinds of political struggle" (194; i.e., the class struggle). . . . And so he gets a little critical!: "there have been few theoretical breakthroughs to equal the groundbreaking work of the early pioneers Moers, Millett, Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar, Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous, with their heady blendings of semiotics, linguistics, psychoanalysis, political theory, sociology, aesthetics and practical criticism" (194; apparently, Eagleton could not predict the advent of QUEER THEORY, even though Sedgwick was already publishing around this time? [Oops, my bad: see 207!]). All the same, "feminist criticism has established itself over the last decade or so as perhaps the most popular of all the new approaches to literature, drawing upon the theories of earlier times to revise the entire canon of literature and break open its restrictive frontiers" (194-195).|
But—MARXISM?: "The same can hardly be said of Marxist criticism, which since its apogee in the mid-1970s has languished somewhat in the doldrums. [An important fact:] This waning of Marxism long pre-dated the momentous events of the late 1980s in Eastern Europe, when neo-Stalinism, to the relief of all democratic socialists, was finally overthrown by just the kind of popular revolutions which Western postmodernism had complacently concluded were no longer either possible or desirable. Since this event was one which mainstream currents of the Western Marxist left had been clamouring for for a good seventy years, it was hardly an abrupt disillusionment with 'actually existing socialism' in the East which caused the decline of Marxist criticism in the West." (In sum, Western Marxism had long disassociated itself from the totalitarian regimes of Stalin & Mao.) "The fading popularity of Marxist criticism from the 1970s onwards was the result of developments in the so-called First World, not in the so-called Second. It stemmed in part from the crisis of global capitalism which we have glanced at already, in part from the criticisms aimed at Marxism by the various 'new' political currents—feminism, gay rights, ecology, ethnic movements and the rest" (195; hmmm; wow; perhaps THE sentence in this book that I most disagree with).
|—Eagleton then sort of admits the problem here—that Marxism is a monolithic, "totalizing" Big Theory: "Most of these earlier projects [like Marxism] had been based on a belief in a struggle between mass political organization on the one hand and an oppressive state power on the other; most of them envisaged the radical transformation of capitalism, racism or imperialism as a whole, and so thought in ambitiously 'totalizing' terms. By about 1980, all of this had come to look distinctly passé. Since state power had proved too strong to dismantle, so-called micropolitics were now the order of the day. Totalizing theories and organized mass politics were increasingly associated with the dominative reason of patriarchy or Enlightenment. And if all theory was, as some suspected, inherently totalizing, then the new styles of theory had to be a species of anti-theory: local, sectoral, subjective, anecdotal, aestheticized, autobiographical, rather than objectivist and all-knowing. Theory, it seemed, having deconstructed just about everything else, had now finally succeeded in deconstructing itself[!]. The idea of a transformative, self-determining human agent was dismissed as 'humanist', to be replaced by the fluid, mobile, decentred subject. There was no longer a coherent system or unified history to be opposed, just a discrete set of powers, discourses, practices, narratives" (195). (Several comments are called for here: 1) this development in theory has been called the "balkanization" of theory, or the rise of "little theories"; 2) This passage also explains Eagleton's rather muted enthusiasm for poststructuralism, which led the way in critiquing all "grand narratives"—like, yes, even Marxism.)|
|—OUCH—another slam at the rise of feminism and poco/critical race theory: "A new generation of literary students and theorists was born, fascinated by sexuality but bored by social class, enthused by popular culture but ignorant of labour history, enthralled by exotic otherness but only dimly acquainted with the workings of imperialism" (197; Eagleton ceaselessly refuses to acknowledge the possibility of INTERSECTIONALITY?).|
Other Crit-Theory Trends: "As the 1980s wore on, then, Michel Foucault rapidly overtook Karl Marx as the doyen of political theory, while Freud, as cryptically re-interpreted by Jacques Lacan, was still riding high." (As anticipated by my comment about American poststructuralism above, Derrida gets watered down/tamed:) "In the hands of some of his Anglo-Saxon disciples [i.e., the Yale School], deconstruction was reduced to a narrowly textual form of enquiry, lending a boost to the literary canon it offered to subvert by roaming ceaselessly over its contents, deconstructing as it went and so keeping the critical industry well supplied with sophisticated new materials[!]. Derrida himself has always insisted on the political, historical, institutional nature of his project; but this, transplanted from Paris to Yale or Cornell, tended like the odd French wine not to travel well[!], and this audacious, iconoclastic thought-form proved easily assimilable to a formalist paradigm. On the whole, post-structuralism in general thrived best when it blended some broader project: feminism, post-colonialism, psychoanalysis" (196).
New Historicism (which might be called a footnote to Foucault!): "[T]hroughout the 1980s, not least in the United States, there had been a gathering swell floating literary theory back in the direction of some brand of historicism. In changed political circumstances, however, this could no longer be the apparently discredited historicism of Marx or Hegel, with its supposed faith in grand, unitary narratives, its teleological hopes, its hierarchy of historical causes, its realist faith in determining the truth of historical events, its assured distinctions between what was central and what peripheral in history itself. What emerged on the scene in the 1980s, with the so-called new historicism, was a style of historical criticism which revolved precisely on the rejection of all of these doctrines. It was a historiography appropriate for a postmodern age in which the very notions of historical truth, causality, pattern, purpose and direction were increasingly under fire" (197).
|—New Historicism, moreover, further blurred the division of the literary & non-literary: "There was no firm distinction any longer between historical highways and minor footpaths, or indeed any hard-and-fast opposition between fact and fiction. Historical events were treated as 'textual' phenomena, while literary works were regarded as material events. Historiography was a form of narration conditioned by the narrator's own prejudices and preoccupations, and so itself a kind of rhetoric or fiction. There was no single determinable truth to any particular narrative or event, just a conflict of interpretations whose outcome was finally determined by power rather than truth" (197; which is straight Foucault [& Nietzsche]).|
|—"The term 'power' suggests the writings of Michel Foucault; and indeed in many ways the new historicism turned out to be the application of Foucaultean themes to (in the main) Renaissance cultural history. This was itself a little odd, since if the narrational field was as genuinely open as the new historicism liked to insist, how come that the narratives which tended to get delivered were in the main so predictable? It seemed permissible to discuss sexuality, but not, by and large, social class; ethnicity, but not labour and material reproduction; political power, but not for the most part economics; culture, but not, on the whole, religion. It is only a mild exaggeration to claim that the new historicism was prepared in pluralist spirit to examine any topic at all as long as it cropped up somewhere in the work of Michel Foucault[!], or had some fairly direct bearing on the somewhat parlous condition of present-day American culture. In the end, much of it seemed less to do with the Elizabethan state or Jacobean court than with the fate of former radicals in contemporary California." (Actually, the New Historicist Alan Liu would later pretty much admit to this last—that much 1980s New Historicism was really about the Reagan administration!). . . . More slams: "Perhaps it is easier in California to feel that history is random, unsystematic, directionless, than in some less privileged places in the world[!]—just as it was easier for Virginia Woolf to feel that life was fragmentary and unstructured than it was for her servants[!]. New historicism has produced some critical commentary of rare boldness and brilliance, and challenged many an historiographical shibboleth; but its rejection of macro-historical schemes is uncomfortably close to commonplace conservative thought, which has its own political reasons for scorning the idea of historical structures and long-term trends" (198; by now, it's inordinately clear why Eagleton must claim this).|
|—Finally—and of course—Eagleton finds the British version of New Historicism—called Cultural Material—much more Marxist, with its emphasis on the "social and material" roots of culture (198-199).|
"Postmodernism": "[I]t is doubtless the most widely-touted term in cultural theory today, one which, in promising to cover everything from Madonna to meta-narrative, post-Fordism to pulp fiction, threatens thereby to collapse into meaninglessness. We can, first of all, distinguish the more comprehensive, historical or philosophical term 'postmodernity' from the narrow, more cultural or aesthetic term 'postmodernism'. Postmodernity means the end of modernity, in the sense of those grand narratives of truth, reason, science, progress and universal emancipation which are taken to characterize modern thought from the Enlightenment onwards" (200; others take this previous era of "modernity" back to the Renaissance). Modernity entailed "the dangerously absolutist faith that our varied, contingent forms of life and knowledge can be grounded in some single, ultimate, unimpeachable principle: Reason or the laws of history, technology or modes of production, political Utopia [as in Marxism!?] or a universal human nature. For 'anti-foundationalist' postmodernity, by contrast, our forms of life are relative, ungrounded, self-sustaining, made up of mere cultural convention and tradition, without any identifiable origin or grandiose goal" (201).
|—Even Rationalism is just another "transcendental signifier" (to use Derrida's term): "We cannot found our activities rationally [that is, upon some anchor of reason], not only because there are different, discontinuous, perhaps incommensurable rationalities, but because any reasons we can advance will always be shaped by some pre-rational context of power, belief, interest or desire which can never itself be the subject of rational demonstration. There is no overarching totality, rationality or fixed centre to human life" (201; this is pretty much straight Nietzsche).|
|—Again: "There is no overarching totality, rationality or fixed centre to human life, no metalanguage which can capture its endless variety, just a plurality of cultures and narratives which cannot be hierarchically ordered or 'privileged', and which must consequently respect the inviolable 'otherness' of ways of doing things which are not their own. Knowledge is relative to cultural contexts, so that to claim to know the world 'as it is' is simply a chimera—not only because our understanding is always a matter of partial, partisan interpretation, but because the world itself is no way in particular. Truth is the product of interpretation, facts are constructs of discourse, objectivity is just whatever questionable interpretation of things has currently seized power, and the human subject is as much a fiction as the reality he or she contemplates, a diffuse, self-divided entity without any fixed nature or essence. In all of this, postmodernity is a kind of extended footnote to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who anticipated almost every one of these positions in nineteenth-century Europe" (201).|
|—(Pop) Cultural Studies encore: "Finally, and perhaps most typically of all, postmodern culture turns its distaste for fixed boundaries and categories on the traditional distinction between 'high' and 'popular' art, deconstructing the borderline between them by producing artifacts which are self-consciously populist or vernacular, or which offer themselves as commodities for pleasurable consumption. Postmodernism, like [the Marixst] Walter Benjamin's 'mechanical reproduction', seeks to dismantle the intimidating aura of high-modernist culture with a more demotic, user-friendly art, suspecting all hierarchies of value as privileged and elitist. There is no better or worse, just different. . . . In advertising, fashion, lifestyle, the shopping mall and the mass media, aesthetics and technology had finally interpenetrated, while political life had become transformed to a kind of aesthetic spectacle. Postmodernism's impatience with conventional aesthetic judgements took on tangible shape in so-called cultural studies, which grew apace as the 1980s unfolded, and which often enough refused to respect value-distinctions between the sonnet and the soap opera" (202; Eagleton is heavy into alliteration).|
|—So is the characteristic philosophy of postmodernity—that is, poststruturalism—a cure or a symptom?!: "Is postmodernity the appropriate philosophy for our time, or is it the word [sic] view of a jaded bunch of erstwhile revolutionary Western intellectuals who with typical intellectual arrogance have projected it upon contemporary history as a whole?[!] What does postmodernism mean in Mali or Mayo? What does it mean to societies which have yet to fully enter upon modernity proper? Is the word neutrally descriptive of consumerist society, or a positive recommendation of a certain style of life?" (202)!|
|—"The arguments will doubtless continue, not least because postmodernism is that most robust of all theories, one rooted in a concrete set of social practices and institutions. It is possible to ignore phenomenology or semiotics or reception theory—indeed the vast majority of humankind have proved singularly successful in doing so[!]—but not consumerism, the mass media, aestheticized politics, sexual difference. . . . For its more politically minded proponents, such mystifying ideas as truth, identity, totality, universality, foundations, metanarrative, the collective revolutionary subject, must be cleared away precisely so that genuinely effective radical projects can get off the ground. For its more conservative apologists, the rejection of these notions goes hand-in-hand with a defence of the political status quo. There is thus all the difference in the world between Foucault and Stanley Fish, Derrida and Richard Rorty, though all four can be broadly categorized as postmodernists. For American neo-pragmatists like Rorty and Fish, the collapse of transcendental viewpoints signals, in effect, the collapse of the possibility of full-blooded political critique." The paralyzing result?: "As long as what we utter is intelligible—and any critique which is not would be merely ineffective—then we are already in complicity with the culture we seek to objectify, and so plunged in a kind of bad faith. [I actually find this to be a pretty strong argument, so I must be cast by Eagleton into the Fish/Rorty camp.] This doctrine, which depends on an eminently deconstructable distinction between 'inside' and 'outside', is currently being deployed by some to defend the American way of life, precisely because postmodernism is uneasily aware that no rational critique of that way of life, or indeed of any other, is any longer possible" (203).|
|—And the rub, for Eagleton: "Similarly, if the idea of system or totality can be discredited, then there is really no such thing as patriarchy or the 'capitalist system' to be criticized" (203). [Another great zinger:] This brand of poststructuralism thus becomes "a dogma which is perhaps rather easier to sustain in Columbia University than in the Latin American nation of that name" (204)!|
POCO Theory: "If, by the mid-1990s, feminist criticism has proved the most popular of the various new literary approaches, then post-colonial theory has been pressing hard on its heels. . . . '[M]ulticulturalism' . . . challenges the way the West has conceived its identity and articulated it in a canon of artistic works" (204). . . . The result has been the breaking open of a narrowly conceived Western cultural canon, retrieving the besieged cultures of 'marginal' groups and peoples. It has also meant bringing home some issues of 'high' theory to contemporary global society. Questions of 'meta-narrative' no longer concern just literary works, but the terms in which the post-Enlightenment West has traditionally couched its own imperial project. The decentring and deconstruction of categories and identities assume fresh urgency in a context of racism, ethnic conflict, neo-colonial domination. The 'other' is no longer merely a theoretical concept but groups and peoples written out of history, subjected to slavery, insult, mystification, genocide" (204-205).
|—[With such poco theorists as Fanon and Bhabha,] "Psychoanalytic categories of 'splitting' and projection, denial and disavowal, have shifted from the Freudian textbooks to become ways of analysing the psycho-political relations between colonizers and colonized. . . . And the plight of women in such societies, forced as they are to assume many of its most wretched burdens, has resulted in a peculiarly fruitful alliance between feminism and post-colonialism" (205).|
|—Now Eagleton's critique of POCO theory (with his usual Marxist spin, of course): "Culture is on any estimate important in a neo-colonial world; but it is hardly what is finally decisive. It is not in the end questions of language, skin colour or identity, but of commodity prices, raw materials, labour markets, military alliances and political forces, which shape the relations between rich and poor nations. [It can't be BOTH?!] In the West, especially in the United States, questions of ethnicity have at once enriched a radical politics narrowly fixated on social class, and, in their own narrow fixation on difference, helped to obscure the vital material conditions which different ethnic groups have in common. Post-colonialism, in short, has been among other things one instance of a rampant 'culturalism' which has recently swept across Western cultural theory, over-emphasizing the cultural dimension of human life in understandable overreaction to a previous biologism, humanism or economism. Such cultural relativism is for the most part simply imperial dominion stood on its head. [In the hands of some, certainly.] Like any other theory, then, post-colonial discourse has its limits and blindspots. It has sometimes involved a romantic idealization of the 'other', along with a simplistic politics which regards the reduction of the 'other' to the 'same' as the root of all political evil" (205; I'm a bit speechless).|
|—I'll grant the following critiques: "For all its emphasis on difference, post-colonial theory has sometimes too quickly conflated very different societies under the same 'Third World' category [or in my own area of Native American Studies, all tribes as one 'pan-Indian' culture]; and its language has too often betrayed a portentous obscurantism incongruously remote from the peoples it champions" (206; no doubt referring to the dense academese of Spivak & Bhabha).|
Theory & the Marketplace: "Theory, partly because of its high-poweredness, esotericism, up-to-dateness, rarity and relative novelty, has achieved high prestige in the academic marketplace, even if it still provokes the virulent hostility of a liberal humanism which fears being ousted by it. Post-structuralism is sexier than Philip Sidney, just as quarks are more alluring than quadrilaterals[!]. Theory has been one symptom in our time of the commodifying of the intellectual life itself, as one conceptual fashion usurps another as shortwindedly as changes in hairstyle. Just as the human body—along with a good deal else—has become aestheticized in our day, so theory has become a kind of minority art-form, playful, self-ironizing and hedonistic, one place to which the impulses behind high-modernist art have now migrated" (206; wow).
Returning to the dismantling of English studies begun in the intro: theory "has no particular unity to it as a discipline; what, for example, do phenomenology and queer theory have in common? And none of the methods grouped under literary theory is peculiar to the study of literature; indeed most of them germinated in fields quite beyond it. Yet this disciplinary indeterminacy also marks a breakdown in the traditional division of intellectual labour, which the word 'theory' somehow flags. 'Theory' indicates that our classical ways of carving up knowledge are now, for hard historical reasons, in deep trouble. But it is as much a revealing symptom of this breakdown as a positive reconfiguration of the field. The emergence of theory suggests that, for good historical reasons, what had become known as the humanities could no longer carry on in their customary shape. This was all to the good, since the humanities had too often proclaimed a spurious disinterestedness, preached 'universal' values which were all too socially specific, repressed the material basis of those values, absurdly overrated the importance of 'culture' and fostered a jealously elitist conception of it" (207).
|—"The task of cultural theory . . . was to take apart the received wisdom of the traditional humanities. In this . . . it has been reasonably successful, in theory[!] if not in practice. Since this book first appeared, there have been few convincing ripostes to the various cases which literary theory has launched. Much hostility to theory has been little more than a typically Anglo-Saxon uneasiness with ideas as such—a feeling that arid abstractions are out of place when it comes to art. This edginess about ideas is characteristic of those social groups whose own historically specific ideas have for the moment won out, and who can therefore come to mistake them either for natural feelings or eternal verities" (207)!|
|—SUMMARY: One battle which cultural theory has probably won is the contention that there is no neutral or innocent reading of a work of art. . . . A broad kind of historicism has also carried the day: there are few card-carrying formalists left around[!]. If the author is not exactly dead, a naive biographism is no longer in fashion. The chancy nature of literary canons, their dependence on a culturally specific frame of value, is nowadays quite widely recognized, along with the truth that certain social groups have been unjustly excluded from them. And we are no longer exactly sure where high culture ends and popular culture begins" (208).|
|—Another "weird" final paragraph: "The humanist is thus not wrong to trust to the possibility of such universal values; it is just that nobody can yet say exactly what they would be, since the material conditions which might allow them to flourish have not yet come into being. If they were ever to do so, the theorist could relievedly lay down his or her theorizing, which would have been made redundant precisely by being politically realized, and do something more interesting for a change" (208; so, I guess, if you don't want to do theory, pray for a Marxist utopia?!).|
|—TCG, Fall 2016; Fall 2018|
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