From Plato to Nato

Christopher Norris

  • Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton
    Blackwell, 244 pp, £15.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 631 13258 9
  • Essays on Fiction 1971-82 by Frank Kermode
    Routledge, 227 pp, £9.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9442 6
  • Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction by Vincent Leitch
    Hutchinson, 290 pp, £15.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 09 150690 5
  • Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies by Peter Wollen
    Verso, 228 pp, £15.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 86091 055 5
  • Knowing the Poor: A Case-Study in Textual Reality Construction by Bryan Green
    Routledge, 221 pp, £12.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9282 2

Eagleton’s book is both a primer and a postmortem. It surveys the varieties of recent and present-day literary theory, only to suggest – in its closing chapter – that they had better be abandoned in the interests of a practical, transformative involvement in cultural politics. Like Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus, Eagleton asks his reader to think, and think hard, about the theories on offer; then, having achieved a perspective that transcends them, to kick away the ladder and enjoy the prospect thus afforded. Those familiar with Eagleton’s earlier writings will hear the crash of ladders distinctly near home as the book comes to deal with structuralist and post-structuralist theory. Gone is the Althusserian quest for a ‘science’ of the text and its productive mechanisms, the project which Eagleton resourcefully argued in Criticism and Ideology (1976). As that scientistic dream receded, so the influence of Foucault replaced that of Althusser, and the truth-claims of knowledge were increasingly seen as effects of a dominant ideological discourse. No matter how radical their proclaimed intent, critical theories were all too readily processed and adapted to the ends of maintaining the institutional status quo. If ‘truth’, as Foucault argues, is a reflex function of the power to impose such a dominant discourse, then it is the concept of truth which itself needs dismantling, and along with it the old opposition between ‘science’ and ‘ideology’.

It is therefore not a question, Eagleton now argues, of devising some new and improved critical theory to get over the problems encountered to date. That those problems remain, and need thinking through if they are to loosen their cramping hold, is a point which he, like Wittgenstein, wouldn’t for a moment deny. Indeed his book is three-quarters devoted to precisely this effort of ground-clearing commentary and critique. But in the upshot it appears that both problems and solutions – or at least those solutions hitherto proposed in the name of ‘critical theory’ – display the same blindness in regard to their own institutional motives and interests. The discipline of ‘English’ has proved itself remarkably capable of coming to terms with apparent threats to its traditional values and self-image. From Leavis to American deconstruction, the story that Eagleton has to tell is one of successive accommodating moves between the literary-academic ‘institution’ and those critics, schools or ideas which begin by challenging its cultural hegemony, and end up by merely extending its powers.

The story is more convincing in some parts than in others. Eagleton has shrewd points to make about the founding of English as a university discipline, its ideological underpinning, and the complex of historical motives which went to shape its emergent discourse. Like others of late, he looks to such documentary sources as the Newbolt Report of 1921 for a first-hand illustrative sample and test-case of the uses of English in upholding a sense of threatened cultural tradition. The Report is an odd mixture of high-minded argument and transparent political motives. Matthew Arnold’s rebuke to the complacent philistines of his day has by now – in the wake of 1917 – taken on a more urgent toning. Deny the working classes their share of the nation’s spiritual heritage, and they are likely to forget all about the common Culture and press their demands for material equality. What the Newbolt committee expressed with such engaging frankness, literary critics like Eliot and Leavis were soon erecting into a wholesale mystique of cultural tradition and values. Notions of a long-lost ‘organic’ community served to legitimate a myth of historical decline, and, along with it, an irrationalist cult of the literary work as somehow restoring the vital complexities of lived experience. If history could only bear witness to that calamitous ‘dissociation of sensibility’ which set in – as Eliot thought with the English Civil War, then so much the worse for history. What remained was Tradition, that imaginary museum where poems could relate one to another in an ideal order of meanings and values which transcended mere historical fact.

Thus it was that English Literature, as a newly-emergent discipline, took over and developed the 19th-century ‘culture and society’ debate. But where that earlier tradition had grown up in protest and preserved at least something of its emancipatory character, ‘English’ very quickly succumbed, Eagleton argues, to the pressures of conservatism and institutional conformity. It became, that is, a displaced or surrogate ideology, called upon (especially at times of unrest) to support and reinforce the myth of a unified national culture. Whatever its present troubled condition, that culture could always be rediscovered in the past, projected into a golden age of refined sensibilities and rich communal experience. Criticism was charged (whether consciously or not) with the task of perpetuating this myth and devising a discourse which would work to preserve it from the crass intrusions of everyday political reality. Hence the supra-historical ‘tradition’ of Eliot’s creating, and the Leavisite myth of a lost ‘organic’ culture fleetingly recaptured in the acts of a trained or ‘mature’ critical intelligence. University English grew up as a discipline for reproducing this powerful ideology and discovering new and more persuasive means of imposing its cultural hegemony.

Such is Eagleton’s diagnostic view of the rise and present institutional character of English Studies. A similar case was argued by Peter Widdowson and his contributors in the ‘New Accents’ volume Re-Reading English. It is hardly surprising that their arguments were met with great hostility by those (not only ‘Leavisites’) who continue to believe in the vital role of English as a force for creative and cultural good. What is left of the subject, after all, if one questions its ideological grounding to the point where ‘literature’ becomes merely a pretext for imposing a mystified discourse of outworn cultural politics? The traditionalist might argue that it is sheer bad faith, on Eagleton’s part, to set up still as some kind of ‘literary’ critic, while proceeding to demolish both literature and criticism as products of institutionalised bad faith. And again, why write such a lengthy account of recent ‘literary theory’ when the upshot is to argue that most of these developments are merely more sophisticated versions of the same technique for occluding history and politics? Eagleton’s reply is ready to hand. Only by understanding the institution, grasping its structured genealogy, can criticism free itself from fetters of its own creating. The way is then open for strategic interventions – feminist criticism being his chief example – which would break once and for all with the hegemonic discourse of ‘English’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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