Who can blame him?

Frank Kermode

  • Critical Terms for Literary Study edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin
    Chicago, 369 pp, £35.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 226 47201 9
  • The Ideology of the Aesthetic by Terry Eagleton
    Blackwell, 426 pp, £35.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 631 16302 6

‘Something is happening to the way we think,’ said Clifford Geertz in 1980, and Stanley Fish is right to add that Geertz was partly responsible for the shift. But Fish, in a bold essay on rhetoric included in the Lentricchia-McLaughlin volume, qualifies Geertz’s remark: ‘something,’ he adds, ‘is always happening to the way we think.’ For he doesn’t quite agree with people who claim to have overthrown ‘the rival epistemology’, wiped out ‘foundationalism’, disposed once and for all of ‘essentialist’ thinking. Deploying new rhetorical, deconstructive and semiological tools, they believe they have taken apart all the assumptions by which we – imagining ourselves to be independent individuals in a world we knew roughly how to know – imagined we could deal justly or sensibly with the problems of literature, society and our own lives. They say we must now learn to think about these matters in entirely new ways.

Many will share Fish’s doubts about some of the large claims now being made for these new ways: for example, the claim that the assiduous practice of textual deconstruction can ‘do radical political work’. Having given due thought to the way we think, he concludes that extreme claims must eventually run up against antithetical and impassable limits and be turned back on themselves. Such a view could be taken to imply that the problematic, in the form it now takes, will in time disappear into itself, or perhaps be raised to a new level on a dialectic elevator. Naturally the triumphalists aren’t interested in such predictions: believing they have effected what they are willing to call a Copernican revolution, they despise or at best pity all who are still deluded by such geocentric mystifications.

Since the purpose of the book is expressly to make converts, the essays collected by Lentricchia and McLaughlin offer a fairly modest account of the revolutionary claims. ‘Literary theory has arrived,’ says the Introduction, ‘and no student of literature can afford not to come to terms with it.’ (‘Afford’ and ‘terms’ might here be none the worse for a bit of deconstruction, which might detect a slippage into market terminology.) The editors want to change a situation in which many people remain ‘resistant’ to theory because they haven’t been taught to ask the right radical questions, such as ‘what is an author?’, ‘what is writing?’, or ‘what is literature?’, questions which, difficult enough in themselves, lead inevitably to questions even more awkward, such as ‘what is a subject?’ And it is admitted that these difficulties are compounded by the obscurity, held to be necessary in at least some cases, of many of the texts that explore them.

It would seem that the present collection is somewhat at odds with itself in proposing to make theory available to ‘students and general readers’ – that is, by making it fairly easy to understand. No textbook could hope to succeed if written in the manner of Lacan or of Kristeva, and this one, with its laudable missionary aspirations, has to tread carefully the line between a possibly fraudulent lucidity and an opacity fatal to proselytising and commerce.

The Introduction explains that the contributors have avoided dwelling on recondite terms of art such as Derrida’s ‘trace’ and Foucault’s ‘archaeology’, though they deal freely with others which, in much the same way, give to familiar words new and more esoteric senses – for instance, ‘discourse’, ‘structure’, ‘narrative’. The editorial claim is that these transformations or extensions of the familiar senses of the words are necessary in the new order of things, when it has become apparent that ‘literature is best understood not as a self-contained entity but rather as a writing practice, a particular formation within the world of discourse.’ Literature, that is, loses its ‘privileged’ status, and in so far as it exists at all does so not ‘autonomously’ but as part of a pattern of cultural forces or practices, and finally of a politics.

For when we are rid of all the geocentric myths, when all our naive critical assumptions have been ‘denaturalised’ and understood as cultural artefacts, we shall recognise that everything is, in the end, inescapably political. Frank Lentricchia, in his Afterword, undertakes to demonstrate that Wallace Stevens’s ‘Anecdote of a Jar’, probably chosen for its apparent remoteness from politics, ‘sharpens our awareness of the structure of power’; and in principle there is no poem that cannot do likewise, for ‘no reading is, or should desire to be, innocent of political involvement.’

Lentricchia may here have reached one of those limits with which, on Fish’s view, every theory eventually collides: for to learn a whole new set of terms and assumptions only to discover that by doing so your text ends up where every poem, indeed every piece of discourse, must – in the politics department – surely cannot long satisfy the revolutionary spirit. However, there are other essays here which do have the merit of explaining the new way of thinking about thinking with some clarity, even with old-fashioned explicitness.

Indeed one can’t help noticing how easily the contributors fall into an unreconstructed, or undeconstructed, practice of historical narrative; almost without exception they tell the story of their chosen concept – however often they invoke post-modernity – in the old familar way. John Carlos Rowe gives us a sober, useful historical treatment of the development of the concept of structure; Barbara Johnson lucidly recounts the steps by which ‘writing’ came to mean what it now means, though ends with the revolutionary claim that ‘what is at stake in writing is the very structure of authority itself’; Paul Bové patiently, clearly, usefully, explicates Foucault’s employment of the terms ‘discourse’ and ‘genealogy’; Annabel Patterson no less helpfully provides a history of the Intention controversies from Beardsley and Wimsatt on, showing how, since the Copernican upheaval, the old question has acquired quite new contexts (‘Between them Foucault and Derrida give anti-intentionalism a philosophical prestige that the literary-critical version never acquired’). And the target audience will also find very serviceable James Kavanagh’s account of the evolution of the term ‘ideology’.

It is precisely their wish to make their new positions clear that causes these writers to relapse into archaic practices, writing history as if the practice of historical writing had never been called into question, as if it is perfectly natural to go back to the origins and to explain the new by showing how it came to displace the old. At its best, then, this is a reassuringly self-deconstructive book. The intention, to some extent bound to undo itself, was to give students and a more general public a paradoxically straightforward account of the benefits of theory, and by doing so to subvert their naturalised assumptions. Then, presumably, they will have naturalised a new set, in which the discourse of theory will come in its turn to seem natural, its dictates internalised.

That bourgeois liberalism has, since the Enlightenment, done hegemonically well out of the naturalisation of assumptions about art, or rather of the concept of the aesthetic, is the argument of Terry Eagleton’s long and brilliant book. With great energy and much good cheer it offers a full and tendentious study of the concept. The journey is enjoyable and the terminus rather magnificent. Nothing becomes the book more than its concluding chapter, in which, after slashing happily away at the ‘libertarian pessimism’ of Foucault and Derrida, the unethical pluralism of Lyotard and the crypto-aestheticism of Habermas, Eagleton states his own faith in a community purged of the imperialism of the bourgeois aesthetic – a community in which all will recognise that ‘our shared material conditions bind us ineluctably together, and in doing so open up the possibilities of friendship and love.’

These possibilities, however, are linked ineluctably (a word for some reason much favoured by modern theorists, like ‘crucial’ and ‘imbricate’) with antithetical possibilities of aggression and enmity; so we face a choice: what it comes down to is that we must love one another or die. Love is the understanding, impossible under capitalism, of ‘the autonomy of the other’. At present we do it the wrong of treating it exclusively on the personal level. When Eagleton is explaining love as a high, even the highest political issue, he sounds quite like Christopher Caudwell, a forebear whose more primitive version of Marxism he does not much admire: but there is here at least a similarity of thought as well as a comparable exaltation of tone.

There are other Marxisms which do not make love of the other a primary consideration, and there are plenty of people on the left for whom Eagleton shows very little respect. We are warned not to yield too much to ‘the good intentions of those white male radicals who, products as they are of a political history which has often violently marginalised these issues, cannot now be trusted to have miraculously voided such bad habits from their systems overnight’. This seems a bit overbearing – getting born again, or miraculously voiding sin, seems to be a familiar enough experience even in a post-modern world, though admittedly a slower purgation may be preferable. The author himself needs neither, claiming a working-class and socialist upbringing from which he has not deviated – a tradition in which alone we can hope to be saved. And he is as much opposed to radicals who don’t understand and follow this tradition as he is to ignorant ‘middle-class suburbanites’. At some far remove, the argument of this book has something to do with the failings of the modern or post-modern Labour Party – more generally, with all expedient left-wing accommodations to capitalism. It is true, as Eagleton himself observes, that subtle analyses of Kantian disinterest or Schiller’s Aesthetic Education may seem a long way from the immediate issues of the class struggle, but the whole point of this extraordinary work is to demonstrate the shallowness of such a perception: ‘A deeper understanding of the mechanisms by which political hegemony is currently maintained is a necessary prerequisite of effective political action,’ and those mechanisms can’t be understood without going back a long way in history.

Between combative Introduction and prophetic Conclusion there fall about 200,000 words analysing the idea of the aesthetic from Baumgarten to Adorno, and there is hardly a dull page. The leading idea seems to be critically refined from an insight of Lukacs. In the 18th century, according to Lukacs, ‘the stark polarities of early bourgeois society’ gave aesthetics a new philosophical importance; the work of art, as now conceived, came, in Eagleton’s paraphrase, ‘to the rescue of a commodified existence, equipped with everything in which the commodity is so lamentably lacking – a form no longer indifferent to its content but indissociable from it’. Eagleton keenly detects remnants of bourgeois humanism in Lukacs’s formulation, and in a way his book, which is bulkily nimble enough to escape the appellation of ‘elephantine treatise’ which he applies to Hegel’s Lectures on the Aesthetic, is an extended attempt to eradicate them.

The whole tenor of the argument is dialectical. It isn’t enough to show that the aesthetic is simply ‘bourgeois ideology’, to be peremptorily got rid of and replaced by ‘alternative forms of cultural polities’. Of course it is bourgeois ideology: but it is also part of that achievement of bourgeois revolution which Marx said must be cherished if the socialist order of the future is not to be ‘closed, illiberal’. So although the Enlightenment concept of aesthetic autonomy served the interests of bourgeois individualism, it nevertheless remains ‘a vision of human energies as radical ends in themselves which is the implacable enemy of all dominative or instrumentalist thought’. Out of this contradiction there can be an emergence, at a higher level, of human particularity, a higher notion of the subject, based on a recognition of the autonomy of the other: a development, via the dialectic, of that in some ways very selfish bourgeois invention.

As Eagleton points out (and there are few matters of any conceivable relevance that he doesn’t point out), this approach is not consonant with Paul de Man’s equally determined but less optimistic ‘demystification’ of the aesthetic, for de Man had no interest in its ‘potentially positive dimensions’. However, thorough demystification is needed none the less, and Eagleton begins at the beginning, with Baumgarten, who invented the subject as we understand it but had a much broader idea of the aesthetic than his successors, using the term not specifically of art but of ‘sensate life’ generally. In a way, this is the germ of what Eagleton wants for a revolutionary aesthetic: it should have to do with bodily pleasure, though in a society where ‘the other’ is free, ‘where each discovers the law in the depths of his or her own free identity’ – an aesthetic state, as Baumgarten put it, in which ‘the sensible is ... lifted to the dignity of knowledge.’ Only then will the aesthetic in this broad sense reassert itself (of course on a higher level than Baumgarten’s) as the power of the body in revolt against the power which has hitherto instilled in the subject a ‘mystified’ respect for bad law and unjust social arrangements.

To get there, however, we have first to demystify that respect, and break the connection between the bogus autonomy of the bourgeois subject and the ideology of the aesthetic as it grew out of Kant. It figured importantly in bourgeois thought as providing the only situation in which human beings, under a market economy, could ‘belong together in some intimate Gemeinschaft’. That wasn’t, one supposes, bad in itself: but the attendant idea of the work of art was false, being modelled on the fake autonomy of the bourgeois subject.

These and many ancillary subjects are traced, with unflagging volubility, through Schiller, Fichte, Schelling, for whom ‘the universal organon of philosophy is ... the philosophy of art’, Hegel, who dissented from this, Kierkegaard, who did not think at all well of the aesthetic, and Marx, to whom pleasure in property was a ‘displacement’ of the sensuous plentitude of the body, an estrangement of the senses. Correct that displacement and we can hope to live aesthetically, always admitting that it was the bourgeois who unwittingly made this outcome possible.

And so on, through Nietzsche and Freud – this an especially fine chapter, with original and cogent remarks on the super-ego and ‘the great debate between desire and authority’. Then come Heidegger, Benjamin (enemy of ‘totalising’ thought) and Adorno (‘Art can only hope to be valid if it provides an implicit critique of the conditions which produce it’ – a validation, says Eagleton, which, in evoking art’s privileged remoteness from such conditions, instantly invalidates itself).

In refusing to ‘abandon the concept of totality’, submitting it instead to ‘a materialistic mutation’, Adorno has Eagleton’s support. There are some things he thinks it senseless to jettison, and totality, much despised by the Post-Modernist theorists, is one of them. Totalisation is regularly described as illicit, a myth or a lie: but Eagleton thinks otherwise, and enjoys demonstrating that those who dismiss it are themselves totalising away like mad. What could be more totalising than belief in something called ‘prison’ or the ‘total institution’, as held by the anti-totaliser Foucault? In the same way, the enemies of all transcendence are always coming up with new transcendental arrangements – Foucault’s ‘aestheticised model of power’, for instance.

Does the culture of Post-Modernism itself hold any promise? Not much; it is described, in the sort of paradox the author is so fond of, as at once ‘radical and conservative, iconoclastic and incorporated’. It hasn’t much relevance to the world Eagleton wants, and it has that destructive potential he often finds in new ways of thinking about thinking other than his own.

His own aestheticised transcendent is, of course, the Marxist tradition. Everything he says has to be consistent with this meta-narrative, to give it its Post-Modern name. He is well aware of this, and all the labour he expends on this apparently very academic study of the aesthetic ideology, and an array of related ideas, is dedicated to the cause. Against those he conceives to be its enemies, consciously or not, he can be extravagantly and amusingly polemical: but more impressive is the flow of what comes over – however recondite some of the details – as very uncommon common sense. And it helps that evolutionary ardour is tempered by a refusal to deal in ignorant and costly destructions.

Eagleton knows his temperateness will displease other radicals and theorists: his aim is not to please them but to secure the health of that community, that humanity, he seeks to found. He is not afraid to take a hint from Forster, who said that good liberals must be liberal enough to be suspicious of being liberals: Eagleton would say much the same of good radicals. And there is something about Eagleton’s visionary conclusion that puts one in mind of the pre-Copernican Forster’s talk of ‘love, the beloved republic’. Certainly he has little truck with those who believe that the new way of thinking outlaws such aspirations, endorsing only argument about horizonless texts and decentred ‘subjects’. He wants a way of thinking that will not be just about how we think, but which will change people, change the world. And who can blame him?