Terry Eagleton

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Geoffrey Thurley (review date 24 September 1982)

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SOURCE: “Phallic Woman,” in New Statesman, September 24, 1982, p. 28.

[In the following review of The Rape of Clarissa, Thurley concludes that the work is “a vigorous and sometimes brilliant book” marred by Eagleton's “dogmatic intensity.”]

We can read Clarissa again, says Terry Eagleton, thanks to feminism and post-structuralism. It is now relevant, he argues [in The Rape of Clarissa], because it dramatises the scandal of rape in patriarchal society and opens up the possibility of a fully feminised social order. Eagleton assumes fixed meanings for masculine and feminine throughout. Women are tender, gentle and considerate (though also narcissistic in a way he approves of); men are brutal, rapacious and domineering.

Aristocracy is treated as historically masculine in contrast to the (feminine) bourgeoisie: bourgeois inwardness and kindness replaced aristocratic militancy in the 18th century. Lovelace is therefore an outdated Restoration rake, brutal and cynical yet also pathetic—an infantile sadist expressing his misogyny ‘in the virulently anti-sexual act of rape’. Real sexuality involves ‘adult relationship’ not only beyond the rapist but quite simply impossible in the patriarchy in which Clarissa and Lovelace live.

Having disposed of all sexual relationships before the age of feminisation (which still hasn't quite arrived), Eagleton provides a hilarious account of Lovelace's inadequate ‘love’ in terms that are mainly Freudian, though also Lacanian. Clarissa is the ‘phallic woman’, maddeningly complete, the repository of the lost phallus; the boy's fear of castration is assuaged in the penis-lack of the mother, but he must constantly assure himself of his wholeness by robbing as many women as possible of theirs: ‘With this phallus I thee castrate’. Richardson's novel vanishes from this part of Eagleton's book, becoming merely an instance of a general thesis. But Clarissa, it seems, is not only the phallus (the ‘transcendental signifier’), she is also the letter, the body, the non-body, and a hole—nothing and everything. (You can get ‘a whole’ and ‘a whore’ from ‘Harlowe’, he smartly observes.) This ontological nuttiness derives in large measure from the linguistic inadequacy of post-structuralism.

Eagleton also makes Clarissa stand for an empiricist language-theory, taking the purpose of writing to be the representation of the real by unambiguous terms. This is what Derrida calls ‘closure’, and what he imagines empiricism to be about. Lovelace, on the other hand, is a ‘post-structuralist precursor’ and represents jouissance—language as play, disruptive and unpredictable. The novel thus enacts an ideological dilemma: proponent of the new bourgeois moralism (Clarissa's ‘closure’, the world of firm values), Richardson is yet outside this ideology by being able to imagine Lovelace's vicious if playful fantasising (the brutal world of aristocratic insouciance and power).

Paradoxically, the brutally masculine aristocrat now emerges as a representative of the feminine, since playfulness is feminine. If Eagleton doesn't seem aware of this confusion it is, I suspect, because his own puritan partisanship leads him to simplify the novel's (and life's) complexities. He won't let us say that Clarissa wants to be raped (rightly, of course: it's an outrageous assumption), but his prejudice about sexuality, allowing no virtue to men and nothing but virtue to women, blinds him to the element of genuine dalliance in the novel. If Clarissa isn't the sly whore of ‘cavalier’ criticism, she isn't Eagleton's saint either.

He speaks, finally, of Clarissa as providing ‘damning documentary evidence against a society where the rape of a Clarissa is possible’. But in what society will rape not be possible? The only kind of society he seems able to imagine for women is the kind of all-female friendship prefigured by Clarissa's friend Anna Howe. Eagleton speaks of ‘sisterly solidarity’....

(This entire section contains 690 words.)

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Elsewhere he speaks of ‘human solidarity’; but his book is partisan and divisive.

Men just don't fit the Eagletonian scheme of things. Unfortunately they exist, with their troublesomely moveable parts, creating that ‘insurmountable sexual difference’ he wearily acknowledges. Rape is monstrous and tragic; but it is not all there is, or all there has been, to relations between men and women, even in patriarchal societies. This is a vigorous and sometimes brilliant book, but the underlying problems it attacks require to be inspected without the sort of dogmatic intensity Dr Eagleton brings to them.

Terence Hawkes (review date 3 June 1983)

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SOURCE: “Skull Caps,” in New Statesman, June 3, 1983, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, Hawkes offers positive assessment of Literary Theory.]

As much goad as guide, Terry Eagleton's spirited introduction to literary theory [Literary Theory] has the sharp bite that only a trenchant and tough-minded argument can give. It puts an incisive and persuasive case: that in our society the discourses of literary criticism and of politics share a deep mutual involvement, so that to place something as ideologically sensitive as ‘English’ at the centre of a system of mass education implies and invokes relationships of real social power. Hence the urgency, the bitterness and the public interest in recent clashes over ‘structuralism’, ‘deconstruction’ and the like. At stake is not merely ‘English’, but the mysterious quality of Englishness: civilisation as we know it.

Eagleton puts his own cards firmly on the table and deals innocence out of the game. If criticism involves the continuation of politics by other means, there can be no criticism ‘itself’. The even-handedness and neutrality beloved of examination boards exists only as a series of contrived stances or tricks of style masking a variety of prejudices. The most fundamental of these naturally sees theory as a foreign, intrusive body sullying the pure encounter between reader and text. But that pristine confrontation never really takes place. Some theory or other has us permanently in its anaesthetic grip and without it we would be unable to recognise a work of literature in the first place. Theory is the skull beneath criticism's skin.

As a result, Eagleton's insistently overt statement of his case functions as part of his argument as well as an effective stratagem in its deployment. The charge of partiality will of course always arise in a society reassured by the bellowing of academics in purple-faced pursuit of cool ‘balance’ and measured ‘objectivity’. But the book pre-empts such blustering with its demonstration that terms of that sort constitute in themselves occasions of the political struggle on which it focuses. This in turn lends potency to its interrogation of the many similarly loaded concepts, such as ‘tradition’, ‘taste’, ‘culture’ and ‘morality’ in which much of our criticism still flagrantly traffics.

Rarely has a gaff been so productively blown. And the purchase on theory thus afforded is mercilessly seized. From a withering account of the needs and presuppositions which led to the invention of an entity called ‘literature’, Eagleton goes on to show how a ruthlessly narrowed canon of texts became, for ideological reasons, the lynch-pin of the education system. After a series of shocks and challenges to an inherited sense of settled Englishness—they include the Dublin rising, the First World War, industrial unrest, major police strikes and the impact of the Bolshevik revolution—it is hardly surprising that the Newbolt Report of 1921 offered ‘English’ as a kind of field-dressing to bind the wounds.

Eagleton's brisk, sceptical survey of the whole subsequent spectrum of literary theory moves nimbly, using an admirably straightforward style. It is a brilliant, agile performance: urgent and racy, witty and combative, lucid and compelling. The complexity of William Empson's position has never been more subtly mapped, and it would be hard to find a clearer account of Husserl and Heidegger or a defter unpicking of the implications of empiricism—to cite only three areas where explication at this level tends to get bogged down in complexities and evasions. The larger issues, Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Reception Theory, Structuralism, Semiotics and Poststructuralism undergo a no less stringent sifting.

The book concludes with a resolute, hardheaded application of its own logic to itself. Readers expecting a final commitment to a radical Marxist or feminist criticism will find themselves facing instead a kind of auto-destruction. Eagleton ends by calling for the dissolution of literary criticism altogether and its replacement by what might be termed the study of discourse or, to revive an older term, rhetoric. For if literature has no claim to an objective, unproblematic standing, how can literary theory survive? If ‘English’ is a non-subject, then its practitioners, wholly compromised by the social context in which they operate, function less as purveyors of knowledge than as custodians of a particular discourse. And that suggests that a far more profitable area of study lies in what Foucault has called ‘discursive practice’: the analysis of the way specific discourses are constituted and the manner in which they compete in the construction of cultural meaning. It is a struggle whose outcome determines the central priorities—in effect, the realities—of our way of life.

The issue raised by this final position is ultimately a tactical one. For whatever its logical justification, it involves the effective abandonment of what history has made into the high ground of the battlefield. It hands ‘literature’ and thus ‘English’ back to those who, rejecting the logic, will not hesitate to claim victory in the struggle. Eagleton's argument begins with the audacious insertion of the study of literature into history. The revelation (as it will seem to some) that the subject not only has a history, but is irrevocably part of the historical process, forges a weapon of immense, bracing power. But history also determines the ground on which that weapon can best be used. The battle remains to be fought.

Lennard J. Davis (review date 21 January 1984)

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SOURCE: “Does Literature Exist?,” in Nation, January 21, 1984, pp. 59-60.

[In the following review, Davis offers positive evaluation of Literary Theory, though is skeptical of Eagleton's Marxist ideology and devaluation of literature in favor of other mediums of representation.]

Terry Eagleton's new book is a concise guide to the most interesting and mystifying trends in the study of literature over the last fifty years. Judging from Literary Theory's positive reception in Britain and now America, it answers a need—and answers it well. But as I read along, I kept imagining a TV ad: “Can't decide between hermeneutical and structural approaches to literature? Embarrassed at parties by your faulty knowledge of deconstructionist or Marxist criticism? Let Terry Eagleton help you through with his handy patent-pending guide to the wonderful world of literary criticism.” It is a strange moment in late capitalism when a Marxist guide to literary criticism seems as necessary to middle-class life as a Sony Walkman and an I.B.M. personal computer.

One might point out as a caveat to the general public that Eagleton's history of literary theory is not a disinterested one. As a Marxist, he has axes to grind along with the wares he displays. Rather than presenting a traditional literary history, he begins with the striking and contestable notion that there is no such thing as literature. Rather, he claims, literature and the cult of the literary are ideologies that exalt high cultural artifacts like novels, poems and plays over other forms of writing and representation.

An opening chapter explains that in the nineteenth century, English (as opposed to classical) literature served as a pedagogical tool to civilize and pacify marginal political groups, particularly women and the lower classes. Witness a statement by an early professor of English literature at Oxford:

England is sick, and … English literature must save it. The Churches … having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.

Matthew Arnold, among other critics, fostered the idea that literature would civilize the lower classes, particularly since the middle classes “with their narrow, harsh, unintelligent, and unattractive spirit and culture, will almost certainly fail to mould or assimilate the masses below them.” State schools teaching English literature would have to do the trick, since, as Eagleton puts it, “English was literally the poor man's Classics.” Or, as one Royal Commission report recommended, English was suitable for civilizing “women … and the second- and third-rate men who … become schoolmasters.” As English replaced religion and traditional morality as a means of social control, it became an ideology in itself.

To debunk the myth that literature is an overarching civilizing influence, Eagleton marshalls contemporary critical theories that have focused on the “literariness” of literary works. In explaining those, Eagleton works at a high level of generalization and superficiality—as indeed he must if he is to present all the acts in this circus. The Big Top includes formalism, English and American criticism (Arnold, Leavis and the New Critics), phenomenology, hermeneutics, reception and reader response theory, structuralism, semiotics, post-structuralism and deconstructionism, feminist and psychoanalytic criticism and, of course, Marxist literary theory. We get roughly ten pages of text for each theory, an overview that cannot hope to produce instant enlightenment in all cases. But on the whole, Eagleton is clear and cogent, and the general reader will certainly get some sense of the variety of critical approaches. Short bibliographies provide directions for further study of each theoretical school.

Still, he does present a stacked deck. Each of the methodologies is criticized for the same deficiency—for lacking the historical and materialist approach of Marxist criticism. But for Eagleton, even Marxist theory as it has been practiced is suspect because all literary criticism assumes that there is such a thing as literature. But if you recognize that literature is an illusion, as Eagleton suggests, since it is just “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,’” then literary theory must also be an illusion. Consequently, Eagleton suggests that leftists and others should study all types of writing and representation—films, advertisements, textbooks, legal briefs, product warranties and the thousand other natural shocks the signifying system of a culture is heir to.

While Eagleton's proposal cannot be simply dismissed, it is difficult to imagine that the academic study of all those cultural discourses would result in something more inherently radical than the academic study of literature alone. Under Eagleton's guidance, literature would not have a privileged position, but scholarship still would. Unlike the British, Americans have been studying popular culture for some time without earthshaking results. The Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Bowling Green, Ohio, is a worthy institution, but hardly a storm center of revolution.

Nevertheless, Literary Theory can be read without its polemical side as a Cook's tour to the murky underworld of literary criticism. As such, it is as good a guide as Virgil was to Dante. But having gotten into the inferno of theoretical methods, the reader, like Dante, needs something akin to divine intervention to find the right road out.

Steven G. Kellman (review date Summer 1984)

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SOURCE: “Miscellaneous,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 399-403.

[In the following excerpted review essay, Kellman offers tempered assessment of Literary Theory, concluding that it should be read with a “blend of enthusiasm and wariness.”]

Although it mentions neither Wellek nor Warren, Literary Theory: An Introduction seems to aspire to be the Theory of Literature for a poststructuralist world, a more overtly partisan examination of the most influential schools of literary theory in recent decades. A Marxist with wit, Terry Eagleton is magisterial in his deployment of a wide range of ideas, but rarely dispassionate. However, after patient scrutiny of the writings of numerous contemporary critics, Eagleton confesses that he has not come to praise theory but to bury it. He rejects the claim that literary theory is a coherent discipline:

It is an illusion first in the sense that literary theory, as I hope to have shown, is really no more than a branch of social ideologies, utterly without any unity or identity which would adequately distinguish it from philosophy, linguistics, psychology, cultural and sociological thought; and secondly in the sense that the one hope it has of distinguishing itself—clinging to an object named literature—is misplaced.

Literary study becomes a question not of any single unified subject but rather of a critical discourse that is culturally determined and tyrannically intolerant. After considering the possibilities for a theory of literature, Eagleton concludes by repudiating his subtitle; his book is “less an introduction than an obituary.”

But it is a spirited elegy. Unlike too many other theorists, Marxist or otherwise, Eagleton writes with grace, clarity, and force. He succeeds in assimilating a motley crowd of structuralists, feminists, semioticians, hermeneuticians, psychoanalysts, and deconstructionists to his argument that there are no innocent readings, that every literary experience is shaped by ideology. Despite, and because of, its brevity, Literary Theory: An Introduction makes a compelling brief for a Marxist reading. Yet surely names such as Wayne Booth, Frank Kermode, Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, and Lionel Trilling are significant omissions from a work that purports to introduce us to recent Anglo-American theory. Others are dismissed with a rhetorical sneer: “Northrop Frye and the New Critics thought that they had pulled off a synthesis of the two [formalism and structuralism], but how many students of literature today read them?” Eagleton's case at this point seems built so tenuously on a mere question mark that it would be invalidated by the admission that one did indeed still read Frye and Ransom.

There is an occasional blooper (“The Prague Linguistic Circle was founded in 1926, and survived until the outbreak of the First World War”). But Eagleton proceeds through a series of remarkably penetrating and sympathetic accounts of the principles and practices of prominent theorists. His concern is not so much to refute them as to divulge their inadequacies. Yet he is emphatically not a pluralist, and his concluding chapter calls for a return to the methods of rhetoric, offering “political criticism” as a way to subsume everything that has gone before.

Literary Theory: An Introduction is designed sequentially to demonstrate the hegemony of political analysis. However, this is a game of categorical leapfrog, and it is quite possible to imagine the chapters of Eagleton's book reshuffled, with the resulting progression every bit as persuasive as the one in the published version. Political criticism, Eagleton argues eloquently, is not just another contending faction but rather, implicitly or explicitly, both the foundation and the culmination of any discourse. As much can be, and is, claimed for psychoanalysis, semiotics, structuralism, and deconstruction.

In the clamorous quarrels between the moderns and the moderns, rival theorists do not seek annihilation so much as, like the Wife of Bath, sovereignty. In the definitive introduction to literary theory that is being written collectively, each would want control of the ultimate chapter. Ultimately, Terry Eagleton offers us a primer devoid of innocence, even of its own innocence. It is an introduction to a new stage in an ancient controversy. Literary Theory: An Introduction ought to be read with the same blend of enthusiasm and wariness with which it was written, but it ought to be read by anyone concerned with contemporary theory.

David Montrose (review date 5 October 1984)

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SOURCE: A review of The Function of Criticism, in New Statesman, October 5, 1984, p. 33.

[In the following review, Montrose offers positive assessment of The Function of Criticism, though notes its similarity to his earlier work on Walter Benjamin.]

Terry Eagleton's essay [The Function of Criticism] seeks to ‘recall criticism to its traditional role’—engagement in cultural politics—from what he considers a position of crisis, where it is narrowly preoccupied with literary texts and estranged from social life through confinement to Academe and ‘the literary industry’ (public relations branch). Central to his argument is Jürgen Habermas's notion of ‘the public sphere’: an arena which facilitates free and equal discourse, among individuals, on cultural questions. Eagleton's starting-point is early 18th-century England, where the coffee houses and clubs and such periodicals as Steele's Tatler and Addison's Spectator comprised a ‘bourgeois public sphere’ which sustained cultural consensus. That sphere's gradual disintegration by economic and political factors is subsequently charted in a brief (and confessedly selective) history of criticism in England.

The Victorian ‘academicization of criticism’ marked its demise as ‘a socially active force’. Later, Scrutiny represented an attempt to reinvent the classic public sphere: an attempt doomed from the outset given the conditions of late capitalist society. Arriving at the present, Eagleton savages structuralism and deconstruction before promoting the ‘revolutionary criticism’ originally advanced in Walter Benjamin (1981)—wherein he parted company with his earlier work—as the only productive course that an enervated discipline can take as an alternative to withering away. Designed to assist ‘the cultural emancipation of the masses’, such criticism ideally requires (and currently lacks) a ‘counterpublic sphere’ based on institutions of popular culture and popular education. Feminism, though, provides a shining model: criticism that takes its impulse from a political movement.

As always, it is not necessary to agree with Eagleton's dark view of today's criticism, or his prescription for a better tomorrow's, to find him a splendid polemicist. Inevitably, though, the fact that The Function of Criticism—like its predecessor, Literary Theory—largely reproduces the message of Walter Benjamin does lead to its final impact being rather muffled.

Andrew Rissik (review date 21 March 1986)

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SOURCE: “Having Their Way with Will,” in New Statesman, March 21, 1986, pp. 26-7.

[In the following review, Rissik offers negative assessment of William Shakespeare.]

In her slim critical book [Shakespeare], Germaine Greer writes, ‘The public duty of the playwright was to bring the caviare of his angelic intellectual exercise within the grasp of those savage hordes, who were quite capable of disrupting performances they could not follow.’ In his study [William Shakespeare], Terry Eagleton, who is Tutor and Fellow in English at Wadham College, Oxford, tells us that ‘it is difficult to read Shakespeare without feeling that he was almost certainly familiar with the writing of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein and Derrida.’

Such fatuous tributes as these are, of course, only the most recent manifestations of a prevailing critical tendency to regard Shakespeare not as mere poet or dramatist but as God: all-knowing, all-wise and all-embracing. According to the unstoppable supply of critical books which pour yearly from the presses, Shakespeare had Christ's ability to read the human heart, Walt Disney's enchanting verve as a popular entertainer and Aristotle's pre-occupying High Seriousness. Although specific minor critics have specific minor criticisms, in each case the burden of the argument is the same. Shakespeare outdistanced and out-achieved everyone who had come before him and, in some way or other, his work anticipates everything that we have seen since. He is attended, centuries after his death, by the kind of elaborate rhetorical hyperbole which only a lunatic like Nero can have enjoyed during his own lifetime. In the Middle Ages, scholars laboured with indefatigable zeal to swell the vast edifice of Biblical criticism. Today we pay that compliment to Shakespeare, an innocent and unassuming dramatist who would have been appalled at such madness. One looks in vain, in the index of both books, for any reference to comparable dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles or Chekhov, although, predictably, Brecht and Yeats turn up in both. Criticism of this kind regards Shakespeare's plays not as drama, not as enacted narrative and psychology, but as scripture. These texts are Holy Books.

Of the two, Terry Eagleton's is much the saner and more perceptive. It's a brief but knottily detailed account of the canon whose thesis is that Shakespeare's achievement is built on a number of philosophical paradoxes and antagonisms. The imaginative freedom of language contradicts and transcends the material intractability of the body; the anarchic, irrational impulse of sexuality runs counter to social custom, moral law and inherited political orthodoxy; the hierarchical, conservative Shakespeare who wrote the plays—the mercantile adventurer who retired to Stratford and lived as a country gentleman—is the mere outward identity of a far more radical and dangerous literary intelligence. This is the Shakespeare who had an intuitive knowledge of Marx and Nietzsche, whose work explodes the false, sentimentalising definitions imposed on it by Late Victorian critics, and Eagleton's book is most revealing when it is at its most caustically specific. I want to cheer him on when he says things like, ‘The Senate, however, are not impressed, and Alcibiades is banished for his pains, if not for his atrocious verse’ and ‘King Lear opens with a bout of severe linguistic inflation’ or when he describes Cleopatra as ‘less a rounded “character” than a complex flow of impulse’.

But there are other, deader, more constipated passages, rich in crypto-analytical bullshit. ‘Desire in Shakespeare is often a kind of obsession, a well-nigh monomaniacal fixation on another which tends to paralyse the self to a rigid posture. In this sense, it has something of the density and inertia of the body itself.’ This is academic psycho-babble, and one wants to answer it by yelling, McEnroe-like, ‘You-Cannot-Be-Serious!’ Tautological and platitudinous, its own ‘linguistic inflation’ denies it precise meaning. Later, when he tells us that, in Shakespeare, desire is a cause of instability, one wants to reply that the same goes for almost every writer since Aeschylus. This isn't a critical insight. It's a commonplace of human nature. In the end, Eagleton's verbose textual ingenuity wrecks the book. When he announces, ‘The name of Prospero's language is Ariel, who symbolises his word in action, the precise, fluent fulfilment of his desires,’ the temptation to write in terms of symbolism and metaphor—to doodle with the freedom of language—has usurped the critic's responsibility to the complexity of his source. These grand, clever-sounding statements are simply a new form of old-fashioned pedagogic dogmatism. You teach Shakespeare by turning the relationships in his plays into a kind of rigid literary algebra.

The tragedy of so much contemporary Shakespearean criticism is that the people who write it want, more than anything, to be creative, and their ‘creativity’ shows. Terry Eagleton's William Shakespeare is an extraordinarily elaborate piece of work whose preoccupations and theories are so intense and fervid that they betray a fundamental indifference to the nominal subject. I can recall a deliriously serious, insanely well-footnoted essay by Parker Tyler, in which he argued that The Great Escape was a protracted metaphor for buggery. The film wasn't half as much fun as what Tyler said about it, but the fact that, after a fashion, Tyler's daft theory held up, didn't make it any less daft. Critics aren't jazz pianists, artists valued for their improvising bravura and, too often, they are no more intelligent or commonsensical than Shakespeare's Don Armado, that fantastic, flatulent Spaniard who travestied the impregnable conceit of Sir Walter Raleigh. …

The hardback editions of both books are expensively priced, but we should see them on the remainder shelves before too long.

Jean E. Howard (review date Spring 1987)

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SOURCE: “Recent Studies in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama,” in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 321-79.

[In the following excerpted review essay, Howard offers unfavorable assessment of William Shakespeare, which, she concludes, “is a book that overreaches itself.”]

The crassly pragmatic purpose of an SEL review is—ugly phrase—“information management.” Publication proceeds at such a pace that no one can possibly absorb even a fraction of what is printed on Renaissance drama in a given year. An omnibus review such as this, published soon after the books themselves are published, supposedly gives overextended scholars some basis for deciding which of these scholarly and critical texts they will actually read. Consequently, I have in part proceeded as if I were simply composing an annotated bibliography, and to some extent that seems not a misrecognition of the nature of the task. On the other hand, description is not enough, and reading all these texts ideally puts one in the position to make larger statements about the state of criticism and scholarship in the field of Renaissance drama and to identify and evaluate those books that emerge from the pack as unusually provocative, ambitious, or significant. I have tried to do as much evaluating and sense-making as I could, though I am very aware of how little of that I have been able to do and of how few of these books have received anything like a comprehensive and careful “review” in this essay. Inevitably, I have devoted the most time to—and have been most critical of—books which interested me the most. I have said nothing about periodicals, books on medieval drama, or books in which only a single chapter was devoted to Renaissance plays.

A final word—all reviewers write from positions and not from a space of Olympian neutrality. As will be clear from what follows, I see literary studies to be in a state of turmoil and controversy inviting a scrutiny of critical practices that perhaps even a decade ago would have been unnecessary. Books which are self-conscious about their own modes of proceeding thus seem, at this moment, of particular value, especially as they argue for, rather than assume, the political and intellectual validity and urgency of what they undertake. I find valuable, as well, books which engage, rather than ignore, the challenges to traditional critical practice posed by contemporary critiques of the concept of literary autonomy, by feminism, and by a range of other discourses loosely lumped under the category of “theory.” These are not the only kinds of valuable books, as I also hope the review will make clear, but they often have seemed to me the ones where learning, risk, and commitment have most profitably intermingled. They acknowledge that scholarship and criticism are not self-evident and unchanging activities, but historically specific and contestatory practices through which, in part, a culture determines what kinds of knowledge at any given time will be deemed legitimate and important, and surely those determinations matter. …

The next three books [Eagleton's William Shakespeare, Terence Hawke's That Shakespeherian Rag, and Simon Shepherd's Marlowe and the Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre] are by British academics of the left (Malcolm Evans's book [Signifying Nothing: Truth's True Contents in Shakespeare's Texts] could be included here, too), and I group them together to call attention to the fact that these writers take up questions most American critics eschew, such as the political ramification of various appropriations of Shakespeare, including his use in the educational apparatus. These critics see texts as sites of social struggle and their own critical task as the creation of a politically and intellectually progressive approach to Renaissance plays. In foregrounding what is often suppressed in American criticism—i.e., the politics of reading and staging and “using” Shakespeare—their work is important.

The first of these books, Terry Eagleton's William Shakespeare, appears in the Rereading Literature series being published by Basil Blackwell with Eagleton as general editor. The series aims to reread the major works of the major authors of the British literary tradition in light of contemporary theoretical discourses such as semiotics, feminism, and Marxism, and thus to liberate the texts from more conservative and apolitical reading practices. Just how strongly and convincingly does Eagleton “reread” Shakespeare? It depends on where you start as a reader. The book is a kind of forced march through the canon (no play gets more than about five pages of analysis) with Marx, Lacan, and contemporary feminism guiding the way. For those familiar with contemporary theory, the conclusions Eagleton reaches probably won't be revolutionary. For those unfamiliar with these discourses, the book may be merely provoking, since it is written in a kind of shorthand which assumes prior acquaintance with the language of the poststructuralist moment.

Eagleton's basic argument is that Shakespeare is a political conservative with a strong investment in upholding a traditional feudal social order but articulating, as well, the transgressive power of sexual desire, linguistic excess, and bourgeois individualism as each fragments or disrupts the containing structures of marriage, law, and social hierarchy. Eagleton's strongest move is—however sketchily—to remind us of the historical specificity of Renaissance dramatic writing: its emergence at the moment when a nascent capitalism and a residual feudalism coincided, producing plays deeply fissured by ideological contradictions: and he works hard to expose the ways in which Shakespeare's devices of closure and containment are insufficient to control the forces threatening all structures of stability. Perhaps inevitably, Eagleton seems to privilege Shakespeare's tragedies because, for him, they most fully acknowledge the disruptive force of excessive desire: sexual, commercial, and linguistic. Macbeth, for example, becomes a figure whose aggressive bourgeois individualism breaks apart the unified self made possible—at least in theory—by accepting a socially defined role in a feudal social order. Eagleton is at his most iconoclastic when he scathingly reads Shakespeare's romances as powerful mystifications of a patriarchal social order in which inequalities of rank, gender, and property are represented as “natural” and in which the disruptive power of sexual desire is sidestepped by transposing wives into daughters and sentimentalizing, without disturbing, patriarchal authority. While there are strong and provocative moments in this book, it also seems thin and rushed, more given to strong local assertions than to sustained argument, and the threads by which Eagleton links these plays to their historical context are often very frail. It is a book that overreaches itself.

Michael Sprinker (review date Winter 1991)

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SOURCE: “After the Revolution: Eagleton on Aesthetics,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 573-79.

[In the following review of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Sprinker discusses Eagleton's aesthetic perspective in light of Hegelian philosophy, and finds contradictions in the political aspects of Eagleton's conclusions.]

Having been a reasonably diligent observer of Terry Eagleton's career since the mid 1970s, I remain of two minds about the body of work that has poured forth since Criticism and Ideology—in my view, his most original and significant contribution to literary theory. On the one hand, I greatly admire (perhaps even envy a bit) his facility as a writer—not merely the speed with which he is able to compose provocative and important studies as various and wide-ranging as his books on Walter Benjamin, the history of English criticism, and Samuel Richardson's Clarissa; his still-unsurpassed introduction to contemporary literary theory; and now his long meditation on the history of European aesthetics, but also the clarity he achieves in commenting on and (often enough) taking to task both Marxist and bourgeois theories. Eagleton is, in fine, a superior stylist and a gifted expositor of complex texts. On the other hand, I have consistently been suspicious of the very elegance and cleverness of his books, their literary grace setting off alarms in my mind's more finicky, scholarly recesses. Too frequently in his writing a fine rhetorical flourish is used to mask a logical equivocation or finesse a theoretical difficulty. The Ideology of the Aesthetic possesses all the virtues and all the vices to which one has become accustomed in Eagleton's work. It is a monumental achievement that leaves one vaguely dissatisfied in the end, wishing for a less virtuoso performance and more hardheaded, systematic engagement with the argumentative structures of the texts discussed. In addition, there are political difficulties with the position he reaches; I shall deal with these at the end of this review.

No one should be overly critical of Eagleton's choice of authors and problems; he is comprehensive without being tediously enumerative. Perhaps Georg Lukács might have merited more attention, but I for one have no regrets that old warhorses from previous histories of aesthetics like Benedetto Croce or Roman Ingarden have been unceremoniously dropped to make room for figures hitherto treated marginally, Edmund Burke and Freud most prominently. At the same time, one might legitimately quarrel with the comparatively short shrift given Hegel, whose Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik remains the single most important text in the history of European aesthetics, not least because it poses (and virtually for the first time) the central problem for any comprehensive theory of art: to wit, the necessity to think of art as at once historically determinate and yet possessed of properties that give it universal, theoretical significance. Such was certainly Marx's difficulty in treating art, nor has it been transcended in the various attempts to produce an authentically materialist aesthetics this century, from Lukács to Benjamin and Theodor Adorno and beyond. We are all Hegelians, and generally orthodox ones at that, Paul de Man once opined, and I see no reason to revise that judgment on the evidence of Eagleton's new book. Let me illustrate what I mean by examining the very Hegelian premises that, more or less covertly, control the argument in The Ideology of the Aesthetic.

The book's fundamental claim is stated succinctly at the outset:

The construction of the modern notion of the aesthetic artefact is thus inseparable from the construction of the dominant ideological forms of modern class-society, and indeed from a whole new form of human subjectivity appropriate to that social order. … But my argument is also that the aesthetic, understood in a certain sense, provides an unusually powerful challenge and alternative to these dominant ideological forms, and is in this sense an eminently contradictory phenomenon. (3)

Eagleton goes on to chart the itinerary of the aesthetic in a series of essays on, among others, A. G. Baumgarten, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Burke, Schiller, Benjamin, and Adorno. Inaugurated as “a discourse of the body” (13) in the mid eighteenth century, aesthetics has experienced numerous vicissitudes in its long march into the postmodern present, but from first to last it stands in a critical relation to the increasing alienation and commodification of social life that capitalism continuously imposes. The aesthetic is in effect the efficient means by which bourgeois society produces its own theoretical gravedigger.

Hegel had a name for this concept of the aesthetic: he called it romantic, designating thereby all art after Greek antiquity and characterizing it thus:

Abandoning this [classical] principle, the romantic form of art cancels the undivided unity of classical art because it has won a content which goes beyond and above the classical form of art and its mode of expression. … In this way romantic art is the self-transcendence of art but within its own sphere and in the form of art itself.1

But as Eagleton observes, following the standard tradition of commentary, art itself is an inadequate form of understanding in Hegel's view. Full comprehension of the world comes only when the nonrepresentational mode of philosophical speculation appears on the scene.

Earlier in the Aesthetics, Hegel has this to say about the relationship between philosophy (meaning his own) and art:

Philosophy has to consider an object in its necessity, not merely according to subjective necessity or external ordering, classification, etc.; it has to unfold and prove the object according to the necessity of its own inner nature. It is only this unfolding which constitutes the scientific element in the treatment of a subject. But in so far as the objective necessity of an object lies essentially in its logical and metaphysical nature, the treatment of art in isolation may, and indeed must, be exempt from absolute scientific rigour; art has so many preconditions both in respect of its content and in respect of its material and its medium, whereby it always simultaneously touches on the accidental; and so it is only in relation to the essential inner progress of its content and means of expression that we may refer to its necessary formation.2

Despite Hegel's notorious incapacity to appreciate the art of his contemporaries (Goethe was a notable exception), despite the unalloyed classicism of his definition of the aesthetic (“the sensory manifestation of the idea”), and despite the conventional view that insists on his philosophy's pan-logicism, the narrative of human history presented in the Aesthetics is romantic through and through. For what is romantic art, in Hegel's account, if not this recognition of the inadequacy of sensuous forms to represent the idea, the discovery that only thought itself can express the manifold of the real world, that truth lies not in the harmonious unity of beautiful appearance but in the diremption between intuition and concept that Hegel here names “science”? Romantic art is not, properly speaking, aesthetic at all; it is, rather, the disaggregation of thought from sensory experience, the final liberation from intuitionism that had dominated Western philosophy from Descartes down to Kant and leads a ghostly afterlife in contemporary philosophy of science from Popper to post-Husserlian phenomenology. Pace Eagleton, Hegel's philosophy of fine art stands decisively, perhaps uniquely, outside the ideology of the aesthetic.

But if art, as Hegel famously opined, is now “a thing of the past,” what point can there be in studying, much less producing, it at all? Why would Hegel waste so much time lecturing on a phenomenon that he believed to have been definitively transcended in his own philosophy? Hegel's answer is straightforward, and it is not all that different from what a Marxist would (or should) say in reply to the same question: “In works of art, the nations have deposited their richest inner intuitions and ideas, and art is often the key, and in many nations the sole key, to understanding their philosophy and religion.” Or, as he goes on to say:

Neither can the representation of art be called a deceptive appearance in comparison with the truer representations of historiography. For the latter has not even immediate existence but only the spiritual pure appearance thereof as the element of its portrayals, and its content remains burdened with the entire contingency of ordinary life and its events, complications, and individualities, whereas the work of art brings before us the eternal powers that govern history without this appendage of the immediate sensuous present and its unstable appearance.3

Hegel proves his own point by reading back from the artifacts of past social formations to the nature of those societies, discerning in the formal configurations of artworks the symptoms of those societies' underlying structures. We may at virtually every point wish to dispute the particular conclusions Hegel draws concerning Egypt, the Hellenic world, or the Christian Middle Ages. And yet the method of inquiry he follows remains the basis for any materialism worthy of the name.

Eagleton's own work returns again and again to the social conditions that caused specific aesthetic discourses to appear: nascent capitalism in Kierkegaard's Denmark; the historical struggle between bourgeois and Junker in Nietzsche's Germany; rapid German industrialization in Heidegger's lifetime; the rise of fascism upon which Adorno and Benjamin never ceased to meditate. Indeed, the very premise of Eagleton's study, we have remarked, is the manifest complicity, however complexly determined, between the discipline of aesthetics and the long social transformation from precapitalist to bourgeois society, a premise evident in the examples just cited. If the aesthetic is one of the pre-eminent ideologies by which the bourgeois attempts to secure its class rule, then it, too, like works of art in Hegel, reveals the material conditions characteristic of bourgeois society at various moments in its history. Philosophical or aesthetic ideologies are, in this construal, just bad (that is, imperspicuous) theories, raw materials for a properly scientific inquiry.

Many readers will recognize that I have ventriloquized an earlier Terry Eagleton here, the one who could write in Criticism and Ideology about the relationship between science (in that text, the science of criticism) and ideology as entailing the former's exteriority to the latter. As I have argued here, this is an eminently Hegelian notion of science. Nor has Eagleton left this view entirely behind. In his chapter on Marx, we find the following exemplary formulation:

That final aestheticization of human existence which we call communism cannot be prematurely anticipated by a reason which surrenders itself wholly to the ludic and poetic, to image and intuition. Instead, a rigorously analytical rationality is needed, to help unlock the contradictions which prevent us from attaining the condition in which instrumentalism may lose its unwelcome dominance. (227)

The science of art is a necessary condition for bringing into existence a world where art will have replaced science, where, to recall a famous passage in The German Ideology, we may all hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and criticize after dinner.

This utopian projection of a postrevolutionary society motivates the final pages of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, where Eagleton offers his ultimate judgment on the meaning of aesthetic discourse. Without wishing to condemn altogether the utopian dimensions of Marxist thought, I must confess that this moment in Eagleton's text strikes me as utterly divorced from that “rigorously analytical rationality” he rightly deems essential to social transformation, a complete abandonment of historical materialist principles, at least insofar as I understand them. Eagleton writes:

The fullest instance of free, reciprocal self-fulfillment is traditionally known as love; and there are many individuals who, as far as the personal life goes, have no doubt that this way of life represents the highest human value. … Radical politics addresses the question of what this love would mean at the level of a whole society. (413)

This concept of love is glossed earlier in a critique of Freud's “negatively, drastically impoverished view of human society,” which finds nothing positive in “the Christian commandment to love all of one's neighbours”:

The Christian commandment to love others has little to do with libidinal cathexis, with the warm glow or the song of the heart. To love the Soviets, for example, means refusing even to consider incinerating them, even if the consequence of this is being incinerated by them ourselves. Simply to contemplate such a course of action, let alone energetically prepare for it, is morally wicked, a form of behaviour incompatible with love. It is absolutely wrong to prepare to commit genocide, the term “absolute” here meaning wrong irrespective of any concrete historical circumstances which could be stipulated as a justificatory context for such an action. (283)

Given this example, who outside the Pentagon and the Hoover Institute could dissent? But not all choices in politics involve the decision to commit genocide or not, though killing and severely punishing are often enough necessities in revolutionary struggle. If certain strands of liberation theology can make their accommodation with guerilla warriors in Central America, I see no reason why more hard-edged materialists can't say with perfect moral justification that ruling-class violence will have to be met with equal violence. Anything less is a recipe for passivity, hence defeat.

This is not to say that Eagleton's recommendation of love as a regulative ideal for a postrevolutionary future is without merit. It is, however, to recognize that it amounts to little more than a recovery of the Kantian categorical imperative for Left purposes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the penultimate paragraph of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, where Eagleton takes to task certain recent political trends that go under the label of “militant particularism”:

The privilege of the oppressor is his privilege to decide what he shall be; it is this right which the oppressed must demand too, which must be universalized. The universal, then, is not some realm of abstract duty set sternly against the particular; it is just every individual's equal right to have his or her difference respected, and to participate in the common process whereby that can be achieved. Identity is to this extent in the service of non-identity; but without such identity, no real non-identity can be attained. To acknowledge someone as a subject is at once to grant them the same status as oneself, and to recognize their otherness and autonomy. (414-15)

A society composed of individuals who live by this basic rule would be precisely what Schiller envisaged as “the aesthetic state,” in the full political sense of the term that Schiller certainly intended.

As Eagleton himself knows—and expresses well throughout this book—such an ideal can only be realized in a postrevolutionary, that is, postclass, postgender, postethnic, postracial society. No such polity currently exists anywhere on earth, nor is one on the immediate horizon. For that reason alone, Eagleton's earlier judgment on the question of the aesthetic retains all its force today:

Yet if Marxism has maintained a certain silence about aesthetic value, it may well be because the material conditions which would make such discourse fully possible do not as yet exist. The same holds for “morality.” … It is, perhaps, in the provisional, strategic silence of those who refuse to speak “morally” and “aesthetically” that something of the true meaning of both terms is articulated.4

After the revolution, there will be time enough to think about a potentially nonideological concept of the aesthetic. As Louis Althusser was fond of observing, the future lasts a long time.


  1. G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975) 79-80.

  2. Hegel 11-12.

  3. Hegel 7, 9.

  4. Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (London: NLB, 1976) 187.

Colin Lyas (review date April 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, in British Journal of Aesthetics,Vol. 31, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 169-71.

[In the following review, Lyas offers positive evaluation of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, though finds fault in its omission of several key philosophers and Eagleton's conclusion.]

[The Ideology of the Aesthetic], despite qualifications to which I will come, is one of the best reads in philosophy that I have had for many a long year. I turned to it, somewhat co-incidentally, after yet another of my periodic grazings in the fertile meadows of two works which illuminate many of the issues discussed by Eagleton, Bernard Williams's Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy and Roy Edgley's Reason in Theory and Practice. The effect was not unlike turning from The Golden Bowl to The Old Curiosity Shop. For this is a rumbustious, heart-in-the-right-place, cascade of a book. Read with due tolerance, a comment to which I shall return, it has the power to give pleasure and instruction, even if, in the end, one discovers the journey to have been more exciting than the destination.

Comparisons with fiction are not entirely unapt. On p. 196 the writer begins a chapter: ‘The narrative so far …’. I do not think that Eagleton wishes to use the term ‘narrative’ in the sense in which it is used by many theorists who claim that all narratives are ‘fictive’, imposing, as they do, an arbitrary order on an intrinsically unstructured reality. That apart, the term ‘narrative’ is wholly in order for this work. For it tells a story the picaresque story of the search for a key that would unlock a philosophical problem and the story of the historically ordered succession of heroic and not so heroic figures who wrongly thought that they had found it where their predecessors had failed.

The key to the narrative is the philosophical problem whose history it traces. As Eagleton tells it, the traditional concern of philosophy is thought, theoretical reasoning, the conceptual, which ‘conducts some shadowy existence in the recesses of the mind’. (13) Suddenly in the eighteenth century: ‘It is as though philosophy suddenly wakes up to the fact that there is dense, swarming territory beyond its own mental enclave which threatens to fall utterly outside its sway. That territory is nothing less than the whole of our sensate life together—the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surfaces, of what takes root in the gaze and the guts.’

Once philosophy has woken up to that, the question is, What is to be done with that sensate life? Is it ‘opaque to reason’ (14)? If so, ‘How can the absolute monarch of Reason retain its legitimacy, if what Kant called the “rabble” of the senses remains forever beyond its ken?’ In response to this the eighteenth century saw the emergence of the category of the Aesthetic, which, initially with Baumgarten, becomes a faculty, somewhat inferior to logic, by which the domain of sensation is ordered into clear representations, a view which lived on, in amended forms, at least as long as Croce.

Baumgarten is the protagonist of Chapter One of Eagleton's history of the Aesthetic. The interest of that history for readers of this Journal will be apparent when I report that the subsequent chapters deal with Shaftesbury, Hume, Burke, Kant, Schiller, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Foucault and Lyotard. The narrative seeks to do various things. First, it seeks to show how each of the figures discussed tried to deal with the problem of the place to be assigned to the aesthetic, conceived as ‘the whole region of human perception and sensation’ (13), in the economy of human life. Second, it seeks to relate the twists and turns of this story to economic history, to connect, for example, the recognition of the ‘gross and palpable dimension of the human’ in the eighteenth century, with the need of absolutist powers to take cognizance of the claims of a rising bourgeois. The absolutist state confronted with its rising bourgeois is the correlative, writ large, of sovereign reason confronted with the ‘long inarticulate rebellion’ (13) of the body. Third, this is a critical history, so that at every juncture we are offered powerful criticisms of this or that answer to the problem with which Eagleton is concerned.

The book teems with ideas, asides, allusions, provocations and passions and calls for comments that far exceed any short review. Here I offer four brief observations.

First, I said earlier that the book should be read with tolerance. I say this because I can imagine experts on the various thinkers who are discussed feeling that those discussions are too sketchy to do justice to whoever is being dealt with. Eagleton does indeed go for the broad sweep but this is compensated for by the illumination that comes from placing this or that particular figure in terms of his contribution to an unfolding debate about a single problem. Here the discussion of Heidegger, to take but one example, seemed to me to be exemplary. I simply understand him and his place in the history of philosophy better as a result of reading this book.

Second, it seems to me that the correlation between, on the one hand, the grapplings of reason with the body and, on the other, the history of the modern state, for all that it is occasionally buttressed by some facts from economic history, is more provocatively suggested than demonstrated. But, again, if this encourages someone to attempt to fill in the appropriate demonstration, or even to think how, if at all, this could be done, Eagleton's suggestions will have done their job. Moreover, those who find this aspect of the book implausible or under-argued will find that the narrative history of the aesthetic as a philosophical notion does not depend for its power on speculations about the connection between that history and the history of the political economy of Europe.

Third, many of the criticisms offered of this or that thinker are of great power and interest. Here I draw attention to the unsparing comments on the unfortunate implications of things said by Nietzsche (‘the annihilation of the decaying races’ (quoted 245)), and Heidegger. Lyotard, not to mention Foucault, also seem to me to come in for long overdue critical scrutiny. That said, however, the book is very much about the shortcomings of others. When I said, at the outset, that the journey might be more interesting than the arrival, I had in mind the fact that at the end it was still unclear what we ought to give as an answer to the problem whose history is discussed in this book. I suggest later why this might be so.

Fourth, for all its undoubted learning and critical acumen, there were times when this book seemed to me philosophically dubious. (Eagleton disarmingly says ‘I am not a professional philosopher’ (12) (whatever that is), but the book is intended as a philosophical work.) One brief comment must suffice. We are told that the aesthetic arises when, in a post-Cartesian eighteenth century, theoretical reason needs to find some response to the body's revolt against its tyranny. Now it would be convenient if this were an eighteenth-century problem, for then it could be linked, as Eagleton links it, to eighteenth-century political conditions. But for all the attempt to invoke the influence of Descartes, the problem whose narrative Eagleton undertakes to relate is much older. It is in Plato that we find the clearest and most categorical recognition of the demands of the body and the appropriate response of reason to it, namely that reason shall subjugate the passions. And it is (as Williams suggests in the work to which I referred above) Aristotle, a philosopher who nowhere appears in Eagleton's narrative, who suggests that a reconciliation might be achieved by treating reason more as practical and collaborative with our wants than as tyrannical over them. I do not, moreover, think that Descartes ‘overlooked’ ‘sensate life’, ‘affection and aversion’ (13). Descartes did indeed initiate a philosophical narrative. For he separated mind and matter. It was this dualism of man and nature, with the consequent alienation of man and his environment, that Kant and Hegel sought to overcome: and it was Hegel's proposed solution that was to set the programme for so much subsequent philosophy. But the narrative of the uneasy history of the relation between reason and the passions is Platonic in its origins. Moreover to deal with it we need, as Roy Edgley's work suggests, the most careful and discriminating discussion of the nature of theoretical and practical reason. That this is no part of the purpose of Eagleton's book may explain why no real progress is made towards a positive solution to the problem that he raises.

I could imagine some who would be impatient with this book. I found it, as I have said, a thought-provoking and even, at times, a riveting read. I suspect those who are complete novices to these matters would find it hard going, and there are passages with the sense of which I still wrestle. These, however, are matched by passages which seemed to me very powerful and often moving pieces of writing.

Eric Griffiths (review date 28 June 1991)

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SOURCE: “Dialectic Without Detail,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 28, 1991, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Griffiths offers unfavorable assessment of Ideology.]

Though generally admiring William Empson's work, Terry Eagleton regretted that “it lacks … almost any concept of ideology”. This is not strictly true: a formulation such as “language is essentially a social product, and much concerned with social relations, but we tend to hide this in our forms of speech so as to appear to utter impersonal truths” (The Structure of Complex Words) states clearly one classic account of ideological function. But you see what Professor-Elect Eagleton means: Empson makes his point unsystematically, as a general observation about human behaviour rather than as something determined by particular sociopolitical circumstance. When Empson says of the early eighteenth century in England, “There was the feeling that the unity of society had become somehow fishy”, he sounds more jokey than a Marxist would allow himself to be about the matter, though his claim is one which a Marxist too might wish to make. The question, then, is whether, lacking a concept of ideology, Empson lacks anything worth regretting. What does “ideology” help us understand which would otherwise baffle us?

Eagleton has been devoted to the word for a good fifteen years, since Criticism and Ideology (1976). In his new book, Ideology: An Introduction, he explains his fidelity as follows: “The force of the term ideology lies in its capacity to discriminate between those power struggles which are somehow central to a whole form of social life, and those which are not.” This cannot be true, and nor does Eagleton believe it. He criticizes those who extend the concept so broadly that it becomes “politically toothless”, and the fact that it can be so extended shows that it does not of itself have a “capacity to discriminate” between those struggles which matter and those which don't. It is utterances and utterers that have power: not terms, whatever a peddler of talismans might have us believe. Empson's “somehow fishy” clearly lacks a rigour Eagleton thinks desirable, but it is not clear that his own “somehow central” manages any better. Whether anybody has been helped by “ideology” to manage any better is the subject of the central portion of Eagleton's new book, which is constructed as a sandwich, potted histories of ideologists between two slabs of contemporary skirmish. The historical portion is snappily done; many are the predecessors he reveres and dispatches—Marx, Lukács, Adorno. Fans of his style will recognize the method of earlier works, not quite Bluffer's Guide but Struggler's Guide. Strugglers would be better guided if Plato's basic account of forming the mind of a state in the Republic had been mentioned, or Machiavelli touched on, or Hegelian concepts such as Wirklichkeit and mutually recognitive self-consciousness received, if not a hearing, then an airing.

Destutt de Tracy, who started ideology off, hoped to be “a Newton of the science of thought”, but nobody has yet produced a relevantly precise and explanatory law of ideological motion. Not Eagleton, anyway, whose bets are so thickly hedged that the reader wanders through his writings as through a maze. For example: “… ideology is a function of the relation of an utterance to its social context”. But what is “the” relation of an utterance to its social context? There is no such single relation. There are many functions of the many relations of utterances to their contexts, so nothing which distinguishes the ideological from the non-ideological has been said, though Eagleton rightly believes that unless such a distinction can be made the concept of ideology is empty. That the concept might indeed be empty is a dread thought he courageously entertains: “If the concept is not to be entirely vacuous it must have rather more specific connotations of power-struggle and legitimation.” Yet “connotations”, however unspecifiedly specific, could never be enough to add substance to a theory.

He is committed to “a general materialist thesis that ideas and material activity are inseparably bound up together”, though when he expounds that thesis on the next page as entailing that “for an action to be a human practice, it must incarnate meaning”, his position is in no important sense “materialist”. “Incarnate”, after all, has specific connotations which have little to do with historical materialism sternly conceived; an arch-idealist could agree that “ideas and material activity are inseparably bound up together”. Rogue Riderhood and Bradley Headstone drowned “inseparably bound up together”, but this does not imply that one of them “determined” the other, and nothing less than that will do for a “materialist thesis”, unless the word figures here only as one of those “modish, purely gestural uses of that most euphoric of radical buzz-words, materialist”, as Eagleton bitingly puts it. A definite concept of causality, which is what ideology needs if it is to have explanatory power, is unavailable to Marxist thought, because it is impossible to experiment with history to test out the causally significant from the causally insignificant variables in the process of time. No doubt Marxist dialectic thinks itself above the crudities of “cause”, as that notion was employed by the founders of the modern physical sciences, but it is to such a sense of “cause” that a Marxist account of culture must appeal if it is to have intellectual content or political portent.

Eagleton often has recourse to fuzzy metaphors of bondage, as when, discussing optatives like “May Margaret Thatcher reign for another thousand years!”, he comments, “each of these speech acts is bound up with thoroughly questionable assumptions [such as] that another thousand years of Thatcher would have been a deeply desirable state of affairs …”. It may have seemed like a thousand years to Terry Eagleton, but Mrs. Thatcher was not actually with us that long. That slip does not suggest a firm grip on political realities, but matters less than the theoretical nullity of “bound up with”; does he mean that sincerely saying “May Margaret Thatcher …” entails that the speaker believes her continued dominance would be a good thing, or entails the truth of that belief? Who can say? Not the reader of this book, for Eagleton's phrasing is imprecise, as are most of his forays into the philosophy of language, where he flounders about, asserting that utterances are performatives when they are not, or that “I'm British and proud of it” “implies that being British is a virtue in itself, which is false”. The proposition as stated has no such implication, nor would an utterance of the proposition necessarily imply it, because one good reason for adding “and proud of it” is that it strikes the speaker as possible to be British without being proud of it, which could not happen if the words implied what Eagleton says they do.

A man who lay under a tree for fifteen years, noting that apples fell and asserting that their fall was somehow bound up with something else, we would not call a physicist. Nor should we call Eagleton a theorist, literary or otherwise. It is true that the relations of social being and consciousness which an account of ideology must try to theorize are extremely various, to put it mildly, and perhaps have no specifiable regularity. That is why we need not regret anybody's lack of a concept of ideology, for this pseudo-notion serves only to foster an illusion of analysis which is intellectually unsupported and without political consequence. There is a pleasure to be gained from making pronouncements such as “ideological discourse typically displays a certain ratio between empirical propositions and what we might roughly term a world view”, but really the “ratio” is uncertain, and the use of a cold technicality such as “ratio” does no more than provide the user with a feeling of tough-mindedness. “What is most difficult here”, as Wittgenstein said, “is to put this indefiniteness, correctly and unfalsified, into words”—the indefiniteness, in this case, of how the world bears upon thought, and vice versa. But there is all the difference in the world between the intellectual asceticism necessary correctly and without falsification to express the indefinite and a slurry such as the conclusion to Ideology: An introduction: “Ideology is a matter of … certain concrete discursive effects. … It represents the points where power impacts upon certain utterances. … the concept of ideology aims to disclose something of the relation between an utterance and its material conditions of possibility, when those conditions of possibility are viewed in the light of certain power-struggles. …”

Spattered with “certain”-ties though Eagleton's prose is, he is against being specific. He does not tell us which “concrete discursive effects”, which “utterances”, which “power-struggles” he is on about. Similarly, his concern “to bring about the kind of social conditions in which all men and women could genuinely participate in the formulation of meanings and values, without exclusion or domination” does not stretch to mentioning which kind of conditions these might be, or hinting how they might be brought about. In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, he is scornful of requests for detailed examples: “Those trained in literary critical habits of thought are usually enamoured of ‘concrete illustration’: but since I reject the idea that ‘theory’ is acceptable if and only if it performs the role of humble handmaiden to the aesthetic work, I have tried to frustrate this expectation as far as possible by remaining for the most part resolutely silent about particular artefacts.” This is a procession of canards flying up Eagleton's intellectual stonewalling: to “reject an idea” is a lesser thing than to give arguments as to why it should be rejected; not only those caricatured as wishing to keep theory as a “humble handmaiden” like to see a bit of evidence once in a while: and “remaining … resolutely silent” is a gentle way of describing having absolutely nothing to say.

This derider of the concrete is the same Eagleton who urges attention to “the specificity of Marxism” and knows that “if a ‘socialist common sense’ is to be constructed, Gramsci's thesis will need to be carried into specific analyses”. Not that he has ever bothered to do any of the historical work which he lavishly and on principle recommends. For a Marxist, he is very shy of labour. He is sure that “to analyse the ideological force of an utterance is, inseparably, to interpret its precise rhythm, inflection, intonality, and to refer it to its determining social context”, but he confines his analyses to vague, coarse throw-aways, such as forgiving Raymond Williams for misunderstanding pastoral “understandably enough, for one from the rural proletariat”, or retailing Fredric Jameson's view that “high modernism … was born at a stroke with mass commodity culture”. Even works of art, those lamentable fetishes of the bourgeoisie, still show signs of having once been just that, works: not to attend to the particularity of their formation, as Eagleton determinedly does not attend, consigns you to the mystified realm of alienated labour or, to speak more simply, chatting about price-tags. It is not, for example, an escape from the gossip of salons to write about Shakespeare at length without considering which text of the plays you are reading, but merely a shift of salon.

His political judgment is displayed in his belief that Althusserian anti-humanism was “politically timely” (1986) but also that it completely failed to understand the events of 1968 in France (1991). The trenchancy of his theoretical critique amounts to no more than muttering “this is surely too economistic”, “this case is … surely too one-sided”, or “that there is something in this position is surely clear”, like one of his own detested amateurish Oxford dons regretting that the young have surely gone a bit too far, though they may have a point. A Marxist could not but be ashamed of Eagleton's productions—their disgraceful sloppiness in formulation, the abeyance in them of any sense of history more detailed than that of a “quality” colour magazine, their self-publicizing, opportunism and political futility. A non-Marxist will find them just sadly unpersuasive, while also feeling indignation and dismay that an intellectual tradition as tireless, fervent and dogmatic as Marxism, a politics as laborious as socialism, should have as their figurehead of articulation in this country only Terry Eagleton.

Richard Schusterman (review date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 259-61.

[In the following review of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Schusterman praises Eagleton's insight and rhetorical turns, though finds shortcomings in the book's omissions and contradictory assertions.]

The past decade of Anglo-American intellectual history has witnessed literary theory's undeniable emergence as the most influential, ambitious, and institutionally powerful genre of theoretical discourse in the humanities. The fact that it now prefers to call itself simply “theory,” as if to encompass and exhaust the entire theoretical realm, is testimony to its ambition. But it also testifies, I believe, to a covert but nagging discomfort with its narrowly literary past, its institutional provenance in the Anglo-American world as a theoretical practice based in departments of English and foreign literature, dominated (if not originally formulated) by “language teachers” rather than so-called professional philosophers, who have traditionally held the honor of being Western culture's grand theorists. In its attempt both to escape its literary past and to avoid and outflank its closest neighbor and rival in Anglo-American philosophy departments, literary theory took care to distinguish itself sharply from the field of aesthetics, aligning itself instead with structuralist and then post-structuralist textual analysis and with general hermeneutics. Another good reason for ignoring philosophical aesthetics was that this discipline was dominated by a rigorous but excessively restrictive analytic paradigm which tended to dismiss as hopelessly confused and partisan any imaginative, revisionary, and politically committed aesthetics, whether continental or homegrown (as with Dewey).

In any case, Anglo-American literary theory has too long ignored the tradition of philosophical aesthetics from which it ultimately derives and to which it belongs. With its hard won confidence as a philosophical equal and its arsenal of textual and rhetorical strategies, literary theory can now confront and enrich this tradition. Terry Eagleton's new book is a bold and admirable attempt to do this by a critical reading of the modern history of philosophical aesthetics from Baumgarten to postmodernism. Though the project is dauntingly impressive, it is one well-suited to Eagleton's masterful talents of condensation and narration. The result is both very rewarding and frustratingly disappointing. Let me commend its rewards before registering my disappointments.

Written with engagingly impassioned commitment and keen wit, the book contains too many insights to list, let alone summarize. But there are three major (and somewhat interrelated) themes where Eagleton's contribution is particularly welcome and therapeutic. The first is his insistence on recognizing aesthetics “as a discourse of the body” (p. 14), in salubratory contrast to the dominant philosophical tendency since Kant and Hegel to disembody the aesthetic through over intellectualizing and spiritualizing it, as idealist philosophy would naturally tend to do. Eagleton makes his case for the sensual, bodily dimension of aesthetics partly by tracing its importance in Baumgarten's original aesthetic project of a science of sensation and in the empiricist theorists of taste, partly by exposing the difficulties and contradictions engendered through its attempted suppression in the spiritualizing tendencies of German idealism. But more importantly and fruitfully, he enlists the aid of more modern and materialist thinkers who emphasize the lived, desiring body—its formative senses, productive and libidinal energies, and satisfactions—as an indispensable locus of the aesthetic and a source of its great power, which renders the aesthetic pervasively potent beyond the compartmental limits of art, imploding into the very fabric of our ethical, social, and political life. Nietzsche along with Marx and Freud are great allies here, indeed “the three greatest aestheticians of the modern period … Marx with the laboring body, Nietzsche with the body as power, Freud with the body as desire” (p. 197). All, nonetheless, come in for criticism. Nietzsche is censured for his antisocial aestheticizing justification of the most rapacious values of the bourgeois market place “domination, aggression, exploitation, and appropriation” (p. 351). Freud is faulted for being “a pessimistic conservative authoritarian,” failing to temper his penetrating exposure of human frailty and corruption with a “revolutionary commitment” and a more Christian or Marxist sense of love and brotherhood (p. 283). Even Marx is taken to task for an overly one-sided and insufficiently discriminating aesthetic ideal of human self-realization through the powers of production (pp. 220-225).

Obviously, Eagleton is using the term “aesthetic” more widely than is customary in recent philosophical aesthetics. That is precisely his point, and heralds the two other themes where his critical history makes a valuable contribution. The first of these might be called the complex functionality and ramified importance of the aesthetic. Rather than accept modernity's sharp distinction between the cognitive, ethico-political, and aesthetic spheres, together with the Kantian rider that the aesthetic sphere is one of free, disinterested purposelessness, Eagleton insists on the deep political dimension of the aesthetic. One of his major theses (which is already fairly familiar) is that the aesthetic and its discourse served a crucial project of politico-cultural hegemony, through which the order and consensus of a ruling ideology were not to be coerced on our senses and desires from without by external law or concept but rather introjected into the heart of our subjectivity and “natural” affections through the unforced force of aesthetic pleasure. Kant's notion of the aesthetic judgement, which though conceptless and subjective makes a claim to universal consensus, and which results from imagination's “free conformity to law,” clearly evokes this political agenda. Similarly, the idea of aesthetic unity, which presents a concrete totality where material particulars are given independent expression while held together in an ordered unity through nonrepressive form, presents both a consoling comfort and a revolutionary ideal for society which is riven by class division or suffocated by conformist administrative formalisms. Moreover, so Eagleton argues, the aesthetic ideal of the unity of form and content lies at the motivating core of Marx's economic theory. Eagleton is surely right to insist on the political role and liberational potential of the aesthetic, even if one balks at his judging particular aesthetic theories by their value as “a basis on which to found a politics” (p. 370). Finally, with Nietzsche and Adorno in particular, the aesthetic is shown to have an essential cognitive role, he it shaping the facts of the world through motivated interpretation or providing a refuge for truth in a reality which is brutally false.

But in finding so many different uses and manifestations of the aesthetic, is not Eagleton just flouting and corrupting its true, established (and essentially Kantian) meaning as something characteristically formal, functionless, and fundamentally contrasted to the cognitive and practical? Again, raising this question of the univocity of the aesthetic is part of Eagleton's point and contribution. Looking at the long and tortured history of the concept, unblinkered by the professional philosopher's canonical reading of this history as the prelude and continuing postscript to aesthetic Kantianism, Eagleton can see more clearly the wealth of different and often contradictory meanings the term “aesthetic” has been able to carry. It designates (e.g., in Kierkegaard) the direct immediacy of sensuous perception and pleasure, as much as connoting contemplative distance and reflection. It reflects bodily interest and desire (e.g., in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud) as well as signifying disinterested and will-less intellectual pleasure. It represents material and concrete particularity as well as the formal principle; the richly sensory and satisfying dimension of daily full-bodied living as well as a specially privileged and spiritualized domain set apart and above the quotidian. Recognizing this history of polysemy and variable application is very important for reminding us that the aesthetic is not a fixed, univocal notion but rather an essentially contested concept, and that there is thus no compelling reason for narrowly identifying its “proper use” or conception with the long dominant and increasingly conservative philosophical aesthetic tradition. If the meaning of the aesthetic is contestable, its value for culture legitimation and liberation makes it well worth contesting.

To recognize and affirm polysemy is not necessarily to pursue it till the term “aesthetic” comes close to mean everything and thus nothing. Unfortunately, Eagleton is not always careful of this distinction. Rather than helpfully trying to establish some classificatory analysis of classificatory ordering of the most important meaning or dimensions of the aesthetic, he simply takes advantage of whatever variant meaning happens to suit the vector of argumentation in which he is for the moment engaged. The result is a rhetorical tour de force, but also too often, a rather disappointing muddle. By a free-wheeling metonymic logic which is sure to exasperate many philosophers. Eagleton tends to reduce almost everything to the aesthetic by employing the following fallacious form of argument: if something is characterizable by a feature which characterizes the aesthetic (in any of the various uses thereof), it therefore represents the aesthetic. Thus, for Eagleton, whatever is conceived as autotelic or self-generating (like morality, God, or Being) or as disinterested (like justice or knowledge) is seen to be fundamentally aesthetic, since these properties have fundamentally defined the aesthetic in certain conceptions of this concept. His disarming introductory confession to not being a professional philosopher hardly seems to justify such logic, though it may exonerate him from minor philosophical errors (like conflating referential with cognitively objective discourse [p. 93]) which occasionally blemish a generally very accomplished text. Some philosophers, however, may also be ruffled by contradictions which seem to result less from the conflictual character of the aesthetic than from Eagleton's flamboyantly suasive rhetoric which throws cautious qualification to the wind: so that Schiller's aesthetic is conflictingly described as “socially useless” and “an active social force” (pp. 110, 117), while Nietzsche's aesthetic principle is defined as “the formless productive energies of life” and in the very next breath as “the stamping of form” on this “flux” (pp. 252-253).

Even if Eagleton's narrative makes no claim to completeness, there are some strikingly regrettable omissions. Given his emphasis on the bodily aesthetic, one should expect some sustained discussion of Merleau-Ponty. Moreover, his total neglect of twentieth-century Anglo-American aesthetics (even for the polemical purposes of refuting its theories or demonstrating their poverty) weakens his case for the central status of the aesthetic throughout Western culture. It also represents a lost opportunity to confront a politically conservative aesthetic tradition which menaces the revolutionary aesthetic Eagleton would urge, as it earlier stifled that of John Dewey. Eagleton could well have used Dewey as an ally, not only for advocating a global, embodied aesthetic deeply aware of art's socio-political dimension and liberational potential, and deeply critical of its compartmentalized and elitist distortions in capitalist society; but also for relieving a conceptual cramp between the aesthetic and the instrumental which sometimes seems to trouble Eagleton.

The mixture of pleasurable reward and disappointment is finally present in the book's style, which is worth mentioning not only because it is scintillatingly salient but because it intriguingly exemplifies one of the book's major themes. If the aesthetic aimed to make the hierarchical weight of a dominant ideology more pleasurable and appealing, so Eagleton seems desperately trying to liven up aesthetic theory's ponderous and often dreary history by a self-consciously entertaining style where jokes are so abundant and important that one wonders whether the motivating end of the paragraph is a warranted conclusion or simply a winning punch line. One is reluctant to fault Eagleton here, because so many works of aesthetics are aesthetically unreadable and excruciatingly boring. Eagleton's is blissfully not. Still, the extent of his efforts at philosophical music hall distract from the urgent seriousness of his arguments; and four hundred pages of his light-spirited and deliciously ornamented prose can give habitual readers of philosophy the uneasy feeling of having dined on a five pound box of chocolates.

Elizabeth Wright (review date July 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 86, Pt. 3, July, 1991, pp. 653-54.

[In the following review, Wright offers positive assessment of The Ideology of the Aesthetic.]

What R. H. Tawney did for religion, Arnold Hauser for art history, Adorno for music, and Raymond Williams for literature, Terry Eagleton has done for aesthetics: namely, to uncover the ideological motivation that ideology itself exists to conceal. In spite of a modest disavowal he comes challengingly close to doing the same for philosophy. In the favoured definitions, self-confirming premises, chosen controversies, chosen opponents, bland ignorances, and shared assumptions of what is to be banally true, he charts a new map for aesthetic theory from Baumgarten to the postmoderns. It is part of Professor Eagleton's originality to realize that this is a demystification that has been imperative for some time. As one reads it, one has the refreshing feeling of at last having an illusion exorcised. In rending the ideological fabric, he brings into salience philosophical questions of the place of the aesthetic in the bases of culture and society, indeed, showing it to be essentially imbricated in knowledge and language, and, moreover, in ideology itself. Answering these questions is not part of his brief, but it is evidence of radical success that such questions have to be put.

Professor Eagleton does not claim to provide a history of ideology in aesthetics, but has rather taken certain key figures, mostly German, and analysed their basic positions in the light of the dominance of bourgeois individualism. The theories themselves are the historically concrete illustrations: the more he lays bare the individualist partiality that shapes and maintains the arguments under examination, the more evidence he is amassing in support of his thesis. It is a case of the scope of a theory being an element in its plausibility. When the problem of reconciling freedom and necessity is invested with the bourgeois fantasy of a sovereign self, then Kant's attempt to found a secure moral freedom outside determinism can be understood as a defensive idealization. Similarly, Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man tries to effect the same reconciliation between the freedom of the ‘sense-drive’ and the necessity of the ‘form-drive’ via a ‘play-drive’ that would optimistically harness the dynamism of the former to duty in the latter. Professor Eagleton cannot help but see this as a hegemonic move to keep the suspicious world of the senses within the law without having recourse to the compulsion of the law. He avoids the cynicism to which such analyses might lead, for he sees Kant as still holding to the democratic notion of a ‘kingdom of ends’ (albeit of abstractly equal and indistinguishable citizens) and Schiller as sensitive to the stunting of capacities that a greedy civil society can bring about.

It is perhaps in his treatment of Jean-Francois Lyotard that Professor Eagleton shows a certain partiality, in that he accuses Lyotard of moral subjectivism in a theory that places undecidability as a stubborn aspect of the aesthetic and yet he praises Benjamin and Adorno for retaining a place for the sensory. Professor Eagleton approves of Benjamin's saying that ‘there is no better starting point for thought than laughter’ (p. 337), and yet he is suspicious of postmodernists who ‘urge us to abandon truth for dance and laughter’ (p. 227). It is precisely in the shifting about of Benjamin's ‘constellations’ on the stars of the sensory that those ironic transformations are made that might be said to be at the core of the aesthetic. In Le Différend Lyotard has addressed himself to the very questions Professor Eagleton has raised, namely, how ‘given’ truths and facts are established and transformed. It is in Lyotard's ‘unpresentable’ and Adorno's ‘riddle-figures of empirical existence’ that the Body, which Professor Eagleton professes to favour as a concept, shows its presence.

Terry Eagleton's book [The Ideology of the Aesthetic] is distinguished throughout by clarity of exegesis coupled with his usual lively wit and inventiveness. Thus, he ends his account of the dire relationships of the Lacanian family trio driven into misrecognition of desire, with the lapidary comment: ‘None of these individuals desire each other in the least; it's nothing personal.’

David Lloyd (review date December 1991)

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SOURCE: “In the Defiles of Analogy,” in Art History, Vol. 14, No. 4, December, 1991, pp. 620-24.

[In the following review, Lloyd offers unfavorable evaluation of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, though credits Eagleton's elucidation of the work of other major theorists.]

At the time of writing, it is already clear enough to casual observation that Eagleton's Ideology of the Aesthetic has become something of an academic best seller. Accordingly, the usual concerns of an advance review give way here in this rather belated account to an assessment of the work's achievement, made all the more demanding by virtue of the book's wide circulation and probable influence. Fredric Jameson's comment on the cover, ‘That contemporary theory would eventually turn back to consider its origins in the contradictions of philosophical aesthetics was predictable’, is certainly true, and marks the necessity of such a project. It must be said, of course, that such a project has been undertaken over a long period already in Germany, in the wake of both the Frankfurt School and Habermas, and in the work of the Budapest School, though Eagleton makes no acknowledgement of either corpus.1 Nonetheless, the appearance of such work in English is much to be desired, especially at a moment when, in the face of cultural studies and multi-cultural transformations of curricula and institutions, the Right is busily trying to reclaim its rights over aesthetic culture. For two reasons, then, the intrinsic and strategic importance of the project and the wide circulation of the product, one wishes that Eagleton had done a better job on a work which, if only because it rushes in to fill a vacuum, is rapidly becoming ‘indispensable’.

There are, indeed, many very valuable things in this work. It provides in many respects an excellent map of some of the most important thinkers in the rather undulating tradition (principally Anglo-German) of aesthetic thought, covering in addition to the predictable figures from Burke, Kant, Schiller and Hegel down to Lukacs and the Frankfurt School, a number of less evident ones, such as Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. Eagleton rightly disclaims any systematic historical approach, casting the book rather as ‘an attempt to find in the category of the aesthetic a way of gaining access to certain central questions of modern European thought—to light up, from that particular angle, a range of wider social, political and ethical issues’. Given the mediating position for Kant of aesthetic judgment between the practical and theoretical, or its politically formative function for Schiller, to take only two examples, the articulation of the aesthetic with ‘wider issues’ is entirely justified, indeed requisite, and Eagleton is right to insist throughout on its relation to the political and ethical. Each reader may regret that the book's scope omits or under-represents one or other significant writer (Gramsci and Arnold are my personal candidates for more extensive discussion), but such omissions are legitimate consequences of selection. What results are often excellent accounts of constellations such as the British Enlightenment or of individual figures (the chapter on Schiller being perhaps the best) which often produce pithy and portable aphorisms, such as ‘If the aesthetic is to realize itself it must pass over into the political, which is what it secretly already was’ or, in his valuable discussion of the relationship between ideological propositions and aesthetic analogical predication, ‘ideological utterances conceal an essentially emotive content within a referential form, characterizing the lived relation of a speaker to the world in the act of appearing to characterize the world’. This familiar Wildean capacity in Eagleton leads one indeed to forgive the more excessive Celtic fantasies that are the residue of a larger project on Ireland and aesthetics from which the present work is a fortunate distillation—the best of these is the characterization of Irish colonial or Scots Lowland figures like Hutcheson, Hume, Smith and Ferguson as ‘speaking up from the Gaelic [sic] margins … [to] denounce possessive individualism and bourgeois utility’, though a close second comes the wildly ungrounded comment on Burke's ‘anti-social’ sublime: ‘These, it may be noted, are the political thoughts of a man who as a child attended a hedge school in County Cork’.

A little ludicrous in their abstracted presentation, such remarks point towards a larger failure of the work exactly because, with a little more painstaking elaboration historically and theoretically, they can be made to make a certain nuanced sense. Eagleton's sporadic aphoristic condensations bespeak the influence of two masters of the style whom he discusses, Benjamin and Adorno. Unlike them, however, he rarely succeeds in sustaining the relentlessly dialectical movement of the aphoristic. The same could be said for the larger critical project of this work. Despite the appeals for dialectical method which virtually commence and conclude the book, Eagleton's method by and large falls short of that which he espouses. It is easy to agree with his concluding comment that ‘The aesthetic is … a markedly contradictory concept, to which only a dialectical thought can do sufficient justice. One of the most debilitating effects of much cultural theory at the present time has been the loss or rejection of that dialectical habit, which can now be safely consigned to the metaphysical ashcan’. Unfortunately, The Ideology of the Aesthetic is itself no outstanding example of dialectical method and, for all its valuable insights, it tends to hit its targets with the fortuitousness of Scud missiles, by multiplicity rather than by design.

Dialectical method certainly involves, but is by no means exhausted by the identification and immanent elaboration of contradictions within social or intellectual formations. It proceeds, as any critical philosophy, from a question as to the conditions of possibility of a given phenomenon, whether the commodity form or a cultural formation, and must therefore grasp its objects in their structural and historical differentiation as well as in their articulation. This implies, not the reification of social practices, as with exchange in bourgeois political economy or aesthetic experience even in Marx himself, but a painstaking and critical analysis of their differential relation to other spheres of practice which grasps both the historical conditions for their emergence and the structural conditions for their articulation with other spheres. The necessity for such a method is peculiarly evident in the analysis of the aesthetic sphere, which is nowhere more political and interested than in its claim to be free of political interest. Eagleton rightly identifies the persistent relationship between aesthetic culture and hegemony, but that relationship is posited throughout either analogically or in terms of direct identification, falling short throughout of an adequate account of the rationale for their articulation.

The borderline between analogy and immediacy of identification is always slender, but both constitute failures of dialectical method. The Ideology of the Aesthetic is full of both, and the methodological inadequacy is of real import, given the significance of the issues Eagleton broaches. We do need an adequate account of the relationship between aesthetics and hegemony precisely because the problem the materialist faces lies not so much in identifying all the theoretical fissures and contradictions of bourgeois ideology but in establishing why, to so disturbing an extent, it has proven so successful hegemonically. What can be seen in Eagleton's work as a constant recourse to analogical procedures is not simply the index of too hasty thinking but forecloses a fuller understanding of the transforming function of aesthetic culture in the maintenance of hegemony. (It is also, incidentally, a repetition of the privileged, problematic, but enabling trope of aesthetics itself, as a careful reading of Kant would show.)2 Any reader will be struck by the frequency of this analytical shortcut, which is, it must be stressed, a common recourse of contemporary cultural studies and all the more to be resisted. The following examples will have to suffice.

One of the constant analogies posed by Eagleton in the course of his analysis of the aesthetic is one between the form of the subject and the form of the artwork and between both and the State. The perception of the likeness is valuable and just in most cases, but the simple expression of it is not only inadequate but often inexact. Thus in the chapter ‘Free Particulars’, which deals principally with Rousseau and Kant, Eagleton makes the following series of remarks:

This ‘lawfulness without a law’ signifies a deft compromise between mere subjectivism on the one hand, and an excessively abstract reason on the other. There is indeed for Kant a kind of ‘law’ at work in aesthetic judgment, but one which seems inseparable from the very particularity of the artefact. As such, Kant's ‘lawfulness without a law’ offers a parallel to that ‘authority which is not an authority’ (The Social Contract) which Rousseau finds in the structure of the ideal political state. In both cases, a universal law of a kind lives wholly in its free, individual incarnations, whether these are political subjects or the elements of the aesthetic artefact. The law simply is an assembly of autonomous, self-governing particulars working in spontaneous reciprocal harmony …

Like the work of art as defined by the discourse of aesthetics, the bourgeois subject is autonomous and self-determining, acknowledges no merely extrinsic law but instead, in some mysterious fashion, gives the law to itself.

As this concatenation of ‘seems’, ‘parallels’, ‘kind of’, ‘in some mysterious fashion’ might suggest, this analysis is full of partially grasped truths and insufficiently deduced relationships. To indicate just a few: Kant's ‘lawfulness without a law’ is absolutely not a quality of the object of judgement (let alone of the artefact, about which Kant, who is principally concerned with beauty in nature has remarkably little to say), but, as he is at pains to point out, a subjective harmonizing of imagination and understanding (‘lawfulness’ can in any case be translated as ‘lawlikeness’ or ‘conformity to law’ [Gesetzmaessigkeit], which makes Kant's point clearer); accordingly, the talk of ‘subjectivism’ is profoundly confusing, since it implies a direct relation between the Kantian subject of judgement and a loosely conceived ‘subjectivism’, implying self-interest: in turn, it has to be said that the law does not inhabit individual incarnations, though they may conform to it. At a larger level of analysis, the analogy between Rousseau's social contract and the quality of ‘lawfulness without a law’ that defines a relation of the faculties in the Third Critique is inaccurate, since, as Kant moves from the discussion of the judgment to that of taste, it becomes apparent that he is concerned to relocate the notion of a ‘social contract’ in the form of common sense rather than in a quasi-historical moment of origin, thus pushing the kind of analysis that Rousseau conducts into a crucially more formal terrain. As for the ‘work of art as defined by bourgeois aesthetics’, it has to be said, if it is not too literal-minded, that it depends on which aesthetic, since it is by no means the case in Kant that the work of art gives a law to itself nor even that any subject does so that is not that rare thing, a genius. It is, perhaps, and in some versions of aesthetics, the case that the subject can be compared to the artwork, but by and large it is in the relation to the artwork, not by analogy with it, that the subject appears as self-determining. Nor is there anything ‘mysterious’ about it within the terms of aesthetic discourses themselves, since it derives from a quite coherent analysis of the subject.

Pedantic as these criticisms may seem, they are of real importance both to understanding the terms of given aesthetic discourses and to that of their gradual transformation. If we wish to understand the political effectiveness of an aesthetic discourse that seeks to distantiate itself from the political precisely in order to give the possibility of the political, then we must also be very clear concerning the distinction made within its tradition between the subject and the individual, and the distinction between that subject and the subject of psychoanalysis or that of political theory. Not that there are no lines of mediation to be drawn between these different theoretical usages, but in Eagleton's work there is a constant collapsing of these terms rather than an articulation of them. Thus, for example, where Eagleton claims that the concept of ‘aesthetic disinterestedness involves a radical decentering of the subject’, his invocation of a Lacanian vocabulary is desperately confusing, since the effects of decentring (or preferably, subordination) of the sensuous or empirical individual by the aesthetic subject of judgement have little or nothing to do, in any direct sense, with the displacement of the psychoanalytical subject by the real or the signifying chain. Consequently, some of the most irritating moments of this book are its recurrent ‘subversions’ of the aesthetic by appeal to surprisingly crude and reductive psychoanalytic ‘readings’. At times, this is no more than a donnish pinning of the phallic tail to a philosophical ass, as when Heidegger's Being is made to reveal its tumescent form: ‘Being is a kind of “jutting forth”, and this uprightness or “erect standing there” is a permanent one, an unfolding which will never fall down. It would seem that this oldest of stand-bys is indeed always ready-to-hand.’ Since this is the conclusion of the chapter, one is tempted to say, so what? It is scarcely surprising to find that Heidegger's discourse is phallocentric, and surely there are more important things to be said about it. At other points, however, where a more extensive theoretical articulation of psychoanalysis with aesthetics is attempted, the results are far more deleterious to any proper understanding of the relationship between the psychoanalytical and the aesthetic subject, as in this comparison of Kant's subject of judgment to the Lacanian ego of the mirror stage:

In both cases, an imaginary misrecognition takes place, although with a certain reversal of subject and object from the mirror of Lacan to the mirror of Kant. The Kantian subject of aesthetic judgement, who misperceives as a quality of the object what is in fact a pleasurable coordination of its own powers, and who constitutes in a mechanistic world a figure of idealized unity, resembles the infantile narcissist of the Lacanian mirror stage, whose misperceptions Louis Althusser has taught us to regard as an indispensable structure of all ideology.

If these relationships had been thought through instead of merely posited as resemblances, ‘with a certain reversal’, Eagleton might have come to the point of recognizing the crucial distinction between the Kantian subject and the Lacanian ‘je’. ‘The mirror stage is formative of the I’ and not of the Subject, which, and Lacan is quite explicit about it, prefigures but does not yet constitute the Subject, which is formed in relation to the Symbolic dimension of the other, not in the Imaginary register of the relation to the ego-ideal?. He falls here, it must be said, into a crucial error that his teacher Althusser had already made in confusing the ego and the Subject, but a more considerate reading of Kant or Lacan or both might have helped. That in turn would have demanded a far less cavalier approach to psychoanalysis in its therapeutic dimension than we get in Eagleton's personifications of the super-ego: ‘Such treatment must try to make the super-ego more tolerant and rational, to deflate its false idealism and undermine its Pharasaical pretensions.’ Crucial to any understanding of psychoanalytic procedure, let alone its relation to aesthetic discourse, is an approach to the complex phenomenon of transference, which is, in Eagleton's account, entirely elided, with the result that the dialectic of the Subject in its relation to the Other cannot be worked through.3

Instances of what is in effect sloppy thinking, muddled through by the aid of the half-truths of striking analogies, are rife in The Ideology of the Aesthetic (a title which, though regrettably catchy, is in fact vertiginously incoherent once the attempt is made to analyse its meaning). It is hard to know to what to ascribe this lapsing on the part of a critic whose Function of Criticism, despite its slimness, actually provides a far more coherent account of the ideological workings of culture. The work as a whole is peculiarly individualistic in its account of the aesthetic, in the sense that it lacks any account of the institutional mediations which even so relentlessly critical a discourse as Kant's is forced towards and which aesthetic discourse after Schiller continually demands. Instead we get a work remarkably reminiscent of bourgeois histories of ideas, in which one individual figure follows another in loosely interconnected succession. This is not to demand of the book that it fulfil either the task of writing an institutional history of cultural or aesthetic education (though this would be valuable), nor that it attempt the task of producing a systematic history of influences and transformations within aesthetic philosophy. There is, indeed, a moment of truth in De Man's late problematization of any history of the aesthetic, problematic since history is a category questioned by aesthetic discourse.4 From its founding texts, aesthetics tropes ‘the civilizing process’ (with which it must not be confused) into a uniform developmental history of humanity of which pedagogy is an inseparable correlative. The history of its developments is that of a transformation always registered within the terms that the aestheticization of history itself prescribes—where, that is, post-enlightenment historiography becomes a history of probability rather than possibilities.

This implies a double task for the materialist historian of aesthetics (since the only properly materialist aesthetics is the history of aesthetics). One element is a rigorously formal analysis of a discourse for which the formality of its definition of the human is indispensable and from whose formality alone can be explained its remarkable capacity to transfer geographically and historically the same regulative forms for human identity. This would amount to an analysis of the aesthetic as giving the forms for bourgeois ideology at both theoretical and practical/institutional levels and demands, above all, that one respect, in a way analogical thinking cannot, the distinction of spheres through which bourgeois social practice represents itself. The second element would be a history of counter-possibilities, of truncated or defeated conceptions of social organization or of community, whose realization has at one or other moment been prevented by the hegemony of an aesthetic discourse that sets the institutional terms for participation in the public sphere. In some respects a practical task of immense difficulty, this ‘history of possibilities’ is nonetheless a crucial undertaking. It is the task that two of the thinkers that Eagleton regards as being among the ‘most creative, original cultural theorists Marxism has yet produced’, Benjamin and Bakhtin, direct us. Eagleton's own undertaking of an indispensable project and the quasi-encyclopaedic volume of its product command respect. But the recognition of the importance of the project obliges equally the judgement that its execution is not adequate to the kind of thoroughgoing analysis of culture and hegemony that an increasingly embattled Marxism certainly requires.


  1. See especially the work of Peter Bürger, Christa Bürger and Jochen Schulte-Sasse, as for example their collection Zur Dichotomisierung von hoher und niederer Literatur (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1982) and other collections by the same editors. For the Budapest School, see the excellent collection, Reconstructing Aesthetics: Writings of the Budapest School, Ferenc Feher and Agnes Heller, eds, Oxford, 1986.

  2. On this topic, see David Lloyd, ‘Analogies of the Aesthetic: The Politics of Culture and the Limits of Critique’, New Formations, Spring 1990.

  3. On transference, see especially Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan, Harmondsworth. 1977, chs. 17-19.

  4. See especially his ‘Aesthetic Formalization in Kleist's Ueber das Marionettentheater’ in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, New York. 1984. pp. 263-6.

Greig Henderson (review date Winter 1991-92)

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SOURCE: “Eagleton on Ideology: Six Types of Ambiguity,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2, Winter, 1991-92, pp. 280-88.

[In the following review of Ideology, Henderson offers analysis of Eagleton's philosophical perspective and critical approach to the delineation of ideology. While citing many shortcomings and contradictions in the work, Henderson writes, “Eagleton's negotiation of this dense and difficult terrain is masterful.”]

‘Ideology’ is such a charged and vexed term that many people, taking in hand a volume about this topic, might well be tempted to follow Hume's famous advice. ‘Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning fact or number? Does it contain experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain but sophistry and illusion.’ Nevertheless, pronouncements about the end of ideology are surely premature, and however enticing the prospects of committing it to the flames might be, this richly ambiguous term can still do useful conceptual work, as Eagleton's thought-provoking book [Ideology] amply and cogently demonstrates. Moreover, in this post-Nietzschean world, experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence is itself likely to be labelled sophistry and illusion, matters of fact being, as everyone knows, matters of interpretation. Indeed, the place where a system of interested interpretations masquerades as a system of disinterested facts, where nature and universal essence are invoked and history and social existence obscured, where ideas are detached from the material conditions that enable them—this is the place where ideology lives, and this place no doubt is any society. But if ideology is such an all-pervasive phenomenon, and if would-be demystifiers are positioned within the social totality, how can they ever become fully conscious of their own ideological conditioning, how can they find some uncontaminated free space that escapes ideology's operations, how can they transcend the situatedness of their own discourse? Clearly, they cannot. And this is the uncomfortable consequence of embracing postmodern dogmas concerning, among other things, antifoundationalism (the belief that there are no empirical facts or rationalist ideas upon which knowledge is grounded), coherentism (the belief that propositions about the world can only achieve the truth of internal coherence and do not correspond to any external frame of reference), and relativism (the belief that everything is relative to the vocabulary and perspective of the observer whose own situatedness makes objectivity impossible). Although in practice we are remarkably adept at distinguishing our reasons from their rationalizations, and our ideas from their ideology, we know that such manoeuvrings are instances of self-deception and double-dealing. Here is the double bind that words ineluctably get us into; there are metalanguages, but no metalanguage. Yet if we truly believed what we mechanically utter, then how could we presume to write about, say, ideology? What status could ideological statements about ideology possibly enjoy? How could they avoid their own self-dismantling and self-devouring logic? Do the Nietzschean interpretations that demystify positivist and empiricist science and philosophy have any factual basis or metalinguistic authority? These are familiar questions, and we already know the turning and turning of the widening gyre, we already know that the logocentre cannot hold, that meaning is indeterminate, that the free play of signifiers is endless, that rhetoric subverts reference, that mere anarchy is loosed upon the wor(l)d. That these ideas spew forth so effortlessly—along with others about hegemony, discourse, legitimation, power, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc—indicates their ideological status. They are what Barthes calls the goes-without-saying, and for all of the routine self-reflexiveness that attends their articulation, they are almost a kind of theoretical unconscious. But that does not mean, as Eagleton points out, that this theoretical unconscious is necessarily false. Ideology, in the Althusserian sense of the term, embraces the ways we live our relations to society as a whole. It is thus a habitual style of perception that has affective and unconscious components as well as cognitive and conscious ones. It is one thing to expose the contradictions between what a text says and what a text does, and quite another to recognize our own inurement to contradictions between what we say and what we do. The contradictions we expose in no way eradicate the contradictions we live.

Eagleton's project hinges on a stipulated distinction between criticism and critique. The former presupposes some transcendental vantage-point; the latter recognizes the situatedness of one's own discourse, but nevertheless tries to get inside the discourse of the other. Any ideology is inconsistent enough to be turned against itself, and the analyst who deploys immanent critique rather than transcendental criticism can aid and abet an ideology's self-deconstruction and thus transvaluate its symbols of authority. The result may be to bring about social change; immanent critique may lead to emancipatory critique. Here as elsewhere, Eagleton is refreshingly commonsensical. ‘The critique of ideology,’ he writes, ‘presumes that nobody is ever wholly mystified—that those subject to oppression experience even now hopes and desires which could only be realistically fulfilled by a transformation of their material conditions.’ For ‘however widespread “false consciousness” may be in social life, it can nevertheless be claimed that most of what people say most of the time about the world must be true.’ As Kenneth Burke puts it, ‘if a people believe a belief and live, the fact of their survival tends to prove the adequacy of their belief.’ And this, I think, is what Eagleton means by ‘the moderate rationality of human beings in general.’ ‘To deny that ideology is fundamentally an affair of reason,’ he writes, ‘is not to conclude that it is immune to rationalist considerations altogether.’ There would be little point in providing a critique of ideology if people were so ensnared in illusion, distortion, and mystification as to be incapable of change. Ideology, therefore, is not simply epistemological fraud. Nor is it simply ‘the function of ideas within social life,’ for this is to reduce it to the realm of sociological description. The point being not only to understand the world but also to change it, Eagleton must navigate between the Scylla of ideology as epistemological fraud and the Charybdis of ideology as sociological description. The former is too negative, whereas the latter is too neutral. To be fully grasped, ideology must be understood in its positive, negative, and neutral senses. But if ideology is understood in this wide-ranging way, it runs the risk of offering an embarrassment of polysemantic riches and of condemning its defenders to a great deal of dialectical shiftiness and hermeneutical wriggling. One might say that Eagleton's dilemma centres on his wanting to make ideological analysis part of both a positive and a negative hermeneutics.

In drawing his famous distinction between positive and negative hermeneutics, between a hermeneutics of restoration and a hermeneutics of suspicion, Ricoeur points to the essential duplicity of the hermeneutical motive itself. ‘At one pole, hermeneutics is understood as the manifestation and restoration of a meaning addressed to me in the manner of a message, a proclamation … according to the other, it is understood as a demystification, as a reduction of illusion. … Hermeneutics seems … to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience.’

This double motivation is evident in Marxist thinking. On the one hand, dialectical materialism is a positive hermeneutics that sometimes advertises itself as a science of history, a science which reduces cultural phenomena in the ideological superstructure to modes of economic production in the material infrastructure. Yet, as Kenneth Burke points out, even the most unemotional scientific nomenclature is unavoidably suasive. The necessitarian underpinnings of Marx's economic causation theory notwithstanding, the utopianism implicit in his scientific understanding of history furnishes a potent image for action, and the notion of historical inevitability with its built-in teleology of proletarian victory is rhetorically appealing to the last who shall be first. As a positive hermeneutics, Marxism promises a restoration of plenitude, a life of unalienated labour and leisure, of psychological and social integration. This retrieval of meaning gives to human history a rationally coherent and causally intelligible sense of beginning, middle, and end. It offers nothing less than a totalizing master narrative that travels from genesis to apocalypse and culminates in the triumphant success of the human struggle to wrest a realm of freedom out of a realm of necessity. This master narrative is all the more compelling because it is assumed to be scientifically predestined. Nevertheless, as Burke points out, ‘whatever may be the claims of Marxism as a “science,” its terminology is not a neutral “preparation for action” but “inducement to action.” In this sense, it is unsleepingly rhetorical,’ its aim being, as we have noted, to change the world as well as to understand it.

On the other hand, dialectical materialism is a negative hermeneutics that demystifies bourgeois discourse by showing how such discourse transforms historically produced socioeconomic conditions into universal essences. Empires striving for world markets, Burke notes, become the ways of universal spirit. ‘As a critique of capitalist rhetoric,’ Burke writes, ideological analysis ‘is designed to disclose (unmask) sinister factional interests concealed in the bourgeois terms for benign universal interests.’ We are thus admonished to look for mystification at any point where the social divisiveness caused by property and the division of labour is obscured by unitary terms that conceal factional interests, making them seem natural and universal rather than historical and specific. Capitalist rhetoric, Burke suggests, gives us ‘a fog of merger terms where the clarity of division terms is needed.’ Yet however much Marxism contributes to the critique of ideology and to the demystification of political rhetoric, it remains itself both an ideology and a rhetoric.

Ricoeur's distinction and Burke's observations bring Eagleton's dilemma into focus. To surrender scientism and the utopianism it buttresses is to sacrifice a rhetorically inspiring narrative vision of considerable beauty and power. Yet Eagleton is far too epistemologically sophisticated to accept the base/superstructure model of so-called vulgar Marxism and the causal reductiveness it entails. Likewise, he is far too dialectically canny to embrace antifoundationalism, coherentism, or relativism as an alternative. He knows where these ideas lead. Marxism, for him, is not just another rhetorical voice in the foundationless conversation of history. Nevertheless, he wants to insist in a non-scientistic and non-reductivist way that matter rather than ideation is the motive force of history and that social being determines consciousness and not the other way around. Even if its truth is not grounded in historical or economic necessity, Marxism offers a positive vision of a better life that men and women could enjoy were they able to alter the material determinants of their social existence. Therefore, it does not suffice to view Marxism purely as a negative hermeneutics. This is one horn of the dilemma. Though Eagleton sometimes speaks of ‘socialist ideology,’ the words stick in his craw, the spectre of false consciousness looming uneasily in the background. However much he does not want to claim that ideology is mere illusion, distortion, or mystification, he also wants to exploit the genius of hermeneutical suspiciousness, carefully distinguishing socialist ideas from bourgeois ideology. This self-conscious equivocation, however, is the strength of Eagleton's approach. Without letting ideology drift off into the outer space of endless signification, Eagleton preserves the rich history and polysemy of the term by tracing the genesis of its multiple meanings and by showing how those meanings can serve the ends of practical analysis and application, his book being a rhetoric of social change as well as an analysis of ideological thinking.

Because ideology has to do not only with belief systems but also with questions of power, on one of its levels it involves ‘legitimating the power of a dominant social group or class.’ According to Eagleton, this process of legitimation comprises promoting the beliefs and values of that group or class, naturalizing and universalizing those beliefs and values (i.e. making them seem natural rather than historical, universal rather than contingent), denigrating and excluding rival beliefs and values, and obscuring the class structure of society. But this ideology as legitimation thesis, useful as it is to negative hermeneutics, confines the term ‘ideology’ to dominant forms of thought, relies too heavily on the notion of false consciousness, and assumes that ideologies are homogeneous and monolithic. Though generally the ideology of an individual is a slight variant of the ideology distinguishing the class among which he or she arose, there is no neat one-to-one correspondence between classes and ideologies, and even ‘the dominant ideology in advanced capitalist societies is internally fissured and contradictory,’ every social formation being, as Raymond Williams points out, a complex amalgam of dominant, residual, and emergent forms of consciousness. For Eagleton, then, ideology as the legitimation of a dominant group or class is but one of six ways one might preliminarily define the term.

‘We can mean by it, first,’ he writes, ‘the general material process of production of ideas, beliefs, and values in social life. Such a definition is both politically and epistemologically neutral, and is close to the broader meaning of the term “culture.”’ It denotes ‘the whole complex of signifying practices and symbolic processes in a particular society.’ Though this definition assumes the social determination of thought, it operates more in the realm of sociological description than in the realm of socialist theory.

Eagleton's second, slightly less general meaning of ideology ‘turns on ideas and beliefs (whether true or false) which symbolize the conditions and experiences of a specific, socially significant group or class.’ Here the term is akin to ‘world view’ without necessarily having the same philosophical seriousness. Using the term this way, one could, for instance, speak of yuppie ideology.

The third definition turns on the relations and conflicts between social groups or classes as they attempt to promote and legitimate their interests in the face of opposing interests. ‘Ideology appears here as a suasive or rhetorical rather than a veridical kind of speech, concerned less with the situation “as it is” than with the production of certain useful effects for political purposes.’

According to Eagleton, a fourth meaning of ideology would retain this emphasis on the promotion and legitimation of sectoral interests, but confine it to the activities of a dominant social power. ‘But this term,’ he goes on to say, ‘is still epistemologically neutral and can thus be refined into a fifth definition, in which ideology signifies ideas and beliefs which help to legitimate the interests of a ruling group or class specifically by distortion and dissimulation.’ Yet he is honest enough to admit that ‘on this last definition it is hard to know what to call a politically oppositional discourse which promotes and seeks to legitimate the interests of a subordinate group or class by such devices as the “naturalizing,” universalizing, and cloaking of its real interests.’

Finally, for Eagleton, there is ‘the possibility of a sixth meaning of ideology, which retains an emphasis on false or deceptive beliefs but regards such beliefs as arising not from the interests of a dominant class but from the material structure of society as a whole.’ Marx's theory of the fetishism of commodities would be an instance of this, for if social phenomena cease to be recognizable as products of human activity, then it is easy for people to reify them, to perceive them as material things and thus to accept their existence as natural and inevitable. Consequently, Eagleton argues, ‘the actual social relations between human beings are governed by the apparently autonomous interactions of the commodities they produce. … Men and women fashion products which then come to escape their control and determine the conditions of their existence. … Society is no longer perceptible as a human construct.’ ‘In capitalist society the commodity form permeates every aspect of social life, taking the shape of a pervasive mechanization, quantification, and dehumanization of human experience. The “wholeness” of society is broken up into so many discrete, specialized, technical operations, each of which comes to assume a semi-autonomous life of its own and to dominate human existence as a quasi-natural force.’ Ideological mystification thus arises from the material structure of society as whole; it is built into the system, commodities exercising a tyrannical sway over social relations in general.

According to Eagleton's six provisional definitions, then, the term ‘ideology’ comprehends 1/ the complex of socially determined ideas, beliefs, and values that constitute a particular culture; 2/ the ‘world view’ of a socially significant group or class within that culture; 3/ the promotion and legitimation of that world view; 4/ the promotion and legitimation of the world view of the dominant group or class; 5/ the promotion and legitimation of this dominant world view by distortion or dissimulation; and 6/ ideas, beliefs, and values that arise from the material structure of society, from commodity fetishism and reification. These provisional definitions complicate the agenda considerably. Only 4, 5, and 6 are specifically Marxist, and only 5 and 6 foreground the idea of false consciousness.

It would seem, therefore, that ambiguity and ideology go hand in hand. As Eagleton points out, even The German Ideology ‘hesitates significantly between a political and an epistemological definition of ideology.’ Politically, it defines ideology as the ruling ideas of the ruling class. Epistemologically, it defines ideology as an illusory realm of consolation and coherence that offers an imaginary resolution of real contradictions and that blinds people to the harsh actuality of their social conditions. In the early Marx and Engels, then, ideology denotes illusory or socially disconnected beliefs, embracing both the notion of false consciousness and the notion of false causality that often goes with it, namely, the notion that ideas rather than material conditions are the motive force of history. But it can also ‘signify those ideas which directly express the material interests of the dominant social class, and which are useful in promoting its rule.’ Moreover, it can be further stretched to encompass ‘all of the conceptual forms in which the class struggle as a whole is fought, which would presumably include the valid consciousness of politically revolutionary forces.’ The end result is confusing at best, inconsistent at worst. Definitions 1 through 5 are mixed and blurred.

In its famous chapter on the fetishism of commodities, Capital introduces definition 6. If The German Ideology ascribes too much unreality to ideology, Eagleton argues, Capital ascribes too much reality. ‘For The German Ideology, the opposite of ideology would seem to be seeing reality as it actually is; for Capital things are not so simple, since that reality, as we have seen, is now intrinsically treacherous, and there is thus the need for a special discourse known as science to penetrate its phenomenal forms and lay bare its essences.’ Reification pervades social existence in its entirety. To counter the dominant ideology and its mystifications with the science of historical materialism, however, is fraught with difficulties; the positivist/empiricist model is precisely that which socialism attacks and scientism valorizes. The scientific option is a non-starter. In the same way that Enlightenment rationalism undoes itself, so too does Marxism as a science of history. Eagleton makes this point incisively:

If all thought is socially determined, then so too must be Marxism, in which case what becomes of its claims to scientific objectivity? Yet if these claims are simply dropped, how are we to adjudicate between the truth of Marxism and the truth of the belief systems it opposes? Would not the opposite of the ruling ideology then be simply an alternative ideology, and on what rational grounds would we choose between them? We are sliding, in short, into the mire of historical relativism; but the only alternative to that would appear to be some form of positivism or scientific rationalism which repressed its own enabling historical conditions, and so was ideological in all the worst ways outlined by The German Ideology.

This is as honest a statement of the problem as one could imagine. No Marxist detractor could express it more forcibly. Marxism survives as a rhetoric of social change, its ideas being part of the active struggle to establish proletarian class consciousness, but its materialist analysis of sociohistorical formations loses its scientific status, and the terms ‘proletarian class consciousness’ and ‘socialist ideology’ become synonymous.

Ideological analysis survives mainly as a rhetoric of demystification and a negative hermeneutics, a means of exposing how discourses, mostly but not exclusively dominant ones, promote and legitimate themselves by naturalizing, universalizing, dissimulating, distorting, reifying, persuading (coercively or consensually), etc. But ideology is also positive to the extent to which one can use the same rhetorical tactics to promote and legitimate one's own vision of social change. So whereas Eagleton begins by rejecting the ideology as legitimation thesis, he ultimately ends up accepting something very much like it.

The strategic innovation of the primarily twentieth-century critics of ideology Eagleton discusses in the remainder of his book is to construe ideology as predominantly a function of discourse rather than consciousness. As he observes, ‘it is with Gramsci that the crucial transition is effected from ideology as “systems of ideas” to ideology as lived, habitual social practice—which must then presumably encompass the unconscious, inarticulate dimensions of social experience as well as the workings of formal institutions.’ This is a significant and productive transition; Freud joins hands with Marx.

Eagleton's negotiation of this dense and difficult terrain is masterful. He excels at both exposition and critique. For example, he carefully explains how Adorno sees the mechanism of exchange as the secret of ideology. Ideology, Adorno argues, is identity thinking; it pits an intelligible and familiar self against an unintelligible and alien other. Ideology homogenizes the world, whereas art, which values the sensuous particular over the seamless totality, makes room for difference. Adorno's ideal of ‘togetherness in diversity’ moves Eagleton to eloquence. ‘The aim of socialism is to liberate the rich diversity of sensuous use—value from the metaphysical prison-house of exchange-value—to emancipate history from the specious equivalences imposed upon it by ideology and commodity production.’ Nevertheless, Eagleton poses the key question: ‘Does all ideology work by the identity principle, ruthlessly expunging whatever is heterogeneous to it?’ The real ideological conditions of Western capitalist societies, he answers, are more various and pluralistic. Modern capitalism is not ‘a seamless, pacified, self-regulating system.’ The fetishism of commodities thrives on difference, however spurious and however much a function of the fluctuation of fashion rather than the recognition of otherness such difference may be. One might even argue that the tolerance of pluralistic oppositional discourses is a means of attenuating and defusing them. The genius of the marketplace of ideas may reside in its lack of discrimination; heterogeneity itself may contribute to capitalist hegemony.

Eagleton's discussion of Habermas is cogent and insightful. Enough of a closet ‘rationalist’ to resist making the term entirely pejorative, Eagleton appreciates the virtues of Habermas's view of ideology as ‘a deformed discursive system,’ ‘a form of communication systematically distorted by power.’ Even though Habermas contends that this distortion is systematic, he does not see ideology as an all-powerful and all-absorbent totalitarian system, and he posits communicative rationality as an alternative to ideological distortion. As Eagleton notes, Habermas seeks ‘to extract from our linguistic practices the structure of some underlying “communicative rationality”—some “ideal speech situation” which glimmers faintly through our actual debased discourses.’ Eagleton's subsequent discussion and extension of the parallels Habermas draws between psychoanalysis and the critique of ideology is incisive. As his earlier works also attest, Eagleton is sensitively attuned to the similarities and differences between Marx, Freud, and their disciples and commentators.

Borrowing from Lacan, Althusser also links psychoanalysis and ideology. ‘In the ideological sphere … the human subject transcends its true state of diffuseness or decentrement and finds a consolingly coherent image of itself reflected back in the “mirror” of a dominant discourse.’ Ideology ‘is not just a distortion or false reflection, a screen which intervenes between ourselves and reality or an automatic effect of commodity production. It is an indispensable medium for the production of human subjects.’ Since ideology is largely habitual behaviour and unconscious thought, it is ‘eternal’ and will exist even in a socialist society. Ideology alone ‘lends the human subject enough illusory, provisional coherence for it to become a practical social agent.’ Ideology alone provides the subject a symbolic map of society, an imaginary model of the whole. The unified subject and the social whole may be fictions, but they are probably necessary fictions for the promotion and production of individual and social action, radical or otherwise. Ideology in this sense is an integral part of the psychopathology of everyday life. Not all closure, then, is invidiously totalitarian, for ‘a certain provisional stability of identity is essential not only for psychical well-being but for revolutionary political agency. … Textuality, ambiguity, indeterminacy lie often enough on the side of dominant ideological discourses themselves.’

Many other interesting and illuminating things in this book remain unexplored—the witty skewering of Fish, Rorty, and their versions of neo-pragmatism, among others. Though Eagleton is passionately committed to a particular vision of social change, he is generally fair-minded in his expositions and critiques. I am ignoring his predictable sneers at such intellectual heavyweights as Thatcher, Reagan, and Bush, his occasional reifying and fetishizing of late consumer capitalism as if it were some sort of ubiquitous monolith to be invoked rather than explained, and his choice not to consider conservative assessments of ideology; in these areas, perhaps, lies his own goes-without-saying. Nevertheless, Eagleton concludes, sensibly enough, that while ideology embraces reification, it is itself reification, the term being ‘just a convenient way of categorizing under a single heading a whole lot of different things we do with signs.’ There may be family resemblances between ideologies, but ideology has no essence. It is ‘less … a particular set of discourses, than … a particular set of effects within discourses.’ As Voloshinov observes, ‘without signs there is no ideology,’ for the struggle of antagonistic social interests takes place at the level of the sign. ‘Ideological power, as John B. Thompson puts it, is not just a matter of meaning, but of making a meaning stick.

Eagleton's study demonstrates that ‘the term ideology has a wide range of historical meanings, all the way from the unworkably broad sense of the social determination of thought to the suspiciously narrow idea of the deployment of false ideas in the direct interest of a ruling class.’ He recognizes the necessity of seeing ideology as a function of discourse but is wary of inflating discourse to

the point where it imperializes the whole world, eliding the distinction between thought and material reality. The effect of this is to undercut the critique of ideology—for if ideas and material reality are given indissolubly together, there can be no question of asking where social ideas actually hail from. The new “transcendental” hero is discourse itself, which is apparently prior to everything else. It is surely a little immodest of academics, professionally concerned with discourse as they are, to project their own preoccupations onto the whole world, in that ideology known as (post-) structuralism.

It may be immodest but it is not inconsistent, whereas Eagleton's wanting to preserve a categorical distinction between thought and material reality is both inconsistent and undialectical given his rejection of scientism and the base/superstructure model that undergirds it, and given his sense of the limitations of the false consciousness thesis. But, as the Emersonian saying goes, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Somehow I prefer Eagleton's inconsistency to their immodesty. With ideology, it would seem, authors and critics alike are condemned to some measure of double-dealing; it goes with the territory.

Kate Soper (review date March-April 1992)

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SOURCE: “The Ideology of the Aesthetic,” in New Left Review, No. 192, March-April, 1992, pp. 120-32.

[In the following review, Soper examines the development of Eagleton's theoretical analysis and socialist perspective in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, drawing attention to the “tensions, ambivalences, irresolutions, in Eagleton's book.”]

In Ingmar Bergman's film of The Magic Flute, the camera, throughout the overture, traverses the faces of an audience divided by age, sex, ethnicity and style, but united in its common rapture. It is a compelling image of the power of the ‘aesthetic’ to realize—despite everything that tends to human dispersion—an instance of humanist fusion; an instance, moreover, that seems all the more exalted because it depends on nothing but mutual inspiration, and all the more precious because of its fragile spontaneity. This audience, in its wordless communion, surely captures something of what Kant had in mind when he presented the aesthetic as the site of a reciprocity of feeling and intersubjectivity denied us in our rational or moral or purely sensual dealings with others. Yet it may also, one feels, capture rather more than Kant intended. For, separated though it may be in terms of years or nationality or personal comportment, there is one aspect in which this audience appears more homogeneous: it is undoubtedly essentially bourgeois. Perhaps we should say, then, that wittingly or unwittingly, Bergman has also registered something of the ideology of the aesthetic; something, that is, of what the bourgeoisie had wished the aesthetic to be, namely, an image of the achievement in reality not only of the consolidation of its own class, but of that promised society of freedom and equality through which it sought to legitimate its rule. For the aesthetic has figured in bourgeois thought both as a symbol of its aspired-to syntheses of mind and body, of the cognitive and sensual, of individual freedom and social harmony, and as a kind of bad faith, a way of refusing to come to terms with the fact that the material divisions of society cannot be miraculously rendered into a tensionless whole by purely artistic or spiritual means. There is, as it were, a whole part of society missing from the ‘Kantian’ audience.

It is this intricate double story of the aesthetic as sincere ideal of unity and as false universality that Terry Eagleton has undertaken to trace in his most wide-ranging and philosophically ambitious work to date. The Ideology of the Aesthetic1 excites and pleases, not only because of the suppleness of its prose and the extent to which it is lit up by the pleasure Eagleton himself has had in its making, but because of its encyclopaedic grasp of ideas and the relative ease with which it guides us through the convolutions of a concept which, perhaps more than any other employed in philosophical discrimination, is the most volatile and difficult to fix. It is no easy task to determine the respective terrains of the rational or the ethical, or to say exactly where cognition gives way to some more intuitive or sensual mode of apprehension. It is even more difficult to specify the area of aesthetic understanding, which figures in modern European philosophy both as a mediator of ideality and materiality, and as something distinct from either. In its mediating function, the aesthetic sits uneasily between the mental and bodily poles that it sets out to synthesize; as the achievement of their unity, it appears as a mode of experience-cum-understanding that is transcendent to either, and entirely sui generis.

Such remarks may seem unduly abstract to anyone for whom ‘aesthetics’ has to do essentially with the appraisal of works of art, and refers to that branch of philosophy concerned with the value discriminations we bring to bear on the concrete artefacts of cultural production. But Eagleton has not written a history of aesthetics in this sense; nor is there any but passing reference to particular works of art in his book. Rather, taking his cue from the elaboration within the German philosophical tradition of the aesthetic as dealing in a kind of truth attainable neither in pure nor practical reason, he offers a cultural politics of this idea of truth from the mid eighteenth century to our own times—a history, that is, of the political role it has played within a philosophy that is itself a political response to its times, a product and maker of its ideological circumstances.


Eagleton presents the aesthetic as a ‘discourse of the body’2 that enters German thought at the point of transition from feudal absolutism to modern bourgeois society. Though its tempering of the too abstract and overtly coercive claims of rationality may have served initially to shore up the old order, the emergence of the aesthetic is really a symptom of the moribund nature of that form of political authority, and comes as a response to the requirement of Enlightenment for a new kind of human subject (‘one which, like the work of art itself, discovers the law in the depth of its own free identity, rather than in some oppressive external power’ [p. 19]). In this, the aesthetic serves as a means of safe passage, whereby feudal hierarchy and patronage can yield to bourgeois individualism and the free anonymity of market relations, without risk of collapse into outright anarchy or overt rebellion against the imposition of any new form of order. Bourgeois society is to be rendered into an organic whole—but it is to be organic in a new way, a product of the heart's consent. If it knows a law, it is one that individuals have discovered within themselves and freely subscribed to; and the aesthetic is its reflection.

In its upward trajectory—from Kant to Hegel—this aesthetic thus registers an optimistic faith in the conformity of bourgeois society to reason and the natural ordering of things. The claims of the sensual can be respected, and all due weight given to lived experience and its particularity, without finally transgressing the preserve of rational and moral law, or threatening the privileged position of humanity within the universe of nature at large. But not only will this aestheticism in the end prove incapable of the political task it has set itself, that of compensating or substituting for the absence in reality of the harmonious society of self-regulating subjects it ideally projects; it also cannot, even in the phase of its consolidation as ideology, accomplish the philosophical task of reconciliation—or at least not without considerable stress and strain, a continual turning back on its own discourse in order to check the subsumption of the aesthetic within one or other of the domains it would mediate between. Thus Schiller attempts a corrective to the overly ascetic bias of Kantian theory, but only at the cost of revealing the aesthetic ideal as potential source of a Romantic critique of bourgeois industrialism. Hegel thereupon figures as a magnificent, if rather last-ditch, effort to overcome these tensions by projecting Kant's aesthetic function into the structure of reality itself: if Kant had left us deprived of any full-blown possession of the objective world, Hegel restores it to us as our rightful home.3 But his recovery of the object from the limbo of unknowing to which Kant had consigned it (and also from its too overweaning repossession in the subjective intuitionism of Fichte and Schelling) is also not without its flaw, since it is accomplished only by means of a theoretical edifice of such awesome complexity that it forfeits all ideological accessibility. Generated as it is entirely out of abstract reason and puritanically opposed to all ‘graven images’ and representations of the sensuous, the Hegelian system proves too incapable of engaging with common experience to serve as political legitimation. There are, moreover, Eagleton suggests, comparable tensions afflicting the ‘aestheticization’ of reason represented in the turn to empiricism within English philosophy (though this receives a relatively cursory treatment4). For here, too, the aesthetic comes forward as a political instrument, to be turned, on the one hand, as a progressive power against ruling-class rationalism, and, on the other hand, lending itself to a conservative—and even potentially fascistic—celebration of the natural, spontaneous organicism of the nation-state.

In a general sense, then, the aesthetic is revealed as an amalgam of reactionary and utopian impulses. In so far as its transfigurative vision is belied by the power relations and degenerate egoism of bourgeois society, it can act as a veil drawn over its ugliness; but in that same process it necessarily begins life as an immanent critique of the gap between this actuality and its sublime ideals, and thus of its own hypocrisies. The tension of the aesthetic within German idealism, as both legitimation of Enlightenment and rejection of its instrumental rationality, is therefore mirrored in the very differing uses to which it will be put in the hands of figures like Blake or Morris on the one hand, and Burke, Arnold, Carlisle, Ruskin and T. S. Eliot on the other.5 Moreover, in so far as the philosophy of the aesthetic offers itself as an account of the source of values, there is a further schism between the more Kantian, autotelic approach, which views aesthetic values as somehow quite autonomous and self-derivative, and an approach that seeks to root these values more directly in the body and its affections.

If the ideological manoeuvrings of the bourgeois aesthetic in its more self-confident and positive trajectory can be seen as centred around an autotelic conception of value, its post-Hegelian and more subversive career (from Schopenhauer through Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) represents a de-spiritualization of the aesthetic, a turning back to the body and desire. The image of the aesthetic as ‘lawfulness without law’ and as sublime disinterest is thereby profoundly undermined in a shift toward that realm of instinct, will and full-blooded sensuality that it was supposed to keep in touch with, but only by purging it of its more carnal, ribald and excessive qualities. The elevation of will and instinct in the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche thus pits the aesthetic against the pieties of bourgeois idealism; but at the same time, by virtue of its naturalization of greed, power lust and human hypocrisy, it becomes a more negative discourse altogether, appearing to remove all hope of any more exalted alternative. Schopenhauer's ‘carnival of gloom and risible monomanic despondency’; Kierkegaard's denial of any originary innocence, and pre-emptive strike against the hollowness of bourgeois ‘individuality’; Nietzsche's aesthetic as ‘applied psychology’ and disdain for all sentimentalism, and his contempt—shared by Kierkegaard and Heidegger—for ‘mass man’ and the philistine complacencies of ‘average’ living: all this is profoundly unsettling of the erstwhile faith in the aesthetic as promise of concord and equilibrium. But it is also the eruption of nihilism, elitism and irrationalism. The aesthetic is turned much more sharply in criticism of the self-deceptive aspirations of the existing order; but in the process it also becomes the vehicle of a self-punitive irony, a manic laughter at the follies of humankind, a morbid pleasure in the sheer incapacity of human beings to be even half-way decent, let alone to relish the sublime.


The remaining four thinkers treated at length in this book—Marx, Freud, Benjamin and Adorno—fit less readily into this schema of the inflation and the self-deflation of the bourgeois aesthetic, though in their relations to each other they might be said to reproduce some of its counterpoint.

Marx, not surprisingly, figures as a point of renewal: as a dialectician of the senses who, in revealing that these acquire their form through material practice, and thus possess both objective and subjective dimensions of existence, blows wide open all pretensions to reconcile sense and spirit within an alienated social order. But, suggests Eagleton, Marx is Kantian enough in his early aspiration to overcome the antinomy of Nature and Humanity through the realization of ‘species-being’; and even when he has put such idealism behind him, he retains something of that aesthetic in his projection of communism as a kind of unrepresentable sublime of indefinite abundance. What is different about Marx's ‘utopian’ aesthetics, however, is that it goes together with very stern insistence on the need for rational analysis of the present (with particular attention paid to the ‘bad sides’ by which history always proceeds), since this is the sole resource and condition of any possible good that may come in the future.

Yet, almost as soon as Marx has been congratulated on this realism, Eagleton is reminding us of the various notes of caution that Freud sounded against a belief in any too straightforwardly rational route to emancipation. For not only has Freud's recognition of the intimate relation between desire and submission to authority rendered obsolete any simplistic expression/repression model of power, Marx's included,6 it has also poured cold water on any project aimed at the comfortable reinsertion of the body in the discourse of rationality. For Freud's message (at least in Eagleton's Lacanian reading of him), is that the body will never be quite at home in language. Law and the symbolic—in short, culture—is gained only at the cost of plenitude: of the desire not to desire.

It is true that this Freudian wet blanket is revealed to contain a number of dryer linings. If the law, for example, is exposed as less transcendental to our caprices than it would purport to be, this is both the opportunity for changing its harsher dictates, as well as an obstacle to freeing us from our uncritical obedience to it; and if we cannot finally ‘slay the father’, that may be all to the good in breeding a certain scepticism, even humour, about the more exorbitant and absurd exactions of superego. Moreover, this recourse to comedy is not entirely foreign, claims Eagleton, even to Benjamin, who, despite his austerity in other respects, follows Bakhtin in referring us to the liberating resources of laughter.7 But such optimism as this reveals is again reversed when we come to Adorno, who offers us a discourse of the body, but only, post-Auschwitz, of the body as site of suffering, and who therefore turns away from any affirmative aesthetic of the senses, however ironically handled. With Adorno, the problem of redemption, if it is possible at all, becomes the problem of how to aspire to any future happiness while still keeping faith with the pain of the past. ‘Only by remaining faithful to the past can we prise loose its terrifying grip, and this fidelity is forever likely to paralyse us … If Adorno plies the steel, he does so as wounded surgeon, patient and physician together …’ (p. 362).

There are clearly two schemas of understanding at work in this overall narrative of the aesthetic. One is that of the ‘discourse of the body’, or treatment of the aesthetic in terms of the mind-body polarity developed within bourgeois philosophy; the other is the Marxist perspective brought to philosophy itself. If the first is that through which we are invited to grasp what is specific to the aesthetic, the second is that which invites us to appreciate its status as ‘ideology’. However, for a variety of reasons, the juxtaposition of these frameworks is not without its tensions. At the most general level there exists the problem that Eagleton is putting to use, and at times treating as a comprehensive and ‘neutral’ discourse; the same bourgeois philosophy that he is also, in some sense, denouncing as partial and prejudicial. I suggested earlier that Eagleton is offering a double narrative: of bourgeois philosophy as progressive and self-critical register of liberal-Enlightenment ideas, and as self-deluding grandiosity. And it is this doubleness that is responsible in no small part for the fertility of his book, and its lack of dogmatism. But such an exercize is bound to create a certain irresolution between the narrative that invites us to view philosophy as speaking only to the interests and tastes of the sherry-drinking classes, and the narrative that invites us to view this same philosophy as if it were a trustworthy guide to the nature and collective interests of bourgeois society at large—between the text that catches philosophy in its hegemonic purposes, and the text written under the influence of its success.

The general problem here has its more particular reflection in the instability of both the key concepts at work in the text: that of the ‘body’, and of ‘ideology’. As far as the ‘body’ is concerned, the difficulty is that Eagleton invokes this notion as a general classifying system for all the thinkers under review, even though, as his own exposition makes clear, they diverge so considerably in the conception they bring to mind-body relations that it is unclear whether one can impute any commonly agreed object to their collective discourse at all. The problem is at its most acute in respect of those—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud—whom Eagleton precisely applauds for their project of reworking the aesthetic beginning from bodily foundations (Marx for the labouring body, Nietzsche for the body as power, Freud for the body as desire). This is for two related reasons: one, because what is arguably distinctive to this project is its exposure of the ‘ideological’ status of traditional philosophical thinking about mind and body, and two, because (at least in the case of Marx and Freud) this exposure involves a rejection of any biologically reductive account of ourselves as needing, desiring and sensual creatures. What is innovatory in Marx's approach is the emphasis placed on the mediation of biology by the social, on the historically developed quality of needs and wants, and on the degree to which even our senses are as much constituted by, as pre-given to, our particular environment and life experience. Freud, likewise, particularly if one follows Lacan in viewing the ‘authentic’ Freud as the anti-biologistic Freud, is precisely to be read as resisting any reduction of the cultural, and the desires it engenders, to the promptings of some natural reservoir of instinctual feelings: what is significant is not bodily functions or libidinal urges in themselves, but the interpretations brought to them in consequence of a culturally orchestrated intersubjective context.

In so far, then, as these ‘great aestheticians of the body’ subvert the very terms of the mind-body problem, there is something a little awkward about the use of that framework to represent their contribution (and this applies, by extension, to the Marxist aesthetic theory of Benjamin and Adorno as well). These points might be restated in terms of the overly metaphoric status of the concept of the ‘body’ in the text, given the range of more literal constructions that it is possible to place upon it: is it referring us to unmediated corporeality, or functioning as a synonym of the ‘sensual’? Is this the ‘body’ as conceptualized within the empiricist-rationalist tradition of philosophy, or as conceived from the standpoint of those theories which challenge that tradition? Perhaps this ambiguity would not matter greatly were it not that it generates uncertainty about how far those forms of sensuality which are distinctive to aesthetic experience, and which relate to, but clearly do not reduce to, bodily sensations, are being respected. One can agree that there is something too puritanically abstracted from corporeal responses in the Kantian theory of the ‘indifference’ of a truly aesthetic contemplation, but in whatever ways the ‘body’ does enter into the experience it could not be adequately accounted for in purely physicalistic terms.8

An associated difficulty is that Eagleton constantly deploys the standard genderization of the mind-body divide as a means to explore philosophical antitheses. (Thus, the aesthetic is the ‘feminization’ of ‘phallic’ conscience, and associated with everything traditionally coded ‘female’—nature, taste, immanence, sentiment and, of course, ‘body’—as opposed to the ‘masculinity’ of law, the symbolic, abstraction, transcendence, and so forth.) This is quite justified in so far as Eagleton is here registering philosophy's own sexual typology‘; but there is something more problematic about his tendency to present this as having nothing but positive import for feminism, since that would seem to imply an overall acceptance of its gender essentialism. On the other hand, it may be a little unfair to quarrel with a gender subtext while laughing at the excellent jokes it affords (as, for example, in the case of Eagleton's deftness with Heidegger's ‘readiness-to-hand’); and, besides, in mitigation, it has also to be said that Eagleton displays a rather endearing confusion around sexual identity. (Thus, Hegel's virilely penetrative Geist turns out to be endowed with womb-like properties, and the ‘castrating feminine assault’ of Nietzsche's truth suddenly finds itself in the camp of that ‘patriarchal metaphysics’ which is reeling from the female attack.)


At a more fundamental level, however, these issues raise questions about the ‘ideological’ status of philosophy in Eagleton's account—specifically concerning its truth value and the extent of the influence it is seen to have upon society at large. In other words, are we dealing here with philosophy-as-ideology in the more conventional Marxist sense, that is, as one of those partial, inverted and abstract forms of ‘pure’ thought whereby the bourgeoisie, in blindness to the conditions of its thinking and hence of its rather parochial reach, presents its own interests as if they were valid for humanity in general? Or are we dealing with philosophy as the very terrain on which the respective claims of mind and body, materialism and idealism, are being arbitrated in a permanent process of revision and adjustment, and which is therefore to be viewed as a site of ideological conflicts generated within society as a whole? How far, to put the point crudely, does Marx contribute to, and how far does he explode, the ‘ideology’ of the aesthetic? And the same question arises with respect to many of the other thinkers treated in the book: how far are they part of philosophy's endless struggles with the errors of its ways, and how far a challenge to its pretensions to knowledge? In short, what is meant by ‘ideology’ here?

This question has obviously been of no small concern to Eagleton himself, given that his most recent book is devoted to a clarification of the confusions surrounding the concept. What is interesting about the book on Ideology, however, is that it does not tidy up the conceptual unclarities by offering us the essential ‘true’ theory of ideology. On the contrary, the pertinence of the concept is defended on Wittgensteinian lines: it is doubtful, says Eagleton, ‘that one can ascribe to ideology any invariable characteristics at all. We are dealing less with some essence of ideology than with an overlapping network of “family resemblances”.’9 This precisely does not mean that ‘ideology’ can be assimilated to ‘discourse’ and absorbed within its concept. It means, rather, that only those discourses are ideological which have the ‘family resemblance’ of relating in a fairly direct way to the power struggles central to the reproduction of a given form of social life. For the most part, then, ‘ideology’ refers pejoratively to those ‘signs, meanings and values which help to reproduce a dominant social power’; but it can also refer, in more neutral fashion, to ‘any significant conjuncture between discourse and political interests’.10

If we now map this account of ideology back onto The Ideology of the Aesthetic, it arguably resolves some of the tensions I have been focusing on, for it could then be said that the book documents the ‘ideology’ of the aesthetic in both the more pejorative and the more neutral sense of the term—in other words, it offers a history of all the ways in which aesthetic discourse is in significant collusion or dissent from dominant political interests over a particular period of time. Some might question whether this is a resolution, as opposed to an acknowledgement, of such tensions, but I think Eagleton may be right that this is the best we can do with the concept.

All the same, one aspect of the argument of The Ideology of the Aesthetic remains unclear to me, and is arguably not quite in line with the approach adopted in Ideology. This concerns the role that Eagleton wants to accord ideology in the constitution of the subject. In Ideology, Eagleton is critical of Althusserian theory for presenting the autonomy of the subject as merely illusory,11 and he also argues against viewing ideology as possessing a ‘discursive omnipotence’ to legislate social interests into being.12 Ideology, he contends, may ‘actively constitute subjects’, but these same subjects are also ‘always conflictively, precariously constituted’, and in this sense are viewed as retaining some active centre of resistance to its ‘constituting’ work.13

Now, there is much in The Ideology of the Aesthetic that conforms to this argument. For, although the book contains a number of formulations referring us to what ‘power’ or the ‘law’ or ‘commodity relations’ need in the way of subjects, such antihumanist talk is continually off-set by appeals to the needs and capacities of human beings themselves. At various points, in fact, Eagleton offers a quite explicitly dialectical approach both to ideology and to those it interpellates. He tells us, for example, that

There is a world of political difference between a law which the subject really does give to itself, in radical democratic style, and a decree which still descends from on high but which the subject now ‘authenticates’. Free consent may thus be the antithesis of oppressive power, or a seductive form of collusion with it. To view the emergent middle-class order from either standpoint alone is surely too undialectical an approach. In one sense, the bourgeois subject is indeed mystified into mistaking necessity for freedom and oppression for autonomy. For power to be individually authenticated, there must be constructed within the subject a new form of inwardness which will do the unpalatable work of the law for it, and all the more effectively since that law has now apparently evaporated. In another sense, this policing belongs with the historic victory of bourgeois liberty and democracy over a barbarously repressive state. As such, it contains within itself a genuinely utopian glimpse of a free, equal community of independent subjects. (p. 27)

Here, then, Eagleton appears to draw a definite, if fine, distinction between a genuinely autonomous moment of subjectivity and the ‘autonomous subject’ as a deluded construct of ideology. But this is a precarious dialectic, and it is not always clear how far Eagleton is committed to sustaining it. At times, in fact, one senses in his argument that, despite a reluctance to return to the Althusserian habits of the past, he still finds these more compelling than either of the other apparent options: the heresy of an explicitly ‘humanist’ subject, on the one hand, or the discourse of ‘discourse’ and deconstruction, on the other.

For example, in his concluding chapter on postmodernism Eagleton offers (rightly in my opinion) a general overview of this as a contradictory development that one can applaud as a radical politics at the service of authentic local and popular needs, but that one must denounce in so far as it reflects the logic of capitalist development. ‘Much postmodernist culture,’ he argues, ‘is both radical and conservative, iconoclastic and incorporated’ (p. 273). It is thus as ambivalent in its message about art and culture as it is in its attitude to history and truth. It demotically confounds hierarchies, but also follows the commodity itself in its erasure of truth, meaning and subjectivity.

Since capitalism is of its very nature transgressive of all boundaries between high and low, esoteric and demotic, the seemingly radical postmodernist attack on a sequestered art runs the risk of reproducing the very logic it opposes. Likewise, in its treatment of history and truth, postmodernism shows itself to be as much a disciple of the Fordist ‘history is bunk’ school of thought, and of Whitehall ways with truth, as of any more subversive doctrines.

Yet, even as Eagleton approves the genuinely subversive element in postmodernist critiques while reproving them for their denial of subjectivity and suppression of potentially radical meanings and values, he invites us to view the issues at stake in terms of a conflict in the ideological needs of the system. Thus, he writes, ‘the mandarin culture of the high bourgeois epoch is progressively called into question by the later evolution of that very social system, but remains at certain ideological levels indispensable … partly because the subject as unique, autonomous, self-identical and self-determining remains a political and ideological requirement of the system, but partly because the commodity is incapable of generating a sufficiently legitimating ideology of its own’ (pp. 374-5); or again, that ‘the autonomous human subject is no clapped out metaphysical fantasy, to be dispersed at a touch of deconstruction, but a continuing ideological necessity constantly outstripped and decentred by the system itself’ (p. 377).

So, it seems, then, that the hidden hand of ideology had been pulling the strings all the time, and it was only one of its more cunning ruses to have flashed us a glimpse of an autonomous subject whose autonomy appeared not to have been constructed by the system.14


Whatever the difficulties attaching to Eagleton's own argument, however, he is right to present postmodernism as deeply ambivalent in its approach to questions of cultural value and subjectivity—at least to the extent that it offers its own brand of populism as some kind of left-wing cultural positioning. In one sense, as Fredric Jameson has suggested, this populism can be viewed as a continuation or completion of the arguments developed by the New Left in opposition to the earlier Frankfurt School stress on the manipulations of the Culture Industry. In other words, it can be seen as continuing the shift away from a more elitist and negative appraisal of popular culture towards the view that some sort of radical potential is discernible within commodification itself, in so far as the consumerist desires it generates become the source of some deeper dissatisfaction with the system. On the other hand, the postmodernist twist that ‘completes’ this argument is extremely problematic, since instead of focusing on the ‘dissatisfactions’ bred by consumerism, it tends rather to congratulate mass tastes for their ever more refined appreciation of technical sophistication. What has therefore been eroded by this postmodernist radical populism is the very distinction between art and entertainment, ‘high’ and ‘low’, that sustained the critical edge of left-wing cultural theory. What has disappeared, as Jameson points out, is the standpoint of any ‘genuinely aesthetic experience’ of the kind formerly used to unmask the structures of commercial art.15

However, as Jameson also points out, this does not mean that the old problem of ‘true’ and ‘false’ happiness is not still with us: that is, whether ‘watching thirty-five hours a week of technically expert and elegant television can be argued to be more deeply gratifying than watching thirty-five hours a week of 1950s “Culture Industry” programming’.16 Moreover, since the postmodernist position relies on the assumption that the viewers of this non-manipulative high-tech chain of signifying images are themselves unconscious of the utopian wisdom of their so doing, it is unclear how any political messages can be adduced from it. Jameson himself concludes, therefore, that ‘perhaps today, where the triumph of more utopian theories of mass culture seems complete and virtually hegemonic, we need the corrective of some new theory of manipulation, and of a properly postmodern commodification.’17

One can agree with this, and so presumably can Eagleton, given that it seems implied by his own portrayal of postmodernist ‘radicalism’ as altogether too collusive with the current dynamic of capitalism. But quite what form this theory could take remains obscure. Or, rather, it remains as difficult to supply such a theory as it is easy to state the fundamental problem to which it would provide the solution: how to give all due weight and respect to the mass tastes which must provide the springboard of any transformative politics, while in some sense also denouncing them as ‘false’. The problem, of course, is not a new one for the Left, but lies at the heart of its entire ‘democratic socialist’ project. For, to put it simply, the sensibilities which both Eagleton and Jameson bring to their discussions of postmodernism speak to their continued conviction of the need to provide a ‘democratic socialist’ perspective within cultural studies, but also to a very keen awareness of the difficulties of sustaining such a project within the present climate.

This, in turn, raises the issue of how far one can continue to pose the question of its viability in terms of the need for the Left to provide an improved or more updated theory. It is certainly true that this wing of Marxism has always had a hard time engineering even a purely theoretical reconciliation between its democratic open speech (‘trust to the people, for only they are in a position to speak to the authenticity of their desires’) with its socialist aside (‘the ventriloquists of capitalism do not know what they are missing’). And in this sense, one can understand the inclination to cast around for newer, and yet more sophisticated, theoretical resources to bring to the seemingly uncrackable nut. (Thus, Jameson thinks Adorno might just pull it off, with a little corrective from Williams; Eagleton, less confident of anyone in particular, agrees about Adorno and Williams, but believes Habermas has got some interesting ideas too, and then there's Benjamin, and Bakhtin, Freud possibly, not to mention some earlier voices …)

Yet, one might argue that the question of viability cannot be thought purely in terms of theoretical resources, in which the Left is not, in fact, so ill-equipped (with no mean contributions from Eagleton and Jameson themselves). The problem, arguably, is less one of finding the right voice than of finding enough of an audience, outside of the academy, that is responsive to it. And this raises the further question of how the Left should respond to the lack of popular interest in its own objectives. For, it can treat this as further proof of the powers of commodity society to manipulate happiness only at the cost of putting a question mark over its own political pertinence and popular engagement. This is not, by any means, to suggest that we should shut up, but only that we may be waiting for something more than can be provided by further refinements in our theoretical offerings. That said, I shall now make an obvious point (though it is also Adorno's, and he is never very obvious18): there are still people who are starving. In other words, one also has to say to the Left: ‘Thou art to continue’—which is a point echoed in a more sombre clip from Shakespeare, by Eagleton himself, when, in approval of the idea that we should never allow despair finally to silence us, he quotes Edgar in King Lear to the effect that the worst is not upon us, so long as we can say ‘this is the worst’.

It would be a touch melodramatic, not to say misleading, to suggest that it is only despair that fuels the continuing production of socialist theory. The point is, rather, that so long as there are so many being brought to the unspoken extreme, it seems important, however unpropitious the climate for its reception, to continue to provide a compelling voice of criticism. This applies, moreover, even to those areas of concern, such as the ‘utopian’ implications of First World cultural consumption, that may seem rather remote from the gnawings of the belly elsewhere. For the lines of connection here are not as tenuous as we are led to believe by those who have no patience with the furtherance of this exercise. And in any case, what we are talking about here has to do very directly with the formation and quality of our own culture, too.

I have made note of tensions, ambivalences, irresolutions in Eagleton's book. But had he written a work from which they were absent, it would be far less pertinent to our times. For anyone who remains intellectually interested in continuing the socialist dialogue around art and culture, and morally convinced that it should continue, his book provides both the substance of the ideas to do the thinking, and the wit and inspiration that stimulates the will for it.


  1. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Blackwell, Oxford 1990. All unattributed page references in the text are to this work.

  2. Ibid., p. 13. This follows Alexander Baumgarten's formulation, and is in line with the original Greek understanding of aisthesis as referring us to the domain of perception and sensation, in contrast to pure cognition.

  3. By rejecting Kant's ‘thing-in-itself,’ and allowing the objective world to be fully knowable, Hegel denies to Nature its powers of estrangement, presenting it as essentially congenial to human purposes.

  4. On the grounds that this topic has been covered fully enough elsewhere, and that the Anglophone tradition is in any case derivative of German philosophy. See ibid., p. II.

  5. In a struggle around the ‘aesthetic’, which issues, by and large, in its capturing by the Right—an outcome that Eagleton describes as a ‘devastating loss for the political left’ (ibid., p. 60).

  6. ‘If the law and desire are born at a stroke, then there can be no question of positing an intrinsically creative desire which is merely stifled in its expressiveness by a recalcitrant power’ (ibid., p. 274).

  7. ‘For both Bakhtin and Benjamin, laughter is the very type of expressive somatic utterance, which springs straight from the body's libidinal depths and so for Benjamin carries a resonance of the endangered symbolic or mimetic dimension of language’ (ibid., p. 338).

  8. What is peculiar to sensual experience, one might say, is that it is not reducible to the having of sensations, but involves a certain reflexivity, or cognitive savouring of their quality. The psychic and the sensory seem so intimately bound up in any distinctively sensual response that it seems impossible to do justice even to the more immediately sensual work of art of literature in purely bodily terms.

  9. Ideology: An Introduction, Verso, London 1991, p. 222.

  10. Ibid., p. 221.

  11. Ibid., pp. 142-6, 152-3.

  12. Ibid., p. 223.

  13. Ibid., pp. 222-3.

  14. And this is a position that is reflected in difficulties attaching to some of Eagleton's more specific arguments. Thus, bourgeois meaning is, as we have seen, in some sense to be preserved from the profanities of postmodernist eclecticism; but at the same time Joyce's Ulysses is congratulated for ‘pulverizing’ the ‘bourgeois myth of immanent meaning’ because it erodes the distinction between ‘high and low, holy and profane, past and present, authenticity and derivativeness, and does so with all the vulgarity of the commodity itself’. Joyce's texts in general, in fact, ‘turn the economic logic of capitalist life against its hallowed cultural forms, fastening tenaciously upon a contradiction within late bourgeois society between the realm of meaning—the symbolic order in which difference, uniqueness and privilege are the order of the day—and the sphere of production, which that symbolic order ironically helps to sustain’ (The Ideology of the Aesthetic, pp. 375-6). The problem here, however, is not only that this is a defence of Joyce somewhat at odds with the terms of the polemic against postmodernism, but that it leaves it ambiguous whether we are to view Joyce as a self-consciously anticapitalistic writer or as the ideological reflector of its commodifying logic (and neither of these approaches, in fact, seems adequate). It also arguably evades the question of the rather ‘high and holy’ difficulties which the texts themselves present to the average ‘lay’ reader.

  15. Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic, London 1990, pp. 141-3.

  16. Ibid., pp. 142-3.

  17. Ibid., p. 143.

  18. I refer here to Adorno's insistence ‘that no one shall go hungry any more’ (Minima Moralia, London 1974, p. 156) as a kind of material precondition or essential preliminary, whose necessity must be set against the ‘luxury’ of more metaphysical speculations on the difficulties, and possibly ever-receding ‘utopia’, of final gratification. See Jameson's discussion, Late Marxism, pp. 114-15.

John McGowan (review date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Ideology, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 166-69.

[In the following review, McGowan offers positive evaluation of Ideology, though notes that some of Eagleton's arguments are undermined by equivocation.]

Terry Eagleton has written a remarkable book. To enter the swamps of theorizing about ideology and to shed light invariably on every dense obscurity examined is work that calls to mind the lonely and noble labors of Spenserian and Tennysonian knights. No doubt we view such knightly endeavors with suspicion today, sensitive not only to the quixotic nature of quests for lucidity, but also to the self-aggrandizement and incipient elitism of those aiming to assume the mantle of heroic virtue. Eagleton's book is alternately embarrassed by and defiant about its determination to bring light to the benighted, but let me describe what he does before I ponder the puzzles of the tone in which he does it.

Eagleton begins by asserting that the notion of ideology is in crisis. He even claims that the dominant trend is to jettison the term altogether. Here he is mistaken. If anything, the concept of ideology is more prevalent than ever as the left's attention in recent years has swung almost entirely to issues of culture and social reproduction from earlier emphases on economic inequalities and matters of political organization. But just what ideology might mean has fallen victim to the general epistemological muddle in which the human sciences currently find themselves. The old simple alignment of ideology with false consciousness, with a specious rationalization or legitimation of the untraceable bald fact of exploitation, has gone by the boards since we can no longer locate the place from which one could differentiate the ideological (false) version of social facts from the scientific (true) version. Instead, contemporary discussions of ideology usually proclaim that all versions are interpretations and all are equally ideological. While making a few small concessions to this view, Eagleton's basic goal in this book is to avoid the insistence that all discourses have the same epistemological or ethical status. This knight insists that we can and must tell the good guys from the bad guys.

His strategy for reaching the dark tower of truth is to take us through an historical survey of some twenty-odd theorists—Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, Adorno, Habermas, and Freud among them. He presents each writer's thought, offers a few cogent criticisms, and suggests what elements of the thought he wants to salvage for his own purposes. These sections of the book are superb. Miraculously concise and astoundingly faithful to the complexity of the originals, their sum effect is to bolster Eagleton's case that discourse does a lot of different things in a lot of different ways and that the continuing temptation of theory has been to take one form of discourse as the type of all discourse. Thus, he can argue that current theory's predilection to make all discourse one and to call that one ideology is only a most egregious case of theory missing the actual complexity of practice. And he can highlight how our contemporary emphasis on difference is almost always coupled with a levelling hostility toward any attempt to differentiate theoretically among various discourses or categories of action.

Not surprisingly, Eagleton's desire to save a notion of non-ideological discourse puts him more fully at odds with poststructuralist and postmodern theory than he has ever been before. Of course, the tension between Eagleton's Marxism and contemporary theory has surfaced before, especially in his repeated attacks on Paul de Man's work, but Eagleton was also a leading member of the generation of English leftists who slew their fathers—E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams—by choosing French stepfathers (Althusser, Macherey, the poststructuralists) in their stead. In Ideology, however, the polemical skills Eagleton once deployed against Williams are directed at Althusser, Foucault, and, most fully, at the British Marxists still holding the French line: Paul Hirst, Barry Hindress, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.

What does Eagleton have to offer us as the means to distinguish among discourses that French theory would insist are all of a muchness? Ideology hints at two answers with a rather surprising diffidence while attempting more straightforwardly—and unsuccessfully, I'm afraid—to convince us of a third. Eagleton suggests that there are three ways we might evaluate discourses: by considering their effects in terms of ethical criteria, by examining their relation to reason, or by assessing their truth value. When pursuing the question of ethical evaluation, Eagleton appears ready to insist that there simply are unavoidable ethical imperatives. Some things are just wrong and we all know it. But just when it looks as if he is going to denounce ethical relativism, he loses his nerve. He switches from first to third person and tells us that the alternative to relativism is for “one” to accept the tenets of “moral realism,” leaving unclear his own relation to this (to me) rather implausible position.

Eagleton performs a similar fade out when the criterion of “reason” is invoked. His first chapter ends with these words: “To deny that ideology is fundamentally an affair of reason is not to conclude that it is immune to rational considerations altogether. And ‘reason’ here would mean something like: the kind of discourse that would result from as many people as possible actively participating in a discussion of these matters in conditions as free as possible from domination.” Such a position is clearly derived from Habermas, and the possibility of an appeal to reason is discussed again only in the book's section on Habermas (the clearest and least tendentious short summary of Habermas' work that I have ever read). Significantly, the Habermas section is the only discussion of another theorist that has no critique attached to it; yet Eagleton also never explicitly endorses Habermas' view either. He just presents that view and it remains curiously unconnected to everything else in the book.

On the question of truth value Eagleton does speak out. Although sensitive to the difficulties and embarrassments to which the notion of “false consciousness” (with its overtones of condescension, elitism, and outright tyranny) can lead, he finally insists that we cannot do without the concept. There are “objective interests,” he argues, and a discourse that obscures those interests for the social agent is a discourse that offers a false image of a real social situation. As in the case of ethics, Eagleton takes the path here of insisting that we have a stark choice between relativism and objectivism. He does not deny discourse's power to foster illusion, only the notion that we cannot, finally, distinguish nonillusion from illusion.

Alas, his arguments for realism are no better and no more convincing than such arguments usually are. Eagleton covers much the same ground and with much the same arguments found in Gerald Graff's Literature Against Itself. And Eagleton displays much the same exasperated tone of common sense that characterizes the work of Graff, Searle, and other champions of plain fact. In stark contrast to his diffidence about moral realism, Eagleton is haughty, sarcastic, amused, and incredulous by turns in his descriptions of the absurd things the anti-realists claim to believe. Seemingly aware that he is actually unlikely to convince anyone in this long-running academic stand-off, all too often he strikes attitudes instead of offering arguments. His one full-length defense of “objective interests” uses a galley slave as its example, thus begging all the interesting and important questions raised by the more difficult cases of the working class or of women in a less than fully tyrannical society. Since various members of these groups evaluate their options and their interests differently, at stake is how we could judge one articulation of those interests as more adequate to their real situation than another. And behind this epistemological issue lurks the different issue of political prescription. Eagleton appears ready to insist that only a very narrow range of responses by a particular group can be “right.” As he makes clear several times, he has little patience for the liberal value of “pluralism” or its radical cousin, “difference.”

In trying to force us to choose between realism and relativism, Eagleton seems to believe that the destruction of their positions will mean that they must embrace his: “Relativism is no more than a will o' wisp: nobody in fact believes in it for a moment, as an hour's casual observation of their behavior will readily attest.” But Eagleton misses his target here. The convincing part of the anti-realist case is not some claim that individuals do not live according to some very settled beliefs about reality but the claim that all such beliefs are contestable between individuals and appeals to reality often fail to settle those contests. What exasperates Eagleton is the endlessness of debate about a matter he wants to declare absolutely settled.

Eagleton's epistemological and ethical positions are vitiated by his exclusion of the middles between the extremes of relativism and realism. A good case could be made that the notion of ideology is necessary precisely because that notion strives to articulate a middle position that takes into account, among other complexities, the influence on beliefs of power; social organization; social position; cultural traditions, images, and artifacts; and history. Such a position has to acknowledge the reality of these entities (power, history, and the rest) while also recognizing that the effects of these realities are mediated by the discursive forms by which they enter daily practice. The complexities involved here are so intricate and the debates over various formulations so continuous that the temptation to embrace a simple relativism or a simple realism is quite understandable. At its best, which is almost on every page, Eagleton's book keeps in front of us the full complexities of the issues that make a theory of ideology both necessary and frustrating. The result, often enough, is a splitting headache as every certainty dissolves before our eyes, but it is hardly the oddest consequence of our current historical straits (when the breathtaking pace of events in the rest of the world only serves to make the United States seem more nightmarishly glacial than ever) that we must thank Eagleton fervently for the headache and chastise him (gently, but firmly) when he tries, prematurely, to relieve the pain.

Michael Levenson (essay date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Critic as Novelist,” in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 116-24.

[In the following excerpt, Levenson examines the motivation among literary theorists, including Eagleton, to write fiction and offers discussion of Eagleton's novel Saints and Scholars.]

Misleading to call it a movement, and still worse to think of it as a program, but we now have seen enough minor literary eruptions to suspect that it is a cultural symptom that bears some reflection: this burst of novel-writing from people who have lived the conceptual life, the life of method and argument, who often carry leather cases, or who give public lectures and contribute essays to learned journals. In the past five years, some of the world's leading literary critics have turned novelists, and at the same time turned from the coterie audience gathered in the universities to the wider public made up of anyone who wants to read. Why do they do it? What do they want? Are they merely slumming in the bad streets of the imagination? Or are these just new cases of a few gifted people who always hoped to grow up to be novelists and decided to act before it was too late?

Literary critics are not alone in suddenly feeling the charm of novel-writing; it happens to historians and journalists, among others. But I intend to give reasons for taking the literary academic drift of the tide with special seriousness. I'll start by proposing a story of this century, inevitably a story with many chapters left out. It begins with the old provocations of modernism, especially those forbidding experiments of the third decade—Joyce's Ulysses, Woolf's The Waves, Eliot's The Waste Land, Pound's Cantos—works more than willing (in T. S. Eliot's phrase) to disturb and alarm the public. This they did.

One slowly building consequence of those literary agitations was the creation of criticism, criticism as we know it now—professional, sophisticated, ambitious. In significant respects, the modern professoriate within the humanities is one of the lasting (though inadvertent) achievements of the avant-garde. It is scarcely an accident that this century has seen the emergence of these rival siblings: a revolutionary avant-garde intent on speaking a new word, and an academic establishment that has perfected the skills of interpretation. Indeed, the academic standpoint must often be seen as a defense against the aggressions of modernism.

With the great postwar expansion of the university and with the exciting lure of interdisciplinary collaboration, the critical project took on ever more heady ambitions. Hopes of a grand synthesis—among, say, Marx and Freud and existentialism—led to the vision of a Total Theory, an exhaustive method that would take into account all relevant details on the way to its definitive interpretations. Jean-Paul Sartre gave one version of this comprehensive system of explanation, Herbert Marcuse another, and Northrop Frye a rival third. Theirs was a great dream of the 1950s and early '60s, when it seemed possible that many disciplines would meet in a grand methodological union.

But the theory project has fallen into a crisis. The dream of a Total Theory is no longer able to soothe any deep academic sleep. It just hasn't worked out: There were too many fissures in the great globe of perfect understanding. Total Theory has itself become a primary target of theoretical attack; the very idea of a seamless explanation that would find a home for every detail of a life, a text, an epoch now seems charmingly quaint.

With the fading of the missionary goal there has emerged a conspicuous revival of individualism in academic life. Of course, academics have never been free from the taint of self-interest. But now that it's so hard to believe that particular essays and books are part of some unfolding collective structure, everywhere you look you see eye-catching individual display. The dazzling feat of interpretive ingenuity, the bravura reading of a well-worn text, the memorably witty lecture, even the rhetorically bold introduction to the witty lecture, now comprise the intellectual currency of academic life: the public working of the quick mind as high theater.

No longer convinced that their academic labor is leading anywhere in particular, scholars give themselves to self-contained gestures of critical power. So, with the consummate dexterity of a practiced performer, new historicist Stephen Greenblatt (University of California, Berkeley) takes his audiences from the trial of a hermaphrodite to the green woods of Shakespearean comedy. And with a keen sense for the intellectual funny bone, Sandra Gilbert (Princeton) and Susan Gubar (University of California, Davis) leaven their feminist historical revisionism with the hilarity of a stand-up comedy duet. To perform an act of criticism at full mental stretch, to do so before the appreciative glances of one's well-trained colleagues, to provide through the course of an evening one full measure of conceptual edification—this now often seems sufficient, the best that can be hoped for. Indeed, there seems to be a general acceptance of the fact that as fast as it may be moving, literary criticism isn't headed anywhere in particular.

Tongues needn't cluck at this development; it's no worse than many others. Moreover, it has freed intellectuals for more daring swoops of thought, more adventurous tones of voice. You hear in the popular press the horror stories of violent rumbles between strong and weak political correctness factions, and you cringe. We all cringe. But this is what happens when the cauldron bubbles—it spatters the walls.

With the vogue of criticism as performance, with the shattered confidence in Total Theory, with the admiration accorded to individual virtuosity at the expense of common enterprise, the idea of criticism as a science (vintage 1966) seems a picturesque relic of a simpler time. Many now have unlearned the compulsions of Total Theory, and some have come to yearn for pleasure that no theory can give. Who can be surprised if the writing of novels suddenly seems an irresistible lure to these restless academics? …

In 1987 Terry Eagleton, well established as an internationally prominent Marxist critic, published a novel called Saints and Scholars. It takes the Irish uprising of 1916 as its pressing historical context and then imagines a set of improbable circumstances. What if the wounded revolutionary James Connolly, on the run from the British, hides in a cottage that had been rented by Ludwig Wittgenstein, still a young philosopher genius? What if Wittgenstein has been traveling with Nikolai Bakhtin, the boisterous brother of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin? And what if in the midst of this improbable encounter Leopold Bloom steps out of the pages of Joyce's Ulysses and stumbles into the panic?

In a prefatory note to the book, Eagleton points out that “this novel is not entirely fantasy.” Wittgenstein and Nikolai Bakhtin were indeed friends; Wittgenstein did spend time in a cottage on the west coast of Ireland, “although at a later time than suggested here.” Eagleton ends his note by observing that “most of the rest is invented.”

But “invented” is too weak. What gives the novel its comedy and its charm is not merely that it spins out new fancies but that it so cheerfully refuses claims of historical fact. In its opening pages, which describe James Connolly on the point of execution by firing squad, Saints and Scholars looks to be a conventionally scrupulous historical fiction of the Irish revolt. But it is exactly scrupulous history that the book explodes. Faced with the awkwardness of “facts,” it invents new ones.

At the center of the book is a debate between Connolly and Wittgenstein, the one upholding the imperative of revolution as the only response to crushing Irish misery, the other insisting that revolution is just another dangerous dream of purity. The dialogue between them is the best thing in the book. An exhausted Connolly, badly suffering from his wounds, holds on to revolutionary speech, even as his conviction weakens. The excitable Wittgenstein finds himself deeply moved by that speech and begins to try on Connolly's revolutionary truth: “What if he is right that crisis is common?” This is the Wittgenstein who had told Bakhtin earlier in the book that “out there in Europe the most dreadful war in history is now being waged. I came to this place because I couldn't stand it any longer. So I'm on the run—in hiding from history.”

The Wittgenstein we know from the biographical record was scarcely on the run from history in 1916. On the contrary. He had left the security of Cambridge in order to join the Austrian army, in which he served at great personal peril; an artillery officer, he was taken prisoner of war by the Italian army. This was anything but a flight from history. Better to call it a determined press into the midst of history's most dangerous confusion. For Eagleton's purposes, though, Wittgenstein must be cast as a philosophical purist who has fled the impure swamp of social life.

It must have been very shortly before he sat down to compose his novel that Eagleton wrote a rather traditional essay called “Wittgenstein's Friends.” It usefully places Wittgenstein in relation to recent poststructuralist theory, showing, for instance, the common ground between Wittgenstein and Derrida. From Eagleton's standpoint, both the school of Wittgenstein and the school of Derrida make telling critiques of metaphysics, with its longing for impeccably secure foundations and systematic truth, but both schools fail to engage the reality of politics. At this moment of impasse, the essay invokes a third figure to split the difference, Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. For Eagleton, Bakhtin shows how it is possible to make a strong philosophical criticism of metaphysical abstraction from the standpoint of social engagement. The key thought is that the metaphysics of the philosophers and the tyranny of the politicians are in a fearful partnership that can be opposed only by a subversive energy. “Carnival” is Bakhtin's answer to oppression, where carnival implies a lusty release of the wild body, free to laugh, to mock, to enjoy.

In the fictional world of Saints and Scholars, Nikolai Bakhtin stands in for his brother's theory of carnival. Off in their Irish retreat, Wittgenstein becomes appalled by Nikolai's taste for food and wine; he calls Bakhtin a “disgusting walrus,” at which point,

Bakhtin begins to croon a Russian folk song inaccurately to himself. Then he breaks off and remarks, “Somebody is slaughtering somebody else.” He licks his lips contentedly. “I think it's you, Ludwig, who's killing us all with your ridiculous purity.”

Wittgenstein leans swiftly across and grabs a half-empty bottle of wine from Bakhtin's cabinet. He says lightly: “I think you should drown in this.” Bakhtin gives no response. “Do you hear me, Nikolai? I said I think you should drown in your own disgusting mess.”

Bakhtin opens his eyes for a moment and twists his lips upward in the shape of a slobbery kiss.

So why does Eagleton do it? Why does he play out in fiction what he had soberly enacted in his criticism? And why does he extravagantly “reinvent” a history that he knows so well?

The beginning of an answer is that Eagleton, like many others, must feel the desire to break free of the usual academic constraints—historical exactitude, intellectual precision, sound evidence. This must always be a temptation in academic life: to be done with its cautions and respectabilities. What makes it more urgent in Eagleton's case is that his career as a critic has been devoted to a vision of history—a revolutionary vision of social liberation—that has come under such tremendous stress. He has not blinked in the face of the oppositions, internal and external, within the Marxist tradition he has sought to extend. Competing methodologies, as well as sharp turns in political history, have brought large and difficult changes in Eagleton's life as a political critic.

Of all these changes, perhaps the most interesting has been Eagleton's recognition that pleasure—immediate delight, as in the love of a single line of poetry—can no longer be neglected by even the most committed criticism. We live at a moment, he writes, when “the relation between the kind of pleasure people take in art, and the pleasure they derive from striving to realize their political needs, has become extremely obscure.” Our age has “a political problem about pleasure.”

Saints and Scholars is a fantasy of historical coherence, a fantasy of our century's forces and powers brought into consoling relation. What Eagleton struggles toward in his theory, he brightly paints in his novel: a universe where pleasure and politics can meet and where the significance of our historical struggle has reassuringly distinct outlines. The comedy of Leopold Bloom set free from Ulysses to enter into drunken dialogue with Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, and Connolly is ticklishly sharp. But transcending the comedy of the image is its sheer romance, which reassuringly lets us feel that our modernity is not an ugly chaos but that it might have a tidy plot of its own. If we feel let down by history, implies Eagleton, then it's for us to reimagine the historical legacy, to revive ourselves with a daydream, a fully conscious daydream that admits its own need to find a refuge. …

None of these figures denies or repudiates his or her theoretical past, but each uses the past sometimes in a mood of nostalgia, sometimes in mockery, sometimes in cool detachment—in ways that would certainly have surprised their former selves. Kristeva's roman á clef only makes explicit what all of them have done: They have passed beyond their old austerity and have learned the joys of bringing intellectual life down into the muddy, uproarious world.

The pleasures in Umberto Eco's work are the pleasures of deep release, a full-souled indifference to the proprieties of critical discourse. When The Name of the Rose (and less frequently Foucault's Pendulum) succeeds, it is because Eco has allowed himself to forget the obligations of the perspicuous axiom and the clinching argument. If, in The Samurai, the pleasure is rarer and weaker, this is largely because as a novelist Kristeva is all the time remembering her other, older incarnation as a glistening intellectual, and because as she writes of that time she tastes bitter ashes.

But it may be the mixed satisfactions of Sontag and Eagleton that are most revealing. In The Volcano Lover and Saints and Scholars you find a giddy delight in sinuous plot, in its romance or its comedy, alongside a rueful, tacit awareness that such writing is not what was dreamed of one, two, and three decades ago. This double consciousness captures some of the unsettling complexity of the current cultural moment. A new sensibility (Sontag) and a new society (Eagleton) are what they pursued with daunting vigor, but nowadays it takes no special skeptical turn to see that sensibility and society are nothing so simple as “new.” Their careers, their lives, and their writing provide sobering tokens of a milieu (ours) in which a (literary) opportunity seized coincides with a (critical) ideal abandoned.

What is likely to happen to this current of writing? Impossible to say. Still, it only takes a slightly generous view to see it as a sparkling tributary into the pool of culture. Whether it will yield work of lasting quality is unclear. But while we wait to find out, we can enjoy the fresh stirring of the old waters. That academic intellectuals should suddenly feel bouncy and vigorous at the thought of writing fiction—this may be a harbinger of the kind of hybrid we could sorely use, a hybrid that overcomes the division between those who imagine and those who ratiocinate, those who create and those who review their books. It's no ultimate synthesis, but it makes a colorful little picture within our larger gray: the sight of these self-reinventing theorists, these feeling intellectuals and pleasure-seeking rationalists, these academics laughing and weeping.

Patrick Colm Hogan (review date March 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Persistence of Idealism,” in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1994, pp. 84-92.

[In the following review, Hogan offer positive evaluation of Ideology, though cites shortcomings in Eagleton's “idealist epistemology.”]

Ideology: An Introduction presents a conceptual and historical overview of the notion of ideology from the Enlightenment through “post-Marxism.” It is lucid, informative, engaging, and well-argued. Although aimed at non-expert readers broadly familiar with debates in critical theory, it may be read productively by anyone from an advanced undergraduate to a specialist in political criticism. It works particularly well in a graduate Introduction to Literary Theory seminar, as I know from just having used it. Eagleton's discussions of such writers as Habermas, Gramsci, and Bourdieu help students to think about ideology more deeply and articulately, while his criticisms of current poststructural views encourage students to evaluate theories of ideology more critically and more practically.

The first two chapters present a clear statement of the nature and varieties of ideology. These chapters are particularly valuable because they situate the problem of ideology squarely within the realm of real politics. When confronted with a fashionable philosophical claim about politics, Eagleton asks, what does this mean in the real world, for real people, those who are suffering the real effects of oppression? He continually recurs to “that basic realism and intelligence of popular life which is so unpalatable to the elitist” (p. 14).

For this reason, Eagleton often finds poststructural and post-Marxist views wanting. In relation to these, he points out that, despite claims to the contrary,

political radicals are quite as dedicated to the concept of privilege as their opponents: they believe, for example, that the level of food supplies in Mozambique is a weightier issue than the love life of Mickey Mouse. The claim that one kind of conflict is more important than another involves, of course, arguing for this priority and being open to disproval; but nobody actually believes that ‘power is everywhere’ in the sense that any manifestation of it is as significant as any other. On this issue, as perhaps on all others, nobody is in fact a relativist, whatever they may rhetorically assert. (pp. 8-9)

Similarly, he stresses that “ideology is less a matter of the inherent linguistic properties of a pronouncement than a question of who is saying what to whom for what purposes” (p. 9). It is a sad comment on the current state of political criticism that such statements need to be made at all. The same holds for Eagleton's unfashionable arguments that universalization is not necessarily pernicious, that such universals as freedom, justice, and equality are not wholly execrable (see p. 57), and that it is reasonable to accept that many things are part of human nature (pp. 59-60). In this and other ways, Eagleton's book is a welcome antidote to the pseudo-political posturing of much recent critical theory.

But, like any book, this one is not perfect. There are sections that seem slapdash, the analysis conceptually fuzzy or not well thought through (e.g., the isolation of six arbitrary and overlapping strategies for the legitimation of power, pp. 5-6). And at times the explications are superficial or misleading (e.g., the odd treatment of the Lacanian mirror stage). However, the most pervasive problem with the book derives from Eagleton's un-self-conscious adherence to an idealist epistemology. Many anomalies and confusions in Eagleton's argument are traceable to his implicit conception of knowledge. What makes this interesting and important is that Eagleton is not alone in adopting an idealist view; almost all literary theorists operate on precisely the same presuppositions. However, like Eagleton, they may not recognize this explicitly. Idealism provides a conception of knowledge that guides the way many theorists formulate arguments, isolate problems, construct models, and so forth—even many theorists who, if asked, would reject this conception of knowledge. In Eagleton's case, this is made all the more fascinating by the fact that he appears to be striving for another sort of epistemology. He repeatedly makes claims that are non- or anti-idealist. But he fails adequately to explicate and defend those claims because they are incoherent with his epistemological presuppositions.

In the remainder of this review, I focus on this epistemological issue, for it is of crucial importance not only to Eagleton's book but to all of contemporary literary theory. Specifically, I outline the idealist view of knowledge and what we might call the “inferentialist” or “propositional” alternative, examine some of the ways in which the former view underlies certain problems in Eagleton's argument, and finally, discuss how these problems dissolve when considered in inferential/propositional terms.

Idealist epistemology defines truth in terms of knowledge rather than the reverse.1 In other words, in this view “The workers are oppressed” is true if and only if we know or might know that the workers are oppressed. The question then is what defines such knowledge and how do we achieve it? The idealist answer is coincidence between the knowing subject and the object known. This coincidence is achieved through unbiased experience. For example, I know that my desk is brown because I experience it directly and have no bias that would distort this experience. In other words, I am “objective.” If I am not objective, if I do not distance myself from my own interests, then my cognition of a given object may be faulty and thus I may fail to conform my thought to reality. If I am objective, however, I (regularly) succeed in rendering my thought congruent with things.

This sort of epistemology underlies a range of seemingly disparate views, including versions of both the “correspondence” and “consensus” views of truth. Specifically, the correspondence view includes any version of idealist epistemology that stresses the possibility of cognitive coincidence between subject and object—for example, by way of representational identity between an idea and a thing.2 The consensus view is perhaps the more common idealist view today. It includes any version of idealist epistemology that explicitly or implicitly stresses the problem of individual idiosyncrasy. Specifically, if truth is cognitive identity with the object, but this identity is uncertain because of the possibility of distortion through personal interest or other biasing factors, then the best guarantee of such identity would seem to be consensus.

Yet even consensus might be biased—witness the many varieties of racist consensus. Among political writers, Habermas is perhaps the most prominent example of a consensus theorist who has taken up this problem. His solution, which has greatly influenced Eagleton, is to qualify consensus as “consensus in a nonoppressive society.” Racist views arise due to the distorted interests, and pseudo-interests, inevitable in an oppressive society. In a nonoppressive society, these interests would not intervene, systematically perverting people's cognition; and thus consensus would be reliable. In Habermas, then, it seems clear that a consensus view of truth is a version of idealism. In effect, Habermas says that consensus does not provide grounds for judging thought/thing identity unless it is consensus of objective thinkers, and thinkers can be objective (in politically relevant matters) only in a nonoppressive society.

Skeptics of various sorts also hold to this idealist view. Indeed, it is common for literary thinkers to assume that cognition/object coincidence defines truth but to despair of such coincidence and thus to despair of truth. This is the sort of reasoning that Eagleton seeks to discredit. Eagleton wishes to hold onto the notion of truth. He views skepticism as both intellectually misguided and politically harmful, quite rightly I think. However, the skeptical criticisms of idealist epistemology are powerful, perhaps definitive. It is not at all clear that one can adopt idealist premises and rationally avoid skeptical conclusions. In other words, it is not clear that a view such as that of Habermas or Eagleton is intellectually viable. Eagleton may be defending valid conclusions on impossible grounds. And that is the central dilemma of the book.

At the outset, Eagleton explains that there are “three key doctrines of postmodernist thought” which “have conspired to discredit the classical concept of ideology” (p. xi). All three are derivative of idealist epistemology. The first is the “rejection of the notion of representation,” which is to say the rejection of any mental entity that could define mind/object identity. The second is “epistemological skepticism,” in effect the view that there is no way in which experience might yield direct cognition of an object. The third is the “reformulation of the relations between rationality, interests and power,” which entails that there is never any such thing as objectivity (pp. xi-xii). In large measure, Eagleton's purpose is to respond to these doctrines and to reaffirm the classical concept of ideology. However, once again, Eagleton presupposes the idealist epistemology from which these doctrines derive, and skeptical conclusions may very well be entailed by such an epistemology.

But what is the alternative? What is an inferentialist or propositional epistemology? First of all, in this view, knowledge is derivative of truth, not vice versa. Propositions are true or false, and knowledge is belief in true propositions—or, rather, the acceptance of true propositions for reasons that are both rationally plausible and themselves true. (The reasons for this convoluted definition have to do with the resolution of philosophical paradoxes, which do not bear on our present concerns; I also leave aside the issue of whether we should speak more properly of propositions or theories and other issues internal to inferentialism.)

Specifically, a proposition asserts that certain objects or sets of objects have certain properties or stand in certain relations. These objects, properties, and relations may be fixed as we like; an inferentialist epistemology does not presuppose any preset division of the world. In other words, we may define “red” as “any surface which reflects white light of between 630 and 770 nanometers wavelength” or “between 620 and 700 nanometers” or “between 650 and 720 nanometers” and so on. This view does not require that there be essences that fix the meanings of words, determining, for example, that 630-770 nanometers is “naturally” one color and must be named as such. (Of course, someone may wish to add essences to this view, and many prominent theorists have—unfortunately, in my opinion; the point here is merely that the inferentialist view in no way presupposes essences.) On the other hand, once we have defined any given set of terms, then statements employing these terms are either true or false if the objects in question have the stipulated properties or stand in the stipulated relations. Thus once we have meanings for “desk,” “red,” and so forth, then “This desk is red” is either true or false of a given object, independent of cognitive issues.3

As to knowledge, we can never arrive at absolute certainty concerning the truth or falsity of a given empirical proposition, but we can infer tentatively that a given proposition is true or false through hypothesization based on observation along with general principles of logic, statistical significance, simplicity, and so forth. Note that in the inferentialist view, objectivity is a nonissue. There is the issue of whether one has examined alternative hypotheses—including the hypothesis of mistaken observation; the issue of whether one has accurately ranked alternatives for simplicity and explanatory capacity; the issue of whether one's logical inferences are valid. And in any given case, we may wish to explain an error—in, for example, logical inference—by reference to personal or collective bias. But in this view, it is the validity of the inference that is important. “Objectivity” is only of psychological or sociological interest once we have isolated or hypothesized an error.

Beyond the purely epistemological issues, there is an important political difference between idealist and inferentialist epistemologies, one critical to an understanding of both Eagleton and his opponents. Specifically, idealist epistemology tends to value the personal experiences of oppressed people; inferentialist epistemology tends to value systematic observation of the conditions of oppressed people—including, of course, self-observation, but self-observation qualified by statistical considerations, issues surrounding the validity of inferences concealed in self-observation, and so forth. Thus an inferentialist critique of ideology will be based on wide-ranging empirical study, relatively independent of individual experience, whereas an idealist critique will focus on precisely that individual experience, for, despite problems of “objectivity,” it alone allows the possibility of mind/object identity.

In keeping with this, Eagleton begins his discussion of ideology, and his response to postmodernism, by insisting that ideological critique “seeks to inhabit the experience of the subject from the inside, in order to elicit those ‘valid’ features of that experience” (p. xiv). In other words, ideology is an obfuscation of one's genuine experience. It is, in the classic term, “false consciousness.” If the distorting lens of ideology is removed, oppressed people will be able to experience their situation objectively and thus know it as it is. Indeed, the very possibility of critique is based on the presumption that oppressed people already have knowledge-yielding experience: “The critique of ideology, then, presumes that nobody is ever wholly mystified” (p. xiv). Later, following Gramsci—another idealist in epistemology—Eagleton stresses that critique must be based on the “discrepancy between official and practical consciousness—between those notions that the oppressed classes derive from their superiors and those that arise from their ‘life situations’” (p. 50). “For Gramsci,” he explains, “the consciousness of subordinated groups in society is typically fissured and uneven. Two conflicting conceptions of the world usually exist in such ideologies, the one drawn from the ‘official’ notions of the rulers, the other derived from an oppressed people's practical experience of social reality” (p. 118).

There are, however, serious problems with this approach. From inferentialist presuppositions, an individual's experiences are simply not generalizable or even explicable in isolation. If I am treated badly in a given job, I cannot conclude that Irish people or literary theorists or anarchists are typically treated badly. Similarly, a woman who is swiftly promoted, easily successful, and so forth cannot conclude that this is generally true for women. Personal experience may provide an orientation for research, but in and of itself it does not provide evidence for any generalization. Moreover, such generalization is problematic even from the perspective of idealism, for from idealist presuppositions, there is a problem, not of statistical significance but of whether or not objectivity is attainable.

Eagleton addresses this second, idealist problem—although not the first, inferential problem. The very possibility of ideology, he tells us, indicates that “all viewpoints are socially determined” (p. 51). But “if all thought is socially determined, then so too must be Marxism, in which case what becomes of its claims to scientific objectivity?” (p. 91), a scientific objectivity that presumptively operates to adjudicate between the true and false consciousness of the oppressed. Eagleton follows Lukacs in responding that

to claim that all knowledge springs from a specific social standpoint is not to imply that any old social standpoint is as valuable for these purposes as any other. If what one is looking for is some understanding of the workings of imperialism as a whole, then one would be singularly ill-advised to consult the Governor General or the Daily Telegraph's Africa correspondent, who will almost certainly deny its existence. (p. 97)

But this does not solve the problem. We have in effect asserted that the Governor General and the correspondent are not “objective” and thus that their claims will not be expressions of adequate cognition, but, as Eagleton asks, “from what viewpoint is this judgement made?” (p. 97). Or, further along, “The problem … is that any criticism of another's views as ideological is always susceptible to a swift tu quoque” (p. 108).

Note once again that these are problems only for the idealist view that critique must be based on the subject's experience. In inferentialist terms, there is no question of a tu quoque response, no issue of our viewpoint when we judge the claims of the Governor General. Rather, there are only the issues of evidence, alternative hypotheses, simplicity, and so forth. When, say, Noam Chomsky (an inferentialist) argues that the war in Vietnam was an imperialist war of aggression by the United States against the people of Vietnam, he argues this on inferential grounds. When Susan Faludi (an inferentialist) argues that women still suffer massive discrimination, she does not base this conclusion on the life experience or practical consciousness of the oppressed. Claims about Chomsky's or Faludi's biases are irrelevant to these arguments. Again, if someone shows that Chomsky or Faludi has skewed the evidence, failed to consider plausible alternative hypotheses, and so forth, then claims about biases may be of psychological interest in explaining this. However, it is the inferential objections alone that bear on the validity of their conclusions.

Unfortunately, Eagleton does not even conceive of an inferentialist alternative to idealism. Nor, for the most part, do other humanists, although inferentialism is standard in the physical sciences (if, for the most part, un-self-consciously). Indeed, Eagleton, like most humanists, misunderstands scientific epistemology as a naive assertion of absolute and unquestionable objectivity. Thus he urges us against “trusting to a scientific rationalism which float[s] disinterestedly above history” (p. 91). And he ridicules the idea that “the truth or falsity of statements is sublimely untainted by their social genesis” (p. 10). There is certainly an important issue here—the politics and ethics of particular scientific pursuits. Eagleton is right to imply that we should not remove science, or anything else, from social concerns. But this is a separate issue from that of epistemology in the natural sciences. The former bears on the practical goals of research, funding allocations, and so forth (e.g., war vs. health); the latter bears on general methods of investigation and the nature of descriptive claims and explanatory hypotheses. Eagleton's implicit conflation of these issues perverts his representation of the standard epistemology of natural science.

Given his distorted conception of the alternatives, Eagleton has no way of resolving the tu quoque dilemma other than steering a middle path between naive scientism and skeptical poststructuralism. Consequently, he maintains that “those who imagine that if truth is not absolute then there is no truth at all are simply closet transcendentalists, helplessly in thrall to the very case they reject” (p. 169). And “Marxism regards rationality neither as some ahistorical absolute, nor as the mere reflex of current powers and desires” (p. 171); “the last thing Marxism has ever credited is the fantasy that truth is somehow unhistorical” (p. 172). But these statements make sense only within an idealist epistemology. After all, the very notion of absolute truth is an idealist notion. Absolute truth is perfect cognition of the whole—the final stage of Spirit, in Hegel's Absolute Idealism. It is a notion that has no meaning in inferentialist terms. More important, Eagleton's statements are less a response to the skeptical dilemma than a restatement of it. They do not even point toward a solution of the problem that “to know what is rationally the case, I must … remove myself and my prejudices from the scene of inquiry, behave as though I were not there; but such a project can clearly never get off the ground” (p. 160). Again, within an idealist epistemology, it is not clear that there is any alternative to absolute knowledge other than relativism. Perhaps there is. But merely asserting a middle path is no argument for this. And that is all Eagleton does.

Eagleton makes a final stab at saving nonabsolute knowledge in his discussion of Hindess and Hirst. But this only provides one more reason why the idealist epistemology of the humanities should be abandoned and an inferentialist epistemology established in its place. Specifically, Eagleton takes up the challenge to essentialism posed by Hindess and Hirst and tries to save (Marxist) causal explanation from this challenge. “It is a rationalist fallacy, so Hindess and Hirst argue, to hold that what enables us to know is the fact that the world takes the shape of a concept—that it is somehow conveniently pre-structured to fit our cognition of it” (p. 203):

Hindess and Hirst's “anti-epistemological” thesis is intended among other things to undermine the Marxist doctrine that a social formation is composed of different “levels”, some of which exert more significant determinacy than others. For them, this is merely another instance of the rationalist illusion, which would view society as somehow already internally structured along the lines of the concepts by which we appropriate it in thought. (p. 204)

This too is a problem only within an idealist framework. If knowledge is the perfect coincidence of mind and object, and if the object is not formed by a separate essence but by our concepts, then our cognition of that object is nothing other than a cognition of our concepts; thus it cannot claim validity. This is merely the old objectivity problem in a new, linguistic guise.

On an inferentialist model, in contrast, this is no problem at all. Hindess and Hirst may well be correct that the world is not preformed by essences—I think they are (although for different reasons). But they are wrong that this in any way affects causal analysis. Once we have divided up the world, we will find causal patterns of some sort for our chosen objects, properties, and relations. On the other hand, not every division of the world yields equally fine-grained and equally powerful causal laws. That is the point of altering our divisions and positing new entities—in physics, for example. But there is nothing in an antiessentialist argument that contradicts this. Indeed, it is only under an antiessentialist view that such ongoing conceptual revision makes sense. Had Eagleton adopted an inferentialist view, he could have accepted Hindess and Hirst's antiessentialist premises but rejected their critique of causal determination, which is precisely what he finds problematic.

Unfortunately, Eagleton maintains his tacit idealism and keeps to his “middle path” view: the world is not entirely preformed, but it is not entirely created by our concepts either. However, this is far from cogent. For one thing, it is very hard to say what it means, or how it could occur, that the world is partially preformed and partially structured by our concepts. More important, there is no clear way of distinguishing between our formations and the preformed world and thus no way of avoiding the relativism eschewed by Eagleton. The problems faced by Hindess and Hirst do not indicate that the world is (partially) preformed (e.g., that light between 630 and 770 nanometers is one color in and of itself while that between 640 and 720 is not) but, rather, that truth should not be understood as a function of a subject's cognitive unity with an object and the resultant linking of truth with essentialism.

I have dwelt at length on the differences between an idealist and an inferentialist epistemology and on the problems with the former because the implicit reliance on an idealist epistemology is so widespread in the humanities, especially in literary theory. Eagleton's Ideology: An Introduction is a fine addition to the literature on ideology, a welcome complement to such books as Raymond Geuss's The Idea of a Critical Theory. It is a politically serious work by an independent thinker. What is unfortunate is that even at this far outpost of critical theory, even at the unfashionable margin of humanistic thinking on ideology, idealist epistemology still holds sway, and such irrelevant notions as objectivity—sometimes denied, sometimes affirmed—are still central to the debate.


  1. By “epistemology” I mean the operative assumptions about knowledge that guide a thinker's research and argument. These assumptions may or may not be formulated in an explicit theory. Moreover, a writer's explicit theory of knowledge may or may not coincide with his or her tacit operative assumptions. The idealist view, as noted here, is founded on the notion that truth is a function of knowledge, with knowledge understood as subject/object coincidence. It was most fully developed as an explicit theory by German idealist writers such as Hegel. What I am calling “inferentialist” or “propositional” epistemology is based, in contrast, on the notion that knowledge is a function of truth, with truth understood as propositional or theoretical accuracy or adequacy. This has been the standard view in Anglo-American philosophy since the turn of the century. Although it has not been widely defended or even thematized, it is a view presupposed in writings by a range of logical empiricists, falsificationists, neo-Baconian verificationists, possible worlds theorists, and others. Perhaps more important, it is the operative epistemology of virtually all scientific research, from physics to linguistics (although idealist views do occasionally crop up in explicit theories—in theoretical physics most particularly). In the following pages, I do not wish to advocate any current theory based on inferential/propositional epistemology. Indeed, I find most of these to be mistaken (as I must, for they are mutually exclusive). I do wish to argue that an adequate epistemology must be inferential/propositional, not idealist, and that even such radical literary theorists as Eagleton are so thoroughly imbued with idealism that they cannot conceive of an inferential/propositional alternative.

  2. Of course, the “correspondence” category also includes Tarski-type inferential/propositional views of truth. This is one reason why the term is too broad to be useful and why it and related categories should be replaced by the distinction between inferential/propositional and idealist epistemologies.

  3. Idealist epistemology is frequently associated with an autonomistic conception of language, such as that put forth by Jacques Derrida. In this view—rejected by most contemporary linguists—language is independent of idiolect and thus semantic stipulation is not a real possibility. Discussion of this issue would take us far away from Eagleton's book, on which it bears only indirectly. For a criticism of deconstruction and essentialist autonomisms, see Patrick Colm Hogan, The Politics of Interpretation: Ideology Professionalism, and the Study of Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 50-81, and “The Limits of Semiotics,” diacritics (Spring 1992); for a discussion of essentialist autonomism in Hegelian thought, perhaps the paradigm case of idealism, see “Meaning and Hegel,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 36, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 32-44. For the current linguistic view, see Noam Chomsky, Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use (New York: Praeger, 1986), 19ff.

Christopher Norris (review date Fall 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Ideology, in Comparative Literature, Vol. 46, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 390-93.

[In the following review, Norris offers positive evaluation of Ideology.]

This book finds Eagleton returning once again to a topic that has often preoccupied his thinking, from the high Althusserian rigor of Criticism and Ideology (1976) to his recent major work on the history of aesthetics as a surrogate form of ideological discourse. Not that he is merely recycling old ideas in a different polemical context. On the contrary, Eagleton's analysis has deepened and evolved over the years through exposure to the various contending schools of post-Althusserian theory. Some of these arguments he has taken on board, albeit with a growing measure of critical reserve. Others he has berated—not without reason—as philosophically incoherent, politically bankrupt, or irrelevant to the practical Marxist interest in grasping and transforming our conditions of life in the late twentieth-century Western liberal pseudo-democracies. Certainly Eagleton has taken full stock of those challenges to the Althusserian paradigm that have come from so many quarters of late (poststructuralist, postmodernist, neopragmatist, anti-foundationalist, etc.), and whose effect has been to generate a widespread suspicion of any such “discourse” ultimately wedded to the concepts and categories of Marxist Ideologiekritik. In a series of skirmishing polemical rejoinders he has managed to appropriate some elements of this current linguistic turn without giving way on the basic point, i.e. the primacy of real-world socio-economic conditions and the role of ideology as in some sense an alibi. a realm of false appearances or illusory knowledge-effects.

To the obvious question—in what sense, precisely?—his books have returned quite a range of differing answers, from the scientistic truth-claims of that early Althusserian phase to the mixture of activist rhetoric and “post-theoretical” skepticism that marked the concluding chapter of Literary Theory (1986). In fact one could chart the various visions and revisions of Eagleton's intellectual trajectory to date by tracing the way ideology has figured from one book to the next, not least in those periods when his writing registered a sense of unease with any too-confident beating of the bounds between theory (or Marxist “theoretical practice”) and ideology as the realm of false consciousness or imaginary misrecognition. But he has never gone along with any version of that facile postmodernist wisdom which holds such talk to be hopelessly passé, just a product of the old “Enlightenment” ethos whose appeal to various categorical distinctions—truth falsehood, knowledge/belief, theory/ideology, etc.—has now been revealed as nothing more than a piece of self-serving bogus rhetoric. The upshot of this and previous variations on the end-of-ideology theme has always been to undermine any kind of argued oppositional critique by making out that consensus ideas and values go all the way down; that there is no getting outside the goldfish bowl (or “hermeneutic circle”) of received opinion; and hence that we might as well give up on the effort—especially the self-deluding Marxist effort—to attain some critical perspective beyond what is currently and contingently “good in the way of belief.”

Postmodernism is simply the latest name for this line of all-purpose conformist ideology whose uses have tended to become most apparent at times of widespread political retreat among thinkers of an erstwhile left or left-liberal persuasion. And nowhere are the signs more plainly to be read than in the current “post-Marxist” revisionist trend, which claims to have thought its way through and beyond all the categories of old-style Ideologiekritik. The result, as Eagleton wryly observes, is an odd situation where “radical” theorists are scrambling to vacate the moral and epistemological high ground, while on every hand we witness a spectacular resurgence of ideologies ranging from Christian and Islamic fundamentalism to George Bush's vaunted “New World Order,” the rise of various nationalist or militant separatist movements, and, nearer home, “the most ideologically aggressive and explicit regime of living political memory, in a society which traditionally prefers its ruling values to remain implicit and oblique.” When things have reached this point, he suggests, it is time to revisit some of the old arguments and see what is at stake in the postmodern turn against theory and all its works.

In this latest book Eagleton has two main purposes in view. One is to clear away some longstanding sources of confusion by examining the various senses that have attached to the term “ideology,” from its Enlightenment origins to its complicated history in the recent (post-Althusserian) context of debate. The other—following directly from this—is to show how postmodernists, neopragmatists, and others have exploited those same confusions so as to make it appear that any talk of “ideology” is hooked on a hopelessly naive set of doctrines about knowledge, reality, and truth. This two-pronged approach enables him to cut through swathes of fashionable nonsense, from the notion (as propounded way back by Hindess and Hirst) that the real is entirely a product of this or that discourse, language-game, or “signifying practice,” to the antics of a postmodern guru like Baudrillard, one for whom truth-talk is the merest of illusions since we now inhabit a world of free-floating signifiers, simulacra, or signs without referents, where “reality” is whatever we make of it according to the latest (no matter how distorted) consensus view. Then again, there is the line of supposedly knock-down neopragmatist argument—“travelling anti-theory” as it might be called—espoused by philosophers like Richard Rorty and a whole current school of literary critics, most prominent among them Stanley Fish. These thinkers claim to demonstrate the sheer impossibility of advancing any truth-claims save those that make sense by the lights of some existing “interpretive community,” some in-place set of conventional beliefs impervious to any form of reasoned or principled critique.

To all of which Eagleton responds with a mixture of strong counter-argument on philosophic grounds and straightforward appeal to the social and political realities postmodernism so blithely brushes aside. Thus: “the thesis that objects are entirely internal to the discourses which constitute them raises the thorny problem of how we could ever judge that a discourse had constructed its object validly … How can anyone, on this theory, ever be wrong?” And with reference to later, more à la mode versions of the same ultra-relativist creed: “no individual life, not even Jean Baudrillard's, can survive entirely bereft of meaning, and any society which took this nihilistic road would be nurturing massive social disruption.” What Eagleton's book brings out with particular force is the extent to which postmodernism and kindred discourse-oriented doctrines trade on a drastically simplified conception of language, one that takes over Saussure's synchronic-descriptive methodology—including its indifference to the referential aspect of the sign—but which raises that purely heuristic precept into a high point of anti-realist dogma with dire theoretical and political consequences. Along with this goes a widespread confusion—as remarked by realist opponents like Roy Bhaskar—between ontological and epistemological issues. Hence the patently absurd idea that since reality is always construed under a certain description, that is to say, in accordance with some pre-given set of linguistic or intra-discursive categories, therefore we might as well junk the belief in a real world of material objects, processes, and events that exist quite apart from our current (wholly “arbitrary”) modes of conceptualization. And from here it is a short enough step to that point of extreme cognitive skepticism whose upshot—as with Baudrillard—is an attitude of last-ditch moral and political retreat.

Eagleton makes short work of such claims, together with the end-of-ideology thesis that they are commonly assumed to entail. For they will only seem convincing if one takes it as read that reality just is what we are given to make of it according to the dominant consensus view, or—in Rorty's neopragmatist parlance—what is currently and contingently “good in the way of belief.” Otherwise this whole line of argument will appear nothing more than a handy escape route, a means of embracing conformist ideas and values while neatly avoiding such old-fashioned topics as the “political responsibility of the intellectuals.” It is not only postmodernists who are travelling this road, as Eagleton reminds us in some sharply diagnostic pages devoted to those soi-disant “post-Marxist” thinkers (Laclau and Mouffe among them) who have set about recasting the political agenda through a process that reduces everything to the level of “discourses,” “subject-positions,” “enunciative modalities” and so forth. The obvious rejoinder, Eagleton writes,

is that a practice may well be organized like a discourse, but as a matter of fact it is a practice rather than a discourse. It is needlessly obfuscating and homogenizing to subsume such things as preaching a sermon and dislodging a pebble from one's left ear under the same rubric. A way of understanding an object is simply projected into the object itself, in a familiar idealist move. The contemplative analysis of a practice suddenly reappears as its very essence … The category of discourse is inflated to the point where it imperializes the whole world, eliding the distinction between thought and material reality.

One should not be misled by the joky analogies and the throwaway turns of phrase into thinking that this is just a piece of interventionist polemics that sidesteps all the deeper theoretical problems. On the contrary, Eagleton displays a firm grasp of topics outside the charmed circle of postmodernist debate—among them, issues in epistemology, philosophy of language, historiography, sociology of knowledge, etc.—which are pretty much ignored by the end-of-ideology ideologues. Nothing could be further from the narrow-minded orthodoxy that begins with a handful of Saussurian slogans wrenched out of context and ends up endorsing a crudely literalized version of Derrida's cryptic statement, “there is nothing outside the text.” Small wonder that Eagleton's writing should often take on a polemical tone, especially when engaging with thinkers like Baudrillard who push these confusions to the point of a full-scale exercise in political and intellectual bad faith.

That his book has received such a barrage of abuse from right-wing reviewers in the daily and weekly press is one sure sign that it raises questions conveniently shelved by other, more accommodating styles of thought. “If a theory of ideology has any use at all,” he concludes, “it is in helping to illuminate the processes by which liberation from death-dealing beliefs may be practically effected.” Postmodernism requires that we treat such claims as just another showing of the chronic old realist illusion, coupled with a species of quaint left moralism which rests on those same (non-existent) foundations of reality, truth, and critique. Anyone tempted to adopt this line might do well to consider Baudrillard's latest, sublimely fatuous pronouncements on the Gulf War as an instance of postmodern “hyperreality,” a war that perhaps never occurred—for all that we can know—since it only took place in the fantasy realm of simulated images, war-game scenarios, hi-tech “saturation” coverage and so forth. One could hardly wish for a clearer illustration of the common postmodernist fallacy, the habit of jumping from a valid diagnosis of contemporary social ills to a set of half-baked antirealist doctrines—a wholesale negative ontology—which would treat that condition as a simply inescapable aspect of the way we live now. It is among the great merits of Eagleton's book that it yields no ground to these modish variations on a well-worn sophistical theme.

Patricia Craig (review date 27 May 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Eternal Rocks Beneath,” in Spectator, May 27, 1995, pp. 43-4.

[In the following review, Craig offers positive evaluation of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger.]

Terry Eagleton's cast of mind is erudite and ingenious, and his ingenuity is nowhere more in evidence than in the opening essay of this collection. Heathcliff and the Great Hunger superimposes an allegory of Irishness, in the person of Heathcliff himself, over the narrative of Wuthering Heights: this intractable Brontë character, Eagleton says, ‘starts out as an image of the famished Irish immigrant, becomes a landless labourer set to work in the Heights, and ends up as a symbol of the constitutional nationalism of the Irish Parliamentary Party’. Before the audacity of this pronouncement can take our breath away—so that's what Emily Brontë had in mind, and we never knew—he goes on to make out quite a good case for this eccentric reading (‘The hunger in Wuthering Heights is called Heathcliff …’).

Where the facts don't fit the hypothesis, he simply acknowledges the discrepancy and carries on regardless; pointing it out himself before someone else can do so. For example, he mentions Branwell Brontë's visit to Liverpool in 1845, and surmises that he might have encountered an Irish urchin there and passed on the information to his sister. But Eagleton is making a point about the famine exodus out of Ireland—and as he says himself, the dates don't quite fit. The earliest famine refugees would have arrived in Liverpool in the autumn of that year, about the time when Emily Brontë was beginning her novel. Never mind—the infant Heathcliff is dirty and ragged, and speaks ‘a kind of gibberish’ which might well be identified as the Irish language. And his relations with the Lintons—if you want to pursue the allegory as far as it will go—could be said to show certain similarities to those of Ireland and England. (Oddly enough, Terry Eagleton makes nothing at all of the Brontës'—or Bruntys'—actual Co. Down origins.)

This is an expanded version of an essay which first appeared in the Irish Review in 1992; the additions mostly concern questions of land, politics, the catastrophic famine itself and its benumbing effect on the imagination (to which the dearth of actual famine literature testifies). All these matters are taken up in subsequent chapters of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, ascendancy and hegemony, the difference between the two and the failure of the latter; the Anglo-Irish novel and all its implications; the entanglement of culture and politics and the reasons for their inseparability. It's a practice of Terry Eagleton's to advance his arguments by means of contradiction, paradox, or deadlocked assertion: opposites yoked together for maximum poignancy or ironic effect. Hence we get, ‘the difference which props up his [i.e. the colonialist's] power is also what threatens to undo it’; ‘the distance which enables true cognition is also what obstructs it’ (pace Maria Edgeworth); ‘Few pursuits were more native to the country than getting out of it.’ It's one way to approach the complexities in Irish history (turning schisms into aphorisms), and also to enliven the academic study of literature, which can benefit from the odd touch of bravado. (Not, however, if it entails equating the Anglo-Irish gentry with Count Dracula: this is going too far, even if it's read as a follow-up to the Heathcliff/Ireland fusion.)

Terry Eagleton has engaged in an energetic reading programme—as his footnotes indicate—and much of what he has to say is of absorbing interest. (The odd inaccuracy aside—he doesn't seem to realise, for instance, that the ‘Gaelic ballad’ is as rare as a Garus turf-cutter on a social visit to the Big House. Gaelic literature comes in many forms, but not often in that particular one.)

One essay pays due—indeed, overdue—homage to the 17th-century philosopher Francis Hutcheson; while another (the one entitled ‘The Archaic Avant-Garde’, in a further instance of illuminating oxymoron) considers—among other things—the activities of feminist-republicans in the early part of the 20th century.

It's not Terry Eagleton's fault if the facts about these which seem most intriguing are also those most suggestive of out-and-out dottiness: Maud Gonne getting Yeats to put his ear to the Donegal ground in search of fairy music, Charlotte Despard opening a teetotal pub called the Despard Arms. He mentions Margaret Cousins, a suffragette of high courage and intelligence—but not her exorbitant aversion to sexual intercourse, which led her to comment, in the autobiography she wrote jointly with her husband, that she could never see a child in the street without being reminded of the ‘shocking circumstance’ which had brought it into existence. This tells us something about Irish puritanism, which could bear examination along with culture and conflict.

Never mind: there is plenty here to provoke both argument and assent. Eagleton is far from being a revisionist but he does at one point run through a selection of Irish revolutionaries, pointing out an illiberal aspect of each (‘Charles Kickham [the Fenian novelist] … denounced the Land League as communistic … Arthur Griffith was a monarchical anti-Semite …’). Still, these are then excused as blind spots in an otherwise more-or-less enlightened agitators' agenda in the run-up to 1916: by no means ‘a record to be scorned’.

Such anomalies of outlook, views you don't expect the holder to hold, can actually help to identify the ramifying strands in Irish nationalism, which has nearly as many forms of expression as there is ornamentation in the Book of Kells. Eagleton gets to grips with a good many of them, and with Irish literature and its limitations up until about 1920. With his eye ever alert for an unexpected item, he lets us know that Synge's elemental Aran Islands ‘had a fishing industry directly linked by large trawlers to the London market’ (but he doesn't indicate how much the playwright's narcotic quaintness owes to literal—not just vividly approximate but absolutely literal—translation from the Irish).

Heathcliff and the Great Hunger is resourceful and densely written; so densely, indeed, that the author has found it necessary at intervals to bring in something quirky, a joke or oddity among the historical data, to lighten the tone. Not that the latter is always attuned to merriment. Eagleton at one point reports the view of certain English officials, during the famine, to the effect that it served the Irish right for relying on such an uncouth form of nourishment. A more refined diet might produce more civilised behaviour.

Austen Morgan (review date 16 June 1995)

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SOURCE: “Spud Bashing,” in New Statesman and Society, June 16, 1995, pp. 37, 39.

[In the following review, Morgan offers unfavorable assessment of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger.]

Terry Eagleton is a professor of English at Oxford; Roy Foster the professor of Irish history there. Last year, Eagleton launched a violent attack on his colleague, accusing Foster, and Irish historians, of revisionism. There was also a pre-emptive strike against Foster's current project, the biography of W. B. Yeats. Eagleton accused him of raiding literature in a “reductive” manner, “paying only passing attention to the politics and poetics of form”.

Now, with Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, Eagleton has continued the offensive with his great coat-trailing work on Irish history. At once the application of cultural theory to Ireland, and the insertion of Irish history into literary criticism, this set of essays intersperses slabs of impressionistic analysis of Victorian Ireland with studies of particular writers. The lead chapter, ripped from any context to catch the 150th anniversary of the famine (“a low-level nuclear attack”), is typical Eagletonism.

Heathcliff, he reveals, was an Irish famine victim—ever if Earnshaw's discovery in Liverpool might have been a gypsy or a Creole or something else, and Emily Brontë began Wuthering Heights before the potato blight impacted. There is one brief reference to the Brontë family's Irish (not Ulster) origins, and no investigation worth the name.

Some years ago, Eagleton seemed to apologise for all that Marxist cultural theory when he descended to writing literature himself. It could have been a response to 1989. But it's now clear that this was a retreat into identity politics, which has produced the absurdity of a postmodernist at war with himself. In the foreword to his play, Saint Oscar, he came out as “one of Irish working-class provenance … teaching in the very belly of the beast”. Nice work, if you can get it.

In this book, he is an “Irish Catholic”. Although he admits to being a “semi-outsider”, he bristles at Irish scholars weary of the indulgent posturing of Irish men (and women) abroad. And he can't resist a cheap jibe at Irish historians. While he is still formally at war with postmodernism, he reveals complicity in its social-intellectual base. Every time he has to justify his apologia for violent Irish nationalism, he makes the analogy with women and blacks. Liberalism and pluralism are dispatched, and the historical necessity of fundamentalism espoused.

Revisionism is surely the essence of historical endeavour, a sign of intellectual life. A national school of academic history developed in Ireland from the 1930s. By the mid-1960s, it was well on its way to achieving hegemony over the “1916 and all that” Sinn Fein version. Its key text—based on a series of television programmes—is T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin's Course of Irish History (1967). During the northern troubles, revisionism came to be pressed as a charge by the likes of Desmond Fennell, Eamon de Valera's representative on earth.

But it took the Field Day company—founded in the hunger strikes of 1980-81 as the cultural wing of the SDLP, while some of its prominent associates were consorting with Sinn Fein—to create the bogey of revisionism. The cultural proponents of nationality imagined an explanation for their political failure: it was all the fault of the historians. Finally, a Savonarola emerged in 1989, in the form of the Cambridge Irish cleric, Brendan Bradshaw. This heresy hunter was determined to re-evangelise Ireland. Irish historians, he warned, were out to deny the famine, Bradshaw being apparently oblivious to F. S. L. Lyons' popular textbook—Ireland since the Famine (1971).

This is the moment of Eagleton the oppressed Irish Catholic, packing them in among the dreaming spires. Heathcliff and the Great Hunger has been written with Lacan, Althusser and Derrida on the one side, a pile of mainly 19th-century Irish novels on the other, and secondary works of Irish history on the floor. If things were bad when Eagleton knew no Irish history, they are much worse after he has consulted the academic literature.

There are passages where Eagleton, having done no primary research himself, has to accept the conclusion of a community of scholars. But these are overwhelmed by a flood of generalisations, based upon the Manichean opposition of “Ireland” and “Britain”—the idea of burning everything from Britain but her coal. Its likely source is the British left's post-1968 championing of Irish republicanism. The tragic irony of this book, which berates postmodernism for its failure to deploy the concept of class, is Eagleton's failure to get a handle on Irish economic and political development.

It is a truism that cultural theorists do not address culture, but Eagleton does not even survey the literary culture of a given time and place. The Ulster-born Francis Hutcheson—a colonialist if ever there was one!—is approved for his “moral sense” philosophy, and credited with being “a remote precursor of Romantic nationalism”. Eagleton then gets into the canon, with Maria Edgeworth and Lady Morgan. There follow Irish Gothic, then Yeats and Joyce. He finishes off with Wilde and Shaw. His insights into these writers, with occasional pointed anecdotes, are lost by the overall thrust of the book: to present Ireland as a unique nation where culture was pre-eminent, then subject to the horrors of colonialism, to be followed inevitably by the shaking-off of the yoke.

It becomes virtuoso word-play, with ideas continually rubbed together, leaving the impression that Eagleton is unable to deal with unmediated reality. With the collapse of Marxism, irrationalism has taken over. While he gets drawn deeper into the Irish cultural revival (an experience that awaits an historical assessment, despite the worldwide interest in its writers), he moves further away from the reality of 19th-century sectarian division. Self-government was the product of Irish Catholic achievement and the need for separation, but it has been over-shadowed by the failure of nationalism, particularly its violent variety. Separatism as a viable strategy came to an end in the 1960s; the IRA of the past 25 years has no political achievement to its credit.

It is a historical question whether Years should have worried, in “Easter 1916”, about whether that play of his (Cathleen Ni Houlihan) sent out “certain men the English shot”. It was, until recently, a political question whether eminent figures on the British left shared in the moral responsibility for Ulster violence. My interim view is that a Brit-hating IRA did not need metropolitan apologists and that identity merchants like Eagleton—more Irish than the Irish—are symptomatic of a dissonance, but also a tolerance, in English cultural life.

He dedicates his book—a homage to Lady Morgan—to “the wild Irish girl”. Whoever this is (and it certainly isn't Mary Robinson), it says a great deal about the man. Gerry Adams likes to have analogies drawn between himself and Nelson Mandela: this is, of course, preposterous. Eagleton, one must assume, is an admirer of that great man as Mandela tries to construct a non-racial South Africa. But, on a reading of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, I can only conclude that his preference—given his enthusiasm for Romanticism—would be for Winnie.

Denis Donoghue (review date 21-28 August 1995)

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SOURCE: “I Am Not Heathcliff,” in New Republic, August 21-28, 1995, pp. 42-5.

[In the following review, Donoghue provides summary and tempered analysis of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger.]

“The British don't believe Ireland is real; they just drop their fantasies here.” In a wild romance called Saints and Scholars, which appeared in 1987, Terry Eagleton ascribed that assertion to James Connolly, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, 1916. It is also the main idea of Eagleton's new book.

In his very professorial novel, Eagleton developed the conceit that Connolly, Commandant-General of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, was not executed on May 12, 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising. Instead, he escaped from Dublin and lit out for Connemara. There he took refuge in a cottage which happened to be occupied by the philosopher Wittgenstein and his friend Nikolai Bakhtin, brother of the literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin. Waiting for reinforcements, Connolly diverted himself from the pain of a gunshot wound by engaging these foreign gentlemen in high discussion of war, symbolism, language, martyrdom and the rhetorical success of failure.

Bakhtin, sodden with drink, says of the soldiers killing one another in France: “If there are bodies in torment there are bodies in ecstasy.” Wittgenstein, having remarkably little to say for himself, quotes Walter Benjamin without acknowledgement to the effect that there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. More succinctly: “For every cathedral a pit of bones: for every masterpiece, misery.” Ireland being Ireland, reinforcements fail to arrive, but a man named Leopold Bloom turns up, freed of his domestic duties in Dublin by the elopement of his wife, Molly, with an aspiring writer named Stephen Dedalus. When a squad of British soldiers descends on the cottage to arrest Connolly. Bloom exhibits his love of humanity by shooting one of them. Chapman by name, in the back. Natives and émigrés are then conveyed to Galway by car. Wittgenstein passes the motoring time, which would have passed anyway, by admonishing himself with some well-chosen sentences deflected from Samuel Beckett: “You must go on. I can't go on, I'll go on.” What more is there to say in a country, as Eagleton describes it, driven mad with alien fantasy?

Some passages from Saints and Scholars, and also from Eagleton's The Ideology of the Aesthetic, turn up again in Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, but the context of their appearance is now a more sober discourse. Eagleton has gathered into his new book a number of his essays on Irish literature and society from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century: roughly, from Swift to Yeats and Joyce. His main themes are: why the Anglo-Irish or Protestant Ascendancy failed to achieve hegemony and settled for the rough stuff of coercion; the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746); the relations, such as they have been, between Britain and Ireland; Anglo-Irish fiction; culture and politics from Davis to Joyce; nationalism; and Ireland since the Famine.

But the main point of the book is to claim that James Connolly, a true socialist, knew what the British have been up to all these centuries in Ireland: not grabbing land, guarding their western flank, or making more Empire, but discarding their fantasies. This notion is developed in the book's title and in its first essay. In the fourth chapter of Wuthering Heights, old Earnshaw sets off to walk from the Heights to Liverpool. On his return a few days later, he brings back a foundling he has come upon in the city, “a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk … yet, when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand.” The child is soon called Heathcliff. Eagleton plays with the fancy—it is no more than that, and the chronology is a poor fit, as he acknowledges—that Heathcliff is the abandoned child of an Irish emigrant family, a ferocious waif of Nature who talks the gibberish of the Irish language and grows up to be a nuisance in the Heights and a menace to Thrushcross Grange.

Heathcliff is a force of Nature which the civil society of the Grange can't accommodate and so must try to destroy. For Eagleton, he becomes an emblem of Ireland, the vehicle and the victim of England's bad dreams:

Ireland, in this as in other ways, then comes to figure as the monstrous unconscious of the metropolitan society, the secret materialist history of endemically idealist England. It incarnates, for Carlyle, Froude and others, the Tennysonian nightmare of a Nature red in tooth and claw, obdurately resistant to refinement. When the child Heathcliff trespasses on the Grange, the neurasthenically cultivated Lintons set the dogs on him, forced for a moment to expose the veiled violence which helps to prop them up.

I think I know what “materialist” and “idealist” are doing in that remarkably polemical first sentence. Let us suppose that England dumps its fantasies on Ireland so that it can proceed unburdened on its empiricist, imperial way. Eagleton thinks, presumably, that British culture is idealist to the extent that it validates its practices by submitting them to the rule of consciousness. And whatever it cannot convert to consciousness must be nasty matter, to be disposed of in waste ground. Such matter, like the force attributed to the witches in Macbeth, cannot be contained within the official rhetoric of British culture. Ireland and Wuthering Heights, Eagleton says, are therefore names for the “sickening precariousness” of that formation.

Heathcliff is “a fragment of the Famine,” and the later chapters of Wuthering Heights show what happened to the survivors of the Great Hunger of 1845-1851:

Heathcliff … is a notoriously split subject: if he goes through the motions of undermining the ruling order from within, his soul remains arrested and fixated in the imaginary relation with Catherine. Indeed he engages in the former kind of activity precisely to avenge himself for the unavailability of the latter. Heathcliff starts out as an image of the famished Irish immigrant, becomes a landless laborer set to work in the Heights, and ends up as a symbol of the constitutional nationalism of the Irish parliamentary party.

No writer is on oath in driving a conceit, but Eagleton should have let this one rest long before coming to the Irish Parliamentary Party. He has evidently forgotten that the Party, torn by the defeat of Parnell, was brushed aside by a new generation of nationalists, and that the new forms of energy culminated, by intent or not, in the Easter Rising and the founding of the Irish Free State. And a good thing, too, in my opinion.

As an allegory of the relation between Ireland and England, the story of Heathcliff and Catherine is interesting to begin with, but daft in the end. Heathcliff is real to himself, but it is the gist of Eagleton's argument that modern Ireland is not real to itself because England, needing Ireland as a place of fantasy, hasn't allowed it to be real. Ireland is fixated, therefore, in an imaginary relation with England: this is the source of all our woes and follies. Pursuing this chimera, Eagleton has sustained himself on Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious. He interprets Jameson's book rather freely, in these terms:

To grasp the notion of a political unconscious, one would need to imagine that our everyday social practices and relations, with all their implicit violence, longing and anxiety, were all the time weaving a kind of fantastic subtext to themselves in some entirely imaginary place, a kind of invisible verso to the recto of our waking life, as intimate and alien to it as id to ego, in which those familiar social processes are refigured in the light of all that they have abruptly repressed, and so as monstrously distorted images through which the shape of everyday political society is nonetheless dimly discernible.

Not the liveliest of Eagleton's sentences, but the argument is clear enough. Like Jameson, Eagleton thinks he knows what reality is, and also that he can separate it cleanly from fantasy. As a positivist and a Marxist, he defines reality as “our everyday social practices and relations.” These do not include myths, religious beliefs and practices, or those acts of imagination which are not socially embedded. Eagleton calls such acts fantasies and throws them into Jameson's trash can. Jameson's argument, too, depends upon an arbitrary distinction between socially authenticated motives and the rest; and this notion is never far from Eagleton's thoughts. He reverts to it when his argument is otherwise idling, or (with more hope of success) when he tries to explain a number of Irish fictions which are commonly known as Protestant Gothic, including Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas (1864) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). They are romances of ruined families, suicides, vampires, decayed houses, graveyards, tales from beyond the tomb. “Protestant Gothic,” as Eagleton says, “might be dubbed the political unconscious of Anglo-Irish society, the place where its fears and fantasies most definitively emerge.”

Eagleton's understanding of Ireland is a familiar one. Everybody agrees that Ireland is a rural, pre-industrial society that has developed quite differently from Britain. Having little or no natural resources. Ireland has been unable to move into heavy industry. It has not had an Industrial Revolution, apart from a small area surrounding Belfast and the Lagan Valley. As a direct result, according to Eagleton, “Ireland was in general a profoundly conservative society, with only a weak ideology of modernization.”

It is a further consequence that Ireland “lacks a mainstream liberal tradition.” Liberalism has not flourished there, apparently, because the few cities and large towns in Ireland failed to produce a strong middle class when such a thing was needed and might have worked for a progressive cause. In the eighteenth century, Ireland's Catholic peasants were governed—no, dominated—by a junta of Protestant burghers and landlords who eventually called themselves the Ascendancy. When it appeared, at the end of the century, that Catholics would have to be allowed to vote, their masters banded together in the Protestant interest. A few members of the Ascendancy were decent enough fellows, no doubt, but most of their colleagues were louts on horseback. Edmund Burke denounced the Protestant Ascendancy, in his Letter to Richard Burke and Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, both written in 1792, as a group determined “to keep a dominion over the rest by reducing them to absolute slavery under a military power.”

That pleasure didn't end in 1800 when Pitt, the British Prime Minister, bribed the Ascendancy to abolish the short-lived Irish Parliament—Grattan's Parliament, 1782-1800—and enter upon a so-called Union of Great Britain and Ireland. No one could have predicted that British governments in the nineteenth century would gradually undermine the Ascendancy that enforced British interests in Ireland. British administrations started giving some measure of justice to the peasants.

Reluctantly, indeed. When a fungus struck the potato crop in August 1845, the government of Sir Robert Peel did the poor best it could to forestall starvation, but Lord John Russell, Peel's successor, soon gave up the effort as a bad job. Besides, there were influential people in Westminster who thought the Famine a benign act of God to reduce the crazy, fast-breeding Irish to a manageable number. After the Famine, the chastened survivors might be drawn into the secular decorum of Britain. In the later years of the nineteenth century the Ascendancy began to lose its power, not because its members saw the injustice of coercing the Catholics, but because the big landlords and burghers were too feeble to hold on to the dominion they enjoyed. It took many years of famine, emigration, broken promises, and the gradual transfer of land from landlord to tenant, however, before the Ascendancy became the merely picturesque remnant that it is now. A wise mind could have written the script of that decline in advance. The rest is contemporary history.

Eagleton's first concern is the relation, as he divines it, between these social and political conditions and the literature that arose from them. He is a Marxist, and so he thinks of modern literature mainly as the novel, which rather straitens his view of Irish literature. And, as a Marxist, he assumes that the vocation of fiction is to be realistic. He also seems to agree with V. S. Pritchett that the English tradition of fiction “is hardheaded, moralistic, and sociable, vegetating in good sense and a general experience of the world.” The realistic novel is possible, according to Eagleton, only when the society to which it refers is settled and relations among the social classes can be understood within a vision of society as a whole. He concedes that realism is often found in collusion with powerful men, but at least it intuits a structure of worldly relations complete enough to constitute a culture.

No such felicity has obtained in Ireland. “Culture demands a material base,” Eagleton says, “and a society as impoverished as Ireland was hardly in a position to provide one.” As a result, Irish literature features “a gap between consciousness and action,” a discrepancy “between rhetoric and reality,” “a hiatus between the experience it has to record and the conventions available for articulating it.” Realism “aspires to a unity of subject and object, of the psychological and the social, but these in Ireland tend to split into separate genres.” Eagleton takes from Benjamin a reference to the “sickness of tradition,” a condition in which “truth and wisdom have decayed but the forms of their transmissibility are preserved.” Surprisingly, Eagleton finds this sickness in Joyce's Dubliners, “a work which preserves the forms of storytelling but empties them remorselessly of their content.” More pervasively in Irish fiction, according to Eagleton, it is a mark of this disjunction that the language used lives at a remove from the world to which it ostensibly refers. Such language brings things into existence, or into a fantasy of existence; it doesn't find stability by referring to a world that it claims already to know and to understand. Hence the desperate eloquence of Irish writing.

This reading of Irish fiction is not entirely new. We find the gist of it in several studies which suppose that the artistic forms used by a client nation imitate those of its master. As in W. J. McCormack's Ascendancy and Tradition (1985), which speaks of Irish fiction in the Benjaminian terms of discrepancy and allegory:

The priority of meaning over experience for Irish writing is one way of observing a tendency towards allegory in certain large areas of nineteenth-century fiction. The same proposition might be stated conversely as the tendency towards abstract experience in this colonial fiction, a tendency we shall trace in some work by Maria Edgeworth, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Charles Lever.

Eagleton's book examines this discrepancy, if that is what it must be called, over a wide range of Irish fiction. Nearly every modern novelist of any significance is brought under the sway of Eagleton's dominant idea: Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, Maturin, Le Fanu, John and Michael Banim, Gerald Griffin, William Carleton, Lever, Somerville and Ross, Stoker, George Moore and James Stephens. Moore is particularly interesting to Eagleton, since he was an absentee landlord with his eye on London and Paris. He was in Paris when he learned that his tenants in the West of Ireland were striking for a reduction of their rents. The only thing to do was to settle in London and live by his pen; but he kept up an aesthetic relation to an Ireland already being “performed,” in Yeats's aesthetic terms. Eagleton's pages on Moore are provocative, but he should have given him credit as one of Joyce's precursors in the short story. There is also a long essay on Wilde as thinker, but Wilde without the plays is not of much interest. Eagleton's references to Shaw, Joyce and Yeats are perfunctory, a serious limitation in the study of Irish literature; but by then the book is coming to an end.

The most arguable part of the book depends on Eagleton's assumptions about realism and the novel. I don't understand why he ignores the fact, which Northrop Frye clarified many years ago, that there are at least four forms of prose fiction. Frye called them novel, romance, confession and anatomy. Each of these is animated by a different sense of life and a corresponding relation to language. Wuthering Heights, as a case in point, is a romance, not a novel. Frye wrote of it:

The conventions of Wuthering Heights are linked rather with the tale and the ballad. They seem to have more affinity with tragedy, and the tragic emotions of passion and fury, which would shatter the balance of tone in Jane Austen, can be safely accommodated here.

English fiction, which includes Jane Austen and George Eliot among its novelists, has Emily Brontë, Scott, and Morris among its romancers. Unwilling to treat the four forms of fiction on equal terms and to cope with their different epistemological and social axioms, Eagleton is forced to keep asking the same question: why does Irish fiction in the nineteenth century feature an equivocal relation to the realism dominant in England and France? He doesn't consider the possibility that Irish fictions might be fulfilling other observances of genre, like the fictions of Swift, Peacock, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, which give little credence to realism.

Not that Eagleton blames Irish writers for failing to write Pride and Prejudice.

That the Anglo-Irish novel is only ambiguously realist is no more a failure on its part than the fact that Jacobean tragedy is not Arnold Bennett. A literary tradition which includes such largely non-realist works as Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, Stoker's Dracula, and Joyce's Ulysses need not be rebuked for lapsing from some Platonic norm of mimesis. On the contrary, it is in its refusal to conform to that paradigm, or its apparent unconsciousness of it, that much of its fascination lies.

But suppose it were not a matter of refusal or of unconsciousness. Suppose it were a matter of choice. Then a different set of questions would arise. Eagleton can't get out of the fixation of thinking that, because Ireland was and still partly is a colony of Britain, its writers live in the predicament of every subaltern literature and are doomed to be victims. He never considers the possibility that Irish writers write as they do because they choose to employ diverse forms of fiction rather than because they are reacting to a realist norm prescribed for them by Britain. Eagleton presents even the most powerful of Irish writers, Swift, Yeats and Joyce, as victims, determined by the colonial mess in which they found themselves entangled.

His comments on Swift are acute, up to the point of their reference to Gulliver's Travels:

Swift reviles the British for reducing the Irish to slaves, then condemns the Irish for internalizing this slavery, which is at once more and less reason for excoriating the British, and excellent reason for loathing oneself. The Gulliver who is caught on the hop between conflicting cultural norms, whose whole existence is a barely tolerable in-betweenness, is then an appropriate figure for an Ascendancy which was both colonized and colonialist.

This is lively stuff, but it denotes a bizarre reading of Gulliver's Travels, a book that seems to me to have far more to do with Hobbes and Locke than with the Ascendancy.

Even Yeats is construed as a writer desperately writing himself out of a predicament enforced by Britain:

Yeats fashions his images and then claims to have stumbled across them in the immanent structure of the real. He is forever conjuring from the world with one hand what he has just slipped into it with the other, to the point where in “The Fisherman” he can address an entire poem to one of his own images, treating the mind-created as an autonomous object. The faith that reality is a construct of the mind, which allows a sinking Ascendancy to assert a last edge over a history which flouts them, is not entirely at one with the equally ideological enterprise of giving authority to your myths by projecting them into the world. It is the difference between subjective and objective idealism, and Yeats draws on either epistemological strategy as it suits him.

Yeats's fisherman is not an autonomous object. He is a type of person, persuasively drawn into place and time by Yeats's references to “grey Connemara cloth,” local landscape and the accoutrements of rod and line. Yeats does not suppose, in this poem, that reality is a construct of the mind. On the larger issue, it is quite wrong to think that Yeats identified himself so completely with the Ascendancy that its decline and fall compelled his styles.

And Joyce, too, is presented as a victim of British culture:

The wealth of his language is an implicit satire of the seedy world it records; but it also graces and dignifies that world, in democratic defiance of the Coole Park idealism which would belittle it. Joyce thus buys his opposition to that idealism at the price of a naturalism which implies that no radical change is really possible, that everything is a recycled, intertextual version of something else, and so undercuts Yeatsian apocalypse and the fantasies of the radical right at the risk of a serene celebration of the given or a mild Bloomian reformism. The limits of his textual politics are thus the limits of a naturalistic aesthetics.

Really? When I read The Dead, the trip to Cork and the Christmas dinner scenes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the scene of Paddy Dignam's funeral in Ulysses, I find it hard to worry about the limits of Joyce's textual politics.

I am becoming quarrelsome, as if Eagleton's book were only an application of standard Marxism to Irish fiction. Every now and again Eagleton breaks out in a rash of such tendentiousness, but more often in this book he takes his Marxism lightly. There are the usual quotations from Gramsci, Benjamin and Raymond Williams, but Eagleton isn't singing the same old song. This is not altogether surprising. It would be hard to bring a strict Marxist analysis to bear on Irish culture, a formation in most respects archaic, deliberately unmodern, rural at heart as well as on principle. No mines, no factories, no proletariat to which a revolutionary role could plausibly be assigned.

If Benjamin is right in saying that history is always recited in favor of the people who have won and that there has never been a history of the defeated, the winners in the long run of Irish history are the latecomers, middle-class Catholics who aspired to jobs in an Irish Civil Service and Irish professions. No wonder Marxism has always been a bit of a sport in Ireland. The working man's hero Jim Larkin had his day in the Dublin strike of 1913, but when that ended the initiative passed to Padraic Pearse, Catholic teacher and poet, not to Eagleton's beloved socialist Connolly. The Easter Rising was a Catholic, middle-class affair. Pearse, according to Yeats, summoned the mythical Cuchulain to his side in the General Post Office. Maybe he did; but he also saw himself on a cross beside Christ.

For a secular Englishman of positivist bias, Eagleton is remarkably well-disposed to Ireland. He thinks the Irish Free State turned out to be a poor, conservative thing, but he speaks warmly of the nationalism that brought it about. Nationalism, he says with still another glance at Benjamin, “is a politics of the aura in an age of mechanical reproduction.” Eagleton's sympathetic commentary on Ireland and on Irish nationalism is, to begin with, a family sentiment. His grandparents emigrated from Ireland to Britain and his mother was born in the Irish community of Bacup, a small mill-town in Lancashire. But his attitude to modern Ireland is also explained by his contempt for the Protestant Ascendancy and the successive British governments its members claimed to support. He notes that “Irish nationalism has been on the whole more remarkable for its ecumenism than its sectarian zeal:”

From Tone's “common name of Irishman” to early Sinn Fein's Davisite notion of a comprehensive nation, most nationalist trends, including the Irish Republican Brotherhood, were at pains to rally to their banners the non-Catholic and non-Gael, however notionally or perfunctorily … Padraic Pearse saw fit to rebuke the Ancient Order of Hibernians for excluding Protestants from their ranks.

It is good to have this on record.

Heathcliff and the Great Hunger is in the nationalist tradition of Irish writing. It indicts Britain for centuries of neglect, condescension, and folly. Nothing new in that: we have been hearing such charges since John Mitchel's History of Ireland appeared in 1869. But Eagleton's book raises these issues at an awkward time, when many commentators on Irish history and culture are settling for a spiritless form of revisionism. It is understandable that, after twenty-seven years of violence in Northern Ireland, many historians wish to be released from the whole story of Irish nationalism, Fenianism, Catholic-and-Protestant, and drums under the window. But it is a vain endeavor. I wish the present “peace process” every success, but in the meantime I continue to think that the partition of Ireland was wretched in principle and abominable in its practice. I don't regard the cause of Irish unity as worth a drop of anyone's blood, so I deplore the military and paramilitary actions which have taken place in Northern Ireland. I have little hope of seeing Ireland united in peace, but I dearly wish I might, and I would pray for it if I thought prayer would help.

Nicholas Daly (review date Winter 1996)

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SOURCE: “Reading Irish Culture,” in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 2, Winter, 1996, pp. 248-49.

[In the following review, Daly offers positive assessment of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger.]

In his “Introduction” to The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), Terry Eagleton mentions that he had originally conceived of that work “as a kind of doubled text, in which an account of European aesthetic theory would be coupled at every point to a consideration of the literary culture of Ireland.” The daunting potential size of such a work led to his decision to “reserve [it] either for a patented board game, in which players would be awarded points for producing the most fanciful possible connections between European philosophers and Irish writers, or for some future study.” Regretfully, the board game has never appeared, but Heathcliff and the Great Hunger would appear to be that “future study.” The essays range from the title piece, an interesting attempt to read Wuthering Heights in the context of the Irish famine of the 1840s, to an appreciation of the 18th-century Irish philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, to a discussion of the traces of Lamarckian thought in the writings of Oscar Wilde and G. B. Shaw. The vestiges of the earlier work are visible in the recurrent attempts to trace the peculiar modalities that the aesthetics of politics and the politics of the aesthetic assume in a colonial culture, though these essays are as much concerned with cultural history as with the history of ideas.

Singer Tom Waits remarks somewhere that “Jesus is always going for the big picture, but he's always there to help us out with the little jams too,” and one might say the same about Eagleton's ambitious efforts to provide a sort of map of Irish cultural history from the end of the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, while also trying to present more detailed accounts of particular figures and particular texts. The comparatively loose structure of the book, both in terms of the way the chapters fit together and the way individual chapters are assembled, turns out to be one of its strengths in this respect. Thus in one of the longer chapters, “Ascendancy and Hegemony,” Eagleton provides an excellent account of the difficulties the Anglo-Irish faced in securing hegemony in a country where the spheres of religion and primary education were largely outside their influence, but he also finds time for a more theoretical meditation on the instability of the opposition consent/coercion, a discussion of the cultural significance of the Anglo-Irish Big House, and some astute comments on agrarian secret societies. Similarly, the longest chapter of the book, on the Anglo-Irish novel, couples a meditation on the failure of Ireland to produce a realist novel tradition with a series of extended readings of novels by Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, William Carleton, J. S. Le Fanu and many others; the individual readings sometimes support, sometimes undermine, the more abstract account of the fate of realism in colonial Ireland. At other times, though, this compendiousness can appear clumsy, and even eccentric. For example, chapter 7, “The Archaic Avant-Garde,” utilizes Perry Anderson's theory of the roots of modernism to good effect, showing how Ireland's “combined and uneven development” influences the distinctive modernist production of Yeats, Synge and the other revivalists, as well as Irish nationalist discourse. But in the same chapter, Eagleton also finds time to tell us that Charlotte Despard, one of the many women who played an important (and sadly often forgotten) role in the movement for Irish independence, at one point “threw in her lot with the Irish Vegetarian Society, whose president was Mrs. Ham and whose vice-presidents were Mrs. Joynt and Mrs. Hogg” (296). This is funny—very funny, even—but it might have been better to make it an amusing footnote rather than an amusing digression.

This is not to say that humor is a merely decorative feature of Eagleton's work. While the early Criticism and Ideology (1976) was written with all the high scientific seriousness of structuralism, in recent years, he has made the abrupt transition from theoretical discourse to colloquial humor one of the most engaging traits of his writing. In this respect, Eagleton's prose remains worlds away from the austere and elegant periods of Fredric Jameson, arguably Eagleton's only rival for the title of the Greatest Living Marxist Literary Critic. Where Jameson's long, accumulative sentences demonstrate in parvo his desire to totalize, Eagleton uses the short ironic sentence and the farcical example to reveal the contradictions and fissures of ideology. His essay on Francis Hutcheson, for example, is perhaps the most determinedly theoretical of the essays, and would not have been out of place as an extra chapter of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, but even there Eagleton can bring a light touch to critique. Glossing Hutcheson's equation of moderation with virtue, he comments “vice, then, is immoderacy, and a temperate desire to torture is presumably harmless” (113). At other times, the humor is broader but no less effective. Thus in his reading of Brontë's Heathcliff as a paradoxical figure, both archaic and modern “like the Irish revolution itself” (21), I think we really do see that archaicness the more clearly for being told that “it is hard to imagine Heathcliff doing the dishes or wheeling the pram” (21). Elsewhere, seemingly throwaway comparisons convey real insights, as when he remarks that Wilde “is in all kinds of ways the Irish Roland Barthes” (329).

If Eagleton's prose has little in common with Jameson's, there are nonetheless points of comparison. One of the leitmotifs of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger is the contention that culture retained a certain autonomy in British culture with respect to the political, allowing for the Arnoldian resolution of political contradictions at another level, but that no such separation existed in colonial Ireland, where all cultural production immediately entered the force-field of the political, and where the apparatus of colonial repression remained too obvious to allow for any ruling class hegemony to take hold properly. This is not in the end so very different from what Jameson says about Ireland in his essay, “Modernism and Imperialism” (1988), where he counterposes the fictional worlds of E. M. Forster and James Joyce, arguing that the development of an imperial global economy shuts the metropolitan Forster off from the possibility of a totalizing vision that remains available to the colonial Joyce. Eagleton in fact cites this essay, while questioning its findings, but he himself follows a similar binary logic by representing Ireland as a place where the Real (whether as famine, or colonial oppression) intrudes too dramatically for the imaginary solutions of culture to work. One feels at times that Eagleton needs Ireland to appear as the socially transparent double to a putatively opaque England.

For the most part though, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger's attention to the local and the particular, and its assumption that “paradox, metonymy and oxymoron” are the tropes that link imperial Britain and colonial Ireland help to avoid such over-schematic oppositions. These essays represent an impressive attempt to use Marxist theory to explore cultural production in a specific colonial situation. They are packed with insights: local and historical insights as well as more broadly theoretical ones. One feels almost fully compensated for the loss of that board game.

Andrew R. Cooper (review date March 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Ideology, in Notes and Queries, Vol. 43, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 119-21.

[In the following excerpted review, Cooper offers tempered analysis of Ideology, which he contrasts with Leonard Jackson's The Dematerialisation of Karl Marx.]

Eagleton and [Leonard] Jackson have produced two books that it is tempting to read as symptomatic of the state of Marxist literary theory in the 1990s at a time when ‘world Communism has collapsed’, (Jackson). Eagleton's anthology of extracts from eighteen writers [Ideology] takes its title from the claim that ideology is indeed the major concern of twentieth-century Marxist and Post-Marxist theory; for Jackson, on the other hand, Eagleton is classed as a bogeyman of English departments for precisely the reason that he and other ‘Althusserians’ have shifted attention away from the economic materialism of Marx's original writings, and have thereby ‘dematerialised’ not only Marx and Engels but the whole study of literature. The prospect of a lively debate between these two antithetical positions is rather dampened by the sense that both representatives have somehow lost their way. It is hard not to read Eagleton's selection of theorists as a mirror of his own development in the last two decades—perhaps an unfair assumption, but one which nevertheless underlines the reader's feeling that the penultimate section of his book [entitled] ‘Althusser and After’ should have a large question mark. Jackson is clearly concerned to go back to a pre-Althusser period in order to rediscover what Marxism can offer the study of literature; unfortunately, the desire to revitalize the ‘pre-cultural materialist’ writings of Christopher Caudwell holds the concomitant implication that we need not concern ourselves with works beyond the ‘modern’ period as defined by Ulysses.

To take Ideology first is immediately to run the risk of positioning oneself in the territory defined by Jackson as the ‘discursive idealism’ of ‘Western Marxism’. It would certainly be true to say that the ‘Introduction’ to this book gives us Eagleton at his eloquent, mellifluous best. We are gifted twenty pages of highly persuasive monologue, the principal purpose of which is to convince that ideology is ‘a matter of discourse—of practical communication between historically situated subjects—rather than just of language’. In its entirety, this section is an intoxicating brew of the rhetoric and user-friendly phrasing found in Eagleton's work from Literary Theory: An Introduction to The Ideology of the Aesthetic. The contrast between those texts and the sometimes stolid, sometimes abstruse, accounts of ideology which form the body of this book only serves to emphasize the double-edged nature of Eagleton's status among the undergraduate population of this country's universities as one of the foremost Marxist theorists. Despite his claims that ideology is a neutral term, there is an exclusive emphasis upon the Marxist tradition with no mention at all of how those concerned with race, gender, right-wing politics, or even religious fundamentalism, have approached the subject.

What does become clear from reading these extracts is that any threads or continuities in the early texts (duly stressed by cross-referencing within and between the pieces chosen), begin to become far less certain in the Post-Althusserian period. For instance, the ‘science’ versus ‘ideology’ debate is neatly and economically played out for the reader, as are the questions over what constitutes class and consciousness. The extensive use of Lukács fits comfortably into the broaching of questions over legitimation and relativism. Although sometimes overlong, excerpts from Mannheim (providing the historical contextualization required by the absence of a commentary or annotations from Eagleton). Goldmann, Althusser, Hirst, Poulantzas, Rancière, and Barthes (sic) provide an insightful and largely accurate representation of the history of the concept of ideology for Marxist thinkers. Any such connections are harder to discern in the collection of extracts found in the final section, ‘Modern Debates’. Of course, this is an indication of the diversity of approaches put forward under the umbrella of Marxism by writers such as Williams, Habermas, and Frow. There are, however, some oddities. Whilst Geertz, Mepham, and Gouldner contribute and problematize the use of language-based models, Elster and Geuss serve to do little more here than accentuate the post-Modernist/post-Marxist (post-The Ideology of the Aesthetic?) dependency upon psychoanalytical theory to buttress the claims of more recent Marxist commentators.

In theory, one should be able to turn to Jackson's book [The Dematerialisation of Karl Marx] for an explication of the significance of some, if not all, of the writers chosen by Eagleton. Indeed, the subtitle ‘Literature and Marxist Theory’ promises much more than this. However, despite the apparent motivation to outline the contribution of Marxist theorists to the interpretation of literary texts, Jackson's book fails to deliver either a coherent and incisive overview, or an alternative approach. …

However, neither quips nor the ultimate conclusion that literature is simply ‘worth anthropological study’, promise much for the student who, party to the confusion over what Marxism can offer in the 1990s, turns to Eagleton or Jackson for advice.

Katie Trumpener (review date March 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, in Modern Language Quarterly,Vol. 58, No. 1, March, 1997, pp. 114-18.

[In the following review, Trumpener offers positive assessment of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger and comments on the book's critical reception.]

Over the last twenty years groundbreaking books by British, Irish, and American academics have shaped a new field of Irish literary and cultural studies. A series of monographic studies in the tradition of Daniel Corkery's Synge and Anglo Irish Literature (1931) have used the oeuvres and careers of particular authors to show how Ireland's social conditions and political tensions molded Anglo-Irish consciousness and literature, from Swift's counter-Augustan aesthetic to a peculiarly Anglo-Irish mode of gothic.1 And a series of ambitious historical overviews, essay collections, and anthologies have explored the status of Ireland as an exemplary or prototypical British colony, the continuities and discontinuities of Anglo-Irish culture, and the shifting relationship between English-language and Gaelic literatures.2 Terry Eagleton's latest book builds on this stimulating body of work and moves the discussion to a new level of analytic sophistication.

In overlapping essays on Irish political, cultural, and literary history, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger ranges from the Irish subtext of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, radical Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson, the developmental history of the nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish novel, and the contrasts offered by the careers of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw to the more general problem of hegemony, the ideology of “ascendancy” in the colonial situation of Ireland, and the peculiar development of an avant-garde aesthetic under “archaic” social and political conditions. Eagleton moves, then, between exemplary readings of individual figures, works, genres, and broad historical or theoretical issues, between the illumination of specific formal structures, specific historical phenomena, and a speculative attempt to develop new models of domination and cultural self-understanding out of the particularities of the Irish case. The alternation produces a book of peculiarly uneven texture, which serves, in part, to illustrate one of Eagleton's principal themes, the unsettling effects of uneven development on literary form, as on political consciousness and culture. While the argument is by now familiar (at least in its broad contours).3 Eagleton mounts a detailed and compelling account of its local consequences and suggestively sketches its broadest theoretical implications.

He is largely successful in sidestepping the main danger of this kind of argument, that by emphasizing the uneven and contradictory development of Ireland, the Irish novel, and the Irish avant-garde, one reinforces the notion of an (unproblematic) English or British standard from which Ireland, as ever, deviates. Instead, Eagleton conveys both the rich vitality and the troubled dividedness of Irish cultural forms, showing us why these apparently opposed characteristics are functions of one another. In his magisterial chapter on the Irish novel, in “Ascendancy and Hegemony,” and in “Culture and Politics,” in particular, the discrete pieces of the argument are brought together in a dialectical dance, evoking the dynamic Eagleton ascribes to (Anglo-) Irish culture as a whole. He narrates the history of the Irish novel, for instance, both by drawing a series of sketches (invariably deft, evocative, and illuminating) of individual novelists, their oeuvres, and their careers and by drawing attention to the larger patterns of continuity, alternation, and contradiction that this series, as a series, makes visible; one of the finest (and most comprehensive) overviews of the Irish novel to date, the chapter has the explanatory power of Lukács's best work. The essay on hegemony and Irish history has an even more obvious dialectical structure, as it moves from the attempt to describe the structure of hegemony in the abstract (drawing equally on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis and on Gramscian and Althusserian theories of ideology) to examine the emergence and recurrent contradictions of ascendancy ideology over the course of postconquest history and finally, in an apparent about-face, to tackle the problem all over again from the other side, by examining the history of nationalist resistance. “Culture and Politics” returns to the coherence and contradictions of Irish nationalist movements, describing the history of a particular political struggle in relationship to larger questions of mentalité, cultural practices, and artistic forms; the piece is at once historical meditation and theoretical meditation on the reconcilability of psychoanalysis, ethnography, historiography, and literary scholarship as modes of cultural description.

Heathcliff and the Great Hunger's own integration of political, economic, and literary history is exemplary. Nonetheless, the book may well not attract the number or kinds of readers it deserves. Like Eagleton's previous books, it seems addressed to the intelligent novice, yet it presupposes considerable background knowledge. Some readers, furthermore, will be disoriented by its odd mixture of dense local argumentation and loose overall structure; several chapters, including the title essay, suffer from argumentative drift. (It might have been a better, or at least a more accessible, book at half the length, if the individual case studies had been integrated into the more comprehensive chapters or left out altogether.) Although some readers may be stimulated by Eagleton's attempts to translate between Irish and other European cultural histories or theoretical vernaculars, some will be seriously irritated, with partial justification. When Eagleton provocatively presents the Irish bard as a “cultural Gauleiter” (230), Daniel Corkery as “the Irish Zhdanov” (231), or Oscar Wilde as “the Irish Roland Barthes” (329), just what is he trying to accomplish, and who, exactly, will such acts of translation help? At moments Eagleton seems to address an audience, educated solely under the poststructuralist dispensation and now trying to move from “theory” into historicism, for whom Barthes and Lacan are fixed points of reference but Wilde and Shaw are not. Such readers may well be part of Eagleton's usual audience, but with so few preexisting historical coordinates, how are they to process so detailed and dense a historical analysis?

Eagleton has long been Britain's most visible (and most controversial) Marxist literary and cultural critic and, for a generation of Anglo-American students of literature, one of the primary defenders, purveyors, and explicators of literary and social theory: his previous books include synthetic introductions to Walter Benjamin, to early-twentieth-century central European Marxist aesthetic debates, to theories of ideology and the public sphere from Althusser and to Habermas, to “literary theory” as an emerging academic field, and most recently to German idealist philosophy. These books often draw on works from the canon of English literature (the Brontës, George Eliot, Hardy) or describe turning points in the history of English literary culture (the coffeehouse culture that grew up around the Spectator; the advent of novelistic realism) to illustrate their theoretical arguments and to exemplify the possibilities (and difficulties) of reading literature as a social force. Yet such analysis has never been very sustained. In its extensive attention to the literary and cultural history of Ireland, then, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger represents a departure for Eagleton, in most respects a highly successful one; it may be his best book to date. Characteristically, however, it too seems to have grown out of a study whose real emphasis was theoretical. As Eagleton writes in the introduction to his last book, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, he originally intended to illustrate his account of the history of German philosophy with selected excursuses about Irish literature, only to realize that the “doubled text” would be too complicated and confusing for most readers; the Irish material deserved a venue of its own.4Heathcliff and the Great Hunger does present Eagleton's arguments about Ireland in more organic form, yet the traces of its piecemeal composition remain, and the reader may still be perplexed.

The uncomprehending reviews of this book in the mainstream press, and the reviewers' often nasty attacks on Eagleton's Marxism and on his advocacy of high theory, however, have a different animus: anger over a view of Irish history that deviates from that of the British government (indeed, as Eagleton himself stresses, from revisionist and relativizing tendencies in recent Irish historiography) and over the growing influence of the colonialism model in discussions of Ireland. Denis Donoghue, writing in the New Republic, accuses Eagleton of stressing the social embedding of culture at the expense of “myths, religious beliefs and practices,” all simply thrown into “Jameson's trash can.”5 Yet Eagleton's “Culture and Politics” carefully unpacks the theoretical problems involved in calibrating a lived culture and its records, developing a Bakhtinian account precisely of the way myths, beliefs, and practices, along with social pressures and contradictions, are transmuted into literary form. The Economist, reviewing the book under the caption “Irish History: Academic Blarney,” not only denounces Eagleton's view of Irish history but criticizes his use of jargon and impugns his scholarship: his “show of erudition is sustained by confidence that the reader cannot possibly have read, or dream of reading, everything the writer writes about.”6 In fact, Eagleton's genuinely erudite book demonstrates an unusually thorough and nuanced grasp of Ireland's literary, cultural, and political history and explicates key problems in Irish cultural historiography with remarkable lucidity. Heathcliff and the Great Hunger should be of real interest to all scholars of Ireland and of post-Enlightenment Britain, indeed to anyone interested in the conjunctions of history, ideology, and culture. If Eagleton's book has occasioned public polemics against the recent direction of Irish studies, it also conveys the forcefulness and importance of this new work.


  1. Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (1931; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965). See W. J. McCormack, Sheridan LeFanu and Victorian Ireland (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980); Carole Fabricant, Swift's Landscape (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982); and David Lloyd, Nationalism and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and the Emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

  2. See, for instance, John Hutchison, The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic Revival and the Creation of the Irish Nation State (London: Allen and Unwin, 1987); David Cairns and Shaun Richards, Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988); David Lloyd, Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Durham, N.G.: Duke University Press, 1993); Brendan Bradshaw, Andrew Hadfield, and Willy Maley, eds., Representing Ireland: Literature and the Origins of Conflict, 1534-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Christopher Morash, Writing the Irish Famine (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995); W. J. McCormack, Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985); Norman Vance, Irish Literature: A Social History: Tradition, Identity, and Difference (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990); Seamus Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature (London: Hutchinson, 1986); Michelle O'Riordan, The Gaelic Mind and the Collapse of the Gaelic World (Cork: Cork University Press, 1990), a return to the issues raised by Daniel Corkery's pioneering Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century (Dublin: Gill, 1925); Thomas Kinsella, trans. and ed., An Duanaire, 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (Mountrath: Dolman, 1981); and Seamus Deane et al., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 3 vols. (Lawrence Hill, Derry: Field Day, 1991).

  3. See, for instance, Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (London: New Left Books, 1977); and Lloyd, Anomalous States.

  4. Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 11.

  5. Donoghue, “I Am Not Heathcliff,” New Republic, 21-28 August 1995, 42-5.

  6. “Irish History: Academic Blarney,” Economist, 24 June 1995, 83.

Ian Pindar (review date 28 March 1997)

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SOURCE: “Tickling the Starving,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 28, 1997, p. 25.

[In the following review, Pindar offers unfavorable assessment of The Illusions of Postmodernism.]

“Speaking as a hierarchical, essentialistic, teleological, metahistorical, universalist humanist, I imagine I have some explaining to do.” Terry Eagleton begins and ends his latest book, The Illusions of Postmodernism, at a disadvantage to which he readily admits. Put at its crudest, postmodernism is in, hip, trendy, sexy. Marxism—or what he now prefers to call socialism—is not.

If his broad-brush approach to one of the most elusive movements of modern times appears unsatisfactory it is as well to remember that his target is not postmodernism proper but “what a particular kind of student today is likely to believe”. His own students—“too young to recall a mass radical politics”—have unthinkingly succumbed to a fashionable postmodern “sensibility”. It is understandable that a vigorous thinker who has spent most of his career espousing the cause of radical Marxism should feel that it is the time, rather than himself, that is out of joint. This book is less a critique than an exercise in retaliatory caricature. In Eagleton's hands, though, this is a strength, not a weakness, and The Illusions of Postmodernism makes entertaining reading.

The story goes that postmodernism is the direct result of the Left's “failure of nerve” in 1968. It is odd that a thinker so concerned at his students' “post-political apathy” should also be so scathing about les événements. According to Eagleton, 1968 is the precise point in history when the Left went soft and—to borrow a phrase from his Literary Theory—“the student movement was flushed off the streets and driven underground into discourse”. It is all downhill from here. The only moment in recent history when students actively engaged with the State in the name of the working class is vilified as the dawn of a “politically disorientated age”. For a writer so enamoured of contradiction, there is a paradox here which seems to have passed him by. The postmodern apoliticism he detests appears to be a direct result of the sort of student radicalism he complains is lacking in the present generation. If you're a young person, you just can't win.

Hovering over his pages is some as yet unrealized “ambitious political project”, but he won't tell us what it is. Sometimes he slips into praising the “precious symbolic resources” of “pre-modern” societies, but most of the time he wisely keeps it vague. Like most thinkers on the Left in the present climate, he is keen to start the ball rolling, but anxious not to score own goals. He is reduced to speaking only of “a kind of absolute moral value … a telos of a kind”, because he knows he is treading on eggshells. Nevertheless, he rarely misses an opportunity to hark back to some ill-defined, bygone “age of political militancy”, of “self-risking and extravagant expenditure”; and yet it is arguable that the intellectuals who gave their support to les événements were far more “self-risking” than Eagleton has ever been at Oxford. In contrast with a “newfangled postmodernist” like Foucault, for instance, who braved tear-gas and batons on behalf of students, prisoners and immigrants (incurring a fractured rib in the process), the Thomas Warton Professor of English appears to be a rather cuddly, desk-bound radical. This is because the more militant postmodernists were not constrained by a disdainful, quasi-mystical sense that the time is not propitious. By positing some fast-receding future of socialist renewal for which everyone is not quite ready, Eagleton can confidently sit this one out, armed with all the inexorable logic of a Railtrack official that the revolution won't run on time today, due to the wrong sort of Geist.

At times, one has the lingering feeling that he has chosen to square up to the wrong adversary. We might agree that “talk of whether the signifier produces the signified or vice versa … is not quite what stormed the Winter Palace or brought down the Heath government”, but I don't recall Derrida ever claiming that it would. Postmodernism stands accused of subverting everything and transforming nothing. But philosophical inquiry has always had more to do with solipsism than socialism. Philosophers are taking all the flak for the failure of politics itself, and there can be few who seriously believe that this is because our politicians have read too much Baudrillard. Eagleton is shooting the messenger.

One of the pleasures of the book is fitting the names to the parodies. By not naming names, Eagleton can have it all his own way; after all, he is dealing with “the general tenor of postmodern culture … in its less astute, more ‘popular’ form”. He can set up an anonymous cultural relativist and then knock him down by arguing that “it is hard to imagine a situation in which tickling the starving would be preferable to feeding them”. This sounds persuasive, but, to my knowledge, there is not a paper in the postmodern canon entitled “Why We Should Tickle the Starving”. Nevertheless he should be listened to when he asks what postmodernism has to say about suffering, for instance, or economic exploitation. Eagleton adamantly refuses to “go relativist”, and he is rightly concerned that young intellectuals are colluding with “the civilized face of a barbarously uncaring order”. He is also right to remind us that some hierarchical notions (that equality is better than inequality, for instance) cannot be blithely deconstructed without complicity. “Perhaps”, he suggests provocatively and only half in jest, “Pontius Pilate was the first postmodernist.”

He ends on a warning note that a precious postmodernist would not be much use against a fascist invasion; but one would not instinctively knock on Eagleton's door for assistance either. He appears to overlook an important, anti-fascist strand of postmodernism, which argues for revolution in the interstices, as it were; something akin to Auden's unimportant clerk, who “Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / On a pink official form”. The grand narratives are blind to this private, Kafkaesque resistance to what is offered us, and Eagleton feels he can afford to be snooty about micropolitics because it leaves no record of itself in the history books. It might not storm the Winter Palace, but this is because underlying much postmodernism is the belief that power corrupts. Eagleton does not subscribe to this view, and the sooner the working classes can “usurp the power of capital” the better.

It is to be hoped that Eagleton will not spend the remainder of his days being a thorn in postmodernism's side. As ironic testament to the movement's all-pervading power, he has written a book about postmodernism, not about socialism. His avowed intention in this book is to “embarrass” postmodernists, but how do you embarrass those who have already resolved to live in contradiction without shame?

Colin Mooers (review date October 1997)

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SOURCE: “The Illusions of Postmodernism,” in Monthly Review, Vol. 49, No. 5, October, 1997, pp. 58-61.

[In the following review, Mooers offers positive assessment of The Illusions of Postmodernism.]

A grammatically-correct friend explained to me recently that when terms like “Post-Modernism” are written as “Postmodernism” it represents the linguistic equivalent of coming of age. Which, like so many apparently momentous passages in life, may be full of sound and fury, but in the end signify very little. Nevertheless, as Terry Eagleton points out in the preface to this very clever and readable book, “Part of the power of postmodernism is that it exists, whereas how true this is of socialism these days is rather more debateable. Pace Hegel, it would seem at present that what is real is irrational, and what is rational is unreal.”

The Illusions of Postmodernism sets out to challenge not so much the heavy hitters of the postmodernist canon but the “sensibility of postmodernism” which has seeped down to become part of the intellectual “common sense” of many young (and not-so-young) people, especially if they have come within a stones throw of a university classroom in the past ten years. As Eagleton explains, “Postmodernism is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of skepticism about the objectivity of truth, history, and norms, the giveness of natures and the coherence of identities.”

For the not-so-young adherents of postmodernism, the appeal of this way of viewing things has much to do with the fact that the world has not turned out quite as expected. For many, the youthful political optimism that the world could be set to rights which inspired a generation of radicals thirty years ago, has given way to a kind of “libertarian pessimism,” a belief that not much change is possible (or perhaps even desirable) and maybe capitalism isn't so bad after all, especially in its more exotic consumer forms. “Radicals, like everyone else,” Eagleton reminds us, “can come to hug their chains, decorate their prison cells, rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic and discover true freedom in dire necessity.”

In a satirical first chapter (which first appeared in MR July-August 1995 and subsequently in the MRP collection In Defence of History), Eagleton invites us, using a rhetorical device dear to postmodernists, to imagine a world in which the Left had suffered a crippling political defeat. In such a world one would expect that big ideas like “social totality,” “class system,” and “mode of production” would become suspect, in part because the only kind of political activity around would seem to be restricted to the cracks and crevices of the system. The grand political projects of yesterday would have given way to an apparently more feasible and sensible “micropolitics.” One could visualize a new politics celebrating the fragmentary and the ephemeral aspects of life emerging, or perhaps “a new somatics” in which the body (but definitely not labouring ones) would be seen as the primary site of struggle and resistance. In the realm of knowledge one could imagine the belief taking hold that not much of anything could really be known for sure about the world—which raises the sticky question of how one would know that such a belief was true in the first place. If all scientific and other forms of knowledge had been levelled to the common denominator of “culture,” with no culturally produced “discourse” any better than another, one could equally conceive of many well-intentioned people at a loss to justify why democracy might be preferable, to say, fascism. When political horizons shrink, “rigorous, determinate knowledge is rather less in demand when there seems no question of full-blooded political transformation.”

Like all good political satire, Eagleton's actual message isn't very funny at all. The world he depicts is, of course, not fictional but entirely real. It is the depressingly familiar intellectual and political landscape inhabited by much of what is left of the Left. But, as Eagleton is well aware, his thought-experiment raises an important question. For younger adherents of postmodernism, the experience of political defeat has been largely absent: “If postmodernism were nothing but the backwash of political debacle, it would be hard, impressionistically speaking, to account for its often exuberant tone, and impossible to account for any of its positive attributes.” Among postmodernism's positive achievements has been to highlight issues of gender, race and ethnicity as well as placing questions of sexuality, desire and identity firmly on the political agenda. Marxism has dealt tolerably well with the first set of issues but less well with the latter. Postmodernism can at least be credited with “an immeasurable deepening of the fleshless, anaemic, tight-lipped politics of an earlier era.”

The problem is that it has done so in a haphazard, one-sided and frequently censorious manner. For all its emphasis on the “cultural” and the “material,” postmodernism has a skewed conception of both. “One may, by and large, speak of human culture but not human nature, gender but not class, the body but not biology, jouissance but not justice, post-colonialism but not the petty bourgeoisie.” For example, class is reduced in laundry-list fashion to “classism” alongside racism and sexism, as if it were the result of discriminatory practices directed against people from certain social backgrounds. This confused form of culturalism, as Eagleton observes, “is bound to miss what is peculiar about those forms of oppression which move at the interface of Nature and Culture.” Women's oppression and racism have social roots as does class exploitation. But women and people of colour are oppressed as women and people of colour. In a liberated world there will still be women and people of colour but not proletarians.

Postmodernism's aversion to anything that smacks of “grand narratives” or teleology also prevents it from grasping just how mired we still are in what Eagleton calls “the impossibilities of modernity.” Put simply, for well over two hundred years liberal capitalism has been promising “liberty, equality and fraternity” for all but has instead delivered a world in which these ideals are systematically subverted by its own operations. The “liberty” of capitalists to accumulate wealth undermines the freedom of just about everyone else; political equality is subdued and restricted by the overarching powers of capital. It has been the task of socialism to point out these contradictions and to offer a way of overcoming them. It is no excuse for letting capitalism off the hook if what has gone by the name of socialism for most of this century has failed to achieve these ends.

One of the odd things about postmodernism is its remarkable lack of self-awareness about its own place in history. Just when capitalism has entered perhaps its most “totalizing” phase, “history” and “totality” have fallen out of fashion. But, as Eagleton points out, “though we may forget about totality, we may be sure that it will not forget about us.” In the current period postmodernism plays a contradictory role, at once aggressively exposing and uncritically celebrating, aspects of capitalism. It is, Eagleton suggests, radical and conservative at the same time, which is true of capitalism too. The logic of the capitalist market is disruptive, wildly transgressive and saturated with desire. Consequently, it is always in danger of dissolving its own moral and ideological foundations. At the same time, it retains a resolute commitment to its own values, ensuring that those who “transgress,” for example, rights to property, are duly punished. That is why capitalists are, in one sense, “spontaneous postmodernists”; ideological guardians of the system cannot afford to be. Postmodernism may be compatible with certain aspects of capitalism's current zeitgeist, especially its rampant consumerism. But it is hardly a suitable ideology for a system which still depends so deeply on the moral and physical discipline of those whose labour it exploits.

There is one sense, though, in which postmodernism and Marxism share a common set of goals. Both wish for a world in which plurality and difference are respected, in which people are able to choose whatever identity suits them, and where human desires and their gratification can be savoured to the full. The problem is that some postmodernists think that we are already there. Radical postmodernists think it still lies somewhere in the future but have very little to say about how we might get there. This is where “grand narratives” like Marxism come in handy. Marxism may not have a lot to crow about these days, but its method of understanding the world and its moral vision of the kind of society needed to replace the present system, still remains superior to anything on offer from postmodernism. This superb book goes a great distance toward explaining why.

Brenda Maddox (review date 23 July 1999)

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SOURCE: “Bogged Down,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 23, 1999, p. 30.

[In the following review, Maddox offers unfavorable assessment of Crazy John and the Bishop.]

This combative book [Crazy John and the Bishop] is aimed at unnamed foes. In the small world of Irish Studies, they presumably know who they are. The innocent reader can only guess.

What the enemies are guilty of is less obscure. Terry Eagleton, Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, dislikes postmodernism and revisionism applied to Irish culture. He wants the philosophy, poetry and prose written on what he calls “the wrong side of St George's Channel” to be read in the social and historical context of Ireland's religion and education, not in terms of signifiers and post-colonial utterance.

He despises the tweezering out of the great names, such as Joyce, Yeats and Beckett, for world literature, as if the lesser lights of Irish writing were not as important to the national tradition as they are to England's. And he has no patience with the brisk, revisionist, or cock-up, school of historians of Ireland who argue that the Great Famine and the Easter Rising have been romanticized and overwritten. Holding up examples of caring landlords and inefficient revolutionaries is an attempt, he argues, to deprive these events of their symbolic importance in the Irish drive for self-government.

So far, so good. Eagleton directs his gaze at the neglected, the hidden, the underrated or forgotten among Irish writers. He rescues, for example, William Dunkin, the neo-classical Dublin poet and friend of Swift, whom he praises for elegance and wit. Dunkin's “The Art of Gate-Passing or the Murphaeid”, written in 1729 as a tribute to the under-porter of Trinity College, exhibits the Irish flair for blending high style and low subject-matter that Eagleton calls a consistent motif from Sterne through Joyce to Flann O'Brien.

In the title essay, he contrasts John Toland (1670-1722), an Irish-speaking shepherd turned European rationalist intellectual, with Bishop William Berkeley, to highlight the Irish conflict between the seen and the unseen. In “Christianity not Mysterious”, the free-thinking Toland attacked the language of miracle; he believed that religion must explain itself in clear language; otherwise, it was a tool for manipulating the masses for political ends. The idealist Berkeley, in contrast, defended divine mystery and semantic ambiguity—not because, as Eagleton points out, the Bishop believed that natural objects exist only in the human mind, but rather because the language that describes nature is unreal. Therefore, as Berkeley told his commonplace book, “we Irish men are apt to think something & nothing near neighbours”.

In the struggle between the two ways of thought in Ireland, Eagleton declares Berkeley the winner. With a few exceptions like Toland, he maintains, rationalism, in the manner of Descartes and Spinoza, never took root in “this intensely religious, custom-bound society”. Irish culture, therefore, entered the nineteenth century with a high regard for feeling, or sensibility, and a great tolerance of a blurred distinction between body and mind.

Eagleton, in one of his many cracks at the postmodernists, mocks their politically correct insistence that assigning similar psychological traits to people who have been shaped by similar conditions of culture and geography is racial stereotyping. He is wise to do so, for where would Irish Studies be without its generalizations on Irish character? Eagleton, for his part, confidently pronounces the Irish, if not more genial than the English, more congenial. The social pressures in a rural agrarian society to associate, in pubs, at fairs, markets and wakes create a solidarity, he argues, that led to nationalism. The fellowship of public places also offered a relief from the tyranny of the father. In few societies have the personal and the political been more entwined than in Ireland.

Eagleton's case would be better served if he wrote better himself. Much of his prose is impenetrable; some paragraphs run on for a page and a half, while the antecedents for many “it's” and “this's” can be hard to find. The book will disappoint the audience with a hunger for more in the vein of his essay Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, an accessible, informative thesis on the Irish paradox: that the same culture which yielded masterpieces of modernism also produced (until recently) a censorious sectarian nation. But this book of essays gives every sign of not being written for the general reader.


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