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History Lessons: Eagleton and the problem of the space of commentary

McHoul, A.W. (1984) History Lessons: Eagleton and the problem of the space of commentary. Theory, Culture & Society, 2 (2). pp. 105-122.

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Terry Eagleton (1982) recently announced "the end of criticism" - but characteristically the announcement was ambiguous and by the end of his paper it is obvious enough that he is actually announcing another goal for criticism and thsi goal is not much of an advance upon the 'plain speaking' of his traditional English marxist background:

We need to insist that rhetoric is a matter of inventio and dispositio,of (if you like) 'subject matter' and not just elecutio: that nothing, in short, persuades better than knowledge, and that certain kinds of knowledge are what the working class and other oppressed groups and classes in our society now need most. If one wanted a relation between 'ideology' and 'science' this late in the day, one could find it here (Eagleton 1982. p 106).

The ambiguity is, however, deeper than the one concealed by a pun on 'ends': for this 'closure' of the criticism debate sits uneasily amidst a corpus which has generally eschewed closures of any kind. From the early days of Criticism and Ideology ( 1976b) and Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976a) to the recent work on Benjamin (1981), Eagleton (by which I intend a corpus of texts) has sat in similarly uneasy positions in respect of a number of traditional and recent currents in the arena of criticism and politics. This paper addresses some of the contradictions that arise in Eagleton, and its reason for doing so is to ask the question: does Eagleton furnish a distinct possibility of critique which has implications and applications of a general kind outside the domain of the purely 'literary'? It is this that I gloss by the question of the 'space of commentary'.

If breadth is any indication, we should certainly expect a positive answer, judging by the manifold and diverse elements of Eagleton's 'synthesis' (if such it be). Firstly, there is a triangle of forces produced by the tension between traditional English literary criticism, formalist semiotics and the deconstructionism of Derrida and the late(r) Barthes. But into this circumscribed geometry creep other English­ Continental tensions, such as that between Derrida (1977) and Austin/Searle (1977) over the position of language generally (Fish 1982); while the node of semiotics is further displaced by its relations with Althusserian marxism and the 'structuralism/phenomenology' contradiction - not to mention the numerous Marx/Freud proto-syntheses (Marcuse, Lacan, Deleuze). This takes us to a further triangle of critical forces which play across Eagleton's texts, forces outside but often subordinated to the domain of the 'literary': namely the relations of British Marxism (Williams, Thompson, etc.) to Althusserianism and to Frankfurt School culture critique, further diffused by glances in the direction of the Brecht/Benjamin productionist thesis. And this second triangle has a further dimension insofar as it is formed in the space of the 'critical' heritage of Marx, Engels and Lukacs.

Consequently, a number of traditional concerns are up for grabs: base/super­ structure separations between material conditions and literary productions v pan­ productionist annulments of that dichotomy; ideology v science; the status of liter­ature (and especially fiction) in relation to the opposition formed by science/ideology; the position of and contradiction between theory and practice; and the problems of the 'subject' and textual 'closure'. In short, a veritable array of recent politico-critical oppositionalities and contradictions. The problem for us: how to cut through this broad band of discursive forces and their objects? The task is by no means an easy one, not simply because of its size but also because readings of Eagleton are further complicated by the very presence of 'the question of read­ing' in the corpus and we need to work out just where to stand in relation to the corpus's own reading practices and how much violence needs to be done to them.

Item Type: Journal Article
Publisher: SAGE Publications
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