Literature and Academia – Review of Terry Eagleton’s ‘Literary Theory – An Introduction’. By: Suryashekhar BiswasRead Now
“There is, in fact, no need to drag politics into literary theory: as with South African sport, it has been there from the beginning.”
Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory – An Introduction, in the author’s own words “sets out to provide a reasonable comprehensive account of modern literary theory for those with little or no previous knowledge of the topic.” The stated purpose of Eagleton’s book is to provide introduction to beginner readers. Having read it, alongside a host of other books intended for similar purposes, gives me some hint as to how successful this book has been in comparison to others of its kind.
Eagleton’s book provides a critical overview of literary theory, while problematizing the very process of categorisation of literature itself and identifying the games of power and their legitimising ideologies involved in the process. He goes on to suggest the role of power structures involved in the rise of English literature in great detail, without glossing over the complex contradictions of political economy. Subsequently, he introduces his readers to some tenets and live debates within and about the fields of semiotics, psychoanalysis, deconstruction and among other things. His most contentious and controversial remarks come in the section ‘Conclusion: Political Criticism’. Here, Eagleton provocatively claims that just as ‘literature’ is not a definable entity, so ‘literary criticism’ is hardly a concrete discipline in itself. He appeals to us to revive some aspects of the archaic study of ‘rhetoric’, which he deems to be broad enough to accommodate cultural practises along with their political and economic context into the grunt of analysis. He clarifies that this call is not reactionary or revivalist, but historically grounded and dialectical. This section also involves some contributions to a critique of bourgeois academic institutions in general, and literary and cultural studies departments in particular (Eagleton, Literary Theory - An Introduction, 2005).
In his review of Eagleton’s book, Philip Corrigan states that Eagleton’s selection of works to criticise the defined canon, ignores a dearth of working-class literature whose existence Eagleton alludes to, only in passing. Perhaps, a detailed overview of those working-class works and the studies about them, would not have changed the core structure of Eagleton’s thought. However, they would certainly elevate the study and assert the presence of a dialog that those works will exist in (Corrigan, 1986).
Jonathon Culler applauds the book’s proficiency and scope, and then sets about on a reactionary polemic about the author’s Marxist predilections (Culler, 1984). Both William E Cain and Priscilla P Clark, in their separate reviews, mention that Eagleton often deserts in-depth understanding and engagement, by resorting to high-headed snobbery and gross oversimplification. For instance, as Cain points out, in Eagleton’s attempt to portray the elitism of academic institutions as embodied by Leavis, he makes no mention of essays such as “Education and University – A Sketch for an English School” where the latter’s nuances can be appreciated. Whereas Eagleton mentions Foucault’s influence on his analysis, he hardly elaborates the claim to any considerable length (Cain, 1986).
Clark makes the point that, throughout the book, the author provides no insight into the Marxist and feminist schools of criticism, to which he claims allegiance in his conclusion. The beginner reader is therefore left overwhelmed by Eagleton’s call to cancel literary theory in favour of ‘political criticism’, and by the author’s half-baked suggestions about what that might even mean. Unlike his earlier works Marxism and Literary Criticism and Criticism and Ideology, his overview of ‘political criticism’ is limited to the recognition of Marxist and feminist schools of literary criticism and nodding at the fact that working-class literature is growing somewhere (Clark, 1984).
In the light of Clark’s review, I could add that Eagleton himself had certain things to say about Marxist literary criticism elsewhere, that clarify that a blanket call for ‘political criticism’ of literature without also adding certain specific features to that criticism, would be to completely miss the point of Marxist criticism and to bastardise it (Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, 2006). To quote Eagleton from his earlier work:
“The sociology of literature concerns itself chiefly with what might be called the means of literary production, distribution and exchange in a particular society—how book? are published, the social composition of their authors and audiences, levels of literacy, the social determinants of ‘taste’. It also examines literary texts for their ‘sociological’ relevance, raiding literary works to abstract from them themes of interest to the social historian. There has been some excellent work in this field and it forms one aspect of Marxist criticism as a whole; but taken by itself it is neither particularly Marxist nor particularly critical. It is, indeed, for the most part a suitably tamed, degutted version of Marxist criticism, appropriate for Western consumption.” (Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, 2006)
In this, I resonate with the old Eagleton of specificity and precision, as opposed to the new Eagleton of high-headedness.
Banality of Bourgeois Academia
One of the crucial point Eagleton makes, that escapes the succinct attention of the critical reviewers, is his plain and straightforward critique of the bourgeois academia. He is talking in the context of the departments of literary studies. But as he himself asks his readers to extend the boundaries of theory from literature to other things including global political economy, so can his critique be extended to all sections of the academic institutions that exist within the capitalist economic system. In this regard, Eagleton does not replace nuance with whooping generalisations.
Literature departments in higher education, contends Eagleton, embody immensely complex and contradictory structures of thought. So, even if academia is an ideological state apparatus, it is not a reliable one - since the practise of critical research and study that happens in these institutions will posit the tendency to question some of the concealed ideological claims that the academia legitimises. True to the inherent hypocrisy of liberal democracy, these academic institutions do not try to crudely indoctrinate their participants into the mythology of the market. Rather, they imbibe it into the people by subtly safeguarding the discourse, allowing the study of tiny bits of every school, but conflating over those theoretical apparatuses that are capable of truly challenging the system’s very existence.
Eagleton recognises that liberal humanism goes best with these academic institutions as they exist today. He writes, “The truth is that liberal humanism is at once largely ineffectual, and the best ideology of the 'human' that present bourgeois society can muster.” This is because this ideology does the best job at reconciling the potential radicalism that may arise in the academia from critical studies, with the parasitical nature of the academia as it exists within capitalism. This plays an important role in deriving legitimacy for capitalism. We can see this manifest in the flowery CSR organisations and NGOs that university students waste their time working with, to satisfy the questions and guilt that might arise in their minds after some exposure to critical studies.
Eventually of course, as Eagleton posits, the academia will certify its students not based on what their political inclinations are, but how well the articulate the language of the academia’s ideology. He writes, “Those employed to teach you this form of discourse will remember whether or not you were able to speak it proficiently long after they have forgotten what you said.”
Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory – An Introduction is anything but an introduction to literary theory. Perhaps to understand the basics of literary theory, one could refer to a host of other selections. Eagleton’s book is an important, albeit imperfect, reflection on literature, literary theory, and the power structures concealed underneath the snobbish academic discussions about the same. It must certainly be given a read by Marxists interested in the subject.
Cain, W. E. (1986). Review: Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton. Comparative Literature , 362-366.
Clark, P. P. (1984). Review: Literary Theory An Introduction by Terry Eagleton. Contemporary Sociology , 452.
Corrigan, P. (1986). Book Review: Literary Theory: An Introduction, by Terry Eagleton. Insurgent Sociologist , 75-77.
Culler, J. (1984). Review: Literary Thoery An Introduction by Terry Eagleton. Poetics Today , 149-156.
Eagleton, T. (2005). Literary Theory - An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Eagleton, T. (2006). Marxism and Literary Criticism. London: Routledge.
Suryashekhar Biswas is an independent journalist and researcher, based in Bangalore, India. His research areas include political economy, media studies and literature. He is a member of AISA - a communist student organisation. He runs a YouTube channel called 'Humour and Sickle' (https://www.youtube.com/c/HumourandSickle)