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New Left Review I/108, March-April 1978


Francis Mulhern

Marxism in Literary Criticism

Terry Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology is a work of major importance. [1] nlb 1976. Its range includes the conventionally separate fields of poetics (the specificity of literary discourse and the character and conditions of literary value); ‘literary criticism’ (the analysis and judgment of particular works); literary history; and the sociology of literature, ‘institutional’ and ‘genetic’. Its objective is to assist in the supersession of these particularisms and the re-composition of their problem-areas into a conceptually unified domain under the command of historical materialism. The book is also remarkable for its emphatic attention to its own situation: its first chapter, which includes reflections on the nature of bourgeois criticism, an incisive account of the particular history of literary studies in England—Scrutiny and its aftermath—and a long critique of Britain’s foremost socialist theoretician of culture, Raymond Williams, is in fact Eagleton’s analysis of his own formation as a critic and a map of the conjuncture in which he now seeks to intervene. So marked a combination of ambition and ‘self-awareness’ is rare in Marxist literary theory. Criticism and Ideology is also and very evidently a transitional work, not only by virtue of the place that it will come to occupy in a lengthening sequence of books, but also, as Eagleton himself observes, because of the modifications and developments of argument that occur within it, in a compositional series whose order is not that of the published volume. It could hardly be otherwise: the range of topics dealt with is very wide; the problems raised are among the most intractable in the entire history of Marxist reflection on culture; and it is still unclear, despite the simple presumption of some and the peremptory denials of others, whether the ‘ancillary’ theoretical discourses called upon—psychoanalysis and semiotics—are in any full or rigorous sense compatible with historical materialism. Eagleton’s insistence on the provisionality of his book must, then, be taken seriously; to overlook it is to ask of his arguments what they do not claim to offer and to waste the many opportunities that they do provide. The remarks that follow are made on this understanding; what they represent is not a critique—as of a consolidated intellectual position, in the name of a stable alternative—or even a comprehensive review of the standard kind, but a series of notes, neither complete nor conclusive, written in counterpoint to some key themes invoked in or arising from the book.

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