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Eagleton and English
The publication of The Function of Criticism in 1984, Terry Eagleton’s fourth book in four years, consolidated his reputation—recognized on both the Left and the Right—as the most prominent and prolific Marxist literary theorist currently writing in this country. [*] The character of such a reputation is, however, inevitably problematic. Tending on the one hand to reflect the strategic alliances or tactical deflections of sympathetic or antagonistic critics rather than any consistent theoretical position sustained across the texts themselves, it also proposes a representativeness (Eagleton as ‘leading Marxist critic’; target or icon) which both evades the real challenge of Eagleton’s polemics and positively distorts the nature of their significance. With liberal criticism currently rallying and recuperating around an academy forced decisively onto the political defensive, and with the fashionable ‘post’-discourses whose literary critical paradigm is (somewhat paradoxically) deconstruction in the ascendant, it is hardly surprising that Eagleton’s recent books should have been received with considerable hostility. Four years ago Eagleton himself, already fully aware of the antagonism of his various projects to traditional criticism, registered the challenge of these ‘new accents’ of literary theory in a comment in nlr which was to anticipate his renewed theoretical activity: ‘In all the heady negotiations over the past few decades between Marxism, semiotics and psychoanalysis, Marxism has been the first casualty.’  If, as I shall argue, Eagleton’s subsequent work has done little to disturb this balance, the recent hostility to his books, countering the reanimated assiduity of his rhetoric with an equally belligerent invective of its own, has done still less to speak out the real sources of conflict involved. The following notes aim to move beyond the barrenness of this exchange by engaging with the strategic and theoretical claims of Eagleton’s texts in the problematic context of crisis they themselves propose.
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