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New Left Review I/196, November-December 1992


Terry Eagleton

The Crisis of Contemporary Culture

St Catherine’s, the college to which I have just migrated, got its name by a mistake. [1] An inaugural lecture as Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature delivered in the Examination Schools, Oxford on 27 November 1992. The college began life in the nineteenth century as a society for matriculating students too poor to gain entry to the University, which is not least of the reasons why I am honoured to be associated with it. For their social centre, the early students used St Catherine’s dining rooms, so-called because they were situated on Catte Street, and ‘Catte’ was mistakenly thought to be an abbreviation of ‘Catherine’. Hence the name of the modern college. There can’t be many Oxford colleges named after a café, though the name of my old college, Wadham, smacks a little of a department store. There is rich material here for theoretical reflection, on catachresis and the floating signifier; on the mimicry and self-masking of the oppressed; on the parodic process, noted in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, whereby an impoverished present decks itself out in the alluring insignia of a sacred past; on the appropriation of a woman’s name, and the name of a martyr at that, by a group of dispossessed men; and on the Nietzschean notion of genealogy, that tangle of crimes, blunders, oversights and off chances which for the more conventionally minded goes by the name of tradition. I raise these suggestive topics only to send them packing, since I don’t intend to devote a lecture to the name of my new college. Suffice it to say that when I reflect on my own dubious genealogy and penchant for mimicry, I can’t avoid the overpowering feeling, not least in the small hours of the morning, that I have become Warton Professor by a kind of mistake. But since being a professor is better than having a job, I don’t intend to look a gift horse in the mouth.

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