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New Left Review I/95, January-February 1976


Terry Eagleton

Criticism and Politics: The Work of Raymond Williams

It is difficult to see criticism as anything but an innocent discipline. Its origins seem spontaneous, its existence natural: there is literature, and so—because we wish to understand and appreciate it—there is also criticism. Criticism as a handmaiden to literature—as a shadowing of literature, a ghostly accomplice which, to adopt a phrase from Four Quartets, prevents it everywhere. Yet ‘prevents’ bears upon us here in its common as well as its classical meaning. If the task of criticism is to smooth the troubled passage between text and reader, to elaborate the text so that it may be more easily consumed, how is it to avoid interposing its own ungainly bulk between product and consumer, overshadowing its object in the act of obediently ‘ghosting’ it? It seems that criticism is caught here in an insoluble contradiction. For if its task is to yield us the spontaneous reality of the text, it must permit no particle of its own mass to mingle with what it mediates; such mingling would signal the unspeakable crime of ‘appropriation’. Yet how is it to do this without consigning itself to that mode of natural existence which is the life of a parasite? How is it to avoid that form of self-transparency, that humble conformity to the life of the text, which is mere self-abolition? Bourgeois criticism rarely seems more confident than when it speaks of its own redundancy—when it insists, self-laceratingly, on the partial, intrusive, provisional nature of its own propositions. Subtle and delicate though they may be, such propositions are finally as straw before the inexhaustible godhead of the text itself. Yet it is one thing to parade the superfluity of one’s discourse, and another thing to keep silent. Criticism may be a crippled discourse, but it is too late simply to dismantle itself; there is too much at stake, materially and academically, for that. [*] This article is taken from the first chapter of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Criticism and Ideology, to be published by nlb later this year.References in the text to works by Raymond Williams are to the following editions: Reading and Criticism, London 1950; Drama from Ibsen to Eliot, London 1952, revised edition London 1964, second revised edition (Drama from Ibsen to Brecht), London 1968; Drama in Performance, London 1954; Preface to Film (co-author), London 1954; Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1958), Harmondsworth 1963; Border Country, London 1960; The Long Revolution, London 1961; Communications (1962), revised edition, London 1966; Second Generation, London 1964; Modern Tragedy (with Koba), London 1966; May-Day Manifesto (editor), Harmondsworth 1968; The Englisb Novel: from Dickens to Lawrence, London 1970; Orwell, London 1971; The Country and the City, London 1973; Television: Technology and Cultural Form, London 1974; Key Words, London 1976; Marxism and Literature (forthcoming).

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