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.footnote＊ 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’s publications seem to form three distinct periods, each divided by an interval of five years. His first four books appeared between 1966 and 1970, beginning and ending with an attempted reconciliation of socialist humanism and Roman Catholicism (The New Left Church, Body as Language). The next stage—three more books between 1975 and 1976—was dominated by Criticism and Ideology, an implicit repudiation of his former positions (especially in its attack on Raymond Williams) in favour of an overtly anti-humanist Marxist ‘science’ of the literary text. The third and most recent phase of Eagleton’s activity, beginning five years later with the publication of Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism in 1981, represents a moment both of development and stasis. On the one hand, his four latest books further the implicit institutional critique of Criticism and Ideology, promoting the politicized study of rhetoric as a radical alternative to the conventional university notion of ‘English’. Thus Walter Benjamin offers, amongst other things, a ‘Small History of Rhetoric’, Literary Theory advances a politics of radical pluralism with The Rape of Clarissa as its practical realization, while the most recent book, The Function of Criticism, derives a traditional (political) future for criticism from the unacknowledged radicalism of its past. On the other hand, these works repeat a polemic against Leavis which Eagleton began in the late 1960s and which reached its rhetorically destructive height in the powerful concision of the opening chapter of Criticism and Ideology a decade later. This position, fundamentally informed by the work of Raymond Williams and Perry Anderson, was firmly consolidated by the publication of Francis Mulhern’s comprehensive study, The Moment of Scrutiny (nlb 1979), and the theoretical case against Leavis decisively won. Why, then, this repeated resurrection of Leavis? If it was Scrutiny which provided the most radical challenge to Marxist criticism in the 1930s, it is surely post-structuralism which looms as the most threatening usurper of the position of Marxist literary theory today.
Eagleton’s recent books, and Literary Theory in particular—constituting the most coherent synthesis of his theoretical position—offer a revealing,
The Function of Criticism extends and refines the narrative of ‘The Rise of English’ outlined in Literary Theory. In its discussion of post-structuralism it directly quotes the text of Walter Benjamin, offering only minor modifications. The extent of thematic and polemical overlap here raises questions of audience and strategy: to whom are these texts addressed, and what urgency justifies their repetition? The closing sentence of The Function of Criticism provides the most concise formulation of Eagleton’s immediate answer: ‘Modern criticism was born of a struggle against the absolutist state; unless its future is now defined as a struggle against the bourgeois state it might have no future at all.’ Eagleton’s texts are in their own terms a response to a crisis; and ultimately, given the context of his latest book, to the ‘Crisis in English Studies’. While in Criticism and Ideology it was the crisis of Scrutiny mentality which was to be addressed, (‘the impotent idealist conscience of a capitalism in the process of definitively transcending its liberal humanist phase’), by 1981 it had become the ‘desperate, last-ditch strategy’ of deconstruction to ‘salvage some of the dominant themes of traditional bourgeois liberalism’.footnote2 There is, of course, a sense in which criticism is always in crisis, as the strategic juxtaposition of the two terms by critics as far apart as Paul de Man and Alec West (as well as the words’ related etymologies) would suggest. But if the last dying kicks of deconstruction are to be seen as little more than an ideological mutation or prolongation of the death throes of Leavisian liberalism, then we have been witnessing a long and extremely productive fatality. Eagleton himself not only admits of the founders of Scrutiny that:
The effects of this displacement of crisis are far-reaching and readily locatable in Eagleton’s recent historical and theoretical work. Produced within a polemic against traditional (liberal humanist) criticism, its terms of reference rarely extend beyond the specificities of English. On the one hand, of course, neither the ‘Crisis in English Studies’ nor the continued influence of Leavis is to be underestimated. Whatever the theoretical gains of the debates of the seventies, Eagleton is to some extent justified to argue that ‘English students in England today are “Leavisites” whether they know it or not’;footnote5 and the critique of the institutional practices which reproduce this situation remains a major priority, even within an equally urgent defence of university faculties from the political forces which now threaten their extinction from the outside.