Amovement from modes of production to those of communication, which marks the historical anthropology of Jack Goody was, of course, also one of the central themes of the work of Raymond Williams. The parallels in the development of an original cultural materialism in the two bodies of writing are not a mere coincidence. For both thinkers started out under the joint influence of Leavis and the Marxism of the anti-fascist moment. Politically, it was perhaps the tension of this background which kept them from rejoining the ranks of British Communism after the war. Intellectually, it seems likely that it provided much of the impulse behind the eventual syntheses at which each arrived—whose affinities can be seen in their collaboration in a collective project on human communication.footnote58 Logically enough, literary criticism had been the other refuge of the idea of a social totality within English culture, at a time when it was virtually everywhere else repressed. By 1968 it was already clear that this was the area from which had emerged—with The Long Revolution—a socialist theory able to measure itself against the
The work of the ‘break’, with all current critical forms, was The Country and the City (1973), which remains Williams’s masterpiece: a study of the changing representations of rural and urban life in English writing since the Jacobean period—and of the social transformations they refracted or hid—which is also an unforgettable critique of agrarian nostalgia and industrial hubris alike. There followed a pioneering study of the interplay between technology and cultural form in television, drawn in good part from American experience, and the first critical exercise of historical semantics in English, a field largely unexplored outside Germany.footnote59
Marxism and Literature (1977), in more ways than one marking a significant radicalization, sketched out a systematic theoretical agenda for future work intended to subvert the orthodoxies of both the traditions from which Williams had begun. Rejecting the distinction between base and super structure—not on the usual grounds that the ideal sphere of the latter was indefensibly reduced to its material supports, but rather because if anything the former was wrongly narrowed and abstracted by the exclusion from it of the forces of cultural production—Williams taxed Marxism with too little, rather than too much, materialism. But in the same movement he also repudiated the distinction between a separate category of literary texts and other practices of writing—the very notion of a canon, central to Leavisite criticism—for captious selection and unselfconscious elitism. In its stead he argued for a democracy of signifying practices, each calling for its own appropriate responses, in a process dissolving aesthetic judgements into a tracing out of the conditions of production of any given piece of writing, and then of its reception by the current reader. Such deliberate, unfussed historical levelling recalls Gramsci, and it is perhaps no accident that Williams should here have taken over his notion of hegemony. But he gave it a characteristic twist, by emphasizing the continual processes of adjustment needed to secure any political or cultural hegemony above, and its perpetual failure—as an inherently selective definition of reality—to exhaust the meanings of popular experience below. These themes, providing the programme of such later collections as Writing in Society (1984), and finding fresh development in Culture (1985), effectively set many of the terms of the
In a clear if complicated sense, Terry Eagleton has been the principal successor in the professional field they both occupied. From Williams’s ‘Second Generation’, his intellectual background was very different: left Catholic and existentialist at the outset, the student upheavals of the sixties brought him to Marxism, and a strong appropriation of Louis Althusser. After sharp studies of Waugh and Green in Exiles and Emigrés (1970), he published a vigorous attack on every prevailing form of liberal humanism in English literary studies in Criticism and Ideology (1976). Inspired by the structuralist ferment within the French Marxism of the time, this polemic took among its prime targets Scrutiny and the work of Williams himself, treated as recalcitrantly petty-bourgeois and attractively socialist variants of the pursuit of humane literary values—where what was really needed was scientific investigation of the several ideologies at work in any given text. This swashbuckling objectivism dissolved through the encounter with Walter Benjamin which was the occasion of Eagleton’s next work. An effervescent cocktail of different forms, Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981) offered a set of variations on its subject’s philosophy of history, theory of baroque drama, ideas of artistic aura and reproduction, and last but not least, revolutionary politics, in which a distinctive strain of plumpes Denken was crossed with the first signs of post-structuralism.
In the previous ten years, the once sheltered world of English literary criticism had been lapped by successive waves of theory from Russia, Bohemia, Germany, France, the United States. The result was considerable disorientation among new entrants to the discipline. With Literary Theory (1983), Eagleton took the opportunity to chart this unfamiliar scene. Beginning with the heritage of Arnold, Eliot and Leavis, it looked pithily and entertainingly at the New Criticism and Northrop Frye, Husserl and Heidegger, Lévi-Strauss and Barthes, Bakhtin and Derrida, Bloom and Kristeva, among others. Calculated to dispel any neophyte dizziness amidst this carousel of schools, by plain-spoken exposition, Eagleton’s survey also had decided messages of its own. With small time for the nostalgias of New Criticism, the essentialism of phenomenology, or the technocracy of Frye, it struck a more lenient note with Prague structuralism, and a noticeably warmer one—with due qualifications—about post-structuralist and psychoanalytic trends, at any rate as exhibited by Derrida and Kristeva, viewed as welcome relays to feminist concerns. The overall argument of the book, however, converged with that of Williams. Literature as such was an illusion: it was that segment of writing
This obsequy for literary criticism left one ambiguity unresolved. Was it just literature that had been laid to rest, or the critical attitude as well? Williams had repudiated the very term criticism, as too contaminated by invidious judgement. But the strict logic of this position undermines the very politics it is designed to advance: for if texts are not to be criticized, on what grounds can societies? Eagleton’s solution was to retain the term, but reposition it—shifting it from the terrain of the aesthetic to the experiential and symbolic. The Function of Criticism (1984) pursued this strategy by reconstructing the actual history of the idea and the practice of criticism, from the Enlightenment onwards. Born in Europe of the struggle against Absolutism, criticism flowered in England after the battle was won, as a meliorating consolidation of the class compromise achieved at the Glorious Revolution. Addison and Steele wrote as counsellors to a polite public in matters not just of books or plays, but manners and morals, as critics of everyday life as much as of the higher arts. That capacious, unforced sense of the continuity of social living, together with the ambition to educate and improve it, rested on the unity of what Habermas classically depicted as the new bourgeois world of the time—the eighteenth-century public sphere of newspapers and coffee houses, clubs and circulating libraries. By the early nineteenth century, this consensus had broken down, under the opposite pressures of commercial publishing and popular politics, producing a vehemently factional journal culture on the one hand, and the lonely voice of the romantic poet or moral sage on the other. The growth of a working-class readership saw a further disintegration of the public sphere into a received polarity between the educated elite and semi-literate mass. The meaning of criticism now became redefined. For Arnold it was the uplift of great works of literature alone that could redeem the lower orders. This conception of literary value passed down to Leavis, who attempted to reconcile Augustan and Romantic stances by emphasizing both the sociability of literature and the arduousness of understanding it—in opposition to either academic isolation, or amateur appreciation of its abiding tradition. In fact, Scrutiny merely became one more embattled minority. Its failure paved the way for ever more technical conceptions of criticism as a professional discipline without civilizing pretensions. Their sway was in due course overthrown by the vocally anti-objectivist ‘literary theory’ of the most recent period. Yet this too is only another avatar of the shrinking of
Eagleton’s re-functioning of criticism is thus very close to Williams’s displacement of it. But it is not identical. There have been two directions from which literary value has come under pressure in the recent period: one a movement towards the social or the democracy of significations, the other a shift towards the metaphysical, or the instability of significations. These might be called the Low Road and the High Road to the dissolution of the aesthetic. Williams unambiguously took the first route. Eagleton’s sorties, by contrast, have proceeded along both lines—combining demotic and deconstructionist motifs. There can be little doubt of the audience won for the case against literature made by these two foremost theorists of the Left in English studies. But such post-critical success has inevitably also had its pyrrhic side. For aesthetic value is not to be dispatched so easily—the wish to finish with it recalling Dobrolyubov, or Bazarov, more than Marx or Morris. Railing at canons is not the same as replacing them, which they have resisted. Evacuation of the terrain of literary evaluation in the traditional sense necessarily leaves its conventional practitioners in place. In England, this has meant the undiminished salience of such old-world figures as John Bayley, don à tout faire, Christopher Ricks or John Carey, professional précieux or stage-boor—if only because each represents an unignorable body of evaluation, treating of Hardy or Milton, Donne or Keats. In the wider world, the critics of the Yale School—De Man, Hartman, Bloom—exercise much greater influence than these local notables,footnote61 because they were able to combine substantial specific revaluations with more intoxicating philosophical ambitions: new visions of Rousseau, Wordsworth or Shelley alongside high doctrines of allegory, unreadability, gnosis. Eagleton, a skilful deflator of such reputations on either side of the Atlantic, has himself written well on Richardson and Shakespeare. But the centre of gravity of ‘cultural theory’ in Britain does not lie in this kind of work.
That theory also has its own partiality. Although it formally aims to address all signifying practices and symbolic processes in a single egalitarian spirit, its bias is overwhelmingly verbal. Indeed, there is a sense in which this is a necessary condition of its plausibility. For writing is continuous with speaking as a generalized everyday practice in modern literate societies. There is no such ready prolongation from spontaneous Lebenswelt to skilled performance in the field of visual—let alone aural—signification. The arts of painting or music, as of course architecture, remain specialized and discontinuous from any common daily capacities. It is probably no accident that they are consistently neglected in this approach to culture. The visual deficit in traditional British education has been largely reproduced in the left insurgency against it. Film itself, like rock, has proved more assimilable to the radical paradigm here, as itself part-verbal in form. But it is striking that in the end the major attempts at a totalization of contemporary ‘symbolic processes and forms of subjectivity’ should have started out from architecture and painting, in the constructions of post-modernism by Fredric Jameson and his interlocutors (among them, in the event, Terry Eagleton).footnote62