St Catherine’s, the college to which I have just migrated, got its name by a mistake.footnote1 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.

I don’t in fact intend to say much at all about critical theory—the intellectual equivalent of crack, as Geoffrey Elton has called it—since I find myself increasingly restive with a discourse which obtrudes its ungainly bulk between reader and text. You may have noticed that some critical languages do this more than others. Terms such as ‘symbol’, ‘spondee’, ‘organic unity’ and ‘wonderfully tactile’ draw the literary work closer to us, while words like ‘gender’, ‘signifier’, ‘subtext’ and ‘ideology’ simply push it away. It is helpful on the whole to speak of ‘cosmic vision’ but not of ‘colonialism’, of ‘beauty’ but not ‘the bourgeoisie’. We may talk of the oppressiveness of the human condition, but to mention the oppressiveness of any particular group of people within it is to stray out of literature into sociology. ‘Richly metaphorical’ is ordinary language, readily understood from Bali to the Bronx; ‘radically masculinist’ is just the barbarous jargon of those who, unlike C.S. Lewis and E.M.W. Tillyard, insist on importing their tiresome ideological preoccupations into properly aesthetic matters. But I will not speak much of theory because it is in any case the mere tip of a much bulkier iceberg, one element of a project which is out to liquidate meaning, destroy standards, replace Beowulf with the Beano Annual and compose a syllabus consisting of nothing but Geordie folk songs and gay graffiti. What is at stake, in other words, is nothing less than a pervasive crisis of Western culture itself; and though this epochal upheaval is not everywhere dramatically apparent, and certainly not in the Oxford Examination Schools, we should remind ourselves of Walter Benjamin’s dictum that the fact that ‘everything just goes on’ is the crisis.

What is the nature of this upheaval? It is surely coupled with a crisis of nationhood, for what after all holds the nation together but culture? Not geography, to be sure: you can be British in Hong Kong or Gibraltar; and not just the political state either, since that somewhat anaemic unity has to be fleshed out in the lived experience of a corporate form of life. But that corporate national identity has now been thrown into question by a number of factors: by the advent of a multinational capitalism which traverses national frontiers as casually as The Waste Land; by the geopolitical transformations through which the advanced nations are now swinging their guns from facing eastwards to train them on the south; by the impact of revolutionary nationalism on the metropolitan centres; by the arrival, in the shape of postmodernism, of a thoroughly cosmopolitan culture; and by the presence of ethnic diversity in a deeply racist society. In much of this, there is for shamelessly unreconstructed Marxists like myself an intellectually pleasing contradiction to be noted between base and superstructure, as the logic of immigrant labour and global capitalist integration finds itself at odds with the spiritual imperatives of a traditionalist, parochial, post-imperial national culture.

None of this is irrelevant to the study of English, as Sir Arthur Quiller Couch well knew. ‘Few in this room,’ he remarked in Cambridge in 1916, ‘are old enough to remember the shock of awed surmise which fell on young minds presented, in the late 70s or 80s of the last century, with Freeman’s Norman Conquest or Green’s Short History of the English People, in which, as though parting clouds of darkness, we beheld our ancestry, literary as well as political, radiantly legitimised.’footnote2 The study of English was from the outset all about the legitimacy of national origins, all to do with the unspeakable anxiety that you might turn out as a nation to be something of a bastard. Hitching the study of modern English to the rude manly vigour of the Anglo-Saxons was one way of laying claim to such a suitably authorizing heritage, though it posed a problem too: did we really want to be as rude, hairy and vigorous as all that? As one early opponent of English at Oxford put it: ‘An English school will grow up, nourishing our language not from the humanity of the Greeks and Romans but from the savagery of the Goths and Anglo-Saxons. We are about to reverse the Renaissance.’footnote3 ‘Ethnicity’ was not drafted into English studies by the polytechnics; it was of the essence from the beginning. English first germinates in Victorian England as part of a deeply racialized ethnology, and its immediate forebear is a comparative philology which seeks in language the evolutionary laws of racial or national Geist. If, for Oxford students today, so-called Old English is compulsory but a systematic reflection on what it means to read is not, this is a direct consequence of the racism and chauvinism of our forefathers. ‘I would like to get up a team of a hundred professors,’ commented Oxford’s Sir Walter Raleigh, with the civilized humanism which was to become the hallmark of his subject, ‘and challenge a hundred Boche professors. Their deaths would be a benefit to the human race.’footnote4 And Raleigh was a good deal more liberal-minded than almost any of his colleagues.

Confronted in the early decades of this century by the challenge of a cosmopolitan modernism, English responded with the ersatz internationalism of Empire, at once global in reach and securely nationcentred. The writ of the English language ran all the way from Kerry to Kuala Lumpur; yet this confident hegemony contained the seeds of its own deconstruction. For it was characteristic of the Leavisian ideology of English, at least, to discern a peculiarly intimate relation between a certain richly resourceful use of the national language, and a certain uniquely English mode of experiencing; and from this view-point Finnegans Wake was entirely unthinkable even though it actually happened. (I speak, incidentally, as one who hails from a nation which was charitable enough to write most of your great literature for you.) Such colonial or post-colonial writing drives a dangerous wedge between signifier and signified, dislocating the nation’s speech from its identity. You can, of course, try to take care of all this by some such absurdity as ‘Commonwealth literature’, or by its later, theoretically more sophisticated mutation, ‘Third World studies’, which is today not even arithmetically accurate; but the embarrassing truth remains that there is now apparently a plurality of discourses of the human, and since the human is by definition a singular essence this cannot actually be so. It is surely for this reason that literature—that esoteric pursuit of a few thousand not politically very important people like ourselves—has become in our time so curiously politicized. For there is no doubt that for the first time since the late 1960s, the so-called humanities, of which literary studies have been traditionally the flagship, have come in the West to provide an arena of intensive political contestation; and though this is in part a discursive displacement depressingly typical of our times, it is nonetheless testimony to the truth that the crisis which we are enduring is of a peculiarly cultural kind.

Nobody out there beyond academia cares very much whether we talk about signifiers rather than symbols, or codes rather than conventions; it is not for these sorts of reasons that literature has become important, or that there has been so much blood on the Senior Common Room floors. If literature is important today, it is because it is held to incarnate, in peculiarly graphic and sensuous form, the fundamental, universal language of humanity, at a moment when the regimes under which we live have need of that notion but have themselves rendered it profoundly problematical. Literature provides our most intimate, subtly affective acquaintance with that tongue, and so is the concrete correlate of that abstract political unity which we share as formally equal citizens of the state. I should confess in parenthesis here that I too believe in a common humanity, but that as a socialist I regard it less as an intuitive given than as a political task still to be undertaken. But for those who do not hold that view, the current challenge to this particular ideology of literature is understandably alarming. For many of them have long ceased to identify much of value in social life in general; and if the aesthetic cannot articulate that value, then where else, in a progressively degraded society, is there to go? If the materialists can get their grubby paws even on that, then the game is surely up. It is no doubt for this reason that the infighting over something as apparently abstruse as literary theory has been so symptomatically virulent; for what we are really speaking of here is the death of civilization as we know it. What is at stake in these contentions is nothing less than the devastating historical irony by which the advanced capitalist system has come steadily to undermine its own metaphysical rationales. And this is a good deal more serious than the question of whether jouissance or utter tedium is the most appropriate way to describe our response to The Battle of Malden.

Like many human societies to date, capitalist regimes need to underwrite their activities by some appeal to transcendental value; but, as Jürgen Habermas has argued, it is in the nature of such rationalizing, secularizing social orders to bring their own metaphysical foundations into increasing discredit, disenchanting with the one hand what they mystify with the other. In this sense too, base and superstructure, commodity production and spiritual legitimation, are embarrassingly at odds. Shakespeare still embodies timeless value; it’s just that you can’t produce his stuff without the sponsorship of Prudential Insurance. Postmodernism, taking its cue from its mentor Friedrich Nietzsche, offers an audacious way out of this impasse: forget about ontological grounds and metaphysical sanctions, acknowledge that God—or the superstructure—is dead, and simply generate up your values from what you actually do, from that infinitely proliferating network of conflict and domination to which Nietzsche gives the name of ‘will to power’. Such a strategy promises to overcome the performative contradictions of advanced capitalism—the disabling discrepancies between fact and value, rhetoric and reality, what we actually do and what we say that we do, which are themselves a source of ideological instability. But it exacts an enormous cost, which these social orders are quite properly too prudent to pay: it asks them to forget that the role of culture is not only to reflect social practice, but to legitimate it. Culture must not simply generate itself up from what we do, for if it does we will end up with all the worst kinds of values. It must also idealize those practices, lend them some metaphysical support; but the more the commodity form levels all hierarchies of value, mixes diverse life forms promiscuously together and strikes all transcendence empty, the more these societies will come to deplete the very symbolic resources necessary for their own ideological authority.