This contribution to the cavalcade of glosses of contemporary literary criticism stands out as an ambitious attempt to ground a discussion of numerous critical positions in the philosophical and political contexts from which they emerged. Written in an accessible prose that avoids the usual lit-crit jargon, Eagleton’s study is geared to the academic novice and seeks to demystify “those who fear that the subject is beyond their reach” (pp. vii-viii). Furthermore, Eagleton argues “a particular case,” namely the value-laden nature of all critical endeavor, but in particular the claims by the “liberal humanistic” tradition to a value-free critical stance.
Thus, in a truly admirable introductory chapter, entitled “What Is Literature?”, Eagleton problematizes the very notion of the object of literary criticism, thereby developing the perspective that foregrounds the subsequent analysis: “What we have uncovered so far, then, is not only that literature does not exist in the sense that insects do, and that value-judgements by which it is constituted are historically valuable, but that the value-judgements themselves have a close relation to social ideologies” (p. 16).
This socio-critical perspective informs, yet occasionally constrains, Eagleton’s examination of the emergence of Anglo-American and continental criticism. In the second chapter, “The Rise of English,” Eagleton demonstrates convincingly the often unwitting connivance between State power and the spokesmen of the Anglo-American lit-crit establishment. Then, in chapter 3, “Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Reception Theory,” Eagleton focuses on continental traditions particularly on how various European theorists attempt, and generally fail, to consider the dual perspective of the literary text’s relation to history and to the reader. In “Structuralism and Semiotics,” Eagleton’s sociocritical approach provides for an extremely balanced résumé of the structuralist and semiotic theories of poetry and narration: Eagleton both considers the advantages and shortcomings of the structuralist/semiotic positions and suggests as alternatives to the
continental structuralists various ideologically correct groups (for Eagleton) from the Eastern European block. Although Eagleton then could have rendered his resume of deconstruction more useful with parenthetical references to the specific Derridean works summarized, the subsequent examination clearly, if rather densely, reveals the vast ideological difference between certain French deconstructionists and their Anglo-American confreres (specifically, the Yale School). Eagleton asserts a bit wishfully that counter to the American deconstructionists, “deconstruction is for Derrida an ultimately political practice” (p. 148), this despite Derrida’s calculated avoidance of nearly any explicit political stance during the 1970s. Finally, Eagleton extols one new political presence, the women’s movement, ‘a dimension which informed and interrogated every facet of personal, social and political life” (p. 150). The real importance of this “dimension” emerges in the following chapter, a synchronic consideration of the influence of psychoanalysis on literary criticism.
The final chapter’s title, “Political Criticism,” encompasses the dual thrust of Eagleton’s conclusion: first, that literary theory, despite its claims to a methodological rigor rising above modern ideologies, “reveals its often unconscious complicity with them” (p. 196), and second, that a different kind of study is needed, political in nature, which would examine “the kinds of effects that discourses produce, and how they produce them” (p.205). Eagleton echoes concerns raised in his earlier works by offering an admittedly traditionalist position, recalling literary criticism to the “ancient paths which it has abandoned” (p. 206), namely rhetoric, redefined as discourse theory, which supposedly shares, yet somehow surpasses, the presuppositions and interests of the preceding critical traditions. Eagleton therefore seems to suggest a path towards re-construction in literary criticism and maintains that we should conceive of our activity in strategic terms, as “signifying practices to enrich, combat, modify or transform the effects which others’ practices produce” (p. 212), for example, in the areas of children’s, feminist, and pop-cultural studies. While he does not consider these as alternatives to the study of the literary greats, Eagleton concludes that these fields are necessary in the face of the present crisis of definition in literary studies, because they will allow writers/educators/ critics to participate in, rather than be victims of, the liberation and inevitable reconstitution of that ineffable object called “literature.'”