Eagleton, Terry

Assigned: Eagleton, Terry. From Literary Theory: An Introduction, from Chapter 1. “The Rise of English” (2015-21); from Culture and the Death of God, from Chapter 6. “Modernism and After” (2021-27). Also read the editors’ introduction (2013-15).

From Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983)

From Chapter 1. The Rise of English

1. On 2015-16 (“To speak of ‘literature and ideology’…”), Terry Eagleton argues that “the failure of religion” (2015) accounts for the rise of English literature as an academic subject in modern times. How does Eagleton explain the way religion works on individual subjects and indeed entire classes of people? What values, experiences, and ideology did it reinforce in Victorian England, at least until Darwin and other influences came along and generated considerable doubt about the age-old verities of Christian belief?

2. On 2016-17 (“Fortunately, however, another…”), Eagleton writes that it was Victorian culture critic Matthew Arnold who best articulated the expectation that literature would replace religion as a means of class-based ideological control in Great Britain. How, in Arnold’s view, was this transition supposed to work? What service would the study of English literature deliver to the increasingly ascendant middle class (Arnold’s “Philistines”) and, through them, to the potentially anarchic working class, or the “Populace,” to use Arnold’s term for that group?

3. On 2017-18 (“Literature was in several ways…”), Eagleton says literature was “in several ways a suitable candidate” for the “ideological enterprise” (2017) that Matthew Arnold and some others expected it to undertake, namely that of shaping and regulating the ideology of the middle and working classes in Great Britain now that religion was no longer doing that. What qualities, in Eagleton’s view, does literature have that make it a good vehicle for exercising such influence? What values and perspectives does it promote that help ward off radical notions in the minds of the working class?

4. On 2018-19 (“Like religion, literature works…”), again with regard to literature’s suitable qualities as a means of ideological control, what additional points does Eagleton make about the close connection between the study of literature and an emphasis on the realm of “emotion and experience” rather than “analytical thought and conceptual enquiry” (2018)? How does the propensity of literary works to dwell upon “timeless truths” help in terms of the ideological regulation of social classes? How did literature provide English working people with a vicarious sense of the empire that their armed forces were busy creating, and what effect did literary study in “Mechanics’ Institutes” (2018 bottom) and similar workingmen’s learning establishments have on the category of “morality” (2019)?

5. On 2019-20 (“The working class was not the only…”), Eagleton addresses the specifically “feminine” and “masculine” dimensions assigned to literary study in Great Britain during the Victorian Age. In what sense was the study of English literature turned into a means of dissipating the otherwise radical and vital impact of the admission of women as students at the nation’s major universities? (2019) At the same time, how did the study of English literature also serve the predominantly male project of British imperialism overseas? (2019-20)

6. On 2020-21 (“It took rather longer for English…”), Eagleton points out that whatever the value of the study of English literature to Great Britain’s ideological control over its class structure, the storied old universities (Oxford and Cambridge) and their highbrow classicist professors by no means approved of such an upstart discipline making headway among their students. How did the onset of World War I change the balance of power between traditional Greek and Latin study and the new emphasis on English literature? At the same time, however, in what way did poets like Wilfred Owen help Great Britain (including its elites) rethink its imperialist project and seek new “spiritual solutions” (2021) in the wake of a nightmarish war?

7. General question: In “The Rise of English” from Literary Theory: An Introduction, Marxist critic Terry Eagleton argues that modern English departments owe their existence to Great Britain’s need for a new ideological control mechanism to replace the dwindling hold of Christianity. Eagleton would surely make a similar point about the ideological function of American universities—for a Marxist, education is part of the superstructure that generally serves the interests of the ruling class. (The “superstructure” has to do with cultural institutions and pursuits, as opposed to the economic activity and relations that constitute a society’s “base.”) How do you see the ideological dimension of the modern American university—has your own experience as a student expanded your horizons in ways not entirely (or at all) captured by this kind of Marx-inspired ideological analysis, or do you think Eagleton and similar thinkers are “spot on” in their analyses? Explain.

8. General question: In “The Rise of English” from Literary Theory: An Introduction, Marxist critic Terry Eagleton offers his analysis of the university’s role as a means of preemptive ideological “tamping down” of potentially dangerous class-based dissent. To what extent does it matter that few British or American humanities professors see themselves as ideological “tools” of an unjust capitalist socioeconomic system, but instead see themselves as disseminating vital knowledge that should make that society fairer, more discerning, and more humane? Does Eagleton go too far in his claims, or is it instead a bitter irony that the university-as-ideological-enforcer employs as its prime resource “progressive” professors who see themselves as opponents of the system? What do you think, and why?

9. General question: In a “theory” course, the material you read consists not of Regency novels or Silver Age poetry, but instead the sort of stuff that critics like Terry Eagleton himself writes in works such as Literary Theory: An Introduction—texts that pointedly serve as an ideological critique of societies and their cherished institutions, among them higher education. How, if at all, does theory’s edgy, contrarian subject matter change the equation with regard to the conservative ideological function Eagleton assigns to the university? Is your theory teacher doing something ultra-hip, politically efficacious and intellectually powerful that is not easily recaptured by the system, or is your theory teacher instead gravely afflicted with “false consciousness” if he or she supposes any such thing? Have fun with this question. (Feel free, by the way, to ask me what I, your ultra-hip, etc. theory teacher, believe I’m up to in assigning this material. It might help you craft your response. Or not….)

From Culture and the Death of God (2014)

From Chapter 6. Modernism and After

1. On  2021-23 (“As the power of religion…”), how does Eagleton assess the “redistribution” of dwindling Christianity’s functions among its “heirs” (2121) in the realm of science, politics and, in particular, culture and the arts? How did modernism and other post-Victorian critics and movements inherit and follow up the theological imperative of salvation? (2022-23) With modernism’s arrival, what happens to the notion of a union between culture as “aesthetics” (art) and culture in the anthropological sense, that of dealing with the whole way of life, as in “popular culture”? (2023)

2. On 2023-24 (“From the 1980s onward…”), what does Eagleton suggest happened to “culture in the sense of art” and “culture as a form of life” (2023)? How does he analyze the gulf between the older Kulturkritik (culture critics such as T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, Theodor Adorno and others) and postmodernism’s populist, commercialized brand of criticism? Yet, why do both kinds of criticism, according to Eagleton, largely reject serious engagement with questions of “state, class, economy and political organisation” (2024)?

3. On 2024-25 (“Modernism involves a readiness to encounter…”), how does Eagleton starkly differentiate between modernism and postmodernism with respect to confronting the ultimate possibilities and forces in life: things such as “truth, unity, totality, objectivity, universals, absolute values, stable identities and rock-solid foundations” (2024)? Why don’t any of these things matter to postmodernist thinking, whereas they haunted modernist authors? How, according to Eagleton, is postmodernism “genuinely post-religious” (2025), and therefore unconcerned with the supposed death of God? How, too, does it reject “the quasi-religious consolations of humanism” (2025) that might otherwise have replaced belief in God?

4. On 2025-26 (“Since Man is no longer to be seen…”), Eagleton turns to a pointed critique of contemporary life under postmodernism. How, in his view, has the turn to a consumer-capitalist model of subjectivity, as opposed to one based on our activities and relations as producers, cost human beings the opportunity to confirm a genuine or true identity? What is the “enormous price” (2026) we pay for this transformation? Moreover, in what sense has culture itself been transformed into “a kind of absolute” (2026), though a strangely non-transcendent one (unlike an old-fashioned religious absolute)?

5. On 2026-27 (“There are also traces of the transcendent…”), how, according to Eagleton, do postmodern societies try to recover at least some sense of transcendence (i.e., a sense of something permanent, something meaningful, beyond the merely crass and material world)? How satisfying and successful does Eagleton, at least, find such attempts to attain the feeling of transcendence in our postmodern lives? How, in his view, do they amount to “a form of atheism” (2027)?

6. General question: Do you find that Terry Eagleton’s later style, as evinced in the brief excerpt we have read from his 2014 book Culture and the Death of God, captures the lived experience and sensibilities of the postmodern U.S.A. and U.K.? Why or why not? Phenomena to consider: Hollywood celebrities setting up shop as health-and-spirituality gurus (Gwyneth’s “Goop,” etc.); people who make a living as “influencers”; a reality-TV-star American president who seems to have run for office as a public-relations stunt and then received the shock of his life when he won; Britain’s Brexit fever; an endless American war in Afghanistan that scarcely anybody realizes is still going on; perpetual drone strikes; terrorists with fancy-magazine platforms and well-maintained websites; and, as of mid-2020, a surreal global situation owing to a lethal pandemic and the stark economic contraction it has caused?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake