Terry Eagleton and Marxist Literary Criticism

Terence Francis Eagleton (b: 1943), a student of Raymond Williams, is a literary theorist, and since the 1970s, widely regarded as the most influential British Marxist critic. He has written more than forty books, including Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), and The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996).

Tremendously influenced by Louis Althusser‘s theories of ideology, the writings of Pierre Macherey, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, and psychoanalysis, Eagleton began his literary studies with the 19th and 20th centuries, later conformed to the stringent academic Marxism of.the 1970s. He published an attack on his own mentor Williams’ relation to the Marxist tradition in the New Left Review, in the mode of Althusser. Eagleton holds that in language “shared definitions and regularities of grammar both reflect and help to constitute, a well-ordered political state.” To him, the basic problem is to elucidate the relationship between an ideology (for example, Marxism) and literature.

Terry Eagleton brought out a Marxist account of Emily Bronte‘s Wuthering Heights in his book, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes. In Criticism and Ideology (1976), he argues that a literary text is not merely an expression of ideology, but the production of ideology. By “ideology”, he does not necessarily mean political or Marxist ideology, but the whole systems and theories of representation that would make up the picture of a person’s experiences. Also, he examines various ideologies outside the text and the particular ideology of a text. Literary Theory: An Introduction traces the history of the study of texts, from the Romantics of the nineteenth century to the postmodernists of the later twentieth century.

Eagleton’s thought remains firmly rooted in the Marxist tradition; he has also produced critical work on much more recent modes of thought as structuralism, Lacanian analysis, and deconstruction. In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, he presents a history and critique of the idea. of “the aesthetic”, highlighting the many ideological perversions and distortions of the concept. Originally expressed in terms of freedom and pleasure, and thus possessing an “emancipatory” attribute for humanity, the aesthetic, Eagleton thinks, has often been appropriated by the political right so as to represent the essence of a reactionary ideology, which works most effectively when it seems not to be working at all.

His After Theory (2003) presents a kind of indictment of current cultural and literary theory, and what Eagleton regards as the bastardisation of both. He does not, however, conclude that the interdisciplinary study of literature and culture that comprises theory is without merit. In fact, Eagleton argues that such a merging is effective in opening cultural study to a wider range of significant topics. His indictment instead centres on “relativism” — theorists’ and postmodernity’s rejection of absolutes. He accepts that there are political possibilities in Derridean deconstruction, at the same time, being aware that these possibilities are already contained in the dialectical character  of Marxism.


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