Friday Ephemera

Tenured Radicals

Readers who enjoyed Roger Kimball’s essay about the pretensions of Michel Foucault and his admirers may also be entertained by his musings, from 1990, on embittered Marxist, Terry Eagleton. Here’s a taste.

“There have always been elements of ironic comedy about the spectacle of Marxist academics fervently proclaiming their revolutionary message while safely ensconced in Western institutions of higher education. As the years have passed and another generation of young radicals has settled into middle age, tenure, and pension calculations, one might have hoped that these freethinkers would have had manners enough to mute their demands for the destruction of the middle class, the bourgeoisie, ‘the repressive state apparatus of late capitalism,’ etc. After all, blue jeans or no blue jeans, what these middle-class beneficiaries of capitalism have unwittingly been clamouring for is nothing less than their own destruction. But no, they continue nattering on about ‘the contradictions of capitalism,’ obviously having missed the vastly more palpable contradiction inherent in their own position as tenured radicals…

Professor Eagleton [is] ... adamant about declaring his working-class sympathies: In a typical gesture, he dedicated his book on the Brontës, Myths of Power (1975; second edition 1988), to ‘Dominic and Daniel and the working-class movement of West Yorkshire.’ What the working-class movement of West Yorkshire (or anywhere else, for that matter) would have to say about a book that emphasizes the ‘notion of categorial structures as key mediations between literary form, textual ideology and social relations’ is amusing to contemplate…” 

Elsewhere, Kimball notes,

“In the end, Professor Eagleton is in the uncomfortable position of being a literary critic who doesn’t care much for literature except in so far as it is an instrument for social change. He begins Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976)… with the requisite paean to Marx’s general brilliance and profound grasp of culture: Marx wrote poetry, ‘his acquaintance with literature… was staggering in scope,’ and so on. It all might have come from the Soviet Encyclopaedia circa 1930. But Professor Eagleton goes on immediately to note that one shouldn’t expect a full-fledged theory of art from Marxism because, after all, ‘Marx and Engels had rather more important tasks on their hands than the formulation of a complete aesthetic theory.’”

Like many of his peers, Eagleton uses academic theorising as an improbable and rickety vehicle for the propagation of his own political whims and prejudices. But I’ve yet to see compelling evidence that the shoehorning of outmoded Marxist claptrap or its postmodern derivatives into literary and aesthetic ponderings illuminates much that is useful or profound - beyond, that is, the theorist’s own capacity for self-absorbed misapprehension. Norman Geras, who shares some of Eagleton’s political sympathies, recently noted a similar “unwarranted intrusion of the author’s politics.” Such intrusion is hardly unknown in the humanities and it is, I think, a signature of a decline into disrepute, irrelevance and farce.

It seems odd to me that there should be so much to write about the relationships, or alleged relationships, between literature and Marxism, or literary criticism and Marxism, or art and Marxism. I marvel at how so many careers can be strung out elaborating on this rather limited theme in various, often bizarre, formulations. Yet there are countless volumes, essays and papers devoted to this supposedly profound convergence and its supposed relevance today. And an inordinate number of these titles are found on first year reading lists. The function of such material doesn’t appear to be to say anything new or particularly insightful, but rather to repeat a number of loaded assertions and recycle references to other, equally loaded, tomes, possibly to convince the authors of the validity of their own youthful preoccupations. In this respect, it’s interesting to note how ageing Marxists are so often found in academia, where fixations of this kind can persist largely unmolested.

Kimball is the author of Tenured Radicals, Revised: How Politics has Corrupted our Higher Education. More of Professor Eagleton’s political wisdom here and here.

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