David Thompson


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October 15, 2007



I'll defend some of Eagleton's work. I find a lot of his writing immediate and entertaining, something I couldn't say about, oh, Gilles Deleuze. Here's a quote from an article called "What is literature":

Literature transforms & intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech. If you approach me at bus stop & murmur 'Thou still unravished bride of quietness' then I am instantly aware that I am in the presence of the literary. I know this because the texture, rhythm & resonance of your words are in excess of their abstractable meaning - or, as the linguists might more technically put it, there is disproportion between the signifier & the signified. Your language draws attention to itself, flaunts its material being, as statements like 'Don't you know the drivers are on strike?' do not.

None of the PoMo writers critiqued here can write as simply and entertainingly as that. I'm just reading his "Meaning Of Life" book at the moment, and so far it's great. Eagleton is actually a brilliant critic of PoMo, and he has the advantage of actually having read more of the stuff than most people who attack it.

One thing the extract doesn't mention is that Eagleton is a Marxist Catholic, which marks him as an anomaly in leftist circles. It means his opinions are sometimes highly idiosyncratic.


Morning, Georges.

“I'll defend some of Eagleton’s work.”

Fine. I wasn’t attempting to criticise Eagleton’s entire output or his more recent comments on poststructuralist prose, with which I often agree. I would, however, venture that ‘postmodernism’, loosely defined, is as much a rhetorical and political device as it is a set of questionable academic ideas. Eagleton is in this sense often ‘postmodern’ in his general approach, insofar as tendentious political claims are entangled in unobvious theoretical musings. And his bizarre statements regarding jihadist terror and suicide bombing are suitably relativistic, ahistorical and amoral.

“Eagleton is a Marxist Catholic, which marks him as an anomaly in leftist circles.”

Actually, I’m not sure that a Catholic upbringing is that much of an anomaly. Madeleine Bunting, who shares some of Eagleton’s odder political notions, has a similar religious background, as does the ridiculous Karen Armstrong, who also shares some of his less credible sentiments. I’ve often felt that Marxism and associated posturing is quasi-religious in nature.

Norman Geras has some interesting comments on Eagleton’s ‘Meaning of Life’:



"Tenured radicals" is rather a delightful oxymoron. The problem, I think, is that the humanities hermeneutic has become inhuman. Where is the love, the beauty, the romance? The humanities are slaying humanity in the name of the greed of the humanists.



“‘Tenured radicals’ is rather a delightful oxymoron.”

Well, I suppose it raises a familiar question. Given that so many people who hold such views, or affect to hold them, opine from positions of material and hierarchical comfort, it isn’t clear how they see their role come the Great Egalitarian Revolution. Without the unspeakable wickedness of capitalism and bourgeois values, and all that they make possible, where would Professor Eagleton be? Or the bejewelled Madeleine Bunting, whose livelihood and freedom to hold forth presuppose precisely the capitalist bourgeois wickedness that she affects to disdain?

It isn’t clear to me whether they imagine themselves toiling in the dirt alongside their fellow comrades, or whether some exemption will be made in order to perpetuate their lofty commentary.


Exactly, David, which is why over thousands of years of history they keep failing again and again, modulo a few tens of millions dead here and there. It simply does not do to kick out the pillars one stands upon, especially given that normal humans keep trying to build up those very same pillars just as the apparatchiki abjure them. It's all well and good to take the high road, at least until one gets so high one runs out of oxygen. Past that point, business picks up for morticians.

Horace Dunn

"If you approach me at bus stop & murmur 'Thou still unravished bride of quietness' then I am instantly aware that I am in the presence of the literary"

...hmmm. Much more likely that you are in the presense of someone so short-sighted, or demented, that he could mistake a portly, bearded, radical don for a vase.


I don't follow the movements of these allegedly notable authors, but didn't he recant or something like it in his book After Theory?



Alas, Eagleton has yet to recant his readiness to shoehorn Marxism into the backpacks of unsuspecting literature students. Students at Leicester University, a former Eagleton stomping ground, are expected to be “conversant with” Marxism by the end of the first semester:


The relevance of Marxism to the three set texts – Hamlet, Heart of Darkness and Ariel – is not entirely obvious to me. Nor is it obvious why the “further reading” list includes no fewer than six books about Marxism: Tony Bennett’s Formalism and Marxism, Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism, Eagleton’s Ideology, Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory, Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature, and Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution.

Perhaps being so intimately “conversant with” Marxism falls under the “exploration of theoretical issues in the study of literature.” But, again, it’s not entirely clear why literature students are obliged to immerse themselves in Marxist theory and not, say, the thinking of Karl Popper, or other contrary voices.

frank p

>But, again, it’s not entirely clear why literature students are obliged to immerse themselves in Marxist theory and not, say, the thinking of Karl Popper, or other contrary voices.<

Really, David. It's abundantly clear to me. Academia has been inundated for the past half-century (maybe even longer) by tutors who are brainwashed disciples of Antinio Gramsci and the new 'cultural hegemony' is now rampant in most of Universities of the West. Hence the exponential increase of useful idiots who are recruited to the cause. Incidentally I drew attention to the same piece by Kimball on BS last week in response to furriskey's post about the spat between Amis the younger and Tezza. It surprised me that in 1990, Kimball did not mention Gramsci.


I think some of you are confused. Popper - as far as I know - has nothing to say about literature. What would a Popperian analysis of "Heart Of Darkness" be like exactly? There are plenty of non-Marxist literary scholars - F.R. Leavis, Frank Kermode, T.S. Eliot, William Empson. Surely it's these people you should be championing, not Popper.

Like it or not, some Marxists have made contributions to literature and literary criticism which cannot be ignored. It's impossible to study 20th century theatre and miss out Brecht, or literary criticism and miss out Walter Benjamin. As to the literature itself, there have been as many right-wing writers as left-wing ones - think of Eliot, Pound, Mishima, Knut Hamsun, Celine, Larkin...



“What would a Popperian analysis of ‘Heart of Darkness’ be like exactly?”

Well, that’s kind of my point. I was hoping to convey the rather loaded incongruity. Why are students obliged to read texts through what amounts to a Marxist lens, often irrespective of the authors’ intentions, with all the assumptions and distortions that entails? Why does Eagleton, like many of his comrades, presume a right to insinuate his *own* political worldview (as opposed to, say, the author’s) into the teaching of literature? This is not simply a matter of fleshing out whatever political context (if any) is pertinent to a given author or particular piece of work. It becomes a matter of bias and advocacy.

As Kimball notes:

“Eagleton apparently cannot write a work on any subject without an exhibition of his political bona fides. At the end of this book on Shakespeare, we are confronted with the suggestion that ‘spontaneous living is crippled by industrial capitalism,’ just as [Raymond] Williams concludes Culture and Society with a plea for the achievement of a socialist-based ‘common culture’ because ‘we shall not survive without it.’”

To me, such assertions (of which there are many) are incongruous and bizarre. And are we to imagine similar lapses are unknown in the classroom? These are supposed to be analyses of literature, not vehicles for the advocacy of Marxist conviction.


Ah, I missed the Kimball link in the BS comments. It occurs to me that if I were an unsuspecting student heading for Leicester to study literature, I’d be repelled quite vehemently by the political framing of the subject. I’d feel… what’s the word? Cheated? Ambushed?


"Tenured Radicals"? Here's one, opining on the Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax/Frame, last April. First post, commentary starts at "Furthermore, I think".

Second post, including challenges and sycophancy in comments.


Literary criticism is not even slightly like physics or mathematics. People who do it tend to express opinions about life in general. That's true of William Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold and, yes, Terry Eagleton. It's partly because their subjects - writers - tend to do the same quite a lot in their work. The examples of Marxist bias cited by Kimball are all pretty obvious. The opinions are out in the open, and can be disputed easily enough. None of them add up to indoctrination by stealth. If you don't like Eagleton, you can always study with Christopher Ricks - or Martin Amis, for goodness sake!

Perhaps a good comparison with Eagleton is the historian A.J.P. Taylor. Taylor was clearly a man of the left. Can his bias be detected in his work? Of course. Did he get some things terribly terribly wrong? Definitely. Is he exciting to read? Absolutely.



“The opinions are out in the open, and can be disputed easily enough. None of them add up to indoctrination by stealth.”

I didn’t suggest they were stealthy, and, given the context, the blatant nature of the bias isn’t the most convincing of excuses. It doesn’t seem particularly clear that such overt political emphasis *is* easily disputed by new students, who may wish to please and impress their tutors. If a professor is so, um, forward in expressing his own, rather extreme, political leanings, does that inhibit or disadvantage students who take a different view? If a student were repeatedly to disagree with his professor’s political interpretations, perhaps even refute them – or disagreed with his politics more generally, as well one might – would that have consequences of an unacceptable kind? Given Eagleton’s tendency to denounce those who disagree with him on political matters, the question isn’t entirely trivial.


There's a distinction - surely - between writing an attack on Martin Amis and mental cruelty to undergraduates.


After having read some of Geras' Guardian columns I was a bit surprised by his review of Eagleton's book, specifically by the implications of the arguments he used in taking issue with Eagleton's use of the jazz band as a metaphor for the viability of a wider, politically-based reciprocity. By observing that even within a small improvising jazz group the relations are not fully equal, and that to the extent that such reciprocity does exist within the unit, it "does not entail any wider reciprocity linking this jazz band to the very many others", Geras is in effect making one of the more eloquent, concise and to-the-point arguments extant against the conceits of those who assert that Marxism can exist in a realpolitik sense.

He also notes that real-world -- naturally-occurring -- "tribes, neighbourhoods, ethnic groups, nations, countries, states" which no human being can have any existence without are framed by a concomitant ineffable "mutual ignorance", in the non-perjorative sense, i.e. "ignorance by those of one community of the very existence of the other, never mind concern for the other community's needs..."

When he concluded "It is hard to see how (this reality) can be said to be in violation of human *nature* when that nature has not been shaped by the global extension of the human species" I could almost hear his fellow Marxists screaming "Hold fire! Your gun is pointed the wrong way!"

Of course, despite his seeming -- and perhaps unintended -- coupe de grace against the primary conceit at the root of Marxist politics, he continues to argue elsewhere for, in effect, such a "global extension" as would apparently obviate human nature.

If straddling two contradictory approaches to reality puts him in danger of splitting his pants he can always disappear into the always gaping Foucaultian Bolt-hole where the possibilities are mindless and "the disorder (is) intoxicating."


"It doesn’t seem particularly clear that such overt political emphasis *is* easily disputed by new students"

Especially since new students often begin their university studies not having thought twice about Marxism, Freudianism, feminism, or any of the other "-isms" out there. They go to class expecting—rightly so—that the professor will acquaint them with the ins and outs of their discipline, and when they're confronted with a strong political argument, made by someone who has been rehearsing it for years, what possible arguments could they muster to counter it?

Strongly ideologically motivated professors don't acquaint their charges with the terms of the debate, they tell them How It Is.

Furthermore, the imposition of one's modern political view on older texts is ludicrous. Consider the example of performing Freudian psychoanalysis on Don Quijote, a character whose psychology, like that of all characters, is created from his author's conceptions of what makes people tick, and, especially in the case of the good Caballero, by the exigencies of the novel's conceit.

You will notice that when a Marxist interprets a text, he always sees a confirmation of his theory of language contained therein. No text ever challenges literary Marxism; no text proves difficult to understand from the Marxist perspective.

And any theory that applies to every text ultimately tells you nothing about the text and everything about the interpreter.

The reason the literary theorists pronounced the author dead is that they didn't want to have to wrestle with the author's intentions. To do so would put limits on them, and they're all about saying whatever they damn well please.

Moreover, if you stick with intentionalism, you cut off your ability to publish, publish, publish. You can only interpret Hamlet so many times from a Shakespearean perspective.

"These are supposed to be analyses of literature, not vehicles for the advocacy of Marxist conviction."

Precisely. And yet, that's all they do: input any text at all, and with their handy-dandy literary obfuscation transmogrifiers, output a perfect Marxist tract.

I guess it doesn't matter what goes INTO the sausage grinder because it all looks the same coming out the other end.



If I were a student with a taste for literature (as opposed to creaky Marxist voodoo) and I discovered my professor was Terry Eagleton – a man who’s argued that suicide bombing is akin to “avant-garde theatre” or a “Dadaist happening” – I might demand a refund. Certainly, the classroom would not be a happy environment. For him, I mean.

From Kimball’s essay:

“It would be lovely if we had the luxury of dismissing all this… as bizarre self-cancelling phenomena. We might then be tempted to construct a kind of menagerie where some of the more florid intellectual curiosities invented by the human race could be preserved, living cautionary tales for the citizenry at large. A necromancer, a follower of Paracelsus, a Freudian could be recruited to sport with the Lacanian feminist, the disciple of Jacques Derrida, the unreconstructed Marxist. To the objection that this sounds like nothing so much as the English faculty currently in place at any number of premier academic institutions, we can only concede the point.

And there, of course, is the rub. For while academic Marxism may be a fertile source of unintended comedy, in its overall influence it is anything but funny. Together with the radical movements with which it has allied itself, it is responsible for transforming the humanities departments of many colleges and universities into the wastelands they are: bastions of intellectual conformity in which a ritual rejection of the social and spiritual achievements of Western civilization is de rigueur…”

Time to deploy the weapon, methinks.


It's a lonely job defending Terry Eagleton on this thread. But someone has to do it.

First, I am not defending all of the PoMo idiots that David does such a good job of ridiculing. I think any academic in the humanities needs a basic ability to write, and these people can't. They must be re-educated, taught to appreciate the power of shorter sentences - like "you're fired."

Second, I am not writing Mr Eagleton a blank cheque of approval. He has definitely said some extremely silly things, and I do call him on them.

But. Even at his worst, he writes far better than these PoMo hangers on. I enjoy reading his books, even when I disagree profoundly with him. He's a Marxist, but he's not an orthodox Marxist. In most ways he's a very eccentric one. And neither at Oxford nor at Manchester is there a whole faculty of identikit Eagletonians forcing a single party line on students. I suspect Eagleton is seen as an oddball by other faculty members. At the same time I bet they're glad to have him there.

Like it or not, if you're going to study literature, you will come across Marxism. A course on 20th century theatre that omitted all mention of Brecht would be ridiculous. And you can't discuss Brecht without mentioning his Marxism. Similarly, in literary criticism, there's Walter Benjamin, Adorno etc. You can't purge literary studies of these names, however much you may dislike them.



I think we’re talking at cross purposes to some extent. The fact that Eagleton “writes far better than these PoMo hangers on” (sometimes) is beside the point. It’s the intrusion of personal politics that’s the issue. (See my comments of 18:14.) And I didn’t suggest there was “a whole faculty of identikit Eagletonians forcing a single party line on students.” But the following (US) study on the political leanings of academics may be of interest. Likewise the commentary following it.



I should stress I really don’t want to get embroiled in a wider epic debate about academic bias. Not today, anyway. Assuming the figures linked above are fairly reliable, what strikes me as important is not the overall left-leaning majority (roughly 4-1), or the much larger majority in humanities and social studies (roughly 11-1), or even the discovery that 24% of social scientists and 19% of humanities professors defined their left-leaning politics as “radical”. What seems important is that in disciplines where bias and personal ideology are most likely to arise as matters of systemic or serious concern, that bias is overwhelmingly leftwing in nature and involves the aforementioned “radicalism”.

I’m not sure one would fret too much about marked differences in teaching between conservative physicists or mathematicians and their Marxist counterparts (if such exist). But professors in humanities and social studies have much more “subjective” influence over academic content, grading, research and instruction. There are simply more areas in which personal ideology can play a part, often without significant challenge. It’s these areas - to which we’ve returned quite often here - where distortion, dysfunction and disrepute have become much too commonplace.

KB Player

I came along to join in abusing Eagleton & was searching the net for one of his pieces so I could quote it with derision . His prose, with its chirpiness, ultra-slanginess and joky asides annoys me like hell, never mind his politics (which seem to amount to sprinkling the words “global capitalism” here and there).

However in justice I came across this piece on Orwell, which is fair to the subject and shows a range of knowledge clearly conveyed and depth of insight.

“Orwell’s notion of language involves similar empiricist assumptions, in its naive belief that one first has a concept and then fits a word to it. Every paid-up Postmodernist knows how to laugh this doctrine to scorn; it is just that most of them disastrously throw out Orwell’s politics of lucidity along with it. His Enlightenment conflation of truth, language, clarity and moral integrity may have involved some questionable epistemology, but politically speaking it is worth a lot more than the work of those whose contribution to the subversion of Western Reason is to write unintelligibly. “




You might not have noticed but Norman Geras comments on this article (or rather the Kimball quote) here:

"It appears to be a presupposition of Kimball's thinking that these Marxists envisage the abolition of institutions of higher learning with the advent of post-capitalist society. etc. etc."

I can't say I understood Kimball to be saying this. I assumed he was making a point about biting the hand that feeds.



Thanks. Yes, I saw. I don’t see Kimball as arguing that academic Marxists “envisage the abolition of institutions of higher learning.” That’s a rather cartoonish reading of his points.

But the Marxists I’ve encountered seem to envision a world in which the testing of certain ideas – say, in institutions of higher learning - would, out of necessity, be steered to some supposedly noble goal. They don’t actually say that, of course, as that would risk revealing the lie. Indeed, some claim the reverse – that enquiry would run free to unprecedented heights of insight and glory. But ideological reinforcement and censorship seem likely to follow as a matter of practicality from the premise and priorities they have in mind, and from the *structures* required to maintain them. An authoritarian system – which is what a Marxist society must inevitably be – requires unacceptable kinds of control, including (perhaps especially) control over certain lines of thought. (Otherwise wouldn’t people sooner or later leave? :))

Despite the theoretical whimsy and general unrealism, the world imagined by the Marxists I’ve encountered is, by definition, immoral and “debased”. Now, it’s entirely possible that Norm has encountered a much better class of academic Marxist and a better class of argument – indeed, I hope he has – but the practical details of how a “post-capitalist” Marxist society would actually function in the real world – and retain a prosperous, enquiring and civilised population - remain somewhat doubtful and unclear.

KB Player,

Thanks for that.


[ridiculously belated, but the chord must be resolved]

A course on 20th century theatre that omitted all mention of Brecht would be ridiculous.

Wouldn't dream of it. But that's my point. You absolutely must analyze Brecht from a Marxist perspective because that's the perspective that Brecht himself had. Imagine if I insisted on reading Brecht as a free-market capitalist, because (a) he was obviously smart, and (b) I am smart, and I am a free-market capitalist.

Which is what a lot of it comes down to, really. My colleagues would admire someone from the past who was obviously "ahead of his time" but yet still enmired in his quaint ideas about God, for example. Their discussions suggested that were he a modern, he'd think exactly the way they did, when in fact he would probably excoriate them based on his own value system rather than gleefully adopt theirs.



What issue, for you, would define a college professor as being left wing or right wing?

I ask this because I find many important political issues today don't fit into a left/right division.

For instance, economic rightism (small government, low taxes, minimal interference in peoples' lives) conflicts with cultural rightism (questioning the separation of church & state, enforcing "family values", maximal interference in peoples' lives if they're gay). Plus, if you believe in a missionary foreign policy, that also conflicts with economic rightism, because it requires very large military expenditure.

And what about immigration? People assume that being pro-immigration is left wing, while being anti is right wing. But it's really the extreme Friedmanite free market types who argue for no controls on immigration. Business loves immigration, because it cuts wage costs and adds to the number of potential consumers. The working classes don't like it, because it cuts their wages, and because it's mostly their communities which have to bear the strain of accommodating all the new people.

I don't see why you can't believe in low taxes, be tough on illegal Mexican immigration, but in favour of gay marriage. Or favour a vigorous, assertive foreign policy and support gay marriage. Or believe in economic redistribution through taxation plus socialized medicine, and believe homosexuality is against God's wishes. Or something...



“What issue, for you, would define a college professor as being left wing or right wing?”

The labels are, by and large, theirs, not mine. I quite agree, though; the familiar left-right tribal definitions are becoming more confused and less meaningful by the day. Hence one can find the Guardian’s Natasha Walter hailing Hizb ut-Tahrir for their “espousal of women’s rights” (i.e. enforced ‘modesty’, sexual apartheid and limited voting rights) and describing these theocratic bigots as “an alternative to capitalism.” Such are the wonders of our age.

Insofar as such labels pertain to the topic at hand, it’s the pointedly anti-capitalist, anti-individual, anti-bourgeois posturing that’s the issue, and a more general disdain for whatever is deemed ‘conventional’ (often irrespective of whether or not a thing is conventional for good or bad reasons). There’s also a pompous and self-marginalising aspect that appeals to those who find victimhood role-play a good way to pass the time. (See Wahneema Lubiano, mentioned elsewhere.) If you follow the links posted alongside the key examples I’ve named, there’s a fairly common set of claims and pretensions.


It's a cliche I know, but people say the right won the economic war while the left won the culture war. No one standing for election (in the US, UK or anywhere else) is putting forward practical proposals for a non-capitalist economic system, as far as I can tell. On the other hand, at least in the UK, people remember John Major's "Back To Basics" campaign as a joke, and mostly steer clear of that kind of right wing cultural moralizing. It always looks bad if ministers are then caught with their trousers down, not practising what they preach. The US is a little different on that one, I grant you.

Returning to Mr Eagleton's opinions. His bizarre take on suicide bombers is actually a product of his western cultural imperialism. I read most of what he writes, and I can't think of any mention of Muhammad, the Koran or the Hadith - or for that matter the Tale of Genji, the philosophy of Zhuangzi, or anything outside of the western canon. Confronted by Islamic suicide bombers, he insists on interpreting them in terms of a western rather than an Islamic tradition. So they must be like the Russian anarchists described by Joseph Conrad. Except they're not.

The best writing I have ever read on the 9/11 bombers is Bruce Lincoln's "close reading of the text" of the instructions found in the luggage of Muhammad Atta. I'm sure you can find it if you google it. Lincoln is a professor of theology. It's valuable because it takes its cue from the bombers own words, and their own justifications for their actions.



“[Eagleton’s] bizarre take on suicide bombers is actually a product of his western cultural imperialism.”

Heh. Bingo. Someone hand that man a cake. It’s a product of his own ideological fixations. Hence the “tragic heroes” spiel. Like Ms Walter, Mr Milne, and dear tearful Madeleine, Eagleton is very adept at projecting his own, rather fanciful, preferences and motives, while disregarding the explicit theological dimension and what it implies. To somehow not register these fundamental considerations, despite them being stated repeatedly by jihadists and their cheerleaders, requires an extraordinary prejudice and intolerance of contrary evidence. It is, I think, a matter of faith, not reason. By insisting on viewing jihadism through a quasi-Marxist lens, crucial factors are simply ignored as ‘non-computable’. And this is the same lens that Eagleton wishes to foist on others.

KB Player

"The best writing I have ever read on the 9/11 bombers is Bruce Lincoln's "close reading of the text" of the instructions found in the luggage of Muhammad Atta. I'm sure you can find it if you google it."

I did that very thing (though I think I misspelt "Muhammad" and got this:-

The Dark Wood of Postmodernity (Space, Faith, Allegory)
Author: Bill Brown
Source: PMLA, Volume 120, Number 3, May 2005, pp. 734–750 (17)
Abstract: As a way of restaging certain questions about postmodernity (is it marked by rupture or repetition, or is it all illusory?), this essay imagines Fredric Jameson’s iconic disorientation at the Bonaventure Hotel as a reenactment of Dante’s crisis in the selva oscura. That imaginative act allows one to see how a nonmodern measure makes postmodernism visible (the concept of “cognitive mapping,” for instance, derives from Kevin Lynch’s appreciation of the urban fabric of Florence). And it allows one to perceive how Jameson’s response to our contemporary condition assumes a Dantean cast, becoming an incorporative act of totalizing, manifest stylistically and conceptually, that deploys allegory to transcode phenomena into the terms of the dominant system. To what degree does the internalization of such a hermeneutic enterprise (a medieval Christian legacy) render religion as such imperceptible, compelling us to perceive acts committed in the name of Islam as merely a displacement of (proper) politics?

Well Prof Eagleton certainly writes far more intelligbly than that. But if he didn't he wouldn't be published in the London Review of Books.



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