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In the same period he produced political writings in which he derived his frankly nostalgic conservatism from Burke, as distinct from materialistic market liberalism. Thinkers of the New Left (1985, revised as Fools, Firebrands and Frauds, 2015) was a blistering attack on and guide to the fashionable continental and American Marxists (and, less fiercely, on Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams). He saves us, if we need saving, from wading through Althusser, Habermas and Foucault. In a brilliant chapter he explains how Lacan & Co developed in Paris the “nonsense machine” that

could eliminate the possibility of rational argument, and could rephrase every question, however scholarly, as a question of politics . . . No need to ask what revolution means or what you might achieve by means of it. Nothing means anything and that is the revolution, namely the machine to annihilate meaning. [It] was put together . . . from discarded fragments of Freudian psychology and Saussurian linguistics, and attached to Kojeve’s Hegelian wind-bag . . . But it survived its inventors, and a version of it can be found in virtually every humanities department today.

Quoting “dense blocks of Newspeak thrown over the battlements”, he pulls off the remarkable feat of making his survey entertaining.

Meanwhile, Eagleton was busy establishing himself as our leading Marxist English critic: he, too, controversially attacked Raymond Williams (from the Left!), and scored a big hit with Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). This lively, knowledgeable book is not about literature or creative writers, but about the schools of thought (phenomenology, structuralism, etc) that were putting literature through their grinding mills. Several figures in Scruton’s critique are prominent — the befuddling Lacan dominates one part. Ironically, considering its Marxist inspiration, it proved to be a popular commodity of left-wing capitalist enterprise, and has sold in huge numbers thanks to university reading lists. Eagleton himself, who, rather endearingly, cannot resist irony, admitted that in postmodernist times “theory has been one symptom . . . of the commodifying of the intellectual life itself, as one conceptual fashion usurps another as shortwindedly as changes in hairstyle”. 

Eagleton’s major contribution to Marxist aesthetics was The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), a weighty survey of the subject from Hume, Hegel and Burke to the postmodernist chaos. For all its learning, there are at least three major faults: the obvious one is that, although rarely uncritical, it really is Marxist; the second is that Eagleton tends to launch into long expositions with astonishingly infrequent quotation, so we don’t have the evidence before us; and the third is that he can be unclear, in the Marxist style — undedicated readers won’t enjoy some of the passages in which he explains how Marx’s aesthetics apply to revolution, or takes us through the tortuous thinking of Walter Benjamin and Adorno. Later he claims that culture “can offer a prefigurative image of a social condition in which such pleasurable [i.e. cultural] activity might become available in principle to all”, but that only comes after “political struggle”, since a conflict sets in “between two opposing notions of the aesthetic, one figuring as an image of emancipation, the other as ratifying domination”. Nonetheless, repelled by postmodernism, at the end Eagleton calls for a new aesthetic, and from here on he becomes less predictable, more interesting.

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David Gerhard
July 8th, 2017
5:07 PM
Just to be clear, by the comment ‘above’, I meant the one by Winston Salem (who seems to be named after a city in North Carolina), which I now see is below. And I agree with Martin Adamson – Foucault was a real revolutionary, and said, for example, that ‘when the proletariat triumphs, it will exert a power which is violent, dictatorial and even bloody over the class it has supplanted. I don’t know what objection one can make against this’. Somewhat scary.

David Gerhard
July 7th, 2017
9:07 AM
For a much fairer, more temperate and appreciative comment than the sour one above, see this link to a post by New Criterion critic Andrew Shea: https://www.newcriterion.com/print/post/8735

Martin Adamson
July 4th, 2017
9:07 AM
Certainly as far as Foucault is concerned, once I found out that his preferred model of justice was the September Massacres, I rather lost interest. Hard to believe that it is worth spending much time engaging with someone whose ideal is that criminals should be punished by being chopped into pieces by an angry mob, and then having their body parts paraded through the streets of Paris stuck on a pike.

Winston Salem
July 1st, 2017
12:07 PM
"He saves us, if we need saving, from wading through Althusser, Habermas and Foucault." Well, you kept up a facade of intellectual engagement for as long as possible, but then it slipped. Let's leave aside the complicated question of Althusser for the moment, and ask: are you really so self-satisfied and blinkered as to believe that Habermas's immense synthesis of streams of ideas, and his reconstruction of social liberalism has nothing to teach you? That Foucault's inquiries into the transformation of social modes - sexuality, law, selfhood - are of no interest in comprehending the contemporary world? Pathetic and wearying, and one clue as to why the Right are so rudderless at the moment - their intellectual bases have become so narrow and self-flattering that the whole thing is toppling over.

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