Sketching Theory

Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature

Yale University Press, 256pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780300178814

reviewed by David Winters

‘Literary theory,’ the historian Gerald Graff has remarked, ‘is what is generated when some aspect of literature … ceases to be a given and becomes a question to be argued in a generalised way.’ Graff’s definition might look like a platitude, but its prosaicness is its strength. It’s surely the case, as Graff implies, that any systematic account of literature is always already ‘theoretical.’ With this in mind, theory should be understood less as a phase in the history of criticism – as in the so-called ‘theory boom’ of the 1970s and ‘80s – than as part of the grammar of critical practice. The assumption, today, that theory is ‘dead’ thus speaks not of the failure of some theoretical ‘project,’ but only of the critics’ failures to reflect on their own ongoing theoreticism.

Terry Eagleton’s career has covered the long arc of literary theory’s fortune, from its institutional incorporation – a paradigm shift partly produced by his bestselling textbook, Literary Theory (1983) – to its subsequent forgetting; its false overcoming. As he puts it, ‘semiotics, post-structuralism’ and so on are now ‘for the most part foreign languages to students.’ What has taken their place is a kind of uncritical culturalism; ‘a shift from discourse to culture,’ which often renders the object of study all too diffuse. An adjustment of focus from literary to cultural ‘texts’ may make the discipline seem more inclusive, yet it risks losing sight of what should surely be the crucial question of criticism: what is literature as such?

So, to treat literary criticism as a subfield of cultural studies is to miss the specificity of literary experience. Against this trend, Eagleton’s latest book, The Event of Literature, attempts to retrieve some of literature’s strangeness and singularity. Indeed, it argues that critics should again (as they did in the decades of ‘high theory’) explicitly situate this singularity among their key concerns. In this respect, Eagleton makes a persuasive case for returning to what could be called ‘pure’ literary theory; a pursuit which would stress such apparently overlooked questions as ‘what is fiction,’ or ‘what do all works of literature have in common?’ To theorise in this sense is to reassert the centrality of close literary analysis, recovering literature as a determinate object of study, distinct from broader conceptions of ‘culture’. For Eagleton, culture doesn’t go all the way down.

Historically, however, literary criticism has always had to look outside itself for its own renewal and legitimation. Eagleton’s new approach is no exception: he quickly finds that the fundamental characteristics of literature – what he calls its ‘fictional, moral, linguistic, non-pragmatic and normative’ qualities – have received far more comprehensive treatment from philosophers than from literary critics. In particular, he appeals to analytic aesthetics, arguing that this field ‘contrasts favourably with the intellectual looseness’ of mainstream literary theory. Insofar as the latter is marked by a ‘continental’ bias, and by a consequent one-sidedness about literature’s philosophical import, the move is a bold one. Indeed, Eagleton’s best attribute is his refusal to come down on either side of the unnecessary divide between ‘theory’ and analytic philosophy.

Literary Theory was notable for its deflationary tone; it never naively enthused about the ideas it explored. The Event of Literature possesses similar strengths. For example, Eagleton convincingly attacks the assumption (a commonplace among theorists since Jauss and Shklovsky) that literary language accomplishes a revolutionary ‘defamiliarisation’ of our routinised existence. As he argues, much theoretical rhetoric in this vein ‘takes it as read that common-or-garden norms and perceptions are impoverished, and that dominant conceptual systems … are bound to be restrictive.’ This is, he declares, ‘a banal sort of dogma,’ since ‘not every margin is healthy, nor every system diseased.’ Throughout the book, he refutes such conceptual simplifications, returning literature to the ‘rough ground’ of reality.

Yet if the exaggerated radicalism of theorists comes under scrutiny, so too do the trivialities of philosophers. For instance, Peter Lamarque is lambasted for his circular account of literary value. As Eagleton summarises, this approach reduces ‘valuable literary works’ to ‘those which prove responsive to the normative reading strategies of the established literary institution.’ On this model, then, ‘a literary work, like an affectionate pet, is one which responds positively to a certain way of being handled.’ This institutionalist tendency is not only tautologous; it inevitably tilts interpretation towards positive evaluation. For Lamarque, that a literary work ‘is rewarding’ is a precondition of its being counted as literature. His philosophy thus leaves no room for a truly critical engagement with literary texts. It places evaluation prior to interpretation, resulting in a conservative kind of belle-lettrism.

The Event of Literature covers an ambitious amount of ground, and as a result its arguments are frequently framed in generalities. As in his other recent books, Eagleton’s broad brush strokes are both a strength and a weakness. They’re a strength in that they enable him to uncover the commonalities (what he calls, with Wittgenstein, ‘family resemblances’) between a diverse set of thinkers and theorists. But, here as elsewhere, Eagleton has a weakness for straw men. One such would be Paul de Man, of whom he announces, ‘for this Nietzschean theorist the world itself is a linguistic construct’ – to which one might answer: no it isn’t, and nor was it for Nietzsche. At his most glib, Eagleton isn’t as funny as he thinks he is: ‘if the theorists are open-neck-shirted, the philosophers of literature rarely appear without a tie,’ runs one dreary routine. A more serious shortcoming is that his rhetoric of robust ‘common sense,’ which deploys everyday counter-examples against the confusions of theorists and philosophers alike, often only holds up at this anecdotal level. In such cases, when Eagleton ranges competing ideas against each other, it’s pretty clear that he’s the one pulling the puppet strings.

Indeed, Eagleton spends slightly too much time demolishing others’ arguments, or dubious representations thereof, and too little developing his own contribution to literary theory, which is largely confined to his last chapter. This is all the more unfortunate, since his approach is a rich and promising one. It revolves around a reassessment of literary works not as straightforward reflections of the real world, nor as autonomous artefacts, but as pragmatic strategies; as projects which seek to solve problems. Hence, literature tries to contain reality’s contradictions, while at the same time reproducing them, in such a way that each work is an ongoing (indeed, interminable) ‘event.’

As Eagleton argues, ‘the literary work conjures up the context to which it is a reaction,’ in the process ‘throwing up problems, which it seeks to resolve, creating more problems.’ The idea suggests a productive unpicking of ingrained distinctions between the form and content of literary works, between their performative and constative aspects, and even between their interior and exterior. Yet as it’s presented in The Event of Literature, it doesn’t feel like much more than a sketch. A longer, less diffuse account would be required to turn it into a fully-fledged literary theory. In this sense, Eagleton may have mapped a route towards theory’s renewal, yet it will remain for others to follow it.
David Winters is a literary critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, Radical Philosophy and others. He is a co-editor at 3:AM Magazine.