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Chapter 5 Literature and Ideology
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Eagleton: Aesthetics as Class Struggle in Culture

By producing a realist and materialist concept of literary practice, Structural Marxists are able to draw a firm distinction between criticism (the production of knowledge) and aesthetics (the judgment or axiology of value). That "taste" should have insinuated itself at the very heart of non-Marxist theories of literature is not really surprising—we shall return to this phenomenon later—but this tendency is also at work, astonishingly, in many Marxist attempts to reconcile history and aesthetic value. Even when the text is taken to be an expression of the history that produced it—it matters not whether this expression is conceived as a mirror image, mediated by the "class position" occupied by the author, or as a homology between the form and/or content of the text and the social formation—often an implicit normative judgment also takes place, one that equates "great" art with its "authenticity" or historical "truth." This normative judgment has brought with it a false problem, the reconciliation of "great" art and history, a problem that has dominated much of twentieth-century Marxist aesthetics. The pervasiveness of the problem is nowhere more evident than in the well-


known debates among Lukács, Bloch, Brecht, Adorno, and Benjamin (collected in R. Taylor 1977), which can be seen, retrospectively, as being less about the relationship of art and social reality than about the definition/production of "authentic" art and the possibility/impossibility of disseminating it to the masses.

Debates over the value of expressionism and such questions as "modernism or realism" or "Kafka or Thomas Mann" yield less explanation than they might by virtue of being cast in terms of historical authenticity and political correctness. Other "problems," such as reconciling Balzac the reactionary ideologue with Balzac the great novelist, lose much of their urgency with the realization that "greatness" is an ideologically determined class-based category. Solutions proposed to these "problems"—for example, Lukács's argument that Balzac is a great novelist because his oppositional ideology makes him a "realist" in spite of himself; Goldmann's attempt to defend the "greatness" of the young Malraux simply because he is a Marxist—may be said to conflate art, politics, and science, and to do so in an unsatisfactory and unproductive manner. The commonly held assumption that art should be "authentic" unites the participants in these debates in affirming the "greatness" of this or that work of literature, however violently they disagree about what exactly this "authenticity-greatness" may consist of. For all of them, the idea that art is somehow "true" leads to the valorization of certain works as "great." Reflection theory, no matter how subtle, leads directly to its own form of axiology. All novels are true—to their ideological origins—and for Marxist critics to defend novels on the basis of their conformity to the truth of history is simply to say that they afford Marxists a certain ideological satisfaction. The problem, of course, is that such satisfaction is impossible to distinguish from the personal pleasure obtained by cultivated aesthetes from the "sublime" and the "beautiful" or from the self-righteous bliss that conservatives derive from the "canon" of white, male, self-absorbed, and elitist European literature. The recognition of this fact moves Macherey to insist that it is "a contemporary necessity to show that a concept of art which sees it is an image of reality is by no means specific to Marxism; it is, indeed totally foreign to Marxism, and can only be appropriated by Marxists as the result of a misapprehension" (Macherey 1976, 54-55).

Eagleton, whose Criticism and Ideology mounts the most sustained argument against axiology from within the Althusserian camp, observes that whenever the greatness of literature becomes an issue,


Marxism finds itself trapped within bourgeois categories that are foreign to it. The problem of greatness cannot be resolved scientifically because it is always already ideological. Literary value, Eagleton insists, has nothing to do with "great works" as humanist criticism has attempted to define them since "great texts," those which are considered "great" at any time or for any length of time, are so considered simply because their "ideology of the text" exerts powerful ideological significations for the social formation that deems them great. The key to understanding value or greatness (which is always a question of class-based reception/consumption) lies outside the realm of criticism and in the realm of a history of literary effects. If the text is limited by the ideological instance in its production, this is even more the case with its reception: "The literary text is a text because it is read," Eagleton tells us, and "reading is an ideological decipherment of an ideological product" (Eagleton 1976, 62). There is no immanent value—no value that is not transitive. "Literary value is a phenomenon which is produced in that ideological appropriation of the text, that 'consumptional production' of the work which is the art of reading . . . for the literary text is always the text-for-ideology [whose] ideological effect, i.e., 'ideology of the text' is selected, deemed readable and deciphered by certain ideologically governed conventions of critical receptivity to which the text itself contributes [but which it does not determine]" (Eagleton 1976, 166-67).

Eagleton does not deny the objective existence of the literary effect, nor is he denying that literary representation-meaning is grounded, via ideology, in objective reality, nor, finally, is he denying that authors communicate determinate meanings to historically specific readers. The point he is trying to make is simply this: even though there are finite limits to the number of possible readings a text may offer, as well as a finite number of readings a social formation will allow, knowledge of either or both gives us no objective criterion of value. "The finite number of possible readings defined by the conjuncture of the text's proffered modes of producibility and the possible reception of the reader's ideological matrix constitute a closed hermeneutical circle with regard to the problem of value. By moving outside the mutual ideological complicity of text and reading we can have the basis for scientific analysis—on the level of the text's own historical self-production in relation to its ideological environs" (Eagleton 1976, 166-67). For these reasons Eagleton contends that we must reconsider the question of value, not from the site of its expression of reality or the site of its beauty, but from the


site of its production. Literary production, not literary diffusion, is the site of an adequate theory of criticism, and such a theory depends on a theory of ideology. "The guarantee of a scientific criticism is the science of ideological formations. It is only on the basis of such a science that such a criticism could possibly be established—only by the assurance of a knowledge of ideology that we can claim any knowledge of literary texts" (Eagleton 1976, 96). This is not to say that literary criticism is merely an application of the theory of ideology; it is rather "a particular element of the theory of superstructures" whose task is "not the study of the laws of ideological formation, but the laws of the production of ideological discourse as literature" (Eagleton 1976, 96).

For Eagleton, what can be scientifically said of the text pertains to its ideological origins and its specific effectivity as an ideological production; traditional aesthetics, with its debates over authenticity, value, truth, and so on, is simply the site of a class struggle in art. It is necessary, Eagleton maintains, to take a materialist position in aesthetics, to refuse all "moralism" of literary value, and instead "unite the question of the work's quality with the question of its conditions of possibility" (Eagleton 1976, 187). Certainly some works are debased even from this perspective, Eagleton acknowledges, at least in the sense that they simply appropriate existing ideologies, transforming them little if at all in the course of their textual production. By contrast, other texts produce complex, compact, variegated ideological significations that may renew, construct, modify, occlude, or extend ideology by virtue of the second-order signifying power of their textual operations. In this limited sense, Eagleton continues to subscribe to the aesthetic dictum "all texts signify, but not all texts are significant" (Eagleton 1976, 185). This formulation, however, smacks of axiology itself. As Francis Mulhern has pointed out, Eagleton's own analysis of specific works amounts to a "de facto ratification" of the already constituted "tradition" of English literature as defined by established literary criticism (Mulhern 1978, 86). Eagleton rejects this view, but with an interesting qualification.

It is certainly possible to produce a Marxist analysis of George Eliot, it is even necessary. But any "Marxist criticism" that defines itself in terms of such analysis has once again failed to effect a decisive break with the bourgeois ideology. Such a criticism, far from staking out a new theoretical space that may make a practical difference, merely addresses new answers to the same question. The production of Marxist analysis of traditional artifacts is an indispensable project: such artifacts, after all, are the grounds on which


the ruling class has elected to impose its hegemony, and thus one of the grounds on which it must be contested. But such contestation cannot be the primary object of a Marxist criticism. If that primary object is difficult to define, it is largely because it does not as yet properly exist. (Eagleton 1981, 97)

Two points need to be addressed here. First, with regard to the specific charge of elitism, Mulhern is correct to defend a Marxist position in aesthetics that refuses the class-based concept of a "great tradition." However, as Eagleton notes in his reply, Marxist criticism , by specifying mechanisms of complexity at work within the "great tradition," is not thereby obliged to subscribe to the notion that complexity constitutes aesthetic value. In fact, the reverse seems more accurate: Marxist criticism provides the theoretical ammunition by which Marxist aesthetics may attack the "great tradition" for what it is, in addition to being simply literature, namely, an ideological category produced by class-based educational and cultural apparatuses. In contrast to traditional aesthetics, Marxist criticism permits, even encourages, the recovery of "secondary" or "alternative" texts from the dustbin of history and accords them the serious study usually reserved for "classics." Because Marxist criticism is applicable to every literary text, its very existence subverts the canonical status of the "great tradition" as being the only texts worth examining. However, Marxist aesthetics is in rather the same position as Marxist philosophy: it has no choice but to engage in axiological debates over the "value" of specific works of art because, like philosophical debates over the "truth" of idealism and materialism, they are part of a class struggle that must be engaged or conceded. In aesthetics, as in all philosophy, there is always a political stake invested in every theoretical position. Second, with regard to Eagleton's ambiguous reference to the "primary object" of an "as yet improperly existing" Marxist criticism, it needs to be explicitly pointed out that, whatever Eagleton happens to think about it now, this object does already exist; it is precisely a scientific explanation of the text. As Eagleton suggests in his reply, even when analyzing "great works" scientific criticism intends neither to idealize the text nor to cultivate the reader; rather, its purpose is to know the text and to inform the reader. Why Eagleton chooses to refer to Marxist criticism as not yet "properly existing" is unclear. Whatever his reasons, the idea that Marxist criticism is somehow improperly constituted is, to say the least, contestable, and on this particular issue Eagleton finds his own work effectively mobilized against him.


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Chapter 5 Literature and Ideology
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