Eagleton's book is both a primer and a postmortem. It surveys the varieties of recent and present-day literary theory, only to suggest - in its closing chapter - that they had better be abandoned in the interests of a practical, transformative involvement in cultural politics. Like Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus, Eagleton asks his reader to think, and think hard, about the theories on offer; then, having achieved a perspective that transcends them, to kick away the ladder and enjoy the prospect thus afforded. Those familiar with Eagleton's earlier writings will hear the crash of ladders distinctly near home as the book comes to deal with structuralist and post-structuralist theory. Gone is the Althusserian quest for a 'science' of the text and its productive mechanisms, the project which Eagleton resourcefully argued in Criticism and Ideology (1976). As that scientistic dream receded, so the influence of Foucault replaced that of Althusser, and the truth-claims of knowledge were increasingly seen as effects of a dominant ideological discourse. No matter how radical their proclaimed intent, critical theories were all too readily processed and adapted to the ends of maintaining the institutional status quo. If 'truth', as Foucault argues, is a reflex function of the power to impose such a dominant discourse, then it is the concept of truth which itself needs dismantling, and along with it the old opposition between 'science' and 'ideology'.
LRB 7 July 1983 | PDF Download