BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2014): Terry Eagleton’s (1984) The Function of Criticism

13 August 2014


I want you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you, even though I don’t know you or don’t know you’re looking. Everyone else who reads it, that’s their own affair. They may think they get it, and they do or don’t. You were meant to read these words.

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Politeness is racist. And the fact that that might sounds totally wrong to you is why TLDR versions shouldn’t be relied upon.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Terry Eagleton’s (1984)[2] The Function of Criticism

I read this at the same time as J.M. Ellis’s (1984)[3] Against Deconstruction (reply here) and they in several fruitful ways informed one another. One of the most specific involved Eagleton’s own dismantling of deconstruction. But unlike Ellis’ text, this slim little volume has much wider ambition than to expose a whilom fashionable mode of literary criticism.[4]

For Eagleton’s book specifically, he sets out to track the rise of “public sphere”—to engage and rework Habermas’ own work on the matter—in an English context. And he does so in order to show how and in what way criticism arose originally in opposition to the State (as the middle class in particular sought to rise to power) and has since gone on to become a decorous irrelevancy for the most part, with the exception of Raymond Williams’ work—at least, Eagleton certainly extols Williams as uniquely dogged and visionary in keeping a steady keel over the course of shifting histories. Eagleton makes me want to read Williams.

The concept of the rise of the public sphere—written in 1984, before the mass Internet—has an especial relevance now. The public sphere of criticism, which originally made no bones about an “amateur” status that ranged over every topic conceivable, took the form of polite discourse in journals. In principal, anyone might participate in the discussion, and some of the crankier folks at the time could lament that tinkers, cobblers, and the like might hold forth an opinion as if everyone ought to pay attention to it (as opposed to only those duly appointed by time, history, or station as an exponent of any view). The overarching rule or criterion centred around politeness, if not gentility (since that quality got associated more often with aristocracy, it seems).

In this public project, which involved (implicitly) taste, judgment, and the like, we can see exactly the formation of a milieu or an environment where so-called common-sense and reason come to be equated; in other words, we see an emerging identity of reason per se and the reasonable. The unreasonable, therefore, becomes also the irrational.

Of course, while this articulation of the public sphere in principal could admit anyone (capable of behaving properly, i.e., politely), in practice it necessarily excludes vast swaths of people. Eagleton doesn’t make an enormous point about this, because it makes a commonplace: all venues implicated in social voicing necessarily (whether consciously or not) disallows certain participations and participants. All the same, this particular public sphere offers something of an anomaly because it takes as a central principle that anyone might participate, if only they go along with the rule of politeness.[5]

The particular “offense” of this does not arise from any supposedly “universal” human habit of excluding certain people from access to power—although we may object to this, and should—but in the fact that it imputes a failure of politeness to any who do not show up to participate. Since any may participate, for those who do not or those who fail to do so in a way deemed appropriate, the discourse presumes certain qualities or characteristics about them (i.e., primitive, uncivilized, irrational, &c). Rather than understanding the criterion for inclusion (in this case, “politeness”) as an imposed criterion and instead seeing “possession” of that capacity in those who can or cannot participate, this appears to shift “responsibility” to the primitive. Where previously closed circles of power unabashedly asserted your lack of a right to participate (or set up very strict means by which you could obtain access to power), here the responsibility for forming and maintaining “how one joins” gets left (in theory) to those who would seek to participate. And this, I suggest, because the middle class discourse had to emerge, more or less ex nihilo, and in the face of the existing discourses of authority. The Protestant Reformation played an enormous role in this sort of emergent authorizing.

Nonetheless, one can still point (as I believe Eagleton does to some extent) to a sort of incoherence at the centre of this sort of public sphere, and thus all of the downstream forms of criticism that emerged. In the specific history of it, a specialization finally emerges (generally after the twentieth century) and this coincides with the co-optation of the function of criticism itself by capitalism, so that the socially transformative force it represented originally (however demographically limited) safely disappears into the Academy.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve given up on that book. It doesn’t reward my reading.

[2] Eagleton, T. (1984). The function of criticism: from “the spectator” to post-structuralism: London: Verso, pp. 1–133.

[3] Ellis, J. M. (1989). Against deconstruction: Princeton University Press Princeton, pp. 1–168.

[4] For this and Ellis alike, I should probably write further reflections on these books, because I read both too long ago to now remember what specific points I wished to make or draw upon. Now, I have only left the “warm glow” of residual memory, which probably has more scope to it than any narrower or more local comments I might have made.

[5] The monstrousness of US-Zionist policy in Palestine, recently once again in the news in such an ugly way, does not arise from the supposedly universal human/historical fact that different peoples (in this case the supposed Israelites) have since forever at times invaded neighbors or people far away, stolen their land, and exterminated them. We can and should object to any normalization of this supposedly “universal” human behavior. But that does not undergird the current situation, because in this case we have a people using their own genocide as an excuse for committing genocide with the backing of a country that holds up freedom and self-determination as ultimate values.


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