Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction

Literary Theory: An IntroductionLiterary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strange the books one fails to read. The very fact that you are supposed to have read certain books makes you feel like you have already read them long before you read them, so you do not in fact ever read them. There is the oft-cited scene in the campus novel I can’t remember the name of where the English Renaissance scholar confesses he’s never read Hamlet. Luckily, I have read Hamlet—about 10 or 11 times, in fact—but I somehow escaped all of graduate school in literature without ever reading from cover to cover the once-inescapable, then-outdated, and now-classic 1983 primer on literary theory by Britain’s most renowned Marxist critic.

No time like the present. So how is old Literary Theory? Like everything I’ve ever read or perused by Eagleton—save Criticism and Ideology, that execrable and impenetrable excursus into Althusserian pseudo-scientism—it is addictive, hilarious, and infuriating. The Catholic leftist Eagleton is the Chesterton of Marxism, and not only because their names scan similarly, but because he, like the author of Orthodoxy, disseminates his apologetics in a paradox-besotted style of wittily uncommon common sense. Some sample (non-consecutive) sentences:

There is something a little disturbing about [Barthes’s] self-indulgent avant-garde hedonism in a world where others lack not only books but food.

[Structuralist criticism] is rather like killing a person in order to examine more conveniently the circulation of the blood.

But [traditional socialists] had overlooked the possibility that the erotic frissons of reading, or even work confined to those labelled criminally insane, were an adequate solution, and so had the guerrilla fighters of Guatemala.

Note the rhetorical tactics on display: the visual-verbal parallel of the posited antithesis books/food in the first quotation that is meant to puncture delectation in the former with guilty awareness of the necessity announced by the latter; the dry “rather like” that introduces the extreme simile reducing structuralism to absurdity; and the guttural alliteration of guerrilla/Guatemala that drives home such insurgents’ moral and material superiority to mere sibilant perverts and aesthetes.

Eagleton wields this rhetorical arsenal to blow holes in the facade of any Romanticism or aestheticism, to roll back the entire multifarious attempt, from Shelley to Leavis to Derrida, to render the imagination, literature, or language as self-sufficient realms apart from material real-world struggle. Eagleton allows that almost all these attempts were made in protest against a reductive or exploitative world of capitalist rationality, but because they do not seek to transform this world here and now, they can only be irrationalist evasions or technocratic travesties—flowers on the chain of oppression or opiates in the place of remedies, to borrow some Marxian tropes. The book should really be subtitled not An Introduction but An Attack.

Like all polemics, Eagleton’s gets a bit repetitive. He begins with an introduction that argues against the concept of “literature.” This is a concept, he claims, with no intrinsic meaning; literature is just what a complex set of social practices designates as literature, usually because the texts so designated serve the ruling interests of society. With that demystification established, Eagleton begins his survey of literary theory.

“Literature” as we know it began in the Romantic era, when writers set poetry and art apart: they became devoted not to entertainment or moral instruction, their prior tasks, but realms of imaginative plentitude unbesmirched by the dark satanic mills of the industrial age. This aestheticism was eventually institutionalized in England and America when English displaced classics in the university curriculum as the discipline meant to humanize the educated populace, where “humanization” implies quiescence before the status quo in the name of national or cultural unity. At best, literature is compensation for what capitalism robs from us; at worst, it is the alibi of the ruling classes.

The chaos and destruction of the 20th century in Europe, meanwhile, led its thinkers on their own quest for certitude amid devastation. Hence the Cartesian need to prove that oneself and the world exist and are explicable to which phenomenology and structuralism testify. Unfortunately, these both lead in Eagleton’s view to idealism, to a vision of the mind or the structures it apprehends rotating in some Platonic space above the heads of real people who exist in social conflict and comity.

Poststructuralism and psychoanalysis, with their insistence on the fissures in both psyche and speech, are improvements on structuralism and phenomenology because of their ability to disrupt the smooth functioning of an ideology that bids us submit to our pre-established social roles; but they are finally too fixated on recondite textual matters to really shake the powers that be.

Eagleton’s strategy, then, is to explicate each theory more or less in its own terms before showing it to be a kind of belated Romantic pastoral, an imaginary solution to real problems, to use the Althusserean formulation he several times deploys. This is similar to the “immanent critique” championed by the Frankfurt School, wherein the critic shows a theory or philosophy to be unable to realize its own goals on its own terms, usually because it makes no provision for its universal and material realization. In other words, Marxism, the sole science of utopia’s actualizing, is the one true theory because, if I may use Eagleton’s own method of inversion, it is the one theory that can come true.

Eagleton thus ends his book not with a chapter on Marxism, which would, he says, imply that Marxism is just one theory among others. Rather, he ends with a call to reform the teaching of literature so that it serves, pluralistically, the ends of an equal society:

Any method or theory which will contribute to the strategic goal of human emancipation, the production of ‘better people’ through the socialist transformation of society, is acceptable.

That settles that. “Better people” is in quotation marks, by the way, because Eagleton, after inveighing for 180 pages against an ill-defined or undefined straw-man he calls “liberal humanism” concedes that liberal humanism’s partisans are in fact correct when they say that we should read literature because it “makes us better people.” The problem is that we can only become better people in a better society, so the study of literature should be politically rather than morally improving, should improve the relations of production and not just the individual soul.

How to reform literary study toward that progressive end? By replacing it with cultural studies: down with literature, except where it may prove tactically emancipatory (for instance, Eagleton says that cultural studies should be taught to underprivileged children but also concedes that “it may also be valuable to use literature to foster in them a sense of linguistic potential denied to them by their social conditions”); and up with the whole world of human discourse, from textbooks to TV, from Machiavelli to Madonna, from sati to Star Trek (I alliterate in appreciation of the master), evaluated according to its political designs on the reader/viewer.

In another bout of Chestertonian inversion, Eagleton pronounces his theory not revolutionary but reactionary (“Like all the best radical positions, then, mine is a thoroughly traditionalist one”) because it is only a return to the critical discipline that reigned in the western world from antiquity to the Augustan age and which was unjustly supplanted by Romantic aestheticism and its sequelae: the study of rhetoric.

Eagleton has appended forewords and afterwords to subsequent editions of this book; largely they rue the collapse of the political task he prophesied for cultural studies even as cultural studies itself triumphed in academe. Feminism, multiculturalism and postcolonialism, he complains, became too liberal, too focused on identity politics and not enough on class struggle. He does not notably allow this development to convince him that his theory itself, his call to abandon the very idea of the aesthetic, was wrong, though. Yet it was and remains wrong, and the fact that at least one version of it triumphed while everything else in the English department and in society at large got worse and worse should make its wrongness obvious.

The unequal distribution of the aesthetic should not be used as a warrant for its general abolition, as if to say that since the poor can’t afford healthy food, no one else should be able to eat it. The left used to believe in lifting everyone up; since the failure of its ’60s dreams, though, which Eagleton rightly identifies as the context for poststructuralist omni-skepticism, it has been so consumed with resentment and with apocalyptic visions that it has only wanted to drag everyone down to the same debased level and call that equality.

Nowhere is this leveling-down left more evident than in the progressive intelligentsia’s hatred of the very concept of art, sometimes expressed as a blasé shrug (“Who am I to judge?”) and sometimes as a militant threat (“Down with bourgeois aesthetics!”). My complaint is not that elements of popular or fringe culture are being studied in place of the classics, because some of that work is excellent and because many of the classics were themselves originally popular and fringe culture; still less is my complaint about the demotion of dead white men. Regular readers will recall that I have myself championed both Grant Morrison and Toni Morrison at great length.

But even if the most complex aesthetic objects, whatever their origins, will not make you more moral, their contemplation will make you more intelligent, your mind more subtle and multifarious. Therefore, the most complex objects are the appropriate objects of a liberal education, and not only for what they can tell us about ideology but for how they can teach us to hold any ideology in the utmost possible of humility and peace. Politics is no panacea: every modern ideology that has actually been implemented has slaughtered its way across the last two centuries, and Eagleton’s bromides about “human emancipation” have served as an alibi for communist atrocities just as liberal humanist rhetoric was the fig leaf on imperialist oppression and certain high-theory concepts have fascist origins.

I believe in separating art from politics because if there is nothing outside of politics there will be no place from which to launch a protest when politics grows murderous. The belief that politics supervenes upon aesthetics and ethics leads only to bad art and bad behavior, both beatified as somehow progressive.

Eagleton can snidely smirk all he likes about “liberal humanism” and Matthew Arnold and all the rest of the ritually desecrated names of the theory era, but the fact is that the Romantics were right: in a brutal reductionist world, we need art to show us expansive thinking and beautiful living. It is the latter two values, not lessons in political activism or commercials for the pabulum of the corporate monopolies, that we should advocate in the schools. Ironically, a Marxism that denies the claims of the aesthetic serves no one’s interests but those of the money-men.


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Why Speech Is Not Violence

Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has written an article for the New York Times entitled “When Speech Is Violence.” It begins:

Imagine that a bully threatens to punch you in the face. A week later, he walks up to you and breaks your nose with his fist. Which is more harmful: the punch or the threat?

Barrett’s goal is to use findings in biology and medicine about the effects, supposedly tantamount to violence, of certain kind of language on the body to “provide empirical guidance for which kinds of controversial speech should and shouldn’t be acceptable on campus and in civil society.” Her conclusion is that “abusive” language should be unacceptable, while merely “offensive” language should be accepted and refuted rather than being somehow proscribed. Bracketing for the moment that there are no clear ways of differentiating between the two (and that the social justice movement in fact refuses such a distinction outright, which I will discuss below), her argument rests on the idea that abusive speech causes bodily harm by setting in motion stress reactions in the body:

Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.

Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence.

The chain of reasoning here is as follows: stress shortens life; certain forms of speech cause stress and so shorten life; therefore certain forms of speech should be impermissible in the university and civil society; abusive speech, such as identity-based hate speech, is such impermissible language.

You may notice two problems with this.

First, Barrett has smuggled into her thesis the unstated and unargued assumption that one mission of the university is the protection of students from medically-defined stressors. This theory has far-reaching implications I will discuss below, but suffice to say for now that any project of social formation, which university education is, will involve numerous stressors that are not extricable from the process of strengthening individuals by testing them.

Second, in an atmosphere where there is no common understanding of what constitutes hate speech, abusive speech, or offensive speech, Barrett has left the definition of a crucial term far too open—in practice, it will be seized upon by political actors of all sorts to claim that the speech they object to is an abusive life-shortening stressor and so in need of curtailment. This is not a negligible point. It is no longer 2014: Obama’s DOE is not the one making monitory recommendations to college and university administrators, and the cultural right in all its varieties has grown expert in repurposing leftish rhetoric against its devisers. Barrett shows an awareness of this problem when she tries to differentiate between “a campaign of abuse” (typified by Milo Yiannopoulos, whose speech should be proscribed as “a danger to a civil society (and to our health)”) and mistaken, offensive arguments couched in academic rhetoric (typified by Charles Murray, whose speech should be entertained and then refuted, and which entertainment and refutation is “the lifeblood of democracy”), but even here there are problems.

For one thing, Barrett must be very inexperienced in the realm of social justice activism if she thinks that its partisans will be willing to make this distinction. For them, an academic article or an online art installation are as capable of “literal violence” as explicitly abusive or insulting rhetoric, as the cases of Rebecca Tuvel and Vanessa Place, to name only two, should prove. And why not?—aren’t overt epithets lobbed by a flamboyant insult-artist actually much easier to brush off than the deeper and longer-lasting stress of a respectable and respected argument against one’s deepest convictions? If some speech is more stressful than a punch in the face, then perhaps the verbal equivalent of a punch in the face is less stressful than the slow erosion over time of one’s self-definition. So, using her own assumptions, I have reversed her argument with implications for her own academic identity and methodology, which she took great care to protect from social justice activism in the guise of supporting its cause. That is what the dreaded “SJW” will do with the ammunition she provides.

(Never mind that the application of Barrett’s anti-stress ideal to the arts is nightmarish to contemplate. What will the theater departments of the world do once we have defended our quaking telomeres against King Lear or—forget dead white men—feminist drama like Blasted, black drama like Joe Turner’s Come and Gone?)

At this late hour—after a spate of disciplinary actions or investigations against academics for their liberal or left “abusive speech,” some of which really is abusive by Barrett’s broad definition (e.g., Steven Salaita, George Ciccariello-Maher, Johnny Eric Williams, Tommy Curry, Dana Cloud, Lisa Durden)—Barrett should also be aware by now what the political right will do with her ideas. The right may claim that for Christian students to read the incendiary rhetoric of Nietzsche or perhaps even the calmly-stated claims of Darwin is an intolerable, insulting stressor that they should be protected from; the right may claim likewise that Jewish students should not subjected to the stressful speech of anti-Zionists, an abusive insult to their suffering European ancestors and their threatened Middle Eastern co-religionists; the right may repurpose feminist rhetoric, as they have been doing for a very long time, to object that certain “obscene” artworks are too stressful for students to endure; the right may even claim that the language of Frantz Fanon or Karl Marx are, in their threat or implication or incitement of physical violence toward European people or middle class people, abusive stressors that ought not to be tolerated while universities are publicly funded. (Don’t miss the last five words—they are important!)

Please remember that nothing in the above paragraph is ruled out by Barrett’s premises, which only include the arguments that some forms of speech cause stress and are therefore equivalent to violence, and that in conclusion such speech ought to be proscribed.

In contrast to Barrett, I contend that universities cannot be in the business of protecting people from stressors of all sorts. The traditional mission of the university—to produce a well-informed, well-rounded, and cultivated citizenry, especially one capable and competitive in labor—cannot survive such a definition. Especially in so far as a university education no longer guarantees accession to middle-class professions, it may be more urgent for students to become resilient toward the entire universe of non-respectable or -respectful speech they will encounter in the working and living world, much of which remains unpoliced by bureaucracies schooled in progressive thought as modified by psychiatry.

Finally, a word on the meanings of “violence.” Social and even natural scientists often use terms borrowed from the humanities without, understandably, always elaborating on their provenance or implications. The idea of “discursive violence” or “epistemic violence,” which quietly underlies Barrett’s use of “speech is violence,” is one such term. It has its origins in a Marxist-inflected post-structuralism: figures such as Derrida, Foucault, and Spivak claimed that violence was done in the discursive realm when the dominant discourses or languages of any given moment excluded certain other discourses or languages from being heard or, more importantly, from being intelligible if heard. (See here for a useful gloss on Spivak’s use of the term.) This epistemic violence was often enough accompanied by physical violence, from that of colonial occupation to that of incarceration in mental institutions, and that is what gives it force. It does not obviously follow that middle-class students at pricey institutions guarded by police forces and destined for positions of relative social power meet the description of the victims Foucault or Spivak had in mind—and I have to imagine that Spivak, at least, would be quite hostile to the appropriation of this sort of rhetoric by her students at Columbia; part of the point of her famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was to inquire whether she, as a privileged and educated bourgeois cosmopolite, could understand or interpret the subaltern (those Indian women who had died by sati), not that she was one. In fact, I could go even further and say that the dominance of psychology or sociology as disciplines discrediting other ways of understanding psyche and society on models other than rationalization is closer to what post-structuralists meant by “epistemic violence” than something like hate speech as such—a theory that will probably stress out psychology professors!

I would not, however, suggest that we stop analogizing speech and violence totally. So many of our metaphors for non-bodily experience are drawn from bodily experience that it would be hard to do so. Even if I described Barrett’s article as an “irritating” one, that would be a bodily metaphor—as if sandpaper were abrading my skin. Some sentences really will land like blows to the face, even if they are less likely to be ones encountered in university classrooms and more like the following: “You’re fired,” “You have cancer,” “I no longer love you, I’m leaving,” “We did everything we could to save her.” But we should always remember that the metaphor is a metaphor, that the whole concept of education is premised upon the notion that we are not utterly exhausted by biological explanation (what, really, do I learn about myself as a subject and not as a body from contemplating telomeres?), and that we will become prey not only to well-meaning if ill-advised do-gooders but also to positively malign opportunists if we prioritize intellectual comfort over learning. And let us not forget moreover that we will become subjects of universal mockery should we, perched at the top of a world system of power and inequality maintained by very real material agencies, confuse emotional discomfort with physical devastation.


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How to Cite This Site

Élèves, students, scholars…I am getting traffic to this website from a plagiarism detector! For one thing, you must not plagiarize. Here is how to cite a sample essay from this site in MLA format, if you must:

Pistelli, John. “Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine.” John Pistelli, 14 May 2017,  https://johnpistelli.com/2017/05/14/louise-erdrich-love-medicine/. Accessed 28 May 2017.

For another thing, I am an untenured para-academic writing non-peer-reviewed criticism on what is, frankly, a blog. While I believe the grandees of academe may well quote me after I have died in anonymity and poverty the way they do with the others they would not accept among their storied ranks while alive, for now I am a nobody, and you will want to find a somebody to quote in your essays. If you are looking for good critical sources for your research papers, you should go to your university’s library website, find on their list of databases the MLA International Bibliography, log in with your university ID and password, enter your search terms (for example, “Louise Erdrich” + “modernism”) in the search bar, and make sure you check the box marked “peer reviewed.”

To my own students: you may continue citing this website in your essays as a satirical comment on my intellectual vanity as long as it is properly sourced and you have met the other bibliographic requirements.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

UnflatteningUnflattening by Nick Sousanis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.
—Umberto Eco (qtd. here)

This book became famous before it was published, as it is the first doctoral dissertation done in comics form. Unflattening is based on a great idea, one implicit in several of the most important comics and graphic novels of the last few decades (Moore’s Watchmen and From Hell, Morrison’s The Invisibles and The Filth, Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Bechdel’s Fun Home, McGuire’s Here) and explicit in McCloud’s Understanding Comics: namely, that comics is or ought to be the major art form of our era because its spatialization of time and its mutual imbrication of word and image promise to heal the rift opened by western modernity between abstract thought and concrete experience. By making a unity of text and image, of space and time, comics undoes the modern antimony that separates the known from the felt.

But the strength of this idea as presented in Understanding Comics comes from McCloud’s grounding in the history of the arts in general and comics in particular (McCloud, by the way, provided a blurb for Unflattening). Ironically, Understanding Comics reads like a far more legitimate dissertation, in its painstaking historical awareness and its subtle extension of its comics-specific thesis to culture at large. Sousanis is, by contrast, all over the place, making enormous and extremely tendentious claims about how modern society has stunted human potential (we are all “standardized,” “shades, insubstantial and without agency”), claims that go on, illustrated with ridiculous melodrama by pictures of people being produced on assembly lines and the like, for about 20 pages with scarcely any corroboration beyond some lines from Marcuse and with no qualification, despite obvious objections (for one, does not social media and pop culture constantly invite us to express our individuality? Sousanis writes as if were 1952). As I read, I began to understand why dissertations-in-comics-form might be discouraged!

Following this simplistic beginning, Sousanis’s treatise does become more persuasive as he discusses the negotiated quality of human perception: we all have two eyes that together produce an image, and moreover, we see only small aspects of anything at one time, aspects that our brain provisionally and contingently builds into wholes. Consequently, our culture should adjust to this nimbleness and complexity of perception rather than forcing standardization of all sorts on us. When the argument is stated at this level of generality, I suppose I agree, though I also note that rigid and hierarchical societies produced some splendid monuments, just as the standardized scientific worldview Sousanis decries has enabled him (and me and you) to live in comfort and safety beyond the dreams of ancient monarchs. Despite Sousanis’s universalism and multiculturalism in this book, he essentially endorses the conventional ideology of the postmodern west, even introducing as his foils the usual villains of postmodern thought, the idealists Plato and Descartes.

Sousanis builds his thesis with examples, illustrations, and corroboration from a large number of domains, from astronomy to philosophy to anthropology to design to cognitive science. He never dwells on any idea long enough to evaluate its complexity or even its compatibility with any other idea he cites. Frankly, he would need a lot more words and a lot fewer images to do so, which, again, is why comics may be good for some things—narrative or lyric, say—and not for others—such as academic argumentation. To stay with only what I know, it is a falsification to quote or cite philosophers who are at odds with each other over first principles as if they were all, at bottom, saying the same thing, as Sousanis does with Adorno and Deleuze; it is an oversimplification that testifies against Sousanis’s own thesis, because he is asking image-and-text to do fundamentally, inescapably textual work. And this is without mentioning the book’s crypto-Buddhism, never explained or defended; Buddha appears as an image of the reconciliation of opposites that will put the Humpty-Dumpty modern subject back together again, and yet this is never integrated into the argument, nor is its divergence from other elements of the argument ever addressed.

Moreover, while Sousanis’s drawing is functional and often—as when he does pastiche—amusing, it is largely inexpressive and, design-wise, complicated for complication’s sake (as if to say, “Look what comics can do!”) without adding much conceptually. Often, in another instance of inadvertent counter-testimony to his own argument, his rather (forgive me) flat artwork has the effect of illustration in a scientific textbook, a pictorial genre which has existed for a long time and which required no emancipatory perceptual revolution to come into being.

Finally, too much of Unflattening is simply platitudinous, as here:


Sousanis’s composition, his skill with leading the reader’s eye around the page, is impeccable and one of the book’s strengths, but the book’s overall faults are encapsulated on this page. Sousanis provides the fairly standard rhetoric of progressive education (the wisdom of which I tend to question, speaking as a person educated rather rigidly by nuns, whose severe inculcation of fact and value has actually served me well because it gave me a solid base from which to launch my later flights of fancy). He does not even express this progressivism verbally with the grand poetry of its ultimate sources in the literature of American critical optimism, such as Emerson and Whitman, and he illustrates it with exemplary pop culture figures that bring few ideas along with them, and merely serve as a cutesy flourish.

To end with a positive observation: as I noted, Sousanis’s degree was conferred by Columbia Teacher’s College, and I could easily imagine Unflattening as a pedagogical text for high school students or first-year college students in composition, literature, philosophy, or the arts. Precisely the qualities that make it inadequate as a philosophical or historical argument would probably allow it to serve well as an introduction a broad range of ideas to students, and it probably speaks to their own frustrations in dealing with academic institutions, which, for reasons not totally bad or avoidable, answer to the charges Sousanis too hastily flings at western society as a whole.

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