2 Readings from 1983 (Eagleton / Williams)–‘hair-raisingly radical and rather absurd’

Revisiting development of and reflections upon cultural studies, I’ve turned most recently to  “Crisis in English Studies” (published in 1983’s Writing and Society by Raymond Williams; originally from a 1981 lecture) and chapter one of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory titled “The Rise of English” (also from 1983). Clearly these notions of crisis articulated some thirty years ago are still appropriate ways of making sense of today’s literary and (inter)disciplinary landscape–so that we might talk in similar terms today of Crisis in Hispanic Studies, Crisis in French Studies and so on…

The major benefit of Eagleton’s chapter is–and the same can be said of Williams’s Marxism and Literature–is that is places the study of literature in a historical context, the development of literary study along with Romantic understandings of creative activity and as subject to alienations of leisure and culture which were themselves rooted in developments of industrial capitalism. In this context it is possible for Eagleton to state unequivocally that “Literature would rehearse the masses in the habits of pluralistic thought and feeling, persuading them to acknowledge that more than one viewpoint than theirs existed–namely, that of their masters. It would communicate to them the moral riches of bourgeois civilization, impress upon them a reverence for middle-class achievements, and, since reading is an essentially solitary, contemplative activity, curb in them any disruptive tendency to collective political action” (1983: 25). As have many others, Eagleton points to the limitations of Matthew Arnold’s legacy (from Culture and Anarchy 1869) and how it was modified (not enough?) by F.R. Leavis and I.A.Richards in Cambridge English: and Eagleton takes pains to paint a nuanced picture of this development and how it became the basis for the myopia of the American New Criticism (which carried the excesses of Cambridge English to their logical conclusion).

For this reader, however, the picture that emerges of Leavis is much more intriguing and dissonant than that of Richards or the New Criticism, which is to say that the tradition of close-reading he is synonymous with was not as closed of a practice in his eyes as it would later become in the hands of others, bent as he was as using literature as an opening onto the whole of society–this certainly meant something distinct to both Leavis and Eagleton, but is something which today’s literary specialists may still need to be reminded of if we consider the ongoing tensions surrounding cultural studies work and interdisciplinarity in general. Of Leavis’s Scrutiny (1932) project in particular, Eagleton writes: “The whole Scrutiny project was at once hair-raisingly radical and really rather absurd” (34). I wonder–accepting the plausible limitiations of Leavis’s project–whether there nonetheless remains a lesson to be learned therein…

Williams’s “Crisis in English Studies” pushes for a complex understanding of methodological issues that still seems important to emphasize today: “Within both Marxism and structuralism there are diverse tendencies, and there is further diversity in other tendencies in part influenced by them. This has to be emphasized not only to prevent reductive labelling but for a more positive reason, that some of these tendencies are compatible with the existing dominant paradigm of literary studies while others are incompatible and have for some years been challenging the dominant paradigm—and thus its profession” (192). But it also asks what is–in my view–an equally important question regarding the composition of departments: “can radically different work still be carried on under a single heading or department when there is not just diversity of approach but more serious and fundamental differences about the object of knowledge (despite overlapping of the actual material of study)?”

I’m sure that scholars who have seen the academic battles of the 70s and 80s first hand have much more to offer on the current state of things, but it seems to me that this question posed by Williams in 1983 in regard to English Studies is just as applicable to today’s Hispanic Studies, French Studies, German Studies, Asian Studies… how do we account for diversity of approach/disciplinary heterogeneity in a general sense let alone serious conflicts regarding the purpose of education or cultural criticism? There is still much work to be done.

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One thought on “2 Readings from 1983 (Eagleton / Williams)–‘hair-raisingly radical and rather absurd’

  1. It’s a very interesting area this: how far humanities subjects should, or need to, set specific texts, artworks, films etc in a wider historical and cultural context, as against close reading of technique, authorial intentions, reader responses to the immediate object of study itself.

    Once at school (English equivalent of high-school, not university) I was lucky enough to attend a two-day multi-disciplinary course called ‘See you down the Troxy’. This explored the 1950s and their relation to present day England (then the late 1980s), specifically Bristol. TV programmes, advertising, literary texts, newspaper articles and local people who had been our age thirty years earlier, were all used to give students a wide ranging view of the period. For me it was an incredible eye-opener and far more stimulating than a close focus on a single novel or poem.

    However soon afterwards as exam time hove into view, we reverted to textual analysis, memorising quotes and looking into structure. I don’t remember a thing about specific exam questions that these led to, or much about the particular works we were studying, but that two day course and the excitement of attending it, remains with me over twenty years later.

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