"Political Criticism": A Disappointment

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From Terry Eagleton’s chapter “Conclusion: Political Criticism” in his Literary Theory: An Introduction, page 175


“Literary theorists, critics and teachers, then, are not so much purveyors of doctrine as custodians of a discourse.  Their task is to preserve this discourse, extend and elaborate it as necessary, defend it from other forms of discourse, initiate newcomers into it and determine whether or not they have successfully mastered it.”


I had many mixed feelings about his text.  When he began with his statistics of all the problems in the world and talked about the question as to why literary criticism is important while all of this is going on, I cannot deny that I hoped he would say that we could apply literary criticism to help alleviate or even solve these problems.  I have been thinking how I myself will apply the information I have learned in this class when I am teaching preschoolers or kindergarteners, and this was sort of the idealistic vision I came up with: something kind of like what Ender’s bother and sister do through their online political criticism in Ender’s Game, except I would apply it to education or any other area that I felt I had some intelligent criticism or explanation to help understanding.  Even when I read the above quote, I was, perhaps naively, optimistic that he was creating a defense that would say that learning about literary criticism will help us to make a worthwhile difference in our world.  


However, the end of the quotation above shows that Eagleton is really concerned with ensuring that the study of literature, literary theory, and literary criticism does not die out due to any number of reasons, but, quite possibly, due to more practical issues that need to be addressed.  Yes, Eagleton includes new political areas where literary criticism has proved to be important or is proving to be important, including “the women’s movement,” “minority” equality, and the “working-class writing” movement (187-188), and we have also briefly discussed the rising importance of eco-criticism in class, but Eagleton seems more concerned with the continuation of any critical literary theory, rather than one that is needed.  Eagleton may hope to prevent literature from being lost, but in doing so I think he is unnecessarily confining his readers to reworking the classics rather than contributing to innovative critical thought.


See what others have to say about Eagleton's conclusion.


Jenna said:

Eagleton is concerned about literary theory being a lost art. You can get a sense for that when he talks about students saying whatever they believe as long as it is in a specific literary discourse. He shows that literary theory's association with other disciplines has really kept it around because the original ideas in liberal humanism has drifted away.

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