Sunday, 16 October 2011

Pierre Macherey and Utopia

The very first time I heard Terry Eagleton speak was way back in Spring 1978 – not in person, but on the radio. My undergraduate flatmate Julian Pattison and I sat in a room in our house in Royal York Crescent in Bristol listening to Terry give an account of the work of French theorist Pierre Macherey on Radio 4. I have no doubt that Terry’s summary of Macherey was as beautifully lucid as he always is, but since Julian and I were part of a still militantly Leavisite English department, we didn’t have much grounding in literary theory with which to make sense of it. Indeed, for the Bristol University English department in 1978 literary theory just didn’t exist.

It now strikes me, decades later, that Macherey’s account of the relations of ideology and literary form, which may or may not be applicable to literature in general, is certainly apt enough – indeed inescapable – in relation to the genre of utopia. For any utopia (much more so than most works in most other literary genres) can be formulated in general ideological terms as a particular set of social values, preferences and customs: urban living, technological innovation and centralised organisation for Edward Bellamy, say; rural living, low-tech craft-work and general decentralisation for Morris.

But once you put such ideological values into literary form, into motion, into a narrative which you hope will embody them and make them more persuasive, then, as Pierre Macherey insisted, something very odd happens. Literary form has, as it were, a mind of its own, it internally distantiates the ideology it is supposed to be obediently embodying; narrative puts the skids under your ideological values in the very act of incarnating them, as Milton famously found in Paradise Lost. In my view, things are going wrong as well as right in Morris’s News from Nowhere, as narrative form puts even that work’s admirable socialist values into crisis.

So as Eagleton’s voice expounding Macherey comes nostalgically and hauntingly back to me across the decades, I’m grateful to him for that early introduction to such a key literary theorist.

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