Saturday, 31 October 2020

The Eagleton Era

In his television programme on ‘Terry Eagleton at Oxford’, made at some point after Eagleton’s accession to the Thomas Warton Chair of English Literature in 1992, John Sutherland remarks of his subject that ‘the last thirty years will, I think, be known as his era’.  This is a provocative and suggestive statement, even if not quite on the scale of Michel Foucault announcing that the twentieth century would one day be described as ‘Deleuzian’.  But does it stack up?  Can we plausibly think of an ‘Eagleton era’ in English literary criticism and theory?

Many problems of definition at once pose themselves.  What is an ‘era’ in any field, particularly when a personal name is attached to the concept?  How might its beginning, range and end be specified?  What counts as relevant empirical evidence for such a speculative hypothesis?  How, in particular, does one detect (or construct) the point where, in Hegelian terms, quantity gives way to quality, so that Terry Eagleton is not just an increasingly influential critic and theorist among others but suddenly becomes – for John Sutherland at least – the name of an era in that cultural domain?

What might the relevant markers be here?  The spectacular intellectual and commercial success of Eagleton’s 1983 volume Literary Theory would be one telling moment, as, indirectly, might the death of Raymond Williams in 1988.  So too would be the Thomas Warton Chair itself, for there was always an intense cultural frisson, in both Left and traditionalist circles, about the ‘Marxist at Oxford’ idea.  Eagleton’s own phenomenal publishing record is a sine qua non of the whole process, and his emergence as general editor of the Blackwells ‘Re-Reading Literature’ series from 1985 onwards is also an important landmark.  I first came across Terry on radio, as he expounded Pierre Macherey on a Radio 4 broadcast in 1978, so media and conference appearances are important here too.  As also is the building of a cadre of combative postgraduates, as in the ‘Oxford English Limited’ group of 1980-92, many of whom later went into academic teaching themselves.

Whether Sutherland’s notion of an ‘Eagleton era’ finally holds up, I’m not yet sure.  But it is a powerful heuristic notion, which can prompt us towards some new sociology of literary-critical influence and celebrity.  Someone should surely explore this hypothesis at book length.



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