Explanations of socio-cultural change are very varied in character and type, but that offered in Terry Eagleton’s study The Function of Criticism: From The Spectator to Poststructuralism (Verso: 1984), p. 80, is a good example of one still widely found type. Eagleton's narrative is based on the development of capitalism, and explains the isolation of intellectuals in a society by suggesting that the conditions which created such intellectuals forced the bourgeois into conflict with the repressive political authority of the aristocracy, then destroued the public sphere “leaving in its wake a deracinated cultural intelligentsia whose plea for ‘disinterestedness’ is a dismissal of the public rather than an act of solidarity with them.”
This makes some kind of sense, but only if you accept that the story in the first place, rather as creationism explains the existence of organic diversity. The question is whether we cannot find a better story to account for social change and thus explain the position of critics, i.e. as one epiphenomenon amongst many.
The real problem is that Eagleton can provide no engine of social change, no causative agent. It is not enough to say “economic forces”, since this would be merely equivalent to invoking an unspecified God; we want to know why economic forces are causal and dynamic.
The answer might come from population growth. As populations get larger the possibility of invoking a common interest, except at gross levels in time of war, and then only with difficulty, declines. This factionalization will make criticism that transcends these factional interests very difficult, but it should not be forgotten that insofar as factions share interests, or in so far as individuals within opposing factions share interests, criticism useful to both may be possible. This approach is preferable to Eagleton’s since it not only has a more plausible causal base, one located in individual psychology rather than nebulous social forces, but it is better able to explain the current situation, where we see that although society is deeply factionalized there is still a considerable degree of interfactional communication and exchange of criticism, which by all accounts is valuable. On Eagleton’s view this ought to be impossible or simply the twitching of dead corpse, which I think is the line he takes when he looks at Scrutiny and laughs at its belief that the “technical” and the “humanist” were in harmony, and that “the more rigorously criticism interrogated the literary object, the more richly it yielded up that sensuous concreteness and vital enactment of value which were of general human relevance.”
On my view the community detected by Scrutiny is a real one, though hardly enough to overbalance the multiple conflicts in other fields. Co-operation between individuals in rival factions is possible, and perhaps even frequent. And even where interests are not shared, activities most certainly are, and hence some exchange of comment and information can take place. It would be possible, for example, for inhabitants of two different countries whose only contact was through books (written let us say in the same language) and who prosecuted a deadly and relentless war against each other with long-range missiles, it would be possible for inhabitants to read and criticise works dealing with relationships not involved in the conflict between them, but not relationships pertinent to the conflict; they might, perhaps, share cooking books for example. But of course no common sphere would be established, only an exchange of concepts. Yet this is an important fact, and helps us to see why it should be that a criticism not affected by class should be possible when limited to certain subjects and excluding others.
By suggesting that criticism must have a general value for the entire society, Eagleton makes a moral not a practical judgement. He has not shown that criticism which is valuable to a faction, or assists in negotiations, or conflicts, between factions is not of value for those factions. Furthermore, since he argues that criticism was born of factional interest, that of the bourgeois middle ranks of the late seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, it is not clear why he should claim that it has lost function because of a further fracturing of the social domain. We could as reasonably say that the process of factionalisation, due to population growth perhaps, accelerated, and that as more groups became literate so they joined the critical debate, thus undermining the bourgeois claim to be exclusively the representatives of the people. This would, on this view, be considered a problem for one faction, but not a disaster for the business of criticism itself.
Similarly, in the nineteenth-century, factional criticism is abundant but does not demonstrate a crisis in criticism so much as a crisis in factionalism. Criticism may be failing to have much interfactional use, and serve merely as tool for the formation and binding of relations within factions, but this does not indicate that criticism is losing function. Quite the reverse; it continues to be of great importance.
Eagleton has a totalitarian, collectivist view, and requires that for anything to be of great use it must clearly bind in all members within a state (except the bourgeois of course, who are his scapegoats), and thus when a technique such as criticism fails to do this he interprets it as a failure. Hence at the close of his book he attempts to rally his readers round a criticism which would function in the same way for all individuals. This is naive, merely. We need hold no brief for criticism, certainly within the universities, to see that it may have considerable public function even today. Clearly the discussion of works of all kinds, films, stories, poems, pictures, continues in our social systems, and we can presume that it would not do so if it were not serving, or appearing to serve, some function for those who undertook it. But equally Eagleton is right in saying that this criticism forms no unified public sphere. The question is whether this matters for those writing criticism or marking critical comments, or for those reading adn listenging to it. If the function it performs is mostly internal to factions, and occasionally interfactional, either negotiating compromises or maintaing boundaries, then we might say it has function still. It may not be a function of which we approve, or which we find in our interests, but this would mean no more than that we find ourselves in a faction threatened by other factions, and ultimately we must wonder whether Eagleton’s attempt to reinvent the traditional functions of criticism, to find a common critical standard, is any more convincing than that of any of the universalizing writers he discusses in the body of his study. Indeed, we might see some deep structural similarity between conservative writers who attempt to maintain the fiction of a unified public sphere, and thus persuade individuals whose best interests would be represented in factionalization or fragmentation, to stay within the co-operative group, and Eagleton’s attempt to bind the society together under the banner of working class solidarity. I would go further and suggest that this similarity confirms what is already evident in the logic of factional analysis, that Eagleton’s position has no absolute moral superiority to it, as he assumes, but is only one among many factions, each with no ultimate justification, each attempting to prove one, each jockeying for positition with all the others.
Of course, we cannot rule out a physical crisis could weld all the factions into one again, but this seems highly unlikely given the variety of interests represented in the global world, which are now more numerous even than they were in the world of nation states, where criticism might at least function as international communication. Whereas, today a critical line emerging from a country may represent only one faction within that nation, as may indeed its art overall. So criticism is, at least for the time being, factional.
Now, if I am right in saying that criticism has a function in our time, but that it is only sectarian at best, then certain other points may be made with regard to criticism in the universities.
We could tolerate factional criticism within the university world, as we do at present, on the grounds that university intellectuals should participate in the general debate. We could insist that university criticism should aim for a degree of generality which rises above faction and sect. Or we could eject it from the university altogether.
The second of these suggestions seems impossible of realisation, and would in any case be sure to be hijacked by some faction or other, as Eagelton threatens to do, while the first is inadequate simply because the criticism of the universities is of puny consequence in the public world. By which I mean, that the current situation is unlikely to continue because criticism is useless, even by its own standards. It would make more sense, simply, for criticism to leave the university and for its academic perpetrators to enter the public world where they would be forced to identify with the factions they have in fact been serving all along, and perhaps to do better work for those factions. In its place we could institute an integrated use of literature as data leading towards human self-understanding, as I have extensively outlined elsewhere. Am I doing more than ejecting the critical factions in the interests of my own factional interests? Perhaps not. If my analysis of Eagelton’s position above is correct I am not able to escape its implications. If, for example I were to claim that integrated science, the candidate field for replacing criticism, was above faction in that it represented the interests of a very large community of factions, though perhaps not all, then I would be making a very similar claim to that made by Eagleton. I would have two options; one I could cheefully accept this on the grounds that it is a winning faction and I don’t care what others think. Secondly I could claim that the fault in Eagleton’s position is that he has not provided a convincing case for his transfactional position, where scientific integration does so.
Neither of these positions are attractive. The first is entirely tenable, and is I believe probably the most solid, whereas the second is open to innumerable questions. Scientific process may not be factionalized, since it can be used by anyone to great effect as a means to power and can easily be turned on its inventors. But the possession of scientific power and knowledge is not itself above faction and interest, therefore it would be futile to pretend that there is a global scientific community which stands above the strife and can readily assume world leadership. International science is riven with factions, and is still, as it must be, strongly involved with national interest.
But I will make a subsidiary claim for science, that within a given national group, and globally, it promises to be able to provide more for more factions, and perhaps even promises to enable us to reach agreements between factions. I do not claim that the scientific project is selfless, or a reflection of general interests, but I do think it is the best co-operative tool that we have.