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The Event of Literature

The Event of Literature

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by Terry Eagleton

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In this characteristically concise, witty, and lucid book, Terry Eagleton turns his attention to the questions we should ask about literature, but rarely do. What is literature? Can we even speak of "literature" at all? What do different literary theories tell us about what texts mean and do? In throwing new light on these and other questions he has raised in


In this characteristically concise, witty, and lucid book, Terry Eagleton turns his attention to the questions we should ask about literature, but rarely do. What is literature? Can we even speak of "literature" at all? What do different literary theories tell us about what texts mean and do? In throwing new light on these and other questions he has raised in previous best-sellers, Eagleton offers a new theory of what we mean by literature. He also shows what it is that a great many different literary theories have in common.

In a highly unusual combination of critical theory and analytic philosophy, the author sees all literary work, from novels to poems, as a strategy to contain a reality that seeks to thwart that containment, and in doing so throws up new problems that the work tries to resolve. The "event" of literature, Eagleton argues, consists in this continual transformative encounter, unique and endlessly repeatable. Freewheeling through centuries of critical ideas, he sheds light on the place of literature in our culture, and in doing so reaffirms the value and validity of literary thought today.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
What, exactly, is literature? In his latest, Eagleton returns to familiar questions about the nature of literature and theory, extending and refining the thinking of his early landmark work, Literary Theory: An Introduction. In wry, thrifty prose, he surveys a range of theoretical positions in order to ponder a larger question about "whether there really are such things as common natures in the world." While he defends the major claim of his earlier work (that literature "has no essence whatsoever"), he brings to bear a variety of sources (such as scholastic debates between realism and nominalism and Wittgensteinian "language-games") in order to find a middle ground between the claim that literature has no essence and that the category of literature—indeed, the categorical impulse itself—still matters. He applies similar techniques in thinking about the nature of fiction, which, "despite its limits, can disclose possibilities beyond the actual." The book's last essay asks whether approaches to literature—like semiotics, feminism, and Marxism—possess a common nature and, if so, what that nature looks like. In order to address this question, Eagleton turns to "strategies," which he defines as ways of organizing reality capacious enough to allow for the complexities of "frictions and conflicts." These essays are a fascinating and often compelling expansion of Eagleton's oeuvre, though they may be most useful to those already familiar with the author's positions and theoretical biases. (May)
New York Journal of Books - Liana Giorgi
"The Event of Literature provides an engaging overview of the key questions regarding the nature of literature and of the various answers provided by literary theory."—Liana Giorgi, New York Journal of Books
London Review of Books
“Written with his characteristic wit, verve and insight, The Event of Literature marks a new chapter in the developing thought of our pre-eminent literary theorist.”—London Review of Books
The Times - Iain Finlayson

“In this book Eagleton offers a shrewd historical synthesis of the interaction between literature and the common culture.”—Iain Finlayson, The Times
The Guardian - Stuart Kelly
“Throughout the book, Eagleton writes with his customary felicity (his aphorism, for example, on significant affinities in Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances, ‘a tortoise resembles orthopaedic surgery in that neither can ride a bicycle’, is a delight).”—Stuart Kelly, The Guardian
New York Journal of Books
The Event of Literature provides an engaging overview of the key questions regarding the nature of literature and of the various answers provided by literary theory.—Liana Giorgi, New York Journal of Books
— Liana Giorgi
Library Journal
Eagleton (English literature, Univ. of Lancaster, UK; Literary Theory: An Introduction) has changed his mind about whether literature can be defined. He previously thought it could not be, but he now thinks his former view rested on the dubious nominalist assumption that universals are mere words. Now he seeks to assess literature as written, read, and judged across the spectrum of its active life. Eagleton suggests a number of characteristics common to literary works: literature is "fictional, valuable, richly figurative, non-pragmatic and morally significant." These characteristics are not invariably present in every literary work and, when present, they vary historically and culturally. Eagleton has here been influenced by Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblances, which, following Stanley Cavell, he takes to be a search for essences rather than a rejection of definition altogether. After discussing each of the characteristics, Eagleton asks whether theories of literature, such as structuralism, semiotics, and phenomenology, have common features. Here again he finds useful the notion of family resemblances. He suggests that theories, like works of literature itself, are strategies to try to understand a world that resists such understanding. VERDICT Eagleton has a remarkable ability to explain difficult ideas clearly. This book is highly recommended for serious students at the intersection of literary theory and philosophy.—David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., OH

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Copyright © 2012 Terry Eagleton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18259-0

Chapter One

Realists and Nominalists


Let us begin with what might seem like a pointless diversion. Like many of our theoretical wrangles, the dispute between realists and nominalists is of ancient provenance. It flourishes most vigorously, however, in the later Middle Ages, when a number of eminent schoolmen of opposite persuasions line up to do battle. Are general or universal categories in some sense real, as the realists claim in the wake of Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, or are they, as the nominalists insist, concepts which we ourselves foist upon a world in which whatever is real is irreducibly particular? Is there a sense in which literature or giraffeness exists in the actual world, or are these notions entirely mind-dependent? Is giraffeness simply a mental abstraction from a multitude of uniquely individual creatures, or are such species as real as those individuals, if not necessarily in the same way?

For the nominalist camp, such abstractions are posterior to individual things, being ideas derived from them; for the realists they are in some sense anterior to them, as the power which makes an individual thing what it is. Nobody has ever clapped eyes on crocodilicity, as opposed to spotting this or that scaly beast basking in the mud; yet nobody, as the methodological individualists are eager to remind us, has ever clapped eyes on a social institution either, which is not to suggest that Fox TV or the Bank of England does not exist.

Halfway houses are possible here. The great Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus proposed a moderate or qualified form of realism for which natures have a real existence outside the mind, but become completely universal only through the intellect. Thomas Aquinas would have agreed. Universals were not substances, as an extreme realist like Roger Bacon considered, but neither were they mere fictions. If they had no real existence as such outside the mind, they nonetheless allowed us to grasp the common natures of things, and these common natures were in some sense 'in' the things themselves. A more radical position than that of Scotus' is adopted by William of Ockham, for whom universals have a merely logical status. Nothing universal exists outside the mind, and common natures are nothing more than names. Scotus does not press his own case to this limit, but he has a marked penchant for the particular, best known to the world of letters through his disciple Gerard Manley Hopkins's adoption of his notion of 'thisness' or haecceitas. Whereas Thomas Aquinas was content to regard matter as the individuating principle of a thing, in contrast to the form it shared with other entities, the Subtle Doctor discerned in each piece of creation a dynamic principle which made it uniquely, intrinsically itself. If he was much taken with particularity, it was partly on account of his peculiarly Franciscan devotion to the person of Jesus Christ.

Haecceitas sets off a thing from another thing of the same nature (no two snowflakes or eyebrows are identical), and as such represents the ultimate reality of a being, one known fully to God alone. It is, so to speak, the excess of a thing over its concept or common nature – an irreducible specificity which can be grasped not by intellectual reflection on what an object is, but only by a direct apprehension of its luminous presence. In a veritable revolution of thought, the singular now becomes intelligible per se to the human mind. Scotus, remarks one of his commentators, is a 'philosopher of individuality'. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who thought the medieval Franciscan one of the greatest of all metaphysicians, praised him as the thinker who 'first elucidated individual existence'. We have set our foot on the long road leading to liberalism, Romanticism, Theodor Adorno's doctrine of the non-identity of an object with its concept, the postmodern suspicion of universals as snares to trap the politically unwary and a good deal more. As Charles Taylor remarks, we can recognise with hindsight the nominalist passion for the particular as 'a major turning point in the history of Western civilisation'.

Realists, by contrast, tend to the view that the intellect is incapable of grasping individual particulars. There can be no science of an individual cabbage, as opposed to a science of the genus as such. In Aquinas's view, the mind cannot seize hold of matter, the individuating principle of things. This is not to say, however, that we cannot have an understanding of individual things at all. For Aquinas, this is the function of phronesis, which involves a non-intellectual knowledge of concrete particulars, and which is the lynchpin of all the virtues. It is a kind of sensory or somatic interpretation of reality, a point relevant to what I shall have to say later of Aquinas's reflections on the body. Much later, at the heart of the European Enlightenment, a science of the sensory particular will be born to counter an abstract universalism, and its name is aesthetics. Aesthetics begins life as that oxymoronic animal, a science of the concrete, investigating the logical inner structure of our corporeal life. Almost two centuries later, phenomenology will launch a similar project.

For a realist philosopher like Thomas Aquinas, a thing's nature is the principle of its existence, and through its existence it participates in the life of God. For a realist theology, God's signature can be found at the core of beings. By sharing in the infinite in this way, a thing, paradoxically, is able to be itself. Hegel will later give this doctrine a secular twist: Geist is what enables beings to be fully themselves, so that infinity is constitutive of the finite. There is also a Romantic belief that if a thing is to be absolutely autonomous and self-identical, then what it most closely resembles, paradoxically, is the infinite, which acknowledges nothing beyond itself for the obvious reason that there can be nothing.

There are many different phenomena in the world, and thus many different ways of talking; so that one needs to know the nature of a thing in order, as Wittgenstein would put it later, to know what language-game to play in a given situation. Pluralism and essentialism go together. If things have given natures, however, it is easy to see how this can set a limit to the power of the deity who fashioned them. God could always have chosen in his wisdom not to manufacture turtles or triangles, since if he is free there can be no necessity to what he creates. Everything that exists is purely gratuitous, in the sense that it might just as easily have never sprung into being, and is continually overshadowed by this mind-warping possibility. This is true not least of human beings, whose sense of their own possible non-existence is generally known as the fear of death. But it is also true of the modernist work of art, plagued as it is by a sickening or delightful sense of its own contingency. That a thing came into existence was, for Aquinas and others, a matter of gift and gratuity on God's part, not of logical inference or iron necessity. It is a question of love, not need. It is this that the doctrine of Creation is trying to capture. It has nothing to do with how the world got off the ground, which is a question for scientists rather than theologians. Indeed, Aquinas thought it possible that the world might have had no origin at all, as did his mentor Aristotle.

Given that turtles and triangles do happen to exist, however, they exist in a determinate manner, and God is obliged to acknowledge this fact just as we ourselves must. He cannot whimsically decide that 2 + 2 = 5, as Descartes thought he could. Having made his cosmos, he is forced to lie in it. When it comes to the way things are, he cannot behave like a capricious monarch or a pampered rock star. God is a realist, not a nominalist. He is constrained by the very essences he has created.

An empiricist age is likely to be sceptical of such common natures for a number of reasons. For one thing, since they are intelligible rather than sensible, they offend the empiricist prejudice that only what is perceptible is truly real. If there are no such essences, however, God's sovereignty is assured. He can make a turtle sing 'Pennies from Heaven' if the fancy takes him. The only reason for a thing is quia voluit (because he willed it). As Carl Schmitt describes this view, paraphrasing the thought of the philosopher Malebranche, 'God is the final, absolute authority, and the entire world and everything in it is nothing more than the occasion for his sole agency'. The problem, however, is that this arbitrary power renders the deity darkly enigmatic and impenetrable. He becomes a hidden God whose ways are not ours, inscrutable to reason, existing at some infinite remove from his creatures, as remote from them as a celebrity from the common herd. He is the God of radical Protestantism, not the God of the New Testament who in the Johannine phrase pitches his tent amongst us.

By purging essences or common natures from reality, you can soften the stuff up, hence making it more pliable to the touch of power. There are, to be sure, more progressive forms of anti-essentialism than this, but their champions are usually unaware that the doctrine has also served in its time to legitimate human dominion. If God, or the Humanity who in the fullness of time will come to assassinate him and usurp his throne, is to be omnipotent, essences will have to go. Only by draining the world of its inherent meanings can you seek to erode its resistance to one's designs upon it. True mastery over things, as Francis Bacon knew, involves a knowledge of their inherent properties; but it can also come to be at odds with a respect for their specificity, or for what Marx calls their use-value.

If we can cuff Nature into whatever baroque shapes we fancy, a perilous hubris is likely to follow, as Man comes to fantasise that his powers are divinely inexhaustible. In a later phase of modernity, humanity will be ousted in its turn by the codes, structures, forces and conventions that put it in place, and these, not Man, will now act as the supreme donors of meaning. For all the anti-foundationalist fervour of their apologists, they come to act as a new species of foundationalism, signifying as they do a ground (call it Culture, Structure, Language and so on) beneath which our spades cannot sink. Having wrested sovereignty from God, Humanity will in turn be toppled from its throne by Discourse.

Let us return, for now, to the moment of modernity. Only by paring its sensory textures and specific densities down to a mathematical thinness, defining its various features by our own strategies of measurement and calculation, reducing the thickness of the world to our own mental representations of it, can Creation be stripped of its recalcitrant Otherness and delivered wholly into our hands. Things are now to be defined in terms of how they respond to our procedures and techniques, while how they are in themselves slips over the horizon of our cognition. We may not know things as God knows them, but at least we can know the objects that we ourselves produce, which lends the act of labour a fresh importance. It belongs to a Protestant optimism that we can wield such transformative powers, just as it belongs to Protestant angst that we exercise them in a world which, like the ocean in Lem's Solaris, has become featureless, elusive and finally unintelligible. Is the price of freedom the loss of reality? In any case, if the self has no essence either – if it is merely a function of power, a congeries of sense-impressions, a purely phenomenal entity, a discontinuous process, an outcrop of the unconscious – then who is the agent of this worldly transformation, and whom does it serve?

In this bleak scenario, an absolute subject confronts a purely contingent world. The other face of anti-essentialism is voluntarism – the flexing of a power which, like the subject who wields it, is ultimately its own end and reason, bearing its grounds and motives within itself. Yet if the world must be indeterminate for such power to flourish, how can it provide determinate grounds for the appropriate uses of it? If reality is fluid and arbitrary, how can it stay still long enough for us to accomplish our projects, and hence be free in the positive sense of the term? In any case, what joy is there in exercising sovereignty over an intrinsically meaningless surge of matter? The more we gain dominion and authority, the more hollow a ring they would seem to have. Because reality is no longer significantly structured, no longer thickly sedimented with meaningful features and functions, it no longer thwarts our freedom of action as much as it once did; yet by the same token, the more vacuous that freedom now appears. Is there not something absurdly tautological about an animal that bestows upon the world with one hand the very sense it extracts from it with the other?

Nominalists like William of Ockham thought that the realists confused words with things, rather as literary theorists like Paul de Man think they do. Because we can say 'boulevard' or 'beech tree' we tend to suppose that there is some identifiable substance which corresponds to these terms. Realism on this view is a form of reification. Besides, since we can never really know things in their uniquely individual being, realism can also be seen as a form of scepticism. Ockham, by contrast, believes that we know specific entities by direct intellectual intuition, thus abolishing all conceptual mediation between subject and object. Among the entities that we can know in this way – indeed, the one we can apprehend most surely and instantaneously – is the self. Universals, as for a later empiricism, are simply generalisations from discrete particulars. They no longer represent the inner truth of an object, which means that how such objects behave can no longer be deduced from their divinely bestowed natures. Instead, we need a discourse which investigates the behaviour of things without recourse to such improbable metaphysical conceptions. This discourse would come to be known as science.

Aquinas, like Abelard and Karl Marx, is more insistent on the fact that all thinking presupposes universals. The Angelic Doctor is anti-empiricist at least in this sense, if not perhaps in one or two others. Marx speaks in the Grundrisse of the need to employ abstract or general concepts in order to 'rise' to the concrete. In his view, the concrete is not an empirical, self-evident affair; it is rather the meeting-point of a host of determinants, some of them general and some specific. It is the concrete for Marx which is richly complex; but in order to construct it in thought, general concepts, which he regards as more simple than concrete ones, must inevitably be deployed. There is no question here of simply deducing the particular from the general in the manner of the rationalists, or deriving the general from the particular in the style of the empiricists.

Moreover, Marx believes that universals are actually part of the furniture of the world, not simply convenient ways of viewing it. The later Marx, for example, regards what he calls 'abstract labour' as a real component of capitalist production, without which it could not function. There is no question of it being simply a way of looking. The early Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts holds that humans are the distinctive individuals they are by virtue of their participation in a specific form of 'species-being', and that the process of individuation is itself a power or capacity of this common nature. In this materialist version of human nature, individual and universal are not treated as antithetical.

The running battle between realists and nominalists is among other things a question of how seriously one takes the sensuously specific. This is a political matter as well as an ontological and epistemological one. It is also a question of the status of abstract reasoning in a progressively empiricist world. What is the yardstick of the real? Is reality only what is proved upon our pulses? Abelard claims that realism, in its emphasis on general natures, destroys all distinctions between things. In the night of realism, all cows are grey. Anselm, by contrast, rebukes nominalism for being 'so wrapped up in material imaginings that it cannot extricate itself from them'. On this Platonic view, the nominalists are too sunk in the trough of their senses, too enraptured by sensory immediacy, unable to see the wood for the trees. Their thought clings myopically to the textures of phenomena, rather than rising above them to gain a more synoptic view. It was on these grounds among others that the full-bloodedly essentialist Plato expelled the poets from his republic. Caught in that sensual music, they were unable to rise to the dignity of an abstract idea. The same goes for a great many literary types in modern times. It accounts for a large part of their hostility to literary theory.


Excerpted from THE EVENT OF LITERATURE by TERRY EAGLETON Copyright © 2012 by Terry Eagleton. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Professor of English Literature, University of Lancaster, UK, and Excellence in English Distinguished Visitor, University of Notre Dame, IN.

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