Biting the hand that feeds

Culture, Terry Eagleton, Yale.

A yearly release by Terry Eagleton is becoming as regular as tax-time or ‘cruel thieves ruin Christmas’ newspaper stories in late December, but that is nothing to complain about (Eagleton’s book, not the thieves). Eagleton continues to write in his field of literary and cultural studies and has plenty of illuminating things to say, all with his trademark wit and ability to distill complex theory down to simple explanations with jokey examples.

He also continues to recycle material, I guess in the way a jazz musician might, including the opening lines about ‘culture’ being an exceptionally complex word, which is slightly adapted from his earlier book The Idea of Culture. He rightly states that culture can have narrow and broad meanings, and can be evaluative or descriptive. I would add it can also refer to highly thought out pursuits or habitual and unconscious ones. Eagleton notes how our pluralistic culture feeds consumerism, and notes the political underpinnings of Oscar Wilde’s seemingly throwaway lines (though he also notes that Wilde’s rather elitist view of culture is a little ‘too convenient’ for legitimising Wilde’s self-indulgence).

J G Herder

There is of course a political edge to the book, as he points out that culture can both reinforce or critique the ruling ideology. It is, he says, ‘the role of culture to bite the hand that feeds it’. And he finds seemingly unlikely allies in the conservative yet anti-slavery, pro-American revolutionaries Edmund Burke, and in J G Herder (above), the Enlightenment philosopher and Lutheran minister who Eagleton says is not as well regarded as he should be, particularly because Herder was one of the first to recognise the power of culture to shape society and as such, is the father of modern cultural studies. As far as Burke goes, Eagleton digs out some of his delicious quotes, and takes pains to point out that his conservative reputation and Tory appropriation is not always well-placed, a reading borne out also by recent biographers Richard Bourke and David Bromwich.

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