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This review is taken from PN Review 47, Volume 12 Number 3, January - February 1986.

FANTASY FUNCTION Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism: From 'The Spectator' to Post-Structuralism (Verso) £15, £3.95 pb.

Terry Eagleton states his case at the outset: 'criticism today lacks all substantive social function'. In a lively, concise account, often closer to a pamphlet than a book, he traces the development of literary criticism in England since the eighteenth century, highlighting contradictions and difficulties in successive critical projects. His opening claim that 'modern European criticism was born of a struggle against the absolutist state' is quickly modified in relation to that awkward country, England: the eighteenth century sees, in England, the emergence of a liberal, bourgeois 'public sphere' - Eagleton takes the term from Jürgen Habermas - that subserves political consensus; its 'universal model of rational exchange' masks social difference; its central institutions are Steele's Tatler, Addison's Spectator, and the coffee houses in which cultural, political and economic concerns interact. As, to adopt Eagleton's phraseology, capital penetrates into literary production, the 'public sphere' starts to fragment: this is evident in Dr Johnson, contradictorily both sage and hack. Johnson is still able to appeal to 'commonsense', but his economic and social dislocation results in an abstract, generalizing moral dogmatism that contrasts with the brisk empiricism of an Addison. In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, a 'counterpublic sphere' appears, with revolutionary ideas crossing from France, and feminist, working-class, and dissenting movements developing. In the literary periodicals of the time, such as the Edinburgh and Quarterly, literary criticism becomes fiercely, and politically, contentious. As a reaction against this, the figure of the Victorian sage emerges, supported by the idealist aesthetics ...


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