Terry Eagleton is a prominent British literary theorist and critic. Eagleton currently serves as Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, and a Visiting Professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Eagleton was a direct student of Raymond Williams at Trinity College in Cambridge and has long been associated with the radical left. He as written an ungodly number of books, most known among them Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983).
One reviewer described The Idea of Culture as "a clear, forceful and welcome manifesto for wrestling cultural theory from post-everything cultural studies where is now languishes, so as to place it firmly back into the materialist-dialectical firmament from which it arose" (Don Mitchell, Social and Cultural Geography).
The Idea of Culture Edit
In this 5-chapter Blackwell Manifesto, Eagleton produces a dialectical reading of culture; he exposes us, again and again, to different generalist, theoretical, historical and sociological definitions of culture, only to find that each deconstructs itself based on its very definition. Every time you think you've found his definition of culture, he undoes you again, churning up traditional oppositions (culture and politics, Culture and Civilization, culture and Culture) to disprove any satisfactory definition. With comtemporary (and largely postmodern) culture, we are trapped in a word that is hopelessly broad, meaning everything from high art to imaginiation to ethinic specificity. We anchor the political within the cultural, and in a culturalist turn the Eagleton particularly loathes, describe nature as cultural.
For Eagleton, our materialist bodies, our painfully human nature is not conducted by culture, but rather beyond it: "Death is the limit of discourse, not the product of it" (87). Culturism is simply reductionist thinking, cultural relativism that claims "we are entirely culture creatures", an assertion which dreadly "absolutizes culture with on hand while relativinzing the world with the other [...] If culture really is wall-to-wall, constitutive of my very selfhood, then it is hard for me to imagine not being the cultural being I am, which is just what a knowledge of the relativity of my culture invites me to do. [...] How can one be both cultured and cultured, inexorably shaped by a way of life yet brimming with imaginative empathy for other such life-worlds" (95).
Eagleton refutes the idea that nature is mere clay on the potter's wheel of culture, and that our truly human, "material" needs have an importance that is not constituted by culture: "food, sleep, shelter, warmth, physical integrity, companionship, sexual fulfilment, a degree of personal dignity and security, freedome from pain, suffering and oppression, a modest amount of self-determination and the like" (99-100). If we were solely constituted as cultural beings, then we would not be able to oppose repressive cultures. Rather, these natura l needs are "criterial of political wellbeing, in the sense that societies which thwart them should be politically opposed" (100). It is the very fact that we can understand these as necessities and offer them as moral judgements, universally, that they cannot "simply be set aside in glib historicist fashion. And this comes as no surprise to the kind of ethical materialist for whom moral values have a relation to our creaturely nature, which has not significantly altered over the ages" (106).
Such thoughts corroborate Eagleton's larger claims, which are: "The primary problems which we contront in the new millenium--war, famine, poverty, disease, debt, drugs, environmental pollution, the displacement of peoples--are not especially 'cultural' at all. They are not primarily questions of value, symbolism, language, tradition, belonging or identity, least of all the arts" (130). With this in mind, Eagleton urges us the put culture "back in place" (131), presumably so that we can focus on the materialist, and political, needs of peoples. We must develop a common culture so as to have radical socialist change (as capitalism thrives in a world of disconnected mini-cultures that fight amongst themselves): what matters is not cultural politics but the politics of culture" (122).