Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton is a literary critic whose work is generally unknown in architectural circle Literary criticism has had a significant influence on architectural theory since the 1960s, although that seems to have largely come to an end. His importance, for me, takes two forms. The first is his mastery of the history of the philosophical, theoretical and critical developments in literary criticism. Many of the chapter topics in Eagleton’s Literary Theory are paralleled in architecture theory: Phenomenology, Structuralism and Semiotics, Post-structuralism, Psychoanalysis. But whereas architectural theorists tend to jump on theoretical bandwagons and understand only their particular specialty, Eagleton’s grasp is comprehensive. After reading Eagleton you understand the relative strength and weaknesses of the major theoretical strands of the 20th century. You learn why they became necessary, how they emerged and then subsequently challenged. Eagleton’s approach is almost always chronological. Each theory is introduced from its strength as if it were the answer to all things. This makes you take it onboard only to then find out about its blind spots, problems and limitations. Through this process you learn to take all things in a measured way (This is one of the marvellous aspects of reading Eagleton – you are always learning more than just the apparent content being written about). You also understand that no theory is complete and therefore one does not necessarily replace another but might instead act as a compliment. This approach puts theories into perspective and removes their privileged and fashionable status. Eagleton’s intent is to demystify and clarify. Because of this I have never had difficulty in understanding the theories he’s discussed despite their being aimed at literature students – replace ‘literature’ with ‘architecture’ and the very muddy fields of architectural theory become accessible.

Moreover, Eagleton is always looking for the political effects of theories. Even his field, literature, is examined to understand its potential political relevance. Because of Eagleton’s method it could be said that what he is discussing is not so much theories of literary criticism but theories of cultural production in general. Although there will always be discipline specific areas where the generalities will not work, overall, the approach is illuminating. For this reason I find Literary Theory the best book any student of architecture could read to understand the major (architectural) theoretical and philosophical movements of the 20th century. There is no equivalent text that I know in the architectural arena.

But, while Eagleton has been helpful in clarifying theories, for me he is more important by example of what he does. His intellectual capacity is such that he could write nothing but high level texts aimed at the most advanced specialists in literature (which he occasionally does). Yet, a great number of his books are aimed at students. For many academics, particularly of his stature, writing books for undergraduate students is beneath them. Eagleton sees this as a duty. Theoretical ideas are fantastic and valuable tools if you understand them. However, too often there is a lack of clear, intelligent and well written texts that can bring students along rather than repel them with jargon, overblown or condescending language. Eagleton wants ideas to be accessible to everyone not just those who are already in-the-know.

This model is important to me because of the way the architectural academy is riddled with hierarchies. The goal is to go upwards and never look back. Most schools operate an unspoken system that places younger and less senior or recognised staff in the 1st and 2nd year with the most senior and established at part-two (year 4 and 5) level. In this way the year taught is seen as an indication of the tutor’s rank. This results in a number of problems, but I’ll focus here on the creation of a kind of snobbery that demeans both the students and staff at the lower levels.[1] In other ways, students are also pigeon-holed as weak, strong or talented, with some staff secretly wishing the weak away. Eagleton’s work is inspiring in this regard. The more you know the more effort one should put into disseminating that knowledge. He treats his introductory texts with rigour and respect and this in turn reflects what he must feel about entry level students trying to find their way in a new discipline.[2]

In summary, Eagleton understands the value of hard and difficult research applied to very complex problems but he also sees value in summarising and making understandable those complexities to the beginner. He becomes an important conduit that pushes the theoretical tools, critical and theoretical questions, downwards into the general population.[3] To do this you cannot harbour any elitist notions that would classify something like an ‘educated’ class or ‘general public’. It should be said, that like all writers, Eagleton’s work is not neutral. He has a view, a position and a stance. It is political. That view is not just evident in the theories he presents or critiques; it is evident in his practice, in the fact that he writes for theorists, for students and for newspaper readers. This ethos has proved to be more valuable to me than any of the theories I’ve come to understand through his books. 

Recommended Reading:

  • Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976)
  • Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983/1996/2008)
  • The Significance of Theory (1989)
  • Ideology: An Introduction (1991/2007)
  • The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996)

Notes:

[1] I will mention that one unfortunate result is that tutors wanting to demonstrate their capacity or desire to move to a ‘higher’ level tend to focus more on demonstrating that capacity rather than helping the students at their level. That is, students are overstretched with ideas, methods and concepts that are better suited for final year or post-graduate levels.

[2] If there should be a hierarchy in teaching years (and I don’t think there should be any) it makes more sense for it to be the reverse. That is, the more experienced and senior tutors placed at year 1 and least experienced at year 5. Consider that anyone qualified to teach should have completed RIBA Part 1 and 2 (and generally part 3) and had some significant work experience. In those circumstances what is easier than communicating with a student who has had 3 or 4 years of university learning under their belt? And what could be harder than finding ways to communicate the complexity of architecture to a 1st year student with no drawing or art background?

[3] I say general population since Eagleton is also fond of writing for newspapers.