Reading notes


“Criticism,” in its Enlightenment sense, consists in recounting to someone what is awry with their situation, from an external, perhaps “transcendental” vantage-point. “Critique” is that form of discourse which seeks to inhabit the experience of the subject from the inside, in order to elicit those “valid” features of that experience which point beyond the subject’s present condition. “Criticism” instructs currently innumerate men and women that the acquisition of mathematical knowledge is an excellent cultural goal; “critique” recognizes that they will achieve such knowledge quickly enough if their wage packets are at stake.

Eagleton, Ideology, page xxiii

In other words, from-the-heavens versus on-the-ground. In reality I think the division here is often less clear-cut, but I won’t argue with a good metaphor.

On the difference between conservatives and liberals

Or, why conservatives lie through their teeth while liberals expect the truth to surface:

It is a typically conservative estimate of human beings to see them as sunk in irrational prejudice, incapable of reasoning coherently; and it is a more radical attitude to hold that while we may indeed be afflicted by all sorts of mystifications, some of which might even be endemic to the mind itself, we nevertheless have some capacity for making sense of our world in a moderately cogent way. If human beings really were gullible and benighted enough to place their faith in great numbers in ideas which were utterly devoid of meaning, then we might reasonably ask whether such people were worth politically supporting at all. If they are that credulous, how could they ever hope to emancipate themselves?

Eagleton, Ideology, page 12

This could less charitably be referred to as the difference between authoritarianism and democracy.

Getting back to the nature of truth

Moral judgements are as much candidates for rational argumentation as are the more obviously descriptive parts of our speech. For a realist, such normative statements purport to describe what is the case: these are “moral facts” as well as physical ones, about which our judgements can be said to be either true or false. The Jews are inferior beings is quite as false as that Paris is the capital of Afghanistan; it isn’t just a question of my private opinion or of some ethical posture I decide to assume towards the world. To declare that South Africa is a racist society is not just a more imposing way of saying that I happen not to like the set-up in South Africa.

Eagleton, Ideology, page 17

Eagleton has this endearing metaphorical tick in his language: he reaches for a metaphor to illuminate a concept, and then reaches—again—for another example, just to make sure you really got it. In the wrong hands this could read like a stutter—awkward, self-consciously repetitive. But Eagleton’s sense of rhythm is so acute that it comes off like a rimshot instead. (Sometimes literally so—often the second metaphor is a Jon Stewart-esque jab.)

How ideology is like a park bench

Ideology…is not just a matter of what I think about a situation; it is somehow inscribed in that situation itself. It is no good my reminding myself that I am opposed to racism as I sit down on a park bench marked “Whites Only”; by the act of sitting on it, I have supported and perpetuated racist ideology. The ideology, so to speak, is in the bench; not in my head.

Eagleton, Ideology, page 40

A lovely side benefit to this analogy is the solidification of ideology. In Eagleton’s hands, ideology becomes a heavy object of iron and wood. You don’t carry it with you so much as look for it when you need to rest.