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  • Marxist Pleasure: Jameson and Eagleton
  • Steven Helmling

As reading matter, contemporary Marxist criticism is pretty heavy going. First and most obviously because it inherits a long, rich and adventurous tradition not only of political and sociological but also of philosophical argument—the breadth of Marx’s own interests insured that: he aimed, and so have all Marxisms after him, to synthesize all sciences, to make Marxism the key to all mythologies, or (in Fredric Jameson’s now-famous phrase) the “untranscendable horizon” of all cultural, political, and social inquiry. (Marxism obliges itself to reckon with, say, deconstruction; whereas deconstruction regards dealing with Marxism as discretionary.) But Marxism takes on other difficulties, other burdens besides the intellectual ones; it carries the torch of a moral tradition as well, of concern, even anguish about the plight of the oppressed. And its burdens are “moral” in another sense, too, the sense that connects less with “morality” than with “morale”; for it is the very rare Marxist text that is without some sort of hortatory subtext—though usually, it is true, expressed polemically (often most fiercely against other Marxists). And here, too, Marx himself is the great original: he asks to be read as a scientist, not a moralist, but we do not readily credit any Marxism that is deaf to the moralist (and ironist) in Marx’s potent rhetoric.

So “doing Marxism” is not easy. To join in the Marxist conversation, even just as a reader, requires an askesis that cannot be casual, an experience of initiation that involves extraordinary “difficulty” of every possible kind: difficult texts, difficult issues, difficult problems, a (very) difficult history, difficult political conditions. Yet the initiation into Marxism is not without its pleasures, too: pleasures, indeed, not punctually marked off from, but rather continuous with, the satisfactions of the adept—and even more conflictedly, pleasures somehow deriving from, even constituted precisely by, the very “difficulties,” both moral and intellectual, that Marxism obliges its initiates to shoulder.

I want in this essay to consider Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, the two leading Marxists writing in English, with an eye to the contrasting ways each negotiates the contradictions of this mix of intellectual pleasure with intellectual-moral difficulty. (A salient topos will be “Left puritanism,” with some sidelights from Roland Barthes.) The eminence of Jameson and Eagleton makes them the obvious choices for such an essay in contrasts. Their substantive differences are as well known as the warmth with which they avow common cause, but in what follows I want to shift the emphasis from their “positions” to the ground where the contrasts between them are the sharpest, namely to their prose styles. That a subculture so devout as the academic about splitting fine ideological hairs nevertheless seems agreed on accepting as indispensable two writers so different—Jameson with his aloof hauteur warmed occasionally by erudite despair, Eagleton with his impetuous, energetic hope—attests that their manifest differences as stylists, and in their stances as writers, make them virtually polar terms, “representative,” between them, of the limits, the possibilities and the predicaments, of the rhetorical or libidinal resources available to Marxist criticism in our historical moment. It should go without saying that my focus on “textual” effects intends no renunciation of more substantively “thetic” interests: rather, I hope to stage the contrasts between these two very different prose styles to see how each writer handles “pleasure” as an issue, a problem, desire, or object of critique—to see how (or whether) what each says about “pleasure” squares with the pleasures (or whatever else we are to name the satisfactions) of their writing.

A convenient place to begin, as it happens, is with Eagleton’s essay, “Fredric Jameson: The Politics of Style” (1982), in which Eagleton avows the “profound pleasure” he experiences reading Jameson. Tactically, consider what a very strange move Eagleton makes in speaking this way. Though I no longer find Jameson as vexing to read as I once did, “pleasure” seems a calculatedly provocative word for whatever it is that keeps me reading him—and lest we miss the point, Eagleton even takes care to remind us that “’pleasure’ is not the kind of word we are accustomed to...

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