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The Ideology of the Aesthetic by Terry Eagleton

A review by Geoff Wade.

This book – while not for the faint-hearted – is certainly accessible to anyone willing to put in some effort (well rewarded effort), be they ‘academics’ or not. The work explores and explicates the contiguity and confluence of ideology, ethics and art. It is an immensely interesting, informative, controversial, and even at times amusing, piece of work. Terry Eagleton has an almost unique knack of being able to convey clearly to his readers some very complex concepts and theoretical structures; this is as true here, as in his previous output on literary theory, and related subjects.

No doubt The Ideology will attract some hostile criticism from established, traditionally ‘English’ philosophers, who are generally suspicious, to say the least, of suggestions that texts can only be properly understood in the context of their historical circumstances, the ‘conditions of their production’ as it were, for this is how Eagleton reads the philosophical writings with which he deals. He also breaks the rules by not distinguishing between ‘political’ and other forms of philosophy (‘analytic’ for instance). It is not, however, that he is smuggling politics into non-political writings; rather the politics – the ideology – is already ‘there’ in such writings (Kant’s epistemology is an example), just as it is already ‘there’, in South African sport, or The Waste Land !


The vision of the aesthetic/moral project, according to Eagleton, is to create a

“..universal order of free, equal, autonomous human subjects, obeying no laws but those they give to themselves. This bourgeois public sphere breaks decisively with the privilege and particularism of the ancien régime, installing the middle class in image, if not in reality, as a universal subject […] What is at stake here is nothing less than the production of an entirely new human subject – one which, like the work of art itself, discovers the law in the depths of its own free identity.” [p.19]

If people enjoy, delight in ‘being good’, then you don’t need the ‘forbidding tablets of stone’ (ibid.); rather: ‘To consent to the law, is to consent to one’s own inward being’ (ibid.). In other words the laws, whilst still impeccably absolute, ‘are diffused into the textures of personal sensibility’ (p.32). Statutary laws and ideological doctrine, become ‘taste’; once we have internalised fully the feeling that it is ‘nice to be good’, we then ‘follow out our self-delighting impulses’ (p.34). If this seems a precarious way to maintain social control, then as Eagleton says, the police and army are waiting in the wings anyway! And of course they have to be: on the one hand, the lower orders don’t always absorb the ideology they are supposed to absorb, and occasionally throw up a few barricades; and on the other, capitalism engenders forces and emotions – powers – that conflict, embarrassingly, with the niceties of bourgeois morality. To quote Eagleton once more on this process, just to make clear his thesis – he goes on (p.41):

“Manners for the Eighteenth Century, signify that meticulous disciplining of the body which converts morality to style […]. In these regulated forms of civilised conduct, a pervasive aestheticising of social practices gets underway: moral imperatives […] infiltrate the very textures of lived experience, as tact or know-how, intuitive good sense or inbred decorum.”

What was formerly coercion, is now a ‘spontaneous consensus’ (ibid.).


The Ideology covers the work of some twenty or so philosophers, plus sociologists, poets, playwrights and novelists, from the ‘Enlightenment’ to the present day (Lyotard and Habermas). The philosophers, include Kant, Baumgarten, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Theodor Adorno. Freud, though not strictly a philosopher, has a chapter to himself (personally I think of him as a psychoanalyst, psychologist and philosopher, but that is by-the-by). The final chapter, headed ‘From Polis to Postmodernism’ packs in an array of theorists and public figures, from Weber to Habermas – and Stalin and Trotsky to Henry Ford.

Kant’s major works, Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Judgement, are dealt with here by Eagleton. This latter work, like the former, is concerned with perception and freedom and – as with the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten) – it is concerned with morality. Most importantly for The Ideology, its primary thesis is on perception as it relates to taste – Eagleton writes:

“When, for Kant, we find ourselves concurring spontaneously in an aesthetic judgement, able to agree that a certain phenomenon is sublime or beautiful, we exercise a precious form of intersubjectivity, establishing ourselves as a community of feeling subjects, linked by a quick sense of our shared capacities. The aesthetic […] unites us with all the authority of a law […] And this is certainly one major reason why the aesthetic has figured so centrally in bourgeois thought.” [p.75]

The enigmatic noumena (things-in – themselves) are given radical and rigorous treatment in The Ideology, drawing out the political and ideological implications, though there is not room here to elaborate. Emphatically, anyone interested in Kant – even if they cannot spare the time to get through the rest of the book – should at least read Chapter 3; after which, I’ve no doubt they will find time to read the rest anyway, as there is no real ‘resting place’ in the text; it has a sort of compulsive motility.

With Nietzsche, Eagleton looks at The Will to Power and The Wanderer and his Shadow, in addition to Beyond Good and Evil and Genealogy of Morals. Interestingly, a comparison is made between Nietzsche and Marx, as well as the usual contrast.

The following passage is illustrative of Eagleton’s treatment of Nietzsche:

“Teleology is a grossly unfashionable concept today, even among Marxists, let alone Nietzscheans; but like many a demonized notion it is perhaps due for a little redemption. For Nietzsche, the breaking down of the old, reliable instinctual structure of the human animal is on the one hand a catastrophic loss, bringing forth the cringing […] subject of moral ideology […] On the other hand this declension marks a major advance : if the corruption of instinct makes human life more precarious, it also opens up at a stroke, fresh possibilities of experiment and adventure. The repression of the drives is the basis of all great art and civilization, leaving as it does a void in human being, which culture alone can fill.” [p.238]

Eventually the “overman will burst through moral formations as a new kind of productive force” (p.239). Eagleton draws an extensive and complex, and at times tenuous, analogy between this Nietzschean ‘vision’ and Marx’s revolutionary ‘historical materialism’.

As the core of Eagleton’s thesis is the ‘Law of the Heart’, it would have been negligent not to have included Sigmund Freud in it. Freud enters the text under the nomination of ‘The Name of the Father’; naturally, the ‘super-ego’ looms large:

“The super-ego is as forceful as it is because it is the consequence of the first identification, which took place while the ego itself was still feeble […] It is the source of all idealism, but also of all our guilt; it is at once high priest and police agent […] the image of the desirable, and the promulgator of taboos and prohibitions.” [p.270]

There is also a lengthy discussion on Freud vis a vis language, culture and the ‘body’; and crucially Freud’s subversive drive is stressed:

“[…Freud] refuses to differentiate culture and civilization, the sphere of value and the realm of the appetite […] The bourgeois rests satisfied in his puritan belief that pleasure is one thing and reality another; but Freud will come to deconstruct the opposition between these two mighty principles […] A whole set of distinctions vital to bourgeois ideology – between enterprise and enjoyment, the practical and the pleasurable, sexual and commercial intercourse – are accordingly broken down.” [pp.264/5]


Finally, I wish to make a few general critical points. Quite correctly, Eagleton maintains that the ideological paradigms that he explicates for us, rose contemporaneously with capitalism; one is concomitant with the other; and that ‘knowledge’, ‘politics’ and ‘desire’ in the process became ‘uncoupled from one another’ (pp.336/7) – ‘What can we know? What ought we to do? What do we find attractive?’ had previously been ‘to a large extent, intermeshed’. Now while this is true, there is no actual, deducible, or measurable ‘cut-off point’ as it were. And when he asserts that ‘classical thought’ referred only to one’s actual place within the social relations of the polis, this is not quite true (though it may be true as a generalisation); both Aristotle and Plato were concerned with feelings, consequent on doing the right or wrong thing. At 462a-463 in The Republic, Glaucon and Socrates discuss ‘pleasure and pain’ a propos moral actions; they also discuss the harmony of the State, in terms used by the sociologists Comte, Durkheim and Parsons. Additionally in this text, art (poetry) is dealt with as connected to life in general; but it also has a certain dangerous autonomy; Plato is anxious to discipline art, to harness it to the ideological needs of the state (see 595a-608b). Also, as Richard Norman points out (in The Moral Philosophers), Plato’s ‘reason’ and ‘desire’ – and to an extent, his ‘spirit’ – correspond roughly to Freud’s ‘ego’, ‘id’ and ‘super-ego’. Further, the writings of Cicero reveal not only the principle features of humanism, but also link morality to art. Indeed, the Latin word humanitas means both ‘humans’ in general and (as a translation from the Greek word paideia), ‘liberal education’.

I suspect that Eagleton is resolutely (and quite rightly) trying to traduce the notion of a continuous artistic and philosophical tradition, stretching from Homer to T.S.Eliot. But of course, there is always a blurring of the epochal lines (just as there is a blurring of class lines – and Marx never did satisfactorily explain how we can still appreciate ancient Greek art, after thousands of years). Eagleton does himself realise the difficulty of nominating a ‘starting point’ at the beginning of Chapter 14; and he notes that Adorno and Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trace the ‘bourgeois hero’ back to Odysseus and beyond.

The above difficulties arise partly, I think (and these difficulties apply as much – if not more – to the life modes of feudalism, which still linger on three centuries after the English bourgeois revolution) from the way Eagleton addresses the relationship between an ideological ‘superstructure’ and the economic ‘base’. There is no clear analysis of the interaction between base – ‘infrastructure’ and ‘superstructure’, until Chapter 8; and even then there is no ‘toe-hold’, so to speak, in the sense of specific historical events and movements. The earthy and often violent dynamics of class-struggle are not presented; the proletariat seems to float around in a world of superstructural theory. The chapter on Marx (though lucid for a Marxist) is unnecessarily dense.

The discourse on the forces and relations of production should have appeared at the outset, with more clarity. It is a fact that ideology and ‘spiritual’ forms of social life can affect the forces and relations of production; but ultimately it is the economic base upon which ideology – from table manners to morality and religion – are built; at least, according to Marx and Engels this is so.

These last few paragraphs are not intended as ‘heavy’ criticism; they in no way deny the greatness and value of The Ideology of the Aesthetic. And, to be fair, such a title does not, explicitly or implicitly, promise an historical inventory of shipyards, cloth manufacture and housebuilding, from Mycenae to twentieth century Europe.

© Geoff Wade 1991

The Ideology of the Aesthetic : Terry Eagleton. pp432 pub. Basil Blackwell, 1990. HB£35 PB£10.95.

Geoff Wade is a student at Hull University.

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