TERRY EAGLETON ON (GERMAN) IDEOLOGY

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Sat Dec 31 12:33:35 MST 1994


TERRY EAGLETON'S BOOK "IDEOLOGY"

Following up on one suggestion, I looked up all references to THE
GERMAN IDEOLOGY in Eagleton's book, IDEOLOGY.  Indeed, there is a
substantive discussion of THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY for at least one
stretch, and many many other references beside.  The rest of the
book looks very interesting as well, though I didn't venture
outside my original parameters.  Eagleton in general is much
possessed with defining and deliberating the nature of ideology.
He delineates several notions of the concept, and finds at least
two notions of ideology in Marx, which he finds in competition
with one another.  Damn, my memory is shot already: I'm trying to
remember these different takes on ideology and I can't.  Here goes
anyway.  One has to do with the social and/or cognitive process by
which ideology is produced, regardless of the truth content
involved.  The other has to do with ideology or false
consciousness vs. truth or scientific cognition.  With one of
these, I can't remember which, there is the question of whether
one could have a true ideology, and sometimes one finds this idea
in later Marxist writers, not to mention "socialist" states.
Eagleton's treatment is an important one.  In wrestling with this
topic, he at least shows that it is not so easy to pigeonhole Marx
as some think.

In his most extensive treatment of THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, while
trying to be fair, Eagleton suggests there is something of
mechanical materialism in it -- the camera obscura, ideological
reflexes of social being, and so on.  He contrasts this
oversimplified conception with more nuanced scenarios of how
ideology functions.  His critique is not unreasonable; yet I
wonder how committed Marx and Engels were to their allegedly
mechanistic conception of 1845-6.  Was their notion of how
ideology works written in stone, or were they struggling to get
the basic notion of the relation between ideology and social
reality right?  In retrospect one takes as a fait accompli
something that originally had to be painfully struggled through
and thought out.  Stalinism did such an effective job of turning
Marx and Engels (to begin with) into sacred texts, we have all
become used to thinking of them as authoritative and definitive,
as if having emerged from Mount Olympus, as if all tasks were
completed, and each stage in development absolute in its
intellectual resolution.  The camera obscura / reflex, etc.
metaphors don't seem to me to constitute a die-hard commitment to
mechanistic thinking, but rather an abstraction, such as you get
when you systematize your thoughts for the first time.
Ideological reflexes of real life processes -- sounds to me like a
schematic formulation of a very general notion rather than a
finely articulated elaboration of how this actually works.

I don't know about the rest of the book, but Eagleton doesn't seem
occupied here with the human significance of Marx's break with the
rest of his intellectual class, but then, high-powered Marxist
literary theorist that he is, he also didn't understand what his
fellow Marxist E.P. Thompson was getting at in WITNESS AGAINST THE
BEAST: WILLIAM BLAKE AND THE MORAL LAW.  True sophistication often
conceals itself in an unassuming form, unostentatiously clothing
itself in plain English, and is easily overlooked at the Prince's
ball.


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