Voice of the People

(Jane Fentress)

Last Wednesday at ten of three, a small group had already started to gather around the locked doors of an out-of—the way University of Chicago classroom a full forty minutes before vaunted Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton was scheduled to give a lecture entitled “The Death of Criticism?” Though a quick search for the event yielded nothing but a broken link to the university events calendar, posters around campus had quietly announced the lecture and word had spread.

As the crowd grew larger, one young woman, notebook in hand, said determinedly, “We are not going to get stuck with seats in the back,” and dragged her companion closer to the door.  Once the room had opened, it became clear that getting any seats at all would be a challenge. The back corners of the conference room quickly became standing room only, and many who arrived on time stood in the hallway, craning to see inside. When UofC professor and director of the Nicholson Center for British Studies Bradin Cormack apologized for not expecting such a large turnout, someone standing in the back let out an audible, exasperated, “Why not?”

The question was begged yet again when professor Maud Ellmann pointed out in her introduction that Eagleton is a rare “public intellectual,” the type who could pack a lecture hall at any university. After reminiscing about their days singing communist anthems in pubs at Oxford, Ellmann cited Eagleton’s work on literary theory and religion (he has authored over 40 books), praising his “lifelong campaign against capitalism.” Indeed, though he only quoted Marx once, Eagleton situated his problems with modern cultural and literary criticism in the framework of capitalism. He rejected the need to create a justification for art as a product of our obsession with use-value and condemned the treatment of language as a mere structure of meaning rather than a textured experience. Ultimately, Eagleton lamented the commodification of culture as a replacement for religion and as a new social foundation, saying, “culture is of our nature, but I don’t think it’s identical to it.”

Throughout the lecture, Eagleton peppered his claims with self-deprecation and cracks at pop culture and politics, pointing out that “there is more in religion than can be dreamt of in Rick Santorum’s philosophy.” After his conclusion, the first hands were in the air before the applause had died down. Eagleton answered questions on his teacher Raymond Williams, his opinion on the clashes within contemporary Marxism, and his personal cultural identity. It was apparent that the audience was more interested in the speaker than in his arguments–the proletariat had spoken.