‘The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics’ reviewed by Robert T Tally Jr

The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics

Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2017. 280pp., €121,00 / $145.00 hb
ISBN 9789004287617

Reviewed by Robert T Tally Jr

About the reviewer

Robert T. Tally Jr. is a Professor of English at Texas State University. His books include …


Speaking of Fredric Jameson’s critical project in The Political Unconscious, Terry Eagleton once asked, somewhat playfully, “how is a Marxist-structuralist analysis of a minor novel of Balzac to help shake the foundations of capitalism?” It is the old objection to Marxist criticism in general, perhaps going all the way back to Marx’s own eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, but Jameson’s careful attention to style and to matters of form do strike some readers as being especially distant from the material realities of alienated labour, class struggle, and the capitalist mode of production. Eagleton addressed the matter more thoroughly in his 1982 essay, The Politics of Style, in which he read Jameson’s own writing style as emblematic of his Marxist critical project a whole. The fact is, contrary to expectation or to main currents of a certain history of Marxist criticism rooted in the sociology of literature, for instance, style has been an inescapable and, indeed, a powerful feature of Marxist literary criticism in the last half-century or more.

Or so argues Daniel Hartley in his impressive new study, The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics. Hartley borrows Eagleton’s earlier phrase in order to delineate a properly Marxist poetics rooted in the analysis of literary style. Hartley sets out to accomplish this goal in a seemingly indirect fashion, namely by looking at the work of three leading Anglophone Marxist critics, namely Eagleton, and Jameson, as well as Raymond Williams, each of whom has paid special attention to matters of style while maintaining a militantly Marxist approach to literary and cultural studies. Hence, as Hartley explains, ‘the first task of this book is to explain why it was that three Marxist critics came to see style—a primarily literary or artistic concept—as central to political criticism’ (1). The majority of Hartley’s study is devoted to exploring how, in different ways, and with varying degrees of success, each of these critics theorize, analyze, and interpret style in relation to politics. In a sense, then, The Politics of Style could be described as three books in one: a study of these three influential critics’ work, a meditation on the significance of the concept of style to Marxism, and an outline of a Marxist poetics more broadly. Hartley succeeds in accomplishing each of these tasks, and this brief review cannot fully do justice to the breadth and complexity of his argument. As such, I will focus primarily on his “immanent critique” of Williams, Eagleton, and Jameson, from which he develops his style-based Marxist poetics.

Hartley’s poetics will draw heavily upon the Poetics of Aristotle, as well as upon its modernized vision in the work of Paul Ricoeur, such that these figures complement Williams, Eagleton, and Jameson. Hartley adapts and updates Ricoeur’s “threefold mimesis” to show how stylistics subsumes and expands the concept. Indeed, Hartley suggests that one could identify each of his three chosen critics with the genres, or rather modes, addressed by Aristotle: namely, drama, lyric, and epic. Williams, who was a Professor of Drama for many years, pays particular attention to ‘writing for speech rather than for reading’ (117), for example, and Hartley devotes considerable space to analyzing Williams’s writings on drama. Eagleton’s focus on “the monological, textural aspect of style” (6) is suggestive of the lyric mode, even if his work is more closely associated with the theory of the novel. And Jameson’s emphasis on narrative, broadly conceived, as well as his own grand narrativizing in a sort of Lukácsean tradition clearly mark his work with the imprimatur of the epic. In fact, Hartley will dub Jameson “the epic poet of postmodernity” (170). Combined, the writings of these three critics forms the basis for a new poetics, grounded in style but attuned always to the political. 

Hartley asserts that immanence lies at the heart of both Williams’s theory of style and his politics, and that this can be found in the profoundly materialist approach to issues of style. For example, in examining “keywords,” Williams delves into the materiality of language, just as his conception of “structures of feeling” (in The Country and the City) brings abstract, ideological conceptions back down to the level of social experience. Williams’s historical vision eschewed elitist notions of tradition as handed down by T. S. Eliot or the Leavises, focusing instead on the idea of inheritance, which comports all the more effectively with the theoretical divisions of residual, dominant, and emergent forms as set forth in Marxism and Literature. For Hartley, Williams’s “sociological perspectivism” makes possible a properly political conception of style as tied inextricably to the lived experience of individuals and groups.

Hartley identifies Eagleton’s work as being imbued with a “political theology of style,” in which a tragic humanism develops out of Eagleton’s curious blend of ‘an overtly Catholic theory of language with Marxist literary criticism’ (258). Readers familiar with Eagleton’s recent work will recognize the reference, as he has vigorously defended religion (as against such “new atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) and increasingly invoked ethics in his writing, but Hartley also examines Eagleton’s early theological writings in which Eagleton attempted to square post-Vatican II Catholicism with the exigencies of the New Left. Indeed, Hartley convincingly demonstrates the degree to which these theological concerns underlie Eagleton’s theory of style and pervade his entire corpus, a body of work in which the secular and the divine frequently contest one another on the battlefields of literary theory and practice.

Jameson comes off quite differently from these others, perhaps owing to the fact that he neither is himself British nor emerged from an English literary tradition. As I discuss in my own study of his work, Jameson’s academic background lies in French and comparative literature, not English, which in part means that he was able to avoid both the New Criticism dominating English Departments in the United States in his youth, and the sort of dominant liberal humanism of the Scrutiny criticism in the United Kingdom. In fact, Jameson’s professional formation as a literary critic lay in “style studies”, much in the philological tradition of Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, or Ernst Robert Curtius; to this tradition, Jameson added a more expressly Marxist one, featuring the thought of Lukács, Adorno, Benjamin, Barthes, and especially Sartre, to whose own style and idea of style Jameson devoted his first book. Hartley argues that, if we follow Lukács’s idea of the novel as the epic of modernity, then Jameson might be viewed as the epic poet of postmodernity. Jameson operates via “large-scale historical syntheses,” focusing on stages, periods, and social forms, thus implicitly downplaying the significance or effectiveness of individual works. This, in turn, makes Jameson more of an economic than political thinker—something Jameson has conceded, as when he argues somewhat provocatively in Representing Capital that Marx’s Capital is itself an economic, but not a political, text—for he focuses on successive modes of production more than on class struggle per se. Hartley, like others, finds that this can lead to a certain political impasse, in which the only actions appear to be contemplation and patience, as the dialectic is allowed to do its work in effecting the historical transition to some more Utopian configuration (203).

The Politics of Style is a major contribution to Marxist literary theory and criticism, and I am sure that it will become a touchstone for future work. If it attempted nothing else, this book would remain an important study of Williams, Eagleton, and Jameson, three of the most important and influential Marxist critics of the past 60 years or more; hence, The Politics of Style is most welcome for shedding light on the significance of style in the critical and theoretical practices of these thinkers. Beyond that, Hartley’s genealogy of the importance of style to Marxism, going back to Marx and working through Ricoeur and these others is quite valuable, as is his more speculative and intriguing proposal for a Marxist poetics. Hartley convincingly demonstrates that style is itself political, and thus, that it is crucial to any Marxist critique of the world we live in today.

21 April 2017

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