“Like religion, literature works primarily by emotion and experience, and so was admirably well-fitted to carry though the ideological task which religion had left off. Indeed, by our own time literature had become effectively identical with the opposite of analytical thought and conceptual enquiry: whereas scientists, philosophers and political theorists are saddled with these drably discursive pursuits, students of literature occupy the more prized territory of feeling and experience. Whose experience, and what kinds of feeling, is a different question.” (Eagleton, 2143)
Eagleton’s overarching goal is to describe how the institutionalized version of English studies that we all know and love came to be. In this particular passage, he makes his case for why literature was a natural choice to replace the traditional role of religion as a state-sponsored institution for social control. “Like religion,” he says, “literature works primarily by emotion and experience,” making literature the ideal delivery vehicle for middle-class ideology in the wake of religion. Eagleton wears his Marxism on his sleeve, but he certainly makes no apologies for this. The separation of political ideology from any discourse on literature (or from literature itself) is impossible, and he draws special attention to the fact that even his own historicizing of the institutional development of English studies is indebted to political ideology. It is important to remember that Eagleton is attempting to describe the institutionalization of English studies in a specific historical context; his universal axioms are to be taken with that grain of salt. Whether or not we agree that literature (and religion) primarily works through emotion and experience, and that this is true of all literature (and all religion), it is important to remember that Eagleton is saying that this particular understanding of the nature of literature (and religion) was the dominant ideological force behind the historical phenomena of the institutionalization of English studies. While a critic with a postmodern sensibility might question whether or not such an axiom applies to all literatures, for Eagleton in this particular instance there is only one literature, fixed in a specific historical conception of ideology.