This essay introduces a cluster of articles titled “Devalued Currency: An Elegiac Symposium on Paradigm Shifts.” Eagleton's piece addresses, from a perspective indebted to Walter Benjamin, the notion of Thomas Kuhn that “shifts” in the controlling paradigms of disciplines and practices are entirely transformative not only of their futures but also of their pasts. Benjamin argued that a work of art is a set of potentials that may or may not be realized in the vicissitudes of its afterlife. The true significance of works might be said, therefore, to emerge only after some as-yet-unexpected event or upheaval makes their significance apparent. In this sense, we might argue that historical events make full sense only in the light of “judgment day”; until then, history remains an incoherent chronicle. But the totality that will one day be revealed cannot be anticipated. The past is open-ended because the present is, and meanwhile, the meaning of history is in our hands to change. Since we have that power, Eagleton suggests that we recycle figures of the past as characters in a comedy rather than tragedy. Still, it is never possible to say which figures of the past and which works are ultimately important and which are not, because we cannot say which mutations will result in major developments to come. No work or person is important or peripheral in itself or himself; it is the critic and historian who render them so.

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