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After Theory by Terry Eagleton
Abdelkader Aoudjit discusses Terry Eagleton’s take on what comes after postmodernism.
In 1983, Terry Eagleton, previously Professor of English Literature at Oxford University and now Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester, argued in his highly popular and influential Literary Theory: An Introduction, that no work of literature and no literary theory are genuinely apolitical. He wrote that what counts as literature and good taste “only serves the ruling power-interests of society at large.” Thus, according to him, English as an academic discipline became important in the early 20th century in order to incorporate middle classes into “unity with the ruling aristocracy,” and “to diffuse polite social manners, habits of ‘correct’ taste and common cultural standards.” Eagleton further argued, following British cultural theorists Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and E.P. Thompson, that the everyday culture of ordinary people is as worthy of serious study and respect as Shakespeare and Shelley.
In the same book, Eagleton also warned his readers about what he thinks are ahistorical and ideologically suspicious literary theories such as New Criticism, formalism, (post-)structuralism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction. He wrote that “the great majority of the [above] literary theories outlined in this book have strengthened rather than challenged the assumptions of the power-system.” He called New Criticism “a recipe for political inertia, and thus for submission to the political status quo” – one which allows practitioners not to “oppose McCarthyism or further civil rights,” and he called post-structuralism a convenient way of evading political questions such as Vietnam, Guatemala, and Stalinism.
Eagleton urged his readers to study literature as a cultural phenomenon among other cultural phenomena. Furthermore, he advised them to focus on issues of class, power, ideology and resistance. In short, Eagleton wanted his readers to transcend the confines of literary theory and criticism for the sake of cultural theory whose ultimate goal, for him, is “the production of ‘better people’ through the social transformation of society.” He concluded his book by saying that he wanted “to help the lion to awaken.”
It seems that Eagleton’s readers have heeded his advice. One need only glance at current periodicals and college syllabi to realize how much the humanities and social sciences have changed as a result of the spread of cultural theory. The opposition between high and low culture has been challenged. Scholars and students investigate Moliere and Madonna, the phenomenology of despair and Desperate Housewives. Furthermore, ‘ideology’, ‘hegemony’, ‘discourse’, and ‘power’ have become as much part of literary studies as ‘theme’, ‘character’, ‘plot’, and ‘point of view.’
Apparently, however, this not what Eagleton hoped for when he wrote his groundbreaking introduction to literary theory. It seems the lion he wanted to help awaken has escaped from its cage. In his subsequent book, After Theory, he contends that cultural theory has abandoned its true mission. He thinks that what started as a dissenting intellectual movement committed to exposing power in all its cultural forms and finding ways to resist it, has degenerated into an exercise in intellectual futility, not to say into farce.
The purpose of After Theory is twofold: 1) To sketch a history of the evolution of cultural theory from the 1960s through the 1990s, highlighting what Eagleton thinks are its achievements and its defects, and 2) With the Bible in one hand and Das Kapital in the other, to construct an alternative kind of theory, which addresses the important issues he believes are ignored by recent cultural theorists, i.e. truth, objectivity, morality, revolution, and fundamentalism.
In terms of the achievements of cultural theory, Eagleton claims that it brought to the fore issues of gender, race, power and environment which have not been adequately thematized and developed in the mainstream humanities. It also firmly established the idea that human beings are creatures of flesh, desire and madness as much as of reason.
With regard to the defects of cultural theory, Eagleton identifies at least two problems: first, cultural theorists have been reluctant to tackle the most important issues facing society; and second, because they preach transgression, diversity, and transformation, they made cultural theory complicit with capitalism. He says that “no way of life in history has been more in love with transgression and transformation” than capitalism.
“Cultural theory,” Eagleton explains, “has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness.” He goes on to say that while major theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes and Jean-Francois Lyotard have turned away from the problems of this world towards religious mysticism, pleasure, and intergalactic travel respectively, their disciples turned to the study of body piercing and French kissing. According to Eagleton, even Marxism has lost its connection with real-world political struggles. It has become, he claims, nothing but a mildly interesting way of talking about Wuthering Heights, an “eccentric hobby,” a “gentrified version” of the revolutionary philosophy it used to be.
Eagleton identifies at least three reasons why “cultural theory must start thinking ambitiously once again”: 1) Capitalism has entered what could be its most ‘totalizing’ phase – it has become global and ruthless, 2) “The gang of predatory, semi-literate philistines” and “semi-fanatical fundamentalists” who rule the United States are in danger of ending history “for real”, and finally, 3) The West is under pressure to justify its way of life in [the] face of the Islamic fundamentalist challenge. It is ironic, Eagleton thinks, that “at just the point that we have begun to think small, history has begun to act big.”
Eagleton goes on to refute what he believes are the fallacies of postmodernism which have taken over cultural theory. They include the ideas that there is no such thing as truth, objectivity, or human nature. His strategy consists in showing that the rejection of these notions is based on a misunderstanding of what they mean. Thus, he argues that the postmodernist denial of absolute truth is due to the mistaken belief that ‘absolute truth’ means truth revealed, immutable and outside any particular context. All ‘absolute truth’ means, he maintains, is that something cannot be and not be the case at the same time.
After he has treated the fallacies of postmodernism, Eagleton proceeds to put forward his own version of cultural theory in the second part of the book. Drawing on both Aristotle and Marx, he argues that, like everything else in nature, man has a distinctive end to achieve or function to fulfill, which is to be good and happy. Eagleton also takes from Aristotle and Marx the idea that humans are political by nature, not only in the sense that one needs others to survive, but also in the sense that nothing one does has any meaning outside the human community. To fully realize one’s capacity as a human being therefore, Eagleton contends, one needs a ‘good society’, because “nobody can thrive when they are starving, miserable or oppressed.” It follows that only socialism ensures that everybody can develop their full potential, because socialism makes “human solidarity an end in itself,” and also because class division and exploitation undermine people’s abilities to live happy and fulfilling lives. “In class society,” he writes, “even those powers and capacities which belong to us as a species – labour, for example, or communication – are degraded into means to an end. They become instrumentalized for the advantage of others.” Eagleton finds support for his ethics in both Christianity and Islam.
Eagleton does a good job of introducing his readers to the current state of cultural theory, and in particular of laying out the historical and political elements which have shaped and continue to shape its development. Furthermore, his case for socialism is well argued and thoughtful. However, Ithink the most important insight of the book is the idea that morality emerges from corporeal weaknesses, needs and interests, so that if we had a different body, our experience of the world and morality would also be different.
One problem with After Theory is that despite Eagleton’s insistence on the necessity of ethical reflection in cultural theory, he does not engage in any detail with the injustices and exclusions of advanced capitalism and the culture which sustains it. Thus, his ethics actually falls outside the scope of cultural theory.
The chief weakness of the book, however, has to do with Eagleton’s critique of postmodernism, which is the real target of the book. One objection Eagleton makes to postmodernism is that it cannot deal adequately with contemporary politics because it “rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge.” Eagleton misrepresents the philosophies of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault, perhaps because he engages with popular ideas about postmodernism rather than with particular authors, not to mention specific texts. Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault do not reject universal values, solid foundations of human existence, objective knowledge, etc., as much as point to their problematic nature. Their ultimate goal is to curb the tendency to absolutise these notions – to assign them a final meaning – because absolutisation makes them instruments of control and domination. Lyotard writes that “[a]bsolute injustice is that which prohibits that the question of the just and the unjust be, and remains, raised.” For him, the correct way to see such notions as humanity and justice for example, is as regulative rather than constitutive. They add unity and coherence to our experience and guide our thinking, but they do not stand for actual objects of experience themselves. Thus, Lyotard argues that no particular group of people can be the ‘positive’ expression of the idea of humanity: those who speak in the name of humanity may be serving only the interests of the class or the group to which they belong.
Another reservation I have about After Theory is that Eagleton has appropriated so much of postmodernist discourse that he overlooks its presence in his own work. Like Derrida and Lyotard, he believes that there are no first principles, final meanings and self-evident truths. Furthermore, like Derrida, and Lyotard, Eagleton identifies the belief in first principles, final meanings and self-evident truths with totalitarianism. Indeed, his analysis of totalitarianism in the form of fundamentalism, Nazism, and racism is strikingly similar to Derrida’s and Lyotard’s. Like them, he believes that these world-views are due to an anxiety for security: “the fear of the unscripted, improvised or indeterminate, as well as a horror of excess and ambiguity.”
Finally, Eagleton underestimates the usefulness of post-structuralism for cultural theory. Post-structuralist philosophies are best approached as critical activities rather than political doctrines. As such, they provide effective tools to supplement the critique of ideology used as a means by which one class dominates another in capitalist society. Marxism provides a general framework for thinking about issues of class, power, ideology and resistance, but does not explain precisely how specific features of culture are made to serve the interests of a particular class: the base-superstructure model is too broad and too mechanistic. Also, cultural phenomena can and do influence economics and politics. As Jean Baudrillard argues, advanced capitalism dominates more through the production and consumption of meaning than through economic production. Finally, the development of electronic media, especially television, has complicated the way ideology functions. Images and simulations of reality have become dominant, to the point, according to Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, that they replace, even erase, the originals they are meant to copy. Post-structuralism’s focus on the hidden aspects of language, slips, silences, and absences (Derrida), and on the implicit linguistic structures that support power relations (Foucault), makes it especially suited to deal with the electronic age, in which so many levels of discourse are mixed together that sometimes it seems impossible to distinguish between information, manipulation, and entertainment.
That said, After Theory provides an original perspective on cultural theory. It should stimulate others to refine and apply Eagleton’s insights to specific cultural issues.
© Abdelkader Aoudjit 2006
Abdelkader Aoudjit studied philosophy at the University of Algiers and at Georgetown University. He teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.
• After Theory by Terry Eagleton, (Basic Books, 2003). (231 pages). pb £8.99, ISBN: 0141015071.