Friday, April 01, 2005

Terry Eagleton's After Theory

We recently had a seminar at Lehigh to discuss Terry Eagleton's After Theory. I think the plan was to have a soul-searching discussion about the role of Theory in Our Scholarly Endeavor, its possibilities but also its limitations. Something like that. Perhaps, if someone was feeling grouchy, there might have been a "culture wars" type of showdown. Or, on a better day, perhaps people who ordindarily hold rather polarized views would have reached some kind of new understanding of what their nemeses are up to, and we would all have benefited from having talked it out.

But all this might have happened only if the substantial argument of Eagleton's book had anything to do with its title. It does not. It is only "after theory" in the sense that Bjork's second solo album was called Post, that is to say, it is after a book that came before, which was called Literary Theory. (Bjork's first solo album was called Debut, in case you were wondering.) Though Eagleton comes out rather strongly against Theory-with-a-captial-T at moments, he is not against theorizing, but is rather forcefully arguing a theory of his own: an ethical, Aristotelian kind of socialism.

Admittedly, the first half of the book does have something to do with the culture wars and the theory wars. There are many good zingers, and some not so good. My favorite right now is:

"'Act locally, think globally' has become a familiar leftist slogan; but we live in a world where the political right acts globally and the postmodern left thinks locally.

To which my reaction is: ouch. Or maybe just, mini-ouch.

Eagleton is very hard on the postmodern left in the first half of the book, only unlike conservative-leaning critics of postmodernism he continues to share their basic view of the world. Thus he is annoyed by the cultural turn in feminist theory, but doggedly supportive of feminism as a philosophical and political principle. And he has a similar ambivalence for many other sub-fields and thematic interests, including post-colonial theory. The latter was once directly associated with Marxism and a militantly anti-colonial world-view, but it now seems to Eagleton to have turned into another form of identity politics studies, fetishizing "difference" in such a way as to make it essentially cooperative with Capitalism. Many of his arguments here will be familiar to people who've read other books critical of theory: the postmodernist take on Enlightenment rationality is foolish; the attack on "essentialism" is misdirected; the whole enterprise is remarkably pliable to the interests of corporate culture, and so on.

The second half of Eagleton's book goes in an entirely different, and for me, unexpected direction. That is to say, it is a vision of socialism underpinned by a concept of ethics that is sometimes Aristotelian and sometimes Liberation Theology. Gone are the little rants about Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, whom he at one point accuses of the "heresy of fideism": "Your life is based on certain beliefs which are immune to rational scrutiny." In the place of the zingers come long disquisitions on the true meaning of the Pauline position on Mosaic Law (Adam Kotsko, are you out there?), Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and passages like this one:

It is because of the body, not in the first place because of Enlightenment abstraction, that we can speak of morality as universal. The material body is what we share is what we share most significantly with the whole of the rest of our species, extended both in time and space. Of course it is true that our needs, desires, and sufferings are always culturally specific. But our material bodies are such that they are, indeed must be, in principle capable of feeling compasion for any others of their kind. It is on this cpacity for fellow-feeling that moral values are founded; and this is based in turn on our material dependency on each other. Angels, if they existed, would not be moral beings in anything like our sense. (155-156)

I must confess that I find much of this language compelling.

What ties the academic/culture wars part of the book together with the latter chapters on issues of truth, morality, ethics, fundamentalism and evil, is a pervading sense that capitalism is to blame. It is Capitalism that fetishizes difference, hybridity, plasticity, and the bad kind of Individualism. It is Capitalism that separates compassionate human beings from their natural tendency to express compassion and selfless action. Liberals may have good hearts, but their philosophy has no ethical core comparable to that articulated by Aristotle or Kant. Postmodernists have shaken things up in a way that Eagleton appreciates; he is amused, rather than chagrined, at the sudden preponderance of people seriously studying such weighty stuff as Mel Gibson's Mad Max movies. But ultimately their thinking is driven by the logic of Capital, and their books, sitting pretty in the "Cultural Studies" section at Barnes & Noble, have their concerns dictated by marketing rather than true, human ethics.

I must confess that I don't share Eagleton's politics, or at least, don't lean as far that way as I might -- I've felt too much disillusionment with India's experiments with state socialism to be very enthusiastic at this point in the game. And I must say that this is a confusing, bizarrely organized book on the whole (one of my colleagues referred to it as "undisciplined," which seems apt). But there is nevertheless, a reaching here towards some thing to which I am sympathetic, namely clarity. Eagleton might be right when he argues that the distractions offered by today's media environment weaken the possibility of ideological clarity one way or another. Without that kind of clarity, truly original thinking in the humanities becomes extremely rare.


Collin said...

This almost makes me wish that I'd stuck around for the second half of the book. Almost. I couldn't get past the cynical, "buy low, sell high" feeling that I got from it, nor could I keep reading those zingers, which came far too often and fell far too flat for me most of the time. It almost pains me to put books away unfinished, but I just got to the point with AT where I couldn't keep going...


2:21 PM  
Amardeep said...


Yes, the first half of the book seemed kind of useless to me too. I'd gotten to about page 100 when I went to my department's seminar to discuss the book. To my surprise, people spent the entire hour and a half talking about the latter chapters -- so I went home and read the rest.

There are also some interesting points about American Empire, the War on Terror, and religious fundamentalism in the last chapter and postscript, in case that might help inspire you.

But be warned -- his overall tone remains a bit theological/Catholic.

8:50 AM  
Matt said...


I largely agree. The choice of title in particular may have been a bit unfortunate, or vainglorious. My initial reaction to the book

was mostly a response to the first half, although to be entirely honest the second didn't exactly win over.

Still though, Eagleton's voice remains essentially that of one of the "good guys" in what is an increasingly homogenous, quasi-fascist neoliberal, anti-socialist rhetorical climate. In a way, his polemics are at once disheartening and refreshing. At least he's starting to backpeddle a bit on all the Derrida zingers, finally.

8:53 PM  

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