After Theory…what?

Terry Eagleton's new book draws out the absurdities of cultural theory - but cannot move beyond it.

Sandy Starr

Topics Culture

As an academic pursuit, cultural theory seems to be more popular today than ever. But according to After Theory, a new book by the prominent left-wing literary theorist Terry Eagleton, ‘the golden age of cultural theory is long past’. While cultural theory has run out of ideas, Eagleton argues that in the wake of 9/11 and the war on Iraq, ‘a new and ominous phase of global politics has now opened, which not even the most cloistered of academics will be able to ignore.’ (1)

While Eagleton astutely draws out the absurdities of cultural theory, he overstates the radical potential of today’s ‘new…phase of global politics’. Perhaps Eagleton’s weaknesses are due to the fact that, when it comes down to it, he can’t actually bring himself to move beyond cultural theory.

After Theory compares the 1960s origins and 1970s heyday of cultural theory, when ‘there was a general excited sense that the present was the place to be….because it seemed so obviously the herald to a new future, a land of boundless possibility’, with the present state of the subject, where ‘quietly-spoken middle-class students huddle diligently in libraries, at work on sensationalist subjects like vampirism and eye-gouging, cyborgs and porno movies’ (2).

Although Eagleton paints a somewhat flattering picture of a discipline that has often revelled in obscurantism, he does admit that cultural theory represented something of a retreat from politics: ‘The emancipation which had failed in the streets and factories could be acted out instead in erotic intensities or the floating signifier.’ (3)

Eagleton is at his strongest when puncturing the pretensions of cultural theory, perhaps because he has spent so much of his career having to wade through this stuff. Complaining about the use of postmodern jargon, he argues that ‘to write in this way as a literary academic, someone who is actually paid for having among other things a certain flair and feel for language, is rather like being a myopic optician or a grossly obese ballet dancer’. Such quips also fill the pages of Eagleton’s Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others, published earlier in 2003 – in which he observes dryly that ‘post-colonial theory makes heavy weather of a respect for the Other, but its most immediate Other, the reader, is apparently dispensed from this sensitivity’ (4).

Eagleton is also capable of mounting more serious arguments for rational and comprehensible thought. Among the highlights of After Theory are his lively defences of the concepts of absolute truth – ‘no idea is more unpopular with cultural theory’; and objectivity – ‘objectivity does not mean judging from nowhere…you can only know how the situation is if you are in a position to know’ (5).

Elsewhere, however, Eagleton finds it more difficult to defend rationality, struggling as he does to distinguish progressive achievements from postmodern playfulness. For instance, he makes the bizarre assertion that ‘taming the Mississippi and piercing your navel are just earlier and later versions of the same ideology’ (6) – failing to appreciate that the former is a landmark achievement which benefited humanity, while the latter is a frivolous and often narcissistic cosmetic exercise (see The body piercing project, by Josie Appleton).

The wheels really come off when Eagleton tries to make sense of the anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation movement, describing it as a ‘remarkable campaign’ that ‘demonstrated, for all its confusion and ambiguities…that thinking globally was not the same thing as being totalitarian’ (7). But it’s hard to see that there was any ‘thinking’ behind this so-called ‘campaign’, nor indeed much to distinguish it other than ‘confusion and ambiguities’.

At a discussion held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in October, entitled ‘Is solidarity possible in the age of irony?’, I put it to Eagleton that the absence of any principled commitment or intellectual content in the recent anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation and anti-war movements, meant that these movements had much in common with precisely those aspects of contemporary cultural theory that he so dislikes. Eagleton acknowledged the shortcomings of these ‘new social movements’, but responded that we have to make do with ‘local and contingent solidarities’, because following the demise of older political struggles, ‘an organic solidarity has died and a new one has yet to be born’.

It’s hard to see how any kind of ‘organic solidarity’ or other progressive ideas can be born from making a virtue of incoherence – whether the incoherence lies in the latest cultural theory, or the latest anti-capitalist protest. Eagleton’s attitude is more understandable, however, when you consider that one of the few distinguishing characteristics of the new anti-capitalism is an aversion to change and progress.

For all his radical credentials, Eagleton is himself averse to change. His objection to the endless, incoherent playfulness of cultural theory is motivated at least in part by a (false) suspicion that such playfulness proves that society is changing too much and too quickly. Take this revealing passage from After Theory:

‘There is far too much change around, not too little. Whole ways of life are wiped out almost overnight. Men and women must scramble frantically to acquire new skills or be thrown on the scrapheap. Technology becomes monstrous in its infancy and monstrously swollen corporations threaten to implode. All that is solid – banks, pension schemes, anti-arms treaties, obese newspaper magnates – melts into air. Human identities are shucked off, tried on for size, tilted at a roguish angle and flamboyantly paraded along the catwalks of social life. In the midst of this perpetual agitation, one sound middle-aged reason for being a socialist is to take a breather.’ (8)

Here we see cultural theory, identity politics and all the myriad ills of the world bundled up with technological progress and presented as a terrifying threat. Unfortunately, Eagleton’s fear of change means that while he excels at identifying the failings of cultural theory, the alternatives he puts forward are often even more backward.

For example, he attacks cultural theory’s preoccupation with the human body, but then he comes to the depressing conclusion that the real problem is cultural theory’s inability to confront the body’s mortality and decrepitude. So he complains that ‘the body is a wildly popular topic in US cultural studies – but this is the plastic, remouldable, socially constructed body, not the piece of matter that sickens and dies’ (9). Are these really our only two options? Aren’t there more interesting and inspiring things for us to be thinking about than bodies?

The more one reads of Eagleton’s recent work, the more one comes to the conclusion that he should take his own advice and move beyond cultural theory. At the October ICA discussion in London, Eagleton shared a platform with the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, another theorist who has built a reputation around straddling the fields of politics and culture. The contrast between Eagleton’s and Žižek’s attitudes toward culture was striking.

In Figures of Dissent, Eagleton praises Žižek as ‘the most formidably brilliant exponent…of cultural theory…to have emerged from Europe for some decades’ (10). But at the ICA discussion, Žižek attacked the ‘all-pervasive use of the category of culture’, arguing that these days ‘culture means something to which you relate in a state of disavowal’. In other words, if you describe something you are commenting upon as ‘cultural’, often what you are doing is keeping it at arm’s length, refusing to be either committed to, or accountable for, your ideas about it. Culture has become a refuge from substantial debate – for Eagleton, as much as for the cultural theorists he criticises.

Eagleton concludes After Theory by arguing that ‘cultural theory…cannot afford simply to keep recounting the same narratives of class, race and gender…. It needs to chance its arm, break out of a rather stifling orthodoxy and explore new topics’ (11). But rather than making these demands and then attacking cultural theory when it fails to deliver, perhaps we should simply be getting on with developing new ideas about the world and how we might change it for the better.

After Theory, by Terry Eagleton, is published in the UK by Allen Lane and in the USA by Basic Books. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others, by Terry Eagleton, is published by Verso. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Read on:

Pooh-poohing postmodernism, by Sandy Starr

‘The one measure of true love is: you can insult the other’, by Sabine Reul and Thomas Deichmann

(1) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p1, 7

(2) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p24, 2-3

(3) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p29

(4) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p77; Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others, Terry Eagleton, Verso, 2003, p159

(5) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p103, 135

(6) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p165

(7) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p52

(8) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p164

(9) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p186

(10) Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others, Terry Eagleton, Verso, 2003, p200

(11) After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003, p222

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Topics Culture


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