Friday, December 10, 2010

Terry Eagleton’s Cultural theory

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.'

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'.
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.' 
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'.
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'.
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' - failing to appreciate that the former is a landmark achievement which benefited humanity, while the latter is a frivolous and often narcissistic cosmetic exercise
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' . 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'.
Culture has become a refuge from substantial debate

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.' 
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' . 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' . 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' . 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.


Terry Eagleton’s After Theory is a book that is meant to incite. While Eagleton is not so naive as to believe that theory is ever going to be exhausted -- he writes “if theory means a reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions, it remains as indispensable as ever” (2) -- he is bold enough to pick a fight with postmodernism.  While this may not be a particularly new tactic, it is the manner and the precision of the argument that Eagleton presents that makes his book a brilliant and necessary document.

In a note on page 13, Eagleton defines postmodern as “the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge.” He goes on to wrote that postmodernism “is skeptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity.“  This is a succinct description of postmodernism and it seems to be difficult to argue with Eagleton’s definition.  I don’t think, though, and I believe Eagleton would agree with me, that the work of Michel Foucault or Edward Said ignores the truth.  Indeed, it takes the truth as the basis of its argument.  But I digress.  In his first chapter, entitled “The Politics of Amnesia,” Eagleton lays down his argument that, while much of the work of Foucault, Said, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jurgen Habermas, Helene Cixous and Roland Barthes (among others) continues to be of importance, it has had its run. These writers cast such a huge shadow over the field of literary and cultural criticism that what came after them were merely disciples who may have expanded and applied their theories, but did nothing new in a practical sense.  Also, the world that greeted these writers when they sat down at the their typewriters to write their books is not the same world we live in today. While Foucault (a personal favorite of mine) may have been cutting edge in the 1980s, we are living in 2004. Where are the great thinkers to tackle the present?

For Eagleton, the grave problem with postmodern thought is that it has given up on asking the big question.  Instead, it has celebrated difference (and différance) to such an extent that we cannot see ourselves as being part of any unified whole.  Instead, we cultivate our small groups and consider primarily the questions that are important to our unique selves.  This abandonment of engaging the big social questions has led to an increasing interest in the humanities on the body or vampires or porn; perhaps these topics are worthy of serious intellectual thought, but what they represent to Eagleton is a white flag that English majors are waving at the world.  We know that we cannot engage the questions that are relevant to most of the world, so we will work on the margins and impress a very small audience.  This reminds me of Martin McQuillan’s introduction to Deconstruction: A Reader wherein he writes that “a definition (if we really must have such things) of deconstruction might be that deconstruction is an act of reading which allows the other to speak” (6).  Eagleton scoffs at the fascination with the Other in contemporary literary studies, preferring to remind us that the situation of what we normally define as the Other is really the situation of most of the world’s population.  They are not exotic and our study of their differences merely serves to highlight our need to congratulate ourselves on having taken them seriously enough to write a paper on their problems.  Eagleton challenges us to see that their problems are our problems and we must begin to behave knowing that as an immutable fact.

It may be important to note at this point that Eagleton is a theorist and he champions the work of those theorists that look at the big picture.  He has a lot of good to say about Foucault’s The Order of Things, but he does have a problem with Derrida.  The problem he has with him can be summarized quite easily.  Derrida is a fine close reader, but he reads too closely. Eagleton believes that Derrida may be too enamored with words and their seemingly endless possibilities.  The major problem, though, that he has with postmodernism and its practitioners is that they have rejected Marx and socialism. Most of the seminal French philosophers of the 1960s were weaned on Nietzsche and Marx, but they decided to reject Marx as outdated and impractical.  Eagleton remains perhaps the most important Marxist literary critic writing in the English language and it is the turning away from Marx that is at the core of postmodernism’s problems.  He makes his claim boldly at the end of chapter four, entitled “Losses and Gains”:

Most of the objections to theory are either false or fairly trifling. A far more devastating criticism of it can be launched.  Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver.  It 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.  This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on. It is also, as we have suggested before, rather an       awkward moment in history to find oneself with little or nothing to say about such fundamental questions.           (101-2)  

The statement I quote above serves as the engine for the rest of the book.  Eagleton writes four chapters that serve to remind his readers that there are such things as truth, morality, evil, and virtue in this world and that it is perhaps time to abandon irony as the primary way to respond to the world’s problems.

In the fifth chapter of the book, “Truth, Virtue and Objectivity,” Eagleton makes his boldest claim yet for socialism.  As he writes, “one reason for judging socialism to be superior to liberalism is the belief that human beings are political animals not only in the sense that they need to take account of each other’s need for fulfillment, but that in fact they achieve their deepest fulfillment only in terms of each other” (122). This simple statement is Eagleton’s call to arms.  In our present political climate it is not enough to write about a sexy topic, get a grade, get a degree, and get a job.  We have to get away from simplistic self-interest and political disinterest. In the chapter entitled “Morality,” Eagleton makes it clear what morality is.  It is “all about the enjoyment and abundance of life” (141).  It is not the cynical morality employed by our current administration on the issue of the war on terror.  As Eagleton points out, “in the so-called war against terrorism, for example, the word ‘evil’ really means: Don’t look for a political explanation ... You can ignore the plight of the Palestinian people, or of those Arabs who have suffered under squalid right-wing autocracies supported by the West for its own selfish, oil-hungry purposes” (141).  This statement is not merely a gratuitous shot at the Bush administration; it serves as a running example for Eagleton’s argument.  Where is the tradition in postmodern thought, with its praising of relativism, that will adequately address the issues we face?
Once we accept that truth, objectivity, virtue and nature (among other things) are real, then we can move in the direction of true engagement and we theorists can actually be relevant again.  We have to also come to terms with the fact that not everything is culturally constructed. We are animals and we have to deal with some realities that other animals have to deal with, such as sexual differences and death.  This does not mean that culture has no place in forming us; rather, it means that there are other very powerful things that have say in the way we are.  To me, it appears that Eagleton is not so much dismissing all of postmodernism as much as he is challenging its claims, claims that have become so accepted as to go unchallenged.

In the postscript to the book, Eagleton reminds the United States that it holds an extraordinary place in the world today.  What he is concerned with is the American belief that you can be anything as long as you want it badly enough.  This belief leads to a vicious appraisal of the poor and underprivileged, not only in the U.S., but also throughout the world.  He sees this as a weakness.  It is in the postscript that the true subject of the book becomes clear.  This book is not merely a disavowal of postmodernism. The book serves as an example of the theory that Eagleton espouses throughout the book. It is a theory that is compassionate, thought provoking, and challenging.  It is a theory that forces the reader to take sides and passionately argue for them.  In short, it is a theory that, while by no means perfect, allows for the reader and the practitioner to engage the fundamental questions that lie at the center of our very existence.  I can imagine the arguments readers of this review will have with Eagleton’s position. I would urge you, though, to pick up the book and your argument will be more productive and exciting.  What more could you ask for from a book on literary and cultural criticism?

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