Friday, December 24, 2004

After Eagleton

I have just been handed a copy of After Theory from my brother, in order that I may "tell" him "which parts" he "needs to read." My response after an admittedly cursory look so far is as follows:

First of all, Eagleton's Introduction to Literary Theory is, for everyone who will never read Barth, Kristeva, Foucault, T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, Leavis, Jakobson, Saussure, Shklovsky, Bakhtin, Marx, Freud, Shakespeare or Derrida for themselves, an indispensable read. Even if one does read on one's own, or does consider oneself someone who likes to "do theory," Eagleton's books generally provide a rare and valuable combination of sweeping anthology and critical insight. Like Zizek, Terry Eagleton is something of a self-appointed, popular spokesman figure: someone valiantly trying to make theory accessible to the public. It's a noble mission, sort of. And some do it better than others. But while they hop on the backs of others and crack their whips, these two writers cannot help but imply, along with the likes of Baz Luhrman, that everything, including philosophy, is, in the end, merely popular. A somewhat tiresome routine, for those who have bothered to read for themselves, if not one that contradicts the true calling of philosophy, which cannot be popular merely and still remain philosophy (place-less, trembling, homesick). Therefore I always find it intriguing when Eagleton uses an (unacknowledged) Althusserian Marxism to align himself most fervently against all the rampant sophistry that is, apparently to Eagleton anyway, the self-evident entity, "postmodernism:"
Those who oppose norms, authority and majorities as such are abstract universalists, even though most of them oppose abstract universalism as well.
The postmodern prejudice against norms, unities and consensus is a politically catastrophic one. It is also remarkably dim-witted. (15-16)

This is a useless exercise in laying empty, purely rhetorical blame on something that just doesn't exist as such. Eagleton is conflating what he calls "postmodernism" with (an idealized vision of) the conditions of late capitalism--he even says as much himself:
The new norm now is money; but since money has absolutely no principles or identity of its own, it is no kind of norm at all. It is utterly promiscuous, and will happily tag along with the highest bidder. It is infinitely adaptive to the most bizarre or extremist of situations, and like the Queen has no opinions of its own about anything. (16-17)

When he explicitly reduces "postmodernism" to that which merely "tends towards..relativism, and celebrates...heterogeneity" (13), Eagleton is simply conjuring a well-established indictment of the hypocritical tolerance of liberal democracy. Who established it? Well, Derrida, for one. But Eagleton's conceptualization, while not short on confidence or bravado, remains on the level of a cliche. He is fighting one prejudice with another.

To be fair, Eagleton's critique (to the extent that it is even his) does touch on some extremely important points, and in an immediately entertaining, vilifying sort of way:
Postmodernism seems at times to behave as though the classical bourgeoisie is alive and well, and thus finds itself living in the past. It spends much of its time assailing absolute truth, objectivity, timeless moral values, scientific inquiry and a belief in historical progress. It calls into question the autonomy of the individual, inflexible social and sexaul norms, and the belief that there are firm foundations to the world. Since all of these values belong to a bourgeois world on the wane, this is rather like firing off irascible letters to the press about horse-riding Huns or marauding Carthaginians who have taken over the Home Counties.

He then proceeds to CYA quickly:
This is not to say that these beliefs do not still have force. In places like Ulster and Utah, they are riding high. But nobody on Wall Street and few in Fleet Street believe in absolute truth and unimpeachable foundations. (17-18)

Eagleton seems to be at his best when he's able to drop the snide sarcasm in favor of beautifully sweeping arguments that, notably, remain far more responsible than most. Such passages excuse, to some degree, his frequently gross simplifications (particularly and predictably with respect to Derrida). There is a lightness to Eagleton's prose. (A lightness? You mean a sort of Blanchot, stripped of the near-constant tropings of oxymoron and paronomasia?--No, but that is still unfair to Blanchot.) Here he is again, 100 pages and eons of pop-philosophy later:
The absolute self-abandonment which death demands of us is only tolerable if we have rehearsed for it somewhat in life. The self-giving of friendship is a kind of petit mort, an act with the inner structure of dying. This, no doubt, is one meaning of St Paul's dictum that we die every moment. In this sense, death is one of the inner structures of social existence itself. The ancient world believed its social order had to be cemented by sacrifice, and it was perfectly correct. It was just that it tended to see such sacrifice in terms of libations and slaughtered goats rather than as a structure of mutual self-giving. Once social institutions are so ordered that such self-giving is reciprocal and all-around, sacrifice in the odious sense of some people having to relinquish their happiness for the sake of others would be less necessary.

A society which is shy of death is also likely to be rattled by foreigners. Both mark out the limits of our own lives, relativizing them in unpalatable ways. But in one sense all others are foreigners. My identity lies in the keeping of others, and this--because they perceive me through the thick mesh of their own interests and desires--can never be an entirely safe keeping. The self I receive back from others is always rather shopsoiled. It is mauled by their own desires--which is not to say their desire for me. But it remains the case that I can know who I am or what I am feeling only by belonging to a language which is never my personal possession. It is others who are custodians of my selfhood. 'I borrow myself from others,' as the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty remarks. It is only in the speech I share with them that I can come to mean anything at all.

This meaning is not one I can ever fully possess, since neither can those who fashion it. This is because it is not simply a matter of their opinions of me. If this were so, why not just ask them? It is a matter of the way in which my existence figures within their own lives in ways in which neither I nor they can ever be fully conscious. To trace the rippling effects on others of the most trifling of my actions, or just of my brute presence in the world, I would need to deploy a whole army of researchers. (After Theory, 211-22)

Well, one researcher might be enough, sometime, when he has the time, to rescue Eagleton from so transparently betraying his contempt for Derrida. A sample from the more substantial passages where Derrida is mentioned (usually his name is simply summoned amidst a host of others in order to condemn them all in one glib glob):
For Jacques Derrida, ethics is a matter of absolute decisions--decisions which are vital and necessary but also utterly 'impossible', and which fall outside all given norms, forms of knowledge and modes of conceptualization. [As proof of his authority on this, Eagleton here cites 'Donner la mort', the original French version of Derrida's latest (well, almost) book, The Gift of Death.] One can only hope that he is not on the jury when one's case comes up in court. (154)

Huh. Hilarious. Another sample:
When it comes to a thinker like Jacques Derrida, the more apt accusation might be that he is far too painstaking a reader--that he stands so close up to the word, fastidiously probing its most microscopic features, that like a painting viewed from too near it theatens to disintegrate into a set of streaks and blurs. (92)

I don't know if Eagleton is aiming a facile stab at William Burroughs and Brion Gysin here as well, but this accusation, though common enough, simply isn't true. Derrida did both, and with more scope and rigor than virtually anyone else. Eagleton may have a whip, and a library, but whether or not to be impressed by his spurs remains a question for debate. I do not mean to imply that glibness in itself is a bad thing, and Eagleton does make some decent attempts to defend his style as if it were a philosophy here, but mabye that is just the problem: glibness begging to be compensated for with a certain defensiveness. Separating the valuable insight from betwixt the two is never easy. Perhaps Eagleton remains, primarily, a writer for "smart people" (including professors) who wish to stay current but no more. And yet, he is a pretty smart guy, and you just might learn a thing or two from him. Perhaps being made to feel uneasy, at times, by an author's sweep and stroll, is finally not such a bad thing after all.

Update: This was written in a somewhat arrogant, inhospitable spirit, which I regret but will nevertheless let stand. Please see a later post on the subject for a bit more balance and less snark.

A somewhat related discussion at John & Belle may also be of interest (but first see Michael Bérubé if you please).

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