Thursday, January 13, 2005

Eagleton redux

Terry Eagleton, earlier criticized in a hatchet response to his latest book (hardly a "review" as some have claimed), certainly deserves respect and attention for one simple reason: he is an unapologetic Marxist. That is, he understands how impotent political criticism can be without such a structural critique of capitalism as such. That's right, Capitalism. Such a critic is a rarity indeed, within the hallowed halls or whatever anti-intellectual cliche one wishes to use academia, currently going through one of its periodical psuedo-identity-crisis episodes. Eagleton's is a critical stance that some folks would do well to take up. At the risk of becoming potent and truly important, that is. Just don't take his word on Derrida, okay? But let's give Eagleton just a bit more space to speak for himself:

Capitalism needs a human being who has never yet existed--one who is prudently restrained in the office and wildly anarchic in the shopping mall. What was happening in the 1960s was that the disciplines of production were being challenged by the culture of consumption. And this was bad news for the system only in a limited sense.

There was no simple rise and fall of radical ideas. We have seen already that revolutionary nationalism chalked up to some signal victories at the same time that it unwittingly prepared the ground for a 'post-class' discourse of the impoverished world. While students were discovering free love, a brutal US imperialism was at its height in south-east Asia. If there were fresh demands for liberation, they were partly reactions to a capitalism in buoyant, expansive phase. It was the soullessness of an affluent society, not the harshness of a deprived one, which was under fire. European Communist parties made some inroads, but political reform in Czechoslovakia was crushed by Soviet tanks. Latin American guerrilla movements were rolled back. Structuralism, the new intellectual fashion, was radical in some ways and technocratic in others. If it challenged the prevailing social order, it also reflected it. Post-structuralism and postmodernism were to prove similarly ambiguous, subverting the metaphysical underpinnings of middle-class society with something of its own market-type relativism. Both postmoderists and neo-liberals are suspicious of public norms, inherent values, given hierarchies, authoritative standards, consensual codes and traditional practices. It is just that neo-liberals admit that they reject all this in the name of the market. Radical postmodernists, by contrast, combine these aversions with a somewhat sheepish chariness of commercialism. The neo-liberals, at least, have the virtue of consistency here, whatever their plentiful vices elsewhere. (After Theory, 28-29)

One can easily enough imagine the effect such a book will have. Their general discomfort with the seemingly impotent state of cultural theory, English or Humanities departments (not to mention their habitual fear and distrust of the French) to some degree vindicated, yet not quite comfortable swallowing Eagleton's brand of Marxism whole, academics and NPR-listeners will hopefully have been given some fresh ammo, some Nietzschean soundbites, to help them carry streadfastly on against the forclosure on thinking that is fundamentalist politics. But having been given all the soundbites so conveniently packaged for them, they may remain largely uninspired to read for themselves. In short one gets the disturbing impression that at the end of Eagleton's book the reader in good faith is left with voila: Terry Eagleton. Having taken the time to read himself, it wouldn't hurt him to go further in providing hospitable or original readings, perhaps ones that gestured toward a place beyond his own text. One might wonder if the risk of taking the popular audience as a fundamental starting point is to sometimes become trapped within it. Ignorance becomes more tolerable every time it is so naturalized. A form of cheap therapy, even.

While one may agree that the often polemical, show-off style of folks like Zizek, Baudrillard or David Foster Wallace is lamentable, especially as it spreads like a virus contaminating the writing of so many, again what Eagleton fails to do is rigorously distinguish between what is generally slandered as "postmodernism" and the subtle insights of poststructuralism. (The latter, of course, raises difficult questions for a neo-Marxist.) In fact Eagleton more often than not fails to acknowledge any distinction whatsoever. So he risks taking the worst sloganized prejudices of the tired "culture wars" as both his beginning and, unfortunately, his end point. Just hang in there, ye academics, don't bother to read Derrida, wink, nudge, nudge.

We can never be 'after theory', in the sense that there can be no reflective human life without it. We can simply run out of particular styles of thinking, as our situation changes. With the launch of a new global narrative of capitalism, along with the so-called war on terror, it may well be that the style of thinking known as postmodernism is now approaching an end. It was, after all, the theory which assured us that grand narratives were a thing of the past. Perhaps we will be able to see it, in retrospect, as one of the little narratives of which it has been so fond. This, however, presents cultural theory with a fresh challenge. If it is to engage with an ambitious global history, it must have answerable resources of its own, equal in depth and scope to the situation it confronts. It cannot afford simply to keep recounting the same narratives of class, race and gender, indispensable as these topics are. It needs to chance its arm, break out of a rather stifling orthodoxy and explore new topics, not least those of which it has so far been unreasonably shy. This book has been an opening move in that inquiry. (Eagleton, 221-222)

Cue readers everywhere scratching their heads wondering just what the "It" refers to. How is one to "break out" of the mysterious straw man entity: theory/postmodernism/cultural theory when breaking out is precisely what has been so lambasted for the proceeding 200 pages. I guess we'll have to wait for the sequel.

Update: A very balanced and very official review of After Theory (courtesy of Political Theory Daily Review).

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