The last decade or two have witnessed an insidious shift in American culture, one that goes to the heart of the way we talk about our society. It’s a shift that involves those two words I just used: “culture” and “society.” How easily the first rolls off the tongue these days, whereas the second strikes a discordant, dated note. Because who talks about “society” anymore? For today’s horde of “cultural critics” and “cultural theorists,” some of them working in “cultural studies” departments, American culture (pop or otherwise) is the site of any number of important issues, trends and struggles, but American society is, well, nowhere. It’s as if we’ve come to believe that our collective life is a matter of nothing more than images and brands, discourses and signs, and not, as we once recognized, material issues like poverty, jobs and (another word we no longer use) equality. Culture matters, of course–the very displacement I’m talking about is a cultural issue–but it matters because of its effect on concrete economic and political realities. Gloria Steinem wanted people to say “police officer” instead of “policeman” because she knew it would help get more women into blue uniforms, not because she thought language was any kind of end in itself.
It is to this shift, understood in the specific context of academic discourse and as a global rather than a narrowly American phenomenon, that Terry Eagleton addresses himself in After Theory. Eagleton, a combative and fiercely articulate Marxist who was once the Young Turk of British literary studies, is by now, at 60, its grand old man. A third-generation Irish-Catholic immigrant from the industrial slums of Salford, he recently took up a specially created chair at Manchester University after four decades at Oxbridge. Relentlessly prolific (some twenty books and counting) in a range of forms (fiction, drama and memoir as well as criticism and theory), he is a writer of terrific energy, wit and popularity. Literary Theory (1983), which made the intricacies of structuralism, deconstruction and the rest of the theoretical menagerie accessible to students worldwide, has sold nearly a million copies.
But while After Theory sounds like a sequel to Eagleton’s most famous work, the title is actually a bit of false advertising. The book is neither an explication of theoretical developments over the past two decades nor an argument that theory, in the sense of “systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions,” is, should or ever could be dead. Instead, after tracing the rise and fall of cultural theory in the narrower sense (he dates its heyday to 1965-80) and casting some characteristically Eagletonian scorn on what’s been happening in literary studies since (“those who can, think up feminism or structuralism; those who can’t, apply such insights to Moby-Dick or The Cat in the Hat“), he takes aim at theory’s omissions. With its focus on cultural rather than economic or political issues as well as its doctrinaire aversion to ideas of collective action, historical progress or objective reality, academic theory, Eagleton claims, has failed to address questions fundamental to the struggle against global capital: “morality and metaphysics,” “love, biology, religion and revolution,” not to mention evil, death, suffering and truth.
The book’s second half takes up these very questions. Drawing on both Aristotle and the Judeo-Christian tradition, with a surprisingly small admixture of Marx, Eagleton articulates a set of ideas about the nature of human happiness and of the collective life necessary to achieve it that is often persuasive and beautiful. From Aristotle he takes the notion that happiness is not, as capitalist ideology insists, a matter of achieving wealth or success or indeed any goal but of fulfilling one’s nature as a human being, the flourishing of one’s innate capacities for excellence and virtue.
But if the good life means becoming more fully human by developing the virtues, it takes both strenuous practice (one becomes brave or compassionate by being brave or compassionate) and the social conditions that make such practice possible. Ethics, in other words, is a subset of politics. “If you want to be good, you need a good society,” Eagleton writes; “nobody can thrive when they are starving, miserable or oppressed.” A true ethics is thus a materialist one, a morality not of feeling but of acting: feeding the hungry, comforting the sick.