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.
It is here that Aristotle passes over into Christianity. For the latter, the chief virtue is love: We find our own fulfillment by contributing to the fulfillment of others–a self-sacrifice that Eagleton never claims is less than very difficult but that becomes a good bit more thinkable once we see it as a rehearsal for the ultimate, inevitable self-abandonment of death (the one reality consumer society is most desperate to deny). The archetype of such selflessness is the martyr, who dies so that others may live, but it is in any case a figment of capitalist ideology to believe that we ever possess ourselves, possess our bodies, in the first place. The force that should bind our collective life, in Eagleton’s conception, is not self-interest, as in liberalism, but reciprocity. And the name for this ethic, when it assumes political form, is socialism.
All this is admirable and powerful, but there are problems. For one thing, the argument isn’t nearly as coherent as I’ve made it sound, but proceeds instead by zigs and zags, often little more than a grab-bag of discussions, definitions and digressions, as Eagleton tries to tackle every issue he thinks the present situation demands but without having integrated them all into a coherent framework. Reading his two previous books, The Gatekeeper, a memoir, and Figures of Dissent, a collection of reviews, one discovers that he’s adapted nearly a score of passages from those works for the present one. (His fertility, it turns out, is partly a matter of shameless self-plagiarism.) No wonder the book feels patched together.
For another thing, Eagleton’s argument is often not much of an argument at all but rather a series of assertions that sympathetic readers are likely to agree with but that hardly stand up to the kind of rigorous analysis he himself uses so tellingly against his opponents. The fact is that for all his polish and brilliance as an explicator of other people’s ideas, Eagleton has never been much of an original thinker. (Those who can, think up Marxism; those who can’t, apply such insights to Clarissa or Wuthering Heights.) He even acknowledges as much in The Gatekeeper, referring to a youthful job as an encyclopedia salesman as his “earliest experience of peddling ideas to the masses, a project which was later to become my full-time occupation.” The remark may be funny, but it’s no joke. Here, trying to create a kind of moral-political Theory of Everything, he gets badly out of his depth.
But those aren’t the most serious problems. Whatever the shortcomings of his argument, I for one am perfectly ready to agree with its general thrust: that capitalism is irredeemably wicked, that no amount of incrementalist tinkering will make it otherwise and that, in the face of the intellectual paralysis that has taken over the left, we must have the courage to imagine revolutionary new social models and take the collective action necessary to bring them into being. The big problem is that Eagleton doesn’t say the first thing about how to get from here to there, or even, except in the most tritely general way, what “there” would look like. Yes, Professor Eagleton, “we need to imagine new forms of belonging.” So how about trying to imagine some? Indeed, for all that Eagleton has always preached the necessity of situating objects of analysis within their historical contexts, and for all of this book’s announced post-cultural studies, post-9/11 topicality, he makes virtually no reference to the present world situation in the second half of the book. It’s as if he were waiting for someone like Fredric Jameson to articulate a real Marxist analysis of the latest phase of capitalist development so that he can restate (and market) it in his own much cleverer, more lucid language.
Figures of Dissent, which offers some two-score brief but vivid engagements with mostly modern or contemporary figures (Yeats, Lukacs, Spivak, Zizek), is by far the more worthwhile book. Essays on I.A. Richards and the Frankfurt School are models of historical explication; those on Wilde and Wittgenstein give us Eagleton paying homage to his intellectual heroes. For all his mordancy, he can display a generous heart, even if he displays it rather sparingly. Still, the more of these pieces one reads, the more exasperating, as well as exasperatingly predictable, Eagleton’s method becomes. His unfailing strategy, as I suggested before, is to explain–that is, to explain away–a given thinker’s ideas as a function of his or her historical situation. The same objection has long been made to Eagleton’s literary criticism: that it treats works of art as symptoms of their societies’ reigning ideologies, never as critiques of those ideologies in their own right.
For one thing, this approach is potentially exculpatory of even the most reactionary figures: How could they have done differently? For another, it fails to explain the differences between individuals from the same social situation. For a third, it’s especially dangerous in the hands of a critic as ingenious as Eagleton: The problem isn’t that he might fail to think up a way of explaining someone in terms of his or her historical background but that he’ll never fail to do so, no matter how superficial that explanation turns out to be. Of Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence, which sees poets as engaged in Oedipal struggle with their forebears, Eagleton remarks that “these poetic warriors locked in virile combat were good old American entrepreneurs in literary clothing, Davy Crocketts and Donald Trumps of the spirit.” This is, of course, ridiculous; far from being historically specific, Eagleton’s analysis of the first-generation Jewish immigrant Bloom, who grew up speaking Yiddish in a working-class Bronx neighborhood, is laughably generic. It also dispenses with the specificities of individual development: Bloom was decisively shaped by Gnosticism and Freudian psychoanalysis, two traditions not exactly indigenous to the United States. In Eagleton’s conception, if you can call it that, America is a social and ideological monolith of frontiersmen and tycoons. If this is the best he can come up with for Bloom, how am I to trust him with figures he’s introducing me to for the first time?
It’s funny, this approach, because After Theory actually criticizes the notion, advanced by “anti-theorists” like Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty, that one can never climb out of one’s culture so as to be able to critique it. “Reflecting critically on our situation,” Eagleton writes, “is part of our situation.” But the only one capable of doing so, it seems, is Terry Eagleton. Or is he? Might we not apply Eagleton’s methods to the man himself, reading his ideas as symptoms of his own historical myopia? Some of this is easy, and already amply acknowledged by Eagleton himself. It’s no surprise that a working-class British intellectual who came of age in the early 1960s should have become a Marxist; the real stroke of rebelliousness would have been if he hadn’t. Nor is it all that surprising that a product of Catholic schools should have retained an attachment to Catholic moral concepts and images (like martyrdom, which seems to exert a strong fascination for him as an idea, if not as a life choice). Eagleton is the kind of renegade Catholic intellectual who’s rejected every last bit of dogma but still somehow feels that the church really does have all the answers.
But we can go further. One of the hallmarks of Eagleton’s thought is his anti-Americanism. Snide, jokey comments about American crassness and philistinism dot his writing–like Harpo tooting his horn, he seems to throw them in whenever he feels the need to get a laugh–but the current runs deeper than that. Though very few of cultural theory’s seminal thinkers were American, Eagleton’s analysis of contemporary cultural studies carries the unmistakable implication that the whole sorry business is an outgrowth of American narcissism. Postcolonialism, he suggests in Figures of Dissent, turns out to be “a kind of ‘exported’ version of the United States’ own grievous ethnic problems,” another instance of the United States “defining the rest of the world in terms of itself.” This will be news to all those postcolonialists in New Delhi or Cape Town (or Ulster, for heaven’s sake) dealing with grievous ethnic problems that have much less to do with American hegemony than with the criminal legacies of older imperial powers like Great Britain. With rioting skinheads still fresh in the memory of London’s Asian communities (and Muslim minorities on the boil throughout Europe), it’s really something to hear an Englishman lecture the United States about ethnic tensions. By all means, let’s have some criticism of the United States from beyond our borders–we sure as hell need it–but let it be intelligent, informed criticism. Anyone who thinks of Davy Crockett and Donald Trump as the paradigms of all things American, who blithely claims that pro wrestling is our most popular TV sport and who caricatures the current Administration as “semi-illiterate” (a grievous underestimation of people like Wolfowitz and Rice) only plays into the hands of the xenophobic, unilateralist right.
So where is this knee-jerkerie coming from? Let’s remember that Eagleton spent his young adulthood clawing his way to the top of the British intellectual establishment, only to discover once he got there that it had been supplanted, just as surely as the British economic establishment had been some decades earlier, by an American one. There’s nothing like the rage of an old elite against a new one. Even in England, Oxbridge stopped being the place to be a long time before Eagleton jumped ship, the last provincial kid to notice that the magic world he’d once dreamed of had fallen into ruins. No wonder he’s bitter.
But then, I’m an American, and I would say these things (or maybe it’s just that I’m better able to notice them). And in any case, I’m probably being overingenious. After all, is it that hard to explain what Eagleton’s up to? The prolificness, the self-plagiarism, the snappy, highly consumable prose and, of course, the sales figures: Eagleton wishes for capitalism’s demise, but as long as it’s here, he plans to do as well as he can out of it. Someone who owns three homes shouldn’t be preaching self-sacrifice, and someone whose careerism at Oxbridge was legendary shouldn’t be telling interviewers of his longstanding regret at having turned down a job at the Open University. But then, Eagleton is a past master at having it both ways. After Theory contains some important and timely ideas about the imaginative failures of the left, the moral shape of a just society and much else–it’s just too bad they come from so dubious a source. But if the book sells as well as the one its title so deceptively evokes, at least he’ll be able to buy himself another few houses.