Amazed and confused in the quest for clarity

After Theory
November 14, 2003

Terry Eagleton is an amazingly productive writer. He can turn out a book faster than many academics can draft a proposal and thus, in an age that prizes such visible signs of intellectual distinction, he has risen to the top of the tree.

There is no doubt that he is gifted. He has formidable powers of rapid assimilation and is, within his favoured spheres of interest, inexhaustibly curious. Over the years he has developed a style in which mandarin flamboyance is tinged with streetwise aggression: the panache of David Bowie with the pugnacity of Keith Richards.

His long bibliography therefore reveals every development in his intellectual evolution: short studies of the Bront s, Shakespeare, Richardson; and an ongoing succession of books on cultural theory, starting from a fairly stable commitment to Marxism, rising to probably the bestselling book in the West on radical literary theory and flourishing now in a coruscating comet's tail of books where his growing unease about the delinquencies of theory has belatedly sought expression.

Eagleton recently published an article in The THES (October 3), anticipating that his new book, After Theory , would widely be regarded as a fairly cynical exercise in tergiversation. He was careful to suggest that anyone who felt like this would be aligning themselves with the complacent, bourgeois, pre-theoretical orthodoxies that any enlightened person would surely be glad to be rid of, even if the Augean stables could be cleaned only by hosing them down with prodigal quantities of high-powered abstraction.

Now that this work has been accomplished, Eagleton wants to show that there is a new orthodoxy - relativistic, truth-denying, ahistorical, morally rootless, secularised and indiscriminately pluralistic - that, he has come to think, needs challenging. So up he stands to issue the challenge.

For the most part, he does this ably and vivaciously. Yet, in among the verve, the lucidity, the nimble feats of compression, the scintillations of fashionable chic and elegant eclecticism are less reassuring qualities.

First, there is narcissism (the desire to be thought clever, the "dim-wits" scorned). Then there is problem-mongering: the opposition is misrepresented; overstatement and crude terminology are used to fabricate problems that can then be neatly solved. Eagleton seems in love with abstraction and therefore shy of historical particulars. Traces of an old unwillingness to commit himself and thereby outwit the opposition are evident in his recurrent use of a sort of metacritical subjunctive - "there is no need to be alarmed about this... since human culture is not really free-floating" - where ideas are relayed in what turns out not to be Eagleton's voice. Most of all, he tends towards the ahistorical, not least in treating his own book as the beginning of a solution to the problem of theory. A brief discussion of King Lear is a rare departure from a general over-reliance on the concepts or values of the present, with a resulting lack of perspective. There is no panoptic viewpoint; the most powerful antidote to cultural chauvinism is an awareness of the present as itself a period.

Since the rise of antifoundationalist theory, critics have broached moral questions with embarrassment, as if declaring that such concerns proved them unsophisticated - and that intellectual sophistication were the highest good. By eliminating this moral dimension of their work, academic critics regularly ensure that they are read not in the hope of enlightenment - as our predecessors read Johnson or Hazlitt - but, at best, with respect for a relatively barren cleverness. This is news only to people addicted to novelty. There were many of them around in the 1980s and 1990s and, supposing themselves abetted by clever writers such as Eagleton, they were able to persevere in an international academic conspiracy to annihilate the past by discouraging students from acquiring the ability to read it.

One reason why this matters is that the subtlety with which language is used in the present depends on an awareness of how it has been used in the past. Such awareness implicitly can put up critical resistance to the tendentiousness of theoretical terminology not so informed. Now that we have had 25 years of academics, not always notable for their powers of appreciative reading, telling us of the depredations of practical criticism, we need to learn again how to read - not least so that philosophical warnings about the use of the term "practical" criticism could again become intelligible to second-year undergraduates.

This is not only a matter of learning how to draw implications out into explicitness, but also of learning how not to. One problem with working in academe is recognising proper limits to the authority of the intellect.

Because academics spend so much time removing confusions by clarifying terms, it is natural to suppose that clarifying terms always removes confusions.

Further definitions of a term such as "wisdom" may be helpful up to a point but only on condition that the existence of some such point is acknowledged. Otherwise there is a danger that the pleasure we all get from merely exercising our wits drives us on in an activity unlikely to be fruitful. Like the distinctions between a short novel and a long short story, virtue and sanctimony, tact and dissimulation, authority and authoritarianism, or intuition and prejudice, that between intellectualism and real thinking is difficult - yet, intuitively, I think it can be recognised.

Eagleton characterises vividly the cultural symptoms of our having "moved from the high-minded hypocrisy of the old middle-classes to the low-minded effrontery of the new ones". Yet the very terms he uses to make this distinction (straining for antitheses more assiduously than Pope) are problematic. He acknowledges this himself, saying: "This, of course, is an exaggeration, the old regime was never as unified as that..." But the "of course" too glibly asks indulgence for the foregoing concession.

Exaggeration is a principal means by which the theoretical orthodoxy established and sustained itself.

There is real passion in the book on the subject of colonialism, where Eagleton's Marxist allegiances give depth and subtlety to his feeling.

Death, too, invigorates his imagination. The effects of the decline in Christian observance are fairly noted, yet he lacks much sense of the danger, it seems to me, that Christianity, or "foundationalism", will be presented as just another hot topic waiting to be added to the contents pages of books under "Deconstruction" and "Postmodernism". But as Wittgenstein, among countless others, noted, Christianity is inevitably misconceived by those to whom it is simply a subject. Eagleton's thinking is always clever, sometimes wise, but his heart is often not in it. I would believe this to be the case even if he told me, ever so entertainingly, about the ideological construction of the concept of the heart.

I do not want to caricature him. I myself am a working-class Welshman, nonconformist, yet baptised Roman Catholic, aware of how postcolonialism often bypasses Wales. I maintain a critical respect for scholarly tradition and am committed to keeping alive the ability to read old books. I believe in the canon (as constituted informally by writers) and I have, for many years, been a rock singer.

Eagleton has, as most human beings have, his full complement of such complexities. Yet they are presented serially in the history of his ideas, rather than together in their shifting inter-relations. I suppose I would have found the virtues of his book easier to welcome if he had admitted rather more consistently to being just a little confused.

Stephen Logan is lecturer in English, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

After Theory

Author - Terry Eagleton
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 225
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9732 X

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