Bin Laden sure didn't read any beer mats

October 3, 2003

9/11 was a wake-up call for cultural theorists focused on vampires and discos. It is time to return to big ideas, says Terry Eagleton.

My new book, After Theory , provoked one predictable reaction from the political right even before it hit the shops. What the title really signified, philosopher Roger Scruton helpfully suggested, was that contemporary cultural theory had all been a dreadful aberration, and we could now pick up the threads wherever it was we laid them down. One can see how things might look like this from the far right. After a nightmarish interlude in which people gullibly swallowed the notion that there is nothing in the world but language, that Jeffrey Archer is as good as Jane Austen, and that beer mats are as semiotically rich as Balzac, sanity has broken out once more. The whistle had finally been blown on this orgy of unreason, and those who had been bamboozled by it could now return shamefacedly to their John Locke, David Hume and Christopher Ricks. In this view, those such as myself who helped ferment this madness are now prodigal sons, repentant sinners, recovered theorists. TA now stands for Theorists Anonymous, not Territorial Army.

What we can return to, so some claim, is actually reading works of literature rather than simply theorising about them. Not that the opponents of theory are always close readers. About ten years ago, a bunch of them at Cambridge University voted down Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. I would be prepared to bet a large amount of money that a good many of these dons -who seek to inculcate habits of close analysis in their students - had not read a whole book by Derrida, or in some cases more than a few pages. Conversely, a great many literary theorists are tenaciously close readers: Walter Benjamin, Harold Bloom, Frederic Jameson, Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, Edward Said, Hel ne Cixous, Paul De Man and Hillis Miller are among the more obvious examples.

The response to my book by a few on the political left will, I suspect, be the opposite of Scruton's, accusing it of intellectual betrayal. Yet it begins by insisting that what is in effect at an end is not theory but Theory. Lower-case theory goes on all the time, even when scanning a menu or checking a telephone directory. Theory, by contrast, breaks out only sporadically, when there seems an urgent need for it. "Pure" or "high" cultural theory, from Theodor Adorno and Roland Barthes to Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva, believes in looking at things historically; and it must logically bring this historical perspective to bear on itself.

Cultural theory is not a timeless phenomenon. In its "high" form, it flourished -from about 1965 to 1980 -for two major reasons. First, it was a symptom of a deep-seated crisis in the humanities. The humanities, one might claim, have always acted as both ideology and utopia. If they have colluded with an oppressive civilisation, they have also been the custodians of values, which point beyond it. They have offered us seductive rationales for accepting the status quo, but also provided us with a powerful critique of it. In the 1960s, the utopianists lost the battle to the idealogists. The humanities were either to be sidelined or firmly harnessed to late-capitalist priorities.

Capitalist society tips its hat to "culture", but only as a lapsed Catholic might absent-mindedly cross himself when passing a church. The arts for a utilitarian social order are just like ethics and religion; they are there to define what you live by in theory, but you would not be so crashingly naive as to take them seriously in practice. Instead, you accept that there is a necessary gap between what you say and what you do. Values are one thing, facts another.

It was "theory" that resisted this philistinism. It has itself been accused of treating culture in a purely instrumental way, and the criticism is sometimes warranted. There is surely more to Twelfth Night than class and gender. Ironically, however, a lot of cultural theory insists that what is precious about culture is the fact that it does not have any very obvious exchange-value. It is thus the very pointlessness of culture that lends it a political point. While being pressed into the service of the present, it also anticipates a social order that would take Immanuel Kant's dictum seriously and treat men and women as ends in themselves.

The other reason why theory emerged was because the map of the humanities was being redrawn. The structure of knowledge we had inherited was no longer true to our experience. By the 1970s, much of the most fascinating work in the humanities was being done on the borderlines between subjects and in the crevices between traditional disciplines. Many of the most influential thinkers -Said, Susan Sontag, Raymond Williams, Jurgen Habermas, Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu -resisted any conventional label.

"Theory" was just a provisional name for the space you were left with when classical academic categories began to crumble. In this respect, the more traditional title for the theorist was the intellectual. And whatever academics were, they were by no means necessarily that. Theory sprang up and flourished in the period when the political left was still strong, and when there seemed a reasonable chance of wresting the humanities from the CEOs of the spirit. What today's champions of cultural theory need to acknowledge more candidly than they do is that that struggle had been lost by the late 1970s. What took the place of theory-as-critique was theory-as-postmodernism -a current of thought that at its most callow found utopia in the discos and shopping malls. The future was already here, and it was known as consumerism.

Over the 1980s and 1990s, students ceased to write theses on the Frankfurt school and wrote them on Friends instead. Theory survived but in more accommodating, apolitical, status-quo-friendly form. Culture had ceased to act as critique and had become a branch of commodity production. In fact, theory itself was now a flashily packaged product, a form of competitive cultural capital. History had ended, truth and totality were out, pleasure and pluralism were in, and grand narratives were for sad types with leather patches on their jacket elbows and Biros in their top pockets. Suddenly, everyone was working on vampires and sadomasochism.

But the obituaries issued for history proved premature. Osama bin Laden had evidently not been reading Francis Fukuyama. At the moment when western cultural theorists were growing more laid-back and pragmatic, the collapse of the twin towers was an ominous sign that grand narratives might be over in San Diego but not in Saudi Arabia. We may not think our civilisation forms a whole but al-Qaida does. And just as western philosophers were kicking away their own foundations, rejoicing in the arbitrary, ungrounded nature of their cultural values, fundamentalism was rearing its ugly head from Texas to Tikrit. Perhaps postmodernism, for all its cosmopolitan flavour, had proved a little parochial.

This, then, is where we find ourselves now. Our problem is to combat fundamentalism with something less brittle than postmodern relativism and scepticism. It is a question of being deep without being dogmatic. More particularly, it means that cultural theory must be ready to risk being labelled metaphysical, which in the eyes of some of its practitioners is only slightly less of a swearword than "elitist". It must strike out from the well-trodden paths of class, race and gender and look again at all those questions that it has shelved as embarrassingly large: questions of death, love, morality, nature, suffering, foundations, religion, biology and revolution.

This is a formidably demanding agenda, for which After Theory is a mere sketch. But the global political crisis under which we are living demands nothing less. And the conceptual resources to pursue this agenda are not lacking -as opposed to being unfashionable. There is a tradition of thought from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to Hegel and Karl Marx for which human virtue means the enjoyable realisation of our individual powers. Pace Kant (who believed just the opposite). If it doesn't feel good it is only dubiously virtuous. The question that engaged thinkers such as Marx is what kind of politics this ethic of wellbeing implies. What social institutions does it require today in order to flourish? And how is it to be universalised?

Socialism, like the Judaeo-Christian tradition, insists that such self-realisation has to be reciprocal. Only by finding our own fulfilment in becoming the means of another's wellbeing can this ethic be realised all round. The Judaeo-Christian name for this condition is love. It may be that by returning the so-called virtue tradition, and finding in Marxism an authentic reworking of this heritage under modern conditions, we can draw together issues of truth, justice, virtue, happiness and political transformation.

Like all the most interesting theoretical projects, however, this is not just a theoretical project. For without such transformation, we will fail to change the conditions that breed so-called terrorism, ploughing on with our provincial discourses of vampirism, sadomasochism and body-tattooing while the towers crumble around our heads. There is, in other words, something in it for us; and without this ingredient of enlightened self-interest, no political or intellectual enterprise is likely to survive for long.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory and John Rylands fellow, University of Manchester. His book After Theory is published by Allen Lane, £18.99.

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