Book Review: Life After Theory?

January 30, 2005

Book Review: Life After Theory?

After Theory

Terry Eagleton

Basic Books, 2003. 231 pp.

In his book In the Reading Gaol (1994), Valentine Cunningham argues that postmodern theory represses the tradition of Christian theology to which it is nevertheless fundamentally indebted. If that is the case, then that ill-assorted and ever-ramifying complex of sub-disciplines of literary and cultural studies known as ‘theory’ may have recently begun therapy. Not only has Julia Kristeva defended the psychological value of Christian belief and practice for the last twenty-five years, but philosophers who have come more recently to the attention of English literary studies like Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou have also begun to turn their attention to the Christian tradition on which Western culture continues to depend. In his latest book, Terry Eagleton makes his contribution to this process. Having moved from Catholicism to Marxism in his earliest works, he has now re-examines the Christian tradition from which his Marxist cultural theory had seemed to constitute a break.

      In the first three chapters of the book, Eagleton surveys the history of critical theory from its rise in post-war French philosophy to the cultural studies of the present. Literary and cultural studies are now ‘after theory’, Eagleton argues, in the sense that we practice them ‘in the aftermath of what one might call high theory’ (2) – a generation of dwarves standing on the shoulders of the giant maîtres penseurs of the 1960s and 70s. This does not mean that we can now return to a simply ‘historical’ or ‘textual’ criticism as if the seismic shift of ‘theory’ had never happened. Eagleton rightly argues, ‘If theory means a reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions, it remains as indispensable as ever’ (2). While the classics of cultural theory still remain influential, Eagleton claims, the present generation of critics has not formulated a comparably significant body of ideas with which to respond to a historical situation that has dramatically changed since Derrida and Foucault began to write.

      Eagleton surveys the strengths and the weaknesses of cultural theory as we have it at present. On the positive side, gender and sexuality, the political significance of which is clearly recognised, have become legitimate objects of study. These basic elements of human life are no longer ignored by cultural criticism. Popular culture has also become a legitimate field of inquiry, so that critics can now recognise the existence of the ‘everyday life of the common people’ (4). Eagleton is more concerned in the first part of the book, however, with the weaknesses and inconsistencies of cultural theory. From the perspective of a rational, global, humanitarian Marxism, he criticises some of the ‘theoretical’ commonplaces which have become the kind of ‘zealous orthodoxy’ they were intended to displace (3). For example, a long overdue attention to the cultural practices of minorities easily turns into an assumption of the greater value of minority cultures as such. Eagleton points out, ‘It was majorities, not minorities, which confounded imperial power in India and brought down apartheid’ (15). Indeed, the very tendency to think of marginal cultures as minorities obscures the fact that those groups marginalised by Western culture constitute the majority of the world’s population. Global society, Eagleton points out, is ‘a set-up which shuts out most of its members’, like every other class society that has ever existed (20).  

      The gaps, omissions and contradictions in cultural theory are serious weaknesses, Eagleton argues, in the post-Cold War, post-September 11th age. We need more than the cool, hedonistic scepticism of postmodern theory to respond to the global aggression of Western capitalism and to its current crisis, the war on terror. In the second half of the book, Eagleton sets out to remedy these deficiencies. He begins by reinstating some of the classical concepts which have become discredited in the intellectual climate of postmodernism. Eagleton begins, ‘No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth…Let us begin, then, by seeking to defend this remarkably modest, eminently reasonable notion’ (103). There is a strain of postmodernism for which truth is equivalent to dogma, which appeals to authority for its justification. All that absolute truth means, Eagleton points out, is that, if a statement is true, ‘then the opposite of it can’t be true at the same time, or true from some other point of view’ (105). It may be difficult to establish that a statement is true, but, once we have done so, then the statement is not just true ‘for me’ but for everyone, nor can its contrary be true for anyone. The necessity of the concept of absolute truth is clear: ‘If true loses its force, then political radicals can stop talking as though it is unequivocally true that women are oppressed or that the planet is being gradually poisoned by corporate greed’ (109).

      The main contribution of the book consists in Eagleton’s turn to an Aristotelian ethics of virtue. He defends the concept of human nature against ‘anti-essentialism’, arguing that it does not follow from a belief in human nature that this nature is unalterable – on the contrary, he claims, it is in human nature to be ‘perpetually re-making itself’ (119). Human nature, Eagleton writes, can be defined as ‘the way we are most likely to flourish’ in the cultural conditions we produce for ourselves (120). For Aristotle, this was to live according to the virtues. Eagleton prefers the ‘Judaeo-Christian’ account of the virtues over against Aristotle’s, in which the supreme virtue is love. This means that ‘we become the occasion for each other’s self-realisation’ (122). Eagleton comments, ‘The political form of this ethic is known as socialism’. Despite Aristotle’s endorsement of slavery and the subordination of women, Eagleton writes, he knew that ‘if you want to be good, you need a good society’ (128). This kind of moral thought, he argues, in which there is no rigorous distinction between ethics and politics, remains a politically valuable position from which to respond to contemporary capitalism.

      The second part of Eagleton’s book contains numerous reflections on the Bible and on religion. He defends the necessity of moral rules and principles, which he describes as ‘the scaffolding of the good life’ (144). The point of moral principles is that they safeguard forms of life in which we can flourish. Eagleton argues that this was St. Paul’s view of the Mosaic Law. Paul knows that the Law is ‘not just a neurotic fussing about washing and diet’ but that it is the law of love and justice. It is for ‘those who are not yet morally independent, and who therefore have to be propped up by a scaffolding of codes and censures’ (147). Eagleton also finds value in the political thought of the Bible, in terms which bring to mind the work of the liberation theologian José Porfírio Miranda. He describes the book of Isaiah as a ‘revolutionary document’, in which ‘Yahweh is forever having to remind his pathologically cultic people that salvation is a political affair, not a religious one’ (174-75). Yahweh is a ‘non-god’, for Eagleton, a God of the not-yet, who ‘signifies a social justice which has not yet arrived’, in the coming of which he will be known for what he is. The not-yet of Yahweh and the non-being of the poor are closely connected, he claims. Citing 1 Cor. 1:28, ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are’, Eagleton writes, ‘The whole of Judaeo-Christian thought is cast in this ironic, paradoxical, up-ending mould’ (175). He shows a similar respect for the politically ‘admirable creed’ of Islam, before its perversion by ‘oil-rich autocrats’ and ‘murderous bigots’ (178).

      What are Christians in literary and cultural studies to make of this work? To begin with Eagleton’s Biblical criticism, his exegesis of St. Paul in terms of virtue theory is poor. The ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:22) is an altogether different concept than that of virtue, denoting a supernatural gift rather than a process of self-development. His readings of the political significance of the Bible are better, valuably emphasising an easily overlooked aspect of the Old Testament in particular, its teaching that social justice is the will of Yahweh. Eagleton reads the Bible in the light of Marxist thought, rather than vice versa as Christians must, and as the best liberation theologians do. Nevertheless, his defence of concepts with which Christian theology has traditionally worked in making sense of the Biblical revelation – truth, virtue, morality, objectivity – is a welcome project in the intellectual climate of postmodernism. Since Roland Barthes equated the death of the author with the death of God, the Bible and Christian theology have been represented as paradigms of the kind of discourse cultural theory has aimed to displace. Eagleton’s impatience with second-generation postmodern orthodoxies is grounded in his socialist project. Nevertheless, despite the differences between the two concepts, Eagleton thinks of socialism in terms quite compatible with the Christian concept of the kingdom of God. In this sense, his book is a sustained meditation on the contribution cultural theory could make to the coming of that kingdom.

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