By Terry Eagleton
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It took only a glance at the opening paragraph of After Theory, with its name-checking lament (Derrida, Lacan, Barthes, Foucault et tous les autres) for a departed "golden age" to propel me 20 years back in time to an early 1980s meeting of the Oxford University Literary Society. The occasion was the visit of an academic named Colin MacCabe, author of a diabolically clever study of James Joyce, about whose unassuming head hung clouds of scandal. King's College Cambridge had just declined to renew some appointment he held, and the fiat was assumed to reflect suspicion of Dr MacCabe's keenness on the latest critical pronouncements from Paris and Yale.
The campus common room battles fought beneath the standards of "theory" have diminished a bit in scale since then, but two decades back they were capable of splitting the specimen university English faculty in two. Uncle Jacques Derrida was everywhere - in a top 20 pop hit by Scritti Politti ("I'm in love with Jacques Derrida"), on the cover of the London Review of Books - and Eagleton, at this point Oxford's most incendiary English don, was clearly determined to muscle in on the action. So far as I recall, he introduced his guest with the words "This man's had a hard time. He needs your support." Sadly, Dr MacCabe spent the next hour innocuously deconstructing some very obscure passages of Shakespeare: his hearers departed with the vague feeling that a cultural opportunity had inadvertently been lost.
One could see then why Eagleton, Marxist though he was (and is), was so avid to attach himself to this kind of presumed dissension, and one can see it even more clearly in the somewhat muted light of After Theory. In global terms, circa 1980, the Marxist "project" was running into trouble. Neither the regimes who still affected to profess it, nor the local Marxists who used it to justify their political shortcomings, were doing it any favours. Economically it looked an even worse bet than the monetarism then staggering into fashion; culturally, it spoke of woolly jumpers and some even woollier critical language. Such signs of radicalism that there were came almost entirely from academe, and they assumed their most combative focus in the newly created realm of "cultural theory", what Eagleton correctly characterises as "a continuation of politics by other means". A clutch of (mostly) French philospher-artists who believed not in "meaning" but a multiplicity of interpretations, who delighted in exposures of hierarchy and gender, who aimed to reduce a text to a kind of fine powder of politico-sexual assumptions - all this was enticing to a man who had reached the stark conclusion that capitalism was washed up, and the perhaps starker conclusion that hardly any capitalists, and scarcely anyone living under capitalism, had noticed.
After Theory, then, is the record of a failed love affair between an ideologue (a witty and impassioned ideologue, it must be said) who imagined that "theory" could reignite the flame of contemporary Marxism, only to find the latter left far behind on the post-modern tide. Eagleton begins what might be described as a very fair-minded polemic by noting a few of the ironies about the animal known as "post-modernism". One of these is that post-modernism, with its suspicion of public norms, values, hierarchies and standards, looks suspiciously like some of the more stringent versions of economic liberalism: "It's just that neo-liberals admit that they reject all this in the name of the market." Another is that the "universality" that most contemporary theorists reach out to embrace - the world envisaged as a sprawling monocultural hypermarket - is contradicted by events on the ground. Oddly enough, the inhabitants of much of the former …