Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Hard Going after Theory

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Hard Going after Theory

Article excerpt

TERRY EAGLETON HAS MADE A NAME FOR HIMSELF as Britain's most celebrated Marxist critic and one of the most widely-read Anglo-American commentators on what is, today, simply called Theory. ([dagger]) In early books he told us why philosophers or "high theorists" like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, or Marxist social theorists like Raymond Williams and Louis Althusser, are relevant to the literary critic. In his most popular book, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). Eagleton made the difficult ideas of the high theorists accessible to students. In an earlier and lesser-known book, Marxist Literary Criticism, published in 1976, he had tried to explain the main strands of cultural Marxism. As the titles of these introductions suggest, he focused on the relationship between a literary texts formal devices and the external reality to which it corresponded or alluded. If we learned anything at all from Eagleton, it was that literary texts do not spontaneously spring from the mind of a socially isolated genius; they are always produced and consumed under specific sociohistorical conditions. Although the high theorists were not literary critics in the tradition of F. R. Leavis or Cleanth Brooks, their epistemological and ontological concerns were directly relevant to the ways in which literary critics make sense of texts. It was no longer enough to discover in a text what the author had meant to say; we were asked to become self-conscious about the act of interpretation itself.

In the early 1960s, Roland Barflies famously killed off the author, arguing that a text's meaning was produced in the act of reading. Once the author's intention had been removed as a norm or limit on a text's potential meanings, it became possible to attribute significance to unacknowledged contradictions, incoherences, and undecidable moments in literary and critical discourses. Books could now be read "against the grail" of their "obvious" meaning. What made the high theorists so immediately consumable in humanities departments was that they introduced an interpretative strategy we now associate with Derridas term 'deconstruction.' Whether we were speaking of philosophy, psychoanalysis, or literature, we were encouraged to scrutinize texts for their unexamined and unacknowledged assumptions. For Marxist theorists like Eagleton and Fredric Jameson, deconstruction was not unlike Marx's demystification of the ideological implications of capitalism; Eagleton read a series of literary works Against the Grain (1986) and Jameson discussed The Political Unconscious (1981) in a number of novels. In the 1980s, Eagleton defended the high theory coming out of France against the conservative academic establishment at the same time as he attacked it from his Marxist position for not being sufficiently political. This ambivalence plays itself out again in After Dreary (2-3), his latest book on the "losses and gains" of Theory in the politically changed world after 9/11. Where the first part of After Theory is in most respects a rehash of his attack on current cultural theory in The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996), the second part is marked by a retreat from Marxism into a position that is perhaps best described as Christian socialism. Although After Theory is not one of Eagleton's best books, it is symptomatic of the confused state of Theory in today's academy.

In retrospect, the heyday of high theory can be traced to a conference at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 that introduced a first generation of poststructuralists to the Anglo-American academy. Sharing a subversive philosophical outlook that challenged intellectual orthodoxies and broke down disciplinary boundaries, Roland Barflies, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Louis Althusser published their most influential work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1966, for instance, Lacan published his Ecrits and Foucault The Order of Things, followed in 1967 by Derridas three seminal books, Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, and Writing and Difference. …

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