Terry Eagleton, after Theory

By Di Leo, Jeffrey R. | The Comparatist, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Terry Eagleton, after Theory


Di Leo, Jeffrey R., The Comparatist


Terry Eagleton, After Theory New York: Basic Books, 2003, ix + 231 pp.

Terry Eagleton's important recent book After Theory is both a look back to the "golden age of cultural theory" (1) and a look forward to the new challenges faced by contemporary cultural theory. In effect, it places both the "high theories" of Raymond Williams, Luce Irigaray, Pierre Bourdieu, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Helene Cixous, Jurgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, and others, and the current orthodoxies of cultural theory, in the rear-view mirror, and looks forward to an age of cultural theory yet to be written. Because the book is intended for "students and general readers," one cannot help but believe that Eagleton is looking to set the charge of the forthcoming generation of cultural theorists, a charge that he believes must go against the current state or "orthodoxies" of cultural theory. Writes Eagleton, "I do not believe that this orthodoxy [viz., the current state of cultural theory] addresses itself to questions searching enough to meet the demands of our political situation" (ix). After Theory not only shows how orthodox cultural theory has lost its connection with the moral and the political, but is also a valiant effort to retune cultural theory to the demands of our current social and political situation.

The book is divided into two parts. The first half, comprising the chapters "The Politics of Amnesia," "The Rise and Fall of Theory," "The Path to Postmodernism," and "Losses and Gains," is an overview of the early days of theory, or what is now called "high theory"; the second half, comprising the chapters "Truth, Virtue and Objectivity," "Morality," "Revolution, Foundations and Fundamentalists," and "Death, Evil and Non-being," is a discussion of a number of issues that cultural theory must now take up or risk losing its relevancy.

For Eagleton, the ambitiousness and originality of high theories such as Derridian poststructuralism has given way to the laziness and derivativeness of the current practices of cultural theory such as some of the current instantiations of identity theory and postcolonial theory. Whereas high theory was formed out of a real sensitivity to the social and political realities of the 1960s, current cultural theory appears to Eagleton to be born out of attempts merely to be fashionably obscure. For example, Eagleton bemoans that while high theory established the body as a locus of cultural theory, it was the laboring and famished body, not the erotic and coupling body. Whereas sexuality and gender began as two of the "towering achievements" of cultural theory, over the years they seem to have been reduced to intellectual amusements.

What has been lost in the current state of cultural theory, according to Eagleton, is a "seamless continuity between the intellect and everyday life" (3). Whereas the golden age of cultural theory was invested in critical agency, that is, in producing theoretical interventions that would result in praxis and have an actual effect on consciousness, the current state of cultural theory is regarded by Eagleton as primarily reverential and uncritical. Even so-called cutting-edge and innovative contemporary cultural theory such as identity theory and postcolonial theory is on the whole, for Eagleton, politically empty. To be sure, this is a contentious claim. Most postcolonialists today, for example, would vigorously charge, contra Eagleton, that they are politically engaged theorists.

However, for Eagleton, the case of postcolonial criticism is symptomatic of much of what was lost in the transition from a golden age of cultural theory (work done by figures such as Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Derrida) to the present--namely, the loss of a connection with the politics of our daily lives and lived experience in the world. In the case of postcolonial criticism, this came about through the displacement of class conflict in cultural theory. …

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