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After Theory Paperback – November 30, 2004
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Eagleton is happy to concede that high theory has entrenched some useful if not original insights such as the ideas that human beings are about desire and fantasy as much as reason, that ordinary life is an important focus of critical attention and that seriousness and pleasure are not necessarily separate. But he also argues that it has a disabling tendency towards the valorisation of the experiences of elites and the disregard for the experiences of ordinary people. He is deeply skeptical about, say, an Indian academic moving between Oxford and Harvard who celebrates cosmopolitanism and hybridity as the vanguard of post-coloniality while saying nothing about the children sewing Nike shoes in Delhi. He is equally skeptical about academics who reject the idea of progress without rejecting dental anesthetics. And he shows that post-modern arguments are very easily deployed by overtly reactionary agendas. He explores the attraction of postmodern arguments about liminality and diversity to reactionary Ulster academics. Some reactionary Afrikaaner academics have made very similar use of postmodernism.
But the essence of Eagleton's critique goes deeper and is more interesting than his attacks on the pompous narcissism of Theory. He argues that postmodernism is a symptom of capitalism and not, as it claims, critical theory. Postmodernism celebrates the non-normative and sees redemption in diversity and transgression. Eagleton's point is that `the non-normative has become the norm...the norm is now money'. `Money', he notes, `is utterly promiscuous' and infinitely adaptive without any opinions of its own. Body piercing and Kwanza and sado-masochism are all just niche markets. They pose no threat to capital. And while capitalism has invented or exacerbated social divisions and exclusions when alliances with local elites are to its advantage it is, in principle, `an impeccably inclusive creed, it really doesn't care who it exploits...Most of the time it is eager to mix together as many diverse cultures as possible, so that it can peddle its commodities to them all...It thrives on bursting bounds and slaying sacred cows. Its desire is unslakeable and its space infinite. Its law is the flouting of all limits.'
Eagleton argues that the rise of the global anti-capitalist movements has shown that thinking globally is not the same as being totalitarian and develops a range of arguments against the postmodern critique of its own caricature of radical politics. For example he observes that conviction is not the same as authoritarianism and truth is not the same as dogmatism. One can be passionately democratic and committed to the truth that experiences differ. He argues for a radicalism that gives ontological priority to experience of the poor and seeks to enable collective action to sub-ordinate the market to democratic control.
Once one has learnt the jargon of high theory it is quite easy to prick its wildly over inflated balloons. But Eagleton goes further and shows that it is entirely possible to return to questions that matter. He develops stimulating and important meditations on virtue, suffering, death, politics and revolution. But his consideration of these questions is primarily ethical with the result that the hard political questions about strategy are not taken on.
Omissions are inevitable, but the book does have one obvious failing. Eagleton makes much of Hardt and Negri's argument that the poor have an ontological privilege when it comes to rebellion because they incarnate the failure of the system and so have less delusions about it and less of a stake in the system. But he ignores Hardt and Negri's warnings about anti-Americanism. Eagleton's scathing contempt for American consumerism and fundamentalism is persuasive and his argument that these are two, mutually dependent, consequences of the same ethical and political failure to respect the dignity of ordinary people is very interesting. But he completely ignores the radical America that Howard Zinn's history records and takes no account of the genuine popularity of radicals like John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie and, in the current era, Bruce Springsteen. This omission gives Eagleton's account of America something of the feeling of a very English caricature.
After Theory is not written for a non-specialist audience. Slavoj Zizek and Frank Kermode are wildly enthusiastic about it. But it will be particularly appreciated by people whose encounters with `high theory' have been intimidating rather than enlightening. It proves the validity of Nietzsche's dictum that "Those who know they are profound strive for clarity: those who would like to seem profound...strive for obscurity." Hopefully, After Theory will prove to be one of many new books that seek to explore important philosophical questions in a spirit vastly more democratic than the narcissistic obscuratism of high theory.
Eagleton's work--at least all that I have read--is always lucidly written and adorned with insights of wide-breadth and importance. This book is not an exception. It is, however, not a book that seems to me likely to be read for eternity.
What I enjoyed most about was its fireside wisdom quality. In a sense, this book resembles a series a letters from your mentor about academic work, its potential, failings, and excesses, and some words about his view of life in general.
Thus, the claimed philosophical importance of the work is an exaggeration attached for pushing the work forward for publishing. It is by no means a definitively new alternative course for critical theory. It is nevertheless an enjoyable book full of numerous worthwhile insights.
Does Eagleton convince? He puts his case with verve and enthusiasm - even if a little too flippantly at times - but in devoting only 200-odd pages to such a vast topic he can do little more than scratch the surface. He admits as much in the final pages, but is a text which merely gestures towards the topic enough? "After Theory" will probably remind dormant radicals what they used to care about before they became depressed, but it won't convince the conservative morons it needs to. The problem is that it's very difficult to point to working examples of socialism. Marxism shifted to cultural theory partly out of political impotence and mass disenchantment. Nothing has changed on that score, whereas triumphal capitalism is the very air we breath (increasingly polluted as it is). Most people associate socialism with repression, uniformity and an embarrassing class consciousness, whereas capitalism (which has all those traits and more) has cunningly refashioned itself as democratic, libertarian and impeccably inclusive. Everyone is welcome. As Eagleton quips: "It really doesn't care who it exploits." Yes, Terry, but it doesn't much mind who it elevates, either. And while ever capitalism continues to succeed in pitching the dubious but occasionally truthful argument that the next billionaire might very well be you, then thinkers like Eagleton will have a very hard time shifting it. If you lean to the Left anyway, then "After Theory" will make you think about what you've wasted the last 20 years being distracted by, and it just might rekindle your revolutionary spirit. If you lean to the Right, then it's unlikely to change your mind.