Terry Eagleton's After Theory (2003) is a love letter. Not to a person so much as to an entire discipline. Cultural Theory, Terry is leaving you. And it's not him, it's you. In the early days you promised so much. You swore to be the new conscience of the Arts, deconstructing paternalist hegemony. You pledged to challenge some of the more philistine elements of Marxism. You even vowed to uphold a vision of the future that did not include the pessimism of F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot and A.J. Toynbee.
Instead, Cultural Theory, everything you touched turned into a minefield in which nothing could possibly grow other than your own bald orthodoxy - a situation which has enabled capitalism to fill the vacuum.
Like any good leaving letter it contains barbs. Cultural Theory idolises the marginal, treating them as somehow more 'vibrant' than others. 'This will be news to the victims of Basque separatists Eagleton protests. He is sure fascist groups will be flattered though, ending with a reminder that it was majorities, not minorities that toppled imperialism in India and apartheid in South Africa.
Common sense is the pin employed to prick the pretensions of his old love. Cultural Theory puts the 'subversive' on a pedestal - a piety he would love to test on the people who are actually socially dumped and disregarded rather than with those who talk about it.
Eagleton argues that Cultural Theory may have liberated us from the platonic lies of the old order but it has also anchored us in a new orthodoxy - one which refuses to acknowledge the validity of the deep questions that would enable us to move on. It has been shamefaced about
Morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on.
The real axis of the book, however, is where Eagleton notes that Cultural Theory went from elaborating on Marxism (using Nietzsche) to abetting capitalism. As capitalism pushed out Marxism geopolitically, Cultural Theory understood that it was in the business of explaining the cultural forces that consigned its father ideology to oblivion, and so coopted the enemy.
The results of this process has Eagleton wax lyrical in a rather Baudrillardian vein. The people, instead of being emancipated vis a vis women and feminism, have become 'historically blunted' fools, in a situation Cultural Theory puts the 'subversive'
on a pedestal - a piety he would love
to test on the who are actually
socially dumped and disregarded that guarantees few can "imagine an alternative to the present". Cultural Theory's mixing of high and low culture has led to a failure to distinguish between the profound and the trivial: perversion, disruption, sensationalism, and perpetual agitation all characterise an age that has been told norms are oppressive. But, he goes on:
Anyone who feels oppressed by [these norms] must be seriously oversensitive. Only an intellectual who has overdosed on abstraction could be dim enough to imagine that whatever bends a norm is politically radical.
The bankruptcy of repeatedly smashing the crockery of the old order has an element of the farcical about it over 40 years since the real heroics were accomplished. 'Those who can, invent structuralism' Eagleton titters. 'Those who can't, apply it to A Cat in a Hat'.
Pretending the old enemy, the bourgeois, still exists is ridiculous he insists. Cultural Theory will be reduced to a cycle if it does not acknowledge that the middle classes have disintegrated into a mishmash of subcultures.
Terry Eagleton (Creative Commons)
The first half of the love letter is superbly acerbic but despite its popularity, it has not shaken Cultural Theory's self- understanding to the core. This is perhaps because Eagleton's book takes a disorganised turn.
He seems unsure whether to list, for his old lover, the pastures he's moving on to or whether merely to outline a vague intention. The result is a mishmash of Bernard Williams on the objectivity of truth, Alistair MacIntyre on Aristotle, and an appreciation of Kant's idea of morality as a duty and an end in itself.
His tone; passionate and lucid; his method; skimming instead of ploughing; so suited to perforating Cultural Theory with darts in the first half is unsuited to exposition in the second.
The general idea is that we must weave the biological truths, and the extra- cultural aspects of our existence, back into a reckoning of culture that has pretended for too long to be autonomous.
He explains all this in order to ensure Cultural Studies restores Marxist radicalism to the top of its agenda. Cultural Theory's mixing of high and
low clture has led to a failure to
distinguish the profound and
the trivial. This is necessary, he argues, to rescue the West from fundamentalism - itself a reaction to the claims of Cultural Theory. Fundamentalism is, at root, a rejection of Cultural Theory's premise that culture is infinitely pliable. It is capital 'c' Culture with its "heels in the ground", to use Eagleton's brilliant turn of phrase.
For too long Cultural Theory has strengthened capitalism's fetishisation of superficial difference, it has celebrated hybridity and plasticity. In a world where the dominant culture is money, there is no culture - we are promiscuous idiots insisting that being anything else is embarrassing bad faith. No wonder the jacket bears Slavoj Zizek's testimonial, this is the Slovenian's favourite subject.
Fundamentalism rejects this narrative, and does so with blood. "Fears for one's identity are harder to uproot than forests" Eagleton notes in a key that reminds me of Oswald Spengler's warning that the West will split into two camps; gold versus blood, Caesar versus Crassus and promiscuousness versus roots.
Eagleton's book serves as a warning to societies that refuse to acknowledge the deeper questions, because, as he makes painfully clear, they will be perpetually threatened by those that do.