The self conscious critic

Issue: 101

Rob Hoveman

A review of Terry Eagleton, After Theory (Allen Lane, 2003), £18.99

Terry Eagleton has produced a highly readable, lucid and amusingly written book, strangely called After Theory. Strangely because the book is packed with theories and ideas which tumble out non-stop and at such speed that one would appreciate Eagleton drawing breath and developing the ideas a little more.

The first half of the book is an attempt to draw up a balance sheet of the contribution to the understanding of ‘culture’ made by the ‘cultural theory’ of which Eagleton is now professor at Manchester University. For many this may seem a dry and academic exercise in self justification. Presumably cultural theory has its good and its bad bits, and Professor Eagleton is here to rectify the latter and supplement the former. And so in a sense he does, but the result is far from dry and academic even if in the end it is also not entirely satisfactory.

For many it may not be clear what cultural theory is. It can partly be defined by its main theorists: Eagleton includes in his list of the pioneers and greatest theorists of cultural theory Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. Other names include Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson and Edward Said.

These and others brought to the study of culture (in its broadest sense) interpretations and applications of Freudian psychoanalysis, structuralism, feminism and semiotics. Eagleton makes some very big claims about their writings. In large part he believes that these theorists were borne aloft by the radicalisation of 1968, that it was with these theorists rather than with the artists, novelists, sculptors and composers that a culturally exciting movement bearing comparison with that between 1910 and 1925 emerged. He further contends that their engagement in a comradely and constructive way with what he calls ‘classical’ Marxism enabled genuine intellectual progress to take place. This is especially so with the development of feminist theory connected to the women’s movement, about which he waxes uncritically.

More specifically, Eagleton claims cultural theory:

…was there to remind the traditional left of what it had flouted: art, pleasure, gender, power, sexuality, language, madness, desire, spirituality, the family, the body, the ecosystem, the unconscious, ethnicity, lifestyle, hegemony. This, on any estimate, was a sizeable slice of human existence.1

And yet almost in the next breath he goes on to argue that this was somewhat unjust. Culture had:

…bulked large in the tradition which has come to be known as Western Marxism. Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Wilhelm Reich, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Lucien Goldmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Fredric Jameson: these are hardly thinkers who ignored the erotic and symbolic, art and the unconscious, lived experience and transformations of consciousness.2

Nor should Marxism be expected to cover, never mind explain, according to Eagleton, every facet of human existence.

Unfortunately Eagleton does not nail the bankruptcy of the official Stalinist Marxism which had dominated the intellectual landscape since the 1930s. And many would rightly take issue with how much cultural theorists genuinely contributed to a general improvement in our understanding of the world, especially if we want to radically change it. Within much of this writing, radical though it seemed in its early stages, lay the seeds of the later developments into postmodernist pessimism and conservatism of which Eagleton is justifiably scathing.

Eagleton believes that the cultural explosion of the late 1960s was displaced into theory because the modernist revolution of the first two decades of the 20th century simply could not repeat itself in the frontline arts. This was partly because repetition is not original and creativity requires originality by definition. Also, the circumstances in which modernism prospered no longer obtained. Modernism was born out of the disintegration of a relatively solid and stable bourgeois world in which all that was solid was melting into air. By the 1960s modernism had been co-opted by the ever-resourceful capitalist order.

But there is an ambivalence here. When Eagleton draws up the balance sheet on cultural theory, he finds largely in its favour, and yet the balance sheet is surprisingly thin on achievements. He frequently nods approvingly in the direction of feminist theory in particular, but provides no lasting paradigms in the book from feminist theory, much less from other elements of the high canon of cultural theory. The writers of Eagleton’s canon may have much to be said for them aesthetically and imaginatively, but is it really the case that Barthes or Lacan, for example, have made lasting contributions to our body of knowledge and theory? And when Eagleton does identify the holes in cultural theory, as we will see later, they amount to a pretty big slice of human existence, as Eagleton puts it, which raises questions about why they missed these issues, questions which Eagleton fails to answer.

Eagleton goes on to draw a contrast between the high point of ‘high theory’, ie the 1970s writings of these theorists, which happens to be the period in which he was most under their collective influence, and the period of decline which followed. He is rightly critical of the intellectual holes in the postmodernist complacency of Fish and Rorty, the recent promoters of American postmodernism.

For anti-theorists like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, theory is how you try to justify your way of life… But this, for anti-theorists, is neither possible or necessary. You cannot justify your way of life by theory because theory is part of that way of life, not something set apart from it… So cultures have no foundation in reason. They just do what they do.3

This is a false anti-foundationalism, however, because for the likes of Rorty and Fish culture has in fact replaced god, nature or reason as the bedrock beneath which we cannot go. However true it may be that there are intellectual limits to how far we can rationally justify or condemn certain deep-seated cultural, social or intellectual practices, political problems become very apparent when we lose sight of the deep-seated compared to the superficial, or have no means for distinguishing between the two. Rorty and Fish have a perspective which lends itself to an ultimately incoherent but also reactionary relativism. From seemingly impeccable and trendy postmodernist principles it can be argued we cannot condemn NATO if we are in one society or female circumcision in another.

Eagleton is keen to justify the attraction of cultural theory to the critical intellectual. In the past such intellectuals, seeking to explore broader questions from the general ordering of society to the meaning of life, would have been attracted to theology before its displacement by science, then by science before it became submerged by specialisation and fragmentation and by philosophy in those traditions where philosophy had not abandoned such aspirations for the dryly technical and frankly trivial.

Cultural theory had the enormous advantage in its early development of being a subject which crossed traditional academic boundaries. At times Eagleton sounds as though he’s been fighting for course reform just a little too long. Cultural theorists also had the good fortune of apparently attracting the radical student seeking an alternative to capitalism’s crass careerism and materialism. No figures are given for how many of these students ended up in investment banks and advertising as opposed to the SWP.

There is also in Eagleton’s account an element of the lone intellectual as hero holding up her critical corner as all around collapse into postmodernist accommodation. There is of course an element of truth to this. Eagleton has held out as one of the most radical and politically engaged luminaries of British academia. But there should also be a sense of proportion.

In terms of the specific achievements of cultural theory, Eagleton identifies four. First, it has helped to make us self conscious of the process of interpretation, liberating countless English students from the dreary anti-theoretical approach of the liberal humanist tradition that prevailed in so much literature teaching at least into the 1970s. Cultural theory is then the coming to self consciousness and to self criticism of criticism itself.

Second, it has shown us that there is not just one correct way to understand, for example, a work of fiction. Thus Wuthering Heights can be seen both as a novel about death and about the Freudian death drive, and Jane Austen as an author who deals with love, marriage and moral values, and someone who consciously or otherwise relates these crucially to property and social class. To see cultural works as open to more than one interpretation is not to become a meaning nihilist and see them as open to any interpretation. But it is to free us from the tyranny of the one-dimensional.

True as this is, the multiple but nonetheless limited number of interpretations available are surely not just a matter of aesthetic choice, as Eagleton almost seems to imply. It would be reductionist simply to provide an interpretation of Austen which talked of class and property, but it is to miss something essential in any understanding of Austen if you don’t bring in class and property. On the other hand, I am much more dubious about the virtues of discerning the Freudian death drive in Wuthering Heights, because, fascinating though the theory is, I am much more dubious about its truth.

Third, it has helped us to see cultural works as the product of more than the author’s conscious intentions. The work has to be understood in its totality, which includes the unconscious, the context and the reader’s contribution, something Eagleton is keen to emphasise.

Fourth, there is the link between culture and power. This runs against the liberal and conservative view that culture is the very opposite of power, indeed a haven free from power’s unlovely sway. Eagleton acknowledges that ‘culture has acted as a precious remembrance of utopia’.4 And yet culture can also be complicit with unsavoury forms of power. ‘Indeed, these two aspects of culture are not unrelated. By encouraging us to dream beyond the present, it may also provide the existing social order with a convenient safety valve’.5

Eagleton’s balance sheet on cultural theory is broadly favourable. He accepts that some of its practitioners have written in an extremely bad style and with dubious meaning. But its high theorists have largely been great writers as well as thinkers. He defends writing clearly, and as a master stylist himself, puts that into practice. But he also defends the view that just because culture is something shared in the way that astrophysics is not, it does not mean that understanding culture should not be fraught with difficult ideas and at times technical language.

If much of the criticism that has been levelled at cultural theory has been ‘either false or fairly trifling’, according to Eagleton:

…a far more devastating criticism of it can be launched. Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. 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.6

From Chapter 5 onwards Eagleton moves out of a rather narrow and academic debate into much more ambitious territory. He gives two reasons why cultural theory must now address the big issues. First, he believes that the challenge to the West from ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ will inevitably force Western intellectuals to address the broader questions of legitimation of the Western order in one form or another. In other words the ‘end of history’ thesis that Western liberal capitalism had finally triumphed went hand in hand with the postmodern rejection (ironically) of ‘grand narratives’, with emphasis on the particular rather than the general, on difference rather than the universal, etc. The end of history is clearly not nigh with the advent of Islamic fundamentalism, therefore we need to address the big issues cultural theory has been earnestly avoiding.

More pertinent are the very favourable but very abstract references Eagleton makes to the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement. But even here he is woolly. Eagleton claims in an extraordinary couple of sentences that ‘there can be no falling back on ideas of collectivity which belong to a world unravelling before our eyes. Human history is for the most part both post-collectivist and post-individualist’.7 In case we should despair at this early point in the book he goes on: ‘We need to imagine new forms of belonging, which in our kind of world are bound to be multiple rather than monolithic… The anti-capitalist movement is seeking to sketch out new relations between globality and locality, diversity and solidarity’.8

This is somewhat typical. Eagleton has always had his heart on the left and his roots in the Marxist tradition. He has had more connection than some left academics with real political activity. I remember him selling Big Flame outside the King’s Arms in Oxford in the late 1970s and spending a couple of hours on the coldest day of winter collecting in Oxford’s Cornmarket for the miners in 1984. He frequently talks favourably in his books, his lectures and his seminars of the one and only successful workers’ revolution in Russia in October 1917, and this book is no exception. His sympathies and his values are those of the Marxist intellectual.

But he has also spent many years immersed in academia, reading, writing and lecturing voraciously. His Marxism owes much to the orthodox Trotskyist tradition from which weaknesses in his analysis of the Soviet Union and its fall originate. He certainly used to believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 bore out Trotsky’s view, articulated in the 1930s, and faithfully preserved for the following 50 years by Ernest Mandel, that the Soviet Union was indeed a degenerated workers’ state which was like an inverted pyramid balancing precariously and finally toppling over. The weaknesses in that tradition come through occasionally in his willingness to accept Maoism and even apparently the state ideology of Stalinism as part of the Marxist tradition. And although it can be crass to seek to exclude from the canon anyone who doesn’t agree with the tradition narrowly defined, too much liberalism fails to provide the necessary analytical tools to draw the line. That may be partly why he is so generous to those who have abandoned the Marxist tradition, acknowledging this move only very late in their trajectory away from ‘comradely’ engagement with Marxism.

He has also long been fascinated by theorists and theories with at best a tenuous connection with the classical Marxist tradition. He certainly seems a little out of touch with the political realities of the contemporary world. It seems odd to write off ‘old forms’ of collective identity just because the defeats of the last 20 years have put the working class on the defensive. Eagleton makes no attempt to justify the view that there has been a fundamental change in the structure of society to undermine the classical Marxist view of the proletariat as the potential gravediggers of capitalism. He just seems to take it as obvious. Yet the upsurge of struggles in France in 1995 and again this year show that the working class can begin to re-emerge from the dark night of defeat and downturn, just as the re-emergence of the unofficial wildcat strike has done in Britain.

His positive view of the anti-capitalist movement is presented at such a lofty level of abstraction it is difficult to know what to make of his view of its potential. He certainly shows no awareness of the different views now prevalent within and dividing the anti-capitalist movement.

Nonetheless, there is still plenty of justification for properly addressing the deep philosophical issues which preoccupy Eagleton in the second half of the book. There is much confusion about the nature of truth and morality in areas of academia-including in particular those areas affected most by (formerly) trendy but generally poor philosophy emanating from France and the US (as well as having its home-grown varieties).

Eagleton is quite right to lambast relativism about truth, which ultimately implodes in its own inconsistencies. He does a service in carefully showing that believing in ‘absolute’ truth is not to believe in dogma, or revealed truth. It is simply to believe in a concept of truth which avoids inconsistency and logical self contradiction, a minimum requirement for rational thought and dialogue. This does not make the truth easy to obtain or our claims to truth unfalsifiable. On the contrary, it is the relativist who has a concept of truth more compatible with dogmatism. While there has been some confusion about the concept of truth in the classical Marxist tradition, what Eagleton has to say about truth seems to me to be compatible with the best of that tradition and to have the virtue of being true.

Similarly, Eagleton outlines clearly and cogently a concept of human nature which provides a value concept of self realisation. This would be rejected by all those ‘anti-essentialist’ postmodernists, but again on spurious and ultimately incoherent philosophical grounds. This concept of human nature, itself complex and contested, is to be found in Aristotle and, socialised, underpins Marx’s concept of human nature. More than that, Eagleton outlines a concept of morality rooted in that concept of human nature and human potential which underpins Marx’s critique of capitalism. Again there has been some confusion on this question within the tradition, but Eagleton seems to me correct in seeing the problem as arising from the failure to distinguish between moralism and morality:

For Aristotle…ethics and politics are intimately related. Ethics is about excelling at being human, and nobody can do this in isolation. Moreover, nobody can do it unless the political institutions which allow you to do it are available. It is this kind of moral thinking which was inherited by Karl Marx… Questions of good and bad had been falsely abstracted from their social contexts, and had to be restored to them again. In this sense, Marx was a moralist in the classical sense of the word. He believed that moral enquiry had to examine all of the factors which went to make up a specific action or way of life, not just personal ones.9

Marx, however, thought that, on the whole, ‘morality’ was ideology, argues Eagleton, because he confused morality with moralism, where moralism is the view that ‘there is a set of questions known as moral questions which are quite distinct from social or political ones’.10

The arguments and ideas in the second half of the book are original, dense and stimulating. They include not only serious thinking on questions of truth, objectivity and value but also on the meaning of death and its implications for life, an attempt to penetrate ‘fundamentalist’ thinking, and a radical anti-fundamentalist and anti-dogmatic interpretation of the moral understanding Eagleton believes to be present in parts of the Christian Bible.

While Eagleton is good at exposing the limitations of the views he is opposed to, and often compelling on the views that he favours, he does not always go very deeply into the philosophical issues and does not answer or address some of the very hard questions, at least in adequate detail. Indeed Eagleton might accept that his brilliant tour de force in the second half of the book is more a prologue to a much more substantial, essentially philosophical, theory.

One motivation for trying to develop such theory is the re-emergence of essentially familiar philosophical problems in postmodernism and their use to undermine rather than strengthen movements to challenge capitalist barbarism. Eagleton seems to feel postmodernism has pretty much had its day, but that fundamentalism now provides the motivation to think seriously about fundamental issues. Certainly there is useful work to be done in clarifying and strengthening the philosophical underpinnings of our theory of working class self emancipation. It seems to me Eagleton has made a very useful contribution to that project in the second half of this book.


1. T Eagleton, After Theory (Harmondsworth, 2003), p30.

2. As above.

3. As above, p54.

4. As above, p90.

5. As above, p100.

6. As above, pp101-102.

7. As above, p21.

8. As above, pp21-22.

9. As above, p143.

10.As above.