Monday, June 06, 2005

In Theory

Terry Eagleton's After Theory is not well-named: it is as much amidst theory, amongst theory, and astride theory as it could possibly be. Or perhaps it is well-named: "after" can mean "in the debt of", as well as "posterior to"; it can be a label for pastiche as much as rebellion.

My reactions to the book can be organized by style and substance. The substance is a trenchantly Marxist re-telling of the history of cultural theory through Althusser, Derrida, Foucault et al. (Take-home message: idiologiekritik good; relativism bad.) The style is self-parodic in its obsession with unpredictable demotic analogies. It must be quoted at length:
For some of its critics, the very idea of cultural theory is a contradiction in terms, rather like 'fascist intellectual' or 'Alabaman haute cuisine'. […] Isn't a theory of art rather like trying to have a science of scowling or cuddling? […] In the bad old days it was assumed that culture was something you needed to have in your blood, like malaria or red corpuscles. […] Culture was not something you could acquire, any more than you could acquire a second pair of eyebrows or learn how to have an erection. […] Your judgements on Stendhal and Rembrandt were as spontaneous as a sneeze, as instinctive as opening doors for elderly ladies.
These examples come from two paragraphs; the entire book is like this. How to respond? At first it seems funny, then a bit annoying, then pathological, and finally utter madness, like someone who plays the children's game of repeating everything you say – but then will never stop.

Here we must thematize. In a characteristic discussion, Eagleton argues that George Best led a bad life in being drunk and dissolute because he "was not doing what it was in him to do" and "had failed at what he was supremely equipped to excel at". This is supposed to help us distinguish pleasure from the good life. But it may provide an insight into the author himself: what Eagleton is supremely equipped to excel at is the comic-mundane comparison; and so his flourishing consists in doing as much of it as possible. Thus he achieves the best good, regardless of the irritation and eventual anger of his readers.

Philosophers will recognize in this report a butchered version of Aristotle's ethics, with which Eagleton proposes to replace the semi-coherent denials of objectivity with which we associate the post-modern. Most of what he says is fair enough, in fact. In a book with very few footnotes, MacIntyre gets three, and Philippa Foot one: Eagleton is aware of some recent developments in the tradition he defends.

But it is all terrifically ungracious. Despite saying what philosophers have said before – for instance, in his endorsement of "absolute truth" as a matter of disquotational platitudes and non-contradiction – Eagleton has contempt for philosophy, "an aridly semantic affair", "less imaginatively endowed" than Barthes and Kristeva, "too fascinated by the logical distinction between the phrases 'nothing matters' and 'nothing chatters' to take much interest in changing the world." That hurts. Though you might wonder whether it is the job of the philosophy of language to change the world, any more than it is of linguistics or philology. And the closest Eagleton gets to revolution is recycled Aristotelianism, which is done much better (with arguments!) by others.

In any case, I didn't read his book for amateur moral philosophy, but for an engagement with the critics of "theory". Unfortunately, they are simply dismissed on page one:
Those to whom the title of this book suggests that 'theory' is now over, and that we can all relievedly return to an age of pre-theoretical innocence, are in for a disappointment. There can be no going back to an age when it was enough to pronounce Keats delectable or Milton a doughty spirit.
What age was that, exactly?

Fair enough: it's hyperbole. But there are critics who read books as something other than artifacts in the culture wars, who resist even the charms of idiologiekritik. There is John Bayley; there is Frank Kermode. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Eagleton for not writing a book about them. He has to follow his interests, after all. Or perhaps they simply offered too few opportunities for vernacular simile. There is no gap between substance and style.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Zena said...

I take exception at the slur about Alabaman haute cuisine. He wouldn't know a good shrimp-and-grits if it bit him on his doughty spirit!

2:55 PM  
Anonymous Timothy J Scriven said...

Sheer philistinism. Eagleton only thinks the style of philosophy represented by analytic philosophy can't change the world because he is ignorant of both the past and the present in that regard. That's the problem with Theory types, they rely on second hand ideas in areas outside theory.

3:26 AM  

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