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Goodbye to All That

After Theory

by Terry Eagleton
Basic Books, 231 pp., $25.00


After Theory, by Terry Eagleton… Anyone who served on the academic front of the culture wars in the closing decades of the twentieth century is likely to prick up his ears and experience a kind of mental salivation at this conjunction of author and title. “Theory” (with a capital T, and/or scare quotes) is the loose and capacious term generally used to refer to the academic discourses which arose out of the impact of structuralism, and more particularly post-structuralism, on the humanities (or “human sciences” as academics in continental Europe, where it all started, prefer to call them). Key figures in its evolution were Ro-land Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, who subjected the methodologies of the founding fathers of structuralism, such as Saussure and Lévi-Strauss, and the work of other seminal modern thinkers like Marx and Freud, to a scrutiny that was at once critical and creative. One might say that Theory began when theory itself began to be theorized—or, in the buzz word of the day, “deconstructed.”

In due course the movement’s center of gravity moved from France to America where it was developed and promulgated by writers like Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, Jonathan Culler, Barbara Johnson, Gayatri Spivak, Frederick Jameson, and Edward Said. On both continents it assimilated and theorized the nascent movement of feminist criticism. It extended the scope of traditional literary criticism to take in the whole range of cultural production, and it spawned a number of new, nonaesthetic approaches to this material under a bewildering variety of names—the New Historicism, postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, queer theory, and so on, each with its own jargon, periodicals, and conferences. Most of these projects were seen, and saw themselves, as belonging to that even looser and larger phenomenon known as “postmodernism.”

One very controversial effect of Theory on the academic study of literature was to undermine the authority of the traditional canon and to install in its place a set of alternative subcanons such as women’s writing, gay and lesbian writing, postcolonial writing, and the founding texts of Theory itself. It found its warmest welcome among smart young recruits to the academic profession, eager to try out this bright new methodological gadgetry with which they could dazzle and disconcert their elders. Not surprisingly Theory met with considerable resistance from those with a vested interest in more traditional modes of literary scholarship. There were many struggles over the curriculum, appointments, and tenure.

In England the most celebrated of these was the so-called MacCabe Affair of 1981 when a young lecturer at Cambridge University, Colin MacCabe, who had written a book about James Joyce much influenced by the new Parisian ideas, was denied the Cambridge equivalent of tenure. He and his supporters broadcast their belief that an injustice had been done, and the case seemed to tickle the fancy of the press, who had heard a lot about this newfangled structuralism without quite knowing what it was and were now able to discuss it in terms of personalities. What began as a row between members of the Cambridge English faculty became a serial news story in the national and even international press, and culminated in a two-day debate in the University Senate where much academic dirty linen was washed in public. The traditionalists won inasmuch as Colin MacCabe was not given tenure (instead he became the youngest full professor of English in the UK at the University of Strathclyde), but it was a pyrrhic victory which led directly or indirectly to the departure of several of Cambridge’s brightest stars, including Frank Kermode.

In the long run, and on a wider stage, Theory won, inasmuch as it established itself by the early Nineties as a new orthodoxy in university humanities departments around the world, existing alongside the traditional practices of empirical historical scholarship and textual editing in a kind of uneasy détente, but definitely the dominant party in influence, patronage, and prestige. The very success of Theory, however, has bred a kind of weariness in many of those who struggled on its behalf, and its institutionalization has deprived it of much of its original excitement and glamour. Disillusionment set in among many of its early supporters.

Colin MacCabe, for instance, recently issued a second edition of his book on Joyce, with an introduction that acknowledged the flaws in its theoretical apparatus, much of which, he says, “has become a paralysing orthodoxy, trumpeted by dunces almost identical to those who freed me from my much loved Cambridge.”* Sir Frank Kermode, whose staff/postgraduate seminar at University College London was an influential conduit for the ideas and personalities of Continental structuralism in the late Sixties and early Seventies, has in his later publications expressed increasing dismay at the distorting effect of Theory on the appreciation and understanding of literature, especially of the past. Frank Len- tricchia, advocate of a Foucauldian, post-Marxist brand of political criticism in books like Criticism and Social Change (1983), published a confessional article in Lingua Franca (September/ October 1996) in which he denounced Theory for killing the pleasure of reading, deplored its effect on his indoctrinated graduate students, and revealed that he now taught Great Books rhapsodically to undergraduates behind closed doors. Examples could be multiplied of formerly committed partisans of Theory who have changed tack, diversified into creative writing and autobiography, rededicated themselves to teaching in encounter-group style, or left the academy altogether to become psychotherapists.

Terry Eagleton has a special place in the history of Theory, especially in Britain. He was something of an enfant terrible as a young research fellow and lecturer, first at Cambridge and then at Oxford, and retained this aura as he rose to become full professor. He reveled in attacking the academic establishment—and for a time the Roman Catholic establishment too. A working-class Catholic by birth and upbringing, he came under the spell of a group of radical Dominican friars at Cambridge in the 1960s and was deeply involved in a short-lived but lively periodical called Slant, which identified the Kingdom of God with the Marxist ideal of a classless society and (for example) condemned the service of Benediction as a liturgical perversion that turned the shared bread of the authentic Eucharist into a reified commodity.

His first, precocious monograph, published in 1967, when Continental structuralism was little more than a rumor in English universities, was a Marxist reading of Shakespeare’s plays. Eagleton’s leftist political principles made him suspicious of the formalist bias of classical structuralism, and more receptive to some aspects of Theory than to others—to postcolonial and feminist criticism rather than deconstruction, for instance. But his agile intelligence, eloquence, and wit allowed him to grasp and expound the essential ideas of all of them in an accessible and even entertaining way.

His Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) was a polemical as well as descriptive work, which proposed the replacement of literary studies by cultural studies (embracing all media and depriving imaginative literature of its privileged status), and came down heavily in its last chapter in favor of “Political Criticism,” (i.e., criticism that acknowledges its unavoidable involvement in political and social life), but it covered the whole waterfront of Theory. It has been seized and devoured with relief and gratitude by several generations of students, and is reported to have sold 800,000 copies worldwide—an astonishing figure and impressive testimony to Eagleton’s influence. He has subsequently published or edited more than a dozen books with titles like The Function of Criticism, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Marxism and Literary Criticism, The Significance of Theory, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture, and The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson.

The title of his new book, therefore, inevitably raises the question: Is Terry Eagleton the latest of the stars of Theory to lose faith in it? The answer is: yes and no, or rather no and yes. After Theory is a kind of dialogue between Eagleton the Practitioner and Defender of Theory and Eagleton the Conscience and Accuser of Theory, or, one might say, between Terry the stand-up comedian and Terry the lay preacher. Among the difficulties of grappling with the book is that it is con-stantly using one voice to qualify the arguments of the other, but from about halfway onward the second, more somber and critical voice dominates. On page one the author declares: “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,” but so are those who hoped for a panegyric on the age of Theory.

It must be said that the quality of the writing is very uneven. Eagleton’s racy, relaxed, and humorous style of exposition is usually a refreshing change from the tortuous solemnity more typical of Theory, but in this book it sometimes seems merely slapdash. There are sentences that should never have got past the first draft on his computer screen, let alone into print, like: “Much of the world as we know it, despite its solid, well-upholstered appearance, is of recent vintage.” (In the next sentence this upholstered vintage is thrown up by tidal waves.) There is a plethora of facetiously hyperbolic simile. This was always a favorite Eagleton trope, but it is in danger of becoming a distracting verbal tic, as for instance when postmodernism is criticized for attacking a bourgeois culture that is already on the wane: “This is rather like firing off irascible letters to the press about the horse-riding Huns or marauding Carthaginians who have taken over the Home Counties.” It is not.

There is a tendency for alliteration and assonance to take priority over accuracy, e.g., “In places like Ulster and Utah they [bourgeois values] are riding high. But nobody on Wall Street and few in Fleet Street believe in absolute truth and unimpeachable foundations.” “Fleet Street” is a metonym for newspapers, but there are no national newspapers in London’s Fleet Street anymore, and most of them moved out decades ago. (Turning the weapons of Theory against Eagleton here one might see this as a Freudian slip revealing a state of political denial, since it was through that move to new computerized offices in Docklands that the newspapers broke the grip of the corrupt print unions on the industry, one achievement of Thatcherism that gave almost universal satisfaction.)

The frequent use of in any case, anyway, even so, sometimes twice in the same paragraph, is another annoying stylistic feature. These words and phrases allow Eagleton to wriggle out of an apparent contradiction between two propositions by asserting something else at a higher level of generality. Thus in the first few pages he says, “In a historic advance sexuality is now firmly established within academic life as one of the keystones of human culture”; then he says that most of this work is trivial and self-indulgent, and then:

  1. *

    James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. xiii.

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