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:
Even so, the advent of sexuality and popular culture as kosher subjects of study has put paid to one powerful myth…the puritan dogma that seriousness is one thing and pleasure another.
Perhaps this is dialectical thinking, but it often seems more like having it both ways. Most confusing of all, perhaps, is Eagleton’s habit of referring to the subject of his book without a capital letter or quotation marks to distinguish it from other referents of the word “theory,” and only occasionally distinguishing it by the epithet “cultural.” Since he cites very few books and gives very few quotations to illustrate his points, it can be difficult to identify exactly what he is talking about. Still, we will try.
Eagleton begins by locating the origins of Theory in the Sixties and that decade’s heady ferment of liberation politics, youthful revolt, and intellectual adventurousness. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. For a brief period it seemed possible that iconoclastic cultural criticism, avant-garde art, and revolutionary politics might march confidently into the future arm in arm. But by the end of the Seventies the dream had faded, and in the greedy anti-ideological Eighties the left had to face the fact of its defeat. Eagleton observes astutely:
As often happens, ideas had a last, brilliant efflorescence when the conditions which produced them were already disappearing. Cultural theory was cut loose from its moment of origin, yet tried in its way to keep that moment warm. Like war, it became the continuation of politics by other means.
That comment explains the ambivalence toward Theory which runs through the whole book. On the one hand Eagleton admires it for continuing to question the accepted “order of things”; on the other he cannot forgive it for turning away from radical political action, now seen as “fatally compromised by the emptiness of desire, the impossibility of truth, the fragility of the subject, the lie of progress, the pervasiveness of power.” Much of the blame is attributed to the climate of postmodernism, which denies the validity of universals and first principles, and encourages a kind of hedonistic pick ‘n mix browsing in the cultural shopping mall of ideas and experiences, depriving even ostensibly progressive projects like postcolonialism of practical effect and moral purpose.
Eagleton cites in this connection the arguments of anti-foundationalist or neopragmatist writers like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, whom he dubs “anti-theorists” because according to them,
you cannot justify your way of life by theory because theory is part of that way of life…. So cultures have no foundation in reason. They just do what they do…. And this also means that there are no rational grounds for judging between cultures.
Leaving aside the question whether this is a fair summary of these writers, the paradox of describing them as “anti-theorists” when they patently belong to the history of Theory illustrates the strain Eagleton’s discourse suffers in keeping so many mutually contradictory ideas in the air.
In a chapter called “Losses and Gains” he attempts a kind of audit of Theory. He begins by taking a swing at the willfully obscure and mystifying style of much of its literature, citing just one, unattributed sentence: “The in-choate in-fans ab-original para-subject cannot be theorized as functionally completely frozen in a world where teleology is schematised into geo-graphy.” Eagleton comments:
There is something particularly scandalous about radical cultural theory being so wilfully obscure… because the whole idea of cultural theory is at root a democratic one. In the bad old days, it was assumed that culture was something you needed to have in your blood, like malaria or red corpuscles. Countless generations of breeding went into the way a gentleman could instantly distinguish a sprightly metaphor from a shopsoiled one. Culture was not really something you could acquire, any more than you could acquire a second pair of eyebrows or learn to have an erection.
Reading this, one wonders exactly what bad old days Terry Eagleton is alluding to, only to discover incredulously that they went right up to the era of the Beatles:
Theory, which as we have seen was born somewhere in the dense, democratic jungle of the 1960s, thought otherwise. All you needed in order to join in the game was to learn certain ways of talking, not to have a couple of thoroughbreds tethered outside the door.
This is of course an absurd misrepresentation of the real history of literary criticism and literary education in the modern era. The teaching of vernacular literature in schools, colleges, and universities was begun in the late nineteenth century and expanded in the twentieth precisely as a way of opening up “culture” to all. And over the same period literary criticism evolved more and more sophisticated and illuminating “ways of talking” about it. In England and America this project was furthered especially by what came to be called the New Criticism, extending roughly from I.A. Richards to W.K. Wimsatt, which contained a good deal of literary theory, even though it was not as systematic as the structuralist poetics and narratology developed during the same time in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Prague, and in due course Paris.
These two critical traditions remained curiously ignorant of each other until the 1960s, though they had much in common, especially an interest in what constitutes “literariness,” and what motivates historical changes in the deep and surface structure of literary texts. As Frank Kermode explained in his memoir Not Entitled, he and like-minded Anglo-American critics (among whom I would count myself) gave a warm welcome at first to European structuralism because they thought it might bring a new energy and rigor to a common pursuit.
Terry Eagleton knows all this, of course, so why he should pretend otherwise is baffling. In the process the really important issue of the obfuscatory style of much Theory gets lost, or brushed aside. To demonstrate that it is not incompatible with the sensitive reading of literary texts he provides a little commentary on the opening sentence of a short story by Evelyn Waugh. This is perceptive enough but could have been done by any competent critic completely ignorant of the theory (i.e., Theory) which is the ostensible subject of his book. “That theory is incapable of close reading is one of its opponents’ most recurrent gripes.” Is it? I would have said that a more common gripe against Theory is that its exponents are manically obsessive close readers whose interpretative ingenuity is unrestrained by traditional criteria of verifiability and plausibility. However it is equally perverse to credit “cultural theory” with demolishing the assumption “that there is a single correct way to interpret a work of art.” “Ambiguity” and “Irony” were key terms in the New Criticism.
The chapter continues in this style, pitting caricatured “conservative critics” against idealized “cultural theorists” (I particularly cherish the phrase “theory, in its unassuming way…”) to reach the conclusion that “most of the objections to theory are either false or fairly trifling.” At precisely this point, just about halfway through the book, when the informed reader may feel inclined to hurl it across the room in exasperation, Eagleton performs a stunning argumentative somersault:
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 shame-faced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely si-lent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness.
The rest of After Theory is an elaboration of this formidable indictment and an exposition of its philosophical basis.
First, Eagleton defends the idea that there is such a thing as “absolute truth,” using a homespun style of ordinary language philosophy. “It simply means that if a statement is true, then the opposite of it can’t be true at the same time, or true from some other point of view…it does not make sense to say there is a tiger in the bathroom from my point of view but not from yours.” Fair enough, but the next example is not so straightforward: “‘Racism is an evil’ is not the same kind of proposition as ‘I always find the smell of fresh newsprint blissful.’ It is more like the statement ‘there is a tiger in the bathroom.'” More like, perhaps, but not the same. What constitutes racism is always open to interpretation and debate, whereas what constitutes a tiger is not. Deconstructionists will not feel seriously threatened by the argument so far.
Eagleton then moves on to “the question of human well-being,” which he seeks to define by a synthesis of Aristotle (whose Ethics he has obviously been studying carefully), Judeo-Christian moral teaching, and Marxism:
Aristotle thought that there was a particular way of living which allowed us…to be at our best for the kind of creatures we are. This was the life conducted according to the virtues. The Judaeo-Christian tradition considers that it is the life of charity or love. What this means…is that we become the occasion for each other’s self-realization. It is only through being the means of your self-fulfilment that I can attain my own…. The political form of this ethic is known as socialism, for which, as Marx comments, the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
There is no explicit acknowledgment that in political and economic practice (e.g., in Russia and Eastern Europe under communism) “socialism” on the Marxist model proved inimical to people’s free development, and was decisively rejected by them when they had the opportunity, but Eagleton does concede that “it looks as though we simply have to argue with each other about what self-realization means; and it may be that the whole business is too complicated for us to arrive at a satisfactory solution.” At such times he sounds surprisingly like the pragmatists and liberal humanists from whom he usually dissociates himself. He criticizes Marx for asserting that morality is just ideology: “‘Moral’ means exploring the texture and quality of human behavior as richly and sensitively as you can…. This is morality as, say, the novelist Henry James understood it….” And, one might add, as I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling understood it. It is not a matter, Eagleton finds, on which Theory has had much that is useful to say. For Derrida, for instance, “ethics is a matter of absolute decisions—decisions which are vital and necessary, but also ‘impossible,’ and which fall outside all given norms, forms of knowledge and modes of conceptualization.” Eagleton comments drily: “One can only hope that he is not on the jury when one’s case comes up in court.”
The epigrams are sharper and smarter in this half of the book. E.g., “Politics belonged to the boardroom, and morality to the bedroom. This led to a lot of immoral boardrooms and politically oppressive bedrooms” and “Military technology creates death but destroys the experience of it.” Eagleton is especially interesting on the subject of death, and rises to a fine pitch of prophetic eloquence when denouncing both postmodernism and late capitalism for trying to deny its inevitability:
The body, that inconvenient reminder of mortality, is plucked, pierced, etched, pummelled, pumped up, shrunk and remoulded. Flesh is converted into sign, staving off the moment when it will subside into the sheer pornographic meaninglessness of a corpse. Dead bodies are indecent: they proclaim with embarrassing candour the secret of all matter, that it has no obvious relation to meaning. The moment of death is the moment when meaning haemorrhages from us…. Capitalism too, for all its crass materialism, is secretly allergic to matter…. For all its love affair with matter, in the shape of Tuscan villas and double brandies, capitalist society harbours a secret hatred of the stuff. It is a culture shot through with fantasy, idealist to its core, powered by a disembodied will which dreams of pounding Nature to pieces.
“Death represents Nature’s final victory over culture,” and thus also over Theory inasmuch as Theory asserts that everything is cultural.
This critique of Theory owes much to Eagleton’s Catholic background, vividly recalled in his delectable memoir, The Gatekeeper. In Salford, the drab Lancashire industrial town where he grew up, there was, somewhat incongruously, an enclosed community of Carmelite nuns, to whom the young Eagleton acted as altar-server and “gatekeeper”—passing them messages and objects via a turntable set into the convent wall, and ushering rare visitors into the forbidding parlor where they could communicate with the inmates through a grille. The nuns’ life of total self-denial was by any secular criteria absurd, but it was a kind of Kierkegaardian absurdity which witnessed to the fallen state of the world, a world perceived as so sinful that the best thing to do was to withdraw from it, pray for it, and wait to be released from it. The young Terry Eagleton was impressed, but as he grew up and shed the simple faith instilled in him as a child, he replaced the concept of sin with the concept of political and economic oppression, and looked for salvation in this world rather than the next. “One can move fairly freely… from Catholicism to Marxism without having to pass through liberalism,” he explains. But he never completely severed the connection with his Catholic roots, partly because of those radi-cal English Dominicans, and one in particular, the late Herbert McCabe, whose influence on After Theory he acknowledges as all-pervasive.
McCabe was something of a maverick priest, even by the relaxed standards of the English Dominican prov-ince, and was once the center of another “McCabe Affair,” when he was disciplined and sacked from the editorship of the order’s journal, New Blackfriars, for declaring in an editorial that the Church was “quite plainly corrupt.” (When reinstated years later he began his next editorial with the words, “As I was saying when I was so oddly interrupted….”) As a writer and preacher he tried to divest the Christian faith of “religion,” which had overlaid the essential message of the gospels with superstition, rules, and hierarchical authority, a message that was fully compatible with utopian socialism. McCabe was adept at using modern biblical scholarship to defamiliarize the scriptures and surprise people into a perception of their radical nature, and traces of his teaching can be seen in After Theory. By contrast with Derrida’s inscrutable and ineffable ethical imperatives, Eagleton says,
The New Testament’s view of ethics is distinctly irreligious…. What salvation comes down to [in Matthew’s gospel] is the humdrum material business of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick…. The New Testament also adopts a fairly relaxed attitude to sex, and takes a notably dim view of the family.
McCabe maintained that “when we speak of God we do not know what we are talking about. We are simply using language from the familiar context in which we understand it…to point… into the mystery that surrounds and sustains the world,” but presumably he believed in some ultimately transcendental reality. To Eagleton, “God is the reason why there is anything at all rather than just nothing. But that is just a way of saying that there really isn’t any reason.” Nevertheless, the Christian counsels of perfection remain relevant for him even when deprived of their traditional metaphysical foundations. Since the only pur- pose of human life is to live as fully as possible, death will always seem arbitrary, but just because it is inevitable we must live in acceptance of it; and renouncing property, or being in principle always ready to renounce it (in order of course to redistribute it), is a way of preparing ourselves to give up bodily life. According to Eagleton, the greedy consumerism of contemporary Western society, driven by global capitalism and celebrated by postmodernism in the arts and the media, is in denial of this truth, and so is Theory, especially in America:
The body is a wildly popular topic in US cultural studies—but this is the plastic, remouldable, socially constructed body, not the piece of matter that sickens and dies. Because death is the absolute failure to which we all eventually come, it has not been the most favoured of topics for discussion in the United States. The US distributors of the British film Four Weddings and a Funeral fought hard, if unsuccessfully, to change the title.
The example in the third sentence is well-spotted, but hardly enough to support the tendentious assertion of the second. My own impression is that there have been quite a lot of American plays, feature films, and TV dramas dealing with terminal illness and death in recent years.
There is a vein of anti-American sentiment running through After Theory which has long been characteristic of the British far left and has been inflamed by the war in Iraq. It is not the first book to suggest that Theory has had its day or lost its way, but perhaps the first of its kind to be written in the shadow of September 11 and the alarming global upheaval that followed, thus lending the argument an apocalyptic tone at times. “The End of History was complacently promulgated from a United States which looks increasingly in danger of ending it for real,” Eagleton comments early in his book, and concludes: “With the launch of a new global narrative of capitalism, along with the so-called war on terror, it may well be that the style of thinking known as postmodernism is now approaching an end.” Since the United States is of pivotal importance in these political developments, and the academic institutions of the United States have been particularly hospitable to Theory and postmodernism, a causal connection is implied between these phenomena. But the United States is pivotal because it won the cold war, and became an unopposed economic and military superpower which unluckily fell into the control of an arrogant and reckless administration. This can hardly be blamed on Theory, or postmodernism.
The other main factor in the current global crisis, the rise of religious fundamentalism, especially but not exclusively of the Islamic persuasion, is certainly within Theory’s field of compe-tence, but Eagleton claims that it has been disabled by its skepticism about principles from saying anything very constructive on the subject. He argues that the objection to fundamentalists is not that they have principles, but that they have the wrong ones; that they base their principles on the foundation of a text or texts, “which is the worst possible stuff for this purpose”; that they “are ready to destroy the whole of creation to preserve the purity of an idea.” Human beings, he says, must learn to “live ironically. To accept the unfoundedness of our own existence is among other things to live in the shadow of death…. To accept death would be to live more abundantly.” Unfortunately fundamentalists are not very appreciative of irony, and are apt to apply that last dictum to the next world rather than this. Terry Eagleton has no real answer to the threat which that paradoxical figure, the suicide bomber, at once martyr and murderer, presents to civilized society. (But then, who has?)
After Theory is an ambitious and thought-provoking book as well as an exasperating one, but it overestimates the importance of Theory and its influence outside the academy, while avoiding a proper analysis of its history inside. Theory has, after all, been an almost exclusively academic pursuit, driven by professional as well as intellectual motivations. In a period when the university job market became increasingly competitive it provided an array of impressive metalanguages with which academics in the humanities could win their spurs and demonstrate their professional mastery. But to anyone outside the arena—“the educated general reader,” for instance—the excruciating effort of construing this jargon-heavy discourse far exceeded the illumination likely to be gleaned from it, so they stopped reading it, and nonspecialist publications stopped reviewing it, which was bad for both academia and culture in general.
Some of Theory’s achievements are genuine and permanent additions to knowledge, or intellectual self-knowledge. Eagleton is quite right to assert that we can never go back to a state of pre-Theory innocence about the transparency of language or the ideological neutrality of interpretation. At its best, as a method of critical reading (in Roland Barthes’ S/Z, say), it performed at a second remove what literature does to life—defamiliarizing the object of its attention, and making us see it and enjoy it afresh. But like all fashions it was bound to have a limited life of novelty and vitality, and we are now living through its decadence without any clear indication of what will supersede it. Theory has, in short, become boringly predictable to many people who were once enthusiastic about it, and that After Theory is most interesting when its focus is furthest from its nominal subject is perhaps evidence that Terry Eagleton is now bored by it too.
May 27, 2004