Before After Theory

This is an interesting review by Elaine Showalter of Terry Eagleton’s new book After Theory.

In the ’80s, theory ruled, and the subject formerly known as literature was banished or demoted in the interests of philosophy and aesthetic abstraction.

Hmm. But was it really philosophy? Or was it just little bits of philosophy here and there. That’s fine, it’s no crime to know only a little about something, that’s certainly my situation about almost everything – but one has to be clear about it. One has to be careful, it seems to me, not to confuse sampling philosophy with really studying it, and one has to be equally careful not to confuse Literary Theory with philosophy, because (this is a subtle point, now, but bear with me) they are not the same thing. One does get the impression at times that Literary Theorists think they are doing something more like philosophy than they in fact are. One also often wonders if they want to do philosophy why they aren’t in the philosophy department. It is there, after all, all set up for the purpose; why not take advantage of the fact? It seems so perverse to amble off to a different department and then set up to do the subject of another one. People don’t enroll in French departments in order to do engineering do they? Or engineering departments in order to do French. So why the English or Comparative Literature Department in order to do philosophy. One of life’s little mysteries.

He admits that cultural theory “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.” As he says in a characteristically ironic understatement, those constitute a “rather large slice of human existence” to ignore. So he sets out to fill the gaps and propose fresh theoretical approaches to the Big Questions.

Well yes, it is a rather large slice, and that’s part of the problem, surely. Why should cultural (or literary, or critical) theory be expected or able to contribute to all those subjects? Isn’t that expecting an awful lot? Isn’t that expecting it to be an omniscient and universally applicable discipline? What would qualify it to take all that on? That’s another one of those little mysteries.

Eagleton wants to free cultural theory from crippling orthodoxy by challenging the relativism of postmodernist thought and arguing on behalf of absolute truth, human essences, and virtue (which includes acting politically). He engages with definitions of morality.

And thus we see the drawback to pretensions of universal reach and of confusing literary theory with philosophy – one ends up re-inventing the wheel and belaboring the obvious. If fans hadn’t taken ‘postmodernist thought’ too seriously to begin with, Eagleton wouldn’t now have to waste energy on challenging it, but they did so he does. That’s where fashion gets you.

First, why isn’t literature, rather than theory, the best place to go for help about morality, love, evil, death, suffering, and truth, among other things? Having written a big book about tragedy, Eagleton obviously knows that on some topics, Shakespeare is a lot more relevant than Saussure. Eagleton himself is able to command an encyclopedic range of literary reference, but he takes the side of theory rather than literature, or even a position between the two. “Critics of theory sometimes complain,” he notes, “that its devotees seem to find theory more exciting than the works of art it is meant to illuminate. But sometimes it is. Freud is a lot more fascinating than Cecil Day-Lewis. Foucault’s The Order of Things is a good deal more arresting and original than the novels of Charles Kingsley.”

And then again why are literature and theory the only two choices? And what does ‘help’ mean? What does ‘relevant’ mean? Why Saussure? Why Freud, why Foucault? It’s all a muddle, frankly. One undefined term or unexamined assumption after another. Time for After After Theory.

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