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<nettime> CTs -- Start Your Epitaphs
eduardo on Tue, 6 Jan 2004 14:28:06 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> CTs -- Start Your Epitaphs

I recently got an interesting article forwarded on Eagleton's new book.
Apparently, he wants answers now; at least according to the review.

 Article follows below.

Eduardo Navas


Cultural Theorists, Start Your Epitaphs

January 3, 2004

DUBLIN - Get the critic Terry Eagleton in the right mood,
and he will sing his song about literary theory for you.
The ditty may seem nonsensical, but just imagine the
round-faced and gray-bearded Mr. Eagleton singing in a
mellow baritone to the tune of "Somethin' Stupid":

"Nostalgic petit-bourgeois social democrat subjectivist
empiricist,/I saw the light of day," he sings, ending the
verse, "Until I went and spoiled it all by writing
something stupid in New Left Review."

"The song is fiction, ironic," said Mr. Eagleton, 60. "It
reflects a growing desperation."

Yes, desperation about literary theory, from one of the
most prominent cultural critics around; from a man whose
best-selling academic book "Literary Theory: An
Introduction" (1983) has for two decades been the classic
text that professors assign to give graduate students an
overview of modern literary criticism.

But now the postmodernist giants - like Jacques Derrida and
Roland Barthes - are over, he says.

"The golden age of cultural theory is long past," Mr.
Eagleton writes in his new book, "After Theory" (Basic
Books), to be published in the United States in January. In
this age of terrorism, he says, cultural theory has become
increasingly irrelevant, because theorists have failed to
address the big questions of morality, metaphysics, love,
religion, revolution, death and suffering.

Today graduate students and professors are bogged down in
relativism, writing about sex and the body instead of the
big issues. "On the wilder shores of academia," he writes,
"an interest in French philosophy has given way to a
fascination with French kissing."

His critique goes further. "The postmodern prejudice
against norms, unities and consensuses is a politically
catastrophic one," he writes. Cultural theorists can no
longer "afford simply to keep recounting the same
narratives of class, race and gender, indispensable as
these topics are."

What Mr. Eagleton, one of the few remaining Marxist
critics, wants now is a search for absolutes, for norms,
for answers to what he calls "fundamental questions of
truth and love in order to meet the urgencies of our global

His published declaration, already out in Britain, has
received a mixed hearing. Allen Lane wrote in The
Independent that the book's "huge achievement is to show
just how formidable a presence the Marxist cultural critic
can be."

But Noel Malcolm, writing in The Sunday Telegraph,
dismissed "After Theory" as "a mixture of reformist
Marxism, `virtue' ethics and some Thought-for-the Day
meditations on love and death." And Eric Griffiths wrote in
The Times Literary Supplement that the book "can only
confirm the confused popular image of an intellectual as
someone happy to mouth off about anything at a moment's

Mr. Eagleton is used to criticism (Prince Charles once
referred to him as "that dreadful Terry Eagleton") and he
shrugs off the latest attacks, calling them "the standard
set of criticisms of the left." He spoke as he was sitting
at the kitchen table of his 19th-century Georgian-style row
house in Dublin, where he lives part of the year, with his
wife, Willa Murphy, a lecturer in English at the University
of Ulster, in Londonderry and Coleraine; they have a
6-year-old son, Oliver. (Mr. Eagleton has two grown sons
from a previous marriage.)

He is unrepentant in his defense of Marxism, which, he
writes, offers the blueprint for a moral society. For Marx,
"questions of good and bad had been falsely abstracted from
their social contexts, and had to be restored to them
again," he writes, adding, "In this sense, Marx was a
moralist in the classical sense of the word."

Nowadays Mr. Eagleton lives the life of an academic
superstar, jetting about the world from one academic
conference to another. He has an apartment in Manchester as
well as his home in Dublin and an 18th-century rectory near
Londonderry, in Northern Ireland.

Over the years Mr. Eagleton has been a prolific writer,
editor and co-editor of dozens of books. He has published a
novel, "Saints and Scholars," about Wittgenstein in
Ireland, which was made into a film, "Wittgenstein," by
Derek Jarman, with a screenplay by Mr. Jarman and Mr.
Eagleton. He has also written a play, "St. Oscar," about
Oscar Wilde, who is one of his heroes.

Mr. Eagleton suggests that some of his Marxism may spring
from his childhood as the son of a factory worker of Irish
descent in Salford, England, near Manchester.

The family was poor, the air clogged with industrial
effluvia. Two brothers died in infancy. He has two sisters,
who became English teachers.

Mr. Eagleton had asthma. "In common with the North of
England working class we were a good few inches below
average height," he wrote in his 2001 memoir, "The
Gatekeeper" (St. Martin's Griffin), "like a herd of extras
from `The Wizard of Oz.' "

"The Gatekeeper" takes its title from Mr. Eagleton's duties
as an altar boy at a Carmelite convent. After young nuns
took their vows, they said goodbye to their parents
forever. He escorted grieving parents who were never to see
their daughters again, out the door.

He attended a Catholic grammar school run by the De La
Salle Brothers, with a headmaster whom he describes as "a
white-haired career sadist from an undistinguished Irish

He recalled how his father had won a place at grammar
school but couldn't afford to go. His father had wanted him
to go to Cambridge, but, he said, "he died on the brink of
my going." He says this left him with an abiding guilt and
a sense that he had leapt over his father's dead body to
achieve success.

At Cambridge Mr. Eagleton's tutor was an old-world
aristocrat. (In "The Gatekeeper" he gives him the pseudonym
Dr. Greenway.) He "by and large preferred works of art and
herbaceous borders to human beings," Mr. Eagleton writes,
"but he was unfailingly courteous and considerate, even
when we threw up our mulled claret over his pixie-like feet
at his parties."

In his first year the man called him "Eagleton," in his
second, "Terence," in his third, "Terry." "Perhaps if I had
stayed on at his college beyond my undergraduate years,
this escalating intimacy would have reached its natural
conclusion in `sweetiepie,' " he writes.

"I found him ridiculous," Mr. Eagleton said, "but I was
almost embarrassed by how much he meant to me." The two
debated Marxism.

The Marxist cultural historian Raymond Williams later
became his intellectual mentor and got him a teaching

Still, he detested Cambridge, he said. He discovered a home
in the new Catholic left, coming under the influence of a
radical Dominican friar, Laurence Bright, and he helped
found the leftist Catholic journal Slant. After Bright
died, and Slant folded in the early 70's, Mr. Eagleton gave
up formal religion, finding the organized church too
autocratic and hidebound, he said.

Still, his work is shadowed by Roman Catholicism. Mr.
Eagleton seems to find a confluence between his
interpretation of Marxism and Christianity, in a shared
ethic of cooperativism, and protection of the poor and the
weak. He cites one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians:
"God chose what is weakest in the world to shame the
strong." Morality begins with a recognition of one's
weakness and mortality, Mr. Eagleton says. He uses the
example of King Lear, who is redeemed only after he has
endured the storm on the heath and understands is own

Although Mr. Eagleton remains vague about what his
longed-for absolute truths would look like, he writes that
an ethical society can only happen under socialism, "in
which each attains his or her freedom and autonomy in and
through the self-realization of others."

And he defends Marxists against the familiar litany of

"If you want the most trenchant account of Stalinism you
have to go to Marxism, not liberalism," he said. "Stalinism
wasn't, from our point of view, radical enough. Long before
Tiananmen Square the mainstream Marxists were saying the
Soviet system is a travesty. You can't build Communism in
backward conditions. You need international support. You
need a society with a liberal democracy. Marx always saw
socialism in continuity with middle-class democracy."

So what is his advice, specifically? "Get out of NATO. Get
rid of capitalism. Put the economy back into public

Since 2001, Mr. Eagleton has been a professor of cultural
theory at Manchester University, near where he grew up. He
left Oxford after more than 30 years, a place he said he
hated. In "The Gatekeeper" he refers to the faculty as
"petulant, snobbish, spiteful, arrogant, autocratic and
ferociously self-centered."

Still, Mr. Eagleton became involved with radical politics
there and joined the Socialist Workers Party. He was known
for his exuberant lectures, and organized an Irish singing
group where his song on literary theory was born.

He said he left "with as much regret as if it were the day
I went in."

Despite his new book, Mr. Eagleton said that the golden age
of cultural theory was not all for naught. "We provided an
important left intellectual core at a time when other
things got more conservative," he said.

Yet what theorists have forgotten, he said, is the
importance of the system to people's lives. "You need the
satirist and the debunker," he said. "But you need
constructive politics, too."

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