After Theory

Wide and Deep

I’ve been oddly fascinated by the excerpts from After Theory by Terry Eagleton published in the Guardian. I can see the basis for them, but no matter how many times that I read the conclusion of the excerpted sections, I just don’t see anything resembling an alternative.

Postmodernism is obsessed by the body and terrified of biology. 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. The creature who emerges from postmodern thought is centreless, hedonistic, self-inventing, ceaselessly adaptive. He sounds more like a Los Angeles media executive than an Indonesian fisherman. Postmodernists oppose universality, and well they might: nothing is more parochial than the kind of human being they admire.

I’m troubled by Eagleton’s use of “parochial” to describe the postmodernist hero. Really? How so? Most of the leading figures saddled with that title are polymaths. They challenge the entire nature of what we call disciplines. The “terror” over biology seems overstated. Reading Butler, for example, the question of biological essence is dealt with in a detailed manner. Her conclusion, as I recall, is that there are no (stable) answers to be found in biology. The real problem is the way that bodies are socially constructed; the solution is a sort of hedonistic performance that subverts those social assumptions. Gender radicalism does not flee in terror from the body, but confronts the socialized terror of the body that has been institutionalized by gender conventions. These conventions permeate all levels of society. Parochial? How so? I suspect my quandary is answered in the next paragraph:

Postmodernism rejects the idea of there being firm foundations to social life. “Nothing we do,” writes Ludwig Wittgenstein, “can be defended absolutely and finally,” a statement that may be taken as a keynote of much modern thought. In a brutally fundamentalist era, this sense of the provisional nature of all our ideas – one central to post-structuralism and postmodernism – is deeply salutary. Whatever the blind spots and prejudices of these theories, they pale in comparison with the lethal self-righteousness of the fundamentalist. And they can of course be valuable antidotes to it. The problem is that the bracing scepticism of such postmodern thought is hard to distinguish from its aversion to engaging with fundamentalism at the kind of deep moral or metaphysical level where it needs to be confronted. Indeed, this might serve as a summary of the dilemma in which cultural theory is now caught. Postmodernism has an allergy to depth, as indeed did the later Wittgenstein.

Ah, I think I see— Eagleton means parochial in the sense that the postmodern view prefers to confront surfaces rather than depths. The best answer to that is de Mann’s variant of “deconstruction”—demystifying. The cornerstone of fundamentalisms is that truth exists at a “deep level” beyond the ordinary view. Demystifying that, many postmodern critics excel at demonstrating that the depth does not really tell much more than the surface. There is no “hidden” agenda that poses the real threat—the surface is scary enough, and poorly understood. I tend to agree. Why overcomplicate matters? Eagleton seems to have reverted to thinking that there are “depths” which contain the answers, a position that I really don’t share.

But I do empathize with his remarks:

We can never be “after theory”, in the sense that there can be no reflective human life without it. We can simply run out of particular styles of thinking, as our situation changes. 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. It was, after all, the theory that assured us that “grand narratives” – the over-arching stories we had relied upon to explain the world until postmodernism offered us an alternative – were a thing of the past.

I recall clearly thinking as the hype after 9/11 started that we had suddenly traveled back hundreds of years in thinking. We have reverted to an older “style of thinking” which did not work before. While no proposals for a new way of thinking have really worked so far, there is no need to suspect that new ways of thinking can’t ever work. Eagleton champions a return to the depths:

This, however, presents cultural theory with a fresh challenge. If it is to engage with an ambitious global history, it must have answerable resources of its own, equal in depth and scope to the situation it confronts. It cannot afford simply to keep recounting the same narratives of class, race and gender, indispensable as these topics are. It needs to chance its arm, break out of a rather stifling orthodoxy and explore new topics, not least those of which it has so far been unreasonably shy.

I think I finally get the “parochialism” that Eagleton is on about. He means that the topics have become ossified. I can agree with him there. A depth and scope equal to the situation it confronts is a wonderful goal. However, as postmodern thought was (by definition) focused on the surface, I don’t share his displeasure at its lack of depth.