Wednesday, September 24, 2003


Distinguished literary critic Terry Eagleton has, in the past, more than dallied with radical Catholicism -- as well as with Marxism. He was, if I recall correctly, one of the authors of The Slant Manifesto, a key tract in the history of the Anglican-Catholic Left from the 1960s. Eagleton's profitable musings have taken him in different directions since then, but he remains a trenchant critic of the conceits of the nihilistic end of post-modernism. This from his recent essay, Living In A Material World:

"Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It 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. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on. It is also rather an awkward moment in history to find oneself with little or nothing to say about such fundamental questions. [...]

"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.

"[T]he 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."

I'm not sure I agree on Wittgenstein. And postmodern critique has much to offer in deconstructing modernist hubris. But Eagleton demonstrates that distinguishing theory from fashion (or, as Mark C Taylor once put it, "a matter of thought from a matter of mere scholarship") is vital for our moral, political and spiritual welfare.

Terry Eagleton's latest book, After Theory, is published this month.

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