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After Theory
After Theory
Terry Eagleton
Basic Books, 2003
240 pp., 49.3

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By Eugene McCarraher


After Theory, Theology?

Pauline self-abandonment as a response to postmodern nihilism.

In a prefatory note to After Theory, Terry Eagleton tells us that the influence of one Herbert McCabe has been "so pervasive" as to be "impossible to localize." Rushing past this reference, reviewers have missed a clue, not only to the book, but to the trajectory of Eagleton's career. A sardonic and generous Dominican friar who died in 2001, McCabe was a renowned Thomist philosopher and theologian, an editor of the British Catholic journal New Blackfriars, and a socialist—an "obstinate ultra-leftist," as Eagleton once wrote fondly, who demanded "nothing less than the resurrection of the body." McCabe saw no contradiction or willful eccentricity in these commitments, rooting his radical politics in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition. From this vantage, socialism was neither an extravagant ideal nor a historical necessity but the epitome of practical reason.

Along with the Marxist cultural historian Raymond Williams and his fellow Dominican Laurence Bright, McCabe mentored Eagleton and other New Left Catholics at Cambridge in the 1960s. Known as the Slant group (after the name of the journal they founded), these lefty Catholics produced some of the most imaginative political theology of the Cold War era. Insisting (against "secular city" fashions) on the indispensability of theology to social and political criticism, Slant recalled an earlier Anglo-Catholic Left that included John Neville Figgis and Maurice Reckitt, and anticipated much in the contemporary "radical orthodoxy" of John Milbank and Graham Ward. As Eagleton put it in The Body as Language (1970), the Church, precisely as the body of Christ, embodied "a revolutionary vanguard … working to dissipate the layers of false consciousness," while the Eucharist betokened "a symbolic transcendence of alienation."

Slant fizzled, however, and Eagleton left the Church in the 1970s, espousing a Marxism leavened by postmodern literary scholarship and cultural politics. Decked out in the latest intellectual fashions—poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, feminism, and psychoanalysis—"cultural studies" programs appeared everywhere, "decentering" the bourgeois self, "deconstructing" Western reason, celebrating the fluidity and "hybridity" of sex, gender, and race. They turned from Romantic poetry to romance novels; from Jane Austen to Austin Powers; from otherworldliness to "otherness." They affirmed pleasure, frivolity, and the "gloriously pointless" against everything mercenary and utilitarian. Especially when influenced by Western Marxism, they avowed the utopian character of culture, modernity's substitute for religion.

These were "towering achievements," Eagleton asserts in After Theory, which "remain as indispensable as ever" despite the excess and nonsense of pomo intellectuals. (Most reviewers, citing Eagleton's asides about "vampirism, cyborgs and porno movies," have been very misleading in this regard.) Anyone familiar with Literary Theory (1983)—a book to which countless graduate students have turned for a quick and lucid initiation—knows that Eagleton's criticisms have always been broadly sympathetic.

Nevertheless, those criticisms grew in number and intensity, and Eagleton now parts from the motley ranks of "theory." Keenly interested "in coupling bodies, but not in labouring ones," divorced from any real political project, but beholden to the shibboleth of "transgression," postmodernism has curdled into a "libertarian pessimism" that is silent about evil and death, superficial about justice and morality, and shy of love, religion, and revolution. Even Marxism has become an "eccentric hobby," a "gentrified version" of its fearsome revolutionary forbears. So as war, capitalism, and religion return with thunder to the historical stage, cultural theorists must awaken from their undogmatic slumbers, confront "fresh challenges," "explore new topics," and "start thinking ambitiously once again."

Don't hold your breath. Eagleton himself observes that postmodern nihilism supplies high-octane fuel for consumer culture. Indeed, "no way of life in history has been more in love with transgression and transformation" than capitalism, whose ever-more untrammeled enlistment of fantasy and desire leaves pomo partisans the harmless task of shocking yesteryear's bourgeoisie. Safely imprisoned in the winter palaces of departments and administration, the radoisie rearranges the Feng Shui of academic life. They rail against the tyranny of hierarchy while forming tenure committees and write reams of footnoted, peer-reviewed articles on the indeterminacy of truth. (An academic himself—now at the University of Manchester after a long stint at Oxford—Eagleton wisely desists from too much egghead-bashing.)

Impatient with radicals marching on the tenure track, Eagleton returns to the traditions that galvanized the British Catholic Left: Aristotelianism, Thomism, and classical Marxism. Fredric Jameson and Julia Kristeva step aside for Alasdair MacIntyre and Philippa Foot, while "theory" gives way to philosophy and theology. With McCabe no doubt smiling down from heaven, Eagleton defends invaluable antiques like truth, goodness, and morality, while arguing against all mandarin pedantry that "objectivity and partisanship are allies, not rivals." Just as unfashionably, he rescues virtue from the sneers of Richard Rorty and the harrumphs of William Bennett. Neither bourgeois ideology nor bourgeois self-restraint, virtue, Eagleton reminds us, is "fulfilling your nature," cultivating and flourishing in one's talents and relationships.

Eagleton contends that when we universalize Aristotelian teleology, infuse it with Christian charity, and respect democratic-Enlightenment demands that "everyone be in on the action," we get socialism, the political economy of virtue. Far from being merely a more equitable system of production, socialism, Eagleton maintains, means "human solidarity as an end in itself," delight in the expression of powers and affections unsullied by the values of use or exchange. Thus the Marx who longed for the fulfillment of humanity's "species-being" becomes "the Aristotle of the modern age." Though Eagleton isn't the first to trace a line from Aristotle to Aquinas to Marx—the great historian and Christian socialist R. H. Tawney once dubbed Marx "the last of the Schoolmen" —he provides the clearest and most compelling reasons to authenticate the claim.

On the trip from Moscow to Athens, Eagleton detours more than once to Jerusalem and Rome. While Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, et al. are plundering Christianity for their own purposes—all of a sudden St. Paul has become enormously fashionable—Eagleton's background and erudition make him a much more credible interlocutor. True, when he appeals to "our dignity as moderately rational creatures," the Psychoanalyst from Vienna corrects the Angelic Doctor. Still, always a scourge of liberal twaddle, Eagleton reprises his Slant days as a keen but never reactionary critic of Vatican II, turning the Marxist suspicion of bourgeois reformism against theological pabulum. He dismisses Levinasian earnestness about "the Other" as neo-liberalism "bathed in an aura of religiosity" which "empties religious language of any meaning." Yet he readily summons the spirit of McCabe, reminding us that "there is no love without law" because moral codes define "what counts as love."

Elsewhere, Eagleton's rhetoric shifts from the scholastic to the biblical. Inveighing in the language of Matthew and Luke—and the Old Testament prophets—he scours an American religiosity that "wants nothing to do with failure, and shoos the anawim [the poor, the meek] off the streets." When he concludes a sharp critique of liberal notions of personal identity by asserting that "there is no very coherent sense in which my body belongs to me," he both dynamites a key foundation in the discourse of "choice" and restates the Pauline wisdom that we are not our own.

At his best, Eagleton takes an Augustinian turn. Secular modernity, he observes, strips the world of inherent worth, and the individual will becomes the sovereign source of value. And as the will proceeds unchecked by love, it "crushes the things around it to nothing, and leaves them worthless and depleted." Though Eagleton figures this triumph of the will in psychoanalytic terms as "the death drive turned outwards," surely he knows that this is also what Augustine called libido dominandi, the lust for domination that pervades the earthly city. Here, Eagleton echoes Milbank and Ward, yet he gives no hint of acquaintance with their Augustinian socialism. (I find it hard to believe that Eagleton is unaware of radical orthodoxy, as Ward is his colleague at Manchester.)

Eagleton's equivocation here is both the disappointment and the invitation of After Theory. Affirming Paul's dictum that "we die every moment," Eagleton argues that we should rehearse for the complete self-abandonment of death by forgiving our enemies, maintaining friendships, and forsaking the accumulation of wealth: "To accept death would be to live more abundantly."

Amen, comrade; but can a politics of virtue and justice rest solely on embracing "non-being as an awareness of human frailty and unfoundedness"? Here Eagleton's moral ontology shares more with modernity than he recognizes, for it still seems to leave the world "worthless and depleted." How can a being without value endow anything else with it, and do so without the very violence and impunity that Eagleton fears? Eagleton's desire makes sense only when grounded in an ontology of divine creation and presence—that is, as McCabe believed, in theology.

At the risk of patronizing, I suspect that Eagleton senses this. He's just too smart for boilerplate about "fundamentalism" or "theocracy," the polemical standbys of those, from Christopher Hitchens to Katha Pollitt, too flippant or illiterate to mount serious rebuttals of theology. He knows and acknowledges that religion once "did all that culture was later to do"—try to link everyday life, ritual, politics, art, and metaphysics—and that it did so "far more effectively." So if cultural theory occupies the place once filled by theology, and if "the age in which culture sought to play surrogate to religion is perhaps drawing to a close," shouldn't theology be one of those "new topics" explored in the wake of postmodernism? Ever ancient, ever new, as Augustine wrote. What a marvelous irony to find Herbert McCabe laughing at this turn of the corner, reminding Eagleton that revolution is indissoluble from resurrection.

Eugene McCarraher is professor of humanities at Villanova University. He is working on The Enchantments of Mammon, a cultural and religious history of corporate capitalism in modern America.



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