All talk, no action

by Henry Farrell on January 22, 2004

Two interesting perspectives on literary theory and related pursuits; one from “Elaine Showalter”: ^1^ and one from “Scott McLemee”: (scroll down to January 10).

Showalter is reviewing a recent book by Terry Eagleton, once described unkindly in the pages of the _LRB_ as a purveyor of Ladybird primers in cultural theory. Eagleton’s latest purports to revive cultural theory from its decline by demonstrating its potential to counter the growing hegemony of the right. By Showalter’s account, Eagleton doesn’t do a very good job; whenever he starts talking about practicalities, he either gets hazy or reaches for trite slogans.

bq. The most serious drawbacks of After Theory are its internal contradictions — between an appeal to hard thinking and Eagleton’s prejudice; between the call for depth and analysis and the temptation of superficiality and vilification; between the endorsement of disturbing complexity and the surrender to comfortable simplification.

I suspect that Showalter has her own axe to grind, but it’s still a fair cop. Why study Lacanian theory if you want to discover the ‘insight’ that Tony Blair’s government is composed of “craven overseas lackeys of United States power”? It’s much easier to slip a quid to the bloke on the street selling _Socialist Worker_.

McLemee, who’s a fair bit to Showalter’s left, makes a related claim from a Marxist perspective. He quotes a nice (if slightly tendentious) summation of the problem by John McGowan:

bq. Current criticism’s political content can only be assured if we believe in a ‘talking cure.’ The primary axiom of the whole edifice must be that the way we talk makes a difference. As someone rather attracted to both vulgar Marxism and to populism, the idealism (strictly speaking) and elitism of this position bothers me, especially since so many of its adherents believe they are Marxists. (I’m not playing St. Karl games here, just asking for truth in labeling.) To put the point vulgarly, the history of twentieth century capitalism attests to its thus far unthreatened capacity to endure all and any kinds of deviant talk without its essential economic and political structures being in the least altered. Furthermore, to bring in the populist element, highly deviant talk (as in modernist poety and various experimental novels) has proved itself of interest only to very small audiences of specialists. At the very least, I think the neo-Marxists need to formulate some theory of how deviant talk works its political miracles if we are to accept their attachment to it…. But idealist and elitist positions have not even begun to address the fact that they need a theory of change.”

This seems to me to connect back to some of the arguments that Crooked Timber and other folks have been having about literary theory and bad writing. Ever since its beginnings in the (excellent) work of Williams, Hoggart and Thompson, cultural theory has had the stated aim of opposing hegemony, speaking truth to power and all of that good stuff. But in the hands of Eagleton and his mates, it’s failed miserably. As McGowan says, there isn’t the hint of an argument about how poststructuralist theory is supposed to translate into political change. Even worse – the theory doesn’t serve to generate politically _useful_ analysis. There’s tangled and knotty prose, there are trite slogans, but there doesn’t seem to be all that much in-between. If Eagleton’s version of cultural theory is a means of countering the shift toward the right, it’s not doing a very good job. There’s a rather substantial incongruity between the complexity of the theory and the banality of its political conclusions. Which suggests to me (opinions may differ) that the complexities aren’t as helpful as they were cracked up to be in the first place.

^1^ Hat-tip to my friend “Carl Caldwell”: for pointing me to the essay – he bears no responsibility for the consequent post.



PanJack 01.22.04 at 5:34 am

I just finished the Eagleton book. As I read it, he wasn’t offering current cultural theory as a solution to anything.

Indeed, he argued that pomo-based cultural theory should be put out to pasture. He wants a new approach to analysis based on “objective” morality. (He really wasn’t very clear exactly what he meant by that, however).

But, still, much of his book is really not very good. It is far too vague and Eagleton too often relies on quips rather than arguments to make his points.

At the end of the book he offers standard (non-pomo) leftist perspectives on what to do.


chun the unavoidable 01.22.04 at 6:15 am

You imply that Eagleton was or is a poststructuralist, which is not the case.

It is a shame that cultural theory hasn’t lived up to the liberatory record of political science.


Tim 01.22.04 at 11:23 am

Academic poststructuralist theory isn’t storming the barricades, true – but then, what kind of academic theory is, or could do? That’s not the point; academics qua academics aren’t revolutionaries, but that doesn’t mean poststructuralism isn’t useful to revolutionaries. The globalisation movement is awash with ideas influenced by theory, whether that’s the Deep Ecologists in the US, with their connection to Heideggerian critiques of technology (see, for example. Michael Zimmerman), or the Disobeddienti in Italy, whose communiques use a lot of the Deleuzian language of the autonomous Marxists.

Eagleton is a bit of a boring old Marxist, and you can certainly get boring old Marxism from the Socialist Worker; but a lot of people doing genuinely radical political work find Deleuze and Gauttari’s discussion of rhyzomatic organisation useful in building alternatives to Socialist Worker-style Leninism, or Judith Butler’s ideas about performativity useful in trying to come up with alternatives to the traditional dichotomy of peaceful protest/riot.


Conrad barwa 01.22.04 at 11:58 am

The work by Eagleton I have read is “After Postmodernism” which though published a while ago, seems to be quite similar to some of what you describe. The problem with Eagleton’s analysis is that he isn’t really all that sympathetic to post-structuralism as a school of thought and so I think some of his attempts to reclaim it fall a bit flat on the ground. As noted above, at heart he remains quite an orthodox Marxist, and if you look at his autobiography, he is never happier than when taking the Post-structuralists to task for accommodating themselves to capitalism.

I always did think that by its very nature in exposing the surface realities and immediate perception of the social and physical environment, much of post-structuralist theory was quite Marxian in origin and anti-establishment. The point of Eagleton and Co. is that this anti-establishment critique doesn’t necessarily go anywhere positive and just ends up in providing a foil to the system. To some degree this is true, but much of theory in this respect does criticise and reject a lot of what normal liberal-capitalist hegemony projects as ‘common-sense’ and in this respect I think this is a useful tool. The main objection by orthodox leftists is that once given these rather powerful tools, not a lot is done with them. In a sense, it reminds me of similar points which can be made about deconstructionism, if you want to critique or dismantle a concept or ideology it is a powerful methodical tool, but if you want to erect a positive programme in its place, it isn’t really going to be much help and can actually be more of a hindrance.

There’s a rather substantial incongruity between the complexity of the theory and the banality of its political conclusions.

In a way, I suppose this is something that has been said before. In the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, when various old Marxists got together to figure out where things went wrong and indulge in some soul-searching; it was a chance for the left-inclined theoretically inclined Post-structuralist crowd to come forward with something to take its place. In as much as they did, it was really nothing more than moderate left-of-centre programme that any Left-liberal wouldn’t have a problem signing up to. If one is looking for a radical plan of action or some insight for actual politics, aside from some exceptions like Deleuze, I don’t think it will be forthcoming from this source.


Henry 01.22.04 at 3:02 pm

>It is a shame that cultural theory hasn’t lived up to the liberatory record of political science.

A hit. A palpable hit. But then political science (for the most part) never pretended to offer a path to emancipation. Its disciplinary deformations (which are several) are different.

On Eagleton and poststructuralism – clearly he ain’t a poststructuralist as such, but somebody who has argued, as I understand him, that the kinds of theorizing that poststructuralists engage in, has political value for lefties. Colour me unconvinced.

Conrad – fair argument, which I’ll have to think about a bit more. I’ll confess to my shame that I’ve never delved into Deleuze and Guattari – always looked a little bit frightening.


tim 01.22.04 at 3:44 pm

“Academic poststructuralist theory isn?t storming the barricades, true – but then, what kind of academic theory is, or could do? ”

Hmmm. Quantum mechanics has changed our world pretty dramatically. Perhaps that doesn’t count.


chun the unavoidable 01.22.04 at 3:49 pm

I’ve read pretty much everything Eagleton’s ever written, with the exception of this latest book, and I think he’s been pretty consistent in saying that poststructuralist theory has no leftist political value. I may be using a more precise definition of “poststructuralist” than you–Spivak, yes; Jameson, no, e.g.


Tim F 01.22.04 at 4:31 pm

Yep, Paul Dirac spent all his time building lasers, and Werner Heisenberg is famous for his invention of the silicon chip. Or possibly not.

Theoretical physics supplies intellectual tools which applied physicists can use to make practical methods which engineers can use to make things. Literary/cultural theory provides intellectual tools which political theoreticians (for want of a better term) can use to produce practical methods which political agents can use to produce political change. In neither case do the academics have a _direct_ influence on the world (in their role as academics).

(BTW, apologies for usurping your name, tim – I’ve seen you on CT before, and should have remembered that you were the official tim around these parts).


tim 01.22.04 at 5:08 pm

“Theoretical physics supplies intellectual tools which applied physicists can use […] to make things. Literary/cultural theory provides intellectual tools which political theoreticians […] can use […] to produce political change.”


Except that theoretical physics supplies intellectual tools which *have been used* to make things. As for the literary theorists, I don’t think anyone doubts they supply intellectual tools which might be used to some end, the question is whether the tools actually work; whether they’ve actually produced anything.


EKR 01.22.04 at 5:33 pm

To continue with the quantum physics thread, a number of the important theoretical physicists of the 20th century actually worked on the atomic bomb, for instance, Feynman, Ulam, Oppenheimer, and Fermi in the United States and Heisenberg in Germany.


Richard 01.22.04 at 7:53 pm

“But then political science (for the most part) never pretended to offer a path to emancipation.”

You seem to imply that all theorists en masse do purport to offer a path to emancipation. My recollection is that most post-structuralists viewed Eagleton (and others who sought to link such ideas with political projects) with contempt.

Regarding most of the article, I was rather bemused. It is certainly true that Eagleton’s work has increasingly suffered from what William Gibson described as the predicament where “everything capitalism said about communism was true. As was everything communism said about capitalism.” But that is hardly unique to literary theory and it seems a little unfair to single Eagleton out for criticism on that score.


nnyhav 01.22.04 at 8:20 pm

John Holbo has gone to some length to reconcile theory to the practice of lit-crit, including Eagleton. Albeit philosophically rather than politically.


seth edenbaum 01.23.04 at 5:58 am

The joke in Moscow a few years ago was: Everything the communists said about communism was a lie. Everything the communists said about capitalism was true. (and to hell with William Gibson)
Post-structuralism was an intellectual’s argument for the necessity, because inevitability- of art: politically and philosophically on the money, but obviously an excuse for an easy out. This is especially true in the US which seems to specialize in academicizing everything .

I grew up with a tapped phone line and under threat of removal from my parents home by the Feds. My father was a professor of american lit. whose favorite author was James. If you can’t imagine contradiction, stay away from politics.
I can’t imagine Terry Eagleton would say otherwise.


Richard 01.23.04 at 8:45 pm

Gibson used that quote in his last novel, though I can well believe it was common currency long before then.

“I can’t imagine Terry Eagleton would say otherwise.”

Hmm. I can.


Keith M Ellis 01.23.04 at 9:05 pm

Just a note to say that I appreciate the link to Scott McLemee’s blog, as I read his old blog and corresponded with him for a while in 2002. Then his old blog went stagnant and we lost touch.

He’s a sharp and insightful guy and I recommend his writings highly,


Keith M Ellis 01.23.04 at 10:34 pm

Incidentally, I tried to write to McLemee via that “contact” form provided on his website (there is no email address provided), but the script generated an error.

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