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Terry Eagleton's Materialism treats its arguments like carelessly piled bricks

Making a case by rendering the contrary one manifestly absurd is Eagleton’s compulsive mode of argument.

It is close to three decades since, along with thousands of other Eng lit undergrads, I fell under the spell of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, the primer that navigated readers through the new and forbidding territories of modern Continental thought. With irrepressible wit and narrative drive, it sliced through the conceptual thickets of phenomenology and deconstruction with the ease and force of the keenest machete.

However, in clearing a path through obscurity, a machete is liable to take nuance and ambiguity along with it. Eagleton’s appeal as a guide lay in the exhilarating speed with which he hastened us, clad in the protective gear of brisk Marxist critique, through jungles of texts and concepts. We may not have read Heidegger, Greimas or de Man by the time we got out the other side, but we sure knew what we thought of them.

There is no requirement to take up the contrived stance of neutrality when expounding theories and ideas, nor any special merit in doing so. But Eagleton’s special brand of polemical jocosity went beyond robust criticism of ideas to render them literally laughable. No theory was so high that it couldn’t be put down (my personal favourite was the image of the structuralist critic, “flushed with triumph”, taking his trusty ruler to the next textual victim).

Readers of Materialism – and indeed of almost any of the dozens of Eagleton’s volumes covering literary theory and criticism, English fiction and poetry and Irish studies published since Literary Theory – will know he has lost neither his bracing self-certainty nor his caustic sense of humour. The sheer number of jokes, winking asides and absur­dist flights of fancy woven into this short treatise on philosophical materialism is ­dizzying, and ultimately exhausting.

In so far as it can take many, and contradictory forms, materialism is more a tendency than a doctrine in philosophy, its basic premise being that hard matter, rather than airy spirit, is the fundamental basis of human existence. Extricated from its jokey elaborations, Eagleton’s central argument is straightforward and suggestive. He searches his chosen triad of thinkers – Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein – for an account of the body’s place in the world that steers the difficult course between the bodiless mind of rationalism and the receptive senses of empiricism. The human being is a creature of impersonal biological needs, governed by bodily sensations and desires. Yet this sensory dimension of our existence is not merely passive; the senses “are constitutive features of human practice, modes of engagement with the world”.

Seen from this perspective, we are at once embodied minds and minded bodies. The two entities are distinct yet enmeshed, such that there can be no meaningful hierarchy of one over the other. This kind of thinking has become unfashionable in contemporary cultural theory because it gives too much ground to naturalist conceptions of the body as the irreducible biological substrate of human life. Eagleton is opposed in this regard to theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, for whom the so-called natural or biological body has “always already” been inserted into the disciplines and codifications of culture and politics. Eagleton ignores the complex variegations of contemporary theory, setting himself up as a lone bulwark for universal claims against waves of marauding neo-Stalinist, anti-essentialist theory police. “I trust that this unabashed universalism will prove sufficiently scandalous,” he writes in the book’s preface, in his familiar tone of winking provocation, “to the commissars of contemporary cultural discourse”.

Nonetheless, this version of contemporary theory is unhelpfully reductive. Is the body as “cultural construct” really such an incontestable orthodoxy among postmodern thinkers? Take at random some of the chief examples from the past few decades – Lyotard, Barthes, Derrida, Žižek, Kristeva, Agamben or, more recently Eric Santner, whose tribute graces the book’s back cover. None of these could meaningfully be labelled a cultural constructivist. On the contrary, each places at the centre of his or her work some dimension of human otherness beyond the codifications of culture.

Eagleton insists regardless on pitting a materialism that speaks for “the otherness and integrity of the world” against “the postmodern narcissism that sees nothing but reflections of human culture wherever it looks”. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to reduce an entire era of thought to a pathology, and then lambaste atheists a few pages later for setting up theologians as “straw men”.

Eagleton seems too wedded to the glamour of lonely dissent to undertake the humourless business of closely reading specific texts and ideas. Although it might coax a smile, an aperçu such as “It is not on our account that there are lizards and magnetic fields” does little to elucidate his view of nature as “both prior to and independent of human affairs”. No one, after all, said it was on our account that there were lizards and magnetic fields. But making a case by rendering the contrary one manifestly absurd is Eagleton’s compulsive mode of argument.

In Materialism, his arguments accumulate less like intricately woven threads than carelessly piled bricks. He makes an elegant claim for the fundamentally errant body of Freud, “always overshadowed by a residue that resists articulation”: but then the same body, within a few pages, has become the vehicle for the sentimental pastoral of “unalienated labour”. Under capitalism, the material world “is no longer a humanised terrain on which men and women move easily and spontaneously”, he writes, blending a distinctly un-Freudian nostalgia with an equally un-Freudian utopianism.

The same nostalgia for a deep past that never was is at work in Eagleton’s conception of poetry as an augury of this easeful spontaneity, seeking “to restore to language something of the sensuous fullness that abstraction and utility have stripped from it”. The appeal (and frustration) of such sweeping claims is that they spare themselves the labour of specifying and differentiating.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche show us how literary wit and style can become not mere embellishments to thought, but substantial modes of thinking in their own right. Eagleton, on the other hand, reminds us that they can just as easily become the rut in which thinking gets stuck.

Josh Cohen is the author most recently of “The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark” (Granta Books)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details:

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear