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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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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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