The end of endism. Terry Eagleton (left) has decided that cultural theory is passe. He is angry that most of its practitioners have renounced Marxism. But his arguments are both misguided and outmoded, writes John Gray
Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 240pp, £18.99
Fashion is as much a feature of life in the academy as it is in millinery, and it is nowhere more evident than in the titles of books. Countless books announce the end of something - the End of History, the End of Nature, or whatever. Advertising their novelty with such titles as After Justice and After Philosophy, these are volumes that aim to be arrestingly contemporary. Actually, with few exceptions, they do no more than recycle ideas that were in circulation a generation ago. For all its affectation of newness, the discourse of endings is the most shopworn of academic cliches.
The cliche was given currency by Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981) - a genuinely seminal work that spawned an entire genre of vulgar imitations. The habit of seeing intellectual life as a way of overcoming the past goes back a good deal further. It was Hegel who propagated the view that human thought has a sort of built-in momentum whereby the narrow perspectives of the past are transcended and more comprehensive standpoints achieved. This view has always been suspect, in that it suggests the history of ideas is inherently progressive, so that what is recent is somehow bound to be better than what has gone before. In our own time, the Hegelian approach to the history of ideas has had a baleful effect on cultural theory, reducing much of it to gossip about who is currently in vogue.
If anyone wants an example of this genre, they need go no further than After Theory. Terry Eagleton has decided that cultural theory is passe. Along with Tony Blair, he seems to think that theories are neither true nor false: they just become redundant. But how are we to decide when a theory - or indeed "theory"- is redundant? Part of the answer seems to be simply that it is no longer fashionable. Yet - even for Eagleton, an avid fashionista in the small world of structuralism, post-structuralism and post-post-structuralism - that can hardly be the whole story. What he finds really objectionable in cultural theory is that most of its practitioners have renounced Marxism.
He tells us that cultural theory "set out to radicalise Marxism, and ended often enough by moving beyond politics altogether. It started out by deepening Marxism and ended up by displacing it." But why is it such a heinous thought-crime to abandon Marxism? Well, just look at the careers of the theorists who did give it up: "Julia Kristeva and the Tel Quel group turned to religious mysticism and a celebration of the American way of life . . . Roland Barthes shifted from politics to pleasure. Jean-Francois Lyotard turned his attention to intergalactic travel and supported the right-wing Giscard in the French presidential elections. If Michel Foucault rewrote Marxism from the inside, he opened a door in doing so through which many of his disciples would shuffle out of it altogether."
For Eagleton, the unforgivable sin of cultural theorists is to have recognised the unreality of Marx's revolutionary project. They observed that in the real world of history, nothing had come of it. As a result, they moved on to other projects. This seems reasonable enough, but Eagleton will have none of it. It is here that a principal feature of Eagleton's view of things becomes evident: it is formed entirely by sectarian disputes within a section of the academic left. He rarely engages with any actual historical event, and when he does, the results are embarrassingly inept.
A notably asinine example is his statement that, "with the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellites, Marxism quite literally disappeared from a whole sector of the globe". Now, as anybody knows who has had the slightest experience of Soviet-bloc countries, Marxism disappeared from them - perhaps not literally, but actually - decades ago. In eastern Europe it had ceased to exist as an intellectual force by the end of the 1950s; in the Soviet Union, by the end of the 1920s. Thereafter it was merely a state formula, in which barely a single person believed. Indeed - and this is something that a less academically introverted writer might conceivably have noticed - there are probably more Marxists in post-communist Russia than there ever were in the former Soviet Union. Still very few, it is true, but more than in the past, when there were virtually none. The criminalised capitalism of the Yeltsin era gave Marxian ideas a vitality and relevance they never had in Soviet times.
Only someone unable to apply the rudimentary Marxian distinction between ideology and critical thought could write that Marxism had been alive in the USSR. In effect, Eagleton cannot tell the difference between truth and power, but his witless conflation has at least the merit of being plainly false - whereas many of his obiter dicta have no content at all. "To encounter another human body," he intones, "is to encounter, indissociably, both sameness and difference." Can a more vapid statement be imagined - or one so redolent of the turgid outpourings of some cultural theorists? Eagleton yearns to be contemporary, but he writes in a defunct, intra-academic argot that was current a generation ago. Vainly struggling to be the dernier cri while clinging to the atavistic certainties of Marxism, the result is the stylistic equivalent of Arthur Scargill in a kaftan.
It would be wrong to suggest that After Theory is entirely without interest. In a number of passages, Eagleton criticises the excesses of the postmodernists, attacking their freewheeling relativism and adamant resistance to any talk of human nature. These are familiar observations, but it is the use he makes of them that is telling. In a curiously predictable turn, Eagleton has joined forces with those on the right who are trying to concoct a new grand narrative for the west. "Confronted with an implacable political enemy, and a fundamentalist one at that," he writes, "the west will no doubt be forced more and more to reflect on the foundations of its own civilisation." It is a dictum that will go down well in neoconservative think-tanks. Just in case there is any doubt about his message, Eagleton goes on: "The west, then, may need to come up with some persuasive-sounding legitimations of its form of life, at exactly the point when laid-back cultural thinkers are assuring it that such legitimations are neither desirable nor necessary."
So now we know what comes after theory. In the time- honoured fashion of grizzled radicals the world over, the scourge of postmodernism has ended up a stout defender of western civilisation.
John Gray is the author of Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals (published in paperback, with a new foreword, by Granta Books)