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.

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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 appears in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit