Influenced by French postmodernists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, literary theorists cast aside whatever was left of the old fashioned reverence for the transcendent art work and its God-like creator. They debunked the very possibility of achieving literary originality or pronouncing objective value judgments. Aesthetics and individual authors were out; discourse, texts, sign systems, and ideology were in. If theory didn't quite go mainstream, it became thoroughly institutionalized, not to say domesticated. We - those of us with tenure, at least - are all deconstructionists now.
But there are reports from the academic world that theory may have run out steam. ''Confidence in the technology of theory has faded,'' says distinguished literary critic Frank Kermode, a contributor to the recent volume ''life.after.theory.'' Theory's opacities and arcane terms may be entrenched, but ''they don't come at you with the old assurance and swagger,'' adds David Bromwich, a critic and professor of English at Yale. Roland Barthes famously announced the death of the author. This weekend, as thousands of professors and their apprentices mill about the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in San Diego, one might ask: Has theory succumbed to the same fate?
That is the opinion of one of Britain's best-known public intellectuals, the Marxist critic - and formidable theorist himself - Terry Eagleton. In his new book, ''After Theory'' (Basic), Eagleton administers last rites to today's theoretical enterprise. ''The golden age of theory is long past,'' he intones, reminding us that the best work of its titans - Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault; Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva - is now several decades old. ''Rather like Nietzsche thought God was dead but we pretended for quite a long time that he was still alive, I think the same for theory,'' Eagleton said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Derry, Northern Ireland. ''It's actually been dead for quite a while; but we've been sort of behaving as though it isn't.''
Previously the Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, and now a professor of cultural theory at the University of Manchester (the title of his new book makes one wonder if his job is now beside the point), the 60-year-old Eagleton is a prolific author - he published three books this year alone - and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and The Guardian. A playful, clowning stylist, he is fond of clever formulations (''Culture and crisis go together like Laurel and Hardy'') and pointed quips. He's also prone to a bit of ad hominem bluster. In a recent review, for example, he questioned the authenticity of Yeats biographer Roy Foster's Irishness by suggesting that Foster would not feel comfortable in a Boston-Irish bar.
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Eagleton's latest book is part elegy, part indictment. He acknowledges there is much to be admired about theory - its free-ranging bravado, its concern with power and gender, even its jargon. At its best, theory ''is not out to abolish the human spirit, but bring it down to earth.''
Nonetheless, he believes theory has gone terribly adrift. It is ''shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion, and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering. . ..'' And the next generation isn't making things any better. Pointedly, he writes, ''those who can, think up feminism and structuralism; those who can't, apply such insights to `Moby-Dick' or `The Cat in the Hat'. . .. On the wilder shores of academia, an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing. In some cultural circles, the politics of masturbation exert far more fascination than the politics of the Middle East.''
Eagleton himself is deeply entangled with the ideas he questions. In his inaugural address as Warton Professor in 1992, he chided the Oxford dons for their resistance to theory. And his jaunty guide, ''Literary Theory: An Introduction,'' which has sold some 120,000 copies since its publication in 1983, has initiated generations of undergraduates into the mysteries of phallologocentrism and the free play of the signifier. Paraphrasing the economist John Maynard Keynes in his preface, he roundly dismissed critics of the theoretical project: ''Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people's theories and an oblivion of one's own.''
But even then, Eagleton was ambivalent about the proper role of theory. He complained that ''the great majority of the literary theories outlined in this book have strengthened rather than challenged the assumptions of the power-system,'' yet he still disseminated them with aplomb. If nothing else, for an academic radical like Eagleton, cultural theory was a means of keeping left politics ''warm'' in the dismal Reagan and Thatcher years, a form of ''politics by other means.'' Where theory's agenda matched his own, Eagleton played along. But true liberation, he ultimately concluded, would result not from innovative readings but from political ferment.
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The proud grandson of immigrant laborers from Ireland, Eagleton was born into a devout Catholic family in Salford, a beaten-down industrial city outside Manchester. As he wrote in his 2001 memoir, ''The Gatekeeper,'' his working-class upbringing endowed him with a lifelong appreciation of tragedy and community, and a suspicion of genteel reformers and consolations. (He has contemptuously referred to liberal humanism as a ''suburban moral ideology.'') If he eventually traded the Tridentine Creed for Trotskyism, Eagleton did not shed his theological cast of mind.
But to Eagleton's chagrin, theory's promised political liberation never happened. Cultural theory, he argues, instead mutated into a free-for-all, where students now use Derrida to deconstruct ''Friends,'' not to change the world - an outcome he calls ''politically catastrophic.''
To be sure, Eagleton acknowledges that ''theory remains as necessary as ever,'' at least if it is understood as a form of ''reflective human life'' or as ''the taxing business of trying to grasp what is actually going on.'' His real target is ''a particular aftermath of postmodern theory'' (which he also condemned in his 1996 book, ''The Illusions of Postmodernism'') where trendy thinkers, for example, ponder ''the erotic body, not the famished one.'' For Eagleton, this lets one be radical without really being radical at all.
So, what's a weary postmodernist to do? Eagleton prescribes strong doses of absolute truth, objectivity, disinterestedness, virtue, and even a bit of old-fashioned morality. Rereading Aristotle's ''Ethics'' through the lens of Marx, and citing the moral philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre - a Catholic philosopher and former Marxist who shares Eagleton's dislike for the individualism of political liberalism - Eagleton argues that theory must jettison its freewheeling playfulness and accept the hard facts of life.
Indeed, ''After Theory'' is a death-haunted book. It urges us to grapple with the basic biological reality that the human body is not culturally constructed, and therefore infinitely malleable, but frail, weak, and ever vulnerable to the predations of global capitalism.
''Morality,'' ''disinterestedness'': Has Eagleton embraced his inner Matthew Arnold? Not at all, he demurs, pointing out that the concept of disinterestedness - ''for postmodern theory, the last word in delusion'' - is actually pregnant with radical potential. ''Trying to be objective is an arduous, fatiguing business,'' he writes, ''which in the end only the virtuous can attain.'' And if we could miraculously achieve this ever-elusive disinterested state, then - voila! - we would all naturally be socialists.
Throughout ''After Theory,'' and much else of his work, Eagleton's own Marxist commitments go unquestioned. Morris Dickstein, a professor of English at New York's City University, says he sympathizes with Eagleton's ''desire to get away from postmodern relativism towards some notion of objective truth and reality,'' but adds that ''Eagleton has too firm an idea of exactly what reality is - it's always a Marxist-inspired vision of that reality.''
Many British reviews of ''After Theory'' were harsh. In the Times Literary Supplement, Cambridge academic Eric Griffiths accused Eagleton of narrowly focusing on the ''spooky Bermuda Triangle that lies between Marx, Freud, and [semiotics pioneer Ferdinand] Saussure'' and repeatedly contradicting himself in the space of a paragraph. ''Now that he has become keen on objective truths,'' jibed Griffiths, ''he should learn how to state one.''
On these shores, Columbia professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, an early translator of Derrida and leading light of postcolonial studies - which Eagleton calls one of cultural theory's ''precious achievements'' - is also critical of his work. Spivak, who read an excerpt from ''After Theory'' in The Guardian, says she ''does not recognize Eagleton's version of postmodernist theories.'' (To be sure, Eagleton is curiously reticent to name names when he attacks postmodernist thought, though he does finger Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty.)
As for whether the moment of theory has indeed passed, Spivak alludes to Chinese communist leader Zhou En Lai's reported comment on the consequences of the French Revolution: ''It's too soon to tell.''
Eagleton, for his part, believes theory ''cannot afford simply to keep recounting the same narratives of class, race, and gender, indispensable as those topics are.'' It must move beyond the hollow games of the professors who cannot distinguish comrades from ''Friends.''
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.