Saturday, January 14, 2012

Eagleton and Jameson: the accomplished fact

Some interesting lines on Terry Eagleton and Frederick Jameson:

....One of Eagleton’s most recent works, After Theory, identifies the “theory” in the title with the “golden age of cultural theory” associated with the work of Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, as well as Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Jurgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson and Edward Said. One doesn’t want to tar this group of thinkers with one reductive brush, but, on the whole, this is a bloc of anti-Marxists, not without insights, but a bloc of conscious anti-Marxists—the cream of late twentieth century hostility to dialectical and historical materialism.

Eagleton declares in the opening of his book that the “golden age” of cultural studies has passed. He goes on: “There can be no going back to an age when it was enough to pronounce Keats delectable or Milton a doughty spirit. It is not as though the whole project [of critical theory] was a ghastly mistake on which some merciful soul has now blown the whistle.... If theory means a reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions, it remains as indispensable as ever.”

The idea that “theory” means a reflection “on our guiding assumptions,” not the examination and cognition of the external world and its laws of motion, speaks volumes. (And, in fact, produces volumes, which you will see if you visit any bookstore in a major metropolitan center or one located near a significant university.)

Aside from the fact that his description of pre-postmodernist criticism is a caricature, that serious twentieth century bourgeois cultural criticism did far more than declare Keats to be “delectable,” we have to remind ourselves that this is a self-described Marxist. He appears to be arguing, if one takes him at face value, that before Althusser and Lévi-Strauss and Derrida and Habermas, no serious critical, cultural theory existed, there was merely bourgeois academia. What of the Marxist tradition? This body of work does not even merit being raised in this context, so thoroughly does Eagleton identify himself with those trends identified loosely as structuralist, post-structuralist or postmodernist. Eagleton presents himself as a critic of these tendencies, but he begins on his knees.

Eagleton’s book has a value of another sort. He does provide insight into the present situation in “cultural theory,” and here, although his tone is complacent, he no doubt speaks from first-hand knowledge. “Structuralism, Marxism, post-structuralism and the like are no longer the sexy topics they were. What is sexy instead is sex. 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. Socialism has lost out to sado-masochism. Among students of culture, the body is an immensely fashionable topic, but it is usually the erotic body, not the famished one. There is a keen interest in coupling bodies, but not in labouring ones. Quietly spoken middle-class students huddle diligently in libraries, at work on sensationalist subjects like vampirism and eye-gouging, cyborgs and porno movies.

“Nothing could be more understandable. To work on the literature of latex or the political implications of navel-piercing is to take literally the wise old adage that study should be fun. It is rather like writing your Master’s thesis on the comparative flavour of malt whiskies, or on the phenomenology of lying in bed all day. It creates a seamless continuity between the intellect and everyday life. There are advantages in being able to write your Ph.D. thesis without stirring from in front of the TV set.” An attractive picture.

Fredric Jameson, as we discussed briefly last summer, views contemporary global capitalism as a thoroughly nightmarish and overwhelming phenomenon, in which the population is dominated by a web of bureaucratic control and media manipulation on a massive scale. The possibility of social convulsion, much less “the ultimate senescence, breakdown and death of the system as such,” is largely excluded.

Jameson, in 1995, argued that global capitalism had never had such room for maneuver, writing that “all the threatening forces it generated against itself in the past ... seem today in full disarray when not in one way or another effectively neutralized.” A new proletariat would perhaps emerge at some future date, but meantime “we ourselves are still in the trough, however, and no one can say how long we will stay there.”

In his newest book, we are still apparently in the trough, perhaps deeper than ever. Jameson has written a work extolling the virtues of utopianism, a tendency about which we have written and spoken.

“Utopia seems to have recovered its vitality as a political slogan and a politically energizing perspective. Indeed, a whole new generation of the post-globalization Left ... has more and more frequently been willing to adopt this slogan, in a situation in which the discrediting of communist and socialist parties alike, and the skepticism about traditional conceptions of revolution, have cleared the discursive field....

“What is crippling is not the presence of an enemy but rather the universal belief, not only that this tendency is irreversible, but that the historic alternatives to capitalism have been proven unviable and impossible, and that no other socio-economic system is conceivable, let alone practically available. The Utopians not only offer to conceive of such alternate systems; Utopian form is itself a representational meditation on radical difference, radical otherness, and on the systemic nature of the social totality, to the point where one cannot imagine any fundamental change in our social existence which has not thrown off Utopian visions like so many sparks from a comet.”

This is Jameson par excellence, a pretentious accommodation with existing reality, a worship of the accomplished fact. Incapable of imagining a struggle against the present difficulties, he is a product of 1970s radicalism, who long ago gave up, if he ever possessed it to begin with, a confidence in the revolutionary capacity of the working class, the American working class, above all.

Many have undergone an even more pronounced moral and intellectual disintegration.


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