The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

'A Real Sensuous Pleasure'

Terry Eagleton, After Theory
(Allen Lane - Imprints of Penguin Books)
Published 25 September 2003, ISBN 0-71399-732-X

Liam O Ruairc • (Originally Published in Fortnight, March 2004)

"The golden age of cultural theory is long past. The pioneering works of Jacques Lacan, Claude Levi Strauss, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault are several decades behind us. So are the path-breaking early writings of Raymond Williams, Luce Irigaray, Pierre Bourdieu, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Helene Cixous, Jurgen Habermas, Frederic Jameson and Edward Said. Not much that has been written since has matched the ambitiousness and originality of these founding mothers and fathers." (p.1)

Terry Eagleton' s book is fundamentally about what kind of fresh thinking does our new era demand after the golden age of cultural theory. "Theory" for Eagleton is fundamentally the most general form of critical self reflection. We do not need some impossible Archimedean point to reflect critically on our situation. Because "reflecting critically on our situation is part of our situation. It is a feature of the particular way we belong to the world. It is not some impossible light-in-the-refrigerator attempt to scrutinize ourselves when we are not there. Curving back upon ourselves is as natural to us as it is to cosmic space or a wave of the sea. It does not entail jumping out of our own skin. Without such self-monitoring we would not have survived as a species." (60)

Self-reflection is part of what we are. As linguistic animals we have the ability to ask ourselves the moral question such as whether our beliefs are sound or whether their reasons are good ones. Theory is necessary because things are not transparent, "if we were transparent to ourselves there might be no need for these esoteric ways of talking." (110) In spite of its major achievements, theory has some fundamental weaknesses. "Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness." (101-102) "After Theory" seeks to remedy those deficiencies.

Eagleton advocates a kind of essentialism inspired by the thought of Aristotle and Marx. The essence of human beings is to realize their nature as an end in itself, the full realisation of our capacities. "Nature" here is understood by Eagleton as the way we are most likely to flourish. And fulfilling one's nature brings happiness. The justification he offers for this argument is that it is "natural".

"Nature is a bottom-line concept; you cannot ask why a giraffe should do the things it does. To say 'It belongs to nature' is answer enough. You cannot cut deeper than that. In the same way, you cannot ask why people should want to feel happy and fulfilled. It would be like asking what someone hoped to achieve by falling in love. Happiness is not a means to an end." (116)

The virtuous life is a particular way of living which allows us to be at our best for the kind of creatures we are. Virtue is thus implicit in our own nature, as opposed to transcendent in origins. Happiness is not the reward for virtue, being virtuous is to be happy. Failure to lead a virtuous life will not result in being condemned to the flames of hell but in a crippled life. Eagleton explains for example that George Best has become unhappy because "he was not being the kind of person he was able best to be". Throwing away his football career for alcohol, money and women, he was no longer fulfilling himself, he failed at what he was supremely equipped to excell at. "Playing football would have been the moral thing to do." (115) What is most valuable about the ethics proposed by Eagleton is that they are able to intrinsically relate description and prescription, how human beings are and how they ought to be.

For Eagleton virtue is a reciprocal affair, it is what happens between people, that is a function of social relationships. "We live well when we fulfil our nature as an enjoyable end in itself. And since our nature is something we share with other creatures of our kind, morality is an inherently political matter." (124) This is why he refuses to separate ethics and politics. For Eagleton, we have to try to organise political institutions so that self realisation can become reciprocal. You realize your nature in a way which allows other to do so too.

For Eagleton, socialism makes that fulfilling life of a kind proper to human beings possible. To quote the Communist Manifesto, it is "an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." Eagleton presents Marx as a kind of closet Aristotelian. He was a moralist in the classical sense of the term, in so far as he sought the political determination of the good life. And such twenty-first century Aristotelianism is a call for social revolution. "If the good life is one of fulfilling our natures, and if this is true for everybody, then it would take a deep-seated change of material conditions to make such fulfillment possible all round." (126) Marx follows Aristotle in thinking that economic production for profit is un-natural when he shows how some people can hijack the social capacities of others for their own selfish purposes rather than end in themselves. "In class society, even those powers and capacities which belong to us as a species -labour, for example, or communication – are degraded into means to an end. They become instrumentalized for the advantage of others." (172) On this basis, Eagleton comes to the conclusion that it is not socialism, but in fact capitalism which is contrary to human nature.

One of the most original ideas in the book is how Eagleton argues that ethics and politics are ultimately rooted in corporeality. It is true that as labouring, linguistic and sexual animals our bodies are materially geared to culture because meaning, symbolism and interpretation and the like are essential to what we are. Culture is what is natural to us, but we are above all bodily creatures. This is why for Eagleton "it is the mortal, fragile, suffering, ecstatic, needy, dependent, desirous, compassionate body which furnishes the basis of all moral thought." (155) He roots universality in the body and shared material practices. To use Wittgenstein's example, if lions could speak no one could understand them as their bodies and material practices differ so radically from our own. The material body is what we share most significanlty with the rest of our species, extended both in space and time. "Our material bodies are such that they are, indeed must be, in principle capable of feeling compassion for any others of their kind." (156) This is based on our material dependency on each other. We need to work together to survive economically, sexuality is necessary for the species to be reproduced. Human beings share a "species being" in common, which makes solidarity (and conflict at the same time) possible. "It is a material fact that we are dependent on others for our physical survival, given the helpless state in which we are born. Yet this material dependency cannot really be divorced from such moral capacities as care, selflessness, vigilance and protectiveness, since what we are dependent on is exactly such capacities in those who look after us." (169) Ethics and politics will have their foundation on our species being or shared material nature.

For Eagleton human existence is essentially contingent, rough-textured and open-ended, and a certain fundamentalist ideology has sought to fill it with dogma, first principles, fixed meanings and self-evident truths. "It is the fear of the unscripted, improvised or indeterminate, as well as a horror of excess and ambiguity." (203) This fundamentalism fears the "non-being" which haunts human existence.

Examples of "non-being" are death and desire; they show us the ultimate unmasterability of our lives. Eagleton shows how in our culture there is both a fascination and a disavowal of non-being. He discusses the problem of evil as a form of hatred of impurity of being. His discussion is centred on the crimes of nazism, racism and fundamentalism, and avoids more "ordinary" forms of evil. For Eagleton what is necessary is to oppose a bad sense of non-being with a good one, constructive rather than corrosive -"non being as an awareness of human frailty and unfoundedness", (221) rather than the present order based upon the non-being of human deprivation. "It represents the non-being of those who have been shut out of the current system, who have no real stake in it, and who thus serve as an empty signifier of an alternative future." (220) It is not suprising that as a left-wing Catholic, there is room in his thought for religion, but as a form of spirituality without fetishes or idolatry. Eagleton is particularly fond of the Book of Isaiah which connects God with the non-being of the wretched of the earth.

"After Theory" is overall an excellent book. This is a genuine work of popular philosophy, Eagleton is not one of those "Meaning of the Universe Merchants". The author is able to present highly complex and controversial ideas in a very accessible format. Eagleton excells in what Slavoj Zizek calls "a unique combination of theoretical stringency and acerbic commonsense witticism, of critical historical reflection and the ability to ask the 'big' metaphysical questions". This book is a realisation of Bertolt Brecht's desire that thinking might become 'a real sensuous pleasure'.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

23 April 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


It Hasn't Gone Away You Know
Anthony McIntyre


Brian Mór


We're on the One Road
Tommy McKearney


Easter Week in Derry and the Lazarus Complex
Eamon Sweeney


Time for the Dead

Mick Hall


POWs and the Challenge of Partnership
Aoife Rivera Serrano


'A Real Sensuous Pleasure'
Liam O Ruairc


The Letters page has been updated.


19 April 2004


The Laughter of Our Children
Anthony McIntyre


Prisoners Families Physically Removed from Maghaberry Visit
J. Sean Burns, IRPWA


Profile of a Glove
Kathleen O'Halloran


Irish Americans
Gerry O'Hare


The Globe and the Village

Lila Rajival




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