Terry Eagleton - What’s Next After Postmodernism?

British literary theorist Terry Eagleton discusses literary theory in connection to broader political and historical trends, and the persistence of Marxism. What do culture, art, and theory express in the current context of crisis, renewed class struggle, and retreat of postmodernism—and what is their potential role?

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In The Event of Literature (2012), you argue literary theory has been in decline for the last twenty years and that, historically, there has been a strong relationship between shifts in theory and social conflict. Does theory develop its highest point during periods of upheaval?

Literary theory reached its high point roughly when the political left was in ascendency. There was a major outbreak of such theory in the period from about 1965 to the mid or late 1970s, which coincides more or less with the time when the Left was a good deal more militant and self-confident than it is today. From the 1980s onward, with the tightening hold of advanced post-industrial capitalism, these theoretical outgrowths began to yield to postmodernism, which as Fredric Jameson has remarked is, among other things, the ideology of late capitalism.

Radical theory certainly didn’t fade away, but it was pushed to the margins, and gradually became less popular with students. The great exceptions to this were feminism, which continued to attract a good deal of interest, and post-colonialism, which became something of a growth industry and has continued to be so.

One shouldn’t conclude from this that theory is inherently radical. There are many non-radical forms of literary and cultural theory. But theory as such poses some fundamental questions—more fundamental than routine literary criticism. Whereas such criticism may ask, “What does the novel mean?,” theory asks, “What is a novel?”

Theory is also a systematic reflection on the assumptions, procedures and conventions which govern a social or intellectual practice. It is, so to speak, the point at which that practice is forced into a new form of self-reflectiveness, taking itself as an object of its own inquiry. This doesn’t necessarily have subversive effects; but it may mean that the practice is forced to transform itself, having inspected some of its underlying assumptions in a newly critical way.

In The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), you argue the concept of literature is a recent phenomenon, one that emerged as a shelter for stable values in uncertain times. But you also point out that aesthetics has been a form of internalization of social values as well as a means of visualising utopias and questioning capitalist society. Does art still play this contradictory role in the present?

Both the concept of literature and the idea of the aesthetic are indeed politically double-edged. There are senses in which they conform to the ruling powers and other ways in which they challenge them—an ambiguity which is also true of many individual works of art. The concept of literature dates from a period when there was a felt need to protect certain creative and imaginative values from an increasingly philistine, mechanistic society. It’s more or less twinned at birth with the advent of industrial capitalism. This allowed such values to act as a powerful critique of that social order. But by the same token, it distanced them from everyday social life and sometimes offered an imaginary compensation for it. Which is to say that it behaved ideologically... Read more:

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see also
Militarism and the coming wars
Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies - The New School for Social Research

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