New book - After Theory by Terry Eagleton

XKCD, I studied postmodernism and literary theory at university, alongside computer science. Anyone who reads literary theory for a year will be inculcated with some odd ideas because generally undergraduates accept and respect what they're told to. My subsequent years as a postgraduate computer science researcher lifted this veil of naivety. I saw bullshit in the futile dead ends of deconstruction. In the endless jargon I saw compensation for not mattering as much as physics. I saw unsubstantiated assertions about culture, about fiction and it's place in the world. Several years later I attended a lecture about CP Snow's two cultures and the speaker, who was a doctor-poet, sneered at the ludicrousness of postmodernism. Until this moment I had not realised there were other doubters. Well, I knew there were but random idiots in pubs didn't seem to count but this man, whose name I cannot remember, was a writer and a doctor. He was part of the world I loved. And, in terms of hierarchy, a writer is higher than a literary critic, so his opinion had weight.

I cancelled the MA in English that I was planning to do. I needed time to think. Then I discovered After Theory by Terry Eagleton, and I now have a copy in my hands. Terry Eagleton wrote Literary Theory: An Introduction, a famous and influential book published in 1983. I am hoping to see a supporter turned critic. I'm hoping Eagleton teases apart what is good in cultural theory. I'm hoping he articulates why some of it is bad. I want to be more able to recognise when I see the bad stuff, and to be able to say why it is bad rather than just growl and shake my head. I want a theory about theory.

I'm on the second chapter. So far I am relieved to find myself being convinced of the benefits of cultural theory. These are easy to summarise: feminism, gender politics. These things have helped improve lives. (I don't want it all to be bollocks, and I never thought it was). In other places I am relieved to find myself nodding along or laughing:

There is always a risk that education may put you at odds with the tasteless, clueless philistines who run the world and whose lexicon stretches only to words like oil, golf, power, and cheeseburger.


Thus there is always something rather navel-staring and narcissistic about theory, as anyone who has encountered a few prominent cultural theorists will be aware.

At the same time his prose is meandering, unfocused, unsubstantiated. It is not like reading Steven Pinker. It is not like reading Vaclav Smil. He says some ludicrous crap:

Meanwhile, a conflict broke out in the streets over the uses of knowledge.

Did it though? Which streets? Which people? What uses of knowledge? This sort of off-the-cuff, rigour-less assertion would get short shrift in the sciences, both soft and hard. It is not enough to suppose one thing, to suppose another, and to draw conclusions and then say, for example, that there's no objective foundation to knowledge. But this is what theorists seem to do. And here I am reading confidently written prose: endless assertions with no references, no examples, no substantiation. And despite the occasional insight I'm beginning to think this is just more of the same: an academic adrift on a sea of abstractions, bobbing up and down on his own sense of importance. But I know that's not half the truth. I'm too many years from my serious study of theory, and I'm too near the beginning of this book.