The silliness of El Tel, king of philosophical punditry

Nicholas Blincoe reviews After Theory by Terry Eagleton
Published: 12:01AM BST 28 Sep 2003

Back in the 1980s, the business of explaining European philosophy to British students fell on a small group of academics who were prepared to travel the country, giving talks and writing primers on thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. And students, being students, showed their appreciation by giving them stupid nicknames.

I remember one was called Geoff Benetton, because he had a nice line in knitwear and spoke foreign languages like a native. A sweet-natured Welshman was named Chuck Norris, after the Hollywood action hero, because both had beards, although only one would resort to karate in a disagreement. And finally there was El Tel, Terry Eagleton, the king of philosophical punditry.

At the time, the other El Tel, Terry Venables, was back from Barcelona and describing the sexiness and the artistry of European football in robust, no-nonsense tabloidese. Terry Eagleton did the same for European philosophy. Now, 20 years after his academic bestseller Literary Theory, Eagleton has lost none of his talent for the lairy cliché. In this new book, philosophers arrive “hot-foot” with the news “the Emperor has no clothes”, and are admonished for being too “laid-back”; by which he means too liberal, too postmodern and too forgiving of relativism.

If Literary Theory first introduced us to the laid-back Europeans, After Theory slams the door on guests who have outstayed their welcome. Eagleton sees the spread of global markets and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and decides that the continental theorists he touted 20 years ago no longer have much to offer. What we really need, he concludes, is more Marxism, leavened by the love of Jesus Christ.

Someone, somewhere, may be slapping their forehead and crying, “Of course! More Marx! More Christ! That’s the ticket!” But I find Eagleton’s bizarre ideas require a deal of unravelling. His version of Marxism is so broad, it includes eminent non-Marxists such as Gandhi, Ruskin and Tolstoy. Yet it is also so narrow that it would satisfy the SWP. Eagleton believes that what we call history is always the history of conflict; that every conflict is reducible to class conflict; and that all class conflict can be explained by the effects capitalism has on the workers.

Eagleton goes further by arguing for the virtues of the losers in the class war: the oppressed have the finer sensibilities, the greater intelligence and the superior morals, and the role of the Marxist is to build political institutions that reflect and safeguard this superiority. If this sounds suspiciously like a revolution on behalf of cultural commissars – frankly, it probably is.

The key to proving the superiority of the poor is borrowed from 19th-century German philosophy. Hegel, for instance, argued that the unique mind-space of Humanity – call it Spirit or Culture or History – is characterised by conflict. But the only human beings to recognise this truth are those who have borne the brunt of the conflict. The powerful are unaware that we live in a world of suffering. The weak know the truth, because they live with pain every day. This is where Eagleton introduces Christ: it is his love and his suffering that gave us the truth of the world.

Grounded in Christ’s love, Eagleton lashes out at everyone else. After Theory is a desperately sectarian book. Despite the fact that German Lutherans provided him with a good half of his theory, he heaps abuse on Protestants, Anglicans, Puritans, Americans in general, and Protestant-Americans in particular, Ulstermen, Liberals, Romantics and, finally, Muslims.

It is almost a relief to discover that Eagleton is not defined solely by the hatreds learnt as a Roman Catholic in sectarian Britain, but that he also hates Islam – with its “necrophiliac” and “fetishist” insistence that books can be sacred. It is also a surprise to discover that a writer can be a virulent sectarian crank and yet pose no threat to public order; that it is possible to be merely silly and not evil.

Eagleton’s book might simply be called Before Theory. There is no reason to include the thinkers encountered in his previous book. Indeed, he speaks of them only as an undifferentiated mass: as Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc, their names run together as an alien blur or foreign threat. Together they are the postmodernists, who believe that there is no reality beyond the words and images that surround us, and relativists who believe that all values are free-floating and nothing in this world is intrinsically better than anything else. The problem is: insofar as any French or German philosopher has ever argued for the first position, Eagleton agrees with them. And not one has ever argued for the second.

Eagleton agrees that what we call culture is postmodern: a brew of signs and images, and that these images are proliferating in our media-obsessed consumer capitalism. But the only people who ever argue that this results in a world without values are students – and they have argued this at least since the time of Aleister Crowley and his creed of “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.” After 20 years, Eagleton’s chief enemy seems to be teenage students. Perhaps I should regret that El Tel jibe.


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