Over two decades ago, Terry Eagleton helped define the field of cultural theory with his book Literary Theory. In his latest work, After Theory, he takes a look back, a look around, and a look ahead in the field he helped found.
Starting with works by Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Althusser, among others, Eagleton takes us back to theory’s beginnings. So stable is his knowledge of cultural study that he is able to write playfully about large issues. “Whereas in the old days you could be drummed out of your student drinking club if you failed to spot a metonym in Robert Herrick,” he writes about the current state of cultural criticism, “you might today be regarded as an unspeakable nerd for having heard of metonyms or Herrick in the first place.” Eagleton argues that cultural criticism is vacuously apolitical, concerning itself with the evolution of hairstyles when there exists widespread poverty, and that students in the field are more likely to write about TV than literature, writing, “Students once wrote uncritical, reverent essays on Flaubert… Nowadays they write uncritical, reverent essays on Friends.”
Eagleton’s tone throughout the book is scathingly witty and knowing, and he doesn’t reserve the critical crosshairs just for the discipline’s up-and-comers. He squares off with the version of postmodernism that he helped establish, smugly disrobing its political impotence. From there, he turns to theory’s missteps, and attempts to reestablish its path. Citing the post-9/11 rhetorical strategies of George W. Bush, Eagleton maintains that critical theory still has power. If only theorists can refocus, realign, and analyze the things that matter.