Literary Theory An Introduction - Terry Eagleton 2008
This book was written in 1982, at the watershed between two very different decades. If it could not anticipate what was to come after, neither could it grasp what had already happened in literary theory in the light of where it was to lead. Understanding is always in some sense retrospective, which is what Hegel meant by remarking that the owl of Minerva flies only at night. The afterlife of a phenomenon is part of its meaning, but this is a meaning opaque to those around at the time. We know more about the French revolution than Robespierre did, namely that it eventually led to a restoration of the monarchy. If history moves forward, knowledge of it travels backwards, so that in writing of our own recent past we are continually meeting ourselves coming the other way.
The 1970s, or at least the first half of them, were a decade of social hope, political militancy and high theory. This conjuncture was not accidental: theory of a grand kind tends to break out when routine social or intellectual practices have come unstuck, run into trouble, and urgently need to rethink themselves. Indeed theory is in one sense nothing more than the moment when those practices are forced for the first time to take themselves as the object of their own enquiry. There is thus always something inescapably narcissistic about it, as anyone who has run into a few literary theorists will no doubt confirm. The emergence of theory is the moment when a practice begins to curve back upon itself, so as to scrutinize its own conditions of possibility; and since this is in any fundamental way impossible, as we cannot after all pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, or examine our life-forms with the clinical detachment of a Venusian, theory is always in some ultimate sense a self-defeating enterprise. Indeed this has been one recurrent motif of what theory has happened since this book was first published.
Even so, the late 1960s and early 1970s was a period in which new social forces were consolidating, certain global struggles (such as revolutionary nationalism) were intensifying, and a new, more heterogeneous body of students and teachers was flooding into academia from backgrounds which sometimes put them at odds with its governing consensus. Unusually, then, the campuses themselves became for a time hotbeds of political conflict; and this oubreak of militancy coincided in the late 1960s with the first emergence of literary theory. The first pathbreaking works of Jacques Derrida appeared just as French students were gearing themselves up for a confrontation with state power. It was no longer possible to take for granted what literature was, how to read it or what social functions it might serve; and neither was it quite so easy to take for granted the liberal disinterestedness of academia itself, in an era when, not least in the Vietnam adventure, the Western universities themselves seemed increasingly locked into structures of social power, ideological control and military violence. The humanities in particular depend crucially on some tacit consensus of value between teachers and taught; and this was now becoming harder to achieve.
What was perhaps most in question was the assumption that literature embodied universal value, and this intellectual crisis was closely linked to changes in the social composition of the universities themselves. Students had traditionally been expected, when encountering a literary text, to put their own particular histories temporarily on ice, and judge it from the vantage-point of some classless, genderless, non-ethnic, disinterested universal subject. This was an easy enough operation to pull off when those individual histories sprang from roughly the same kind of social world; but it was becoming much less apparent to those from ethnic or working-class backgrounds, or those from sexually dispossessed groups, that these supposedly universal values were in any real sense theirs. It is no wonder, then, that the Russian Formalists, French structuralists and German reception theorists were suddenly in fashion; for all of these approaches ’denaturalized’ certain traditional literary assumptions in ways congenial to the academic newcomers. The Formalist doctrine of’estrangement’, invented to characterize the peculiar devices of a poem, could be extended to a critical estranging of the conventions which the academic institutions took complacently for granted. Structuralism pressed this project to even more scandalous limits, insisting that both self and society were simply constructs governed by certain deep structures which were necessarily absent from our consciousness. It thus struck a devastating blow at the humanist preoccupation with consciousness, experience, deliberated judgement, fine living, moral quality, all of which it placed boldly in brackets. The idea of a ’science of literature’ was suddenly on the agenda, an enterprise which for the humanists seemed as grotesquely self-contradictory as a science of sneezing. The structuralist confidence in rigorous analysis and universal laws was appropriate to a technological age, lifting that scientific logic into the protected enclave of the human spirit itself, as Freud had done somewhat similarly with psychoanalysis. But in doing so it offered, contradictorily, to undermine one of the ruling belief systems of that society, which could be roughly characterized as liberal humanist, and so was radical and technocratic together. Reception theory took the most apparently natural and spontaneous of activities - reading a book - and showed just how many learnt operations and questionable cultural assumptions it involved.
Much of this rather brash theoretical buoyancy was soon to be dispersed. Theory of this early seventies kind - Marxist, feminist, structuralist - was of a totalizing bent, concerned to put a whole form of political life into question in the name of some desirable alternative. It went all the way down, and thus belonged in its intellectual verve and daring with the insurgent political radicalisms of the day. It was, to adapt a phrase of Louis Althusser’s, political struggle at the level of theory; and its ambitiousness was reflected in the fact that what was very soon at stake was not simply different ways of dissecting literature, but the whole definition and constitution of the field of study. The children of the sixties and seventies were also the inheritors of so-called popular culture, which was part of what they were required to put in suspension when studying Jane Austen. But structuralism had apparently revealed that the same codes and conventions traversed both ’high’ and ’low’ culture, with scant regard for classical distinctions of value; so why not seize advantage of the fact that, methodologically speaking, nobody quite knew where Coriolanus ended and Coronation Street began and construct an entirely fresh field of enquiry (’cultural studies’) which would gratify the antielitist iconoclasm of the sixty-eighters and yet appear wholly in line with ’scientific’ theoretical findings? It was, in its academicist way, the latest version of the traditional avant-garde project of leaping the barriers between art and society, and was bound to make its appeal to those who found, rather like an apprentice chef cooking his evening meal, that it linked classroom and leisure time with wonderful economy.1
What happened in the event was not a defeat for this project, which has indeed been gathering institutional strength ever since, but a defeat for the political forces which originally underpinned the new evolutions in literary theory. The student movement was rolled back, finding the political system too hard to break. The momentum of national liberation movements throughout the Third World slackened in the early 1970s after the Portuguese revolution. Social democracy in the West, apparently unable to cope with the mounting problems of a capitalism in severe crisis, gave way to political regimes of a distinctly right-wing tenor, whose aim was not simply to combat radical values but to wipe them from living memory. By the close of the 1970s, Marxist criticism was rapidly falling from favour, as the world capitalist system, with its back to the economic wall since the oil crisis of the early 1970s, aggressively confronted Third World revolutionary nationalism abroad, and at home launched a series of virulent onslaughts on the labour movement and the forces of the left, along with liberal or enlightened thought in general. As if all this were not enough, the Almighty, evidently displeased with cultural theory, stepped in and picked off Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan.
What held the fort of political criticism was feminism, which had rapidly come into its own; and it is no accident that this was also the heyday of poststructuralism. For though post-structuralism has its radical wing, its politics have been on the whole somewhat muted and oblique, and so more in keeping with a post-radical age. It preserves the dissenting energies of an earlier epoch, but combines them with a scepticism of determinate truths and meanings which blended reasonably well with a disillusioned liberal sensibility. In fact many of post-structuralism’s emphases - a suspicion of semiotic closure and metaphysical foundations, a nervousness about the positive or programmatic, a distaste for notions of historical progress, a pluralist resistance to the doctrinal - merge well enough with that liberal frame of mind. Post-stucturalism is in many respects a much more subversive project than that; but it fitted well enough in other respects with a society in which dissidence was still possible, but no one had any longer much trust in the individual or collective subject who had once been the agent of it, or in the systematic theory which might guide its actions.2
Feminist theory, then as now, was near to the top of the intellectual agenda, and for reasons not hard to seek.3 Of all such theoretical currents, it was the one which connected most deeply and urgently with the political needs and experience of well over half of those actually studying literature. Women could now make a unique, distinctive intervention in a subject which had always, in practice if not in theory, been largely theirs. Feminist theory provided that precious link between academia and society, as well as between problems of identity and those of political organization, which was in general harder and harder to come by in an increasingly conservative age. If it yielded a good deal of intellectual excitement, it also made room for much that a male-dominated high theory had austerely excluded: pleasure, experience, bodily life, the unconscious, the affective, autobiographical and interpersonal, questions of subjectivity and everyday practice. It was theory brought home to lived reality, which it at once challenged and respected; and as such it promised to lend a down-to-earth habitation to such apparently abstract topics as essentialism and conventionalism, the constitution of identities and the nature of political power. But it also offered a form of theoretical radicalism and political engagement in a period increasingly sceptical of the more traditional varieties of left-wing politics, as well as - not least in the case of North America - societies with only a meagre memory of socialism. As the forces of the socialist left were inexorably driven back, sexual politics began both to enrich and displace them. In the early 1970s, there was much talk of the relations between signifiers, socialism and sexuality; in the early 1980s of the relations between signifiers and sexuality; and, as the 1980s moved into the 1990s, much talk of sexuality. Theory had shifted almost overnight from Lenin to Lacan, Benveniste to the body; and if this was a salutary extension of politics into areas it had previously failed to reach, it was also, in part, the result of a deadlock in other kinds of political struggle.
Feminist theory, however, was itself by no means unaffected by the general downturn in radical politics which the late 1970s and early 1980s were to witness. As the women’s movement was rebuffed by a traditionalist, family-centred, puritanical new right, it suffered a series of political setbacks which left their imprint on the theorizing itself. The heyday of feminist theory occurred in the 1970s, at a point now twenty years or so behind us. Since then, the field has been enriched by countless particular workings of the theory in terms of both general topics and specific writers; but there have been few theoretical breakthroughs to equal the groundbreaking work of the early pioneers Moers, Millett, Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar, Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous, with their heady blendings of semiotics, linguistics, psychoanalysis, political theory, sociology, aesthetics and practical criticism. This is not to suggest that a good deal of impressive theoretical work has not been produced since then, not least in the fertile field of feminism and psychoanalysis;4 but taken as a whole it hardly matches the intellectual ferment of the earlier years, an act which proved peculiarly hard to follow. Some searching 1970s debates about the compatibility or otherwise between feminism and Marxism lapsed largely into silence. By the mid-1980s, it could no longer be assumed that a feminist, especially in North America, had much more knowledge of or sympathy for the socialist project than, say, a phenomenologist. Even so, feminist criticism has established itself over the last decade or so as perhaps the most popular of all the new approaches to literature, drawing upon the theories of earlier times to revise the entire canon of literature and break open its restrictive frontiers.
The same can hardly be said of Marxist criticism, which since its apogee in the mid-1970s has languished somewhat in the doldrums.5 It is symptomatic in this respect that the work of the West’s leading Marxist literary theorist, Fredric Jameson, while still resolutely Marxist in orientation, shifted increasingly over the 1980s into the fields of film theory and postmodernism.6 This waning of Marxism long pre-dated the momentous events of the late 1980s in Eastern Europe, when neo-Stalinism, to the relief of all democratic socialists, was finally overthrown by just the kind of popular revolutions which Western postmodernism had complacently concluded were no longer either possible or desirable. Since this event was one which mainstream currents of the Western Marxist left had been clamouring for for a good seventy years, it was hardly an abrupt disillusionment with ’actually existing socialism’ in the East which caused the decline of Marxist criticism in the West. The fading popularity of Marxist criticism from the 1970s onwards was the result of developments in the so-called First World, not in the so-called Second. It stemmed in part from the crisis of global capitalism which we have glanced at already, in part from the criticisms aimed at Marxism by the various ’new’ political currents - feminism, gay rights, ecology, ethnic movements and the rest - which sprang up in the wake of an earlier working-class militancy, nationalist insurrection, civil rights and student movements. Most of these earlier projects had been based on a belief in a struggle between mass political organization on the one hand and an oppressive state power on the other; most of them envisaged the radical transformation of capitalism, racism or imperialism as a whole, and so thought in ambitiously ’totalizing’ terms. By about 1980, all of this had come to look distinctly passe. Since state power had proved too strong to dismantle, so-called micropolitics were now the order of the day. Totalizing theories and organized mass politics were increasingly associated with the dominative reason of patriarchy or Enlightenment. And if all theory was, as some suspected, inherently totalizing, then the new styles of theory had to be a species of anti-theory: local, sectoral, subjective, anecdotal, aestheticized, autobiographical, rather than objectivist and all-knowing. Theory, it seemed, having deconstructed just about everything else, had now finally succeeded in deconstructing itself. The idea of a transformative, self-determining human agent was dismissed as ’humanist’, to be replaced by the fluid, mobile, decentred subject. There was no longer a coherent system or unified history to be opposed, just a discrete set of powers, discourses, practices, narratives. The age of revolution had given way to the epoch of postmodernism, and ’revolution’ would henceforth be a term strictly reserved for advertising copy. A new generation of literary students and theorists was born, fascinated by sexuality but bored by social class, enthused by popular culture but ignorant of labour history, enthralled by exotic otherness but only dimly acquainted with the workings of imperialism.
As the 1980s wore on, then, Michel Foucault rapidly overtook Karl Marx as the doyen of political theory, while Freud, as cryptically re-interpreted by Jacques Lacan, was still riding high. The standing of Jacques Derrida and deconstruction proved rather more ambiguous. When this book was first published, that current was much in vogue; today, while still exerting a powerful influence here and there, it is rather less in fashion. The early, breathtakingly original works of Derrida (Voice and Phenomenon, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Dissemination, Margins of Philosophy), are now, like the pioneering work of the early feminists, some quarter-of-a- century or more behind us. Derrida himself continued to turn out much scintillating work in the 1980s and 1990s, but nothing quite to match the ambition and profundity of these early seminal texts. His writing has become in general less programmatic and synoptic, more varied and eclectic. In the hands of some of his Anglo-Saxon disciples, deconstruction was reduced to a narrowly textual form of enquiry, lending a boost to the literary canon it offered to subvert by roaming ceaselessly over its contents, deconstructing as it went and so keeping the critical industry well supplied with sophisticated new materials. Derrida himself has always insisted on the political, historical, institutional nature of his project; but this, transplanted from Paris to Yale or Cornell, tended like the odd French wine not to travel well, and this audacious, iconoclastic thought-form proved easily assimilable to a formalist paradigm. On the whole, post-structuralism in general thrived best when it blended some broader project: feminism, post-colonialism, psychoanalysis. By the late 1980s, card-carrying deconstructionists looked like becoming an endangered species, not least after the high drama of the so-called de Man affair in 1987, when the grand master of US deconstruction, the Yale critic Paul de Man, was revealed to have contributed pro-German and anti-Semitic articles to some collaborationist Belgian journals during the Second World War.7
The intense feelings bred by this scandal were inevitably caught up with the fate of deconstruction itself. It is hard not to feel that some of the more doughty apologists for de Man at the time, including Derrida himself, reacted as hotly as they did because what seemed at stake was not only the reputation of a revered colleague, but the waning fortunes of deconstructive theory as a whole. The de Man affair, as though orchestrated by some hidden hand of history, curiously coincided with a downturn in those intellectual fortunes, and some at least of the ill feeling associated with the rumpus sprang from a current of theory which now felt that its back was increasingly to the wall. Rightly or wrongly, deconstruction stood accused among other sins of an unhistorical formalism; and throughout the 1980s, not least in the United States, there had been a gathering swell floating literary theory back in the direction of some brand of historicism. In changed political circumstances, however, this could no longer be the apparently discredited historicism of Marx or Hegel, with its supposed faith in grand, unitary narratives, its teleological hopes, its hierarchy of historical causes, its realist faith in determining the truth of historical events, its assured distinctions between what was central and what peripheral in history itself. What emerged on the scene in the 1980s, with the so-called new historicism, was a style of historical criticism which revolved precisely on the rejection of all of these doctrines.8 It was a historiography appropriate for a postmodern age in which the very notions of historical truth, causality, pattern, purpose and direction were increasingly under fire.
The new historicism, which focused largely on the Renaissance period, yoked an epistemological scepticism about assured historical truth to a notable nervousness of grand narratives. History was less a determinate pattern of cause and effect than a random, contingent field of forces, in which causes and effects were to be constructed by the observer rather than taken as given. It was a tangled skein of dispersed narratives, none of which was necessarily more significant than any other; and all knowledge of the past was skewed by the interests and desires of the present. There was no firm distinction any longer between historical highways and minor footpaths, or indeed any hard-and-fast opposition between fact and fiction. Historical events were treated as ’textual’ phenomena, while literary works were regarded as material events. Historiography was a form of narration conditioned by the narrator’s own prejudices and preoccupations, and so itself a kind of rhetoric or fiction. There was no single determinable truth to any particular narrative or event, just a conflict of interpretations whose outcome was finally determined by power rather than truth.
The term ’power’ suggests the writings of Michel Foucault; and indeed in many ways the new historicism turned out to be the application of Foucaultean themes to (in the main) Renaissance cultural history. This was itself a little odd, since if the narrational field was as genuinely open as the new historicism liked to insist, how come that the narratives which tended to get delivered were in the main so predictable? It seemed permissible to discuss sexuality, but not, by and large, social class; ethnicity, but not labour and material reproduction; political power, but not for the most part economics; culture, but not, on the whole, religion. It is only a mild exaggeration to claim that the new historicism was prepared in pluralist spirit to examine any topic at all as long as it cropped up somewhere in the work of Michel Foucault, or had some fairly direct bearing on the somewhat parlous condition of present-day American culture. In the end, much of it seemed less to do with the Elizabethan state or Jacobean court than with the fate of former radicals in contemporary California. The grand master of the school, Stephen Greenblatt, had moved from the influence of Raymond Williams, of whom he had once been a pupil, to that of Michel Foucault; and this was among other things a shift from political hope to political pessimism which well reflected the changing mood of the 1980s, not least in a Reaganite United States. The new historicism, then, certainly judged the past in the light of the present, but not necessarily in ways which always reflected credit on itself, or in ways about which it was prepared to be self-critical and self- historicizing. It is a familiar truth that the very last thing which historicisms are usually prepared to place under historical judgement is their own historical conditions. Like many a postmodern form of thought, it implicitly offered as a universal imperative - the imperative, for example, not to universalize - what could be fairly easily seen, from some way off, as the historically peculiar situation of a specific wing of the Western left intelligentisa. Perhaps it is easier in California to feel that history is random, unsystematic, directionless, than in some less privileged places in the world - just as it was easier for Virginia Woolf to feel that life was fragmentary and unstructured than it was for her servants. New historicism has produced some critical commentary of rare boldness and brilliance, and challenged many an historiographical shibboleth; but its rejection of macro-historical schemes is uncomfortably close to commonplace conservative thought, which has its own political reasons for scorning the idea of historical structures and long-term trends.
Britain’s reply to the new historicism was the rather different creed of cultural materialism, which - appropriately for a society with more vigorous socialist traditions - displayed a political cutting-edge largely lacking in its transatlantic counterpart.9 The phrase ’cultural materialism’ had been coined in the 1980s by Britain’s premier socialist critic, Raymond Williams, to describe a form of analysis which examined culture less as a set of isolated artistic monuments than as a material formation, complete with its own modes of production, power-effects, social relations, identifiable audiences, historically conditioned thought-forms. It was a way of bringing an un ashamedly materialist analysis to bear on that realm of social existence - ’culture’ — which was thought by conventional criticism to be the very antithesis of the material; and its ambition was less to relate ’culture’ to ’society’, in Williams’s own earlier style, than to examine culture as always- already social and material to its roots. It could be seen either as an enrichment or a dilution of classical Marxism: enrichment, because it carried materialism boldly through to the ’spiritual’ itself; dilution, because in doing so it blurred the distinctions, vital to orthodox Marxism, between the economic and the cultural. The method was, so Williams himself announced, ’compatible’ with Marxism; but it took issue with the kind of Marxism which had relegated culture to secondary, ’superstructural’ status, and resembled the new historicism in its refusal to enforce such hierarchies. It also paralleled the new historicism on taking on board a whole range of topics - notably, sexuality, feminism, ethnic and post-colonial questions - to which Marxist criticism had traditionally given short shrift. To this extent, cultural materialism formed a kind of bridge between Marxism and postmodernism, radically revising the former while wary of the more modish, uncritical, unhistorical aspects of the latter. This, indeed, might be said to be roughly the stand which most British left cultural critics nowadays take up.
Post-structuralism was not only increasingly perceived as unhistorical, whatever the justness of that charge; it was also felt, as the 1980s wore on, to have failed on the whole to deliver on its political promises. It was certainly in some general sense on the political left; but it seemed on the whole to have little of interest to say about concrete political issues, even if it had provided a whole range of social enquiries, from psychoanalysis to post-colonialism, with a set of stimulating, even revolutionary concepts. It was perhaps this need to engage the political dimension more directly which inspired Jacques Derrida to fulfil a long-deferred promise and address the question of Marxism;10 but by then it seemed somewhat late in the day. The 1980s had been a pragmatic period of short-term views and hard-nosed material interests, of the self as consumer rather than creator, of history as commodified heritage and society (in Thatcher’s infamous declaration) as non-entity. It was not an age hospitable to historical overviews, ambitious philosophical enquiry or universal concepts, and deconstruction, along with neo-pragmatism and postmodernism in general, flourished in this soil at the same time as its more leftist practitioners still sought to subvert. But it was clear also, as the 1980s moved into the 1990s, that certain embarrassingly large questions which had been put on ice by neo-pragmatism and some strands of post-structuralism, questions of human justice and freedom, truth and autonomy, had stubbornly refused to evaporate. It was hard to ignore these matters in a world where apartheid was under siege, neo-Stalinism being abruptly overturned, capitalism spreading its sway over new sectors of the globe, the inequalities of rich and poor dramatically widening, and peripheral societies coming under intensive exploitation. There were those for whom all that Enlightenment discourse of justice and autonomy was now definitively over, indeed those for whom history itself had been triumphantly consummated, and other less apocalyptic thinkers for whom those great ethical and political questions obdurately refused to disappear from theory precisely because they had not yet been effectively resolved in practice. Post-structuralism, as if aware of this, began to take a mildly ethical turn;11 but it found it hard to compete in this region with the German tradition of philosophical enquiry from Hegel to Habermas, which in however rebarbatively abstract a fashion had clung tenaciously to these topics and produced a wealth of systematic reflection around them. It came as no surprise, then, that a group of German-oriented philosophical theorists, especially in Britain, found themselves reaching back into the very ’metaphysical’ heritage of which post-structuralism was so wary, for both problems and solutions which had been perhaps rather too prematurely deconstructed.12 At the same time, a resurgence of interest in the work of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, around whom a heavy critical industry sprang up as the 1980s wore on, promised to unite the textual, bodily or discursive concerns of the post-structuralists with a more historical, materialist or sociological perspective.13
So far, we have touched on the term ’postmodernism’ without pausing to unpack it. Yet it is doubtless the most widely-touted term in cultural theory today, one which, in promising to cover everything from Madonna to metanarrative, post-Fordism to pulp fiction, threatens thereby to collapse into meaninglessness. We can, first of all, distinguish the more comprehensive, historical or philosophical term ’postmodernity’ from the narrow, more cultural or aesthetic term ’postmodernism’. Postmodernity means the end of modernity, in the sense of those grand narratives of truth, reason, science, progress and universal emancipation which are taken to characterize modern thought from the Enlightenment onwards.14 For postmodernity, these fond hopes have not only been historically discredited; they were dangerous illusions from the outset, bundling the rich contingencies of history into a conceptual straitjacket. Such tyrannical schemes ride roughshod over the complexity and multiplicity of actual history, brutally eradicate difference, reduce all otherness to the drearily selfsame, and issue often enough in a totalitarian politics. They are will-o’-the-wisps which by floating impossible ideals before our eyes distract us from what modest but effective political change we can actually achieve. They involve the dangerously absolutist faith that our varied, contingent forms of life and knowledge can be grounded in some single, ultimate, unimpeachable principle: Reason or the laws of history, technology or modes of production, political utopia or a universal human nature. For ’anti-foundationalist’ postmodernity, by contrast, our forms of life are relative, ungrounded, self-sustaining, made up of mere cultural convention and tradition, without any identifiable origin or grandiose goal; and ’theory’, at least for the more conservative brands of the creed, is for the most part just a high-sounding way of rationalizing these inherited habits and institutions. We cannot found our activities rationally, not only because there are different, discontinuous, perhaps incommensurable rationalities, but because any reasons we can advance will always be shaped by some pre-rational context of power, belief, interest or desire which can never itself be the subject of rational demonstration. There is no overarching totality, rationality or fixed centre to human life, no metalanguage which can capture its endless variety, just a plurality of cultures and narratives which cannot be hierarchically ordered or ’privileged’, and which must consequently respect the inviolable ’otherness’ of ways of doing things which are not their own. Knowledge is relative to cultural contexts, so that to claim to know the world ’as it is’ is simply a chimera - not only because our understanding is always a matter of partial, partisan interpretation, but because the world itself is no way in particular. Truth is the product of interpretation, facts are constructs of discourse, objectivity is just whatever questionable interpretation of things has currently seized power, and the human subject is as much a fiction as the reality he or she contemplates, a diffuse, self-divided entity without any fixed nature or essence. In all of this, postmodernity is a kind of extended footnote to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who anticipated almost every one of these positions in nineteenth-century Europe.
Postmodernism proper can then best be seen as the form of culture which corresponds to this world view.15 The typical postmodernist work of art is arbitrary, eclectic, hybrid, decentred, fluid, discontinuous, pastiche-like. True to the tenets of postmodernity, it spurns metaphysical profundity for a kind of contrived depthlessness, playfulness and lack of affect, an art of pleasures, surfaces and passing intensities. Suspecting all assured truths and certainties, its form is ironic and its epistemology relativist and sceptical. Rejecting all attempts to reflect a stable reality beyond itself, it exists selfconsciously at the level of form or language. Knowing its own fictions to be groundless and gratuitous, it can attain a kind of negative authenticity only by flaunting its ironic awareness of this fact, wryly pointing its own status as a constructed artifice. Nervous of all isolated identity, and wary of the notion of absolute origins, it draws attention to its own ’intertextual’ nature, its parodic recyclings of other works which are themselves no more than such recyclings. Part of what it parodies is past history - a history which is no longer to be seen in linear terms as the chain of causality which produced the present, but which exists in a kind of eternal present as so much raw material torn from its own context and cobbled together with the contemporary. Finally, and perhaps most typically of all, postmodern culture turns its distaste for fixed boundaries and categories on the traditional distinction between ’high’ and ’popular’ art, deconstructing the borderline between them by producing artifacts which are self-consciously populist or vernacular, or which offer themselves as commodities for pleasurable consumption. Postmodernism, like Walter Benjamin’s ’mechanical reproduction’,16 seeks to dismantle the intimidating aura of high-modernist culture with a more demotic, user-friendly art, suspecting all hierarchies of value as privileged and elitist. There is no better or worse, just different. In seeking to leap the barrier between art and common life, postmodernism seems to some the resurgence in our own time of the radical avant-garde, which had traditionally pursued this goal. In advertising, fashion, lifestyle, the shopping mall and the mass media, aesthetics and technology had finally interpenetrated, while political life had become transformed to a kind of aesthetic spectacle. Postmodernism’s impatience with conventional aesthetic judgements took on tangible shape in so-called cultural studies, which grew apace as the 1980s unfolded, and which often enough refused to respect valuedistinctions between the sonnet and the soap opera.
The debates over postmodernism and postmodernity have taken many forms. There is the question, for example, of how far down these developments go - of whether they are really, so to speak, wall-to-wall, as the dominant culture of our age, or whether they are a good deal more sectoral and specific than that. Is postmodernity the appropriate philosophy for our time, or is it the word view of a jaded bunch of erstwhile revolutionary Western intellectuals who with typical intellectual arrogance have projected it upon contemporary history as a whole? What does postmodernism mean in Mali or Mayo? What does it mean to societies which have yet to fully enter upon modernity proper? Is the word neutrally descriptive of consumerist society, or a positive recommendation of a certain style of life? Is it, as Fredric Jameson believes, the culture of late capital - the final penetration of the commodity form into culture itself - or is it, as its more radical exponents urge, a subversive strike at all elites, hierarchies, master narratives and immutable truths?
The arguments will doubtless continue, not least because postmodernism is that most robust of all theories, one rooted in a concrete set of social practices and institutions. It is possible to ignore phenomenology or semiotics or reception theory - indeed the vast majority of humankind have proved singularly successful in doing so - but not consumerism, the mass media, aestheticized politics, sexual difference. But the arguments will also continue because there are serious divergencies within postmodern theory itself. For its more politically minded proponents, such mystifying ideas as truth, identity, totality, universality, foundations, metanarrative, the collective revolutionary subject, must be cleared away precisely so that genuinely effective radical projects can get off the ground. For its more conservative apologists, the rejection of these notions goes hand-in-hand with a defence of the political status quo. There is thus all the difference in the world between Foucault and Stanley Fish, Derrida and Richard Rorty, though all four can be broadly categorized as postmodernists. For American neopragmatists like Rorty and Fish, the collapse of transcendental viewpoints signals, in effect, the collapse of the possibility of full-blooded political critique.17 Such a critique, so the argument runs, could only be launched from some metaphysical vantage-point completely beyond our current lifeforms; and since there is self-evidently no such place to stand - or since, even if there were, it would be irrelevant and unintelligible to us - even our most apparently revolutionary claims must always be in collusion with the discourses of the present. We are always, in short, installed firmly on the inside of the culture we hope to criticize, so thoroughly constituted by its interests and beliefs that to put them into radical question would involve leaping out of our own skins. As long as what we utter is intelligible - and any critique which is not would be merely ineffective - then we are already in complicity with the culture we seek to objectify, and so plunged in a kind of bad faith. This doctrine, which depends on an eminently deconstructable distinction between ’inside’ and ’outside’, is currently being deployed by some to defend the American way of life, precisely because postmodernism is uneasily aware that no rational critique of that way of life, or indeed of any other, is any longer possible. To pull out the foundations from under your opponent is, unavoidably, to pull them out from under oneself. In order to avoid the unwelcome conclusion that there is no rational justification for one’s form of life, one must seek to disable the very idea of critique as such, branding it as necessarily ’metaphysical’, ’transcendent’, ’absolute’ or ’foundational’. Similarly, if the idea of system or totality can be discredited, then there is really no such thing as patriarchy or the ’capitalist system’ to be criticized. Since there is no totality to social life, there is no place for any overall change, since there is no overall system to be transformed. We are asked to believe, with gross implausibility, that multinational capitalism is just a random concurrence of this or that practice, technique, social relation, with no systematic logic whatsoever; and all this can then be offered as a ’radical’ defence of pluralism against the terrors of totalization. This is a dogma which is perhaps rather easier to sustain in Columbia University than in the Latin American nation of that name.
If, by the mid-1990s, feminist criticism has proved the most popular of the various new literary approaches, then post-colonial theory has been pressing hard on its heels.18 Like feminism and postmodernism, and unlike phenomenology or reception theory, post-colonial theory is directly rooted in historical developments. The collapse of the great European empires; their replacement by the world economic hegemony of the United States; the steady erosion of the nation state and of traditional geopolitical frontiers, along with mass global migrations and the creation of so-called multicultural societies; the intensifed exploitation of ethnic groups within the West and ’peripheral’ societies elsewhere; the formidable power of the new transnational corporations: all of this has developed apace since the 1960s, and with it a veritable revolution in our notions of space, power, language, identity. Since culture, in the broad rather than narrow sense of the term, lies near the centre of some of these issues, it is hardly surprising that during the last two decades they should have left their imprint on those sectors of the humanities which have been traditionally concerned with culture in the narrower sense of the term. Just as the dominance of the mass media forced a rethinking of classical frontiers within the study of culture, so ’multiculturalism’, which belongs to the same historical period, challenges the way the West has conceived its identity and articulated it in a canon of artistic works. Both currents — cultural sudies and post-colonialism - take a decisive step beyond the questions of theoretical method which held sway over an earlier phase of literary theory. What is now at stake is the problematizing of’culture’ itself, which in moving beyond the isolated work of art into the areas of language, lifestyle, social value, group identity, inevitably intersects with questions of global political power.
The result has been the breaking open of a narrowly conceived Western cultural canon, retrieving the besieged cultures of ’marginal’ groups and peoples. It has also meant bringing home some issues of ’high’ theory to contemporary global society. Questions of ’meta-narrative’ no longer concern just literary works, but the terms in which the post-Enlightenment West has traditionally couched its own imperial project. The decentring and deconstruction of categories and identities assume fresh urgency in a context of racism, ethnic conflict, neo-colonial domination, The ’other’ is no longer merely a theoretical concept but groups and peoples written out of history, subjected to slavery, insult, mystification, genocide. Psychoanalytic categories of ’splitting’ and projection, denial and disavowal, have shifted from the Freudian textbooks to become ways of analysing the psycho-political relations between colonizers and colonized. Debates between ’modernity’ and ’postmodernity’ have special force in peripheral cultures which are increasingly dragged into the orbit of a postmodern West without, for good or ill, having fully undergone a European-style modernity themselves. And the plight of women in such societies, forced as they are to assume many of its most wretched burdens, has resulted in a peculiarly fruitful alliance between feminism and post-colonialism.
Post-colonial theory is not only the product of multiculturalism and decolonization. It also reflects an historic shift from revolutionary nationalism in the Third World, which faltered in the 1970s, to a ’postrevolutionary’ condition in which the power of the transnational corporations seems unbreakable. Accordingly, much post-colonial writing fits well enough with postmodern suspicions of organized mass politics, turning instead to cultural matters. Culture is on any estimate important in a neocolonial world; but it is hardly what is finally decisive. It is not in the end questions of language, skin colour or identity, but of commodity prices, raw materials, labour markets, military alliances and political forces, which shape the relations between rich and poor nations. In the West, especially in the United States, questions of ethnicity have at once enriched a radical politics narrowly fixated on social class, and, in their own narrow fixation on difference, helped to obscure the vital material conditions which different ethnic groups have in common. Post-colonialism, in short, has been among other things one instance of a rampant ’culturalism’ which has recently swept across Western cultural theory, over-emphasizing the cultural dimension of human life in understandable overreaction to a previous biologism, humanism or economism. Such cultural relativism is for the most part simply imperial dominion stood on its head.
Like any other theory, then, post-colonial discourse has its limits and blindspots. It has sometimes involved a romantic idealization of the ’other’, along with a simplistic politics which regards the reduction of the ’other’ to the ’same’ as the root of all political evil. This particular postmodern theme, of otherness and self-identity, is by now itself threatening to become drearily self-identical. An alternative brand of post-colonial thought, in deconstructing any too rigid opposition between colonizing self and colonized other, ends up stressing their mutual implication and so risks blunting the political cutting-edge of an anti-colonialist critique. For all its emphasis on difference, post-colonial theory has sometimes too quickly conflated very different societies under the same ’Third World’ category; and its language has too often betrayed a portentous obscurantism incongruously remote from the peoples it champions. Some of the theory has been genuinely pathbreaking, while some of it has done little more than reflect the guilty self-loathing of a Western liberalism which would rather, in these hard political times, be absolutely anything but itself.
Among the more glamorous commodities which postmodern society has on offer is cultural theory itself. Postmodern theory is part of the postmodern marketplace, not just a reflection upon it. It represents, among other things, a way of amassing valuable ’cultural capital’ in increasingly competitive intellectual conditions. Theory, partly because of its high-poweredness, esotericism, up-to-dateness, rarity and relative novelty, has achieved high prestige in the academic marketplace, even if it still provokes the virulent hostility of a liberal humanism which fears being ousted by it. Post-structuralism is sexier than Philip Sidney, just as quarks are more alluring than quadrilaterals. Theory has been one symptom in our time of the commodifying of the intellectual life itself, as one conceptual fashion usurps another as shortwindedly as changes in hairstyle. Just as the human body - along with a good deal else - has become aestheticized in our day, so theory has become a kind of minority art-form, playful, self- ironizing and hedonistic, one place to which the impulses behind high- modernist art have now migrated. It has been, among other things, the refuge of a disinherited Western intellect, cut loose by the sheer squalor of modern history from its traditional humanistic bearings, and so at once gullible and sophisticated, streetwise and disorientated. It has too often acted as a modish substitute for political activity, in an age when such activity has been on the whole hard to come by; and having started life as an ambitious critique of our current ways of life, it now threatens to end up as a complacent consecration of them.
There is always, however, more than one story to tell. If cultural theory has won itself some prestige, it is also because it has boldly raised some fundamental questions to which people would appreciate some answers. It has acted as a kind of dumping ground for those embarrassingly large topics nervously off-loaded by a narrowly analytical philosophy, an empiricist sociology and a positivist political science. If it has tended to displace political action, it has also provided a space in which some vital political issues could be nurtured in an inhospitable climate. It has no particular unity to it as a discipline; what, for example, do phenomenology and queer theory have in common? And none of the methods grouped under literary theory is peculiar to the study of literature; indeed most of them germinated in fields quite beyond it. Yet this disciplinary indeterminacy also marks a breakdown in the traditional division of intellectual labour, which the word ’theory’ somehow flags. ’Theory’ indicates that our classical ways of carving up knowledge are now, for hard historical reasons, in deep trouble. But it is as much a revealing symptom of this breakdown as a positive reconfiguration of the field. The emergence of theory suggests that, for good historical reasons, what had become known as the humanities could no longer carry on in their customary shape. This was all to the good, since the humanities had too often proclaimed a spurious disinterestedness, preached ’universal’ values which were all too socially specific, repressed the material basis of those values, absurdly overrated the importance of ’culture’ and fostered a jealously elitist conception of it. It was for the bad, since the humanities had also kept warm some decent, generous values brusquely disregarded by everyday society; fostered - in however idealist a guise - a searching critique of our current way of life; and in nurturing a spiritual elitism had at least seen through the phoney egalitarianism of the marketplace.
The task of cultural theory, broadly conceived, was to take apart the received wisdom of the traditional humanities. In this, one might claim, it has been reasonably successful, in theory if not in practice. Since this book first appeared, there have been few convincing ripostes to the various cases which literary theory has launched. Much hostility to theory has been little more than a typically Anglo-Saxon uneasiness with ideas as such — a feeling that arid abstractions are out of place when it comes to art. This edginess about ideas is characteristic of those social groups whose own historically specific ideas have for the moment won out, and who can therefore come to mistake them either for natural feelings or eternal verities. Those in command can afford to be dismissive of criticism and conceptual analysis, as those under their rule cannot. The charge that theory simply interposes a screen of obscurantist jargon between the reader and the text can be made against any kind of criticism whatsoever. Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot read like obscurantist jargon to the person-in-the-street unfamiliar with their critical idiom. One person’s specialist discourse is another’s ordinary language, as anyone familiar with paediatricians or motor mechanics will testify.
One battle which cultural theory has probably won is the contention that there is no neutral or innocent reading of a work of art. Even some quite conservative critics are these days less given to arguing that radical theorists are ideologically skew-eyed whereas they themselves see the work as it really is. A broad kind of historicism has also carried the day: there are few cardcarrying formalists left around. If the author is not exactly dead, a naive biographism is no longer in fashion. The chancy nature of literary canons, their dependence on a culturally specific frame of value, is nowadays quite widely recognized, along with the truth that certain social groups have been unjustly excluded from them. And we are no longer exactly sure where high culture ends and popular culture begins.
Even so, some traditional humanist doctrines die hard, not least the assumption of universal value. If literature matters today, it is chiefly because it seems to many conventional critics one of the few remaining places where, in a divided, fragmented world, a sense of universal value may still be incarnate; and where, in a sordidly material world, a rare glimpse of transcendence can still be attained. Hence, no doubt, the otherwise inexplicably intense, even virulent passions which such a minority, academicist pursuit as literary theory tends to unleash. For if even this precariously surviving enclave of art can be historicized, materialized, deconstructed, then where indeed is one to find value in a degraded world? The radical would reply that to assume that social life is uniformly degraded, and only culture precious, is actually part of the problem rather than the solution. This attitude itself reflects a particular political viewpoint, rather than being a disinterested statement of fact. At the same time, the generosity of the humanist’s faith in common values must be candidly acknowledged. It is just that he or she mistakes a project still to be carried through - that of a world held politically and economically in common — with the ’universal’ values of a world which has not yet been thus reconstructed. The humanist is thus not wrong to trust to the possibility of such universal values; it is just that nobody can yet say exactly what they would be, since the material conditions which might allow them to flourish have not yet come into being. If they were ever to do so, the theorist could relievedly lay down his or her theorizing, which would have been made redundant precisely by being politically realized, and do something more interesting for a change.