Criticism: Terry Eagleton is Utah-obsessed

Who would have thought that Marxist* cultural theorist Terry Eagleton would have a thing for Mormons?

Not me.

And yet in his recent book After Theory, Eagleton makes a Utah reference not once — but twice.

Some A Motley Vision readers may wonder why I am reading a book by a gasp Marxist, but it’s actually rather interesting. I mean it’s way too strident, and I disagree with Eagleton on many things, but his critique of postmodern literary theory and cultural studies is very good — pointed, polemical and yet substantive. And I do agree with the points he makes about some of the productive contributions of postmodernism to literary studies. I also agree with some of his observations on the downside of a our modern fast-track, consumerist version of capitalism even if we are very far apart on what the ultimate solution is.

However, I also found his not-really-veiled-but-not-straightforward allusions to the events of 9/11 and Islamic terrorism (and other ‘fundamentalist threats’) to be cutesy [the crazed Raggedy Ann doll cute — not puppy dog cute] rather than clever.

Indeed his whole way of tossing out examples that are obviously obvious and casually dismissing or invoking events/beliefs comes across as mere posturing, a descent into punditry that is entertaining [when it’s not irritating] but not illuminating.

This is where the Mormon references come in.

Reference 1: “Postmodernism seems at times to behave as though the classical bourgeoisie is alive and well, and thus finds itself living in the past. It spends much of its time assailing absolute truth, objectivity, timeless moral values, scientific inquiry and a belief in historical progress. It calls into question the autonomy of the individual, inflexible social and sexual norms, and the belief that there are firm foundations to the world. Since all of these values belong to a bourgeois world on the wane, this is rather like firing off irascible letters to the press about the horse-riding Huns or marauding Carthaginians who have taken over the Home Counties.

This is not to say that these beliefs do not still have force. In place like Ulster and Utah, they are riding high. But nobody on Wall Street and few in Fleet Street believe in absolute truth and unimpeachable foundations” (17-18).

One might well ask ‘what’s wrong with absolute truth and unimpeachable foundations?'[and actually Eagleton is critical of ‘realtivist postmodernists’ — he just has a problem with religion (as any good Marxist should)], but I think what irks me about this tossed out comparison is that it seems to be made almost solely for the alliteration.

For example, he uses a similar formulation later in the book when he writes that fundamentalism is flourishing “as much in Montana as in the Middle East” (199).

Of course, it also connects Mormonism to Unionism, and I’m not convinced that that’s a very good comparison. Or at the least, if you’re going to make it, at least provide some sort of justification for it beyond consonant word sounds.

Reference 2: “Absolute truth does not mean non-historical truth: it does not mean the kind of truths which drop from the sky, or which are vouchsafed to us by some bogus prophet from Utah. On the contrary, they are truths which are discovered by argument, evidence, experiment, investigation” (106-109).

There’s no need to comment on this one other than to say that I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling rather vouchsafed at the moment.

ALSO: Spiked has a good review of After Theory that better illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the book than I have here.

Source: Terry Eagleton. After Theory. Allen Lane: London, 2003.

*Just to be clear Eagleton is a Marxist Marxist — not a Maoist or Leninist. Or to put it more bluntly: he’s a socialist not a ‘commie.’

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