Speaking to a packed house Friday afternoon in the East Duke building, world-renowned literary critic Terry Eagleton asked the question "Where do postmodernists come from?" and proceeded to offer his own provocative set of answers.
Eagleton, who teaches at St. Catherine's College of Oxford University, is something of a legend in literary theory circles. Perhaps the clearest immediate evidence of this was provided by the some 250-300 people who crowded into the small room, many standing in the back and sitting next to where he stood on the stage to hear him.
In his speech, Eagleton criticized aspects of postmodern thought from his own Marxist perspective. Postmodernism generally holds that no one has access to absolute truth, and because of this, all that people can do is pursue their own interpretation of what they believe to be true.
Eagleton addressed the limits of this idea when taken to the extreme-an extreme, he suggested, that is becoming increasingly present in postmodern discourse. For example, he said, the assertion that William Gladstone was prime minister of England, a plain fact for most people, becomes in the hands of the reckless postmodernist an assumption faulted as "positivist" and "empiricist." Eagleton criticized this tendency toward absurd reductionism as "the kind of teleology you desperately need" if you are going to support, for example, Stalinism.
"Postmodernism illuminates so many political situations, but has so little to say about others," such as the fighting in Northern Ireland "or on any other model concerned with marginality," he said. As a Marxist, Eagleton seeks to move theory from the theoretical to the realm of the practical, where it can illuminate what he sees as essential social truths, such as the way that capitalism shapes who we are and how we think.
Many postmodernists have also argued that language is a difficult barrier to cross fully, and that all interaction with the "real world" will therefore be muddled and imperfect. Eagleton criticized this "prison-house" view of language-"the idea that language gets between me and my world."
He compared this conception of language with the human body in order to illustrate his point and poke fun at the idea that "if only I could get out of [my body], I could get to my work directly."
"I keep trying to pick up the coffee cup, but my arms keep getting in the way," he said with a slight smirk. "Does that mean that I can't pick up the coffee cup? Of course not."
Eagleton did laud postmodernism for some of its efforts, saying that it has "unleashed the power of the local" and has promulgated a view of truth that has "alarmed the bishops and charmed the businessmen."
But there is such a thing as too much freedom, he warned, and postmodernism often fails to know when to draw the line and stop pursuing interpretive freedom for its own sake. "We don't congratulate a neutron on its liberated state," he said wryly.
There is also, he suggested, a bit of hypocrisy in the standard postmodernist position. On the one hand, it "consistently denies the possibility of describing the world that is," by saying that truth is so fluid that nothing can ever be truly known. But on the other hand, postmodernism "just as consistently finds itself doing so," that is, describing what it says cannot be described.
Toward the end of his speech, Eagleton addressed issues such as the accusation of "cultural relativism" and the disdain of objective value that are often associated with postmodernism. There are some values, he said, that even postmodernists take seriously-for example, that political emancipation and altruism are positive goods. "I really can't think of a situation in which tickling the starving would be preferable to feeding them, or teasing the injured would be preferable to bandaging them," he said.
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Although some people in the room doubtless took issue with a few of Eagleton's assertions, reactions to his speech were still overwhelmingly positive. "I think it's admirable that Eagleton is able to avoid the manichaeanism that is common in both left and right discourse," said Jack Friedman, a third-year graduate student in cultural anthropology. "And he's also really funny."
Jacquie Pfeffer, a fifth-year graduate student in political science concentrating in political theory, also said she enjoyed listening to Eagleton speak. "I think it was a really interesting conversation about the relationship between Marxism and postmodernism, which I thought was really illuminating," she said.