The self-critic: The man who praised literary theory to thousands of students now wants them to bury it

Roland Barthes famously announced the death of the author. This weekend, as thousands of professors and their apprentices mill about the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in San Diego, one might ask: Has theory succumbed to the same fate? … [T]heory’s promised political liberation never happened. Cultural theory, he argues, instead mutated into a free-for-all, where students now use Derrida to deconstruct ”Friends,” not to change the world – an outcome he calls ”politically catastrophic.” —Matthew Price reviews Terry Eagelton’s After TheoryThe self-critic: The man who praised literary theory to thousands of students now wants them to bury it (The Boston Globe)

Hmm… if people really are using theory to critique “Friends,” does that not mean that critical thinking and deconstruction as a skill has penetrated enough people’s lives that theory has escaped the hallowed halls of academe and the dusty stacks of the library? And if so, is that a good thing? Eagelton is frustrated that graduate students who have the world-changing potential of Marxism at their fingertips are frittering their time away with playful language games, instead of doing something; they analyze the erotic body, but ignore the famished body.

I have always had difficulty with the moral relativism that reigned in my graduate seminars. In two short weeks I’ll start teaching a course on “Media Aesthetics,” so I’ll be wrestling with such issues (“What is beautiful? What is good?”) on a regular basis. (I’ve blogged about Richard Rorty’s pragmatism before.) Aestheticism has its own set of problems, but a dogmatic devotion to literary theory can be just as isolating.