Eagleton: "The Contradictions of Postmodernism"

(This is my reading summary of the Eagleton handout for the summer course on postmodernism. You can access the handout on the course website. This blog entry should be read in conjunction with my Introductory Notes and my discussion of Ihab Hassan).

There are a couple of things one must keep in mind while reading this particular essay by Eagleton: 1) This essay was written for a special issue of New Literary History, Vol. 28, No. 1 Cultural Studies China and the West (1977): 1-6, which should explain Eagleton’s references to China; 2) Eagleton is a staunch supporter of socialism, a theme that he tackles brilliantly in his book After Theory.

This essay is a brilliant critique of what Eagleton and quite a few other critics call culturalism. As a Marxist and a strong believer in socialism, Eagleton has always been troubled with the idea of using culture and culturally constructed identities as a prime signifier of modern life. His this essay is yet another example of his take on the history and current state of culturalism and postmodernism. And the contradictions of postmodernism that he invokes are mediated through the strong emphasis on culture in most postmodernist theories and practices.

Eagleton indicts culturalism in the following words: “Culturalism inflates the importance of what is constructed, coded, conventional about human life, as against what human beings have in common as natural material animals” (1). It is important to understand the philosophical reasoning behind this indictment.Obviously, Eagleton is juxtaposing two approaches to articulating human identity: the poststructuralist particularism of specific cultural identities as opposed to what Marx offers as a re-reading of “species being.” In Marx human beings are a “species being” but are constituted by their material conditions and their labor instead of consciousness. To theorize human as a universal concept of material existence creates room for articulating a wider politics of being as opposed to the particularistic emphasis of a cultural construction of identity.

Eagleton also points out that this culturalism ” belongs to a specific historical place and time” (1), which happens to be “advanced capitalist West” (1) but is now also being exported to other places including China. The purpose of this essay, for Eagleton, is to explore the reasons for this export of culturalism to what are termed “emergent societies” (1). Eagleton also asserts that seeing things as culturally constructed is not a novel idea and provides a history of older culturalisms.

On Culturalism

Eagleton asserts that “there is nothing inherently radical about seeing things as culturally constructed” (1). He then provides a brief overview of how culture was mobilized in Western history:

  • In post-Enlightenment Europe: Culture as a concept was on the side of political reaction, privileging the normative and conventional over “Enlightenment’s revolutionary rallying cry of Nature” (1).
  • Nature in post-Enlightenment era meant “an appeal to what all human beings . . . share in common” and was thus “intrinsically levelling and subversive” (1) and not necessarily ‘naturalizing.’

On Historicism

Eagleton’s views on historicism are also more complex and less binaristic. Usually, poststructuralistsare indicted for their ahistorical approach to literature, but Eagleton suggests that historicism does not necessarily espouse a radical approach. In fact, in his view, “there is no reason why a liberal or conservative should not appeal to historical context” (2). Thus there is nothing automatically radical or conservative about historicism: it all depends on what politics mobilizes the use of history.

On Margins

Eagleton’s approach to discourse of the margins is also similarly more nuanced than the usual association of the margins with radicalism. He states: “There is nothing automatically radical about either margins or the minorities, just as there is nothing spontaneously reactionary about mainstreams and consensuses” (2).

Thus by dwelling a little on these three signifiers–culture, history, and margins–that are usually mobilized as concepts to discuss the center-periphery dichotomy, Eagleton successfully deflates any natural, all-encompassing stability of all theses signs. all these signs can be read differently depending on who and what mobilizes them. Also important is to discern his reason for deflating these important signifiers of postmodernity: Eagleton is a socialist, which is, under ideal conditions, a sort of universalizing narrative as it assumes a certain common humanity for all. Thus, in order to reassert the need for socialism, it is imperative to first render unstable the important signifiers of particularity. In other words the emphasis on culture, which is inextricably linked with advance capitalism, must be shifted to a larger revolutionary and redemptive politics.

Culturalism and Postmodernism

In this part of his discussion, Eagleton is explaining the complex nature of the culture-postmodernism nexus. He states:

Culturalism is sometimes on the side of the given system, and sometimes not; and my contention in this essay is that, in its postmodern guise, it is both at once. (2)

Why All This Talk about Culture?

Eagleton provides two reasons: one negative and the other positive:

Negative Reason: “In the postwar West, culture has become . . . a vital force in material reproduction as a whole, firmly locked into the commodity production which, in the era of high modernism, it characteristically disdained” (2).

Positive Reason: “it [Culture] has been an inseparable part of the new social and political movements” (3).

Role of Culture in Three Major Movements:

Culture has been central to the following three movements:

  • Revolutionary Nationalism
  • Sexual Politics
  • Ethnic Struggles

And this political mobilization of culture is also its biggest problem for Eagleton. For when culture, which was traditionally also a medium to imagine utopias and alternatives, itself becomes a contesting ground for politics, then it becomes part of the problem as “culture becomes part of the very terms in which political interests articulate themselves, rather than the deeper, universal more perdurable language in which such ephemeral quarrels may be resolved” (3).

In the nineteenth century Britain, Eagleton opines, culture “was called upon to fulfill the transcendental reconciliation because . . .religion had dismally failed” in accomplishing this project. But the postmodern culture cannot perform this function as it is “local, sensuous, particularized, idiomatic” (4).

The Catch

Since culture can no longer perform the utopian, universalist project that it had taken over from religion, the results are mixed. Just as the postmodern culture encourages difference, particular identities, and regional and ethnic affiliations, the so-called superstructures “insist more and more stridently upon absolute values and immutable standards, assured grounds and unimpeachable goals” (4).One could say that while the neoliberal capitalism relies on the kind of cultural mosaic that exists in postmodernity, the very superstructures of this system are becoming increasingly conservative. Thus, just as postmodernism is declaring all grand narratives dead, the larger systems are becoming conservative grand narratives. And this, for Eagleton, is the ultimate contradiction of postmodernism.

His solution: A return to the more sustainable grand narrative of socialism.