Sunday, March 28, 2010

Terry Eagleton: "Culture & Barbarism"

Terry Eagleton
(Image from Wikipedia)

Terry Eagleton, the influential British literary theorist, has published in the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal an excerpt from his recent book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The excerpt, "Culture & Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism," seems to have appeared last year, but I only noticed it yesterday. Eagleton makes a number of interesting and insightful points about religion and our late-modern or postmodern condition, but he gets something important wrong, I think:
Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God? Who would have expected theology to rear its head once more in the technocratic twenty-first century, almost as surprisingly as some mass revival of Zoroastrianism? Why is it that my local bookshop has suddenly sprouted a section labeled "Atheism," hosting anti-God manifestos by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others, and might even now be contemplating another marked "Congenital Skeptic with Mild Baptist Leanings"? Why, just as we were confidently moving into a posttheological, postmetaphysical, even posthistorical era, has the God question broken out anew?

Can one simply put it down to falling towers and fanatical Islamists? I don't really think we can. Certainly the New Atheists' disdain for religion did not sprout from the ruins of the World Trade Center. While some of the debate took its cue from there, 9/11 was not really about religion, any more than the thirty-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland was over papal infallibility. In fact, radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith, and there is good evidence to suggest that its actions are, for the most part, politically driven.
Whatever the case concerning the resurgence of talk about God, I think that Eagleton misses the point on radical Islam in maintaining that it does not understand its own religious faith and in characterizing it as politically driven instead. He has perhaps been misled by noting, correctly, that Bin Laden lacks expertise in Islamic theology and law and thus failing to notice that a lot of other Islamist leaders are in fact richly steeped in these things. He has also failed to realize that Islam is profoundly political, and so (unsurprisingly) is radical Islam. He therefore misunderstands 9/11:
Assured since the fall of the Soviet bloc that it could proceed with impunity to pursue its own global interests, the West overreached itself. Just when ideologies in general seemed to have packed up for good, the United States put them back on the agenda in the form of a peculiarly poisonous brand of neoconservatism. Like characters in some second-rate piece of science fiction, a small cabal of fanatical dogmatists occupied the White House and proceeded to execute their well-laid plans for world sovereignty. It was almost as bizarre as Scientologists taking over 10 Downing Street, or Da Vinci Code buffs patrolling the corridors of the Elysée Palace. The much-trumpeted Death of History, meaning that capitalism was now the only game in town, reflected the arrogance of the West's project of global domination; and that aggressive project triggered a backlash in the form of radical Islam.
Islamism is no mere backlash reaction to Fukuyama's end-of-history thesis or to America's foreign policy under George Bush, nor was 9/11 a reaction to some neoconservative 'cabal'. Eagleton forgets that the first attack on the World Trade Center occurred in 1993, early in the hardly neoconservative Clinton administration. Islamist aggression was long in the making and draws on deep sources in Islam. It is not merely a reaction to anything.

Nevertheless, Eagleton's article offers intellectual riches, especially for what it says about culture versus civilization . . . but I'll leave that for readers to enjoy firsthand.

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At 10:06 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...

Your point about what Islam is, seems sensible to me.

Eagleton, on the other hand, is not exactly wrong that the neo-con agenda for global domination (which I think is a fair analysis) was involved in attacks on the US.

Still, the neo-con agenda was not the main thing at all.. just another data point in mind-map that the attackers had in their heads. Eagleton clearly hates the neo-cons, as do I, but his metaphors suggest he might not be thinking completely clearly ("Da Vinci code buffs?" Really?)

At 5:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Undoubtedly, Islamists would oppose the Neoconservative agenda, but I wonder if Bin Laden had even heard of Neoconservatism when the attacks took place. He doesn't seem like a man to make subtle distinctions among 'infidel' doctrines.

But perhaps I underestimate the man -- a danger to be aware of when evaluating an enemy.

Eagleton's metaphors are overblown, aren't they? I've noticed a tendency among literary types. They too often let metaphors distort their thinking. Take Gore Vidal . . . but let's not get into that.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:31 AM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...


I didn't mean to say that "neoconservative," shouted behind Bin Laden's back, would scare him any more than "boo." Just that he was aware of the enterprise of the empire, and what Bush's team meant relative to that.

LOL.. poor Gore Vidal. I love his older work, but he has gone completely off the rails in the last 10-15 years..

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I remember when Vidal tried to cash in on notoriety after Rushdie's run-in with the mullahs. He tried to blaspheme Christianity by making St. Paul and Timothy into gay lovers . . . but nobody much cared (nor did Vidal sell many copies).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:54 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Eagleton is seeking to "explain" a wide range of political phenomena as if they were a unified literary text, and his "reading" is simplified, awkward, incomplete and lacking understanding. Like many of his ilk, he is locked in the "hermeneutic" practice of believing an intelligent analysis requires no more than inward-looking integral logic and theoretical consistency, to the neglect of the full picture. Indeed, his a priori assumptions and integral self-consistency require him to neglect the full picture. I can hardly imagine he calls himself an Englishman, nor should it surprise me if he would feel embarrassed to be called such, preferring the methods and affectations of people with awkward names from across the channel, who, like Humbert Humbert, have raped the mind of the English-speaking university, and helped, no doubt, by such philosophic bauds as Eagleton, who don’t know better, never knew better, never will know better, and are content to sit in the mud puddles of their own cult and keenly expel their in-most gases, vainly thinking the rising effervescence of corruption to be the whitest and purest bubbles of wisdom.

At 4:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You don't feel strongly about this, do you, Carter?

But all joking aside (since it often lands me in trouble), I agree with you in saying that Eagleton is "locked in the 'hermeneutic' practice of believing an intelligent analysis requires no more than inward-looking integral logic and theoretical consistency, to the neglect of the full picture."

I think of Chomsky's reaction to 9/11 -- a 'book' that appeared merely weeks later and proved only how little he understood about religious radicalism generally and radical Islam in particular.

There are more things in heaven and earth . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:14 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I am to old and didn't have enough memorization of Bible verses, to remember why I got a sense that whoever wrote as Paul was homosexual.

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Paul speaks of a "thorn in his flesh" but doesn't specify the thorn any more than that. Some have speculated that the 'pricking' had something to do with sexuality. I haven't seen any overwhelming argument, so I remain agnostic on the source of Paul's agony.

Jeffery Hodges

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