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Theory in chaos

Viewing literature through the lens of some "ism" seemed revolutionary in the 1960s. Today, many are calling it an irrelevant approach.

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The idea behind "Literary Theory" was to interrogate and refute what Eagleton and others thought of as lazy, received notions of what is true.

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A Marxist himself, Eagleton would have been more interested in the relations between social classes in a Dickens novel, say, than a single character's suffering and redemption.

Still an unreconstructed champion of the lower classes (he writes movingly of his impoverished childhood in his 2001 memoir, "The Gatekeeper"), Eagleton has always enjoyed the gadfly role and boasts that Prince Charles once called him "that dreadful Terry Eagleton."

Toying with the esoteric

All the stranger, then, that, according to Eagleton, "cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver." Eagleton now accuses theory of toying with esoterica while ignoring the real issues of life dealt with by literature.

Specifically, says theory's reformed bad boy, "[theory] has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil..." And that, as Eagleton says, "is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on."

But if theory is so profoundly flawed in its inability to address the ideas and emotions that not only make us individual but also allow us to marry, build communities, and undertake the countless transactions that would be impossible without basic shared assumptions, how did it ever become so popular in the first place? How did the notion that There Is No Truth become The Truth?

Postmodern literary theory is rooted in mid-century European philosophy, though it didn't begin to catch on in America until the late '60s; the Johns Hopkins University conference on "The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" which featured Jacques Derrida and other master theoreticians took place in 1966 and is generally regarded as the theoretical equivalent of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock.

These were, of course, revolutionary times: The initial phase of the civil rights struggle was peaking, and serious opposition to the Vietnam war was getting underway. College students were chucking out their parents' ideas about race, class, patriotism, sex, music, and recreational drugs the way they might toss a faulty toaster oven out an open dorm window: If it doesn't work, ditch it.

Theory played right into this mind- set; it challenged lazy notions about what's right and what isn't and brought fresh air into a classroom full of mildewed literary practices.

The problem is that by the time theory's anticapitalist, antibourgeois assumptions became standard fare in colleges and universities, the consumer revolution was in high gear.

Before theory came along, most people shopped in department stores and paid in cash; then the malls went up, banks started sending credit cards to people who didn't want them, and television became a 24-hour-a-day advertising medium.

By sometime in the 1980s, the 1960s mantra "If it feels good, do it," seemed more likely to apply to buying a fully-loaded minivan than staging a revolution. Subversive ideas about theory simply didn't belong.

The rediscovery of literature