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Theory in chaos

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Some of the biggest names in the field would seem to agree. In Chicago last spring at a discussion sponsored by the journal "Critical Inquiry" cutting-edge thinkers such as Stanley Fish, Frederic Jameson, Homi Bhabha, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. spent two hours saying that postmodern theory was ineffective and no longer mattered in the world outside academe, if it ever did.

And in his new book "After Theory," Terry Eagleton of Manchester University argues that postmodern literary theory (which he defines as "the contemporary movement of thought which rejects . . . the possibility of objective knowledge" and is therefore "skeptical of truth, unity, and progress") was relevant in its heyday, but no more.

In other words, theorists say of the world what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland: there is no there there.

Of course antitheorists have been saying that very thing about theory itself for decades. To an old-school humanist, there's plenty "there" in literature; Shelley's poems are incomparably beautiful, Shakespeare writes about the truths of the mortal condition, and so on.

But Eagleton has never been a tweedy, pipe-smoking purveyor of the humane verities. What makes his new view so startling is that for years, he was one of theory's most committed apologists. Indeed, his 1983 book "Literary Theory: An Introduction" has long been a standard text in university classrooms and will no doubt continue to be, at least until Eagleton's recantation of all he once held holy becomes the new orthodoxy.

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

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
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