After Theory

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What does it mean to be human?

For a book that attempts to move beyond the highbrow theory of the 20th century, After Theory seems so…ordinary. The esteemed professor/theorist/critic/writer/gadfly Terry Eagleton manages to tackle the most popular ideas of the 20th century, and one by one topple them over. In doing so he’s essentially trying to answer: What does it mean to be human?

Eagleton, a supposedly avant-garde Marxist theorist, sounds downright old-fashioned when discussing ideas like morality, absolute truth, or universality. He laughs off postmodern ideas of perception (if there’s a tiger in the bathroom, I would like to know absolutely), refers to Aristotle when speaking of morality—and manages to sound like your father (virtue is its own reward), and becomes a materialist when referencing the universal. Our bodies, he argues, are a large part of what make us human. They define how we interact with the world and with each other. “To encounter another human body,” he writes, “is thus to encounter, indissociably, both sameness and difference.”

In doing so, he urges us to a new place. He envisions a world of people doing what they enjoy doing, being good because it is an end in itself, finding happiness through living and acting well (not—gasp—conjuring certain feelings) and finding freedom in dependence. In doing so, he does not present new ideas, but recasts old ones. In being overtly radical, he really simply fulfills the etymology of the word: getting back to the roots. Overall, Eagleton reminds us that we are not human to make or spend money, to find happiness, or exercise our rights. Being human is an end in itself, and we must simply find things to make us more that way.