Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Balakrishnan, Gopal. Review of Terry Eagleton's TROUBLE WITH STRANGERS. NDPR (May 2009).

Eagleton, Terry. Trouble with Strangers: a Study of Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. Trouble with Strangers is the latest reflection on ethics from the distinguished literary critic Terry Eagleton. Best known for his witty and sympathetic popularizations of critical theory, Eagleton once claimed that its main contemporary currents -- Marxism, deconstruction, and psychoanalysis -- were devoid of practical ethical corollaries, thereby contributing to a wider condition of relativistic malaise. Eagleton was probably the only proponent of post-structuralism at the time to be troubled by this. But even if it were true that the main variants of post-structuralism once exhibited such nihilist tendencies, one could say that they have all subsequently sought to make amends, for after their 80's heyday, all of them made a turn towards ethical inquiry, along lines laid out by Levinas, Derrida and the late Foucault. Indeed, even Lacanians like Žižek who dismiss the post-structuralist ethics of difference and undecidability, invariably do so in ethical terms. It might also be noted that this development seems to conform to a broader trend that has brought us bio-ethics, professional ethics, and ethical consumerism. Eagleton has addressed this broader ideological context in other works, but in Trouble with Strangers, he limits himself to providing a comparative overview of some of the different conceptions of ethics coming out of that mixture of continental intellectual traditions that is still called 'Theory'. The plan of the book might initially seem whimsical: the author divides ethical philosophies into categories drawn from Lacan's schema of psychic relations -- the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real -- here offered as little more than a loose framework of classification. Indeed the book's architrave is not even specifically Lacanian, and replicates the terms of Kierkegaard's familiar account of three existential worldviews -- the aesthetic, ethical, and religious. While lumping different bodies of thought together in this way might fail to capture the problems they raise on their own terms, Eagleton often employs this heuristic device to good effect, bringing to light shared assumptions, rhetorics, and blind spots. . . . Read the rest here:

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