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The Significance of Theory

In his work, Eagleton theorizes about theory and engages in what he calls meta-
theory. He argues that all social life, is in a sense, theoretical. He argues that simple
propositions such as “this is a beer mug” depend on an assumption that such an object
is in fact a beer mug and should one drop it at a certain height, the “beer mug” will
inevitably shatter.

Eagleton argues that theories are capable of doing 2 things: a) disrupting the
monotonous order of life, and b) preserving them. Eagleton argues that because we
have theories, we do not enjoy the relative safety that animals do wherein they can go
about life in a strict biological order. Humans do not enjoy that protection because we
constantly move about in a world of meaning. Disruption, however, is just one side of
the coin. Theories can also preserve because they give meaning to the things we do.
They can serve as a justification as to why we do the things we do.

Eagleton states that theories on a dramatic – revolutionary – scale happen when

it is both possible and necessary for it to do so. They happen because the traditional
rationales which have governed our day to day lives must either be discredited or
revised. Theory, Eagleton says, is just a practice forced into a new form of self-
reflectiveness on account of certain grievous problems it has encountered. They arise
as a “symptom” that all is not well in the order of the world. Theory is a human activity
which takes itself as the subject of enquiry. The activity of theorizing is rending our
practices self-conscious – understanding how we and the world around us operates.
Objectifying a particular procedure or process allows us to turn that object into an
object of contestation – nothing, therefore, becomes constant.

Theorizing is also a historical event. This means that theorizing is rooted in the
history upon which it reflects and will thus require yet another act of theory to show
how all this comes about. If this was so, then we would have a never-ending cycle of
theory, explaining another theory. The solution then, is to develop a theory of theories
which is impossible to do. Eagleton postulates that the reason why we are still afflicted
by the fall-out of the great theoretical explosion from the past two years is that we
have still not solved the problem of which the outburst of theory is the symptom.

In his article, Eagleton also argues that the ‘Theory’ was born as a political
intervention regardless of the academic respectability it had achieved. He notes how the
great theories of our time had been borne of major political movements such as the rise
of capitalist consumerism, American imperialism, and the Civil Rights Movement. He
notes, however, that a theory – regardless of how it was built – has no self-evident
political orientation. This is not to say that theories are politically neutral. Rather, they
are politically polyvalent – capable of generating a multiplicity of sometimes quite
contradictory social effects. Thus, a theory may be used either to expose a disreputable
ideological root, or deployed to refurbish them in glamorous new ways (ala Goebel of
Nazi Germany). Thus, the question on the use of theory is political rather than an
intellectual one.

The concept of the emancipatory theory then comes in to mind when looking at
theory vis-à-vis politics. Eagleton points to a few such as socialism, feminism, and
others which is aimed at achieving a certain type of society. Eagleton argues that there
is a fundamental difference in how emancipatory theories hold on to their beliefs as
against Buddhists and vegetarians. The latter would remain faithful to their beliefs as
long as possible, while the former would wish to end their belief as soon as possible.
The aim on emancipatory theories is to meet the condition they set out to attain – they
thus have a built in self-destructive device wherein there will come a time (as they
hope) that the theory would no longer be needed.

Eagleton argues that children make the best theorists. He notes that children are
more likely than adults to theorize because they had not yet been accustomed to the
social practices which have been deemed as “natural”. Children, Eagleton argues, are
those who remain discontent with the usual answer of their parents (“This is the way
we do things”). The point of emancipatory theory then is to regress us back to
childhood and it is here, and not the jargon of theories, where we find the real
difficulty. The difficulty to return back to childhood by rejecting what seems natural and
refusing to be satisfied with the shifty answers of the elders in society. It is also for this
reason that emancipatory theorists are less inclined to fall prey to megalomania despite
their claims of superiority. Emancipatory theorists see themselves occupying a role
which is not a central one. This does not mean that emancipatory theorists do not go
through self-reflection, they do. This means that the process of political emancipation is
an activity that only the individual can carry out for oneself. This is mainly because the
most difficult form of emancipation is a matter of freeing ourselves from ourselves. A
dominant political order will not survive if it does not see itself in the space of
subjectivity itself.

Eagleton closes his essay with the reality that for a power to inscribe itself
effectively within subjectivity, there must be something in it for individuals themselves.
We must constantly be gratified and frustrated by it. Individuals are naturally radical
and conservative in nature. The importance of theories, then, is to help people see the
importance of the natural order while being dissatisfied with the current order. To
combat radical ideas while not being entirely satisfied with the current order.