Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Finer World

"If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world" (Terry Eagleton).

It doesn't bother me when Terry Eagleton gets into this tired anti-Enlightenment rant. As a group, privileged middle-aged white men have been steadily losing in power and prestige. When Eagleton says that progress is a myth, he talks as a representative of a particular collective identity, one that has suffered a significant decline. If things continue developing in the same direction, being male, white, and rich will entail no advantages whatsoever. As much as I respect Eagleton (and believe me, I really do), observing him in real life made it clear to me that he has been making full use of these advantages and will not give them up easily. Hence the "progress-is-a-myth" agenda. Eagleton and Co must believe that if they repeat this mantra often enough, there is a chance that the pesky consequences of said unexisting progress will disappear.

Now, what really bothers me is when people saying such things don't stop to think that the only reason they can say anything - that is, engage in the production of a public discourse - is the very progress they are so happy to berate.

I will never forget the sad spectacle of a Latina scholar, speaking at an extremely conservative Ivy League school about the evils of Enlightened thought. You'd think that a Hispanic woman might have a different perspective on these things than people who historically kept women like her in the role of perennially abused, disenfranchised and despised servants. Not so. She seemed happy enough repeating the age-old anti-progress lamentations of old white men without stopping to think about the ideological and political considerations behind this rhetoric.

The argument I have heard most often from the eminently self-righteous Enlightenment-bashers is: "Progress is bad because it has put humanity on the verge of extinction." Oooh, verge of extinction, scary. As a woman, I have to say, however, that I don't believe the world where I'm not considered a valid human being is worth preserving. If the downside of the historical processes that gave the downtrodden a voice and a presence is "the verge of extinction," then so be it.

Eagleton is right when he says that we ALL are not en route to a finer world. For me, the world gets better with every passing day. For Eagleton and the like, it evidently isn't.

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Anonymous said...

Maybe I misunderstood Eagleton, maybe you can illuminate me on this one, but I have always thought that when Eagleton refers to the "liberal-rationalist belief," he is speaking of a form of belief that turned its back to the Enlightenment. I think that when he refers to Liberals, he means apologists for capitalism. And we know how these apologists like to criticise everything that has to do with what they call the "Enlightenment project".

Happiness/progress brought by a free market would be naive, Eagleton argues.

Clarissa said...

I agree that the conflation of "liberal" and "rationalist" is confusing! I don't like it either. He needs to clarify the connection between liberal and neoliberal and whether he is talking in economical, political, or ideological terms.

Since his understanding of "liberal" in this context is unclear to me, I have been addressing Eagleton's distrust of "rationalism" and his refusal to believe that "we are en route to a finer world." The question, of course, is: finer for whom?

Anonymous said...

Another important post. Truly.