My Dinner with Terry

Last week, Terry Eagleton gave our English department’s annual Troy Lecture on the Humanities and Public Life. It was a great talk, and I was one of the grad students who got invited to come along to the faculty dinner with Eagleton afterwards, which was excellent as well, though I’ll cop to being star-struck and tongue-tied. But Eagleton was charming and funny and brilliant and intensely charismatic, and I’m glad to have gone to both the talk and the dinner, especially since my dissertation work owes so much to the theoretical inheritance — via Eagleton and others — of his mentor, Raymond Williams.

His lecture focused on two terms: terror and tragedy. Terror, of course, in its modern rhetorical deployment as “terrorism,” and tragedy in its literary sense. The term “modern” is essential, according to Eagleton, because terror (as a political idea and a philosophical concept) and modernity are “twinned at birth”: the word “terrorist” was first used by Edmund Burke in reference to the French Revolution, the founding of the first modern bourgeois state. But — of course — in that case, terror was the Jacobin state. As Eagleton put it, “Terror has an impeccable bourgeois pedigree.” He pointed out, as well, that our contemporary rhetorical references to “9/11″ have their own predecessor in the September 11 death of Salvador Allende in the coup d’etat that installed General Pinochet and Milton Friedman’s Los Chicago Boys 28 years earlier. (Yes, again with the economics — but with Eagleton, the first and second Paris Communes, Friedman, and Chile, how could it not be?)


Eagleton moved on to some work with Hegel, pointing out that freedom without bound as figured in the French Revolution is itself a form of terror: unbounded freedom cannot stand the limits of materiality, and when power-as-idealism lacks a body, it becomes incapable of feeling the injuries it inflicts on others. In this way, though, absolute freedom is self-undoing. Furthermore, absolute freedom requires (for Hegel?) an object to reassure itself that it is not alone in the universe, but at the same time it can’t stand alterity — and yet we see that Oedipus and Lear both find that they know mercy when they limit their own freedoms by inhabiting the perspective of alterity, by understanding the Other. While perhaps confounding in its immense abstraction, this portion of the talk wasn’t exactly new or surprising, and I think I must have missed something at this point in the lecture, because I felt like Eagleton was sort of stating the obvious in order to lay the foundation for an argument that, to me, seemed to never arrive. But it’s more likely just my poor note-taking.

Eagleton then looked down at his notes, looked up, and said, “I’ll pass over some rather boring bits here.”

For Burke, he argued, the primal scene of power must remain hidden, and this was the terror that Burke saw in the Jacobins: Law, which must clothe itself in the dress of consent, so combines coercion and consent, and works best if its coercive power is hinted at but hidden. Terror strips away that dress of consent, and leaves law’s coercive power naked. In so doing — in stripping away consent, in stripping away understanding — it strikes at the root of meaning itself even as it seeks to get things done. Terror is simultaneously theatrical and instrumental, and carries a certain grotesque rationality — a logic — even as it strikes at that logic and that rationality. The suicide bomber, theatrically, calls attention to his misery by turning it into metaphor, by symbolizing it in his final action, in a grotesque parody of the tragic figure who ultimately transcends his immiseration by turning it into the opposite of metaphor: by living it.

That was most of what I was able to take away from Eagleton’s talk. During the Q&A, I started thinking about connections to a talk that classical historian Carlin Barton gave a couple years ago about the different meanings that the Romans gave to sacrifices and executions, and I started to draw some parallels between Eagleton and Barton: king and beggarman, bomber and martyr, execution and sacrifice, terror and tragedy. The execution is a theatrical act that seeks to metaphorically repair a fissure in the history of the community, whereas the sacrifice is a theatrical act that is often performed willingly in the service of the ongoing maintenance of the community (think carnival). Execution uses the naked force of law for the instrumental remediation of a societal rupture, while sacrifice can be (but, of course, was often not) the willing abnegation of self for the maintenance of the communal good. Execution as an act of retaliation and limit-setting is the law’s terroristic response to a perceived lack of self-mastery, while sacrifice can be itself a form of self-mastery.

Execution is legalistic. Sacrifice is religious.

And so we might understand execution as the ultimate extension of state terror and coercion laid bare, and sacrifice — including self-sacrifice — as tragedy, the self-aware and material abnegation of self.

I’m not sure how to sort this thought out, particularly in light of 9/11/73 and 9/11/01.

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