After Theory


What if there had been no American War of Independence? What if Ireland had never been divided? What if Britain had stayed out of the First World War? What if Hitler had invaded Britain or had defeated the Soviet Union? What if the Russians had won the Cold War? What if Kennedy had lived? What if there had been no Gorbachev?

This book is a delightful but historically rigorous series of separate voyages into "imaginary time" and provides intriguing, far-reaching answers to these...

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What if there had been no American War of Independence? What if Ireland had never been divided? What if Britain had stayed out of the First World War? What if Hitler had invaded Britain or had defeated the Soviet Union? What if the Russians had won the Cold War? What if Kennedy had lived? What if there had been no Gorbachev?

This book is a delightful but historically rigorous series of separate voyages into "imaginary time" and provides intriguing, far-reaching answers to these questions. Virtual History features contributions from talented, imaginative and well-regarded historians, led by Niall Ferguson. Ferguson's ninety-page introduction is a brilliant manifesto-like defense of the methodology of counterfactual history and offers a convincing justification of the whole enterprise. His equally masterful afterword traces the likely historical ripples that would have proceeded from the maintenance of Stuart rule in England. This breathtaking narrative paints a picture of our world that is convincingly skewed: from the accession of "James III" in 1701 and a Nazi-occupied England, to U. S. Prime Minister Kennedy who lives to complete his term and the "Sultan of Baghdad" Saddam Hussein.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Contending that we are living in the aftermath of "high theory," Eagleton, the author of the highly popular and groundbreaking Literary Theory: An Introduction, bemoans the current state of cultural studies, wryly noting that while "students once wrote uncritical, reverential essays on Flaubert nowadays they write uncritical, reverential essays on Friends." Marxism, hermeneutics, and semiotics are no longer sexy academic topics, he warns. They have, instead, yielded to a fascination with sex. Students now "huddle diligently in libraries, at work on sensationalist subjects like vampirism, eye-gouging, cyborgs, and porno movies." The democratic impetus behind much cultural study-that because they reflect the everyday life of common people, Survivor and Jay-Z are as worthy of serious study as Sophocles and Joyce-seems appealing, but the Marxist Eagleton cannot reconcile studying "the history of pubic hair while half the world's population lacks adequate sanitation and survives on less than two dollars a day." As always, Eagleton is witty and convincing in his argument that theory should be addressing more important issues in a post-9/11 world politically dominated by a high-handed U.S. administration and terrorist threats. In the end, however, his study offers surprisingly little beyond standard Bush-bashing and repetitive anticapitalist rants. Alas, what could have been great cultural criticism with broad appeal falls short.-William D. Walsh, Georgia State Univ., Atlanta Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Following an extensive introduction by Ferguson (history, Jesus College, Oxford) to the study of counterfactual history, he and eight other British and American scholars offer descriptions of the possibilities of history. Incorporating significant research to answer questions such as "What if there was no American Revolution?" and "What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940?," these historians explore what could have been, with interesting results. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465017744
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 11/29/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 968,140
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Terry Eagleton is Professor of Cultural Theory at Manchester University. His books include Literary Theory, a trilogy on Irish culture, a novel, several plays, the screenplay for Derek Jarman's film Wittgenstein, and an autobiography, The Gatekeeper (Penguin 2001).
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Read an Excerpt

ONE: ENGLAND WITHOUT CROMWELL:What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War?

The grievances under which the English laboured, when considered in themselves, without regard to the constitution, scarcely deserve the name; nor were they either burthensome on the people's properties, or anywise shocking to the natural humanity of mankind . . . and though it was justly apprehended, that such precedents, if patiently submitted to, would end in the total disuse of Parliaments, and in the establishment of arbitrary authority, Charles [I] dreaded no opposition from the people, who are not commonly much affected with consequences, and require some striking motive to engage them in a resistance of established government.

DAVID HUME, The History of England (1778), CH. LIII

Between 1638 and 1640, when not distracted by fiscal crises and Scottish wars, Charles I turned his attention to a more congenial task: the plans for a new royal palace at Whitehall.' Designed in the Classical style by John Webb, Inigo Jones's gifted pupil and collaborator, the project was the fulfilment of the King's longheld ambition to replace the rambling and outmoded palace which he had inherited from the Tudors. The new Whitehall was conceived on a vast scale, a setting for the court which could rival the grandeur of the Louvre or the Escorial. Given adequate funding (an assumption which in 1638 was not yet wholly farfetched), it would probably have been completed by the mid- to late 1640s. Here, at last, would be a seat of government appropriate to the system of `Personal Rule' Charles I had established since dispensing with Parliament in 1629. At least until 1639, it was from here that Charles could expect to govern his realms, resplendent amid Webb's Baroque courtyards and colonnades, during the next decade and beyond.

Implicit in such ambitious planning was the confident presumption that Charles I's regime would not only survive, but prosper. Was such confidence justified? Or was it, as many historians have held, the self-deluding folly of a remote and isolated regime - yet another instance of the sense of unreality which characterised the Caroline court? The answers to these questions have rarely been considered on their historical merits. To the two political philosophies most influential in historical writing during the last century, Whiggery and Marxism, the collapse of Charles I's regime during the 1630s appeared `inevitable'. In seeking to enhance monarchical authority (in practice, the powers of the executive), Charles I was standing, Canute-like, against historical tides which were outside mere kingly control: the rise of parliamentary authority; the belief in individual liberty guaranteed by the common law; even, it was once believed, `the rise of the gentry' (the nearest seventeenth-century England could get to Marx's `bourgeoisie'). These forces swept inexorably on, so the theory ran, to produce a parliamentarian victory in the Civil Wars of the 1640s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, before finally reaching the sunny uplands of parliamentary government in the heyday of Gladstone and Disraeli. To Samuel Rawson Gardiner - the Victorian historian whose work remains, a hundred years on, the most influential narrative of Charles I's reign - the King's opponents had the future on their side; the parliamentarians' proposals for the settlement of the kingdom during the 1640s `anticipate[d], in all essential points, the system which prevails in the reign of Victoria'.' And in seeking to create a Personal Rule during the 1630s - a strong monarchical government unfettered by parliamentary control -Charles I was not merely up against his critics; he was up against History itself.

Of course, such assumptions about the inevitability of the regime's demise have recently been subjected to a battery of `revisionist' criticism. Yet, in subtler ways, the belief that Charles's experiment in government without Parliament was inherently unviable continues to enjoy currency, even among historians who reject the teleological approach of Marxists and Whigs. So unpopular were the King's policies that they were bound, at some point or other, to provoke rebellion; and, as the King could not mount a credible war-effort without parliamentary finance, the luxury of unfettered monarchical rule was one which Charles - quite literally - could not afford.' From this perspective, the King's great act of folly was his decision in 1637 to impose a `Laudian' revision of the English Prayer Book on the Scottish Kirk - to which it reeked of `Popery and superstition'. The sequence of events set in train by that decision revealed the political and financial impossibility of sustaining a nonparliamentary regime. Confronted with a full-scale rebellion in Scotland, for which the new Prayer Book had provided the catalyst, the King refused to compromise with his critics, and resolved to re-establish royal authority in Scotland at the point of the sword. It was the King's adamant refusal to yield to the Covenanters' demands, and his determination to fight on - even after the debacle of the 1639 campaign, the misgivings of his own Privy Councillors, and the failure of the Short Parliament in May 1640 to fund another war - which left his regime politically and financially bankrupt. The Covenanters won the `Second Bishops' War' of August 1640. And, with a Scottish army of occupation in the north of England, Parliament met in November in conditions which -for the first time in Charles's reign - prevented the King from dissolving it when he willed. Once the two Houses had convened, it was only a matter of time before royal ministers were brought to book and the `innovations' which had been at the heart of Charles's regime - from the exaction of ship money to the placement of the communion table `altar-wise' in parish churches -were declared illegal, piece by piece.

The spate of research on the `fall of the British monarchies' has stressed the highly contingent nature of the linkages which connected these events. At least until February 1641, Professor Russell has argued, Charles could have reached a modus vivendi with his Scottish and English critics which would have averted the Civil War.' This essay takes the enquiry one stage further: to ask not just whether Charles might have avoided a civil war, but whether he might have emerged from the Scottish crisis with the structures of the Personal Rule unscathed. Could Charles I have continued to govern his three kingdoms without referring to Parliaments - as he had done effectively at least until 1637 - into the 1640s and beyond? In considering these questions, it is clear that the critical moment was 1639. There is now broad agreement that, had he not failed to suppress the Covenanter rebellion at his first attempt (and so initiated the disastrous sequence of events which flowed from that failure), Charles would never have been forced to call the Long Parliament of November 1640, the body which set about dismantling the whole edifice of Personal Rule. But for the military failure of 1639, the future of Charles's regime would have taken a very different course. Success against the Scots would have brought the crown prestige, perhaps even popularity, and removed the need for a parliament for the foreseeable future - arguably, for decades to come..

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Table of Contents

Prefatory note
1 The Politics of Amnesia 1
2 The Rise and Fall of Theory 23
3 The Path to Postmodernism 41
4 Losses and Gains 74
5 Truth, Virtue and Objectivity 103
6 Morality 140
7 Revolution, Foundations and Fundamentalists 174
8 Death, Evil and Non-being 208
Postscript 223
Index 229
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2004

    A disappointment

    My admiration for Eagleton's past work led me to buy this book. As I started reading it, I thought I would not be able to put it down. Soon i began to find it infuriating--both in content and style-- and about half way through I abandoned it. Why? Because it sounds like a rantings and ravings of someone that, having helped create that academic monster called 'theory,' now disowns the child. , Eagleton rightly points out theory has become a banal exercise at the hands of academics, but intead of proposing solutions stays at the level of banalities themselves. A real disappointment.

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