The War on Cultures: Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton

On Thursday evening, 13th of September, at the Royal Institution, in London, I had the chance to attend the debate The War of Cultures, between the literary theorist and critic Terry Eagleton and the philosopher Roger Scruton, promoted by the organization Intelligence Squared. Sixty-nine year old Eagleton is a distinguished professor at the University of Lancaster, having taught at Oxford from 1992 to 2001, as well as at various other universities around the world. He has written over forty books, most notably: Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), and The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996). Scruton is a 68 year old who is known for his conservatism, is presently a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, and a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Saint Andrews. He has also taught at Birbeck College – known as a university for mature students because it offers evening classes, and also known by for its left-leaning student culture – from 1971 to 1992. He has written over thirty books such as Art and Imagination (1974), Sexual Desire (1986), The West and the Rest (2002), A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006), and as well as novels and two operas. The choice of Eagleton and Scruton for this event is obvious: the first is the darling  and the second, the scourge of leftwing activism worldwide.

Having arrived exactly on time, as soon as I settled into the only seat available, the mediator took the microphone. Each speaker would have six minutes to advocate his point of view. That was followed by a debate and a Q&A session with the audience. Eagleton was the first to speak. He started with a brief summary of the evolution of culture during the last century and the kernel of his a\argument was as follows: The transformation of culture started towards the middle of last century and eventually it became a substitute for religion, when it began to be seen as a saviour of humanity. This trend continued up to the point when culture was accused of having caused the death of God. Then culture began to get closer to politics, making it lose its moral high ground.  And when culture capitulated to capitalism [presumably in the universities], it ceased to be a solution and started to be a problem, becoming unfeasible. Finally, culture blended itself with other social practices and stopped being critical. Following all these changes, culture today has become something for which people are willing to kill.

In his turn, Scruton stated that he was going to shift the focus of the debate to how to teach culture, adding that in order to talk about how to teach culture one needs to talk about the reason to teach culture. And there are two contrasting visions about the reason to teach culture in universities. The first vision is that culture must be taught because it is a form of wisdom that has many elements of knowledge. The other is Eagleton’s vision, a negative one, based on the importance of deconstructing or undermining the distilled culture of the Western canon. This second vision of culture began in the period between the two World Wars and culminated in 1968. However, Scruton stated that he did not agree that universities had surrendered to capitalism, something he infers from his observation that the number of left wing groups in  universities appear to have increased, not diminished. He then went on to state that the reason to teach culture is that culture has practical knowledge. He showed that apart from science, culture is the factor that mostly contributed to practical knowledge, which he defined as that which guides us about what we should do and feel and how to increase our emotional competence. One of the best examples of this is music. And music is a good example because it has nothing to which Marxism can attach.

Scruton stood down and returned to his chair, which was about one meter from Eagleton. From then on the debate continued with the two protagonists sitting side by side. The descriptionof the discussion I provide here is not necessarily in chronological order. Eagleton stated that although he admitted that the seventies and eighties were overly negative, he disagrees that the deconstruction of culture has been purely negative.  “Culture exists within a historical context that needs to be recognized’’, said Eagleton. Carrying on, he said that perhaps what Scruton dislikes is the theory of culture and its left wing membership function. But science also has some kind of affiliation. Scientists tend to work closely with one another, as opposed to people like himself, who work alone.

But the leftwing community [of the universities] shouldn’t even exist, Scruton argued. Group belonging may be important, he stated, but the existence of a leftwing club [in universities] doesn’t necessarily demand the existence of an equivalent rightwing club; nobody in their sane senses would admit such a thing; and there is no equivalent membership among scientists.

At some point Scruton said that he was against business undergraduate degree courses and Eagleton used the opportunity to state that, in this case, Scruton would agree with him regarding the problem of the universities. Eagleton insisted on a point already made, that the devaluation of culture was caused by the universities, when they started to be dominated by the type of administration that mixed politics with economics. And in the end, Eagleton concluded that when capitalism took over the universities, culture became vulgarized.

Scruton contested, asserting that culture lost its critical role because it was not prioritized by the universities. In order to regain its critical role it is necessary to return to basic things such as human nature. Eagleton rebuffed, stating that Marx had also preoccupied himself with human nature, which he called species being, adding that –Marx must have been a closet Aristotelian–, a reference to the idea that all thinkers are intrinsically either Aristotelians or Platonists, where the Platonist group describes the tendency to collectivism and socialism.  After a few more assertions and counter assertions, Eagleton and Scruton agreed to end the debate in order to allow the public the opportunity to ask questions.

About six people from the audience took the microphone to ask questions, although these were more like statements than questions. For example, a question about the ivory towers of academia inferring that these were a bad thing. Eagleton took the opportunity to criticize the ivory towers. Scruton argued that universities cannot deal with everything that is considered “culture” and that their job is to prioritize the type of culture that they should teach, and that the role of the ivory towers is to make this separation. Eagleton criticised the Western canon as an imposition from the universities’ ivory towers. Scruton replied that the canon imposes itself because it is made up of works which have passed the test of time.

A young woman of Indian appearance asked how come the high culture of the West tended to clash with other high cultures. Assuming that the inquirer was referring to Indian culture, Scruton replied that when the culture of the West first met Indian culture, during the time of the West Indian Company, William Jones, a specialist in the Persian language, recognized straight away the importance of Sanskrit and its links with Western languages, and acted to ensure that the important documents of Indian culture in Sanskrit were rescued and preserved. The young woman did not seem convinced and carried on attacking the arrogance of the British culture during the period of colonialism. Scruton countered that the British government interfered in some cases, such as when it prohibited the burning of witches. Scruton also tried to show that Western culture had a readiness to accept worthy cultural contributions from outside, as exemplified by the success of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, about Indian culture.

Another question was about the lack of recognition [without clarifying by whom] granted to certain forms of popular culture such as hip hop music. Scruton reminded us that until the first half of the last century even the great musicals and the culture of jazz were accused of undermining music culture; Scruton also lamented the loss of  genuine folk music, which at some time in the past served as inspiration for the great classical composers such as Mozart.

Although Scruton had made efforts to maintain the central theme of the Culture Wars, which has to do with the role of universities in the teaching of culture, Eagleton wasted time joking around, such as when he stated that he belonged to the left because otherwise he would have to work and also because he knows that this annoys people. Because of this, the event was far from a strict debate. This situation could have been avoided had the facilitator been firmer in maintaining the discussion within the theme of Culture Wars and insisting that questions from the audience were genuine questions and not pre-prepared statements. Unfortunately this debate was a missed opportunity to show clearly the vision of these two important drivers of modern thought.

Jo Pires-O’Brien

Bergen, Monday, 17 September 2012.

Acknowledgement: Helen Kirby revised and greatly improved this text.

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