From Celts to catastrophe

The sixth Ioan Davies Memorial Lecture was presented June 2 by cultural theorist and activist Terry Eagleton, professor at the University of Manchester, UK. The lecture departed from its usual appearance in the Fall semester and instead took place in the spring as part of the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, May 27 to June 3.

Right: Professor Leo Panitch (left) with cultural theorist Terry Eagleton prior to the Ioan Davies Memorial Lecture 

York political science Professor Leo Panitch introduced Eagleton with a brief synopsis of his many accomplishments. Eagleton is the author of numerous scholarly and creative works, including Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), The Illusions of the Postmodern (1996), The Idea of Culture (2000) and After Theory (2003). Eagleton is also a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom and the political and cultural affairs magazines, The New Statesman and Red Pepper. His most recent book, Holy Terror (Oxford University Press 2005), explores the idea of terror as it extends from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to the French Revolution and beyond to the rites and rituals of the ancient world.

Inspired by the connection between Ioan Davies’ Welsh roots and his dedication to politics, justice and social change, Eagleton explored the history of Celtic militancy while theorizing about the important relationship between culture and political solidarity. Rather than abandoning such identities in our present global age, Eagleton argued that these frameworks are necessary in thinking through the complexities of community and class consciousness.

The denial of national cultural histories is symptomatic of our wider acquiescence to late capitalism, which we now treat as the only force of progress and change. In fact, Eagleton asserted, it appears easier to imagine destruction, chaos and ultimate catastrophe than it is to imagine an alternative to capitalist relations, which he reminds us are social relations and not the autonomous and inevitable force that we imagine capitalism to be. Eagleton conjured up the possibility that catastrophe will intervene and bring down capitalism before agents of social justice can do so. At the same time, these agents need to develop a critical stance toward the idea of catastrophe itself. In this way, Eagleton takes a hard look at historical forces.

This year’s event was made possible with the support of the following donors: York’s Bethune College, Dean of Arts, Faculty of Arts’ Dean’s Office, Department of Political Science, Department of Sociology, Division of Social Science, Faculty of Fine Arts, Graduate Program in Communication & Culture, Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies and York University Council of Masters; and BaumgartJenkinson Design.

Established in memory of York Professor Ioan Davies (right), who died in a drowning accident in Cuba in 2000, the lecture celebrates the reach and currency of his work. Davies, born in the Belgian Congo of Welsh missionary parents, taught sociology and social and political thought at York for more than 20 years and was also a writer, cultural theorist and activist.