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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Against Respect

Posted by Sean McCann on 11/01/05 at 01:02 PM

As Henry Farrell notes, Walter Benn Michaels’s essay on “The Neoliberal Imagination” in the current N+1 is not to be missed. (Short version here.) Henry points out that Michaels’s essay is a brilliant rejoinder to the false meritocracy of the contemporary right. True. But it’s also of interest for anyone who follows the depressing spectacle of academic politics or the fashions of contemporary lit. By Michaels’s lights, there’s more than a little resemblance between the positions of our most prominent culture warriors. 

Schools loom larger in the neoliberal imagination than they did in the liberal imagination because where the old liberalism was interested in mitigating the inequalities produced by the free market, neoliberalism-with its complete faith in the beneficence of the free market-is interested instead in justifying them. And our schools have a crucial role to play in this. They have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty, or, to put the point the other way around, they have become our primary mechanism for convincing rich people that we deserve our wealth.

. . .

On this model, then, class is turned into clique and, once the advantages of class are redescribed as the advantages of status, we get the recipe for what we might call right-wing egalitarianism: Respect the poor. Which is also, as it turns out, the recipe for left-wing egalitarianism.

If in 1950 Trilling thought there were no conservatives or reactionaries, we might say today that there are only conservatives and reactionaries. Where the neoliberal right likes status instead of class, the neoliberal ‘’left” likes cultural identity, and its version of ‘’respect the poor” is ‘’respect the Other.” That’s why multiculturalism could go from proclaiming itself a subversive politics to taking up its position as a corporate management technology in about 10 minutes.

Michaels takes a lot of heat for his patient devastation of the theory of cultural identity - which he shows to be a seductively fancy version of racial identity. Most of his critics wrongly assume that argument to reflect his allegedly conservative politics. Here, Michaels makes clear what his readers shouldn’t have missed: that his argument is basically a marxian complaint against the way Americans have proved all to eager to allow the illusions of culture to obscure the realities of class.  Whether, as The Shape of Signifier suggests, this point can’t be separated from Michaels’s account of meaning and intention is, I think, another question.  This essay, though, is a killer.


Comments

I hope that Michaels eventually gets around to discussing the debates about the “New Class” from the 1970s, when neoconservatives tried to define the impact of “liberal professionals” upon U.S. society.  This strikes me as one of the points when arguments about expanding the welfare state were derailed into arguments about culture, to the extreme detriment of the left in the United States.  I.e., the “New Class” was imagined as a dangerous cultural elite that was out to destroy the traditional values embodied in the working class.  The New Class in particular became the favorite whipping-post of the neoconservatives; they were allegedly responsible for sexual promiscuousness, drug-use, etc., of the 1960s.  This rhetorical ploy was extremely effective and is one of the reasons why “liberal” has become such an impossible term of identification in mainstream U.S. politics.

By on 11/01/05 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t this just one more iteration of the Communist Party’s beef with black folks?  Benn Michaels does offer a stunning critique of identity politics (more in essays like “The No Drop Rule” than in the uneven *Shape of the Signifier*), but to pretend that class politics are the only “true” politics is equally as problematic—especially given WBM’s take on class as simply one’s material relation to the means of production.  (That American cab drivers identify more with Donald Trump than with French cab drivers would be a mere “identitarian” gnat to WBM.)

But as WBM often points out, identity politics tried to base itself on the model of class politics.  I would argue that class politics are the original identity politics, complete with accusations of class traitors, authenticity, and so on.  And of course, class politics only make sense within the larger context of, say, the Marxist narrative.  In Benn Michaels’ work, it’s never clear how politics *should* work, because WBM only ever tells us how identity politics are how politics *should not* work.  Duh.  So he can criticize one group for ignoring a worse off group, but he offers no larger program for helping all victims of injustice, whether economic injustice, sexual injustic, racial injustice, and so on. 

At least identity politics has a true ethos and praxis, however misguided it might have been.  Sensitivity training is at least a program.  In his chapter on Robinson and slave reparations, WBM makes the important point that the problem is not the blackness of the poor child but rather the poorness.  But this is to suggest that one can only ever have one political goal, and one must act in the name of the most abject person or group around.  So we can agree with Benn Michaels that Bill Cosby doesn’t need reparations and that poor whites could use something like reparations.  But then we can trump the poorness of Americans by finding a more abject group elsewhere.  And I suppose the Civil Rights movement was also marred by identity politics.  Cuz, ya know, who cares that a middle-class black person can’t share a train coach with a white factory worker when there are poor white factory workers to take care of.  (As if we couldn’t do both.) Let’s remember that multiculturalism and identity politics grew out of the racism and sexism of most American class-based political movements in the twentieth-century.  A true politics would be neither class nor cultural/identitarian.  WBM needs to realize that the problem with even class politics is that they ultimately come down to who one is.  Using economics to trump all other political ends is ridiculous.  What we need is an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-hetero-biased, anti-exploitative politics, with no aspect of identity at any level—whether class identity or cultural identity. 

And one minor point: it’s stupid to say that it’s multiculturalism’s problem that it was co-opted by the corporate world.  Anything can be co-opted.  I’ve been horrified by a series of car commercials featuring a “rebel rousing” man speechifying to groups of discontented people about their rights—to have a good warranty, that is.

By on 11/01/05 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting point, Stephen.  I think there’s an intriguing question about genealogy there--namely about the degree to which the idea of the new class, like many another neocon habit, had some roots in the left.  My information is far from complete, but at the least the neocons’ discovery of the “new class” coexisted with left variants on the idea--in Gouldner, but also in the New Working class theory important to some in the New Left.  I think Harold Brick is working on a book about the way just about every American intellectual in the mid part of the twentieth century agreed that class was no longer a central problem.  Jeffrey Sklansky’s book The Soul’s Economy also has some interesting things to say about the arguable roots of the attitude.

Luther, you’re not responding to Michaels but to a figment of your imagination.  Almost nothing you say above applies fairly to him.

By on 11/02/05 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The first actual use of the term “new class” I’ve found (in the sense of a liberal elite in Western democracies having a primarily cultural influence) is David Bazelon’s Power in America: The Politics of the New Class (1967), and he in turn was adapting ideas from Galbraith.  It was then taken up by Michael Harrington in Toward a Democratic Left (1968).  However, the concept also has an extended progeny in right-wing critiques of capitalism.  I’m thinking in particular of Joseph Schumpeter’s notion from the 1940s that capitalism would be undone by its “petted intellectuals” disseminating anti-bourgeois values.  So the concept was tossed back and forth between various writers on the left and right until it was popularized in the late 1960s / early 1970s.

I’ll be interested in seeing Brick’s book when it comes out; his earlier one on Daniel Bell was fantastic.

By on 11/02/05 at 02:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1.  Me: “ . . . to pretend that class politics are the only “true” politics is equally as problematic—especially given WBM’s take on class as simply one’s material relation to the means of production.”

Compare, WBM, “Autobiography of an Ex-White Man”: “Owning the means of production does not represent your identity, it constitutes that identity . . . The identity that is irreducible to action is essential, not socially constructed, and the identity that is identical to action is not really an identity—it’s just the name of the action: worker, capitalist” (142). 

2.  Me:  “But as WBM often points out, identity politics tried to base itself on the model of class politics.”

Compare, “Autobiography of an Ex-White Man”:

“ . . . [R]acial identity, Appiah writes, is ‘in this way like all the major forms for identification that are central to contemporary identity politics: female and male; gay, lesbian and straight, black white, yellow . . . even that most neglected of American identities, class.’” WBM attacks Appiah’s position and concludes: “Race, then, is not like class” (140).

3.  I don’t have a copy of *The Shape of the Signifier* handy, but most of my previous post responds to WBM’s argument against Randall Robinson’s *The Debt*.  WBM does in fact argue that without an essentialist notion of racial identity, we can’t recompense present-day blacks at the expense of present-day whites for the crimes and victimization of past generations.  He does in fact argue that the only true justification for reparations would be to create an even playing field for poor black children, and he does in fact go on to argue that this logic is racist/racialist insofar as poor white children also need an equal playing field.  All of which is to say that WBM trumps race with class and attacks black attempts to affect political change in the name of race (despite the 100 year history of the attempted exclusion of blacks from American class politics).

Is it any surprise that WBM quotes, without criticizing, David Horowitz here?  Horowitz argues that black Americans shouldn’t receive reparations because they would have a far lower standard of living had they grown up in Africa.  I’m not saying WBM agrees with Horowitz; but WBM doesn’t note the vast difference between Robinson tracing the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow among present-day black Americans and Horowitz equating black Americans with black Africans (and Horowitz’s failure to mention that the underdevelopment of modern Africa is part of the same set of historical forces going back to slavery and imperialism). 

So Sean, I don’t think I’m dealing with an imaginary Benn Michaels.  Feel free to correct my readings if they are wrong, but I think there’s plenty of evidence for my understanding of WBM.  Wholesale denunciations of someone’s good-faith comments are—as I’ve written before—graceless and inhospitable.

Finally, as I always ask after reading Benn Michaels: So what???  So what that there are logical problems in identity-based political movements?  If queer identity politics succeeds in breaking down discrimination against queers, who cares about logical flaws? 

And so what that class is ultimately not an identity? (’Tho if you read the first passage of WBM I cited above, you’ll see that even he says first that material economic conditions both constitute one’s identity and are simply actions, not identities.) I’ve never gotten the sense from WBM’s work that he *is* a socialist or a Marxist.  He has written about shifting affirmative action and college admissions away from cultural identity and toward class.  That’s fine and good.  But WBM’s always playing a zero sum game in which the success of identity politics leads to the failure of class politics, as if the two forms of politics couldn’t work together for common ends (and as if American class politics hasn’t earned the suspicion of racial and sexual minorities).  And WBM has never articulated a full vision of what he means by class politics.  Admitting a few more poor people to college to train them to exploit poor people is not a politics.

By on 11/02/05 at 03:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Luther, I have seen before your suggestion that it’s graceless and inhospitable to denounce wholesale good faith arguments.  Then, as now, I see a knife that cuts two ways.  I’m sorry that I don’t have the time at the moment to explain that there are several non-sequiters and other fallacies, not to mention rather nasty ad hominems, in your remarks about Michaels.  Suffice it for now to note that the assumption that Michaels is stupid and cynical is neither graceful nor very wise. 

Thanks for the reminder of Bazelon, Stephen.  I’d forgotten about that wacky book.  I look forward to the Brick book, too.  I also recommend Sklansky highly.  Really interesting stuff.

By on 11/02/05 at 03:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So Walter Benn Michaels is essentially where critical reason stops.  Good to know.  Theory bad.  Benn Michaels good. 

But I never once call WBM “stupid” or “cynical.” I think his is an amazing logical mind, and I think his larger argument is often right on.  I agree with him: (1) that theory cannot act as a safety net to support interpretation; (2) that much of what has been accepted as hippy-dippy multiculturalism is often racialism in new cloths (as in, say, Leslie Silko); (3) that the major problem with identity politics is its favoring of “who one is” over “what one believes;” (4) that racial politics that fails to take class into account is often misguided.

Never once do I descend to ad hominem attack.  For example, I grant that no doubt WBM disagrees with David Horowitz.  I’m simply wondering why Horowitz’s idiotic statement was given *any* airtime in WBM’s book.  There are powerful critiques of slave reparations, but the low standard of living in Africa is certainly not one of them.

My problems with WBM’s political arguments remain:

1.  The zero-sum game in which one political approach necessarily detracts from others
2.  The so what? issue regarding logical flaws versus praxis.
3.  The larger vision, or, the idea that class-based critiques only make sense within larger philosophical structures (Marxism, socialism, and so on), and WBM fails to ever make clear within what narrative of class and reform/revolution his use of the term ‘class’ resonates.  Is class simply a more logically consistant tool for analysis?  Is it more politically effective?  Does he want to change American capitalism?  Does he want to reform and soften the knife-edges of American capitalism?

I’m tired of having to prove my sincerity and good-faith around these parts.

By on 11/02/05 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, for what it may be worth, I don’t question your sincerity or good faith and think that Sean should engage with your criticisms of Benn Michaels when he has the time.

I’m now proclaiming it “Collegiality Week” here at the Valve.

By Jonathan on 11/02/05 at 04:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, the charge that Michaels is cynical is one that you defended in an earlier thread.  I took you to be making the same point here when you began by saying, for example:

Isn’t this just one more iteration of the Communist Party’s beef with black folks?

If I understand correctly, the reference here is to the way the CP was charged by, e.g., Wright and Ellison, with cynically making use of African-Americans for Party ends.  (The history here is, of course, arguably far more complex than those charges suggest.  The CP also did more than a little for the interests of African Americans and for the Civil Rights movement.) In any case, there’s not much basis for an analogy to Michaels that I can see. 

The implication of cynicism or at the least of a political imbecility is also implicit in this remark:

Cuz, ya know, who cares that a middle-class black person can’t share a train coach with a white factory worker when there are poor white factory workers to take care of.

Unfortunately for your case, there’s no basis in anything Michaels has written to suggest that he would be indifferent to Jim Crow or that he would place the interests of white factory workers over those of the victims of Jim Crow.  (There is, of course, no necessary connection between opposing Jim Crow and supporting racial pluralism.) Your charge raises the rhetorical ante, but it doesn’t really respond to his argument.

Suggesting that Michaels is somehow culpable for giving Horowitz “airtime” is similarly inflammatory, all the more so since your precise charge isn’t really clear.  I find one mention of Horowitz in Shape.  It notes that there is a surprising affinity between Octavia Butler’s view of the past and Horowitz’s, since (arguably) they both write as if the history of slavery were a necessary good to contemporary African-Americans.  No suggestion is made that Horowitz’s view is in any way preferable to Robinson’s, and given the fact that the book clearly puts itself on the “left,” its description of Horowitz as a “right wing polemecist” should probably be taken to express disapprobation.

The argument against Robinson is against the thought that history and racial identity provide the moral desert that justifies wealth and privilege for some at the expense of others.  It seems pretty clearly to me part of an argument against moral desert period and in favor of the redistribution of wealth.  It has nothing to do with a plan to “admit[] a few more poor people to college to train them to exploit poor people"--which frankly to me looks like another charge of either cynicism or stupidity.  Redistribution of wealth would in fact be a “program” of the sort you refer to, and one unlikely to find much support in corporate board rooms. 

Your remarks about class and identity muddy the water, to what end I’m not quite sure.  Yes, it’s certainly true that there have been thinkers and movements that construed class as an identity.  This is clearly not Michaels’s view.  In the passage you snip, what’s being invoked, as an alternative to identity, is the marxian theory of labor exploitation.  I don’t see the problem here.

You ask about Michaels argument in general: “So what???” You then go on in your next post to remark points made by Michaels you agree with, including:

(3) that the major problem with identity politics is its favoring of “who one is” over “what one believes;” [to the latter of which Michaels would presumable add “and what one has"] (4) that racial politics that fails to take class into account is often misguided.

That seems to me to answer your own question.  Michaels has valuable analytic points.  Some of them have political implications--which may in fact involve choices among inconsistent alternatives.  It’s certainly a fair question to ask about the liklihood of Michaels political preferences being realized or to ask what means might be taken to realize them.  But the fact that such questions could and should be asked wouldn’t be automatic grounds for dismissal.

By on 11/02/05 at 11:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1.  My comment about blacks and the Communist Party refers to the Wright/Ellison critique, but not to the cynical use of blacks by the Party.  What I was alluding to was the complaint among Party members that “black American interests” had to play second fiddle to “international labor interests.” I’m still out of lunch on the issue of WBM’s cynicism in general.  But what do you make of the fact that the guy gets off on putting the bad reviews of his work on the back of the trade edition of *Our America*?  Seems like he gets off on simply being controversial—even if, as I do believe, he has authentic political goals informing much of his critique of identity politics. 

2.  My point about Jim Crow and white workers attempts to map an earlier political logic onto WBM’s critique of Randall Robinson.  WBM argues that RR’s racialist logic prevents him from extending his argument to the “true” problem—poverty or poorness in general, as opposed to black folks in general.  I agree that giving Bill Cosby slave reparations is ridiculous.  But what WBM fails to acknowledge is the degree to which the racism of American labor and socialist political groups has led to attempts by blacks to achieve economic parity on racial (as opposed to universal) grounds. 

This connects with WBM’s insistance that we treat race as a mistake.  That’s fine and good, but why should it start with well-intentioned black leaders?  I’m not sure that black color-blindness would be all that effective in a still deeply racist society.  We’re in a Mexican stand-off, and Benn Michaels is asking black folk to stand down first. 

3.  So, my pointing to WBM’s uncritical quotation of David Horowitz is *more* inflammatory than WBM’s attempt to equate Octavia Butler’s thinking with David Horowitz’s?  Truly, sir, Walter Benn Michaels can do no wrong!

3.a.  Which leads us to the fact that WBM is simply wrong here.  *Kindred* is about a Nietzschean attempt to come to terms with the past: if I’m happy today, I have to affirm all the good and evil that came before and led to this moment.  A female songwriter once said something similar about being raped: because being raped led to her songwriting, she has to accept her past in order to enjoy her present.

This is entirely different logic than David Horowitz’s, which is something like: had slavery never occured, there wouldn’t be blacks with a high standard of living in America.  All blacks would be, on average, worse off.  Of course, this fails to play the game fully: the desire to turn the clocks back and erase slavery would also require the desire to erase colonialism and underdevelopment.  Horowitz is telling black Americans, “Stop complaining, we saved you from starvation in Africa.” That’s quite different than Butler’s message: “Pleasure today is an affirmation of past horror.”

4.  Regarding Robinson and college admissions, I was bridging two separate WBM arguments.  I agree with WBM that Robinson wants to hinge economic redistribution on the grounds of racial heritage and victimhood.  But in another WBM piece, I recall that he argued against racial affirmative action in college admissions and in favor of economic affirmative action.  At no point in *either* argument does WBM come out and say, “I think America needs a wholesale economic redistribution and a return to what John Dewey called economic democracy.” And his take on college admissions makes me suspect that he largely wants to replace race with class, as if that alone—with no larger vision of political action—will change anything.  As if racist admissions officers won’t leap at the chance to deny blacks, poor and rich, admission in favor of poor whites. 

5.  The problem with seeing class strictly as an “action” and not an identity is that—as nearly every socialist and Marxist has realized—real political action requires the transformation of a person’s self-image into an “accurate” reflection of their class status.  So sure, class can be a purely descriptive term.  John makes coffee at Starbucks, so he’s a worker.  Jill owns Starbucks, so she’s an owner.  The problem for any political change is that John very well imagines that, with his loft apartment, Hummer, and leagues of credit card debt, he is actually fine and dandy.  But WBM’s writings about class never get beyond the basic, descriptive terms worker and owner.  Being “a worker” is not a sign of a problem, unless one also accepts, say, Marx’s analysis of exploitation at every level of private ownership.  Class-based political change can *only* occur once class is accepted as an identity, as a mask in a larger drama.  But WBM never articulates a larger system in which, by getting rid of identity and replacing it with class, anything gets accomplished politically.  Randall Robinson creates a racial narrative in which we should care about the current state of black poverty.  He’s not simply saying, “These are black folks” but rather, “These are the sons and daughters of slaves and Jim Crow victims.” WBM offers no narrative in which anyone needs to *care* about workers.  So what?  They’re workers.  What’s wrong with that?  If Robinson requires a historical and racial narrative, WBM fails to realize that class politics require a similar belief—like, for example, Marx’s belief that somehow, when an owner collects profit from your labor, you’ve somehow been exploited.  Not everyone accepts that (to say the least).  So simply talking about class doesn’t get us beyond basic descriptive language.  There’s nothing inherently proscriptive or evaluative about the terms worker and owner. 

But why criticize Randall Robinson when the real problem is capitalism and government tax laws?  Why criticize Octavia Butler when the real problem is racism and discrimination?  Why criticize Tom Wolfe (and take shots at an identity politics that’s been largely dead for the past 15 years) when the real problem is racist and classist college admissions boards?  I’m willing to accept that Benn Michaels isn’t cynical.  But he certainly has an odd way of showing his progressive politics.  Or maybe it’s not that odd after all.  Isn’t one the Left’s major problems the narcissism of minor difference and the failure to come together against larger, common foes?  Why take issue with racism when you can take issue with Toni Morrison instead?

By on 11/03/05 at 02:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I find it difficult to argue with you because you won’t stay on point or argue your own claims consistently.  (E.g., about cynicism, on which you appear to have staked out several different views: you aren’t accusing Michaels of it, but he is cynical, but you haven’t made up your mind whether he is, but he does have authentic political goals, but you’ll accept that he maybe he isn’t cynical.  Given that cynicism is a pretty serious charge to toss around, you might make up your mind about this and stick with one position.)

Here’s the problem with your reaction to Michaels as I see it.  You read him with an extraordinary level of suspicion--drawing inferences from his work that are not there by necessary implication, tarring him with guilt by association, and holding him to the obligation that he prove his virtue.  A little bit of parsimony would go a long way here. 

For example, the problem with your point 2 is that the two positions you conflate simply do not map onto each other.  There is no necessary connection between doubting Randall Robinson and accepting Jim Crow.  Likewise with point 4, where you construct for Michaels a position that he hasn’t espoused and clearly would not.  If you don’t want to have your bona fides questioned, you should hesitate before attributing vile positions to someone when they haven’t endorsed them and when they aren’t necessary to what they do say. 

Your point 1 is equally weak. It doesn’t make sense to distinguish the charge of cynicism from the Wright/ Ellison critique.  The charge of cynicism was the essence of that critique. Without it, there’s no complaint there.  The fact that Michaels is a controversialist simply isn’t germane here and is an example of topic switching.

No doubt its possible and worthwhile to argue with lots of Michaels’s claims.  How much and what kinds of affective motivation are politically valuable might be an interesting topic to talk about, even though it’s not directly related to the issues he raises.  (I see the significance of the point you’re raising here.  It’s just hard to talk about when the rhetorical volume is raised to 11.) You are wrong, though, to suggest that Michaels offers no explanation of why anyone needs to care about workers--though perhaps he doesn’t do it with the explicitness and citations of Dewey that you require.  I think he makes it pretty clear that we should care about inequality because it’s unjust.  His complaint against Robinson is that Robinson does not have a complaint against inequality.  On Michaels view, a child of recent African immigrants who suffers inequality in a racist society is as worthy of redistributed wealth as the descendents of slaves would be. On Robinson’s view, presumably that would not be the case. 

As an aside, btw, it’s not at all obvious to me that, in a country as racist as the U.S. has historically been, redistribution justified by race is likely to have more political traction than redistribution justified by a commitment to equality.  Part of your distaste for Michaels seems to be motivated by the sense that his preferences are just politically implausible.  Whether or not that should be a guiding concern, it’s not necessarily the case that Robinson’s are any more likely.

By on 11/03/05 at 11:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean writes, “You read him with an extraordinary level of suspicion--drawing inferences from his work that are not there by necessary implication, tarring him with guilt by association, and holding him to the obligation that he prove his virtue.  A little bit of parsimony would go a long way here.”

But isn’t that how Benn Michaels reads everyone else?  Isn’t that how we get from Octavia Butler to David Horowitz, for Christssake?  Or from Randall Robinson to the view that “a child of recent African immigrants who suffers inequality in a racist society is [not] as worthy of redistributed wealth as the descendents of slaves would be”? 

Having read Robinson’s work and spoken with him and heard him speak at various engagements, I can safely say that he doesn’t imagine that black Americans are the only victims of economic iunequality.  For crying out loud, Robinson founded the TransAfrican Forum to change American policies toward Africa and the Caribbean.  Now, someone might say, “Well, he’s still fixated on black folks.  Why not try to make American foreign policy more progressive in general?”

Here’s the problem I see with Benn Michaels’ universalist claims about inequality or injustice in general.  They are “formally equal,” but not equal in fact.  It’s like the immigration policy: every country gets the same number of immigrants to America, so everyone’s equal, right?  But of course, Lichtenstein’s quota is then the same as, say, Haiti.  And America has a special historical relationship with Haiti (and other African/Diasporic nations).  So we can say that Robinson’s focus on victims of African imperialism, underdevelopment, and slavery is attentive to historical differences in the causes and forms of injustice. 

This is very much about the “hearts and minds” of American citizens.  America is still deeply racist, but increasingly Americans respond to “the race card.” To tie certain forms of present-day injustice to the history of slavery and imperialism is in effect to argue, “You don’t have to hate capitalism to criticize the poverty of some black folks.  You simply have to hate slavery.” Again, this goes back to WBM’s failure to provide any *reason* why a worker is an inherently victimized person.  For Marx, there’s an objective reason why someone who makes $17,500 a year is exploited, even if that person doesn’t “feel” exploited (i.e., me).  A good capitalist, of course, does not see different wages as an injustice.  So to say, Sean, as you do, that “I think he makes it pretty clear that we should care about inequality because it’s unjust,” is a problem, because without something like Marxism, we can’t go from quantitative inequality to injustice.  Without Marx’s narrative, WBM has no way of defining where and when injustice is taking place—beyond extreme forms of poverty, perhaps.  That Robinson provides such a narrative is important—even if that narrative is (like Marx’s) logically flawed. 

But back to Jim Crow.  So it’s a harsh example?  But isn’t that how WBM himself argues?  He takes homologous logics and maps them onto each other.  Are you a liberal pluralist without a racist bone in your body?  Too bad, because you share the logic of the KKK.  The larger point, though, is this: WBM uses class to trump any politics founded on any other basis, especially forms of “strategic essentialism.” This is, in fact, a zero sum game, and I think WBM is wrong for playing it. 

The reason why I’m cagey about WBM as cynic is that at a certain level, I don’t quite understand what you mean by it, Sean.  Do I think WBM opposed poverty?  Sure.  Do I think WBM enjoys pissing off other college professors?  Sure.  Do I think that pissing off college professors is not necessarily the best way to stop economic injustice?  Sure.  Do I think there’s a *professional* reason why WBM attacks writers and thinkers with the best of intentions instead of aiming his polemics squarely at the perpetuators of economic injustice?  Sure.  So, do I think WBM’s professional and political goals are in conflict?  Sure.  Is that “cynical”?  I dunno.  I use that word to describe Pavement, not lit critics.

And then you write that WBM has never espoused the shifting of affirmative action in college admissions from race to class.  But Amardeep Singh, of, uh, The Valve, writes: “Walter Benn Michaels has a new piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine.  The gist of the article is as follows: America’s elite universities have been falling all over themselves to achieve ethnic diversity, but they have shown almost no interest in admitting large numbers of students who come from economically average or below-average backgrounds” (Monday, April 12, 2004).  Or, as WBM himself says, “In the end, we like policies like affirmative action not so much because they solve the problem of racism but because they tell us that racism is the problem we need to solve. And the reason we like the problem of racism is that solving it just requires us to give up our prejudices, whereas solving the problem of economic inequality might require something more—it might require us to give up our money.”

So, perhaps I distorted WBM’s argument: does he in fact support any affirmative action, even on the basis of class rather than race?  Well, it’s unclear.  He conflates affirmative action with solving “the problem of racism,” which of course is silly.  Admissions policies aren’t about solving racism or giving up prejudices—their goal is to lessen the effect of already existing racism and making prejudices irrelelvant.  So WBM shifts attention from Race (writ large) to Class (writ large), and the reader of his article has no idea what exactly he stands *for*.  Here are the options:
(a) End affirmative action based on racein college admissions
(b) Solve the world-historical problem of economic injustice.
I don’t think in this instance I have attributed to WBM a view he doesn’t have.  Again, we see the zero sum game (as if solving racial injustice and solving economic injustice can’t go hand in hand); again, we see that a local, limited solution to a problem is tossed out in the name of some millenia-long War Against Economic Injustice.  Why not have partial solutions for now *AS WELL AS* long-term, universal goals?

And I jump around because I’m responding to posts, not writing essays.

By on 11/04/05 at 09:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, you might want to read this interview with WBM if you haven’t already.  I think that it makes his politics fairly clear (note that he carefully distinguishes his personal politics from political ideas that may appear in his work).

A representative quote:
“whereas the commitment to difference that dominates certain postmodern or historicist discourses, that commitment is real and is bad. It’s bad in two ways. One is it’s just theoretically confused. The other is it’s politically bad. It makes you think everything in the world is organized around identity groups, however constructed (socially or anti-essentially or whatever), and thus that the crucial thing to do is to respect them. Whereas the whole point about class differences was to get rid of them. Race-gender-class is a false trilogy. Race and class or culture and class don’t work the same way. One reason is that class is not something we think of as worthy of our respect, whereas the whole point of cultural difference is that you’re supposed to respect it.”

He’s arguing against this kind of respect for cultural difference, not for or against any particular political program such as affirmative action.  One may imply the other, but that does not make them equivalent.

Of course he also points out that some people have started to “respect” class difference as a kind of identity as well, with concomitant ideas that redistribution that brings people out of poverty is not good because it infringes on a form of cultural identity.

So when you say that he “shifts attention from Race (writ large) to Class (writ large)”, I think that you’re wrong.  As far as I can tell, he’s in favor of redistribution from rich people to poor people, but this does not imply a politics of class.  Individual poor people should get resources from society because they are poor, not because they are members of a social class.

I really don’t know his personal politics, but remember that liberal politics is fundamentally concerned with maximizing freedom, not minimizing inequality.  It is perfectly possible to carry out a program of redistribution under liberal politics—first, your freedom (your actual ability to do things) is limited by your wealth, and second, the marginal value of another dollar is much greater for a poor person than a rich person, so that overall freedom can be increased by redistributing it.  So redistributive politics does not imply identity politics.  You can argue about which politics would be better at actually getting things done, but that practical level isn’t really what WBM seems to be concerned with.

By on 11/04/05 at 11:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, one of the problems is that I don’t accept Benn Michaels’ wholesale generalizations such as “the whole point of cultural difference is that you’re supposed to respect it.” For many scholars who attend to racial or cross-cultural politics, the “whole point” is not simply “respect” or “tolerance.” (WBM is always talking about tolerance when he uses the term “respect,” and these are two very different terms.)

And Rich, Benn Michaels *has*, in his *NYT* article, argued explicitly against racial preferences in college admission.  So don’t tell me that he’s only arguing against “respect” and not against particular political programs.

And when WBM writes about people beginning to “respect” even class differences, he’s totally conflating—perhaps along with those he’s criticizing—status, class, and culture.  A great example of this comes at the conclusion of *Portnoy’s Complaint*, when the Israeli Amazon, Naomi, tells Portnoy that his humor isn’t Jewish humor but rather ghetto humor.  The issue critics have isn’t that class differences are being lost, but that in America, economic success ALSO means forced cultural assimilation—a certain kind of WASP groupthink.  But WBM writes that we shouldn’t mourn the loss of cultures or languages, so I suppose it would be fine if everyone looks and sounds like Tad at the Kountry Klub. 

Let’s take an actual example.  Say, Ishmael Reed’s multiculturalism.  There’s someone who definitely “respects difference.” But somehow, he can also make strong judgments too: about the distortions in black feminist writing, about the positive aspects of African patriarchy, about the soul-deadening aspects of white and black culture.  Yet, at the same time, he’s not so foolish as to believe that one must always hold one way up as the only way.  That’s part of WBM’s odd binary thinking: either you respect cultural difference and make no truth judgments, or you hold one set of beliefs and practices above all others.  Reed’s pluralism simply implies that the social universe is too complex to limit ourselves to one set of strategies. 

Rich goes on to say that, for Benn Michaels, “poor people should get resources from society because they are poor, not because they are members of a social class.” But isn’t that simply hiding one’s assumptions?  A true capitalist will think that poor people don’t deserve anything just for being poor.  Being poor is a sign of not working hard enough.  It also begs the question of how poor is too poor.  And don’t you see that getting rid of an actually existing program, such as affirmative action, that attempts to help actual victims of injustice, in the name of a vague ideal of “economic redistribution” is ridiculous?  It’s like saying, “Education has some problems.  I dream of perfect education.  So let’s just stop all schooling until we get it perfect.”

And Rich, liberal politics is about maximizing one’s *political* freedom, not one’s freedom in the metaphysical sense.  Just because I’m too poor to buy every book I’d like to buy doesn’t mean that I’m less free.  Again, we’re dealing with vague ideals.  We also confront the issue of reform versus revolution, a Pandora’s Box that WBM opens up without even recognizing it. 

So I can’t take his critique of identity politics entirely seriously because he has no real political vision to offer us in return.  His critique has its valuable aspects, but Benn Michaels isn’t the first critic of bullshit PC tolerance or reverse racism.  The acceptance of affirmative action admissions policy may very well have something to do with our desire to ignore class.  Or it may suggest that Americans have begun to see victims of racial injustices as innocents, while they follow the capitalist line and see poor people not as victims but as people not willing to work and save hard enough.  So sure, attention to class is important, but simply saying “attend to class over race” is not enough.  Why doesn’t Benn Michaels spend his time actually proving to Americans that economic differences are wrong and offering solutions on how to fix them?  Because I don’t think it’s the fault of identity politics that Americans aren’t actively redistributing wages.  For Chrissake, we can’t even get healthcare.  We can’t even change the racist immigration policies.  And to turn the conversation strictly to economic difference and away from race or gender is to ignore the actually existing conditions of injustice.  Take a poor white boy and a poor black boy and give each a trust fund to redistribute wealth.  This still doesn’t change the fact the black boy is going to face a vast set of racial hurdles his entire life, especially if he doesn’t decide to look and sound like Tad at the Kountry Klub.

By on 11/04/05 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A side note about liberal politics—Luther: “And Rich, liberal politics is about maximizing one’s *political* freedom, not one’s freedom in the metaphysical sense.  Just because I’m too poor to buy every book I’d like to buy doesn’t mean that I’m less free.”

There is nothing metaphysical about buying books, they are physical objects.  You are certainly more free if you would like to buy books and you can actually do so than if you’d like to buy books and you can’t.  Of course wealth isn’t the *only* enabler of individual freedom, but it’s a part of it.

If the word “liberal” is to have any historically consistent meaning, then it can’t be taken to involve a narrow conception of political freedom than does not involve economics.  The US-liberal concern with progressive taxation, the welfare state, minimum wage laws, and so on would be inexplicable otherwise.  A concern with positive liberty goes back to J.S. Mill.  And the “true capitalist” bit is a stereotype; almost every liberal is more or less supportive of a mixed system that includes both capitalism and some form of redistribution, and it’s right-wing propaganda that this defines them as untrue capitalists.

As for WBM, I reiterate that he doesn’t seem to see it as his role to provide a positive political program.  You may disagree with this, but I don’t think that it’s central to his work as an academic.  I do think that the repetition of “Tad at the Kountry Klub” as a horror-phrase tends to support his point.  It prioritizes your ideal of cultural authenticity and implicitly says that it’s better for people to remain poor than to sound like Tad.

By on 11/04/05 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, perhaps “metaphysical” wasn’t the best word.  But there’s a difference between positive and negative *political* freedom and freedom in some general, abstract sense of the word. 

And the “true capitalist” bit isn’t some scare tactic.  I get plenty of essays that articulate just that viewpoint from my undergrads.  Of course, it’s not a “liberal” point of view.  But it’s not liberals that we have to convince here, is it?  To change class dynamics democratically, we have to convince non-liberals that poor people are victims.  (I wasn’t using “true capitalists” to distinguish them from “fake capitalists”—I simply meant “full-on” or “hard-core” capitalists.)

Finally, about having a positive political program: isn’t that exactly why some people are called cynical?  Because they criticize without having anything of value to offer? 

To say “affirmative action is conceptually misguided because it excludes poor whites” is fine and good.  It’s true.  But without having a better idea, the critique plays into the hands of conservatives (who, in fact, have been saying the same thing about Randall Robinson as WBM for a long time as a way of discrediting him as some Afro-Centric ideologue).  I’m not *equating* WBM with conservatives.  I’m just worrying the political strategy here.  Because when you’re talking politics—and WBM is talking politics—you’re no longer talking about logic.  You’re talking about strategy, effects, means and end, etc. 

And the repeated joke about Tad is an important point: how one talks and dresses affects one’s hiring and college admissions.  That this is both class AND race based is undeniable.  I’m not saying it’s “bad” to sound like Tad—I’m saying it’s bad that people are forced to act and think and talk and dress and generally BE a certain way in order to succeed in a world controlled by people who act and think and talk and dress and generally ARE in a certain way.

By on 11/04/05 at 07:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But isn’t that how Benn Michaels reads everyone else?

Actually, no, it isn’t.  The resemblance you think you see is a superficial one and based mainly, it seems, on the fact that both examples are pointedly critical.  But there is a difference between pointed, but accurate criticism and mudslinging.

How can you tell the difference?  Well, here would be one example.  Nothing Michaels says about Robinson, for example, is inconsistent with what Robinson himself has said.  Much of it is simply direct quotation.  And none of it has drawn from you the charge that Michaels’s account of Robinson’s reasoning is inaccurate--only that it’s insufficiently admiring.  In fact, you stipulate that Michaels’s account is accurate.

Your accounts of Michaels, by contrast, are inaccurate.  In suggesting that he would not object to Jim Crow, e.g., you conflate apples and oranges.  The problem with your argument isn’t that it’s harsh; it’s that it relies on a false analogy.

In general, apart from your rhetoric being all over the place and over the top, your reasoning and quotation here just isn’t very careful. In your quotation from Amardeep, for example, you first attribute a position to me that I don’t think I’ve taken.  (I said you invented a position for Michaels that he wouldn’t hold.  That position was that switching from race- to class-based affirmative action would solve all problems--a restatement of your earlier remark attributing to Michaels a preference for “admitting a few more poor people to college to train them to exploit poor people.") You then go on to criticize that position in this passage: 

But Amardeep Singh, of, uh, The Valve, writes: “Walter Benn Michaels has a new piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine.  The gist of the article is as follows: America’s elite universities have been falling all over themselves to achieve ethnic diversity, but they have shown almost no interest in admitting large numbers of students who come from economically average or below-average backgrounds” (Monday, April 12, 2004).  Or, as WBM himself says, “In the end, we like policies like affirmative action not so much because they solve the problem of racism but because they tell us that racism is the problem we need to solve. And the reason we like the problem of racism is that solving it just requires us to give up our prejudices, whereas solving the problem of economic inequality might require something more—it might require us to give up our money.”

Note that this passage simply does not say what you accuse Michaels of endorsing (a complacent willingness to accept the panacea of class-based affirmative action).  It merely says what Michaels says everywhere.  That Americans haven’t even considered such possibilities because of their distaste for redistribution. 

Similar problems are evident when you completely miss Rich’s point about the difference between arguments over political principles and those over policies.  If you think about it for a second, the difference shouldn’t be so tough to see, and, as Rich notes, Michaels is clearly engaged with the former.  Yes, Michaels does mention some policies as examples, as people always do when they talk about principles.  But what the most effective means to pursue his goals would be is obviously not his main concern.  Nor must it be for him to have a point.  There’s nothing wrong with talking about desiderata, principles, etc. and leaving policy tools aside--especially if you believe, as Michaels does, that political discussion in the U.S. suffers from basic confusion and from some persistently maintained blind spots. 

I think your remarks about cynicism are, frankly, disingenuous.  You now make your point clear by saying that Michaels’s political and professional goals are in conflict--i.e., that he’s narrowly pursuing his personal interest at the expense of admirable goals for social reform he pretends to espouse.  All fudging aside--if, as I think you do, you join that charge to the implication that Michaels does this knowingly or with culpable negligence--you’re accusing him of cynicism.  Without serious evidence, it’s an unworthy charge and an ugly one to be fiddle-faddling about, especially from someone who doesn’t like his good faith being questioned.

It also fits rather poorly with your claim that Michaels is opening a pandora’s box or that he’s playing into the hands of the right. If this is, as it seems, what all your windy objections come down to, what you’re saying is that some topics are just taboo even if they might well be worth considering.  Apart from being anti-intellectual and a cheap shot, that’s a recipe for political irrelevance.

By on 11/07/05 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, here’s the bottom line.  WBM wants us to abandon identity and pay attention to class.  This isn’t original; Jameson makes much the same argument against postmodernism.  And I agree with him that “tolerance” is not a political replacement for class politics.  The question that lingers for me is: why does WBM seem to demonize *any* attention to race?  Why align Octavia Butler with David Horowitz?  Why turn Toni Morrison’s *Beloved* into a perpetuation of blood-based racism?  Such moments are distortions of these writers’ work.  Likewise, sure Benn Michaels *quotes* Robinson accurately, yes, but selectively.  Robinson’s work on reparations is never tied to his larger attention to Third World poverty, for example, which gives the lie to Benn Michaels’ claim that Robinson simply supports black Americans as black over the poor qua poor.  And sure, WBM could then object that Robinson shouldn’t limit himself to Third World or black poverty, but to all poverty.  But it’s clear from Robinson’s work that he *does* fight again all poverty, but that he sees his particular strategic strengths in Third World and black American struggles.  Any time one descends from universal principles to active engagement in practical politics, one is going to seem selective, exclusive, and so on.  By attending to the letter and not the spirit of Robinson’s texts (and his texts are merely one small portion of the man’s life work), WBM distorts Robinson into some sort of racist.

And yes, Benn Michaels does often argue by teasing out hidden implications and structural similarities between politically opposed texts.  Which often seems to be a version of guilt by association.  I offer once again his misreading of Butler’s *Kindred* and his attempt to line Butler up with David Horowitz. 

I admit that I got WBM’s argument about college admissions wrong, in part because—as he often does—Benn Michaels leaps from policy to principle without acknowledging any tension between, say, theory and practice, utopian and “realist” perspectives, etc.  The *logical* conclusion to his essay would be: race-based admissions doesn’t solve the problem it purports to solve, while class-based admissions would better align means and end.  But instead, Benn Michaels asks us to see one phenomenon—race-based admissions—as sufficient evidence of America’s desire not to attend to class or redistribute wealth.  So we’re asked to abandon race-based admissions, but only asked to change our *beliefs* and not our actual practices.  That conservatives make the same objection to race-based admissions should give us pause at this step, because it’s quite easy for conservatives to appeal to working class *beliefs* about class while never offering specific practices that will help the working class.  No group is more class-centered than Republicans when it comes to the academy: professors are rich elitists out of line with most American values; professors want to help bourgie black kids more than honest, hard working poor white kids (or middle class white kids); and so on.  I see WBM as unwittingly mimicking this strategy.  Republicans too claim “working class principles.”

The easy reply is that WBM does allude to the redistribution of wealth.  So fine, we can at least align his principles with the Left (whoop dee doo).  My question then is: in what universe are race-based admissions policies at a few elite universities stopping politicians and activists from demanding such redistribution?  WBM sees the former as a *symptom* of American’s larger desire *not* to redistribute wealth.  But it’s at that point that WBM’s rhetorical strategies make no sense to me.  Of all the symptoms of America’s desire to avoid confronting class, progressive race policies seem an odd choice of focus.  Why not criticize the corporatization of the academy?  Why not criticize the way universities are buying up land in poor neighborhoods and displacing the residents?  Why not out Democratic leaders as ignorant of class?  Why demonize affirmative action?

Demonizing affirmative action without offering a practical and progressive alternative is playing into the hands of conservatives.  That’s not anti-intellectual at all.  It’s simply an observation about WBM’s rhetorical strategy.  That I’m demanding *more* intellectual labor from such critics should be a sign that I’m not being anti-intellectual here.  Affirmative action is not a taboo subject at all; it should and will be criticized.  My question is whether affirmative action really is a symptom of our inability to confront class, or whether it is one small, practical step toward confronting the twin effects of racism and capitalism.

By on 11/08/05 at 02:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I don’t pretend to know much about WBM, but from the little I’ve read, I still think that your description of him as saying that we should “pay attention to class” is wrong.  I would think that he is saying that we should pay attention to poverty.  Without understanding why this distinction is important, I don’t think you can understand what WBM is writing.

I also think that it isn’t right to say that because he “allude[s] to the redistribution of wealth” that therefore “we can at least align his principles with the Left”.  US-liberalism generally favors redistribution, but it is not the Left.  It’s strange to say so at the same time as leftists condemn liberalism for all that is wrong in the world.  I don’t know what WBM’s personal politics are, but I’d guess that the principles in his work are mostly liberal.

By on 11/08/05 at 02:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One meaningful role of a critic is to identify confusion where he sees it, to challenge obfuscation, to seek to identify premises, to clarify thinking, etc.  To ask whether this will play into the hands of bad guys is, yes, anti-intellectual and a recipe for political irrelevance.  Asking someone to prove that they are not really on the side of the bad guys (demanding more intellectual labor) because they raise politically sensitive topics is not evidence of the avoidance of anti-intellectualism, but confirmation of it. 

It is itself an important premise of the whole endeavor of criticism that it can serve a meaningful purpose, even if its immediate policy outcomes are not apparent.  It’s likewise an important premise that ideas are seperable from people. That Robinson is a good person wouldn’t necessarily mean that some of his ideas weren’t worthy of challenge or might not be inconsistent with other things he says or does. 

Michaels’s reasons for criticizing respect are clearly stated.  He believes it depends on faulty and ultimately racialist reasoning and that it operates as an alibi that assuages political tension and bad conscience and is in this way arguably part of the obstruction (though, of course not necessarily the entire or even the most important one) to better policies. 

Maybe the practical end of this argument (that respect is an obstruction) is wrong.  It’s a question worth considering, but to consider it would probably require abandoning the for-chrissakes and whoop-de-dos.  Most times we don’t require people to have an account of the entire political universe before they identify a problem worthy of attention.  Even if it’s practically not consequential, though, it’s perfectly reasonable to engage in criticism, and if you mean to take it seriously, you read it carefully.

By on 11/08/05 at 07:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, you may well be right about WBM and poverty.  But then I still ask: in what universe is it Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Randall Robinson, and race-based college admission policies that keep Americans from attending to the horror of poverty?  As I wrote already, it’s WBM’s rhetorical strategies that I don’t understand.  Is he saying that Left cultural work is symptomatic of certain problem ways of thinking?  And that those ways of thinking are shared by the voting public and our political leaders, who then are happy to substitute, say, affirmative action for redistribution of wealth?  I’m not sure.  But aren’t those the steps of the argument that are being left out? --such that the implications of his work seems to be that the *real* problem is with people like Randall Robinson and not, say, the Democrats who have abandoned most of their redistributive policies in order to be more populist and centrist? 

Regarding Robinson, Sean, I’m not saying, “Robinson’s a good guy, so let him off the hook.” I’m saying that selective quoting can make him seem racialist when other things he’s written and done would give the lie to that.  It comes down to the necessary inconsistency of political strategies versus the possible but not necessarily effective consistency of political principles.  Which is to say, if poverty in America could be ended by convincing folks that the Flying Spaghetti Monster would be much angered by our lack of compassion, I’d say, go for it.  Even if the logic is muddled, crazy, dope, stoopid, or freaky fresh. 

And as I’ve written before, I agree with WBM on “respect” (or again, I insist he’s really talking about “tolerance,” while “respect” has positive connotations to what Hegel called “recognition").  I just think that, for example, Toni Morrison’s work is clearly not respectful of something called “black culture,” that she is quite clear on the issue of what’s tonic and what’s toxic in historically black cultural beliefs and practices.  From *The Bluest Eye* and *Sula* to her most recent *Love*, Morrison isn’t talking about tolerance.  She’s talking about order and chaos, infantile and adult behavior, male authority and the women who love it, and the ways that families and communities repeat the destructive patterns of their pasts and perpetuate scapegoating.  At times *Sula* seems to imply that the community’s very tolerance of Sula’s “evil” is what gives them their false sense of security and identity.  While *Paradise* would suggest that grudging tolerance leads to bursts of scapegoating violence.  At the interpersonal level, Morrison is talking about peaceful coexistence in a world where people kill other people because they are different.  She’s not talking about cultural relativism, or PC sensitivity, or tolerance.  This is perhaps the difference between Hegelian recognition and the sort of tolerance that WBM rightly criticizes. 

Finally, I’m not asking for Michaels to articulate an account of the entire political universe before criticizing a problem.  At a basic level, I’m asking him to be up front and clear about his political assumptions.  The fact that you argue that he’s basically a Marxist and Rich is convinced that he’s a mild liberal suggests that WBM isn’t too clear on this.  Compare his work to Jameson, who also criticized materiality, the death of interpretation, the replacement of identity for class, the lack of historical sensibilities and so on way back in his 1984 essay on postmodernism.  At every point in Jameson’s critique, he is up front about the position *from which* he is criticizing.  Jameson’s critique of postmodernism could still be used by the bad guys, but not for lack of trying to position his critique from a clear set of goals, principles, and politics. 

(And I apologize for my fer-Chrissakes and whoop-dee-doos.  Such rhetoric has no place in civil debate.  But feel free to continue to accuse me of criticizing a “figment of my imagination.” As if I were a child.  That’s the very height of civility.  Didn’t a well-respected philosopher once argue that in any debate, we should always assume that our interlocutors are crazy, willfully obtuse, and childish?)

By on 11/08/05 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is he saying that Left cultural work is symptomatic of certain problem ways of thinking?  And that those ways of thinking are shared by the voting public and our political leaders, who then are happy to substitute, say, affirmative action for redistribution of wealth?

Let me use your own word: “Duh.”

By on 11/08/05 at 12:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re just being a dick now, Sean.  Yet again, you dish incivility but get pissy about others’ becoming incivil.  Your doting, overprotective, wolf-mother tone when it comes to Benn Michaels is, I realize, what gets my goat, moreso than Benn Michaels’ actual ideas.  WBM’s ideas are fine, I suppose, not particularly original, full of purposely sensational rhetorical strategies that obscure the rather limited scope of his arguments, but it’s his (and your) rhetoric that bugs me.  I suppose you like the idea of getting rid of “respect” so that you can “duh” people and, essentially, call them “retards.” (I don’t recall “duh"-ing anyone; it’s not a term I’ve used much since the 6th grade.  I did “whoop-dee-doo” my *own* point, because I was admitting that my own point was stupid.  But “Duh”?  I’d appreciate it if you showed me where I used the word.  Maybe I did!  Who knows!)

Secondly, you say “duh” as if it’s obvious, but Benn Michaels has an amazing ability to discuss politics without, well, discussing politics.  He writes about novels.  Some poets.  And that’s giving him a lot of credit, because he tends to write about a few sentences from any given novel. 

But notice how he never actually mentions “the voting public and our political leaders, who then are happy to substitute, say, affirmative action for redistribution of wealth.” He moves from literary works to vague political principles, without ever engaging the real work of politics.  Again, it’s the strategy that I’m realizing bugs me. 

Sean, notice a double standard here?  You fawn over Benn Michaels, but criticize *novelists* for not writing “properly” about politics.  That’s right: the guy who purports to write about politics is allowed to write about fiction, while the guys writing fiction are supposed to represent politics in terms of parties, leaders, movements, etc.  Why is it all right for Benn Michaels to play at writing about politics while rarely actually addressing real political action or ideas?  Even when he discusses a real political figure—like Randall Robinson—notice how he removes the text from the larger political work: the speeches, the fundraising, the organizations, etc.

But that’s right: when DeLillo does it, he’s a douche bag.  But Benn Michaels is Gawd.  I really need to go back to school and learn how to be a disciple.  I’m just a moron though, me and Eric Lott and Fredric Jameson and the other scholars who suspect WBM’s methods.

By on 11/08/05 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s Jodi’s take, over in the comments section of Long Sunday.  I think she gets at what’s bugging me:

“I don’t get it. I read the article. Ok. The Ivy league is a vehicle for class privilege that pretends to be a vehicle for meritocracy. This is not surprising. Diversity talk today functions in the ideological service of neoliberalism. Also not news (can anybody say cultural logic of late capitalism?). So, where’s the beef?

It must be in how the article fits in a certain context, namely, it serves right wing attacks on the academy, affirmative action, college sex, and it serves left critics of elitism, capitalism, etc. Each side can happily say, we knew it all along-even as they continue to miss each other. Nice piece of ideological writing (as a contributor to a book I coedited once said about Hardt and Negri: good to eat, but not good to think).”

By on 11/08/05 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You know what?  I want to apologize to Sean for the above.  Namecalling is lame, and I was lame.  This argument has become pointless, and I should be teaching or writing a dissertation, not worrying about Walter Benn Michaels or Sean McCann or The Valve.  The people who get jobs are those who focus on their own work and their own concerns, not those who get embroiled in blog debates.  I hate what I’ve become!  Woe is me! 

So long, folks!  It’s been fun. 

LB over and out.

By on 11/08/05 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The word “Duh” was used by you in your first comment, LB.  This would be where the uncivil tone was established:

In Benn Michaels’ work, it’s never clear how politics *should* work, because WBM only ever tells us how identity politics are how politics *should not* work.  Duh.

By on 11/08/05 at 03:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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