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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Two Are Not One

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/09/06 at 10:36 PM

[Inspired by arguments absent from this civil exchange.]

In “The End of the Poststructuralist Era,” from Follies of the Wise, Frederick Crews charts the hasty marriage and slow estrangement of poststructuralist thought and New Left activism.  His argument, and its implications, may surprise you.

You see, the Yale School of deconstruction’s “manifest aim was ... to bring a spirit of erudite whimsy into the discussion of familiar [canonical] books, which would be rendered only more endearing by the discovery that their meanings were more multitudinous and undecidable than anyone had yet surmised” (308).  Too true, too true. 

Only, why would the discovery of even “more multitudinous and undecidable” dimensions to canonical literature open up the canon to previously marginalized voices?  Wouldn’t deconstruction have the opposite effect?  Hillis, speaking here in his 1986 presidential address, certainly thought so:

As everyone knows, literary study in the past few years has undergone a sudden, almost universal turn away from theory in the ordinary sense of an orientation toward language as such and has made a corresponding turn toward history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender conditions. (283)

Color me confused.  Here I thought theory necessarily entailed the commitments it so recently acquired.  Here I thought older modes of criticism possessed the retrograde politics.  Here I thought a lot of things a little historical perspective shattered.  Why?  Because the explanations were conceptual. 

Because they’re always conceptual. 

Poststructuralist thought always allies itself with a progressive politics, and poststructuralist thinkers always fold the latter into the former.  The result?  Opposition to poststructuralist thought necessarily entails an opposition to the progressiveness of its immanent politics.  Now I can complain that those politics aren’t immanent, that no textual orientation contains an immanent politics, but I will be shouted down by those who experience as natural their political and theoretical commitments, who cannot disentangle them because, well, because no one can offer a convincing reason that they should.

For the better part of two decades, literary critics have used a poststructuralist theoretical approach to generate a body of progressive thought, so of course the two appear inseparable.  Factor in the overwhelming number of conservative critics who fancy themselves poststructuralists, then think about it:

If everyone who does what they do shares the same politics, and everyone who doesn’t, doesn’t, why would they question a connection that feels so natural to them?  They have no reason to. 

So they haven’t.  I have, but from the wrong direction.  I started in the ‘70s moving forward, from the moment when the former radicals gained purchase in the discipline.  All this time, I should have been looking at it from the other direction, from the ‘80s moving backwards.  To point out, as Hillis does above, that “theory in the ordinary sense” existed independently of the commitments it eventually acquired.

Conceptual arguments be damned, I say, I have history.  The two are not one, not naturally.  They may be one of this lot, but more than likely not.  Just a simple couple whose marriage, while productive, is neither permanent nor necessary.


Comments

This being, as I hope is obvious, a criticism of neither, only of the connection frequently made between them and the implications thereof.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/09/06 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Boy are you ever putting a lot of weight on that speech of Hillis’s.

By CR on 07/10/06 at 12:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, he did deliver it before the assembled body of the MLA, so I assume he wasn’t just making it up as he went along.  But, to play my hand, I’ve spent the evening reading through some of the old deconstructive criticism, attempting to see if the tensions Hillis mentions existed...and so far, it’s all go. 

That said, I’m not sure what the larger implications of my argument are, other than to deny you people a handy rhetorical saber.  Another way to put this is that I’ve never found (nor found reason to find) my leftists politics consonant with my textual orientation, but I’m trying to imagine--nay, sympathetically identify--with those who have.  This isn’t a “gotcha” moment, just an attempt to appraise, historically, a particular cultural moment which has lodged itself in our collective conceptual craw.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/10/06 at 12:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jameson: Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971) and The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (1972).

But somehow, I don’t think that’s going to count for you. Benjamin never does, why should Jameson?

By CR on 07/10/06 at 01:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not quite sure what you mean, since if there’s anyone I’m a fan of, it’s Benjamin.  He’s the one I read for pleasure, the inspiration for my only major conference presentation, and (relatedly) the would-be inspiration for my only published paper, were it to be published.  So, um, I must admit to being perplexed.  Every time I type the word “constellation” I’m invoking Benjamin.  One member of my committee--obvious to those who’ve read his stuff, but if you haven’t, drop me line, I’ll break the code--thinks Benjamin nailed it and we’ve all slacked...and that’s why I work with him. 

So, sorry, but I’m not going to buy that particular line.  Benjamin is my lodestone too, so if you’re you want to draw an equal sign ‘tween him and Jameson, I’ll have to demand a little explanation.

The thing is, crap, I’ll say this terribly tonight, but I’ll substantiate it in the morning: for Benjamin, stuff matttered.  For him, it was life or death, so he considered his position with a gravity I can’t deny, even if I find his argument lacking.  (Which I don’t.) But Jameson, well, he’s obviously brilliant.  And I don’t mean that backhandedly, either.  I’ve had two conversations with him, and I can say, honestly, that whatever I think of his work, the man can hold his own, and convincingly, and welcomes debate.  I have the utmost respect for him.  That said, I still don’t buy his notion of the political unconscious.

Nor do I get what you’re aiming at.  Would you like me to upload the seven essays I’ve written on The Arcades Project?  Because I will, if this turns into one o’ them contests. 

Not that I think it will.  The nice thing about prolonged philsophical differences is that statements of consent breed “Huh?” and “What?” and “Uminamina?” I can live with that, as I’m sure you can too.  (If you want to turn this into Who Loves Benjamin More and FOX agrees to broadcast it, let me be clear from the get-go, I’m all for it,)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/10/06 at 01:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And actually, let me just cut to the chase.

You’re absolutely right that no one should take for granted that “doing theory” is in itself political effective, leftist, whatever. No doubt - and no doubt there are many who are confused about this.

But on the other hand, I think you people (you said it first) need to figure something out. Are you a) saying that there is no possible political use-value for literary studies or b) saying that there is or might be one, but “theory” as practiced is not it.

This is an important question, no? If your answer is (a), then there’s really no use in us having the discussion, as I think there is, or might be, even if work needs to be done to figure out the shape that it should take.

(Actually, I think the question that B Benzon is asking in his most recent post might lead us in the right direction, but that’s just me and stuff I’ve been thinking about lately...)

If the answer is (b), critique of the old order is fine, but much much more useful would be some hint as to a new way of doing things.

By CR on 07/10/06 at 01:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott!!! Calm down!!!!

All I meant was that, hey, Jameson is an example of historically-politically-engaged theoretical writing from before 1986. Not “ordinary theory,” per HM’s description.

When we talk about theory on here, we always seem to talk as if deconstruction is the only game in town…

(the last one was crossposted… jumped in line...)

By CR on 07/10/06 at 01:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure I’m picking up on the implications of this.  Isn’t it common knowledge that the Yale School turned into defenders of art in the face of the race-class-gender folks?  Hartman, Miller, Bloom, all of em have written some form of the “great art needs to be respected” book.  Miller’s *On Literature* (and *Black Holes*, perhaps, which proclaims its interest in “literary study"); Hartman’s *The Fate of Reading* and the defense of art as bulwark against inauthenticity in *Scars of the Spirit*.

What gives Miller away is his definition of theory: “theory in the ordinary sense of an orientation toward language as such.” This isn’t what Holbo calls “Theory” insofar as the work Miller is alluding to in ‘86 is no doubt new historical, Foucauldian, and cultural studies-ish stuff.  Holbo’s “Theory” would include, say, Derrida and Raymond Williams, while Miller is restricting “theory” to its Yale School significance: a sort of radical New Criticism. 

Which raises the question: did the race-class-gender-history folks really turn away from Miller’s “theory”?  I don’t see it so much.  Sometime in the mid ‘90s, literary studies returned to Old School Historicism, but much of the politicized work that emerged in the mid-80s wake of deconstruction, from Said to Greenblatt to Catherine Gallagher to Spivak to Bhabha to Houston Baker to Skip Gates to Hortense Spillers remain in dialogue with “theory.”

The other problem, Scott, is that you seem to be equating “opening the canon” with progressive politics.  Todd Gitlin might find himself a bedfellow of Miller in this instance, right?  Miller could still claim that deconstruction is politically progressive even as he works to keep excluded “voices” out of the canon (just as the Old Left found it easy to keep blacks and women and Hispanics and queers out). 

Scott, you’re right that no mode of literary critical thought is necessarily progressive or conservative in its politics.  Just like experimental poetry forms aren’t necessarily progressive (see racism in Williams, anti-Semiticism in Eliot, fascism in Pound.

But my sleeping pill is dragging me down into nonsense and I can’t type more

By on 07/10/06 at 01:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, if the implication is, as you say, that ‘Theory’ and left-wing politics always go together, then mightn’t that be because there are actual consonances between ‘Theory’ and a left-wing political political perpective?  Of course if one’s sense is that ‘Theory’ is nothing more than this randomly accreted ragbag eclecticism thang, higher or not, then that may not seem a very convincing supposition; but a person could argue (not saying that I am, only saying that a person could argue) that the ‘Theoretical approach’ involves, I don’t know, a commitment to unpacking and highlighting the sorts of certainties that Conservatives depend upon as the bedrock of their belief-system (Tradition, God, Masculinity, whatever).

I wonder about about ‘postmodernism’, something taken by some as cognate with Theory of course, whilst not actually being the same thing (although there are interesting consonances between the two things).  This occurs to me partly because I do think Jameson’s postmodern stuff is much better than his political unconscious stuff; but also because you can’t make the argument you make in your post with POMO substituted for the word ‘Theory’.  Lots of leftists hate it, though some leftists love it.

By Adam Roberts on 07/10/06 at 02:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott’s “always” must have been used a bounded sense of the word, i.e., “always in the US during a two-decade period”.

What I see happening is “politics is the personal” and “personal liberation” took over both postmodernism and left politics around 1975. There seems to have ended up being a focus on individual feelings and experience, and nuances of individual identity, which really was a very stunted approach both to politics and to what the OG post-modernists were doing.

The way I read it, Foucault’s History of Sexuality moved “sexuality” away from the core of the self (personality, psyche), meaning that not only of homophobic psychology, but also psychoanalysis itself was called in question, and ultimately “sexual liberation”, since sexuality no longer was at the center of the self.

Foucault may not have read it that way, but if not, I think that his personal kinks had a lot to do with it. When he started talking about “revolutionary new types of eroticism” etc., it seemed to that he was just reinfecting with the same old same old.

By John Emerson on 07/10/06 at 05:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

P.S. When I grumble about Theory and postmodernist orthodoxy, I am laughed at and told that no such thing exists and that “that is SO Nineties”. Same for neoclassical economics. Same for analytic philosophy.  (No hyperbole, these are actual things people have said.)

It seems that once a paradigm become dominant, it ceases to exist, since all contrasting paradigms simply become methodological unpersons, and the analytic paradigm, for example, becomes “philosophy itself”, and neoclassical economics becomes “economics itself”.

Successful paradigms do proliferate and develop factions—their unity lies in whatever it is that they exclude and forbid.

By John Emerson on 07/10/06 at 05:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Holbo’s “Theory” would include, say, Derrida and Raymond Williams, while Miller is restricting “theory” to its Yale School significance: a sort of radical New Criticism.

In that speech Miller was explicitly lamently the waning of deconstruction which for him, I assume, represented the vanguard of “ an orientation toward language as such.”

Back in the Theory’s Empire event Tim Burke had a interesting (and Holbonic) post at his site where he and I discussed this in the comments. I said:

Roughly speaking, High Theory penetrated the enemy’s perimeter and all these other armies came in through the breach. Why, because they were there, ready and waiting, and they wanted in. French Theory may have initially been used in English Departments to dethrone the New Criticism, but it was a short step from saying “we need to talk about texts in a new way” to saying “we need to scrap the canon and listen to other voices.” Theory was appropriated to provide a rationale for Other Stuff.

He said:

Yeah, I think the historical backdrop is a crucial part of the story. Another piece of it I’d add is that the institutionalization of identity politics in the academy (and other institutions) was accomplished separately at first from the rise of high theory, and was much more about a response to that historical backdrop. In many ways, I think identity politics was the real empire-builder here, and to some extent seized upon theory rather than than the reverse.

By Bill Benzon on 07/10/06 at 09:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a lot of this that is being treated as specific to literary theory, or even to literary studies or all of the academic humanities, when it really isn’t.  Before getting to something like CR’s “Are you a) saying that there is no possible political use-value for literary studies or b) saying that there is or might be one, but “theory” as practiced is not it.”, you have to ask whether any part of academia really produces much political use-value.  I don’t think that anyone is going to bite on “no possible political use-value” (how would you prove such a thing?), but I’d feel comfortable in asserting that there’s very little, for academia as a whole.

So the political stance taken by some parts of literary studies appears as primarily a pose.  There’s nothing wrong with being a poseur, I guess, but it represents a Mary Sue or Gary Stu-ification of the academy.

By on 07/10/06 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What I also think is that “identity politics” is a personalization of more political types of group politics. For example, someone might write politically about what it’s like to be a gay Latino woman. This is fine, but it doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with the actual politics of gays, women, or Latinos, especially because a lot of the actual politics of people in these particular identity groups overlaps with the politics of people not in these groups, notably class politics or the politics of war and peace.

By John Emerson on 07/10/06 at 11:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I understand that Miller was worried about the death of deconstruction.  But I wanted to imply that it was a particularly Yale version of deconstruction he lamented, a version I like to think of as “radical New Criticism,” as opposed to the deconstructive sensibilities of, say, Cixous, Irigary, or Kristeva.  By defining theory as an literary-critical attitude toward “language as such,” he’s really thinning out what deconstruction meant at that moment to a wide variety of scholars (including Derrida). 

I’m also hearing a lot of ridiculous smack-talk about identity politics around here.  I love the fact that, on a blog that kisses scientism’s ass-cheeks on a regular basis, Valve contributors can complain about something called “identity politics” without citing a scholar or text as evidence.

Identity politics was a lot of things.  But having spent much of my summer in the stacks reading all that culture wars/multiculturalism/idetntity crap of the 80s and 90s, I can safely say that the “identity politics” discussed on The Valve is a paper tiger.  Take a scholar like Linda Martin Alcoff, or even Gloria Anzaldua.  First thing you’ll notice is that these folks were actively engaging Theory, theory, “theory,” “high theory,” and so on.  Many scholars of so-called identity politics thought they were extending the abstract insights of deconstruction and Theory into real social work (note the popularity of Laclau and Mouffe here).  The point of identity politics was to use ethnic and racial identity ideologically, to gather up scattered folks, establish “equivalences” among seemingly disparate groups, and yolk it all together toward various progressive ends.

John Emerson thinks that all you have to do to bring down the identity politics house of cards is point out that some Latinos disagree with other Latinos while agreeing with some German-Americans.  As if the scholars in, say, Latino studies didn’t know this (even as they wrote about the conservative, sometime macho, strains of Latino American life, or the Cuban-American’s support for Republicans).  But to repeat what I just said: identity scholars tried to construct an IDEOLOGY, a worldview, a narrative, that would (a) play on heritage to gather a group under a progressive political tent; and (b) attach this group’s political work to the work of other, similarly gathered groups.  They didn’t assume homogeneity of ethnicity, gender, culture, etc.  They sought to create a sort of unity-in-diversity (even if, at times, these groups became dangerously homogenous and controlling). 

Did some terribly self-centered scholarship come out of this?  Sure.  Was there some race-card playing institutional politics?  Of course.  I don’t ultimately support identity politics, but let’s not pretend that those scholars and activists were morons. 

Was it Davidson who asked all interlocuters in such discussions to go in with the assumption that your opponents aren’t stupid or crazy?  Sounds like good advice to me, and from an analytic type at that!

By on 07/10/06 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It was probably Grice, but screw him.

My specific complaint about identity politics is that it made it possible to feel tremendously political while separating yourself entirely from actual working politics. In the worst case, the identity politics became everything, and the old class / anti-war was relegated to pro forma statements, or not even that.

In the transition I mentioned, around 1975, gay / feminist politics arose in clear opposition to the old (sexist, macho) anti-war / class politics. I saw people basically returning to middleclass normality and the mainstream, but keeping their radical cred with the help of identity politics.

By John Emerson on 07/10/06 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m more interesting in “necessary” marriages, re the last paragraph. Are there many of these? Who, exactly, performs the necessary marriage ceremony? Does it have to be a trained Hegelian? And is there a chapel in Las Vegas where you can get one?

By roger on 07/10/06 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, John, c’mon: half of all people in any political movement are inevitably scenesters, narcs, socialites, wannabes, faux-bes, will-bes, and useta-bes.  But the other half—even in identity politics—were in the tough neighborhoods and on the streets doing good work. 

The Valvesters, esp. Scott and Sean, have criticized the New Left, and I’ve been convinced by much of what they have to say.  But like Benn Michaels, nobody around these parts has mounted an intelligble defense *of* class politics as somehow “better” than identity politics.  They’ve rejected Marxism but haven’t replaced it with any coherent notion of why we need a class politics (or why rampant free capitalism is not the way to go).

By on 07/10/06 at 02:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR:

But on the other hand, I think you people (you said it first) need to figure something out. Are you a) saying that there is no possible political use-value for literary studies or b) saying that there is or might be one, but “theory” as practiced is not it.

Yes, I did say it first, and in sarcastic italics, no less.  As your questions, I’m not saying either there’s no possible political use-value for literary studies, nor that that theory as practiced isn’t it.  What I’m saying is that it’s not immanent, that “doing theory” isn’t inherently political, and conversely--and this, here, is my main point--tht not “doing theory,” or that “criticizing theory,” is thus not inherently conservative.  That’s my main objective, really.

Also, to address (b) again, I’m not sure I need to point a new way, since I don’t believe my scholarship and teaching should have direct political impact.  Obviously, debunking the existence of a shibboleth like social darwinism could have some effect, but I’m satisfied that, if it doesn’t, the rest of my political behavior will more than compensate for its (inevitable, really) irrelevance. 

Luther:

Isn’t it common knowledge that the Yale School turned into defenders of art in the face of the race-class-gender folks?  Hartman, Miller, Bloom, all of em have written some form of the “great art needs to be respected” book.  Miller’s *On Literature* (and *Black Holes*, perhaps, which proclaims its interest in “literary study"); Hartman’s *The Fate of Reading* and the defense of art as bulwark against inauthenticity in *Scars of the Spirit*.

It may be common knowledge, but that doesn’t mean I know it.  I’ve spent the better part of the past year reading back through these old debates on my own time, but I hadn’t hit this particular moment until yesterday.  That’s why, as I said, the perspective working from the ‘70s forward (what I’d been doing) looks so different than the ‘80s backward. 

Which raises the question: did the race-class-gender-history folks really turn away from Miller’s “theory”?  I don’t see it so much.  Sometime in the mid ‘90s, literary studies returned to Old School Historicism, but much of the politicized work that emerged in the mid-80s wake of deconstruction, from Said to Greenblatt to Catherine Gallagher to Spivak to Bhabha to Houston Baker to Skip Gates to Hortense Spillers remain in dialogue with “theory.”

This, I think, is the more important question, and the one I’m starting to look into.  What happened to poststructuralism in the ‘80s?  How did its collision with, broadly speaking, “multiculturalism” or “identitarian studies” alter it?  The reason I’m interested is, simply, that I have no problems with the objects of identitarian studies, only their methodologies.  In short, I have no problem with an inclusive canon.  This may just be my own cultural studies bent, or the fact that I’m not as invested in literary aesthetics as the next fellow, but I have no problem with an expansive canon. 

Scott, you’re right that no mode of literary critical thought is necessarily progressive or conservative in its politics.

To be frank, this is what I’ve aimed for all along, but it’s something that goes unrecognized in the majority of the academy.  (Witness the response to, well, Walter Benn Michaels when he makes that argument.) This idea insinuates itself into every Q & A I’ve attended, be it after a lecture, special lecture, job talk or what-not. 

(Alright, more later, as I’m breaking my promise not to play online until after I’ve done my actual work for the day.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/10/06 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Identity” politics and “class” politics sometimes conflict. Some such conflict may be inevitable, some is unnecessary. This is true in non-progressive realms as well.

Asking for a “coherent notion of why we need a class politics” in a country and world where class warfare is waged relentlessly from the top down is more than a bit like asking for a “coherent notion” of why slaves should wish to not be enslaved.

“Scott, you’re right that no mode of literary critical thought is necessarily progressive or conservative in its politics.”

The above may sound reasonable, until it is recalled that some “mode[s] of literary critical thought” are intentionally “progressive or conservative in [their] politics.”

Surely, from there it is a small step to realize that all modes of literary critical thought can be examined for a wide variety of inherent political elements, effects, tendencies.

By Tony Christini on 07/10/06 at 02:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB: “But like Benn Michaels, nobody around these parts has mounted an intelligble defense *of* class politics as somehow “better” than identity politics.  They’ve rejected Marxism but haven’t replaced it with any coherent notion of why we need a class politics (or why rampant free capitalism is not the way to go).”

People need a politics (by which I mean a plan of political action, and action itself) because of their life situations.  Academics in first world countries don’t need a politics, because the whole setup of academia is designed, rightly, to insulate them from external politics.  The distinction between class-based and identity politics—or even conservative politics—doesn’t really need to be made for the purposes of this point.

Does anyone know of historical exceptions?  Most of them seem to come under the area of student politics/riots, which are a far different phenomenon, at least to me.

One can retort with some version of “everyone has a politics”, which is not quite true in my use of the word politics, but OK.  In that case, I’d say that the interests of academics lead them to some version of procedural liberalism, which they almost inevitably show in their behavior no matter whether they profess to be a Marxist, an identity politics person, a conservative, or whatever.

By on 07/10/06 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually the US is a historical exception, as much as anything, because in plenty of countries it is generally assumed, rightly and accurately, that entire faculties and departments “double,” that is, function, as social activists—in their scholarship and otherwise.

By Tony Christini on 07/10/06 at 04:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I didn’t mean to sound snotty when I wrote that the Yale School’s turn to a sort of deconstructive version of Allan Bloom was common knowledge.  I often forget that what I care about (i.e., a deconstructive version of Allan Bloom) and what others care about, and how we all go about learning about things, are different.  (P.S.: You’re referenced in a footnote in my dissertation.)

Tony and Rich: I agree that Americans do need a class politics, but I fear that many of the critiques of the New Left or identity politics assume class politics to be “obvious,” a “no brainer,” somehow natural or given.  Tony, you’re of course correct that the rich have waged class war on the poor.  But the poor won’t win without the middle class, and the problem facing any class politics is how to convince the middle class that they should care about the poor.  The poor—like many slaves—often don’t have a coherent notion of why they should want to be free, especially insofar as they often don’t want to be free—or, to put it better, they often don’t know the best route to freedom even if they want it. 

Let’s imagine that the American poor all want job security, higher wages, health insurance, and retirement security.  Clearly, in America, conservatives have done a better job of convincing them “how to be free” than have progressives.  Part of their success has been to represent lower class gains as a zero-sum game with middle class losses.  But as Marx showed so long ago, any real class-based social change will require (a) the demystification to convince the poor and middle classes that they *are* in fact being exploited, as well as (b) the courses of action that are proposed to stop that exploitation.  You can’t just have New Deal nostalgia and exclaim, “Higher minimum wages!  Universal health care!” You have to explain to America why a bunch of lazy morons didn’t work harder in school to get a professional degree or certification, a better job, and a decent HMO.  (Last comment in scare quotes, natch.)

And the solution, remember, isn’t necessarily a class politics.  The abolitionists didn’t wage “race politics.” They used sentiment and religion.  Same goes for nearly all progressive movements for the poor until the socialists and Marxists.  Granted, sentimental politics can combine with class politics quite well.  But ideology, for instance “a class politics,” is a necessity.

And Rich, academics would need a politics as much as anyone else.  As you wrote, one’s politics are about one’s life situation.  First of all, not all—or most?—academics have tenure.  Or, like me some years, health insurance.  But even a tenured, middle class academic needs a politics.  The question for progressives is how to convince relatively secure middle-class folks not to base their politics on their own immediate interests.  Another question is where we ask people to limit their sympathetic communities.  Adam Smith argued that total, Hobbesian self-interest isn’t good, but he also argued that we cannot extend our sympathy to totally far-off, unseen injustices.  We can ask middle class Americans to take a small tax cut for the little guys, but can we ask lower class Americans to lose jobs so that starving Asians can have them?  As I’ve written before, the Benn Michaels critique won’t touch this question—he places the class victim over the race victim, but where does he stop hierarchalizing the demands of the class victims?  Again, these are questions of ideology.  It’s not a no-brainer.

By on 07/10/06 at 05:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you need to do a series of posts on what you find to be so great about Benjamin and how it informs your work.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/10/06 at 05:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB: “And Rich, academics would need a politics as much as anyone else.”

I’m not really convinced of that.  As I wrote above, academics are insulated from external politics—they do have their own internal politics, which affects tenure, distribution of grants, and so on.  But in terms of “job security, higher wages, health insurance, and retirement security”, tenured academics get as good a deal as can be gotten anywhere.  People who want them to broaden their sympathetic communities might want them to have a politics, but they don’t need one.  The point of meritocracy is to buy off that part of the middle class that would otherwise make trouble.

By on 07/10/06 at 07:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I fear that many of the critiques of the New Left or identity politics assume class politics to be “obvious,” a “no brainer,” somehow natural or given.  Tony, you’re of course correct that the rich have waged class war on the poor.  But the poor won’t win without the middle class, and the problem facing any class politics is how to convince the middle class that they should care about the poor.”

But you move on to your next point below without offering any alternative to class politics. If there is cancer, you have to act to reduce cancer. That involves: anti-cancer science, anti-cancer education, anti-cancer environmental and lifestyle changes. Sure, you could say, okay, to reduce cancer, we’ll develop the technolgoy to send a man to Mars and hope that any spin-offs will be useful. There may be some utility in this, but as far as I’m aware, it’s non-controversial that if you instead act to reduce cancer directly—that is, engage in “cancer politics”—you’re chances of success are far greater.

“The poor—like many slaves—often don’t have a coherent notion of why they should want to be free, especially insofar as they often don’t want to be free—or...”

Sure, sometimes we don’t see that we are enslaved or what we are enslaved too. If we are enslaved to class and don’t know it, then class explanations and class illustrations—that is, class politics—are necessary. Call it what you will, to not identify this as class politics, in serious part, is false.

“to put it better, they often don’t know the best route to freedom even if they want it.”

And if outsiders know better—often a big if—“the best route to freedom” in the case of slavery, and the best route to equality in the case of class is going to vary depending on a lot of factors, but if some of those factors are not class-involved, then you’re just hoping to get lucky—the option of last resort.

Of course, in some instances, more good can be accomplished by focusing on more realizable goals, whatever they may be, but at some point the goal of reducing class injustice is in order, as seems to me to be largely the case today (along with a lot of other injustices).

“Let’s imagine that the American poor all want job security, higher wages, health insurance, and retirement security.  Clearly, in America, conservatives have done a better job of convincing them “how to be free” than have progressives.”

This is not an uncommon notion, I suppose, but it’s false. Look at the polls. In poll after poll, the majority of people agree with a large majority of progressive views/values. Most status quo/reactionary views are not popular; people are not convinced by them; quite the opposite. But popular opinion doesn’t rule the country, as the polls make clear. That the elections need to be and are a regular exercise in mass manipulation shows starkly that people are far from convinced, far from in agreement with the rulers, whether officials call themselves conservatives, liberals, or the right hand of some God.

“Part of their success has been to represent lower class gains as a zero-sum game with middle class losses.”

The largest part of their success is due to the fact that they own the media, and control the government, and the forces of production and investment of all sorts. And sure this can have some persuasive effect, but according to the facts as best uncovered in the polls, it hasn’t proved to be particularly convincing—far from it.

“But as Marx showed so long ago, any real class-based social change will require (a) the demystification to convince the poor and middle classes that they *are* in fact being exploited,”

Sure, but again, look at the polls. People know—the majority that is, sometimes a large majority.

“as well as (b) the courses of action that are proposed to stop that exploitation.  You can’t just have New Deal nostalgia and exclaim, “Higher minimum wages!  Universal health care!” You have to explain to America why a bunch of lazy morons didn’t work harder in school to get a professional degree or certification, a better job, and a decent HMO.  (Last comment in scare quotes, natch.)”

Again, the facts are different. You don’t have to “explain to Americans”—the majority—that there should be universal health care, a system much like Canada’s, and no one has had to explain this to Americans for decades, as the polls reveal. Ditto economic issues. And the same is true on major issue, after major issue, after major issue. People know. They remain unconvinced by much ruling establishment opinion, with some exceptions.

“And the solution, remember, isn’t necessarily a class politics. The abolitionists didn’t wage “race politics.” They used sentiment and religion.”

Which is naturally why they were known as the “be-kinders” and “soul-uplifters” and not “abolitionists.”

It was the politics of freedom from slavery, which also involved sentiment and religion. Of course nothing works in isolation. For class, the issue is basically equality of condition, which of course can only be facilitated by involving many other humane values in addition to equality.

“Same goes for nearly all progressive movements for the poor until the socialists and Marxists.  Granted, sentimental politics can combine with class politics quite well.  But ideology, for instance “a class politics,” is a necessity.”

And here we agree. Class politics are effective and necessary at times, and so are a lot of other types of politics, and they can scarcely help but work in conjunction.

By Tony Christini on 07/10/06 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, I suppose it doesn’t really matter for my previous argument whether Americans today actuall want universal health care or higher minimum wages.  (Also, I’d like to see if, in the polls you mention, the majority of Americans also support the higher taxes it would require to give them such programs.  Lots of Americans might say, “Sure, give me free prescriptions, so long as my taxes don’t go up.") My central point above was that there is no natural or no-brainer equation between people who make little money and class-centered politics of a progressive nature. 

Which is to say, I have known plenty of lower middle class people, two paychecks away from foreclosure, who think poor people simply need to work harder.  There’s more to “class politics” than helping the poor.  The central issue in any class-oriented politics concerns how people become poor.  And then, regardless of the truth or falsehood of your answer to that question, the next concern involves convincing the People that poor people are poor because of x, y, and z.  Milton Friedman has one answer.

Tony writes, “If we are enslaved to class and don’t know it, then class explanations and class illustrations—that is, class politics—are necessary. Call it what you will, to not identify this as class politics, in serious part, is false.”

I agree totally.  But those class explanations and illustrations involve ideology, and ideology involves getting a group to *believe* that ideology.  You might say Americans already do, but that doesn’t somehow make it a given or natural explanation of the social world. 

I don’t want to get into an argument about abolitionists.  But to deny the huge successes of their sentimental politics (first in Britain, then in America) is simply wrong.  What ended the slave trade in Britain was not “the politics of freedom from slavery” but the sentimental politics of freedom from suffering of an emergent cosmopolitan community (see Ian Baucom’s *Spectres of the Atlantic*).  My larger point was this: just as the international abolition movement could attempt to end slavery without ever addressing the issue of race as we know it, so too could we imagine a political movement centered on helping poor people that never really talks about class as we understand it (i.e., “class” as more than simply a scale of incomes, “class” as a way of thinking about what social forces those payscales are symtomatic of). 

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a good old fashion class man.  But politically, I can accept the validity of *any* successful, non-violent means of helping the suffering of others.  If that involves organizing people by appealing to their mythic Indiginous, Hispanic, or African origins, then that’s fine with me.  Identity politics can swing both ways, is all.  They can appeal to middle-class ethnics to support their less fortuate co-culturalists.  They can also swallow up the plight of the poor into fights for middle-class consolidation.  But then again, so too can class politics (as in the “pro-union, fuck the destitute” politics of many Northeast blue-collar communities).

By on 07/11/06 at 12:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The identity politics I was thinking of was primarily the politics of gender and sexual identity. Ethnic politics often enough is a form of class politics, though it can also be a diversion which primarily helps a thin layer of middle class members of ethnic groups. It also can be destructive, for example when Hispanic and black rperesentatives start fighting over the pork. There was an enormous fight in Minneapolis recently when a well-meaning (white) liberal college teacher was accused of favoring black Americans over other racial minorities. In Portland, which is very gay-friendly, there was a bitter fight between lesbians and M2F transsexuals which reached up to the City Council level.

By John Emerson on 07/11/06 at 08:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Getting back to Scott’s original comments about history, there’s a way to tie this back to the evolutionary concerns that Scott is writing a dissertation about.  One of the complaints that biologists sometimes make is that other people—sometimes, scientists in other fields—don’t understand historical contingency.  A species is shaped by a succession of historical events (including accidents), and is not deduceable from first principles in the way that some entities are once you know the underlying science. 

I particularly remember one person complaining about the game SimEarth, which I would have thought he’d like; he said that no matter what, you always re-evolved familiar groupings like Cetaceans, and thus the game gave people a deterministic idea of evolution that did more harm than good.  Convergent evolution means that you’re likely to get something fish-shaped if you have a creature of a certain size swimming through water—that’s a matter of hydrodynamics—but you’re not necessarily going to get anything like a cetacean.

Some aspects of this may be useful as an analogy to the association of theory and leftist politics.

By on 07/11/06 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ruling “liberal” and “conservative” notions are more persuasive to intellectuals than to the population at large. Everything in conjunction. It’s false to indicate that universal health care and the implementation of many other social programs necessarily involves raising taxes, especially on the least affluent, or even on the majority of the population, or even at all, and especially since the majority of people favor less military spending in lieu of social spending, and better and fairer enforcement of corporate taxation. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. health care system is already extraordinarily expensive, due to corporate layers of management and power, as compared to other more socialized systems that actually cover a far higher percentage of their citizens, or all of them.... Also, the polls show that people are far more opposed to taxation in which the money gets funneled to corporations than taxation in which money is used to address the real needs and preferences of the people.

By Tony Christini on 07/11/06 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

LB:

Scott, I didn’t mean to sound snotty when I wrote that the Yale School’s turn to a sort of deconstructive version of Allan Bloom was common knowledge.  I often forget that what I care about (i.e., a deconstructive version of Allan Bloom) and what others care about, and how we all go about learning about things, are different.

I didn’t think you were being snotty, I was simply being overly defensive.  There’s all this stuff I’m already supposed to know, it seems, and speaking to a wide range of scholars online only exacerbates the anxiety.  I do, however, think the way we’ve come handle these conversations bodes well for us when we hit the market.  Dealing constructively with my ignorance wasn’t something I did so painlessly before, and it’s something I still see a lot of people pained by it now.  (In off-line interaction, I mean.)

The abolitionists didn’t wage “race politics.” They used sentiment and religion.

I’ve actually been thinking about this quite a bit recently--by which I mean, the past few months--and keep meaning to organize my thoughts about it.  Maybe later in the week, if I can avoid serious injury, I’ll post what I’ve done so far.

I think you need to do a series of posts on what you find to be so great about Benjamin and how it informs your work.

I don’t know about a series, but as I was re-reading his correspondence with Scholem a few weeks back.  I wanted to write about Kafka’s versions of Abraham, in particular, the “old-clothes dealer” who “was prepared to satisfy the demand for sacrifice immediately, with promptness of a waiter, but was unable to bring it off because he could not get away, being indispenable.” Never got around to it, but this may be an excuse to look back at the work I did on Benjamin and Kafka.  (There’s nothing quite like transforming old seminar papers into blog fodder.) The two, I should add, are intimately connected in my mind, and for more substantial reasons than those early Muir translations forced Kafka to sound more like Benjamin than he really does. 

(Oh, and it’s difficult for someone to work with Brook Thomas and not wrestle with Benjamin’s theses.  My interest in Benjamin precedes my work with Thomas, however.  Goes right to heart of my initial modernism.  As does Freud, and Kafka, and Joyce, &c.)

Rich, thanks for reframing this in terms of evolutionary contingency.  Sometimes I want to smack myself, this stupidity’s so tenacious.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/11/06 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"There’s more to “class politics” than helping the poor.  The central issue in any class-oriented politics concerns how people become poor.  And then, regardless of the truth or falsehood of your answer to that question, the next concern involves convincing the People that poor people are poor because of x, y, and z.  Milton Friedman has one answer.”

Michael Albert, etc, has another answer (Parecon).

The Green and New Party, etc, have another, related, answer (social democracy).

Either of these and others would seem to be far preferable to the current existing system—if we are to seriously consider the views and values of the majority of the population.

There’s no great intellectual mystery here—that is, to the extent that there is, as far as anyone knows it can only be resolved in action largely, in implementation and trial and error.

Yes, there’s a need for plenty of intellectual work, but I think we should be clear that much such work has been done, is really existing, and makes the ruling establishment work and views look frequently vicious and idiotic by comparison, not to mention that they remain greatly unpersuasive and unconvincing to the majority of the population.

By Tony Christini on 07/11/06 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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