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Friday, October 06, 2006

Politics Beyond the Personal: Diversity, Identitarian Rhetoric, and Equality

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/06/06 at 10:24 AM

Prelude: Shantytowns

Back in April one Tylor Cowan published an article in Slate suggesting that shantytowns be constructed in post-Katrina New Orleans:

Since so many homes were destroyed, the natural inclination is to build safer or perhaps impregnable structures. But that is the wrong response. No one should or will rebuild or insure expensive homes on vulnerable ground, such as the devastated Ninth Ward. And it is impossible to make homes perfectly safe against every conceivable act of nature.

Instead, the city should help create cheap housing by reducing legal restrictions on building quality, building safety, and required insurance. This means the Ninth Ward need not remain empty. Once the current ruined structures are razed, governmental authorities should make it possible for entrepreneurs to put up less-expensive buildings. Many of these will be serviceable, but not all will be pretty. We could call them structures with expected lives of less than 50 years. Or we could call them shacks.

I haven’t given the matter much thought but, on the face of it, the suggestion seems worth considering. Cowan made the curious mistake, however, of concluding that piece with this fairytale:

To be sure, the shantytowns could bring socioeconomic costs. Yet crime, lack of safety, and racial tension were all features of New Orleans ex ante. The city has long thrived as more dangerous than average, more multicultural than average, and more precarious than average for the United States. And people who decide the cheap housing isn’t safe enough will be free to look elsewhere-or remain in Utah with their insurance checks.

Shantytowns might well be more creative than a dead city core. Some of the best Brazilian music came from the favelas of Salvador and Rio. The slums of Kingston, Jamaica, bred reggae. New Orleans experienced its greatest cultural blossoming in the early 20th century, when it was full of shanties. Low rents make it possible to live on a shoestring, while the population density blends cultural influences. Cheap real estate could make the city a desirable place for struggling artists to live. The cultural heyday of New Orleans lies in the past. Katrina rebuilding gives the city a chance to become an innovator once again.

While it is true that remarkable creative activity has managed to survive in unfortunate physical circumstances, I would think the proper view of this relationship is that creativity thus survived in spite of those circumstances, not because of them.

Cowan’s disingenuous praise of creativity among the poor is an example of the kind of thinking that Walter Benn Michaels eviscerates in The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. The cultural creativity that sometimes manages to flourish amid poverty is, in Cowan’s view, somehow supposed to compensate for that poverty or to demonstrate somehow that poverty really isn’t such a bad thing. In Michaels’s view such thinking is self-serving rationalization. He is right to critique it.

However, I’m not going to concentrate on the book’s main argument; I’ll leave that to my fellow bloggers. I am concerned about the book’s very odd conclusion, which is about Michaels himself. In some entirely reasonable scheme of things, that conclusion is irrelevant to the argument - Michaels himself says so - but still, it is there, 12 pages all about Walter Benn Michaels in a 203 page book. Why?

As Miss Piggy Says: Moi Moi Moi

Michaels begins his conclusion by climbing into the third person and telling us (p. 191):

Walter Benn Michaels teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He makes $175,000 a year. But he wants more; one of his motives for writing this book was the cash advance offered him by his publishers.

As it happens, that paragraph is the first thing I saw when I opened the book. I wasn’t intending to read the conclusion, the pages just happened to part there when I opened the book.

So I began reading that paragraph and promptly splattered myself on the ceiling in anger and disgust: “another narcissistic mea culpa from an opportunistic pomo critic.” That’s what I was thinking. “And he’s bragging about his salary too,” which is quite high for a humanities professor, though it’s only martini money on Wall Street - something Michaels is at pains to point out.

Once I had scraped myself off the ceiling and gathered my wits about me, I was puzzled. I associate such self indulgence with identity theorists, who seem to believe that a frank acknowledgment of their own positionality will magically insulate them from misconstruing the thoughts and actions of the Others about whom they write. But Michaels is not such an identitarian; he’s quite opposed to such thinking, and says so in this book (and others as well). Why is he making such a typically identitarian move? And, at 6% of the page count, in such an exaggerated form in such a prominent position, the end of the book?

One possibility, of course, is misplaced vanity. That seems to be what University Diarist thinks:

He ran out of things to say but he had a book contract, so he’s filling up pages . . . with cultural self-flattery. In that particularly repellent mode UD calls KISS ME I’M HONEST. Says he’s got an enormous household income but wants much more because he wants to be the super-rich he envies in the pages of the NYT ... that the homeless guy outside his house pisses him off rather than inspires him to become Albert Schweitzer ... that he thinks he has better taste than other people ...

When Michaels tells us, in a book about the economic greed, blindness, and insensitivity of American elites, that he himself’s an invidious grasping sort, it doesn’t humanize him or interestingly complicate the redistribution problem.... If indeed he “does not feel rich” even though he’s hugely affluent, one can only conclude that it’s because of people like Michaels that we’re in the cruel winner-take-all fix he himself deplores.

I’m can’t go along with that final comment, but I certainly resonate to the KISS ME I’M HONEST branding. Yet, while I am quite willing to believe that academic superstars, such as Michaels, are sometimes prey to vanity and self indulgence, I have been unable to convince myself that Michaels wrote those final pages out of nothing but vanity. There is something else going on.

Let us read a bit more (p. 191):

Some readers will be tempted to see a discrepancy between these facts and the arguments against economic inequality made in the preceding chapters. But they should remember that those arguments are true (if they are true) even if Michaels’s motives are bad, and they would be false (if they were false) even if his motives were good. Not to put too fine a point on it, the validity of the arguments does not depend on the virtue of the person making them.

I quite agree. So why doesn’t Michaels simply allow people to judge his ideas on their merits, free of any information about who he is, how much money he makes, that he is Jewish, or what he thinks about the homeless man he saw outside the window of his study? Why not simply present his arguments and be done with it?

Consider the following passage by sociologist Robert Merton, from a 1945 article on “The Sociology of Knowledge” which is reprinted in his collection, Social Theory and Social Structure (Free Press 1957, p. 457):

With increasing social conflict, differences in the values, attitudes and modes of thought of groups develop to the point where there orientation which these groups previously had in common is overshadowed by incompatible differences. Not only do there develop distinct universes of discourse, but the existence of any one universe challenges the validity and legitimacy of the others. The co-existence of these conflicting perspectives and interpretations within the same society leads to an active and reciprocal distrust between groups. Within a context of distrust, one no longer inquires into the content of beliefs and assertions to determine whether they are valid or not, one no longer confronts the assertions with relevant evidence, but introduces an entirely new question: how does it happen that these views are maintained? Thought becomes functionalized; it is interpreted in terms of its psychological or economic or social or racial sources and functions.

Thus knowledge of a thinker’s position in society, his identity, will be used to discount the arguments he makes.

The conditions Merton described in that mid-century article are certainly true of current intellectual life in America, both in the academy and in the larger civic sphere. Difference and distrust are rampant and any and all ideas can be interpreted as deceptive moves in a struggle for power and domination of one sort or another. Thus throughout Michaels’s career it has been common for literary scholars to discount arguments by reference to some hidden agenda of the person making the argument. This argument is capitalist, that one is paternalistic, that other one over there assumes white privilege, and so forth. These days psychoanalysis is anathema to one group of intellectual tribes while evolutionary psychology is anathema to another. Of intellectual cooties there is no end.

One move in such a game is for a writer openly to declare his identity, his position in the matrix of potential discounting factors, in the name of openness and honesty. Identitarians do this all the time, especially when they are considering the work of people whose identity is different from their own.

This is the context in which I wish to consider Michaels’s conclusion. It bears on his argument, not in a rational-deductive way, but in a rhetorical way. Rationally, the conclusion is irrelevant to the arguments in the body of his book. But rhetorically, that’s different. In the manner, however, of Laurence Sterne, I propose to progress through digression. Thus I will first consider, at some length, two examples of standard authorial positioning statements in identitarian contexts.

Other People’s Culture

Let us begin with a casual example of authorial positioning, from an article in Krin Gabbard’s anthology, Jazz Among the Discourses (1995), one of a pair of anthologies arguing that “jazz has entered the mainstreams of the American academy” (p. 1). The general purpose of the anthology is to help ensure that this new discipline is in harmony with the latest developments in postmodern humanities scholarship. One Steven Elworth contributed a paper examining the critical transformation of jazz into an art music: “Jazz in Crisis, 1948-1958: Ideology and Representation.”

In the course of his argument, Elworth offers this observation (p. 65):

The major paradox of all writing about culture is how to take seriously a culture not one’s own without reducing it to an ineffable Other. I do not wish to argue, of course, that one can only write of one’s own culture. In the contemporary moment of constant cultural transformation and commodification, even the definition of one’s own culture is exceedingly contradictory and problematic.

While the entire passage is worthy of comment, I want to consider only the first sentence:  Just what “culture not one’s own” is Elworth talking about? Since this article is about jazz I assume that jazz culture is what he’s talking about. While the jazz genealogy has strands extending variously to West Africa and Europe, jazz has been and continues to be performed by Blacks and Whites, before audiences both Black and White - though, in the past, these have often been segmented into different venues, or different sections of the same venue - the music is conventionally considered to be Black. That usage is justified by the fact the music’s major creators have been overwhelmingly Black. Thus it follows that jazz culture is, as these things go, Black culture.

That convention leads me to infer that Elworth is White. I do not have any hard evidence for this assumption; I’ve never met the man, I’ve seen no photographs, and the contributor’s blurb certainly doesn’t indicate race. But the same set of conventions that dictate that jazz is Black music also make it unlikely that any Black scholar would refer to jazz culture as “a culture not one’s own.” It follows that Elworth is White, or, at any rate, not-Black. 

I don’t know anything about Elworth beyond this article and a note indicating that, at the time of publication (1995), he was completing a doctorate at NYU. The fact that he is writing about jazz suggests that he likes it a great deal and knows more than a little about it. It is quite possible that he grew up in a house where folks listened to jazz on a regular basis. If not that, perhaps he discovered jazz while among friends or relatives and came to love it. He may also attend live performances, perhaps he is a weekend warrior, jamming with friends either privately or in public. He may well have been to weddings where a jazz band played the reception. He is comfortable with jazz; it is not exotic music. That is to say, it is unlikely that Elworth discovered jazz in some foreign land where no one speaks English, nor eats and dresses American style, nor knows anything of Mozart or Patsy Cline, among many others. Jazz is a routine and familiar part of Elworth’s life.

So why doesn’t he think of it as his culture? Why must he caution himself (and us) against “reducing it to an ineffable Other.” On both counts the answer is the same: convention. The same set of conventions would require that Leontyne Price think of Puccini’s music as belonging to someone else’s culture, though she sings the music superbly, and may also require that a Black physicist - such as Shirley Jackson, currently president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute - think of Newton and Einstein as belonging to someone else’s culture. On the other hand, I may claim both physicists for my culture despite the fact that I’ve not studied physics since high school and make no use of it in my professional life.

These are the sort of conventions that Michaels has found severely wanting, and properly so. Still, however convincing Michaels’s argument is, I think it worthwhile to look a little deeper into Elworth’s curious, if utterly common and conventional, usage. While odd and incoherent, I don’t think Elworth’s usage is unintelligible.

Society, Culture, and Layered Identity

Let us ask another question: What does Elworth’s love for jazz tell us about his circle of acquaintances? In my experience, nothing beyond the likelihood that some of them also like jazz. In particular, there is no particular reason to believe he has any Black friends, people with whom he breaks bread at home, and on holiday occasions. He may, and he may not. It is a signal fact of American social life, however, that music passes freely back and forth between different ethnic and racial groups. But this movement of cultural artifacts and actions doesn’t necessarily forge bonds of personal friendship and commitment between individuals in those groups. And this too has a great deal to do with why politically self-conscious Whites, such as Elworth, think of jazz as the music of another culture.

That sentence, however, might more accurate if we substituted “society” or “social group” for “culture.” For all practical purposes, the music Elworth routinely listens to is his culture, but it may not have originated in his social group. Some baggy-pantsed b-boy may never have heard of Louis Armstrong, but his grandmother may have grown-up with Armstrong or with Sidney Bechet or Earl Hines. Such links of acquaintance are likely to be weaker for Elworth, though he may know jazz considerably better than most b-boys.

The distinction I have just made between culture and society is one I’ve been making for years, though it is not mine. I learned it from my teacher, David Hays, and he learned it from his, Talcott Parsons. Society is a concrete network of relationships between people. Culture is a set of ideas, attitudes, and practices: what people speak, sing, believe, the cut of their clothes, and so forth and so on through a long list. The distinction is a bit strange if you are not used to it - it doesn’t play in Michaels’s discussion at all, which assumes a conception of culture that does not differentiate between a social group and its practices, attitudes and ideas - but it becomes comfortable enough through use.

Now let us journey back in time to an earlier moment in the interaction between Blacks and Whites. Early in the seventeenth century, at about the same time Jamestown was being settled, Richard Jobson, an English sea captain, journeyed to the Gambia River area in what is now Senegal to explore its commercial potential. He subsequently published The Golden Trade or a Discovery of the River Gambra and the Golden Trade of the Aethiopians in which he observed: “There is without doubt no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people; which the principall persons do hold as an ornament of their state, so as when wee come to see them their musicke will seldom be wanting.” Jobson certainly belongs to a social group that is historically distant from those he observed and his culture differs from theirs as well. They are outsiders to one another’s societies and to one another’s cultures.

A century and a half later, in 1755, the Rev. Samuel Davies heard slaves in Virginia and remarked that “Negroes above all the Human Species that I ever knew have an Ear for Musick, and a kind of extatic Delight in Psalmody; and there are no Books they learn so soon or take so much pleasure in, as those used in that heavenly part of Divine Worship.” And psalmody was certainly important to these colonists, many of whom were religious dissidents who saw in America an opportunity to create a perfect Christian community, a New Jerusalem free of European institutions. Here many White colonists and early Americans found a common cause with their Black brethren. For the religious practices those Africans carried with them were even more expressive and emotional than the sermons and conversions of revival Christianity. Anecdotal accounts of mixed-race camp meetings in the early nineteenth century suggest that the Whites were much influenced by the vigorous psalmody of the Blacks. Thus it was that the ecstatic techniques of African animism mingled with and helped to stabilize the ritual practice of large numbers of charismatic Christians. These practices then became standard among large numbers of Black and White Christians and fueled the revivals that have been a feature of American public culture for two centuries.

This situation is quite different from Richard Dobson’s. Dobson lived in one social group, with its culture, and the Africans lived in different groups, each with its culture. These Black and White Americans lived in the same larger society, one, however, that was riven by divisions of region, race, ethnicity, class and caste. One result of this is that, whatever American culture was and is (and I have strong reservations about such notions as “American culture”), it has many variants that are local and specific to these different groups.

One of the peculiarities of this cultural interaction between groups of Whites and Blacks is that southern Blacks were called on to play dance music for their masters, in European styles and on European instruments, while northern Whites began developing minstrelsy on Black models, based on their conception of what plantation life was like. By the middle of the nineteenth century minstrelsy was well on the way to becoming America’s first medium of mass entertainment. After the Civil War Black minstrel troupes began traveling the country even as the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured America and Europe in triumph. Late in the century minstrelsy gave way to vaudeville and to Broadway.

In the early twentieth century Blacks and Whites met in urban ballrooms where White dance and music adopted forms of Black sexual expressiveness. Thus we arrive at the Cotton Club in Harlem in the 1920s where Duke Ellington had a five-year run in which his so-called “jungle style” came to maturity. What is so very interesting and peculiar about this situation is that he developed that style before an audience that was exclusively White; society “swells” mixed with gangsters and the demimonde, who downed expensive drinks while watching all-but-naked “high yellow” chorus girls dance to Ellington’s pseudo-African jungle exoticism. The Club maintained a strict difference between the clientele and the talent, nor do we have much reason to believe that that segregation disappeared outside the club. We thus have one venue where people from two different social groups interacted under strictly controlled circumstances.

The music pleased the clientele, otherwise they would not have been there, and we can only assume that it pleased Ellington and his musicians as well. If they thought of themselves as pandering to the unsophisticated tastes of a White audience none of them has ever, so far as I know, said so within hearing distance of a journalist or historian. In standard accounts of jazz history Ellington’s music of this period earns high praise.

So, whose music is it? Which of the two social groups does it belong to, Black or White? Does it belong to the audience whose taste was satisfied and who paid the bills, or the musicians who provided that satisfaction? How do we talk about cultural praxis that “belongs to” two social groups that are segregated one from the other?

Nor should we think that this peculiar situation is exclusively an American one. In their recent book and accompanying CD, Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives & the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia, Dick Blau, Charles & Angeliki Vellou Keil, and Steven Feld document a similar socio-cultural configuration in contemporary Greek Macedonia. There we have a social-cultural arrangement in which Romani musicians (aka Gypsies) provide live music for Greek celebrations of various types. The Romani are residentially segregated and occupationally segregated beyond their role as musicians. They work jobs that other Greeks do not want.

Thus we have two cases - America and Greek Macedonia - where a segregated minority provides musical services for a more powerful and wealthier social group. Beyond this, Keil has argued that this particular situation is quite wide-spread (PDF). In case after case it is the Other People who have the coolest music, the funkiest grooves.

It is by no means clear to me just what we must do to gain a deeper understanding of these structures and mechanisms. One thing we must do is take a deeper look at the complicated psycho-cultural dynamics of racism - I’ve taken a few steps in this direction in my “Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues.” We also need to consider a more sophisticated approach to conceptualizing lived identity. In order to begin accounting for what he discovered in Macedonia, Charlie Keil has begun developing a notion of layered identity (Bright Balkan Morning, pp. 87-117). Reductive ideologies of national and ethnic identity do not and will not countenance the notion of multiple identities, but that does seem to be how many of us live.

Returning to Elworth’s statement, I believe that, at least in part, his reference to jazz as other people’s music represents nothing more than a conventionalized White understanding of Black music as Other. This understanding is unrelated to the current state of “facts on the ground,” about how and where Elworth has come to know of jazz. That’s just how “we” think about these things. Note, however, that this mode of thinking implies that “we” conventionally locate something very private and personal, our response to certain music, in an Other. What happens to this identification as identity becomes more deeply politicized?

Expressive Politics

Now let us examine a more elaborate example of authorial positioning, from Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place, by George Lipsitz. Before presenting that example, however, I want to tell you a little about Lipsitz’s book and to contrast it with another book, Nelson George, The Death of Rhythm and Blues.

Lipsitz is interested in a range of musics generally marketed as “world beat.” These musics generally involve African-derived practices cross-bred with other musics, generally indigenous to a particular time and place. His book is 181 pages long and consists mostly of stories about musicians and their music. Most, but not all, of the musicians are people of color, many of them from third world countries.  many of the stories are quite interesting. Thus we learn what Fela Kuta learned about Africa when he visited the USA, about how a Bob Marley tour of Australia galvanized aboriginal musicians, about how five black youths in Birmingham made a reggae video that got national play in the Britain and the USofA, about rai music in Northern Africa, and so forth.

My guess is that 80% to 90% of the book’s prose is devoted to telling these stories, some only a paragraph or two long, some taking several pages. None of these stories, so far as I know, is fiction. None are told as mere entertainment.  They are presented as truth, intended to tell us something about how music works in the world. If you are interested in this general subject - which I am - then I urge you to read this book.

However, Lipsitz sets these stories in a pseudo-political framing that is intellectually worthless. As far as I tell, each and every one of the stories in Dangerous Crossroads has the same meaning: capitalism and the West are evil, people of color and oppressed people are good; good is often successful in the battle with evil, but not often enough. That of course is a caricature. 

Lipsitz assumes a reader who knows about capitalism and Western imperialism and about the struggles of third world people to resist that evil. Lipsitz tells us that what they do is send messages encoded in the lyrics of songs and in the images of video tapes.  He tells us something about those messages; he decodes them for us. 

But he tells us precious little about the music industry. He assumes we know that it is capitalist and, as such, is evil. I believe he mentions here and that that the recording industry is dominated by a small handful of large international companies -and he’s delighted that third-world musicians can sometimes use these companies as vehicle for their subversive messages. But he doesn’t tell us what they are, or how they came to dominate the industry. What is worse, he doesn’t even seem curious about or interested in such things. It is quite possible that he does not even cite a single book that has such information.

One book he could cite is Nelson George’s The Death of Rhythm and Blues. As far as I can tell, George’s politics are leftist as well, but he doesn’t drop phrases about “supremacy of transnational capital” and “imperial capitals” as ways of indicating the source of evil in the world.  While George has a moral perspective, it doesn’t seem so simple as Lipsitz’s. Like Lipsitz, George is interested in how Black musicians (and their fans) make their way in a world dominated by White folks and their economic interests. Unlike Lipsitz, however, George is very interested in how the music business works. That interest allows him to evade Lipsitz’s simple-minded morality play and provide us with information and insight into the business of music.

Thus George tells us about radio stations and the role of Black radio. He talks about specific DJs and their programs, about specific music representatives and how they related to DJs. He tells us about record deals, mergers and buyouts, market reports, and business strategy. Where Lipsitz makes vague allusions about the ways of capital, George tells us who put up the money, how much, how long it lasted, and why the deal went sour. George knows a great deal about how the music industry works; he knows what has to happen to get capital to finance musical production, to identify markets and create product that will sell in a market. He knows something about how capitalism functions. 

It is not at all clear to me that Lipsitz does. On general principle I assume that he knows what capital is, what investment is, but he doesn’t seem to know that in any detail. The fact is, Lipsitz’s political framing is so simple-minded that he could eliminate it from his main text and write a short paragraph at the beginning stating his belief that capitalism is evil and oppressed people are good and that readers should interpret all his stories in that way. Given only that much, it would be relatively easy for readers to arrive at the appropriate interpretation of individual stories. 

Thus, where George discusses business arrangements in a way that is analytical and explanatory, Lipsitz is expressive in his treatment of similar matters. Lipsitz frames his stories as a way of expressing his solidarity with the oppressed and his hostility toward the oppressor - identified as capitalism. Lipsitz is expressing his identity where George, by contrast, is attempting to understand how the music business has functioned in its treatment of Black artists.

Now we are ready to examine Lipsitz’s mea culpa and to see it as a consequence of his expressive framing (p. 64):

As author of this text, I know that my own Euro-American identity offers unearned privileges and imposes unpayable debts to aggrieved racial groups whose subjugation has underwritten my own privileges throughout my life. Yet, while it is impossible to speak from a position of purity, strategic anti-essentialism may enable us to understand how our identities have been constructed and at whose expense, as well as offering insights into how we can pay back the debts we incur as examples from others show us the way out of the little tyrannies of our own parochial and prejudiced backgrounds.

That is to say, Lipsitz sees his “Euro-American identity“ as being at odds with his implicit identification with the people and music he writes about, who stand “as examples [that] show us the way out of the little tyrannies of our own parochial and prejudiced backgrounds.” There is a conflict within himself and he feels that, in all honesty, the reader must know about it. Hence his confession. I’m skeptical. I prefer George’s genuine interest in economic arrangements to Lipsitz’s symbolic moralizing.

Good Guy or Gonif, Does it Matter?

Let us now return to Michaels, and to his conclusion. How does it compare with Lipsitz’s mea culpa? There are three obvious points of comparison:

1) Michaels says considerably more about himself than Lipsitz does and devotes more space to saying it.
2) Michaels’s discussion is separated from the rest of the book into a section of its own, the conclusion.
3) Michaels discusses himself in the third person rather than the first.

Setting that first issue aside for the moment, the other two have the effect of distancing that authorial intrusion from the rest of the book. Let me suggest that what Michaels is doing is simply separating the personal (the book’s final section) from the political (the book’s main argument). As such he is reversing that venerable mantra from the 60s, “the personal is the political” (see also here). That mantra and the ideas associated with it, after all, is part and parcel of the identitarian politics that Michaels’ is critiquing. In staging his book in this way, Michaels is doing more than simply asserting that we must learn to separate the personal from the political. He is - to use a distinction from fiction writing 101 - showing us how to do it rather than simply telling us that it must be done.

Let’s read a bit further into that conclusion. In discussing Lipsitz I noted that his mea culpa hinged upon a conflict between his identity as a professor (in a certain school in a certain society with a certain economic system) and his implicit identification with the people who make the (oppositional) music he so loves. Since Michaels is arguing on behalf of the poor, does he demonstrate or betray any identification with them in his conclusion? No. In fact, Michaels rather pointed rejects such an identification (pp. 191-192):

During the summer in which most of this book was written, a homeless man lived in the railroad underpass Michaels can see out his study window. A more virtuous person might have been at least tempted to go down and bring him some breakfast or maybe even invite him in for a shower and a meal. It never occurred to Michaels to do either of these things. Mainly he wished the man would go away.

This does not put Michaels in a good light; Michaels obviously knows this and makes this small confession for just that reason. Michaels also knows, of course, that many of his readers have faced a similar situation and, in similar fashion, done nothing to help. Life is complicated and good people cannot and do not always help those in need. In writing those sentences, then, Michaels is simply stating an unpleasant truth, not only about himself, but about any of us. Still, it’s a truth that puts him in a bad light, and it comes shortly after he broke a taboo by revealing his income. Michaels concludes the paragraph:

And his desire for the man to just not be there does not contradict the argument of this book; it’s more like the motive for the argument of this book. The point is not that we should be nicer to the homeless; it’s that no one should be homeless.

Thus ends the first paragraph of “Conclusion: About the Author.” In so far as possible, Michaels has put the elimination of homelessness outside the sphere of the personal, of things that Walter Benn Michaels likes or dislikes. The elimination of homelessness is stated as an incontrovertible and impersonal good.

It is not something for which Michaels argues in any direct or explicit way that I can see; he just flat-out states the no one should be homeless. Nor, as far as I can tell, does he explicitly argue that (extreme) economic inequality is bad. He believes it is bad, he has written this book to show how concern for diversity has diverted attention away inequality, but he hasn’t provided arguments on the matter. There are certainly people who would disagree with Michaels on this issue, but he does not seem interested in arguing with them. He simply wants to assert the need to give more political attention to inequality.

Is mere assertion sufficient to his purpose? For Michaels intends this book “to help alter the political terrain of contemporary American intellectual life” (p. 7). It is one thing to argue that diversity is in the way, that it is being co-opted by regressive forces. But you still need specific policies and programs to move beyond diversity-mongering and move to toward greater equality. Michaels hasn’t provided these.

In the end, I would have preferred for Michaels to conclude with an explicit defense of economic equality and with a coherent set of programs to achieve it. As Miriam Burstein has remarked, Michaels has written “a very English professor-y sort of book.” It is by no means clear to me that his demonstration of the separation of the personal from the political will have much effect on those - even the English professors - who remain entangled in the conflation of the two. That entanglement is willful.

It is one thing to use an identitarian rhetorical strategy against itself. It is another thing to drop identitarian discourse entirely. Michaels has not quite done that. The only way to be free of it is simply to walk away.


Nice post!  The two absences you conclude by mentioning (1-arguments against economic inequality, 2-policies for reducing it) are very different things.  You seem to blur them at moments in your conclusion. 

WBM could reasonably be expected, as an English professor, to provide #1; #2 is a matter of public policy.  There are lots of policies out there already; if nobody’s paying enough attention to them, that’s either for reasons of party politics, or because of the lack of arguments.

So why no arguments?  I’ve read his two books that preceded this one, not this one.  My guess would be kinda ad hominen:  that he’s a confrontational hyperaggressive guy who likes attack mode a lot better than anything else, hence the focus on the ills of diversity rather than on solutions.

On the other hand, one could argue that there are a LOT of arguments in favor of economic equality and its relation to human dignity already out there--from early Marx to the UN declaration of human rights to.....so maybe WBM really sees his best role as focusing on the critique of diversity.  Do you, Rich, really think arguments that “no one should be homeless” are necessary?

Now, why the last chapter?  Your reading seems accurate; but the moment you focus on clearly fits with his more general arguments.  It’s not just about going outside the personal--it’s about pointing out the irrelevance of a politics of identity affirmation (of saying “Homelessness is Beautiful!") with regard to homelessness; or, to be more cynical, one could say he’s deploying an intentionally ridiculous example as part of the project of discrediting identity politics as a whole.

Finally, about that example:  if we feel something on a spectrum ranging from discomfort to disgust at the sight of a homeless person, are we disgusted by a palpable instance of the gross inequities of capitalism, or do we feel endangered/repulsed by this particular body, or both?  I’m not sure WBM is taking this point seriously (his move seems rather an effort to shock via violating conventional liberal pieties)--but it’s a serious question…

By on 10/06/06 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment


On the homeless, I’ve heard people argue, in effect, that they deserve what they get. Do we want to spend much energy arguing against such people? Probably not.

But, I don’t have any particularly good sense of what Michaels is for, some kind of equality, yes, but . . . He wants all children to have a shot at a good education. It might be useful to hear more than a few asides on how to achieve this. He cites stats on how income difference between the top and the bottom has grown enormously in the last 30 years. Presumably he wants to reduce that disparity. How much? Level it entirely—so that he’s no longer making more than an assistant prof at Humble Town Community College—or just reduce the ratio to, say, 1 to 5? How does he think we should go about this? I’m not so much interested in detailed program statements but just it getting a better practical sense of what he thinks a more equitable society would look like. It’s clear from the interview that Scott linked that he doesn’t think we should drop diversity from the agenda, but how do we integrate it into an agenda with equality as the leading issue?

Or, just to stick within more comfortable parameters, how about some useful suggestions about how we should think about culture and identity. It’s one thing to do a debater’s take-down of sloppy conceptualization, but how can we think about those matters in a more effective way? For example, how about Michaels take up Charlie Keil’s notion of layered identity and so something with it? Or is Michaels, as you suggest, only a hyperaggressive counter-puncher and temperamentally unsuited to other intellectual tasks?

. . . one could say he’s deploying an intentionally ridiculous example as part of the project of discrediting identity politics as a whole.

One could say that, and he is certainly aiming to discredit identity politics. What bugs me is that it seems to me that he’s still operating in that universe—whatever it is, the English professor-y universe, the Theory-and-its-oppositional-Siamese-twin universe—and I’m not sure any practical politics can come from that universe. (Meanwhile, in the New Republic, Steven Pinker has gone after George Lakoff. I’ve not read any of Lakoff’s political stuff, but I thought Philosophy in the Flesh was doing one of those Wiley Coyote walks where he goes off the cliff and remains in the air until he looks down. Apparently Lakoff hasn’t looked down yet.)

Finally, about that example:  if we feel something on a spectrum ranging from discomfort to disgust at the sight of a homeless person, are we disgusted by a palpable instance of the gross inequities of capitalism, or do we feel endangered/repulsed by this particular body, or both?

I’d think it varies from case to case.  But I’d hope the response is more direct and immediate than musing on “the gross inequities of capitalism.” How about empathetic sorrow mixed with impotence yielding embarrassment; if the person is physically disgusting—dirty, disheveled hair, perhaps maimed, ratty clothes—throw that into it as well.

By Bill Benzon on 10/07/06 at 07:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

All important jazz movements have been initiated by African Americans and whites are at best imitators?
A fundamental issue in the study of jazz is the relationship between white Americans and African Americans. Some have argued that all important movements in jazz have been initiated by African Americans, and that white jazz musicians are at best imitators and at worst thieves. What evidence can support this argument? What evidence contradicts it?

By Peter Monroe on 09/10/08 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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