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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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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)

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Continuing Trouble with Walter Benn Michaels

Posted by Andrew Seal on 04/27/09 at 11:54 PM

A Walter Benn Michaels essay from a couple of months ago has been receiving renewed attention of late because of an NYPL panel discussion that took that essay as its starting point.

In brief, Michaels’s essay argued that there is little point in writing novels about the Holocaust, slavery or other historical tragedies when “the only relevant past here is the very recent one;” older pasts recede to irrelevance in the face of the magnitude of the disaster with which “burgeoning capitalism” has saddled the world. Memoirs are even worse, and should be comprehensively discontinued. No literature which doesn’t make visible (to him) the economic conditions which produced this crisis is worth composing, much less printing and reading.

The NYPL discussion featured both Michaels and David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the show which Michaels praised as a model for the kind of novel he believed was lacking from and needed in contemporary American letters. A video of the event is available from the NYPL’s event page (click on “Download an mp4 video file") or in their iTunes store (free)—introductory remarks and Michaels’s reading of his essay (yeah, they actually asked him to read the thing instead of summarize it) take up the first 22 and a half minutes, so feel free to skip to this point, if not further. Michaels is exceedingly provocative, as per usual, and David Simon seems to be trying to make sense of what Michaels thinks his show is, but has some nice remarks of his own. Dale Peck is there to be annoying and to awkwardly avoid looking at Susan Straight even as she talks directly to him, and Susan Straight is there, I think, for reasons appropriate to her surname—the calm foil for three effusive performers.

I found the original essay to be problematic in a number of ways, but rather than address the problems with the essay itself, there were a number of sides to Michaels’s general argument that came out a little more overtly in the panel discussion, and I’d like to highlight some of those.

A large part of Michaels’s rejection of memoirs and what he calls “historical caretaking” novels (about slavery, the Holocaust, the immigrant experience) is their acceptance of the idea of the family as the self-evident architecture for the development and growth of the individual. Michaels believes that the ideal of the family is a neoliberal ideology used as a tool for eroding class solidarity, an argument which has legs even if it doesn’t seem to conceive of the family as something with a history/histories and internal logic(s) vastly exceeding neoliberalism in both time and space (which he is challenged on by Dale Peck but dismisses without real argumentation). Regardless of his chronology, Michaels certainly doesn’t see the importance of family-like relationships to the characters in The Wire (Aaron’s brilliant paper on the show argues differently). This willful blindness is a problem that I’ll return to in a bit.

Secondly, it becomes apparent that Michaels seems to take some part of his energy for this renewed idea of economically-conscious literature from a sense that white people have been hit hardest by the economic crisis. Michaels doesn’t really put up much of a pretense that his argument against diversity-consciousness and against “historical caretaking” are themselves extremely racially conscious and have a racialized agenda: they do, and it is “pay more attention to the white victims of capitalism.”

Where I really find Michaels troubling is that he’s not, as one might naïvely think, arguing that the economic conditions and political rights of poor whites have been underaddressed and need to be included in a cross-racial anti-poverty politics. Racial solidarity in confronting poverty simply isn’t a part of the politics he implicitly imagines—and in fact, it appears to be one that he can’t. His politics can’t be cross-racial because he doesn’t pretend that poverty is universally and unilaterally a result of capitalist structures. He readily allows that racism is a factor in black poverty, and this is, in fact, the biggest sign for him of how unjust the economic situation is—poor whites, who aren’t even the victims of racism, are falling behind. “The majority of poor people in America are white. They’re not victims of racism. They’re not the victims of slavery… They’re victims of capitalism. And everyone wants to talk about everything but capitalism.”

But talking about capitalism here doesn’t mean—can’t mean—talking about poverty in general. It means talking about the type of poverty that can be completely removed from racism (which he doesn’t want to talk about at all), and that is white poverty. Black poverty, which must include a discussion of racism, will have to wait for later (for now, Michaels says, “at this moment in American history, anti-racism is completely empty as a left politics"). Christ said, “the poor you will always have with you"—I guess Michaels updates that to “the black poor you will always have with you.”

Thirdly (and getting back to literature), Michaels argues against character as something that exists solely for the reader’s gratification, a sort of node in the fabric of reality that we congratulate ourselves for successfully occupying for a brief period of time. Michaels argues forcefully that the obsession with character has its own (bad) politics, and he also says that the proper response to this type of fiction is not the creation of an oppositional politics but the imagination of alternative forms which may lead to (or at least affirm) better politics. Then he talks about American Psycho and clothing.

Michaels is certain of two things: First, that the popularity of memoirs and historical caretaking is premised on the bad politics of this character-driven fiction, politics which is deeply self-congratulatory and self-affirming because it offers to us a picture of the world as a personalized space: “The world we live in is personalized, it’s [presented as] a matter of making good personal choices or bad personal choices.” Second, this popularity has crowded out the former success of protest or dissent fiction, which has atrophied under the shade of these character-driven fictions.

Most people (including those on the panel) don’t understand how Michaels comes up with this second certainty, or how he can hang on to it when faced with actually existing literature (Simon talks about Richard Price and George Pelecanos, two guys who wrote a number of times for The Wire--maybe not protest fiction in the classic sense, but...). I think Michaels’s first certainty is also untenable—he makes no attempt to demonstrate how a novel like Beloved or The Plot Against America offers us a world where the crucial conflict is between “good personal choices” and “bad personal choices.” To patch this ill fit, he tries to cram these novels in with memoir because (so he argues) they take uncontroversial positions (slavery is bad! genocide bad!) and give the reader a languid frisson of self-approval for agreeing with them--like memoir, they mildly massage the reader’s empathy and self-righteousness zones. Michaels’s reduction of all attitudes about things like slavery and genocide to “for” and “against” is ridiculous—he shows absolutely no understanding how a general consensus can mask residual prejudices and resentments (read Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person” for one example).

But that first certainty is also untenable because it muddles the production and the consumption of literature. Michaels’s main case is that dissent-minded protest literature isn’t being written now, but he never really addresses the fate of older forms of protest literature, of whether former critics of capitalism have also been silenced, suppressed in favor of the “new” attention to slavery’s legacies and the like. Again, “the only relevant past here is the very recent one.” It doesn’t matter that there are still popular examples of older literary critiques of capitalism, many of which were discussed with great familiarity by the panelists—these powerful novels can yet demonstrate the realities of the structures he argues novels should be depicting, but Michaels remains glibly content with his idea that Toni Morrison’s readership is a grave threat to leftist intellectual politics.

But more broadly, I’d also like to ask whether character is really so antithetical to a commitment to the critique of larger societal structures, as Michaels is certain it must be. After all, isn’t a novel like Invisible Man a wonderful example of how character brings the reader into contact with social reality: the immersion in the mind of the narrator and in his story opens the reader’s eyes to the grotesqueries of racism in all its many forms. Without the attention to character, the novel simply wouldn’t exist. How something similar cannot serve as a model for opening a reader’s eyes to other forms of oppressive social structures I cannot fathom, and Michaels’s willful interpretation of The Wire as essentially characterless—"The characters on The Wire are interesting but they’re deeply subordinate to structures"—seems to me to ignore fatally the fact that most people kept watching—and witnessing the degradations of capitalism and maybe even thinking about them—because they bought into the characters, and even more, into the interpersonal reactions of one character to another. We tune in because we want to see what one character does to another, not to see what the system does to a character—though we see that too, and note it well.

And here is where the family comes in again. The family, or a familial-type structure, is a useful structure for the novel or for a television show because it allows a procedural unity to attach to a diversity of characters. For Michaels, this wouldn’t be a virtue, but if I have argued somewhat compellingly that character is not anithetical to structural critique, I think the family can be seen as an enlargement of the capacity for character to bring the reader/viewer into contact with a variety of structures.

The systole/diastole pattern of circulating the characters, each to confront a different facet of the general reality, and each to return to the familial unit, is the lifeblood of nearly all novels and television shows, so of course there are numerous examples where this basic narrative pattern is used to reinforce the types of “personalization” Michaels critiques. We get the idea, if we’re not careful, that what sends these different characters into their different scenes is merely their personal choices, that the single organ of the family is a symbol of the equality of opportunity that all characters begin with, and which they squander or capitalize on. But how many family-oriented narratives really bear that out or uphold that logic continuously? Many family dramas are rife with the conflicts of unfair advantages that one sibling has over another. Watch Rachel Getting Married, read The Corrections—these works don’t tell us that everyone gets the same shot at success, or even that all siblings have the same chance at happiness.

To say that Michaels is being absolutist is like saying an elephant is heavyset, but the larger point is not that Michaels “fails to consider” counter-examples, but that his argument doesn’t fully comprehend what families do in narratives. I think this incomprehension (and the disdain it generates for anything that traffics in families) is crucial to understanding the failures of Michaels’s politics as well. Michaels has no use for resistance to racism or to anti-Semitism as a left politics because the most lasting effects of those histories persist in familial structures—the families unrecoverably shattered and decimated by the violence of slavery and racism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust—and because resistance to their continued presence in the world most often arises from the family.

That Michaels can’t comprehend and won’t countenance these forms of resistance is really too bad: there is no reason why capitalism won’t (or doesn’t already) shatter families unrecoverably, and why the familial strategies of resistance one finds in a novel like Beloved or even like Everything Is Illuminated cannot also apply to the displacements and disappearances meted out by capitalism. Acknowledging this would also remove Michaels’s main obstacle to regarding racial solidarity as a necessary part of anti-poverty activism: it would also make his vision look a lot more like David Simon’s.


Interestingly, the publication history of “Invisible Man” would seem to support Michaels’ thesis, inasmuch as Ellison systematically stripped any positively tinged references to the Brotherhood, shifting the political focus of the novel from *class* as the explanatory framework for Invisible’s troubles to a Burkean version of symbolic politics.  See Barbara Foley, “From Communism to Brotherhood: The Drafts of Invisible Man,” in Left of the Color Line.

By Lee Konstantinou on 04/28/09 at 04:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But was that a narrative consideration--i.e. was the novel not working, and he had to shift focus to get it to work--or was it a desire to get his stuff published and reviewed well not just by leftist journals? My contention is that there is nothing necessary about the narrative constraints about character that prevent it from taking part in a critique of societal structures, including capitalism. I’m trying to resist what Michaels is implying--that character is and can only be a weak-willed response on the author’s part to structures of power, a genuflection to neoliberal individualist ideology. I’m certainly not trying to suggest that those pressures don’t make it easier to get your novel bought if it has strong characters, just that having strong characters doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve acceded to “the system.”

I guess Ellison was a poor choice on my part, but what I was getting at was not that Invisible Man was an example of what a novel can do by not buckling under capitalism but that it is an example of what a novel can do through character to position the reader in such a way as to be made unavoidably aware of the presence and effects of certain societal structures, in this case, no, not capitalism, but definitely racism. I think Ellison’s work could be a valuable model for similar novels that don’t make similar shifts and which do retain a political focus on class.

By Andrew Seal on 04/28/09 at 08:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"My contention is that there is nothing necessary about the narrative constraints about character that prevent it from taking part in a critique of societal structures, including capitalism.”

I agree with you on your general point:  I don’t buy the Character automatically equals Neoliberalism line.

I could see a subtler version of Benn Michaels’ argument being persuasive, one that incorporated the notion of systematic or institutional filters.

The problem in that case wouldn’t be that there’s lots of character-based literature per se, but that all the big institutions of literature are designed to promote character-centered fiction—from the level of the well-educated reader, who finds reading about systems “boring,” since we know “all” good fiction is *about* character; to the level of publishing; to the level of the big reviews and reviewers; to the level of the academy.

This group of institutions working in concert, our reformulated Michaels might say, doesn’t “like” literary fiction that is systemic or political in its view of life.  Most people have to turn to genre fiction to get their taste of social systems, or television, and they will be treated as lovers of artistically low fare.  That’s what’s extraordinary about The Wire; it’s to television and “crime” fiction what Maus was to comics—an undeniable masterpiece.

I don’t know why Ellison changed his mind about the construction of “Invisible Man”—he made reference to aesthetic motives, if I recall—but he definitely strongly turned against the idea of *fiction as protest* which Michaels endorses, at around the same time that the whole literary establishment turned against Richard Wright and the unacceptably left-of-the-center aesthetic he was understood to represent.  Would “Invisible Man” have been as big a hit, and on all our syllabi, if Ellison had insisted on putting an anti-capitalist/anti-colonial message at the center of his novel during the height of the cold war?  Hard to say.

So in its present form, I think we have to reject Michaels argument as insufficient.  If someone were to turn Michaels intuitions into a thicker aesthetic/sociological account of how certain kinds of aesthetic choices get filtered out of mainstream literary discourse, I think Michaels could be made more persuasive, from a scholarly perspective.

By Lee Konstantinou on 04/28/09 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That said, I should add, I agree that character-based fiction *can* theoretically be political or interested in representing systems.  Whether existing examples of character-based fiction do the job needs to be decided on a case by case basis, I think.

By Lee Konstantinou on 04/28/09 at 01:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lee, you bring up outstanding points, especially about the way that “all the big institutions of literature are designed to promote character-centered fiction"--that is something I really should have addressed, and you phrased it very well.

Some of the critiques of James Wood that I’ve read (like those on Contra James Wood) are quite good in demonstrating how authors who work away from our character-comfort zone are silently re-written through reviews and marketing to emphasize precisely those things we’ve been taught to value about novels--principally character, or “consciousness.” I guess that would be an example of these “big institutions” at work.

By Andrew Seal on 04/28/09 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Because there is an essential reality to Lee’s point that

“all the big institutions of literature are designed to promote character-centered fiction,”

Andrew’s subsequent point that

“Some of the critiques of James Wood that I’ve read (like those on Contra James Wood) are quite good in demonstrating how authors who work away from our character-comfort zone are silently re-written through reviews and marketing to emphasize precisely those things we’ve been taught to value about novels--principally character, or ‘consciousness’,”
only gets at maybe half the problem.

The other half or more is that production, even conceptualization, of more systemicly focused fiction (especially from a left class or left geopolitical perspective) is extraordinarily discouraged, to near total extent in some cases. It wouldn’t do to say. It won’t be published. Or if it is published it will be marginalized, dismissed, attacked...and so further discouraged. This creates a culture of literature that is hugely biased, alienated, out of touch with urgent reality and possibility - just as quality left class and geopolitical analyses of literature show.

James Wood’s recent review of the works of Orwell is something of a total disaster in this regard. Not atypical for the establishment. I hope to get a lengthy post up on it at some point in the next couple weeks.

By Tony Christini on 04/28/09 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember going to a creative writing professor at my undergraduate institution my senior year.  I wanted to sign up for her creative writing class with the aim of writing a science fiction novel.  To be fair to her, the science fiction novel I wanted to write was pretty bad, but what she told me always stuck with me. 

She said, “You seem interested in writing about ideas, but literature is always either about character or language; maybe you should try writing nonfiction essays instead.”

I was stubborn enough or smart enough to bristle at the ridiculousness of what seemed to me to be her sclerotic vision of what fiction should be, but I think her response is pretty instructive of what assumptions underlie traditional judgments of literary value.  These judgments all directly or indirectly arose from tectonic shifts in literary values during the middle of the twentieth century, associated with the early cold war, the New Criticism, and the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom. The shift didn’t happen by accident.

Which isn’t to say I don’t value careful attention to language and character, of course, just that there are people who go through their entire literary lives with a kind of allergy to fiction about anything beyond the scope of individual and family problems.  And who seem to have no idea that intellectual/literary life not too long ago rested on quite different foundational critical values.

By Lee Konstantinou on 04/28/09 at 09:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t have the patience to listen to WBM and the panel discussion, so I’ll just address his essay.  If he could not explain his ideas there, that’s his problem.

First of all, WBM shows a total ignorance of actual contemporary historical fiction.  In England, the work of Iain Sinclair and David Peace combine an intense historical sensibility with a critique of capitalism and class.  In America, E. L. Doctorow, Thomas Pynchon, and Ishmael Reed have used historical fiction to criticize capitalism.  *Mason & Dixon* is obviously, almost heavy-handedly, about the market, as M & D’s fate is guided by “invisible hands” from colonial market to colonial market.  The two realize quickly that their science is in the service of extending a web across the globe that will facilitate global capitalism.  (In one scene, they imagine the lines of latitude and longitude as a net, ropes that cross the ocean, with a market at each intersection.) Ishmael Reed’s *Flight to Canada* uses slavery to talk about commodity culture; the character of Pirate Jack is used to show the true historical danger: slavery is anachronistic, while market capitalism takes all the fun of slavery and extends it across the globe.  (See his historiographic novels *The Terrible Twos* and *The Terrible Threes* for an attack on Reagonomics that’s far more interesting than *American Psycho*’s infantile equation of the rich with murderers—hey, *Dracula*, thanks for trying!) Even *Beloved* is about people’s attempts to reclaim humanity after being reduced to a commodity.  Morrison’s devastating critique of the family in that novel gives the lie to WBM’s line of thought there. 

Second, notice how useful Zola and Balzac and the realist/naturalist tradition was in stopping capitalism or enlightening the world proletariat.  If anything, capitalism learned from their work (and Dickens, especially) how to market representations of the evils of capitalism.  This is precisely why the avant-garde shifted to alienation effects and anti-absorption strategies, as if art that couldn’t be marketed could destroy the market itself.

By on 04/28/09 at 10:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What “capitalism” “learned” instinctively to do to left or much liberatory fiction: ban/censor/filter it out, and/or marginalize it, and/or attack it. And propagandize extensively against it. Such fiction remains powerful, and dangerous to established interests. Capitalist and other oppressive status quo interests instinctively know that and constantly work against it, in myriad ways.

By Tony Christini on 04/28/09 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Does he _really_ say we need to chuck aside people of color and pay no attention to the poverty and historical crises of people of color? Hum. That’s really disturbing if he does.

I haven’t read the essay yet, but Luther Blissett has already made my points for me.

The idea that character-driven or family-centered literature is an example of bad politics that is especially relevant to today is interesting, though. He’s coming out of the early Marxist critics who equated the Victorian novel with bourgeois solipsism --- and I really think there is an important connection to be made between, say, the rugged individualism of the hero (whether in the Western or 24), and my students’ self-centeredness, their absolutely pervasive certainty that they are outside of and untouched by any social structures, brainwashed by no ideologies or institutions.

But! It sounds like the rest of his argument is so strange I would not start here for working through my own take on the dangers of character-driven, apolitical fiction; I’d have to start over looking somewhere else.

And he can _really_ make an argument against individualism and for institutions, and not have that immediately take his empathy out towards other groups netted in similar, interlocking, structures? Huh.

By Sisyphus on 04/28/09 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess when you start with a crudely instrumentalist idea of literature that’s where you end up.  The absurdity of the conclusion is the direct result of a very narrow conceptualization of the relation between history and literature, much narrower than you would find even in classic Marxist theory like Lukacs.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 04/29/09 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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