Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

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

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

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

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Man in Black: A Response to Walter Benn Michaels

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 10/03/06 at 07:46 PM

I hope, in the course of this essay, to prove three points about The Trouble With Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels. First, that Michaels is right about the necessary connection between the American celebration of diversity and the persistence of economic inequality, but for reasons that are implied rather than explicitly stated in his book. Second, that one can find in unexpected places—namely, in popular works of American art – antecedents for Michaels’s political critique of culture. Finally, that only a political program informed and aided by culture, rather than dismissive of it, is capable of realizing the lasting equality for which Michaels so eloquently argues.

1. Building global solidarity

Among the most frequent criticisms of Michaels’s book is, as Sean McCann has written, that there is “no absolute and necessary conflict between economic justice and multiculturalism.” McCann references the “historical evidence for the fact that many defenders of multiculturalism have also been concerned with economic inequality.” This is a fair objection to Michaels’s text as written; Michaels’s fundamental argument, however, is unscathed.

Michaels has remained faithful to an ideal of global equality reminiscent of Eugene V. Debs, whom he references sympathetically in The Trouble With Diversity. Michaels is sharply critical of American privilege, and, by imagining a scenario in which the United States becomes a victim of globalized industry, demonstrates the cold comfort of maintaining one’s “heritage” in a state of dire poverty. He is as critical of the “indigenism” of Bolivia’s Evo Morales as he is of similar movements in the United States. Michaels believes that “our commitment to equal opportunity” means that “hard work and ability” (134) should be rewarded, and there’s no reason to believe he would deny people from other nations the opportunity to compete for those rewards.

In order for equal opportunity to be possible on a global scale, everyone on Earth needs to be able to compete for the same jobs, and all laborers need to be able to organize to ensure a reasonable standard of living regardless of nationality. This is the immediately recognizable dream of the International Workers of the World, and I suspect Michaels does not wish to be too closely associated with it. After all, it is one thing to complain about working conditions in China, and another to be a spokesman for the Wobblies. Michaels limits himself to a single phrase: he mentions the “possibility of organizing workers internationally” (189).

Michaels’s occluded dream of an international labor movement explains his obsession with disappearing languages.  He wants to see the emergence of a global lingua franca, and an international culture based on shared beliefs. He is hoping that the pressures of global capitalism will make one language universal, which is why all of his international examples are focused on the spread of English: Quebec, Australia, India. Michaels is not a linguistic imperialist; he does not believe that English is inherently better than Spanish or Hindi. He is merely exasperated by the obstacles that linguistic and cultural differences pose to progressive international policy. He is doubtless aware of Esperanto’s bad reputation, so he limits himself to hazarding guesses about which organically evolved language will become our Esperanto.

Another way of putting this is that if Michaels is not interested in the political potential of a common language, then his argument is that we should do whatever our bosses want, in order to get whatever additional income they can spare. In his speculative future America, now filled with Indian factories, “if we don’t learn Hindi, we won’t even be able to get the call center jobs that would keep us out of the sweatshops” (164). Likewise, I think he opposes Mati Ke culture on political grounds: “Because you can’t talk to your brother, you can’t go to the school he goes to or you can’t attend the public meetings where he and the other men debate important issues” (153). Otherwise, he opposes it because it is full of “silly rules” (170), a position which is neither fair-minded nor usefully analytical.

Finally, Michaels’s examples of mutual cultural appreciation prove that respect for cultures enforces distance. At the end of the episode of Wife Swap, the wives return to their respective families, having “learned” something about how the other half lives, but even less concerned than before about the economic inequalities that created the differences between them. As American spectators of events in Bolivia, we can find common cause with the secular arguments for public utilities, but we have no indigenous equivalent for the Aymara traditions Morales has invoked. Because culture is treated as if it were genetic, and therefore incommunicable, it replaces political solidarity with isolationist “respect.” This is why Michaels’s argument about the political consequences of multiculturalism is a strong claim about a problematic myth of ineradicable difference, and not a weak claim about mere distraction.

2. Here come the men in black

In general, the only kindred spirits Michaels will acknowledge are politicians: Eugene Debs, Huey Long, John Edwards. This is a misleading tactic. Michaels writes as though Long and Edwards routinely made time, in their speeches, for close readings of The Great Gatsby and I Am Charlotte Simmons. Much closer to the truth is the opening of the book, where Michaels takes Ernest Hemingway’s side in a debate with F. Scott Fitzgerald over the nature of the rich. An argument against “cultural diversity” is a cultural position: it affects what Michaels will read, how he will interpret his reading, what and how he will teach his English classes, and whether (to use his example) he will learn to speak Yiddish. In other words, because his beliefs are a challenge to other beliefs that influence and are influenced by culture, they are inescapably rhetorical and aesthetic positions as well as political positions.

They are not entirely new positions. In recent decades, certain American artists have speculated about what an alternative to diversity might look like, and have gravitated towards one very particular figure. This figure is the “man in black,” who has abandoned his own prior identity in order to rally others on the grounds of their shared humanity. The man in black is not a “man in white” (in other words, not a Klansman or a saint), and he is an after-image of the figure of the preacher. He appears at the moment when universalism, and the absolutely undetermined subject of the democratic state, must return to assert its rights against the hypocritical devolution of America.

The man in black understands that his entire person, including his clothing, is subject to interpretation, and he exploits this to his advantage. Black, the absence of color, will stand for his refusal to mythologize his family, his refusal of nationalism, and his commitment to absolute equality. It will be his symbol of freedom, and his freedom depends on his ability to abstract himself from every remnant of culture that might impede his ability to organize.

The man in black possesses something else, too, which is missing from The Trouble With Diversity: an auto-critique. He looks towards a withering away of his abstract revolutionary identity, and the resumption of a more individual existence.

The first example that comes to mind is the song “Man In Black,” which was released in 1971 by Johnny Cash. The song is both overtly religious and politically progressive. Speaking to an interlocutor who wonders “why I always dress in black,” Cash sings that “there’s a reason for the things that I have on”:

I wear the black for the poor and beaten down
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town [...]
Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there oughta be a Man in Black.
[...]
Well, there’s things that never will be right I know
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ‘til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

The song protests religious fundamentalism, the unfair treatment of prisoners, and the loss of life in Vietnam, in addition to protesting poverty. It is certainly too brief to be a full-fledged political argument, but it appeared at a moment when these causes would have been linked by a coherent set of leftist demands for social justice.

The song galvanized Cash’s listeners and defined his image in the popular imagination. Equally important, it created a contrast between the “man in black” and the emergent symbols of multiculturalism. The song ends like this:

I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.

Color matters in the United States. Nowadays, Cash’s line about wearing a “rainbow” brings to mind not only the hippies, but also the flags hanging in the Castro district of San Francisco, and Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition.” Such displays of multicultural pride are precisely the sort of political stance Michaels finds most worthless.

The next memorable “man in black” was played by Cary Elwes in the 1987 film The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner. The film is a comedy made with family audiences in mind. That said, it is enormously popular, and far more culturally significant than Tom Wolfe’s latest exercise in voyeurism. It has survived partly because of its sentimentality, and partly because of the depth of its humor.

The plot concerns a young, poor stable boy named Westley. Westley is in love with a beautiful woman named Buttercup, and goes off to seek his fortune in order to marry her. He returns to find her kidnapped by a hired murderer named Vizzini, who himself employs several otherwise decent people as his assistants in crime. Westley rescues Buttercup, not as himself, but as the “man in black,” and later as the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” an identity ceded to him by a different man who was retiring from piracy.

One of the film’s conceits is that nobody, not even Buttercup, can figure out Westley’s identity because he is wearing a mask. Throughout the film, Vizzini’s henchman call him “the man in black,” and when one of them asks him why he wears a mask, he says: “It’s just that they’re terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future” (emphasis added). Westley has assumed the identity of the Everyman, and his nemesis Vizzini is a perfect caricature of reactionary forces: he is an oppressive boss who ridicules his employees for their lack of “intelligence,” he serves an evil nobleman by inciting civil war, and he is inordinately proud of his Sicilian identity.

It is not hard to see how Reiner, following in the footsteps of novelist William Goldman, constructs his allegory of identity. “I could give you my word as a Spaniard,” says Inigo Montoya, one of Vizzini’s henchman. “No good,” the man in black replies, “I’ve known too many Spaniards.” When Westley finally reaches Vizzini, they fight a battle of wits based on the swindler’s trick of the “shell game.” Westley claims to have poisoned one of two goblets with “iocane powder,” and invites Vizzini to choose to drink either the one in front of himself, or the one in front of Westley. Actually, both goblets are poisoned. They drink, and Westley survives, having built up a resistance to the poison. Vizzini dies.

What, then, is iocane powder? It seems to have no characteristics: “I smell nothing,” Vizzini reports. Westley replies, “What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, [and] dissolves instantly in liquid.” Vizzini then says, “Iocane comes from Australia, as everyone knows. And Australia is entirely peopled by criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me.” When they drink, Vizzini is sure he has chosen correctly, and begins to laugh unpleasantly. He informs Westley that he (Westley) has ignored the second most well-known proverb in the world, “never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.” The instant Vizzini invokes the supernatural protection of his Sicilian identity, he keels over and dies. He has been defeated, like the Cyclops, by “nothing” and “nobody” – by an odorless and tasteless poison that is perfectly analogous to the anonymous man in black, and which comes from a nation (Australia) made up of prisoners (it is a charming hypocrisy that Buttercup’s kidnapper does not consider himself a “criminal”). In short, Vizzini has choked on the concrete symbol of the salvation of the underclass: the re-discovery of a humanity without qualities.

For the sake of clarity, I have continued to call the man in black “Westley.” Again, this is information only the film’s audience possesses. In the film, Buttercup is bitter and resentful of the man in black, because she has been told that Westley was killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. At an opportune moment, she pushes him down a cliff, only to realize (while he is still tumbling) that he is her true love and has come to save her. “Oh, my sweet Westley,” she exclaims, and comically tumbles after him. His mask comes flying off. When they are re-united at the bottom of the hill, he is his old self again. Were Michaels to ask him why he should care about remaining Westley, he would say, in keeping with the fairy tale genre, “true love.”

I am afraid that The Princess Bride, like Beloved or The Plot Against America, would be classed by Michaels as just another fantasy designed to erode our political realism. I believe it is, on the contrary, much better than Michaels at providing a consistent account of motivation, since the film argues that Westley undertakes revolutionary acts (becoming a pirate at war with a prince) partly for personal reasons. More interesting still, Westley’s new anonymity becomes a snare for him, and has to be literally shaken loose.

Michaels does not mention romantic love, but he does write at length about the family. He describes Patrick Nudjulu sitting “surrounded by his children and his grandchildren” (151), as if to prove that Patrick’s miseries are not as great as they seem. He defeats M. J. Bienvenu’s argument about deafness by a recourse to the family; “But do deaf parents want their children to be deaf like them? Do poor parents want their children to preserve the culture of poverty? [...] The answer to both of these questions is no” (169). Strange, then, that he so aggressively disclaims relations of identity, as though there were no reason why we should love our children more than others, and take on the burden of politics specifically in their name.

The most recent film in this lineage is Fight Club, and the “man in black” is the dubious hero Tyler Durden. Tyler is actually two people simultaneously, because he is schizophrenic: a muscle-bound terrorist who likes boxing and crimes against property, and a white-collar nebbish possibly named “Jack.” The film has been extensively analyzed, especially in the blogosphere, so I’ll confine myself to pointing out two important things. First, Tyler organizes a team of anarchist followers to wear the same uniform as himself: black shirt, black pants, black shoes. They live in a dilapidated house that they transform into a pseudo-military bunker. They believe in absolute equality and reject identity: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake,” Tyler snarls. He also repeats the mantra, “You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not your [...] khakis.” In other words, people with more money in the bank are not different from you. Like you, they are nothing. They just have more money, like Hemingway said.

Second, as in The Princess Bride, the film turns on a moment where a person’s name is re-discovered. In the middle of an anti-corporate prank, the members of Project Mayhem (Tyler’s gang) are found out by the police, and one of them dies from a gunshot to the head. When Jack finds out, and also finds out that Project Mayhem intends to make the body disappear, he yells: “This is a person! He’s a friend of mine and you’re not going to bury him in the [...] garden. [...] Listen to me. This is a man, and he has a name, and it’s Robert Paulsen.” This is the point where Jack begins to break away from Tyler, and by the hysterical logic of the film, he ultimately has to shoot himself in the head to exorcise Tyler’s barren will.

The reason why I am focusing on the trope of the “man in black,” instead of analyzing potentially more respectable artworks by Graham Greene (The Quiet American) or John Le Carré (The Constant Gardener), is that I want to expose the poverty of sensibility that accompanies the political renunciation of culture. This is literally a black-and-white world. Michaels prefers Paris to Las Vegas, and Shakespeare to Mamet, and we know this because somehow he has written a book about equality in which he needs to insist on his fondness for Shakespeare. He even insists on our fondness for Shakespeare: “It is only because, rightly or wrongly, we think Shakespeare is good for everyone—regardless of identity—that we want his plays to survive” (156). I get the feeling that he is protesting too much, and was not surprised to see this in his article for the New York Times magazine: “No doubt it’s unfortunate that our descendants won’t be able to read Shakespeare in the original. But, truth to tell, we’re not doing much of that ourselves anyway.” At places like this, the critique of identity breaks down. Michaels is a professor of English, so I assume he has some familiarity with Shakespeare. When he says “we” don’t read Shakespeare, he isn’t disclaiming the Yiddish of his ancestors. He’s disclaiming the very thing that makes him what he is right at this moment—the thing that justifies his salary as an expert on literature in English, and informs his notion of the good life. So let’s turn our attention to that renunciation, and its costs.

3. Bread and roses

In fact, Walter Benn Michaels has no notion of the good life. He has a borrowed concept of foreign cities, smelly cheeses, and Elizabethan drama, but nothing that springs organically from his vision of economic justice. The proof is his discussion of Wife Swap, where he makes the following claim: “What the show really demonstrates is how much better it is to be rich than to be poor” (103). This means, based on the account of the show Michaels gives us, that it is far better to be Jodi, who spends her days working out and shopping, than it is to be Lynn, who is obliged to do exhausting work for long hours (driving a schoolbus and chopping wood).

One must tread carefully here. For centuries, rich people have tried to convince poor people that their lives were pastoral and pure, or at least that the poor are “instructive” for the rich. This particular episode of Wife Swap is not so much an American phenomenon as the latest in a series that goes back to Wordsworth’s “The Leech-Gatherer,” and much further back than that. Human beings need medical care, financial security, safe places to live, leisure time, and good educational facilities for their children, and in all of these respects Jodi is unquestionably better off than Lynn.

That said, Jodi’s life is undistinguished because she is doing exactly what American culture thinks she should do. She is buying consumer goods, and maintaining her looks by working out. Most of her day is devoted to “me time,” and the predictable result is a selfish, empty existence. Lynn, by contrast, is married to a nicer man, has a better relationship with her children, and spends more time with her family. Michaels may feel, and rightly so, that Lynn’s happier family is compromised by an unavoidable lack of family time, and that Jodi and her husband Stephen were chosen specifically to demonstrate that riches can’t buy happiness. Nonetheless, the facts of Jodi’s life do not change just because she was hand-picked.

For Michaels, no matter what the rich do, they can’t be unhappy. They can only be contemptible. This is because Michaels assumes that they are always doing whatever makes them the most happy, because they have the means to be able to choose how they spend their time. He doesn’t distinguish between necessities, such as good health care, and amusements, such as recreational shopping.

This is too bad, because if global wealth and resources really were distributed fairly, not everyone would be able to fulfill their wildest consumer dreams. In fact, ordinary people (like the majority of viewers of Wife Swap) would not even be able to vicariously enjoy the exorbitant possessions of other people. I am reminded, in considering Michaels’s version of happiness, of Wallace Shawn’s retort in My Dinner With André: “If you’re really saying that it’s necessary to take everybody to Everest, it’s really tough! Because everybody can’t be taken to Everest!” Shawn is referring to rich people vacationing in search of their “spirituality,” but his point applies more generally. Everybody can’t live like Jodi, and it doesn’t even make sense to think they should. Shawn continues, “I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out.” Shawn (when he’s not portraying characters like Vizzini) is a playwright, which means that he considers it to be the function of culture to make people fully aware of this reality. For Shawn, culture is going to produce a different version of “me time” to give richness and meaning to ordinary life.

Without a vision like Shawn’s, of where equality might be taking us, equality is not achievable. People don’t want to work. If they did, they wouldn’t need to be rewarded for working hard. What they want is to be happy. That is their motivation for working, and their motivation for not working if they are Jodi. They also believe that, if not them, somebody has a right to be happy, which is why they oppose laws against inheritance. Their notion of happiness is a result of their culture. Michaels manages to prove that inheritance goes against the principles of the free market, but so what? We know he doesn’t support unregulated competition anyway. The one thing he doesn’t explain is the thing he’s got to prove: that your children don’t need an inheritance to be perfectly happy.

Michaels writes that, for Hemingway, “The rich really [weren’t] very different from you and me [...] this difference—between what people owned and what they were—seemed obvious, and it was also obvious that the important thing was what they were” (1-2). Michaels does not hold to this theory very long; given glimpses into Jodi’s life and Lynn’s, he discovers “how much better it is to be rich,” as though Jodi really were better and happier than her counterpart. He is also not doing Hemingway justice. Towards the end of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes,

During our last year in the mountains new people came deep into our lives and nothing was ever the same again. The winter of the avalanches was like a happy and innocent winter compared to the next winter, a nightmare winter disguised as the greatest fun of all, and the murderous summer that was to follow. It was that year that the rich showed up [...] When you have two people who love each other, are happy and gay and really good work is being done by one or both of them, people are drawn to them as surely as migrating birds are drawn at night to a powerful beacon. [...] They do not always learn about the good, the attractive, the charming, the soon-beloved, the generous, the understanding rich who have no bad qualities and who give each day the quality of a festival and who, when they have passed and taken the nourishment they needed, leave everything deader than the roots of any grass Attila’s horses’ hooves have ever scoured.

Apparently, two people in love do not always learn about the rich even when their best friends are F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The Trouble With Diversity reminds me of Nick Carraway’s remark, at the beginning of The Great Gatsby, that “when I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” One would have to replace “moral attention” with “political attention,” but the point is the same: Michaels, like Carraway, is desperate for a renewal of American integrity. The greatest expressions of that integrity have been the fruit of the good work to which Hemingway refers. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde writes, “One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him — in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living.”

That is what we find in culture: names for the blessings of equality. That is why we claim it, all of it, as our heritage.


Comments

How is your interpretation of WBM really different from a far-left position?  Or, since I seem to have decided to illustrate all my points in this series with regard to SF books, has WBM written about, say, Iain Banks’ Culture novels?

Banks is an influential British writer; the Culture books concern a far-future anarchosocialist posteconomic society.  Everyone can do what they want in this society, with near-complete individualism and complete economic equality (productivity is so high that everything is essentially free), but the society as a whole is almost completely flattened within the terms that WBM seems to care about.  They all speak a single, artificially designed language, and have no cultural subgroups—even their name is the deliberately bland “Culture”.  In one book, a Culture agent visits a society that still has flags, national anthems, various shorthand images for societies; they are nonplussed to find that the Culture has none.  The Culture considers all religions to be, basically, crazy.

These books are political, of course; they reject diversity of cultures and languages and religions in the service of some of the same kind of things that you point out for WBM, but they also have a positive anarchosocialist program.  One of the common objections I’ve seen to WBM’s ideas is that he suggests the cessation of certain political programs without putting something else in their place.  Do you really think that this is true?

By on 10/03/06 at 11:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

God save us from the universal lingua franca!

Here’s a jewel of mislogic: “[The last two speakers of Mati Ke] may be sad because they have no one to speak to in their native tongue, but their loss does not translate into any collective deprivation.  For if cultures, like languages, are neither better nor worse than each other, whichever ones people end up with will be just as good as the ones theirn ancestors used to have.” (*The Trouble* 155).

Problem is, culture and language deeply overlap.  You lose a language, you’ve lost a culture.  Culture is more than a set of discursive beliefs, of Tarski T-statements.  To lose a language—to really lose it—is to lose all the knowledge transmitted in that language.  We nearly lost Egyptian hieroglyphs.  What if we had lost the ability to translate *Gilgamesh*?  What if, along with his knowledge of Mati Ke, the death of Patrick Nudjulu will also mean the loss of a complex system of ideas that could be fruitful?

You don’t have to say *Gilgamesh* is better than X.  You just have to say *Gilgamesh* is worth preserving.  It has value.  The death of a language means the potential loss of a great deal.

(Of course, this is irrelevant to the larger issue of economic equality.  At the same time, life without great books, great music, great food, great (cheap) beer, great cigarettes isn’t worth living.  So I want economic equality *and* a “diverse culture.")

By on 10/04/06 at 12:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, if I understand you right, you’re asking whether I consider Michaels to be on the far left. Theoretically, yes: it appears as though he’s advocating for policy to be made at a global level, and for a mixed economic system with highly regulated labor practices and some public utilities.

Practically speaking, no. Because Michaels is very careful not to identify himself with the far left (as I write in the post, with organizations like the IWW that tend to get a laugh), I think the main effect of his book will be to increase public opposition to multiculturalism. I do not think The Trouble With Diversity will be able to accomplish its positive aims (e.g. eliminating inheritance). His political propositions are very radical. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does make his rhetorical task harder. Most Americans do not believe in government-enforced economic equality—even Michaels does not believe that “hard work and ability” should go unrewarded. Michaels has not created a vision of America through which we could come to understand the benefits of greater equality, nor has he outlined a specific political program for implementing the massive reforms his project entails.

Banks’s Culture novels sound utopian to me. I have no objection to what you’ve described—I certainly would not want to save such a Culture by re-introducing religion and the “confusion of tongues.” There is a difference between how I think about current cultural policy, and how I think about a fictional universe with its own rules, where nothing is being lost or destroyed.

Based on the persistence of “sub-cultures” in America, I wonder whether cultural divisions can (or should) ever be completely overcome. Even when hip-hop is no longer tied in any way to skin color, there will probably be some people who seek it out more than others, and individualism need not come at the expense of communities of taste.

In any event, I’ll check out Banks’s work.

What do you mean by the cessation of certain political programs? Do you mean the cessation of something like affirmative action? I think that Michaels wants to reform affirmative action, not eliminate it—he wants it to be based on class.

Luther, everything you say sounds right to me. In fact, I had an exchange with Michaels in person about the possibility of the disappearance of French. Instead of talking about Gilgamesh, we talked about Proust, but I was saying the same thing as you—Proust is worth preserving because it contains a complex system of fruitful ideas, and French is worth preserving because without it, In Search of Lost Time would not have been possible.

Michaels is right to the extent that it would be somewhat silly to write a novel in Latin now. However, we already have a thorough knowledge of Latin, and that enables us to read Apuleius in the original and translate him afresh. It also gives us insight into Roman culture. The question is whether we have a similar lexicon and canon for Mati Ke, and all the other languages on the verge of extinction.

My comment on Scott’s post adds somewhat to this point, where I get into a discussion of “singularity” as a feature of both texts and persons.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/04/06 at 02:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Banks’s Culture novels sound utopian to me.”

There’s a discussion of whether their utopian quality vitiates them in Acephalous’ series _The Stoning of Adam Roberts_, I think.  (Within the SF subculture, Banks is a canonical author enough for people to debate his critical influence.) My answer in brief was that his utopia requires a hinterland which it continually expands into (imperialistically?).  This may be done for dramatic rather than ideological purposes, but it still does mean that his utopia is a going concern, not a static place where “nothing is being lost or destroyed.”

About “the cessation of certain political programs”, I mean that a common criticism of WBM’s proposals is that he would take away current affirmative action-style programs without having any concrete alternate form of income redistribution in place.  Income redistribution to the extent that he appears to envision is generally considered to be at least bit further “left” than what he seems to claim for himself.  I think that may be the reason for some of the perception that what he’s proposing is not adequately positive.

By on 10/04/06 at 11:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As a professor of Spanish, my first reaction is “Just like an English professor...” They want to read everything in translation and pretend that they can understand the entire world through the prism of one language--their own.  One indigenous language is lost somewhere, so what?  That just furthers the cause of world peace and understanding. 

The problem of multiculturalism, surely, is that it doesn’t take culture seriously enough.  That is, culture is watered down, reduced to its culinary markers.  Yet people like Walter Benn Michaels claims that culture is given an exaggerated role.

This is not to contest his central point, which is that elites use the multicultural alibi in order not to deal with economic inequality.  But the answer is surely not (what I perceive to be) a an almost flippant dismissal of language and culture themselves. 

Don’t allow “multiculturalism” to occur in an English-only environment.  Make WBM reformulate his argument in Quechua and see if it still makes sense.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 10/04/06 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem of multiculturalism, surely, is that it doesn’t take culture seriously enough.

Yes.

Whatever’s going on in WBM’s book, it is not about culture itself—artifacts, structures, processes— in any serious way. It’s about a certain ideology of culture. No less, no more.

By Bill Benzon on 10/04/06 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan’s right on.  WBM makes the moronic statement that one would preserve Shakespeare because one thinks Shakespeare is good for all people at all times.  But of course, as that famous “Shakespeare in the Jungle” anthropology experiment shows, Shakespeare would make no sense to most people at most times.  Even if Mati Ke dies out and is replaced by English, it doesn’t mean that Shakespeare will be comprehensible to them (any more than Shakespeare is comprehensible to most contemporary English speakers—ability to decode sentences doesn’t mean ability to comprehend sentences, cf. the Hirsch “cultural literacy” debate). 

If a language dies, we lose access to a people.  If a people dies, we lose access to a people.  If a culture dies, we lose access to a people.  Of course, the people dying is the worst, but the other losses are still losses. 

You preserve Shakespeare because (a) his work is important to you; and (b) because it *might* be useful to *some* people *sometime* in the future.  It’s also why it’s so sad that some mythic 45s are no longer availble (and that so many are not available to most people).

By on 10/04/06 at 05:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: