Sunday, October 01, 2006
The Trouble With Diversity: A Prelude
As a prelude to next week’s discussion of The Trouble With Diversity, I’m providing some links to recent articles by and about Walter Benn Michaels and the conversaions they elicited. I’ll follow those with links to scholarly articles about the two books from which The Trouble With Diversity draws its arguments, Our America: Nativism, Modernism and Pluralism and The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History.
Articles by Michaels concerning The Trouble With Diversity:
- “The Trouble With Diversity,” American Prospect, September 12, 2006
- “Class Fictions,” Boston Globe, October 9, 2005
- “Diversity’s False Solace,” New York Times, April 11, 2004
- “Overrating Diversity,” Huffington Post, September 15, 2006
- “Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism,” American Literary History 18.2 (2006) [Project Muse]
- “Autobiography of an Ex-White Man,” Transition 73 (1997) [JSTOR]
Commentary on The Trouble With Diversity:
- “Ideology Instead of Identity,” Jennifer Howard, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 22, 2006
- “Liberty, Equality ... Diversity?,” Scott McLemee
- “The Trouble With Prosperity,” Ezra Klein
- “The Diversity Plutocracy,” John McWhorter
- “Getting Your Priorities Straight,” Unfogged
- “A Peculiarly Bifurcated Book,” University Diaries
- “Benn There, Done That,” Discriminations
- “Colorblinded," The Boston Globe, September 3, 2006
- “Against Zero-Sum Logic: A Response to ["Plots Against America"]," Michael Rothberg, American Literary History 18.2 (2006) [PM]
Articles by Michaels concerning The Shape of the Signifier:
- “The Shape of the Signifier,” Critical Inquiry 27.2 (2001) [JSTOR]
- “Posthistoricism," Transition 70 (1996) [JSTOR]
- “Political Science Fictions,” New Literary History 31.4 (2000) [PM]
- “Empires of the Senseless: (The Response to) Terror and (the End of) History,” Radical History Review 85 (2003) [PM]
Commentary on The Shape of the Signifier:
- “The Shape of the Signifier or, The Ontology of Argument,” Davide Panagia, Theory & Event 8.2 (2005) [PM]
- “Post Post-Identity,” Michael Millner, American Quarterly 57.2 (2005) [PM]
- “Review," Henry Staten, Modernism/Modernity 12.2 (2005) [PM]
Articles by Michaels concerning Our America:
- “American Modernism and the Poetics of Identity,” Modernism/Modernity 1.1 (1994) [PM]
- “Race Into Culture: A Critical Genealogy of Cultural Identity,” Critical Inquiry 18.4 (1992) [JSTOR]
- “The No-Drop Rule,” Critical Inquiry 20.4 (1994) [JSTOR]
- “The Vanishing American,” American Literary History 2.2 (1990) [JSTOR]
Commentary on Our America:
- “Introduction to Our America and Nativist Modernism: A Panel,” Robert Von Hallberg, Modernism/Modernity 3.1 (1996) [PM]
- “Modernism Without the Modernists,” Marjorie Perloff, Modernism/Modernity 3.1 (1996) [PM]
- “Whose America is Our America,” Charles Altieri, Modernism/Modernity 3.1 (1996) [PM]
- “Literature and History: Neat Fits,” Robert Von Hallberg, Modernism/Modernity 3.1 (1996) [PM]
- “Response," Walter Benn Michaels, Modernism/Modernity 3.1 (1996) [PM]
I would’ve included more on these lists, but I feared overwhelming contributors and commenters alike. By no means must you read all those links—many of which are available only through subscription—to comment on The Trouble With Diversity.
The University Diarist has an interesting observation about the book’s conclusion, which is all about Michaels himself:
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 not sure I can go along with that final comment, but I certainly resonate to the KISS ME I’M HONEST branding. As it happened, the conclusion is where I happened to open the book after I’d retrieved it from my mailbox. I started reading it and promptly blew my stack.
What’s so very curious is that I’d come to associate that sort of mea culpa with the identity-burdened thinking that Michaels has been undermining for the past decade. When a good post-modern academic writes about oppressed people it’s common for said academic to offer up his or her own identity either in expiation or as a token of self-awareness and its vicissitudes. So, what’s Michaels doing making that same moi-centric move—in spades too! for he devotes 12 pages to himself? Is it out-of-control vanity or is it something else?
I’m attempting to argue for something else. Not sure I’ll succeed. It’s an up hill struggle at this point.
Not being in the liberal arts, I’d heard about WBM but not actually read any of him, so it was nice to read the Critical Inquiry piece, and get some sense of what his original arguments were like before seeing the more popularized version. The fact that I could feel that I got a decent grasp of his argument with only a modest background gives me some understanding of why I’ve heard such praise…
...but I couldn’t help thinking - all this discussion about Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and rocks on Mars and whether they’re speaking, and whether people can speak for Mars or what that even means - all of this and no mention of the deliciously bizarre radical geologists that blow stuff up in an attempt to stop the terraforming and save the landscape? How could he restrain himself?