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Friday, 06 January 2006


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Yes, I'd love to hear a little more about the "intellectual vacuity" of everyone's work. Seems to me that WBM is being a bit indirect and, well, vacuous about the nature of the vacuity itself.

return to some Golden Age of literary study, some pre-Michaelsian, pre-Fishian moment in which the appreciation of literature quà literature dominated.

But that's not what Waters is saying, not quite. You fail to follow through - you make him sound like a literary luddite. Pre-Michaels, pre-Fish, but not pre-Theory. The word "appreciate" in any form appears only once, in the following line early on: "Literary criticism no longer aims to appreciate aesthetics — to study how human beings respond to art." Never appears again. But there's lots of ways to "appreciate aesthetics" without heading straight for a faux-Golden Age of lit for lit's sake.

The thing about WBM, from what I can tell - I've read maybe a third of S of S - is that he picks easy literary targets. His machine would choke and shatter if he were to try to shove, say, The Waste Land or Madame Bovary into it. Intention? Argument? You can deconstruct and demolish, say, Octavia Butler, fine. But try Ulysses out. The ambiguity remains the strength of the work.

Maybe he doesn't care... that 's not the point anymore. We'll ignore those fuzzy works... Incoherent intention. Well, fine. But then why worry about literature at all? Is it really the best delivery device for argument? Why not just work on directly argumentative items, non-fiction, non-literature? Why not simply leave the novel behind altogether?

One other way to put it. Let's imagine a dashing young scholar whose accepted this intention/argument line, and decided to work on, I dunno, American literature and appropriations of evolutionary theory c. 1890-1910. Can you explain to me what's gained by focusing on the literature? Why this young scholar would want to take up London's work, for instance? Why not just cultural argument, journalism, tract-writing, philosophy, what you will, about evolution in American life? Why bother with literature in the first place? Is there anything different about literature?


One other thing: I'd like to hear a little bit more of the follow-through from Sean's piece... "Arnoldian," fine... So what? What's so wrong with that? We're missing the pay-off here...



Like many of Michaels' critics, you're misunderstanding his notion of intentionality. His point is not that works of literature are unambiguous. Rather, it's that when we read, we cannot help but read texts as intentional works. If a work is ambiguous, then we read it as a work that was constructed as such. No metaphysical notion of the author is implied. Michaels is simply described a condition of possibility for interpretation as such. And in The Shape of the Signifier, he's describing the logical incoherencies that follow from trying to deny this condition of possibility.

It's also simply not true that he only reads "easy literary targets." I, for one, don't think that Octavia Butler is such a target. But sticking with your criteria of high modernism, one of the highlights of Our America is a brilliant reading of The Sound and the Fury.

Scott Eric Kaufman

One other thing: I'd like to hear a little bit more of the follow-through from Sean's piece... "Arnoldian," fine... So what? What's so wrong with that?

I'm answering everything backwards your last point first: I don't think Sean's condemning the Arnoldian position, only pointing out that it's at odds with the liberatory logic these same critics employ elsewhere. Are we dealing with abstractions here? Certainly. But in my own experience, I think the equation he draws between those who value the complexity of literature on the one hand and those who value its liberatory effects on the other holds water. In my experience here at Irvine, the former frequently bolsters the latter through a series of naive steps: 1) literature is complex; 2) complex literature makes people think; 3) when people think they discover the ultra-mega-liberatory literariness of literature and start picketing whatever out there needs picketing.

Alright, so that was ultra-mega-flip, but it does jibe with what I've seen here...and it does strike me as an Arnoldian position in action. Whether that works with, say, lower class student populations is something I can't speak to; but its appeal to white upper class children of privilege can't be doubted. (This is why Bauerlein's comment about needing to extend the effect of "critical thought" beyond Bobby Kennedy's "enlightened ruling class" resonated with me. I have no problems tapping into upper class guilt, and the modes of reading I have available do that extraordinarily well...but I'm not sure that's the best use of the literature I teach or my talents. I did have a point here. I may just be venting now.)

Scott Eric Kaufman

What I meant to say up there is that the liberatory logic doesn't quite jibe with the complexity the way say Mike Gold would've wanted it to. Thus the easy equation Waters makes, while possibly true, at the very least needs a lot more evidence behind it to satisfy me or WBM.

But what I really mean to say is that I'm exhausted and everything I've written since about 10:45 p.m. should be ignored until I have a chance to revise it with a fresh head in the morning. Consider this an official declaration of my tentativeness about the previous claims. In fact, they're all wrong on their face as well as their head, heart and liver. They're that wrong. Tentatively. They may all be right come the morrow, but I want to think 'em through with a clear head...and that's not something I have after spending all day hard-core dissertating.

Luther Blissett

Minor point, Scott: Du Bois's *Darkwater* is a collection of various genres, a sort of sequel to *Souls*. *Dark Princess* is his crazy international rainbow-coalition romance novel.

I wasn't there for Dimock's talk, but I wonder if her distinction between propositional and empirical arguments is really as laughable as you make it seem here. Economist Glenn Lowry, for example, does an excellent job in his *The Anatomy of Racial Inequality* of distinguishing empirically and historically the vast differences between (a) a system of racial stigmatizing and (b) a collection of the racially stigmatized who use the idea of race to further their political goals. Which is to say that while the propositional logic underlying both structures of thought here might be called "racialism," the actual historical and empirical effects of these structures of thought are neither similar nor parallel. (Ian Baucom's new work also does a great job of showing up WBM's philosophy of history as itself rather thin. Baucom spends about 200 pages working empirically to establish an alternative way of thinking history.)

The problem isn't with propositional logic per se, but the way that WBM often boils down complex histories into easy propositions that -- who knew? -- end up analogically mirroring the very opposite ideas than one would have expected. We see this in *The Shape of the Signifier*. His brief reduction of Leslie Silko's work is powerful in its simplicity. Ever since the Native American protagonist of *Ceremony* sympathized with his Japanese WWII adversary because his people came from Asia over the prehistoric Ice Bridge, I've been uneasy with her work's tendency to reduce world politics to the Dark(-Skinned) versus the Light. But when it comes to Butler's *Kindred* or Morrison's *Beloved*, I see WBM's lack of interpretation as a liability, as he misreads and reduces complex figures into simple, one-sided propositions.

It's not that WBM somehow finds a way of reading literature that avoids interpretation in the name of argument. It's that his work too often elides the interpretive work he's doing by asserting, propositionally, that a literary work is nothing more than the statement he has substituted for it.

Luther Blissett

One other point I forgot to make:

You write that Warren looked at Du Bois's statement that the value of his work wasn't aesthetic or narrative but that Du Bois's perspective was marginal, and thus rare. I don't understand how Warren gets from there to WBM's "identity over argument" argument here. Du Bois often insisted on the need for black art to be strictly propagandistic. Du Bois is the last scholar, though, to say that his ideas should be accepted without debate or argument. It seems that Du Bois is saying, simply, "The point of my novel is to present an image of collective social change, an image that arises in part from my circumstances as a black American. The point is not to produce a powerful work of art or a stimulating story."

Attention to the perspective of a scholar does not preclude debate over his or her ideas. We can debate, for example, the validity of CLR James' reading of *Moby Dick* as a factory novel -- even as we accept that this reading, so original and surprising in the context of the 1950s in the US (James wrote this work in detainment on Ellis Island), emerged from his unique perspective as a Marxist Caribbean intellectual in detainment on Ellis Island. Historians and sociologists, of course, might be interested in his reading even if we all decide it's wrong, precisely *because* it gives us access to the historical experience of a Marxist Caribbean intellectual in detainment.

When Michaels (or Kenneth Warren) makes us chose between experience and argument, they neglect to attend to the specific intellectual work being done in different fields or professions. We may read a novel exactly because of its perspective and the experience it has stylized. (And Du Bois was introducing a novel, remember.) You wrote, "Those who value the authenticity of the experience over execution of the art in their literature are likely, Warren argues, to do the same in their criticism." That just seems patently untenable. Du Bois, of course, proves him wrong: a scholar rigorous in debate, never appealing to the "authenticity" of his experience when arguing with other thinkers (like, say, Booker T. Washington). Or take Du Bois's review of McKay: here we have Du Bois as a critic wholly opposed to McKay's experience. Du Bois's propagandistic art criteria are about argument (or at least persuasion): McKay's novel was bad not because it wasn't authentic. In fact, Du Bois probably found it *too* authentic. No, the problem was that it would bank on black authenticity persuade readers to think incorrectly about Harlem and black folk.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Minor point, Scott: Du Bois's *Darkwater* is a collection of various genres, a sort of sequel to *Souls*. *Dark Princess* is his crazy international rainbow-coalition romance novel.

Not so minor, considering I've written on both of them. I wrote "Dark Water" in my notes, which leads me to believe that when I take notes after 9 p.m. I'm liable to confuse myself. But you're right, I was talking about "his crazy international rainbow-coalition romance novel."

I wasn't there for Dimock's talk, but I wonder if her distinction between propositional and empirical arguments is really as laughable as you make it seem here.

Unfortunately, it may have even been more laughable than I let on, simply because I left out almost all of her direct comparisons of Walter's work to Gilroy's. I'm not saying that the position itself is laughable, mind you, because (to flip the polarities) I'm much more sympathetic to Gilroy's empirical approach than I am to Walter's "logical" or, dare I say it, theoretical approach. In short, I don't disagree with anything you wrote after the above sentence, though I quibble with this:

The problem isn't with propositional logic per se, but the way that WBM often boils down complex histories into easy propositions that -- who knew? -- end up analogically mirroring the very opposite ideas than one would have expected.

Just because it's clever doesn't make it false. In the case of Our America, despite the differences you identify above, I think his account of racialism/anti-racialism fundamentally sound . . . only I'd prefer he went about demonstrating its validity as Gilroy had. The question is would Gilroy have been able to write Against Race had Walter not written Our America? (Why do I feel like we're having previous conversations backwards?)

It's that his work too often elides the interpretive work he's doing by asserting, propositionally, that a literary work is nothing more than the statement he has substituted for it.

Yes, but if he did otherwise, his books wouldn't clock in under 200 pages.

More on Warren shortly.

Luther Blissett

Actually, isn't Gilroy more indebted to Appiah, who made WBM's argument about racialism=racism before him? Or am I getting my dates screwed up? Appiah's famous essay on Du Bois's shifting conceptions of race is what I'm thinking of here.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Isn't that in In My Father's House, or am I misremembering? According to Amazon, that was published in '93. Thing is, I don't have a copy of the Gilroy handy, and when I read it I remember thinking "This sure sounds like Our America." But that's anecdotal, not definitive.

Rich Puchalsky

If I may momentarily lower the tone, I have to say that WBM's statement (the one beginning with "The problem with Lindsay Waters is that he never says anything" and ending with "no real intellectual substance to the conservation") is one of the best pieces for pure style of flame that I've read in some time. Clearly someone should convince WBM to start a blog.


Scott, just a quick correction. WMB only identified me as John Holbo after he did some song and dance about how SOME people think it's terribly important to distinguish big-T and little-t theory; at which point I began pantomiming my agreement with that sentiment. And he noticed. And THEN he inferred I was John Holbo. Which is a lot less surprising than just getting it from my opening line.


Oh, sorry I quickly skimmed and missed that you actually had that in there. I think you've just got my opening inquiry and the Theory-theory riff temporally reversed. He only went into T-t after my opening inquiry. You've got the spirit of the exchange right, I think.

Luther Blissett

Benn Michaels' essay "Race into Culture," which gives us much of the argument of *Our America*, comes out in 1992, the same year that Appiah's *In My Father's House* is released. But Appiah's important article on Du Bois's theories of race, "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race," was published in the famous 1995/96 issue of *Critical Inquiry*, which was later republished as *"Race," Writing, and Difference*. Appiah would republish this piece, along with the similarly important and relevant "Topologies of Nativism," in *Father's House*.

In fact, between Appiah's essay and Todorov's reply to the contributors' pieces, most of Benn Michaels' points about race-into-culture were made in this one journal issue. At the same time, the ease with which racialism re-emerges with discussions of cultural difference in the collection gives us insight into WBM's frustration with the endurance of racial thinking. Or, as Todorov wrote in 1985, "Thus, it is with good cause that the word 'race' was placed in quotes in the title of this issue [of *Critical Inquiry*]: 'races' do not exist. I am less sure, however, that all the contributors managed to avoid postulating the existence, behind this word as behind most words, of a thing" (371).

At the same time, Todorov's piece exhibits many of the toxic elements I see in aspects of WBM's arguments against identity. For example, he accuses Henry Louis Gates of racialism when Gates proposes a vernacular criticism for African-American literature. Todorov's logical problem here is obvious: just because there's no "black race" doesn't mean that something called "black literature" doesn't exist (i.e., there is no biological black race, but there is a tradition of writing by racially stigmatized people of African-origins which resonates both within and without other American literary traditions -- which is to say, there's also no "Northeastern liberal" race, but there certainly is a Northeastern liberal tradition of writing). Gates' own defense of a vernacular criticism in his reply to Todorov is powerful: "But let me state clearly that my call for vernacular theories of the Other was intended, as I state it to be, as an example of where [Houston Baker] and I found it necessary and fruitful to turn to escape the neocolonialism of the 'egalitarian criticism' of Todorov and company, whose claims to 'the universal' somehow always end up lopping off our arms, legs and pug noses, muffling the peculiar timbres of our voices, and trying to straighten our always already kinky hair . . ." (408).

Of course, here is where my WBM-inspired hackles are raised: although Gates would defend this rhetorical performance as an act of ironic signifyin(g), it's still unsatisfying in its equation of a black vernacular with physical signs of "blackness" that many so-called black folks don't even share: a regulation nose, a uniformly different vocal timbre, a terminally kinky do. Jean Toomer -- or Ishmael Reed's "outed" black cartoonist, George Harriman, of *Krazy Kat* fame -- certainly couldn't join this club of blackness.

In any case, it's interesting to revisit the *"Race," Writing, and Difference* collection for precisely these reasons. I'm not saying that Benn Michaels isn't original; but I am saying that to see *Our America* as somehow the seed and perfect fruit of these issues is historically wrong. Benn Michaels entered a conversation already underway, with many of the "propositions" themselves already proposed, and spoke more forcefully and antagonistically than the others. *Our America* did add a lot to this debate, forcing us to turn to American modernism and face up to the racialism in its cultural logic (at a time when many critics were looking at American modernism in increasingly international and liberatory ways). But Benn Michaels managed to seem to have invented this debate precisely through his rhetoric and mode of argumentation. That too many of his critics now focus more on his "propositional logic" than on his actual contributions to literary studies is a testament to what made the book so (in)famous in the first place.

Dan Green

"If a work is ambiguous, then we read it as a work that was constructed as such."

But this can't be right. I've read plenty of works and found them ambiguous--in the good sense--even though their authors obviously enough "intended" them to be otherwise. In other words, they are unintentionally ambiguous. Flannery O'Connor, for example. She's always seemed to me to be a writer whose imagination and stylistic proclivities in a sense overrode her ability to embody her intentions unambiguously.

Peter Sattler

I take a back seat to no one in my admiration for Walter Benn Michaels, but this latest set of posts has got me baffled – especially insofar as they address an MLA session that celebrates the 10th anniversary of Our America.

Now, I’m all for birthdays, but I must ask, Are we talking about the same book here? As I recall things, this volume hit the academic shelves with a resounding thud. I remember little, if any, of the uproar through which the panelists and bloggers seem to have lived. Indeed, as a grad student who bought the book on its release day, it can still taste the disappointment – and hear the silence.

Now please note that I am talking about the impact of Michaels’ book here – and not the impact of the various articles that informed the later sections of that book. “Race Into Culture,” “The No-Drop Rule,” and (later) “Autobiography of an Ex-White Man” – these were (and are) powerful pieces of angry philosophy, tracking the idea of culture back to its racialist lair and then gutting it. And I think they were absolutely right.

But Our America promised to be more. It was supposed to be an argument about literature and literary works – not just an exposé of abstractions and faulty argument. And that’s what was missing. Michaels had little interesting to say about modernism, except that it shared some vague formal relationship with – or emerged from? or was complicit with? or was the prettified step-sister of? – nativism.

But have any of these so-called literary readings lasted? Has anyone cared much, for instance, about Michaels’ thin reading of William Carlos Williams’ 1920s work – and his attempts to show racialist commitments within Williams’ formalist/objectivist aesthetics, the way that the poet referred to his works as his “sons,” and the way he focused on his work being essentially “American”?

(The argument again, IIRC: Williams asserted that the American-ness of American poetry would lie, literally, in its physicality – the way in which the meaning was part of the form. Ideas of race rely upon a similar correlation of form and meaning. Hence, Williams’ modernism is of a piece with American nativism/racialism. Does anyone buy that? Does anyone refer to those passages anymore? Would it help, if I reminded you that Michaels supported his claim with a few passing references to Williams’ voting record?)

Of course, this is just one example. We could, I suppose, talk for, um, sentences about the lasting influence of Michaels’ 5-page readings of Cather (mostly borrowed), Faulkner (mostly asserted), Hemingway (mostly dated). Or we could talk about how modernists (Pound, Stevens, Eliot, Stein) and literary arguments are, generally, absent. Marjorie Perloff did as much, describing the literary arguments of the book with spot-on precision: it was “modernism without the modernists.”

At least, this is my recollection of the book and its reception. There was little outrage or celebration. Although perhaps there was confusion – about the shoe that never dropped, or plopped so silently that it left most people muttering, “That was it?” (Only the New Yorker seemed impressed.)

I have no truck with the arguments that Michaels makes about ideas. But he seems less and less willing to engage texts in any rigorous fashion – allowing them to be stand-ins for arguments that he can then dismantle and defeat.

And even there, the pickings have grown slim. Given this non-event – and Michaels apparent recognition of the non-event-ness of it all – I cannot help but think of his recent essay in n+1. Once again, the play of ideas is admirable and, in the main, correct. There is a creepy was in which how we feel – and make others feel – about class supplants real considerations of class inequality. We want people to feel equal, without letting them actually be equal.

But look at his targets/exempla: Sittenfeld (!) and Wolfe (!!) – authors who mistake argument for art, detail for worldly density, at every turn. And look at how broad (and yet blinkered) Michaels’ claims are. Do we talk in strange ways that allow feelings to replace politics? Are we obsessed with finding more central forms of “equality,” based in how we treat one another? Well, sure we do. But hasn’t that been an American tendency from the get go? Indeed, isn’t it central to the American idea of equality itself – from the Puritans on down?

Back in the day, Michaels used to brag about how he had never read Moby-Dick. Now I wonder if he has ever read Emerson.

Sean McCann

Peter, I don't recall anything about Williams's voting record in OA. In fact, during the panel Scott summarizes Michaels emphasized a point implicit in the book--that there was no necessary connection between, say, Williams's avowed political preferences and, say, the implications of his poetic theory. I don't think you reproduce the argument about that theory exactly either--which isn't quite the classic romantic form-inseperable-from-content thing. What Michaels emphasizes rather is the theory laid out quite directly in _Spring and All_ and _American Grain_ in which Williams says again and again that poetry will be most American when it is least imitative--avoiding not just preexisting literary models, but even "plagiarism after nature." Here, I think Michaels does less in the way of bold interpretation than in pointing out something that Williams says explictly but that has been relatively neglected: that there is a direct analogy between his vision of "America for Americans" and his theory of poems as autonomous objects. _American Grain_, by the way, is a marvelous book, but there's nothing really mysterious about its nativism. It's about as direct a statement of the beauties of illiberal identitarianism that you could hope for short of Lothrop Stoddard.

Sean McCann

A minor quibble, Scott. Though I agree with everything you say, I do have a complaint against Arnoldianism--which concerns the way it recruits literature to make better individuals and more responsible citizens. I see several problems here. Most obviously, a misestimation of the powers of literature and an earnest suspicion of the non-useful pleasures it can give. (Yes, I want to suggest the counterintuitive proposition that many like Waters who tout the liberatory value of aesthetic pleasure are actually less interested in aesthetic pleasure than in defending the idea of art's usefulness.) More seriously, that Arnoldianism tends to see the root problem of the modern world being too much bad individualism and that it wants to address that problem by using art to make better individuals. The problem with this, I think, is its bias toward seeing social problems in fundamentally individual terms and with its use as an alternative to either political radicalism or state power. Short answer: art won't make us better people or heal the world; it's a mistake to think they will.

Peter Sattler

Hi Sean,

First of all, let me withdraw the claim about how Michaels adduced Williams’ voting record in his argument about nativist modernism (I was misremembering a passage in his 1996 response to Altieri). You are absolutely right: WBM separates these two types of “politics” – the political acts that one takes in the world and the political “implications” of, shall we say, one’s theories.

Of course, I’ve never been one to understand what one might mean by the political “implications” of an aesthetic theory or practice – at least in the political world as it currently exists. I didn’t quite get it when people talked about the political implications (reactionary or radical) of classical Hollywood cinema or avant-garde styles of framing and focus. I didn’t quite get it when people talked about the political implications of free indirect discourse, or blank verse, or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.

(Of course, an aesthetic theory should have implications for one’s art, but for Michaels, this too seems beside the point: he refers to only one or two actual poems by Williams. But who cares what poems you wrote, when your “theory” identifies their true commitments and implications better than their actual words ever could? Similarly, who cares who you voted for – for here, too, your theories – or the implications of your theories – speak louder than your practice. Indeed, I suspect that there is an identitarian core to his concept of a work’s formal “logic.” What a work means is a product of what it, logically, is. Maybe Michaels is a racist too.)

But overall, I think that I was possessed (when the book came out) more by the spirit of disillusionment than disagreement. There was just so little there there. Michaels argues that American modernism understood its commitment to form as a commitment to identity and, hence, as a commitment to race. But for Michaels, any commitment to a notion of “American” cultural identity – a notion separate from simply describing what American, in fact, do – is inherently and irremediably racialist. So when you talk about “being American” as an aesthetic/cultural ideal, you are always already talking about race.

But wait, my simply-minded self responds. Isn’t this what American artists have always done? Haven’t most of our major American writers and “theorists” demanded that we need an art that is appropriate to our country – that is truly American? And aren’t many of these nationalist demands “formal” as well as substantive? Haven’t many American artists trumpeted the “Americanness” of their practices – and, by comparison, the imitative or degraded or inauthentic work of their rivals or predecessors? Isn’t that just one of the things that Americans do?

Whitman and Emerson talked about the Americanness of their processes and products (Whitman even talked about the creation of the New World metaphysics). Twain certainly connected nationality to his picks and pans. These writers, right or wrong, took their aesthetic projects and made national-cultural claims on its behalf. And, by the by, many of those claims did have an identitarian slant – deploying the language of “Reality,” realism, Nature, cultural forefathers, the land speaking through its people, etc.

Williams, then, is just fitting in the tradition. Of course, he lays his nationalist prize at the feet of materialism and formalism. Then again, Arthur Dove made similar claims about abstraction in the 1910s; Stieglitz and his circle continually linked purity and nationality in the 1930s; and the abstract expressionists followed suit in the 1940s. The art that was most “itself” was the art that most American, and vice versa. The commitment of this art to its formal qualities, limits, and identity was a sign of its American power.

But of course, identitarian-formalist aesthetics were central to modernism across the board and around the world, so what makes Williams’ (and others’) version of same so uniquely committed to race and American nativism? Isn’t it far more likely that we are just seeing the inevitable intersection of two much larger trends – the historical American tendency to look for “American” forms of art and a powerful international movement that emphasized formal purity and identity overall?

Modernism (sloppily speaking) said that form was everything; American artists said that the idea that form was everything was American. Who would have guessed? Now does this formal and historical intersection have implications? Sure, but don’t all coincidences?

And while all coincidences are not “merely” coincidental, it takes dedicated argument to distinguish between the two. I went to Our America and found this level of dedication and argument wanting. The Gold Standard changed how I looked at naturalist literature. “The One-Drop Rule” changed how I looked at culture.

Our America just changed how I looked at Michaels.

Peter Sattler

Correction: For "One-Drop," read "No-Drop."

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