But I will. (Skip to the bottom for the fun stuff.)
Wai Chee Dimock led off. She complimented the "speed and ferocity" of Walter's arguments before veering into a polite and mannered 18 minute long screed against him and "the theory of the tyranny of the regime of meaning." What did she mean? Invoking Lindsay Waters' now infamous critique of Walter in The Chronicle, Dimock claimed Our America acquires its "speed and ferocity" by inferring its way through a "cultural logic." "What makes this power powerful," she argued, is how it allows Walter to condense "A to B to C" into "A therefore C." The propositional form of his arguments elevates logic to the status of evidence and evidence to the status of horse manure. Paul Gilroy provides a more sound model of literary scholarship in Against Race. Like Walter, Gilroy believes progressive anti-racism little more than "quick ethnic fixes and pseudo-solidarities [which] foreclose argument." But unlike Walter, Gilroy turns to empirical evidence instead of propositional logic.
This is better.
Because it is.
Walter's work is not to be emulated, she suggests, but supplemented along Gilroyian lines. That in the decade since its publication no one has emulated his work suggests Dimock possesses the ability to peer into the past and tell us things about it. Or that she wants to stop anyone from doing now what no one felt inclined to do then. (I'm proposing a panel for MLA 2006 in which the participants will beg the audience to stop composing scholarly monographs in drunken accord with the logic of cracked yarrow stalks. Consider that puppy nipped in its cute little bud.)
Enter Sean McCann. Sean opened with a reception history of Our America which puts to bed Dimock's inspired concerns:
To review the critical reception of Our America is to discover a remarkable record of consensus. Everyone agrees that the book offers a brilliant, revisionary account of the major American writing of the twenties and of the importance to it of the racial history of American citizenship. Everyone agrees that Michaels makes his case with a rare level of cogency, and that, where his most central claims are concerned, their logic cannot be faulted. Nearly everyone agrees as well that—for just these reasons—the book and its author should be reviled.
("Wow, Scott, I'm impressed. You take the most amazing notes. It's like Sean emailed you his presentation and you pasted bits of it here. Does he ever get around to directly refuting Dimock's 'inspired' concern about Walter's influence?")
He certainly does, dear reader, he certainly does:
It's not unusual to find younger Americanists accept and build on any number of the book's specific claims, or to see Michaels’s insights taken up by scholars in other fields or even disciplines—like history, political science, and sociology, where Our America seems also to have been a provocative work.
To build upon a claim is not to repeat the logic of that claim but to supplement it. Dimock fears a situation which neither has nor will come to pass. (Why she fears this unlikely hypothetical above all others is something I would write more about had I the time to read more of her work.) Her attack on Walter, as the following passage from Sean eloquently elaborates, stems from her opposition to "the theory of the tyranny of the regime of meaning" she thinks he represents. The anti-Michaelsian camps share
a view of literature as a special realm of activity, alternative to the prevailing powers of the world, and, because of its distinctive qualities, potentially therapeutic both for individuals and societies. In a word, though neither would probably appreciate the description, they’re both Arnoldian.
("I think your Waters just broke!")
Indeed, as Lindsay Waters sees it, the role of scholarship in the humanities is to remind us of art’s ability "to enlarge the soul." Specifically, by freeing us from "the prison house of meaning," our responsiveness to art should also emancipate us (just as Arnold instructed) from the restraints of ideology, institutions, and politics.
One last quote from Sean—to whom I should apologize for abusing my "fair use" privileges, but honestly, if I could have said it more concisely and/or at all eloquently, I would have paraphrased like an undergrad who can count the minutes before his deadline passes—before moving along. The reaction to Walter is so virulent because his work "casts [doubt] on a central article of faith—the belief that literary artists and their critics are the neglected stewards of modernity, whose interventions in the pathologies of our world could be therapeutic, or 'recuperative,' were they but heeded." Walter's arguments tyrannize both the mode of scholarship by insisting on the argumentative over the interpretative and the content of that scholarship by insisting on the equivalence of progressive and anti-progressive ideologies.
Ken Warren picked Sean's points right up and ran with them. He opened with an account of W.E.B. DuBois' introduction to his disastrous Dark Princess. [Thanks LB.] DuBois commends his atrocious novel not on the basis of the aesthetic or narrative qualities it lacks but on account that it was written by someone who sees the world "from a veiled corner." Since voices like his had been suppressed, what counts is not the quality of the material but the identity of the people producing it. Anyone who thinks otherwise is indifferent to experience and probably a Nazi. (Even if he isn't he'll surely be called one.)
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. Henry James' house of fiction serves as model:
The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will .... But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine.
When Walter discusses the culture of "difference over disagreement" in literary studies, this is what he's talking about: "Because I am me I think X means Y, whereas you think X means Z because you are you. Let's hug!" Warren challenges Waters' claim that Walter and Stanley Fish have bled the profession dry of original Arnoldian ethos.
I noted my problem with Waters invented history of the profession elsewhere. I mention it here because Waters' argument appeals to the idea that his conception of the profession is a return to some Golden Age of literary study, some pre-Michaelsian, pre-Fishian moment in which the appreciation of literature quà literature dominated. (Someone who attended a panel with Waters claims that when asked about Walter in the Q & A session, Waters responded that Walter prefers Cliff's Notes to novels because all that untidy literariness isn't obscuring the ideas. I can't verify the veracity of this statement, but it's consistent with the friendly combativeness characterizing Walter's comments about Waters. I assume Waters' remarks are made in the same spirit. But I could be wrong. Or my informant could be lying.)
Then The Man took the stage. (I say "took" but "manhandled" is more like it.) Arms all a-waving, fingers all a-snapping, voice all a-modulating and mind all a-knife-fighting, Walter walked up to the podium and thanked the panelists for paying attention to his "slim volume of 'ferocious' nothings." He answered a question about the difference between the intended meaning of a work and what the statements it contains logically entailed in the cultural context in which it was produced. But we could tell he was antsy. He stepped in front of the podium and began to pace.
He complained about the lack of hostility in the room.
Then he manufactured some:
Walter: The problem with Lindsay Waters is that he never says anything and what he does say is meaningless. His position is without philosophical content . . . is almost pure ressentiment. But if you want to see ressentiment in its pure, Platonic form, unpolluted by any touch of intellectual content, you should check out this new book, Theory's Empire. (I kick John) You can talk endlessly about the difference between theory with a big-T and theory with a little-t but it won't get you anywhere. Eventually you'll convince yourself you're thinking about arguments when you're really thinking about attitudes. Sure, you can talk about how the two are related but as long as you confuse the two you'll never get anywhere. It's like that thing (turns to Sean), what is that thing, the thing, The Valve? Yes? Endless talk about big-T versus little-t but no real intellectual substance to the conservation. (I kick John again)
John: I like the book, could you be so kind as to tell me exactly what form of ressentiment I must necessarily suffer from.
Walter: (looks at me. looks at John.) You must be John Holbo. Nice to meet you . . .
My notes trail off here—at this point I started composing questions while listening to his answers—but I can relate the substance of what follows: Waters and the Theory's Empire crowd both believe they're protecting literature from some infernal force. Waters and his ilk want to protect it from the Historicism, whereas the Theory's Empire folks want to protect it from Theory. The occupy similar positions with regard to literature and oppositional positions with regard to each other, but only because they both fail to recognize their own intellectual vacuity. I should really explain why he says this in more detail, but I'm already exhausted from writing this account of the panel. So . . . why will have to wait until tomorrow.