[Note: Contrary to appearances, this blog is about things other than Walter Benn Michaels. The thing is, the other interviews in that issue were a little more self-aggrandizing—one of them was with Stanley Fish—and therefore less illuminating on the phenomenon I describe below. That said: I think it's time for a WBM morito—What? You're kidding me? A new essay? Crap.]
Reading the Richard Hofstadter intellectual biography sparked an interest in how other academic stars—or "academostars"—stormed the academy. Needless to say, I've been surprised by the bumbling. Here's Walter Benn Michaels:
When I was in graduate school, no one with any intellectual ambition would have wanted to become an Americanist. God knows I didn't. There were some good things I've discovered retroactively, but it was not a high-tech field in the 60s and it was not (in my view anyway) an intellectually ambitious field. I became an Americanist by accident; I was trained as a modernist, which was to me much more attractive. I was trained by Hugh Kenner, who was certainly influential and whose writing was ambitious, interesting, and brilliant literary criticism. I became an Americanist just because I went on the job market and there was a job at Hopkins and I was working on Henry James. But the James I was working on was the James out of modernism. I actually started reading Henry James because of my work on Pound—Pound had written a very important essay on James—so I thought I'd sit down and read through James. I thought this would be a good thing to do over the summer, which was no way near long enough. I got much more interested in James than I was in Pound, but it was still in the context of modernism, of European modernism. But the job at Hopkins was for an Americanist, and at one point the then-chair Ronald Paulson called me up and asked me, "So is your Henry James Hawthorne's James or Turgenev's James?" Well, it was obvious what the right answer for that job was—"Hawthorne's James." In fact my James was Turgenev's, but I said Hawthorne.
Remarkable. He spent the summer studying what he was hired in the Fall to teach. I would chalk this up to Michaels' overweening brilliance, but the Hofstadter biography compels me to think about this differently. People stumbled into prominence back then. Alongside the cutthroat culture so lovingly described by David Lodge existed the picaresque narratives of "professionalization."
How did Michaels become interested in Derrida? Coincidence:
So I was staying at Santa Barbara and didn't know what to do. Herb Schneidau, who was also a Poundian and had been at SUNY-Buffalo, was a lifesaver for me in the sense that he knew what was going on in the academic world. He showed up in 1970 or 1971 and he had a hardcover book called "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," which was later retitled The Structuralist Controversy. He had been blown away by Derrida's piece in the book ["Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"]. Herb didn't speak French and hired me as his research assistant to read this book, De la grammatologie, and to write up a synopsis of the argument. I spoke French and had made a living off doing translations from French. Well, writing a synopsis of the argument of Grammatology is not that easy. It took me a long time, and I really got into it.
That was the moment that made it clear to me that there was a kind of writing that I could do that I was attracted to. First Hugh had been an interesting example of what a literary critic might be, and I imitated him for a year or two, but I could never do what he did. So reading Derrida at that point made it clear there was a whole set of issues out there that I was very interested in.
If Herb had spoken French, Michaels wouldn't have been familiar with Derrida. What interests me most about Michaels' intellectual development is how its contingencies have been routinized. The people he happened to encounter at the places he happened to encounter them have been transformed from arbitrary events in one man's intellectual history into a program of study 99 percent of literary scholars follow.
That "one man" bit may be overplaying it. Expand that to "one generation" and the charges stick. The moribund state of literary theory may result from the fact that each new generation of graduate students is asked to recapitulate in anthologies the seminal moments in the lives of a previous generation. Nothing intrinsic to the thought which falls under the heading of "theory" is responsible for the current state of affairs. What's responsible is that we're being asked to "experience" a previous generation's adventure. Only instead of the ideas being alive in the mouths of their representative, they sit there dead on the page. This generation isn't allowed the freedom to stumble the way Michaels and Gallagher and Fish's was.
Good Lord. That would be disastrous. We need immediate professionalization. We have to follow the path blazed by our betters. That's insufficient. We have to do it by finding the footprints they embedded in the snow and follow them up the mountainside.