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Thursday, 15 June 2006


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99%, huh?

Scott Eric Kaufman

I did a study. With science.

Luther Blissett

"This generation isn't allowed the freedom to stumble the way Michaels and Gallagher and Fish's was."

Exactly! And it always fascinates me that this generation had steady jobs -- often tenured positions -- without having published much at all. It seems that securing a job was more about one's advisor (i.e., Kenner) and the notion that a young scholar had been blessed, Old Testament style, by an established figure. What them damned feminists call "patriarchy," or the boys network.

There's a collection of intellectual biographies out there, with essays and interviews by people like Rorty and Berube and others, and I remember constantly being struck by what you perfectly capture in the term "picaresque." Throughout the collection, there's this tone of, "I went to grad school, did fine but didn't stand out, wandered around, had important friends, and ta da! wrote a very important book."

Luther Blissett

OMG! WTF! WBM: "Why do we like it so much that we not only read books that attack a racism that (at least among the liberal intelligentsia) no longer exists but we also make bestsellers out of books that attack a racism that never existed? What—to put the question in its most general form—is the meaning of antiracism today?"

Look at that parenthetical aside! How can that first rhetorical question mean anything? "Racism doesn't exist -- at least among college professors. So why do we attack racism?" Racism exists, plain and simple. See Hurricane Katrina and Ohio voting fraud. See Gitmo.

And then this nugget: ". . . the absolute elimination of racism and sexism would be completely compatible with the absolute triumph of neoliberalism (one look at the Bush cabinet ought to do that)." That's right, folks! The Bush cabinet is what -- a New Historicist analogue? an example? proof? of what? That you can fight racism and still be a capitalist?

But I suppose my favorite part of the article is WBM's belief that there are two groups: the rich and the poor. If you can afford to shop at a high-end mall, then you're rich. If not, you're poor. No discrimination can take place, because the prices magically repel all poor people (defined tautologically as those who don't shop there in the first place). First off, as a teenager, my friends and I were often kicked out of high-end malls for "loitering" -- that is, hanging out and window shopping. That's how high-end malls discriminate. Secondly, being able to shop at Kenneth Cole simply means one has a credit card or that one doesn't mind eating pasta for dinner every night, not that one is rich. I shopped at Kenneth Cole and Diesel on my $11,000 per year grad student stipend. These might seem like stupid criticisms to make, but they attest to WBM's simplistic way of thinking about class in America. As I've written many times before, the man assumes that if you're not rich, then you're poor, and if you're poor, you're impoverished and a victim of the rich. That's not even Marxism. I don't know what you can call it.

[And don't get me started on *Maus*. The whole point of the work -- as my freshman comp students could tell WBM -- is that Vladek has internalized a Nazi way of viewing the world and has passed this down to Artie. Artie's French wife reveals the contradictions in Artie's racial typification by animal -- in the comic book itself!]

Rich Puchalsky

If you want a historicizing scheme that "explains" the generational differences between one set of literary academic careers and the next, I think that you could do worse than to go to Fred Hirsch's _Social Limits To Growth_. Which is a book that I seriously overrecommend, I know, but I think it's difficult to approach the politics of the current middle class without it.

Sean McCann

By which I don't mean that there is no racism in America today or that white supremacism has disappeared—I mean instead that it has been either privatized or pushed to the fringes of American public life and that politicians today are more likely to apologize for their racist remarks than they are to turn them into planks of their campaign platforms.

Luther, as the above passage will show, I think, you're misreading Michaels. The racism to which he's referring in the passsage you quote is specifically anti-semitism, which he suggests has played (by contrast to anti-black racism) a comparatively minor role in American history.

I don't think either that he says that there are only two classes in the U.S., or that anything he says requires him to be ignorant of either mall security or consumer debt.

btw, just an aside, the Gitmo point is an excellent one, but it's not necessarily inconsistent with Michaels's view at all. arguably, one major factor in the history of American imperialism has been its justification by hostility to allegedly anti-liberal others. to wit, they hate our freedom, are fated by race or culture or religion to hate our freedom, and therefore we can feel entirely justified in subjugating them (in ways that just happen to serve our interests). Anderson and Cayton's Dominion of War has a powerful argument along these lines about a long history.


I want to read something by Walter Benn Michaels one of these days. What do you recommend: If I read only one WBM essay or book (preferably essay), it should be _________.

Scott Eric Kaufman

I'm so invested in connected different aspects of his work that it's difficult for me to pinpoint one essay; that said, the best places to start arguing with his current thought would be "Political Science Fictions" and the related "Shape of the Signifier" essay. But that doesn't focus on his arguments about race, which are best represented in "Race into Culture." I could rattle off another fifteen or so, but that'd be the place to start.


Thanks. I've just heard so much about what a wonderful writer he is that I have to find out for myself. Would you say that, stylistically speaking, those are representative of his work?

Scott Eric Kaufman

I'd say they're representative of late-Michaelsian style, but not overall. His earlier stuff is more conventionally deconstructive, which isn't a surprise given the history above. But I'd say it's generally accurate.

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