Friday, 06 January 2006

The Theory of the Tyranny of the Regime of Meaning; or, "Walter Benn Michaels' Our America Ten Years Later" The panel celebrating the tenth anniversary of Walter Benn Michaels' Our America has already attained minor blogo-mythic proportions. I'm loath to ruin to legend. 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...

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