Saturday, 07 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...
Do We Matter? or, Do We Even Want To? So Matt takes me to task for championing cultural studies by proxy . . . how should I respond? Should I say that, in the tradition of Brian Eno , I too took a plastic bladder to Le Centre Pompidou and urinated in Duchamp's magnum opus? Because I didn't. I've never even been to France. I've been through France. But I've never stayed there. (Which is sad, since after English and Italian and Latin, it's the only other language I know. Sure, I can read German, but reading knowledge counts for dirt.) But this post isn't about the French. (Nor is it about the brilliant terrorists who kidnapped a French man and said they wouldn't release him until France recalled all the troops they haven't deployed to the country they haven't deployed them to. Can you imagine the horror that hostage felt? Not only was he held hostage . . . he had to stomach the fact that his terrorists like to hump doorknobs.) I'm digressing. Like compulsively like. All I want to say is that the idealist in me still believes that examining popular culture pays cognitive (and potentially political) dividends. Teaching students how to "read" the shows and films and music they fetishize should be among a teacher's first priorities. When anti-intellectual critics complain about university professors teaching courses on contemporary rap I can't help but think "Isn't that the role of the intellectual? Shouldn't we concentrate on the materials our students confront daily?" Instead we insist on introducing them to unfamiliar material about which they cogitate for our courses but don't think about daily. Yes Yes Yes this is the old debate about whether we should uplift our students' understanding or teach them to think more good about the shit they think about anyway. (Yes Yes Yes intentional and for effect.) Since this question is more often avoided than answered I thought I'd re-re-re-re-repose it here. What should we be doing? Teaching them to "read" Titanic intelligently or teaching them to appreciate Joyce? (Because these options are mutually exclusive, see. They can't coexist, see. It's one or the other, see.)

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