Saturday, November 21, 2009

Can the Housekeeping Staff Speak?

Discussions of Walter Benn Michaels too often tend toward well-intentioned rants* or serious misconstructions of his arguments -- as the diminutive Loren Glass said in an early and astute critique of Michaels, "his name tends to provoke irritation and even outrage . . . as if his work constituted a personal insult." Nonetheless, he has enough admirers that it seems important that he have better opponents. Among the best have hitherto been other Michaels: Michael Bérubé** and Michael Rothberg.*** So it's a great relief to see Michaels challenged by someone with a different first name.

Ray Davis leaves Michaels on the ropes in a recent web journal entry, pointing out that Michaels's contrarianism is not a problem only because it annoys "academics." Ray reveals that Michaels outdoes Thomas Friedman (the neoliberal columnist who gets most of his information about the Third World by conversing with cab drivers) by inventing a perspective for "the African-American woman who cleans [his] office": "This isn't anecdotal evidence; it's fictional evidence."

Now, the issue of "speaking for" is not a simple one. About twenty years ago, I attended some socialist meetings at Hopkins, the school where Michaels became famous; and there was a sad little self-dramatizing geek there who was seriously ashamed of his role in the class war, who once began a sentence with "Speaking for the mass of humanity . . . " and was quickly called on it by his roommate: "You're speaking only for yourself." All he'd have to do to eliminate the problem would be to say instead "I think the mass of humanity would be happier with . . . " And a twenty-year-old creative writing major could be made to see that.

But Michaels's fictional evidence is, I think, a symptom of something bigger. Remember that this is the guy who wrote
To put the point in an implausible (but nonetheless, I will try to show, accurate) form, it means that if you hold, say, Judith Butler's views on resignification, you will also be required to hold, say, George W. Bush's views on terrorism – and, scarier still, if you hold Bush's views on terrorism, you must hold Butler's view of resignification. The position, then, that you take about whether those eight-six blank pages should count as part of the text will generate other positions – not only on terrorism but also on more obviously literary questions like whether texts have more than one meaning, as well as on more generally social questions like whether it is important that we should (or whether it is true that we can) remember historical events like slavery and the Holocaust.
and who also suggested that Octavia Butler's novels dramatize Alan Dershowitz's views of identity. In short, he's going to explain to you the implications of your thinking, whether you agree with him or not; and he's going to use his "it means that" or "you must" to argue the necessary consequences of your views and practices. Delany addresses that habit:
But some things bother me about Michaels' argument. His earlier praise of Ellis's American Psycho hinges on statements like, "the group that constitutes Bateman's [the American psycho's] preferred target, pretty 'girls,' doesn't constitute a people: women are not a culture." Yet, one of my major revelations when, as a young gay man, I got married in 1961, was that they damned well did and were. In his discussion of my tale, Michaels draws the conclusion, "So Delany's masochists are ... not a people (on the model of Jews or African-Americans)." But the whole later half of the Nevèrÿon series grows largely in direct dialogue with the work that the gay community, particularly those interested in S & M, were doing at that time. Ironically, I was in correspondence with a couple of the SAMOIS writers, whom Michaels sites in the accompanying discussion, when those stories were being written. Before 1969, the gay community of the U.S. tended not to think of itself as a community. Afterward, it did. The eleven stories and novels making up Return to Nevèrÿon are, historically, so very much post-Stonewall stories, that I wonder how comfortably I can wear Michaels' "antihistoricist" mantel. If Michaels' point is merely that a people/community/political group need not be hereditary, to me this seems self-evident. (But what's the force of his denying "peoplehood" to pretty girls or to women and to masochists? Suppose they want peoplehood? Would he deny it to them then? That's precisely the point of conflict that demands tolerance, so that people can learn from their histories what in their lives they want stabilized and what they want to let go of. The overvaluation Michaels decries is the—yes—historical fallout from decades of intolerance—not from too much wishy-washy liberal tolerance.) But why look for a politics in the section of a tale that deals with what inspires an individual, who feels himself outside a group (the young slave was not born into slavery; his masochism dates from before his enslavement at age fifteen), to move forward to join one? So much of the story is about subsequent group and communal action, why not look for it there?
That "Suppose they want peoplehood? Would he deny it to them then?" is a pretty central question, to which one might guess the answer is that a) How would he find out what they want, if he doesn't talk to them? and b) To the extent that he can "deny" it to them with his "you must" or "it follows that you cannot," he would. In other words, he'd have no compunction about writing, "They think they are a people, but they're wrong." People's wants and indeed their psyches' needs seem to be beside the point in his arguments.

Upon reading Ray's takedown of Michaels's article, I wrote to Ray, "I'm too timid to talk to the housekeeping staff myself. Although I did venture a tentative 'Uh, fuck the fuckin' Yankees?' to this one cleaning guy a couple of weeks ago, which charmed him." To which he replied, "I can't say if Prof. Michaels is timid, but I expect anyone with the good taste to cuss the Yankees would have the good taste not to speak for people he doesn't talk to." That may not be completely true, given that my schoolmate who sought to speak for the mass of humanity did converse with the housekeeping staff. But it got me thinking that, although I haven't initiated conversation with them beyond a "Hi Bob," I have listened to the members of that cohort when they spoke to me. I've heard one janitor express his enthusiasm for the death penalty, another make a memorably funny malapropism (near the end of a semester, she asked if I was "giving students their testes"), and a third say (upon seeing its logo on my tote bag), "The Nation -- great magazine." I honestly wonder whether Michaels, in looking for fictional evidence, could have invented any of those, even the funny one.****
* "Michaels is working full-time to turn the English departments over to their enemies, the Right-wing politicians who have gotten so much mileage out of the notion that pointy-headed liberals insult and disrespect their values. All the while he professes that his politics is nobody’s business but his own, yet his writing is pure politics and not literary criticism. This he does admit with the petulance of a bad boy."

** "For those of you who don’t know Michaels’s work (and can you really be reading this far down if you don’t?), his most recent book, The Trouble with Diversity, takes us back to the mid-90s with a vengeance, back to those post-Disuniting of America days when a whole bunch of guys on the left wrote books about how all this multicultural stuff was leading us to forget about economic inequality. What makes Michaels’s version of the argument especially pungent, though, is his insistence that people like me, teaching courses like mine, are actually exacerbating things insofar as our ever-more-complicated-and-nuanced analyses of 'culture' work all the more effectively to obscure relations of class."

*** "I would argue that the analytic distinction between class and other social identities that Michaels makes should not become the occasion for the repetition of an ossifying opposition among culture, politics, and economics. Why do we need to turn an analytic distinction between class and, say, race and gender into a normative valuation of one over the other? Michaels's definition of class difference—'more or less money,' as he writes in The Shape of the Signifier (180)—is insufficient for understanding the embeddedness of economics within culture and politics. It also misses the essence of a Marxist critique of capitalism, which does not concern amounts of money but relations of production and exploitation . . . In addition, he seems to mistake neoliberalism's ideological self-understanding for its actual practice . . . neoliberal practice depends on and operates within cultural and political spheres; it both mobilizes racialized and gendered logics and impacts racialized and gendered subjects in highly differentiated ways. In opposition to neoliberalism, then, we need to mobilize a critique that doesn't only distinguish race, gender, and class analytically but also conjoins them."

**** I worry that these accounts may come off as self-congratulatory. Be assured that I don't see anything special in my having listened to other people in my workplace.

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