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Visiting Native Speaker

Something strange and unprecedented is coming to this blog tomorrrow!  What can it be?  I have no idea.

In the meantime, let me catch up on some old business and tell a little story.

On November 16-17 Walter Benn Michaels visited Penn State for a lecture and a whole lot more.  What lot more?  This lot more: a week or so before he arrived, I received an email from the person coordinating his visit.  Would I like to have Professor Michaels visit my class?  He would be making a couple of class visits in the course of his brief stay, and since it seemed that I was teaching a course in American literature, perhaps I would like to have him as a guest on the morning of the 16th before his lecture that evening.  The email added that Professor Michaels had suggested, with regard to those class visits, that he would be willing to speak to any class dealing with American literature through 1940.

Well, since I’m teaching American fiction since 1945, I thought that let me out right there.  But I confess that I had two other reasons for turning down the opportunity—or I thought I did.  One, I thought that class visits were a kind of strange feature of Walter’s appearance at Penn State.  In my experience, visiting lecturers lecture, and they meet with groups of faculty or graduate students or undergraduates, and maybe they conduct a symposium, and maybe maybe, if their work (or something related to their work) is on a syllabus, they’ll sit in on a seminar or co-teach it or something.  The sitting-in or co-teaching is usually worked out in some detail with the person teaching the course; in eighteen years I’ve never gotten this kind of over-the-transom request.  But Michaels’ visit was part of a Phi Beta Kappa lecture series, and I thought maybe it was a Phi Beta Kappa thing and I wouldn’t understand.

The second reason was somewhat more substantial.  My course is organized around the idea of “culture,” which is (as some of you may know) an idea with which Michaels wants nothing to do, since he sees it basically as “race” in fancy social-constructionist dress.  The thing is, though, that in some ways I’m as impatient as he is with ritual invocations of “culture” as a kind of all-purpose explanatory scheme for human behavior (and if you’d like a bracing critique of that sense of “culture,” a critique that doesn’t just jettison the concept altogether, I recommend my friend and former guest blogger John McGowan’s Democracy’s Children).  After all, I go back to the “culture and society” tradition in cultural studies, and I try to put as much pressure as I can on both concepts: culture and society.  (There’s a brief discussion of this in chapter five of What’s Liberal, for those of you who haven’t bought your copies yet.) In fact, this semester I gave my students a brief essay of mine, in which I say things like this:


The expansive sense of “culture” as “ordinary,” as the sum of quotidian social practices and their interrelationships, is both examined and enhanced by Raymond Williams’ groundbreaking 1958 book, Culture & Society: 1780-1950, which famously declares that “a culture is not only a body of intellectual or imaginative work; it is also and essentially a whole way of life” (325).  Tracking the emergent meanings of the term since the eighteenth century, Williams argues that

before this period, it had meant, primarily, the “tending of natural growth,” and then, by analogy, a process of human training. But this latter use, which had usually been a culture of something, was changed, in the nineteenth century, to culture as such, a thing in itself.  It came to mean, first, “a general state or habit of the mind,” having close relations with the idea of human perfection. Second, it came to mean “the general state of intellectual development, in a society as a whole.” Third, it came to mean “the general body of the arts.” Fourth, later in the century, it came to mean “a whole way of life, material, intellectual and spiritual.” (xvi)

Over the ensuing couple of centuries, the industrialized democracies of the West have elaborated on both the restricted sense of the term (most often when linked to the aesthetic and/or intellectual evaluation involved in phrases such as high culture or legitimate culture) and the broader, anthropological sense (most often invoked in phrases like common culture and distinct culture, and applied to every social formation from the Maori to Silicon Valley).

Williams’s central insight was that “culture” had accrued and generated so many meanings precisely because of the confluence of industrialism and democracy.  This confluence produced divergent lines of thought in which “culture” was either opposed to and construed as compensation for “society,” or conceived as a “whole way of life” underlying any conception or arrangement of “society.” Under the first heading, the working classes were understood as lacking culture, even as culture was cast as a sort of balm for social divisions; under the second heading, “working-class culture” was understood as something in its own right, something Williams associated with the ideal of human solidarity, “the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, habits of thought and intentions which proceed from this” (327). 

In American literary and cultural studies, I find the restricted sense of “culture” at work whenever one speaks of “Western culture” as a record of achievements of high intellectual order and/or aesthetic merit, achievements which are then held, particularly by intellectual conservatives in the so-called “culture wars,” to promote specific political values associated with the United States and its allies.  Curiously, however, the values allegedly available for propagation in the history of Western philosophy since Plato or Western literature since Homer turn out to have little to do with “American culture” in the broader, anthropological sense—the sense in which most commentators, left, right, and other, describe phenomena such as rhythm and blues, reality TV, cheeseburgers, 150,000-square-foot discount stores, and tailgating at football games.

The argument that the U.S. has such a national (i.e., anthropological) culture, even if it is not always or not always cheerily acknowledged by intellectuals, has been made forcefully by Michael Lind in The Next American Nation (1995).  But the argument is complicated in turn by advocates of American multiculturalism, who, in the (necessary) course of disputing claims (such as those made by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in The Disuniting of America [1992]) that a nation’s social foundations require a “common culture” undergirding them, insist that “American culture” is in fact a patchwork quilt or glorious mosaic of hyphenated immigrant cultures, from the feast of San Gennaro in New York’s Little Italy to the so-called “culture of achievement” among Asian-American immigrants. The metaphors of the quilt and the mosaic, however, suggest that advocates of multiculturalism view hyphenated cultures as self-contained wholes kept together by some interstitial bonding agent such as thread or grout; the idea of “culture” here is not merely an anthropological but a particularly reductive one that construes cultures as largely monochromatic and reducible to cuisine and festive dress. (For an argument that the United States consists of hyphenated immigrant cultures only in a vestigial, foods-of-all-nations sense, see Christopher Clausen, Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America [2001].)


You get the idea.  Quite apart from the visiting-classes thing, I didn’t want Walter Benn Michaels messing with this kind of argument by telling my students that all discussion of “culture” distracts us from what really matters, namely, class.  (You know, it’s not as if Raymond Williams needed to be reminded about class.) 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 Michael’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.

And then I thought, hey, maybe it would be really fun to have Michaels in my class, and let my students see what this kind of argument is about!  You know, sorta like “teaching the conflicts” or something!  Long before Gerald Graff made the phrase (and the methodology) famous, that old curmudgeon Henry Adams wrote,

His reform of the system would have begun in the lecture-room at his own desk.  He would have seated a rival assistant professor opposite him, whose business should be strictly limited to expressing opposite views.  Nothing short of this would ever interest either the professor or the student; but of all university freaks, no irregularity shocked the intellectual atmosphere so much as contradiction or competition between teachers.

Actually, we have contradiction and competition all the time, at all ranks.  Just not in the same classroom—which is, of course, Adams’ (and Graff’s) point.

But whenever I thought that it would freaky cool to have Michaels come visit the class, I came back to the “literature before 1940” thing.  Because, you see, on November 16 we would be starting Chang-Rae Lee’s 1995 novel Native Speaker, and I didn’t think Michaels would be familiar with it.  So even our argument about whether talking about culture distracts from talking about class would be a distraction from my class.

OK, so I went in on November 16 and talked a little about the 1965 repeal of the nativist Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 (this time without the handy charts) and the explosion of Asian and Central/South American immigration since, and a little about the discourse of East Asian immigrants as “model minorities,” and a little about the fact that contemporary Flushing, Queens looks much more like the world of Native Speaker, with its Korean and Vietnamese and Laotian and Indian and Chinese microneighborhoods than like the world of The King of Queens.  I also said a few words about what Lee’s protagonist, Henry Park, does for a living: he works as a kind of ethnic mole for a private espionage agency, infiltrating and undermining various Asian-American activists, ranging from the psychiatrist who’s funneling money back to Marcos supporters in the Philippines to the rising Korean-American politician who may make a run in the Democratic mayoral primary.  Then I promised the class that Native Speaker would take a dramatic turn away from the question of “culture” in the end.

A couple of colleagues and I had dinner with Walter that evening before his lecture.  He was witty and charming, and dinner was fun.  Then we all tramped over to the lecture hall, where Walter got up and said that he was so glad for an opportunity to talk about something other than The Trouble with Diversity for a change, and he explained that he was going to illustrate his argument about culture and class by way of a recent novel he wasn’t sure very many of us had read:  Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker.


Well, I just about tossed my pen in the air—and turned to the person behind me, who just happened to be one of the undergraduates from my morning class, and shrugged my shoulders.

“You’ve read it?” Walter asked from the podium.

“Taught it this morning,” I replied from the fifth row.

Walter gave us all a “well, whaddya know?” look and proceeded to argue that novels like Native Speaker substitute relations of culture for relations of class—that is, that they take class difference (indicated by Park’s father telling him, “you rich kid now”) and mystify it by presenting it as a matter of race and culture.  It was more or less a version of his argument about The Great Gatsby, which you can consult by checking out the American Prospect excerpt from The Trouble with Diversity:

One way to look at The Great Gatsby is as a story about a poor boy who makes good, which is to say, a poor boy who becomes rich—the so-called American Dream. But Gatsby is not really about someone who makes a lot of money; it is instead about someone who tries and fails to change who he is. Or, more precisely, it’s about someone who pretends to be something he’s not; it’s about Jimmy Gatz pretending to be Jay Gatsby. If, in the end, Daisy Buchanan is very different from Jimmy Gatz, it’s not because she’s rich and he isn’t but because Fitzgerald treats them as if they really do belong to different races, as if poor boys who made a lot of money were only “passing” as rich. “We’re all white here,” someone says, interrupting one of Tom Buchanan’s racist outbursts. Jimmy Gatz isn’t quite white enough

What’s important about The Great Gatsby, then, is that it takes one kind of difference (the difference between the rich and the poor) and redescribes it as another kind of difference (the difference between the white and the not-so-white). To put the point more generally, books like The Great Gatsby (and there have been a great many of them) give us a vision of our society divided into races rather than into economic classes.

The first thing to say about this, surely, is ah, no.  Let’s check Gatsby again:  Jordan does indeed say “we’re all white here” (this is the sole basis for Michaels’s argument about the vision of society the book allegedly bequeaths to us), but here’s the actual content of Tom Buchanan’s racist outburst:

I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea, you can count me out. . . . Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have marriage between black and white.

And as he’s done before, Michaels uses his reading of Jordan’s “we’re all white here”—the argumentum ad Gatsbiam—to buttress a much larger argument.  To return to the American Prospect excerpt:

race has turned out to be a gateway drug for all kinds of identities, cultural, religious, sexual, even medical. To take what may seem like an extreme case, advocates for the disabled now urge us to stop thinking of disability as a condition to be “cured” or “eliminated” and to start thinking of it instead on the model of race: We don’t think black people should want to stop being black; why do we assume the deaf want to hear?

There are two problems with this.  The first is that, pace Michaels, Tom Buchanan is suggesting that it’s the other way around: class mobility is the gateway drug, and if you allow too much of it, well, then, first the family will go, and then you’ll have miscegenation.  The second is that Michaels is as flip about the history of Deaf activism as he is about the history of race: Deaf people were indeed subject to two centuries of punitive “oralism,” and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were often barred from using sign language.  Advocates for Deaf “culture,” who (justifiably) insist on the right to use American Sign Language and who (controversially) insist that they are not disabled in the first place, are hardly an “extreme case” of what happens when you start out smoking the race dope.  They may be nothing more extreme than a bunch of people who don’t want cochlear implants.

But leaving aside the disability angle for now, if you wanted to pick on a novel that offers a vision of our society divided into races rather than into economic classes, you wouldn’t pick Gatsby of all things—not unless you wanted to cherry-pick it here and there, and ignore passages like “Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.” You know, if Gatsby was aware of this, why isn’t Michaels?  (And did I mention that I have a reading of Gatsby in What’s Liberal?)

Michaels’ argument about Native Speaker is just as weird.  The novel is, after all, pretty savvy about class; its depiction of what I call street-level New York, with its nail shops and dry cleaners and bodegas and cheap restaurants and gray-market electronics stores and tables and vans full of handbags and glasses and watches, is wonderfully vivid.  And, as I pointed out to Michaels in my post-lecture Question That Was Really More of a Comment®, (a) the novel is quite clear about the wages Henry’s father pays to his employees in order to make his own son a rich kid ($200/week for six 12-hour days plus free bruised fruit and vegetables), and (b) more important—and central to my next two classes on the novel—Native Speaker asks about not only the relations between culture and class but also the relations between culture and society (hey, remember society?), because it turns out . . .

spoiler alert!

. . . that the reason Henry Park is assigned to the rising Korean-American politician (John Kwang) is that, unbeknownst to Henry, the INS is running a sting operation designed to root out (and deport) illegal immigrants who are among the contributors to Kwang’s version of the Korean-style ggeh or money club.  In other words, in Native Speaker it’s not just a matter of who eats kim chee and who eats chimichangas.  It’s also a question of the legal apparatus of the state and how it administers bodies and borders.  As Kwang falls from grace, as his house is being picketed by the local Tancredo types even though there’s no evidence that Kwang himself knew who was legal or illegal among his supporters, Henry Park lets drop the curious fact that he is an American citizen because he happened to emerge from his mother’s body on this side of a long plane ride from Seoul.  So my question/comment boiled down to this:  for one thing, you have to distort Native Speaker beyond recognition in order to argue that it helps to mystify class, and for another thing, how come you didn’t say anything about the novel’s take on culture and society?

One reason I decided to take this tack is that (as craftier questioners than I have learned) it is exceptionally difficult to argue with Michaels about Michaels’ conclusions.  When, for example, people complain that his dismissal of race and culture is ahistorical, he says, that’s right!  that’s why I like it! (In The Trouble with Diversity, the line is “history is bunk.” I think that’s an allusion of some kind.) So I thought it might be fun and educational to take issue with his readings instead.  You know, the way literary critics are supposed to do.  Unfortunately, he answered my question by noting that there are plenty of academic conferences on “citizenship” these days because it’s such a hot topic and all, and then veered off for about six or seven minutes on another hot topic altogether, because I had actually (I must confess) been so foolish, in phrasing my question, as to say in passing that Henry’s occupation suggests some measure of ambivalence about his cultural identity, and that allowed Walter the slam-dunk response that ambivalence about cultural identity works only to make the subject of cultural identity more rather than less important.  He’s quite right about that, and I shouldn’t have allowed him the opening.  To the immigration-and-society part of my question I didn’t really get an answer.  And thus Walter Benn Michaels continued relatively unimpeded in his quest to treat novels like The Great Gatsby and Native Speakers as if they were the movie Crash, which really is so reductive as to describe all social relations as relations of race, and which Walter is quite right to despise for that reason.

Well, we talked briefly afterwards, and we agreed that we’d be happy to continue the discussion elsewhere, and Walter said “perhaps on your blog!” and I said, “uh, perhaps,” and then I eventually got around to it, and here I am on my blog.  So hey!  Walter, if you’re still listening, what about that bit about legal and illegal immigration?  It’s a confounding question, is it not, and Native Speaker ends by tossing it in our laps.  And everyone else, if you’re still listening—and especially if you’ve read Native Speaker—here’s a chance to argue about culture and class and society too, all at once.  And if anyone knows Chang-Rae Lee, let’s find out what he thinks about Native Speaker!  Because I once read somewhere that meaning is identical with intention.

Posted by on 12/06 at 01:58 PM
  1. Oh, great. ANOTHER book I have to add to the pile.

    I’ll say this about the class-culture issue with my extremely limited sample size: I’m a product of the lower-to-middle middle class — a child of intellectual workers who experienced significant privation — and have pretty consistently dated women from higher class standings than my own, my lovely spouse included. Said lovely spouse is a member of the above-mentioned Model Minority. The important differences between her upbringing and mine, as reflected in world view and social assumptions, do not map to the equivalent differences between me and my former, equivalently affluent white girlfriends, even when their parents had similar life stories (struggling to affluence from modest beginnings, etc.)

    Ahistorical indeed! And history begins in the moment-ago experiences of the people who live that history. The concept ahistorical includes ignoring the immediate current experience of people still around to provide insight.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/06  at  03:25 PM
  2. It’s been awhile since I read it, but as I recall, if you look in the index of Michaels’ book Our America, you’ll notice the absence of the name Jose Martí. This mattered a lot to me at the time; I have no idea why it matters here.

    Meanwhile, the last time I taught Gatsby, I showed the clip from Season Two of The Wire where D’Angelo Barksdale breaks down the novel better than most of my students, at least.

    I also showed three complete episodes of The Wire in that course, which was a survey of American Literature. I recommend the same to anyone, esp. those teaching post-1945 AmLit.

    Posted by Steven Rubio  on  12/06  at  03:35 PM
  3. Is this going to be on the final?

    Posted by  on  12/06  at  04:06 PM
  4. It’s all on the final.

    Posted by  on  12/06  at  04:13 PM
  5. Behold, the Cap of Command, that of the one and only seven star general in the WAAGNFNP Army of Ultimate Liberation:

    Cap of the Supreme Commander

    Such an object cannot be worn lightly, however. Proper rituals must be observed, permissions obtained, tests passed, and so forth. This tale is not one for a single post.

    As this tale unfolds, and the images are revealed, I will accumulate them in the interwebs and archive them appropriately so that you may visit them at leisure.

    Bill Benzon
    Minister of Visual Propaganda

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  12/06  at  04:39 PM
  6. Isn’t Michaels’ argument about Gatsby that class is treated as if it were understandable according to the same models through which we understand race?  That is, it’s not that caring about race occludes understanding class (although Michaels seems to claim this elsewhere).

    Rather: lots of people claim to consider class, but their understandings of class veer toward “recognition” as the ultimate goal of a progressive agenda for “dealing” with class.  In the case of class, they substitute (cultural) difference for (material) inequality as the basic problem.

    So Fitzgerald’s claim that the “rich are different from you and me” and Gatsby’s inability to successfully “integrate” or “pass” in high society is very precisely an understanding class as *like* a race.

    This isn’t to say I agree with everything Michaels writes.  I think his style of writing, and failure to properly consider counterarguments, does his own argument a disservice, but in the case of Gatsby, there is a persuasive case to be made that he’s right that Fitzgerald treats class difference in terms that borrow from racial models.

    E.g., Tom Buchanan is a “class essentialist” who thinks that class-mobility is bad because the lower classes are different from the rich.  A progressive attitude toward his classism seeks to show that the lower class may be empirically different from the rich, sure, but that difference shouldn’t be essentialized or denigrated:  being different is OK.  Gatsby deserves recognition and respect.  He is, despite his fantastic wealth, the tragic victim of classist ideology (either Tom Buchanan’s or Fitzgerald’s).

    Posted by  on  12/06  at  05:31 PM
  7. Correction:  I should have written “(structural economic) inequality” rather than “(material) inequality.” Yes, yes, culture is always material.

    Posted by  on  12/06  at  05:42 PM
  8. Class? Race? Immigration? 

    The moral of my story is be nice to people.

    Posted by  on  12/06  at  06:22 PM
  9. Well, now you’ve got me wanting to read Native Speaker.  (The other book recommendations I’ve gotten from this site (White Noise and Murphy) have proven to be very worthwhile.) And I haven’t read Gatsby in 25 years, so perhaps I should dust it off as well.

    Posted by  on  12/06  at  10:23 PM
  10. What does a movie about people who like to have sex near auto accidents have to do with race?

    Posted by MoXmas  on  12/07  at  12:12 AM
  11. I think Michaels imagines us reading Chris Clarke’s post, above, throwing up our hands and saying gee, if it isn’t class that accounts for the differences among the women he describes, we must be talking racial or “cultural” differences, since otherwise they’d all be pretty much the same: race goes all the way down (still channelling Michaels channelling us), and the mistake we (or Lothrop Stoddard or F. Scott Fitzgerald) make in thinking about culture as race is in imagining that culture goes all the way down, too.  I think “Gatsby” is a brilliant, defiant, defeatist critique of the American dream of unfettered class mobility, not because class is “really” like race, but because it shows the narrative of romantic self-invention to be finally no more to the point, no less disingenuous and fraught, than Tom Buchanan’s racial essentialism, for a host of reasons that Michaels never even tunes into.

    (Okay, I’ve got a Gatsby chapter, too.)

    Posted by Tracy  on  12/07  at  01:05 AM
  12. I read Walter Benn Michael’s (WM) article in the American Prospect, and thought I agreed it gave more recognition to Michael B’s point than appears to be the case, per Michael’s post.

    I have long adopted the late Michael Harrington’s analysis as to how culture, politics and economics are constantly washing up against each other and influencing each other (This may be found in Harrington’s “Twilight of Capitalism” (1975) and “Socialism” (1972), and especially “The Politics at God’s Funeral” (1985).  Would that WM have read more Harrington!

    I wonder if WM would say George Schuyler’s “Black No More” was only about race, instead of noticing it is about race, economics and sociology, too.

    I will check out “Native Speaker.” Missed that one…

    Posted by Mitchell Freedman  on  12/07  at  01:16 AM
  13. My first paragraph in #12 should read:

    “I read Walter Benn Michael’s (WM) article in the American Prospect, and thought it gave more recognition to Michael B’s point than appears to be the case, per Michael’s post.”

    Oh well. Late work day and pushing the submit button too darn soon!

    Posted by Mitchell Freedman  on  12/07  at  01:20 AM
  14. I have a simple rule of thumb—any discussion of American class that mentions The Great Gatsby most likely has nothing to do with class, and everything to do with how middle class academics should agonize about class.

    Posted by  on  12/07  at  01:29 AM
  15. I think Michaels imagines us reading Chris Clarke’s post, above, throwing up our hands and saying gee, if it isn’t class that accounts for the differences among the women he describes, we must be talking racial or “cultural” differences, since otherwise they’d all be pretty much the same

    Seeing as those are words you’re putting in Walter Benn Michaels’s mouth, I’m having trouble figuring out whether or not that’s a cheap shot.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/07  at  01:40 AM
  16. to MoXmas (#10):  Crash (1996) starring Holly Hunter and James Spader is about people who like to have sex near car wrecks.  Crash (2004) starring Don Cheadle, Matt Dillion, et al interweaves the stories of a racially diverse group of people in LA over the course of two days.  And yes, it is reductive and solely focused on race as the basis of all social interaction as MB says.

    Posted by  on  12/07  at  05:11 AM
  17. Eh, WBM’s flipness about the disabled is as nothing compared to the ignorance of history and indifference to intention expressed in his recent American Literary History piece on Philip Roth.  Guy’s a Man with an Idea that applies to everything, regardless of data, very like Rene Girard.  But he’s a great advocate for grad students and deeply invested in helping out smart younger scholars even if he disagrees with them, so meeting him would be good for people’s social capital.

    Posted by  on  12/07  at  06:51 AM
  18. I’m quite sympathatic to the aspect of Michaels’s program that says we are deeply confused about the relationship between identity and culture. He’s right, we are confused. But it seems to me he’s a bit too content with his efforts at pointing out the confusion, as though we can now forget about identity and culture and get down to real stuff, class. Class is certainly real, but so are identity and culture, even if we’re deeply confused about all this. Identity and culture aren’t going to go away simply because Walter Benn Michaels has shown that we’re confused. At this point it seems to me that he’s confused too, but is trying to walk away from the mess the remains in the wake of his arguments, which have succeeded in transforming one mess into another mess, though the new mess may not be quite so messy as the first.

    Let me take the liberty of simply copying part of a post I made at The Valve as part of our celebration and interrogation of The Trouble with Diversity.

    * * * * *

    Consider this relatively early passage in the religion chapter. (p. 174):

    Like ideological affiliation but more radically, religious identity is very different from racial or cultural identity. The big selling point of cultural identity (the selling point, really of the very idea of identity) is that cultures are essentially equal. That’s what makes them different from classes, since classes are essentially unequal - they involve more or less money. And it makes them different from religions too, since if Christianity tells the truth, all other religions must be false.

    I find this treatment of cultures and religions as different kinds of entities to be a bit odd. The oddity isn’t quite of Michaels’s own making - I do believe it to be inherent in the ideas Michaels is critiquing - but it is not clear to me why Michaels takes this at face value.

    I would think that most professional social scientists and humanists regard religion as itself a cultural phenomenon [in the sense the Bérubé characterizes above as ‘conceived as a “whole way of life” underlying any conception or arrangement of “society.”’] - at least in large part, for there is a great deal of speculation these days about possible biological roots for religion. That is to say, from the point of view of these intellectual specialists “culture” is a category that subsumes religion and so cannot be in conceptual parallel with it, as Michaels treats it. I understand that Michaels is not analyzing the concepts of professional intellectual specialists, that he is analyzing politically active concepts, but the fact that he nowhere even acknowledges this somewhat different notion of culture, not even in a footnote, bothers me.

    I note that, when intellectual professionals talk of culture in this way, so that religion is a facet of culture, they are also “standing outside” not only any particular culture, but outside of all cultures. Sometimes the stance of a hypothetical Martian anthropologist is invoked in this regard. I further note that, the concept of cultural relativism was originally an epistemological and methodological one. The idea was that you can’t understand another culture in terms of your own; you must understand it on its own terms. In taking this stance the intellectual professional is not, of course, called on to adjudicate the truth claims made within various cultures and stated as universal truths.

    Of course, the idea that professional intellectuals can “stand outside” has been called into doubt - an issue I’ve touched on in my earlier piece in this Michaels-fest. If you can’t stand outside, then cultural relativism makes no sense as an epistemological principle. It simply collapses into an ontological notion, that all cultures are somehow equal.

    So where is Michaels standing in The Trouble with Diversity? Is he attempting to stand outside the political field he is critiquing or is he critiquing it from within? It’s not clear to me what kind of issue this is, whether it matters, and how it bears on Michaels’s general treatment of religion. It’s all a muddle.

    * * * * *

    And it needs to be cleared up. It’s not clear to me just how much work that will require.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  12/07  at  10:38 AM
  19. I’ve got a few more posts at The Valve that deal with these issues in a preliminary throat-clearing sort of way:

    Is Western Culture an Illusion?

    Fables of Identity, European and American

    American Wildlife & Culture

    And there are these somewhat older and more formal pieces:

    Culture as an Evolutionary Arena

    Culture’s Evolutionary Landscape: A Reply to Hans-Cees Speel

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  12/07  at  10:39 AM
  20. Chris, I went to bed before reading your second post, and if my earlier comment seemed remotely like a cheap shot, I ought to have gone to bed a lot sooner.  I meant only to underscore MB’s point that Michaels’s whole gospel depends on his reading “Gatsby” and “Native Speaker” as though they really DID reduce all social relations to relations of race, so that he can cluck his tongue and enlighten us too-enamoured readers, patiently, yet again.  And it seemed to me he’d (reductively) read your post the same way. Bill Benzon’s point about Michaels taking the mystifications he critiques at face value is a propos here. If I came across as doing the same, my apologies.

    Posted by Tracy  on  12/07  at  11:33 AM
  21. No apology necessary even if it had been intended as a cheap shot, Tracy. I indulge in same fairly often myself. But thanks for the clarification.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/07  at  12:30 PM
  22. race has turned out to be a gateway drug for all kinds of identities, cultural, religious, sexual, even medical. Wow! Is it addictive, and will it get you really high??

    This sort of construction makes me want to host an open bar party (lots of free booze poured liberally) and invite: some physical and cultural anthropologists, some primate zoologists, a few historians of religions, a couple of economists, and Walter.  Then i could sit back and just listen to the snarking, bickering, cheap-shotting, pissy, barroom-brawl inspiring rants.  Given that each of these disciplines define these terms in different ways for different purposes--Michaels would just have to play polyglot synthesizer while stirring his mulligan stew.

    Posted by  on  12/07  at  04:21 PM
  23. Isn’t Michaels’ argument about Gatsby that class is treated as if it were understandable according to the same models through which we understand race?

    See, Lee, I think this is a very loose and baggy argument.  How do you know when class is being treated according to a model through which we understand race?  You say:

    lots of people claim to consider class, but their understandings of class veer toward “recognition” as the ultimate goal of a progressive agenda for “dealing” with class.  In the case of class, they substitute (cultural) difference for (material) inequality as the basic problem.

    So Fitzgerald’s claim that the “rich are different from you and me” and Gatsby’s inability to successfully “integrate” or “pass” in high society is very precisely an understanding class as *like* a race.

    Only on a really tendentious reading, I think.  First, who are these “lots of people” who advocate a model of recognition and respect for poverty?  Are they all filled with straw, as I suspect?  Construing Fitzgerald as one of them, on the basis of that “rich are different” line, is a little strained.  (And it’s not as if Gatsby closes on an affirmation of the culture of Jimmy Gatz’s boyhood, which we should learn to respect.) As for the suggestion that every depiction of a parvenu’s failure to pass in high society is modeled on an understanding of class as “like race”:  does this mean we have to denounce Bourdieu as well, for that mystifying notion of “cultural capital” that has so exacerbated economic inequality in France?

    Posted by  on  12/07  at  04:37 PM
  24. Oh, this… made me laugh very hard.  Because I just finished teaching Native Speaker, too, and I wish I had had a chance to mystify my students with Michaels’ take on it. 

    Henry’s class status changes.  Henry spells out that being rich and Asian is not the same as being rich and white (or his dad yells it at him, anyway—Henry doesn’t like to have opinions).  Ergo, race and class exist.  Unmystified.  Well, that’s the short version, anyway.

    And speaking of Henry’s confused relation with the state, how about working for some kind of weird spy agency that he adamantly maintains is UNconnected with the state, and the amazing relative lack of police presence through the novel?  Put that against the sadly fictional idea of an Asian immigrant as a big political player in NYC, and you have a beautifully timely teaching tool.

    Posted by  on  12/07  at  08:26 PM
  25. You know what I’d like to see? Walter Benn Michaels versus Steve Sailer and the Gene Expression Boys in a steel cage intellectual death match (sorry, you’ll have to look them up yourself--if you do “racialization” and “The Constructivist” and have the patience to follow hundreds of comments [what am I saying? you read this blog!], you can witness my feeble attempts to engage the “racial realism” they espouse).  WBM would probably respond that the racialization of class relations is much more insidious and influential when done by liberal literary types than by those other code readers (of the Human Genome, of the HapMap).  But acquainting himself with their arguments might help him stop his nigh-Zizekian recycling of old arguments on new texts.

    On a side note, I’m wondering if his take on class is any less reductive than his take on culture?

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  12/07  at  08:38 PM
  26. I’m not dogmatically committed to Michaels’ argument.  Just suggesting Michaels’ reading of Gatsby isn’t totally off the wall; although his book isn’t great when it comes to “discussing” literature--it mostly discusses his (often poorly argued) political ideas with occasional examples drawn from literature.  It’s not a book of literary criticism.

    As for Bourdieu:  isn’t his point about cultural capital very specifically that it’s distinct from--and not identical--to economic class?  One cultivates cultural capital--distinction--in order to acquire socioeconomic capital.  Michaels’ (albeit limited) interpretation might say that Tom Buchanan (and maybe Fitzgerald) confuses uneven distributions of cultural capital for uneven distributions of socioeconomic capital.  He wouldn’t condemn Bourdieu but praise him.

    Anyway, I haven’t reread my Bourdieu lately, and I don’t think Michaels’ argument is very urgent, since I agree that the “some people” who make the mistake he claims is frequently being made are harder to find that Michaels seems to think.

    Posted by  on  12/08  at  01:35 AM





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