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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

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 Michael on 12/06 at 01:58 PM
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