3: Two reactions -

3: Two reactions

In my first post, I argued that the editors of n+1 often misrepresent or ignore the US government’s role in overseas conflict. I cited two editorials on Libya and Ukraine, neither of which acknowledge the West’s well-documented responsibility for upheavals in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. These articles appeared on the magazine’s website at pivotal moments in the last twelve months—during the build-up to a possible military intervention in Syria in August 2013, and in the middle of growing hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in February 2014—which made their apparent bias unforgivable. When politicians in the West were seeking a mandate for sanctions and war against Russia and Syria, n+1 published articles that minimised Western antagonism towards these peripheral regions.

In my second post I discussed MFA vs NYC, a new n+1 book about writing and publishing. The essays in this book describe writers’ experiences inside fiction workshops and the publishing industry, but say very little about writing produced outside these two institutions. Several of the book’s contributors also revive traditionalist ideas about aesthetic value and the primacy of the Western literary canon. In one characteristic remark Elif Batuman compares the writing produced by MFA graduates to ‘new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition’.1 She continues,

I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world.

Batuman’s tacit belief that ‘the developing world’ has no literary tradition, and that the literature produced in these peripheral regions possesses only ‘anthropological interest’ for Western readers, signals an unapologetic return to Eurocentric conceptions of art and culture. This persists later in the essay when Batuman warns against ‘the danger of ethnicizing novelistic alienation’: in her analysis, core elements of the novelistic form have been ‘politicized and dehistoricized’ by writers like Sandra Cisneros and Philip Roth, and this has prevented contemporary novelists attaining the same level of self-evident literary greatness as Cervantes or Proust. Batuman thinks talented writers are today discouraged from contributing to a ‘universal’ literary tradition, and encouraged instead to fixate on their own ‘persecutedness’. There are a lot of thorny issues with this confused cultural elitism. Batuman completely avoids addressing them, relying on rhetorical appeals to common sense whenever she invokes the greatness of the Western canon. In fact, most of the book’s contributors seem to subscribe to Batuman’s idea of ‘greatness’, and they too rely on a vague rhetorical reasonableness to justify their position. All of her argumentation sits quite comfortably in the pages of both MFA vs NYC and n+1.

Conservative ideas about art and culture have been resurgent in the last three decades. Since the 1980s numerous writers have won praise for their public attacks on pluralism in literature: Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Michel Houellebecq, and Martin Amis all fortified their careers by publicly lamenting some version of ‘multiculturalism’, or the decline of the Great White Novelist. They each made this complaint with varying degrees of finesse, but behind every essay and polemic there was the same conviction, the unbearable thought that a quintessentially European, ‘American’, or English tradition might be threatened with extinction. (Batuman’s argument emphasises a different part of this formula: she wants writers of ‘pluralist’ fiction to start working in the same vein as Melville and Balzac.)

This reaction against the diversification of literature has coincided with a reaction against anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics. In recent years several ostensibly liberal and left public intellectuals have played up Western anxieties about ‘theocracies’ in the Middle East, radicalism at home, and nationalism everywhere else. Paul Berman has spent the last ten years talking about a salvific mission in the Middle East, the urgent need to unite against ‘Muslim totalitarianism’; in the same period Slavoj Žižek has written countless books and articles in which he argues that ‘multiculturalist respect for the Other’s specificity is the very form of asserting one’s own superiority’.2 Some of these intellectuals have also claimed that the fight for tolerance and equal rights impedes the achievement of true socialist aims. Since the ‘90s Walter Benn Michaels has petitioned Americans to stop protesting racism and sexism and to try instead to implement wealth redistribution—he thinks the former effort saps the energy of the latter—because he doesn’t believe in the interdependence of economic inequality and state-sanctioned bigotry.

Berman, Žižek, and Michaels write in quite different registers, but all three comfortably disdain the majority of the world’s population for the sake of their own narrow political project. In practice nothing positive is achieved by these pundits’ attacks on anti-imperialism or anti-racism. Berman isn’t helping to liberate the ‘poor Muslim immigrants’ of Europe and America, he’s providing a rationale for war.3 Meanwhile Žižek, whose books and interviews are awash with plainly sincere racism, cannot bring himself to protest NATO’s bombing of former Yugoslavia,4 and is unable to offer more than the frailest possible condemnation of the Iraq War.5 And Michaels isn’t helping to bring about socialism by obsessively attacking ‘neoliberal multiculturalism’ in the London Review of Books, he’s just promoting a renewed callousness and historical illiteracy about racism and sexism.6

Walter Benn Michaels’s career demonstrates the link between the two reactions in culture and politics. In the early 1980s Michaels collaborated with Steven Knapp on the famous essay ‘Against Theory’, a grandiose attempt to prove that literary theory—in the form of reader-response theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and by extension some feminist and postcolonial criticism—had no epistemological value, and in fact no right to exist. ‘Against Theory’ was published in Critical Inquiry in 1982; a sequel, ‘Against Theory 2’, appeared in the same journal in 1987. Both essays use arguments borrowed from analytic philosophy to show that a text’s meaning is always identical with its author’s intention, and that it is therefore incoherent to study ‘alternative’ readings of a text’s significance. Knapp and Michaels’s own intentions are clear enough: they want us to accept that ‘the whole enterprise of critical theory is misguided and should be abandoned’.7 They believe that the study of authorial meaning should be the primary task of literature departments, at least as far as individual texts are concerned.8

The form their argument takes is much more surprising than the argument itself, which is mostly a retread of hoary old debates about speech-acts and ‘true belief’. What is interesting in ‘Against Theory’ is how extremely prescriptive Knapp and Michaels sound in their conclusions, where they argue that literary theory should ‘come to an end’. They aspire to rearrange the totality of criticism by directly challenging the legitimacy of theoretical disciplines; this approach makes the essays seem faintly intolerant, even irritable. ‘Against Theory 2’ ends with dogmatic finality:

[W]e have argued that conventions play no role in determining meaning. We have denied that they can give a text an autonomous identity that will allow it to mean more than its author intends. And we have made a further point about the relation between convention and meaning, maintaining not only that conventions provide no source of meaning in addition to intention but also that they impose no necessary constraint on how intentions can be expressed. They provide no additional source and they impose no necessary constraints because their role is not to determine a text’s meaning but only to provide evidence of what the text’s meaning is. And its meaning is whatever its author intends.

Sadly, this is little more than a taxonomic debate. Knapp and Michaels want to prove that most post-structuralist interpretations aren’t interpretations at all; at best they are acts of creation, and at worst, incomprehension. They insist that interpretation always aims at the text’s meaning, understood as the author’s intention. This intention may not be recoverable, but in the act of reading a text we are inevitably attempting to recover it. Both essays try to show that an appeal to volitional meaning is always essential to any act of interpretation, and in making this argument Knapp and Michaels disparage the wealth of research and pedagogical insight gleaned from theoretical projects that ‘read against the grain’. They assign a lower status to these projects by reinstating the idea of a text’s intentional truth.

Their argument depends on some specious and counterintuitive ideas about literature. Every reader knows that the language of a poem, a play, or a novel is different from that of a written letter with a single addressee; by definition, literary language is something more than the language of speech-acts. It does not have one primary recipient or group of recipients: literature exists for a vast public that is diachronic and potentially global in size. A writer may or may not consider the afterlife of a text while writing it, but this half-intended, half-unintended afterlife is the key feature of anything we decide to call literature. (‘Against Theory 2’ offers a partial response to this objection.) The diverse potential interpretations of a text are worth studying—because they are real—and this is borne out by history. Yet in the 1980s Knapp and Michaels made two bombastic attempts to diminish this plurality of interpretation, and their efforts were partly successful: by the mid-90s post-theory acolytes like David Foster Wallace were helping to popularise their retrogressive thesis.9

The same prescriptive reasoning is imported into Michaels’s later texts, which begin to address political questions. In Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, Michaels charts the evolution of racism in the US, arguing that in the 1920s a ‘pluralist’ racism displaced earlier ideas about racial hierarchy. Whereas racists in the late nineteenth century believed that the difference between racial groups was a matter of degree (i.e. quantity of certain positive traits distributed on a bell curve), after the First World War some modernist writers advanced the idea that racial difference was a matter of kind, or quality, or essence. According to Michaels,

The pluralist denial of racial inequality amounts to an insistence that, since they can’t be “of degree,” racial differences must be “of kind.” Pluralism requires the assertion of differences in “quality,” not just “quantity.” Where [Frank H.] Hankins’s commitment to white supremacy required that races be different from each other only insofar as one had more or less of what the others also had, the antisupremacist or pluralist commitment to difference without hierarchy made races essentially different rather than more or less like each other. […] The commitment to difference itself represents a theoretical intensification rather than diminution of racism, an intensification that has nothing to do with feelings of tolerance or intolerance toward other races and everything to do with the conceptual apparatus of pluralist racism.10

Michaels says ‘valorization of difference above all is pluralism’, and in later chapters he makes a distinction between ‘racial pluralists’ and ‘cultural pluralists’: one group appeals to biology as the basis for essential differences between cultural identities, while the other makes a tautological appeal to culture to explain the differences between cultural identities. Michaels suggests that today’s ‘multiculturalists’ belong to the latter camp, and he believes their position on cultural identity is incoherent:

What’s wrong with the current conception of cultural identity is not that it developed out of racial identity (although the fact that it did may well explain how what’s wrong with it got to be wrong with it); what’s wrong with cultural identity is that, without recourse to the racial identity that (in its current manifestations) it repudiates, it makes no sense.11

[…]

[A]lthough the move from racial identity to cultural identity appears to replace essentialist criteria of identity (who we are) with performative criteria (what we do), the commitment to pluralism requires in fact that the question of who we are continue to be understood as prior to questions about what we do. Since, in pluralism, what we do can be justified only by reference to who we are, we must, in pluralism, begin by affirming who we are; it is only once we know who we are that we will be able to tell what we should do.12

[…]

To put the point as bluntly as possible, “cultural pluralism” is an oxymoron; its commitment to culture is contradicted by its commitment to pluralism.13

Michaels’s critique of essentialist and anti-essentialist concepts of identity is self-consistent, but it doesn’t appear to lead anywhere. At the end of the book Michaels has to concede that something would be lost if (for example) Québécois people were to stop speaking French, ‘but,’ he writes, ‘it cannot be said that what the former French-speakers, current English-speakers have lost is their identity’.14 As in ‘Against Theory’, it becomes apparent that Michaels is making a taxonomic argument. ‘Identity’, like ‘meaning’, is for Michaels something fixed, something in need of rigorous definition, rather than a heuristic. He doesn’t understand that these concepts are real enough in their myriad effects. Michaels’s approach produces a conveniently colourless idea of identity and trivialises the experiences of those people most directly affected by racism.

Like ‘Against Theory’, Our America aspires to alter political and critical practice. One of Michaels’s implications is that anti-racist movements which necessarily accept this ‘pluralist’ notion of race or culture are only perpetuating racist or incoherent ideas about identity and difference. Besides Michaels’s relative clarity, there isn’t much to distinguish Our America from Žižek’s bewildering argument that ‘multiculturalism’, the tolerance of different cultures, is a kind of white supremacy. The similarity with Žižek is slightly more pronounced in Michaels’s 2006 book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, in which he argues that contemporary Western capitalism’s respect for other cultures, and Western governments’ supposed commitment to anti-racist and anti-sexist policies, are ‘compatible’ with the unchecked expansion of economic inequality under neoliberalism. In this book, race and gender have apparently become so problematic that to challenge racism or sexism is to actually reinforce capitalism.

In some respects Michaels uses the same tactic to devalue both contemporary anti-racist politics and critical theory. Since there is no ‘truth’ behind the idea of racial or cultural identity—since modern notions of identity are either fundamentally racist or nonsensical—any attempt to legislate against institutional white supremacy will necessarily operate in the same incoherent space as racism; this will also have the ill effect of complicating Americans’ understanding of socioeconomic class, which is verifiably real and ought to be addressed first. And similarly: since interpretations of The Tempest are true and enlightening only insofar as they uncover Shakespeare’s conscious or unconscious intention (which is the same as the text’s meaning)—and since it could plausibly be shown that Prospero and Caliban were not strictly intended to represent coloniser and colonised—many postcolonial interpretations of The Tempest are probably just creative misreadings. It isn’t clear what is to be gained by accepting Michaels’s scholastic arguments.

It is also important to note that Michaels’s reasoning isn’t as rigorous as his prose makes it seem. His arguments tend to operate by exclusion and distortion. For instance, in The Trouble With Diversity he minimises the institutional racism and sexism that still exists under ‘neoliberalism’, and he does not account for the racist foreign policy which undergirds prosperity in the Global North. In interviews Michaels has often said that ‘the anti-racist agenda is in no sense whatsoever an anti-capitalist agenda’. But this is only true when we seriously restrict (and misrepresent) what it means to resist racism. (Writers like Eduardo Galeano and Nelson Maldonado-Torres have made this same point with considerable force in their own texts.)

In 2011, in the first issue of Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara interviewed Walter Benn Michaels.15 Sunkara’s questions are an occasion for Michaels to restate and develop his thesis; Sunkara hazards only a mild criticism of the tone of Michaels’s writing, which he says is off-putting even to sympathetic readers. In this interview Michaels starts to advance his idea that neoliberal ideology may soon essentialise socioeconomic class in the same way ‘nativist modernists’ essentialised racial and cultural identity:

Michaels: I wrote a piece on this last year based on the Gates episode for the London Review of Books, a review of a book that had just come out in the UK about extending anti-discrimination to deal with the white working class, as if the problem with the white working class was that it was insufficiently respected and that if you could only get a few more White working class guys up at the top … basically just treating the white working class as if it were an identity. That’s cutting edge neoliberalism.

Bhaskar Sunkara: Gordon Brown certainly was from that Scottish working class.

WBM: Yeah absolutely, so at that point it’s not that you prefer identity categories to class categories. Now you’ve completely labeled the last class category anyone was willing to recognize—the working class—as an identity category and you can treat it the same way you would race.

Michaels then claims that America has become ‘a deeply anti-racist society … officially committed to anti-racism […] That doesn’t mean that there isn’t still racism, it means that there is an important sense in which anti-racism is absolutely the official ideology’. The idea that Western society is truly committed to anti-racism is at odds with both domestic and global realities, but Sunkara is too enamoured of Michaels’s analysis to raise this point seriously. Does it really matter what the ‘official ideology’ appears to be when the material reality contradicts it comprehensively? Does Michaels think that economics alone can explain why people of colour make up more than half the US prison population?

The editors of the other ‘left’ magazines are also sympathetic to Michaels’s arguments. Michaels was invited to air his views on ‘diversity’ in the third issue of n+1 in an essay called ‘The Neoliberal Imagination’.16 A letter to the editors from Michaels also appeared on the n+1 website in 2006 (though this was accompanied by a solid rebuttal from the academic Bruce Robbins).17 In his n+1 piece Michaels makes the same claims as in his Jacobin interview about neoliberal ideology and the impending subsumption of class politics into identity politics. A few quotes from his essay reveal the absurdity of this idea:

Classism is the key here because classism is the pseudo-problem that brings left and right, conservatives and reactionaries, together […] Classism is what you’re a victim of not because you’re poor but because people aren’t nice to you because you’re poor. It originates on the left, and it treats economic difference along the lines of racial and sexual difference, thus identifying the problem not as the difference itself but as the prejudice against the difference.

Michaels calls this ‘the fantasy of a left politics, a politics defined by its opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia and hence by the idea that what we should do with difference is not eliminate it but appreciate it’. This argument is extremely deceptive. Even if we accept Michaels’s claim that ‘classism’ is a ‘pseudo-problem’ (rather than, say, a word that describes one of the ways people are marked and excluded from the ruling class, a process which occurs most palpably in the education system), he is mistaken in his belief that ‘opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia’ is something that has vitiated left-wing anti-capitalism. In fact these struggles and their achievements are absolutely indispensable to the struggle against capitalism. By reforming the hiring practices of employers—by securing for everyone the right to enter the workforce on the same footing as white men—the anti-racist and anti-sexist movements broadened and strengthened the bloc of people who can strike or otherwise act in solidarity against the ruling class. They actually created conditions which increase the collective power of workers.

Michaels dismisses this. He believes that there are some undesirable after-effects produced by the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia. He thinks liberals and leftists have been hypnotised by these struggles to the point where they can only interpret economic inequality through the same lens, i.e. by analogy to struggles against discrimination. This is a ludicrous suggestion. Michaels would only have to look at the discourse he is attacking to see that inequality and socioeconomic class have not been forgotten about, mystified, or legitimised. Most of the practitioners of the analysis of racism and sexism have persistently addressed material conditions (housing, hours of work, provision of essential services), and consequently they have often made reference to the stratification of society along class lines.

The problems which concern Michaels most—wage stagnation, structural unemployment, wealth inequality—would become even worse if marginalised groups (people of colour, women, LGBT people, immigrants) were to be discriminated against more intensely than they are today. And there is every reason to believe that in the absence of a continued resistance against racism, sexism, homophobia, such discrimination will intensify; there is no reason to believe that in the absence of a continued resistance against these things a strong anti-capitalist or pro-redistribution movement will flourish. So why do critics like Michaels keep attacking ‘diversity’?


There are dozens of writers like Walter Benn Michaels who have risen on the recent reactionary wave, and it’s important to show that n+1 and Jacobin belong to this movement as well. This can deliver one explanation for their anaemic anti-imperialism, their implicit faith in the benevolence of the US state, their lack of interest in committed and credible opponents of racism and sexism. But the genealogy of the two reactions is only half the story, and if we focus exclusively on a history of ideas and influences this essay will start to resemble one of n+1’s editorials.

We should instead examine the practical backdrop to the intellectual situation. Who is paying for these writers’ books and magazines? Who keeps them in business?

Part 4 is here


  1. MFA vs NYC, pp. 242–243. This essay is also available online – (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n18/elif-batuman/get-a-real-degree

  2. New Left Review I/225, September-October 1997 

  3. (http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/argument-liberalism-and-multiculturalism

  4. Slavoj Žižek, ‘Against the Double Blackmail’ (http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/against-the-double-blackmail/

  5. Slavoj Žižek, ‘The Iraq War: Where Is The True Danger?’ (http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/the-iraq-war-where-is-the-true-danger/) – ‘The ultimate result of the war will be a change in OUR political order,’ froths Žižek. 

  6. (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n16/walter-benn-michaels/what-matters

  7. ‘Against Theory’, p. 724 

  8. Knapp and Michaels exempt ‘narratology, stylistics, and prosody’ from their definition of ‘Theory’. 

  9. This is particularly apparent in ‘Authority and American Usage’ and ‘Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky’ from Wallace’s essay collection Consider The Lobster

  10. Walter Benn Michaels, Our America, pp. 65–66 

  11. Our America, p. 142 

  12. Our America, p. 15 

  13. Our America, p. 139 

  14. Our America, p. 182 

  15. (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/01/let-them-eat-diversity

  16. (https://nplusonemag.com/issue-3/essays/the-neoliberal-imagination/

  17. (https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/magical-capitalism/