Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Continuing Trouble with Walter Benn Michaels

The Walter Benn Michaels essay I posted on a couple of months ago has been receiving renewed attention of late because of an NYPL event. The discussion featured both Michaels and David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the show which Michaels praised as a model for the kind of novel he believed was lacking from and needed in contemporary American letters. In that essay, Michaels argued that there is little point in writing novels about the Holocaust, slavery or other historical tragedies when "the only relevant past here is the very recent one;" older pasts recede to irrelevance in the face of the magnitude of the disaster with which "burgeoning capitalism" has saddled the world. No literature which doesn't make visible (to him) the economic conditions which produced this crisis is worth composing, much less printing and reading.

A video of the event is available from the NYPL's event page (click on "Download an mp4 video file") or in their iTunes store (free)—introductory remarks and Michaels's reading of his essay (yeah, they actually asked him to read the thing instead of summarize it) take up the first 22 and a half minutes, so feel free to skip to this point, if not further. Michaels is exceedingly provocative, as per usual, and David Simon seems to be trying to make sense of what Michaels thinks his show is, but has some nice remarks of his own. Dale Peck is there to be annoying and to awkwardly avoid looking at Susan Straight even as she talks directly to him and Susan Straight is there, I think, for reasons appropriate to her surname—the calm foil for three effusive performers.

I don't want to repeat my argument against Michaels's rejection of the "historical caretaking" genre he loathes, but there are a few further points which are better borne out by his comments at this event which I would like to talk about now.

In my post about Michaels's essay, I said that The Wire has become a cultural object which acts as a universal mirror—everyone sees their ideology attractively reflected in it. A large part of Michaels's rejection of memoirs and what he calls "historical caretaking" novels is their acceptance of the idea of the family as the self-evident architecture for the development and growth of the individual. Michaels believes that the ideal of the family is a neoliberal ideology used as a tool for eroding class solidarity, an argument which has legs even if it doesn't seem to conceive of the family as something with a history/histories and internal logic(s) vastly exceeding neoliberalism in both time and space (which he is challenged on by Dale Peck but dismisses without real argumentation). Regardless of his chronology, Michaels certainly doesn't see the importance of family-like relationships to the characters in The Wire (Aaron's brilliant paper on the show argues differently). This willful blindness is a problem that I'll return to in a bit.

Secondly, it becomes apparent that Michaels seems to take some part of his energy for this renewed idea of economically-conscious literature from a sense that white people have been hit hardest by the economic crisis. Michaels doesn't really put up much of a pretense that his argument against diversity-consciousness and against "historical caretaking" are themselves extremely racially conscious and have a racialized agenda: they do, and it is "pay more attention to the white victims of capitalism."

Where I really find Michaels troubling is that he's not, as one might naïvely think, arguing that the economic conditions and political rights of poor whites have been underaddressed and need to be included in a cross-racial anti-poverty politics. Racial solidarity in confronting poverty simply isn't a part of the politics he implicitly imagines—and in fact, it appears to be one that he can't. His politics can't be cross-racial because he doesn't pretend that poverty is universally and unilaterally a result of capitalist structures. He readily allows that racism is a factor in black poverty, and this is, in fact, the biggest sign for him of how unjust the economic situation is—poor whites, who aren't even the victims of racism, are falling behind. "The majority of poor people in America are white. They’re not victims of racism. They're not the victims of slavery… They’re victims of capitalism. And everyone wants to talk about everything but capitalism."

But talking about capitalism here doesn't mean—can't mean—talking about poverty in general. It means talking about the type of poverty that can be completely removed from racism (which he doesn't want to talk about at all), and that is white poverty. Black poverty, which must include a discussion of racism, will have to wait for later (for now, Michaels says, "at this moment in American history, anti-racism is completely empty as a left politics"). Christ said, "the poor you will always have with you"—I guess Michaels updates that to "the black poor you will always have with you."

Thirdly (and getting back to literature), Michaels argues against character as something that exists solely for the reader's gratification, a sort of node in the fabric of reality that we congratulate ourselves for successfully occupying for a brief period of time. Michaels argues forcefully that the obsession with character has its own (bad) politics, and he also says that the proper response to this type of fiction is not the creation of an oppositional politics but the imagination of alternative forms which may lead to (or at least affirm) better politics. Then he talks about American Psycho and clothing.

Michaels is certain of two things: First, that the popularity of memoirs and historical caretaking is premised on the bad politics of this character-driven fiction, politics which is deeply self-congratulatory and self-affirming because it offers to us a picture of the world as a personalized space: "The world we live in is personalized, it’s [presented as] a matter of making good personal choices or bad personal choices." Second, this popularity has crowded out the former success of protest or dissent fiction, which has atrophied under the shade of these character-driven fictions.

Most people (including those on the panel) don't understand how Michaels comes up with this second certainty: I guess for that you'd have to agree completely with his argument in The Trouble with Diversity, which very few people do agree with on all its points. I think the first certainty is also untenable—Michaels makes no attempt to demonstrate how a novel like Beloved or The Plot Against America offers us a world where the crucial conflict is between "good personal choices" and "bad personal choices," and tries to cram them in with memoir because (so he argues) they take uncontroversial positions (slavery is bad! genocide bad!) and give the reader a languid frisson of self-approval for agreeing with them. Michaels's reduction of all attitudes about things like slavery and genocide to "for" and "against" is ridiculous—he shows absolutely no understanding how a general consensus can mask residual prejudices and resentments (read Flannery O'Connor's "The Displaced Person" for that). But that first certainty is also untenable because it muddles the production and the consumption of literature. Michaels's main case is that dissent-minded protest literature isn't being written now, but he never really addresses the fate of older forms of protest literature, of whether former critics of capitalism have also been silenced, suppressed in favor of the "new" attention to slavery's legacies. Again, "the only relevant past here is the very recent one." It doesn't matter that there are still popular examples of older literary critiques of capitalism, many of which were discussed with great familiarity by the panelists—these powerful novels can yet demonstrate the realities of the structures he argues novels should be depicting, but Michaels remains glibly content with his idea that Toni Morrison's readership is a grave threat to leftist intellectual politics.

But more broadly, I'd also like to ask whether character is really so antithetical to a commitment to the critique of larger societal structures, as Michaels is certain it must be. After all, isn't a novel like Invisible Man a wonderful example of how character brings the reader into contact with social reality: the immersion in the mind of the narrator and in his story opens the reader's eyes to the grotesqueries of racism in all its many forms. Without the attention to character, the novel simply wouldn't exist. How something similar cannot serve as a model for opening a reader's eyes to other forms of oppressive social structures I cannot fathom, and Michaels's willful interpretation of The Wire as essentially characterless—"The characters on The Wire are interesting but they’re deeply subordinate to structures"—seems to me to ignore fatally the fact that most people kept watching—and witnessing the degradations of capitalism and maybe even thinking about them—because they bought into the characters, and even more, into the interpersonal reactions of one character to another. We tune in because we want to see what one character does to another, not to see what the system does to a character—though we see that too, and note it well.

And here is where the family comes in again. The family, or a familial-type structure, is a useful structure for the novel or for a television show because it allows a procedural unity to attach to a diversity of characters. For Michaels, this wouldn't be a virtue, but if I have argued somewhat compellingly that character is not anithetical to structural critique, I think the family can be seen as an enlargement of the capacity for character to bring the reader/viewer into contact with a variety of structures.

The systole/diastole pattern of circulating the characters, each to confront a different facet of the general reality, and each to return to the familial unit, is the lifeblood of nearly all novels and television shows, so of course there are numerous examples where this basic narrative pattern is used to reinforce the types of "personalization" Michaels critiques. We get the idea, if we're not careful, that what sends these different characters into their different scenes is merely their personal choices, that the single organ of the family is a symbol of the equality of opportunity that all characters begin with, and which they squander or capitalize on. But how many family-oriented narratives really bear that out or uphold that logic continuously? Many family dramas are rife with the conflicts of unfair advantages that one sibling has over another. Watch Rachel Getting Married, read The Corrections—these works don't tell us that everyone gets the same shot at success, or even that all siblings have the same chance at happiness.

To say that Michaels is being absolutist is like saying an elephant is heavyset, but the larger point is not that Michaels "fails to consider" counter-examples, but that his argument doesn't fully comprehend what families do in narratives. I think this incomprehension (and the disdain it generates for anything that traffics in families) is crucial to understanding the failures of Michaels's politics as well. Michaels has no use for resistance to racism or to anti-Semitism because the most lasting effects of those histories persist in familial structures—the families unrecoverably shattered and decimated by the violence of slavery and racism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust—and because resistance to their continued presence in the world most often arises from the family.

That Michaels can't comprehend and won't countenance these forms of resistance is really too bad: there is no reason why capitalism won't (or doesn't already) shatter families unrecoverably, and why the familial strategies of resistance one finds in a novel like Beloved or even like Everything Is Illuminated cannot also apply to the displacements and disappearances meted out by capitalism. Acknowledging this would also remove Michaels's main obstacle to regarding racial solidarity as a necessary part of anti-poverty activism: it would also make his vision look a lot more like David Simon's.

(x-posted 4/28 with some minor amendments and improvements)


Anonymous said...

When it comes down to it, not enough contemporary authors are themselves parents, with mortgages, to really feel the pain of the meltdown properly. And I'm afraid that includes you too, who are too young to know what WBM knows.

Andrew Seal said...

What does Michaels know? I mean, he doesn't pretend to be speaking from experience here--that's not part of his argument. He's not trying to pretend to give voice to the voiceless or something like that--he's just saying that he thinks contemporary fiction is dreadful, and here's why, and here's an alternative that would be better fiction. I don't see how that argument necessitates a response grounded in a specific type of lived reality, as if I can't evaluate Michaels's thesis because I don't have kids and a mortgage--sorry, but being young isn't an eo ipso invalidation of an argument.

Anonymous said...

Given that you were going to devote a year to reading lit by non-white-male authors, you do believe that experience colors, if not determines, one's reception to arguments. Michaels is saying that we need a new protest literature; perhaps the reason we don't is that most successful authors of his (and my) generation, living within a few square miles of each other at the ground zero of hipsterdom, Brooklyn, have no idea what it's like to be a family man (or woman) out of work in this economy. But anyway, your post did make me look back at Michaels's essay, which I found completely agreeable, and for that I thank you.

Andrew Seal said...

"were going to"? I am still doing that--the only exception I've made has been D. A. Powell, who was giving a reading in my city--I had met him previously, really like him, and wanted to be prepared for the reading.

But I really don't understand how this commitment ties me to a deterministic view of experience. I think that being completely ignorant of this literature or having given it at best a cursory glance is certainly going to impede the formation of reasonable judgments about that literature and about the relative value of other literatures. But I am much more clearly committing myself to an idea of the reading experience which assumes that not ever having been black, poor, female or abused, I can still read Corregidora and find something valuable in it.

The reason I felt the need to make that kind of commitment was because I really never want to be the kind of reader a guy like D. G. Myers is. Actually, your argument sounds a lot like Myers, especially in this post:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I can't help thinking that two excellent writers who populate their stories with children -- Grace Paley and William Carlos Williams -- would not make his pantheon for political reasons. I can't totally agree with Myers, but I can't totally disagree with him either. I had a classical education.

That education may also be why I agree with Michaels that the popularity of the memoir -- and by extension confessional poetry, like Powell's -- is decadent.

Andrew Seal said...

"Classical"? "Decadent"? Since when did Roger Kimball start reading my blog?

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

How many novels that accurately capture life in a particular era are actually written in that era? It usually takes time and historical perspective to get the story RIGHT, so expect the first *lasting* novels on today's unregulated capitalism to be published around 2020.

Fitzgerald, Austen, and even Easton Ellis, though I can't stand his writing style (but also can't deny that he typified his generation) are the exceptions, not the rule.

Those able to assess the world around them as they experience it and transfer those experiences into keen, perceptive literary observations that amount to more than trend literature will be those we continue to talk about for decades to come.

Let's not rush their emergence.

Andrew Seal said...

I agree, although I guess I'd add that it's not just the writer's responsibility to assess the world in the way that you talk about, but also the reader's.

As readers, I don't think we need to try to make everything relevant to present conditions, but I think that for those of us who do spend a lot of time reading and thinking about reading, it's quite important to open ourselves up to unexpected relevances, and seize on those when they present themselves.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Agreed. The stories of individuals and families can definitely present "unexpected relevances" often with more intricacies and nuance than grand, sweeping, overly ambitious narratives with too much *heavy-handed agenda*.

And the reader often makes those leaps and assessments of relevance - finding the large in the small.

zunguzungu said...

I haven't listened to the event yet, but man oh man there's something bizarre in that reading of The Wire. The idea that the show reduces character to structure is just silly; the entire narrative structure of the show is built on particular characters who, for very character driven reasons, buck against the systems into which they are put. The show is built on its McNulty's and Bunny Colvins, and like the greek tragedies that Simon always talks about, the result is a show that not only doesn't reduce character to structure but is almost about nothing else *but* the resistance of individuals to the structures they're in. Whether or not they succeed is precisely not the point; without the friction between individual and structure, there would simply be no story.

I think your approach to the idea of family seems right on, though; I'll have to think more about it but the weird move in WBM essay where "Ethnic identity is just the family writ large" seems to be one of the weakest links in the argument. Even if that equation were defensible -- which I don't think it is -- he seems to be strangely oblivious to how illegible the family is within neoliberal thinking (precisely because family relationships are unquantifiable). If he was actually interested in immigrant ficiton, he would understand that a great deal of it is about economics and class through the medium of the family narrative. But he's not, nor -- I think -- is he particularly interested in The Wire, except as something he can twist to fit his thesis.

Richard said...

Michaels seems confused about a lot. (Though I agree that the popularity of the memoir is symptomatic of something, precisely what I'm not sure...)

Also, has he not considered that the history of racism is intimately tied in with the history of capitalism? That is, does he know anything about capitalism?

And isn't Beloved like 25 years old?

Mike said...

Mr. Seal, that was well-reasoned and intellectually rigorous of you. I'm still rather baffled at Mr. Michael's argument, though it seems to make sense from the perspective of the critic and intellectual-- that is to say, if you read for theme, you have to consider an argument that elevates theme and isms and attempts to define which isms are most essential to our 'historical moment.' Let me take a moment to defend the cult of character in fiction. Well, first, let me strike all the straw men: damn the self-indulgence of memoir and the elevation of the confessional and the self-congratulatory comfort of the white boogie reader stocking up on Toni Morrison for the satisfaction of confirming that slavery and the and racism are bad and ought to be condemned. God that felt good-- I do see why Mr. Michael enjoys it.

Yet it's not the 'cult of character' that's the problem. Mr. Michael's wants to prescribe theme because he imagines you can figure out a theme and then write in characters to act out that meaning. Fictions written about character that rise to no greater meaning than a 'world of personalized space' are poorly realized or inadequate. As you note, Mr. Seal, the opposition between a specific leftist politics grounded in an interpretation of our 'historical moment' as afflicted by capitalism which harms even white people and... 'character-driven fiction' is false. It's also foolish. Didactic fiction is bad fiction. Good fiction is about people, and good writers elevate character to meaning.

Mike said...

Also, I don't know why I want Michaels to be possessive.

Anonymous said...

Critique of WBM's most recent drivel: