Walter Benn Michaels’s talk yesterday at Southern Methodist University was well-attended, and well worth attending, especially if you enjoy lively and spirited debate.
Michaels spoke on the connection – or, rather, the disconnect – between a commendable “aesthetic of indifference” and a comparable politics, a politics that he sees as missing in (in)action.
Michaels sketched out the “aesthetic of indifference” via an exploration of the critical project of Maggie Nelson’s collection of poems Jane: A Murder. In this work, Nelson pushes back against Edgar Allen Poe’s dictum (from his Philosophy of Composition): “The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” This assertion expresses a sexual politics that assumes that the lives of beautiful women are somehow more valuable than the lives of other women, a politics that underwrites an “aesthetic of the grievable.” (The notion of “the grievable” is drawn from Judith Butler). Through Jane – a collection of poems about her murdered aunt – Nelson contends that the grievability of a woman’s death – that is, the value of her life – is not a function of her beauty. The beauty (or lack thereof) of the murdered woman is an indifferent matter to those who have lost her.
The politics behind Nelson’s aesthetic of indifference is a feminist politics drawing its sense of possibility from the larger cultural moment that she calls the “triple liberation”: Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Gay and Lesbian Rights. For Nelson, these movements repudiated the notion that some lives (for example, those of straight white men) are more valuable, some lives are more grievable, than others. Nelson’s aesthetic demands indifference to distinctions between persons that place them on a “hierarchy of grievability.” This alternative to hierarchy, this recognition of the level ground of loss, conforms, Michaels suggests, to Nancy Fraser’s idea of a “politics of recognition.”
But Fraser drew a distinction between “recognition” and “redistribution,” and as Michaels sees it, the politics of recognition has gotten in the way of the politics of redistribution. If indifference to identitarian distinctions is an aesthetic alternative to the hierarchizing aesthetic of the grievable, an alternative that opens out onto a horizon of equality, then indifference to identitarian distinctions can also be a political alternative to economic hierarchy, an alternative that could enable a class politics committed to economic equality. This politics should be “indifferent,” pursuing economic justice without regard to the race, class and gender of those who would benefit from economic redistribution — “without regard,” Michaels said, “to our regard itself.”
Indeed, Michaels argued, the project of the “triple liberation” has been perfectly compatible with the neoliberal project of upward, unequal wealth redistribution. In fact antidiscrimination has been a cornerstone of neoliberal economics since Gary Becker convincingly argued in the 1970s that racist employment practices only added to labor costs. Becker argued that to discriminate against a group of qualified, available workers on the basis of race functioned to create an artificial scarcity in the overall labor supply, driving up wages. So, regardless of how an employer might feel personally about issues of race or gender or sexual orientation, he or she should set those feelings aside for economic reasons. (It occurs to me now that this is precisely how a “politics of indifference” functions from/for a neoliberal perspective. I don’t recall if Michaels pointed that out during his lecture. If he didn’t, he should have.) In any case, while antidiscrimination is a good thing – and Michaels repeatedly emphasized that he is all for the “triple liberation” — it does not necessarily lead to economic justice. Instead, it can be used as a way of underwriting economic exploitation. And a critique of economic inequality that focuses on the disproportionate number of a particular group – women, blacks, transgendered people – as economically disadvantaged does not challenge neoliberal market logic, but only reinforces it. Such critiques protest the class disadvantage of particular people, but they don’t protest the fact that there is such a thing as class disadvantage or class hierarchy.
I have skipped a lot, and left out a lot, especially on the “aesthetics” side. Whitman, Barthes, and Emily Dickinson (whose poem “After great pain…” provided the title for Michaels’s talk, “A Formal Feeling”). And I haven’t said much about how Michaels connected aesthetics with affect. I’m not sure that he did connect it very well, honestly – though he had much to say about aesthetics and effect, in keeping with his longstanding claim that the meaning of a work does not depend on its reception. But he seemed to identify a concern with/for “affect” with a concern with/for subject position/identity. Indeed, he began his lecture with the statement that the politics of affect is bad politics.
In any case, what I have written here captures, I hope, a bit of the flavor of Michaels’s talk.
There was a lot of pushback during the Q&A, including maybe, oh, a skoch of grousing from yours truly. It seemed to me that insisting on the necessity of redistribution instead of recognition would only serve to alienate people, rather than inviting them to make common cause for economic change. I wanted to know if a both/and approach was possible. Alas, the fact that I would even pose such a question – and I wasn’t the only one who posed that question, in one form or another — revealed that I had bought into the con of identity as a substitute for equality. Another questioner suggested that Michaels’s insistence on discussion class to the exclusion of the other arenas of “triple liberation” represented a very narrow definition of Left politics. Michaels’s response was that any view that doesn’t champion the end of class hierarchy first and foremost was no Left politics at all.
Here’s how one attendee summed up the event on Twitter:
My last 2 hours: Q: Can I oppose racism AND economic inequality? If not, why not? A: No. Q: But— A: [snaps fingers] Barthes. cc @LDBurnett
— Tim Cassedy (@vicesimusknox) April 25, 2014
I don’t know if Michaels won any converts, but I don’t think he was trying to. He wasn’t there to preach, to recruit; he was there to prophesy, to provoke. He certainly did so, without regard to our regard. Perhaps such indifference — call it honesty — is, in a way, a kind of recognition.