U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Without Regard to Our Regard

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:

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.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “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.’


    I was actually hoping to attend this, but the usual suspects got in the way. I haven’t read some of his oft-cited works (Our America and The Logic of the Gold Standard), so I’m not real familiar with some of his major theories.

    Did he discuss (or does he in his publications) ontological implications for living in a post-Darwinian world with regards to the “our” in the statement above? I’m currently studying the “Darwin Debates” in the realms of psychology, social ethics, and religion, and was curious if he accepts the premise of post-Darwinian ontological observations about the human/animal divide?

    Does he find the various distinctions betweeen “human” and “animal” (and everything in between) significant for addressing the questions he raises, or do they seem to be a non-factor in his work?

    I’m just curious because it seems that the phrase “without regard to our regard” has sociobiological connotations when discussing, say, “altruism” in the “animal” world.

    I would have liked to have seen what a “skoch of grousing” looks like. Can that be quantified?

  2. Mark, that’s an interesting question. I guess there is a sense in which the ontological/biological came up, albeit indirectly, in a discussion (during the Q&A) in which (I think) it was posited (by the questioner) that a capacity for or experience of “affect” is something people have in common, though they are not necessarily affected by the same thing, or the same thing doesn’t necessarily produce the same effect (or affect). Michaels didn’t dispute that the realm of affect exists, but he suggested that it’s not a useful tool for liberation of the kind he has in mind.

    IIRC, this subject was re-introduced at dinner by the same questioner. There was some discussion around the table then about the limiting problem of “affect” having to do with its purported status as some sort of sub-cognitive or non-propositional “direct experience.” And here Michaels and I agreed at that point — how does one understand or share or invoke that experience with/for others except via cognition, language, propositional statements? I guess an appeal to a common embodiment might perhaps support a “politics of indifference” that extends to all living things — but I don’t see that as being part of Michaels’s immediate project. My guess is that he might find this question of post-Darwinian ontology yet another distraction from hashing out what is (or isn’t) to be done — an unhelpful focus on subjectivity instead of a sorting out of competing claims. But TBH, I don’t know the extent to which his vision of an end to class — an end to economic exploitation of “human capital,” say — might mean an end to economic exploitation of all living beings.

    A skoch of grousing? I guess I’d quantify that as the maximum level/intensity of honest critique I can bring without putting any strain on conviviality, so that I am still able to smile at my interlocutors with genuine warmth or laugh at the situation (or just at myself) with genuine amusement (I don’t do fake smiles or forced laughter anyhow) even as I am thinking — and saying — “Dude, this is so. messed. up.” Varies from situation to situation, but generally much easier to gauge in person than online.

  3. Thanks Lora.

    As I’ll be taking quite a few literature courses this coming academic year, I think I’ll include Michaels on my reading list along with some glances at the “affective turn” in the humanities.

  4. Good ol’ polemical Michaels, still quarreling against the identitarian turn in cultural/literary studies. Thanks for posting this, L.D. It is interesting to see how Michaels is now turning his attack to the politics of affect. I wonder how he engages theorists who are trying to go beyond the either/or logic he follows in terms of affect and redistribution/recognition: I think of Etienne Balibar’s notion of egaliberté or Jacques Rancière’s turn to aesthetics–in the broader sense of the concent–as a site of emancipation. And within “affect studies,” the work of a Sara Ahmed or a José Muñoz. Did he articulate specific genealogies in his critique or is there a bit of a straw man rhetoric going on here? And with what genealogies is he allying himself? The rejection of sentiment, affect, etc. has a long tradition, as you know, that goes through Habermas and Arendt and is ultimately rooted in the intellectual debates of the Enlightenment.

  5. Kahlil,

    Yes, Michaels sounded some familiar themes from his oeuvre — at one point, when discussing questions of textual meaning and his disaffection (my term) for reader response theory, etc., he even said something along the lines of, This is what I’ve been saying for twenty years…

    He didn’t really engage affect theory at a purely theoretical level — it was, interestingly, a very “empiricist” talk. The first half was focused quite tightly upon poetics, formalism, putting Poe’s dictum about a beautiful woman in tension with his more useful (for Michaels and for Nelson) assertion that beauty is a function of form not subject, a quality of the formal totality of the work, etc., and he brought that into dialogue with Dickinson’s “formal feeling” as the work of poetry.

    The transition between his discussion of aesthetics and politics was his claim that Nelson’s aesthetic is not linked to a corresponding politics, but to an opposing politics. The empirical example he used to talk about the political ineffectuality of the identitarian turn was the rise in income inequality going hand in hand with the social gains of the “triple liberation” from the 1960s to now. (Piketty made a cameo here.) At one point Michaels zeroed in on the increasing diversity of the college population in terms of race/gender/sexual orientation, contrasted with the change in median family income for college students over the same decades. Basically, while university populations are more diverse, even public universities are becoming more and more the province of the rich. (I didn’t write the stats down, but the chart he used showed family income for students at UT Austin, with a decisive majority of UT Austin students’ families making somewhere around $150K-$200K per year, IIRC.)

    So his basic claim was that “triple liberation” has done nothing to upset the apple cart of class exploitation, and is in fact quite nicely compatible with it. The problem for the audience, of course, lay in Michaels’s notion that it would somehow be advisable, or lead to a better outcome, to “forget” or “stop focusing on” structural injustices built around race/gender/sexuality, that the best thing for everybody is to all pile on the bandwagon of putting an end to class, and that to suggest to do anything else first — or even at the same time — is to sabotage the whole project of the Left.

    It was the second time in as many weeks that I’ve been made keenly aware that “the Left” — being part of the Left, doing the work of the Left, being committed to the aims of the Left — is apparently supposed to be the most important thing academics can think about. I guess fish don’t realize they are swimming in water, but the whole current of systematic and constant thought about and from and for “the Left” — the unarticulated assumption that “Left” is the only reasonable way to think/do/be/live — is still somewhat peculiar to me. So I’m learning as I go.

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