Saturday, December 16, 2006

New Historicism's God Complex

The latest salvo in an onging exchange (linked previously):
Academics will recognize this magician as a stand-in for the protagonist of the old New Historicism. A school of criticism that flourished in the 1980s and by the early 1990s had been declared old-fashioned, at least by its enemies, the New Historicism put forward a version of “total system” (I quote from a discussion of Michaels by America’s foremost Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson) that specialized in outsmarting any attempt to critique or resist it, revealing said act of critique or resistance “to have been yet another feature of the system itself . . . programmed into it in advance.” Michaels’s readings of Dreiser’s The Financier and Sister Carrie are classics of the genre, cleverly exposing the vain illusion (again in Jameson’s words) “that Dreiser’s work, which is immanent to the market system and its dynamics and deeply complicitous with it, could somehow ‘stand outside’ that, achieve a ‘transcendence’ with respect to it (normally even characterized as critical distance), and function as criticism of it, if not indeed outright political repudiation of it.”

Whatever you think of the plausibility of this vision, it’s a major problem for Michaels’s argument. A capitalism that can do magic tricks like this one would obviously have no trouble with any collective action, however race-blind, that tried to equalize life chances for the poor. Given his assumptions, Michaels cannot really expect any more from the trade unions whose weakness he claims to bemoan than from the feminism he mocks. For he has to assume that any gains the unions might wrench from the corporations would be instantly confiscated from other employees elsewhere. Ditto for raising the minimum wage. Its opponents maintain, anticipating Michaels, that this will only make the wages of others go down. (If that were true, the corporations and their representatives wouldn’t fight tooth-and-nail against raising the minimum wage.) The way Michaels writes about the struggle for racial justice knocks the legs out from under the struggle for any justice.

Obviously Michaels doesn’t really believe that corporations can never be forced to give up any portion of their profits, that there can be no redistribution of wealth until a messianic coming of the Revolution, that in the prolonged meantime nothing meaningful can ever be accomplished. Otherwise he would not revive such excellent proposals as pushing for a 100% inheritance tax or delinking school funding from local property taxes. The problem is that in his strange and overpowering compulsion to discredit the movement against racism and sexism, he draws on a model of total system—the adjective “paranoid” doesn’t seem too strong to describe it—that guarantees failure for everyone. And this despite his certainty that all we need, as he says, is to do what’s right. Those of us who are fighting racism or sexism because (in his words) “it’s the right thing to do” are supposed to stop short, no longer certain of what’s right. Why? Because Michaels himself is so certain that in pursuing our sense of what’s right, we are inevitably if deviously furthering the cause of neoliberalism. Which is it, total system or what’s right? Like divine omnipotence and free will, his two certainties collide. As I hope my review made clear, I really admire Michaels’s feisty secularism. But this is not secular thought. This is theology. (read more)

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