Interview: Walter Benn Michaels

Posted: February 17, 2014 at 11:40 am, Last Updated: February 18, 2014 at 9:48 pm


The Cultural Studies program’s colloquium series features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student Kyle Koeppe interviewed Walter Benn-Michaels, professor of American Literature at University of Illinois-Chicago.

In The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, you argue that diversity perpetuates inequality and that you favor emphasizing class in order to further social change and so is there a way to understand how class intersects with these other forms of difference? Quick blurbs on the internet might warrant an understanding of your work as claiming there is an irreducible difference between the two.

That is totally what I am trying to argue, in particular against the emergence of supposedly more sophisticated forms of analysis over the last thirty years which have tried to make class relations look as if they were versions of race or gender relations. Here is a really easy way to put it: battles over gender, race, and sexuality are battles against discrimination. And of course, it’s absolutely true that discrimination is wrong and we should be against it. But class has nothing whatsoever to do with discrimination; it has to do with exploitation. And you could imagine a world with no discrimination at all in which exploitation was left untouched. You can actually see a little version of that in our own world.

When I first started writing the Diversity book, back in 2005 or 2006, there was only one state in the union that allowed same sex marriage; now, eight years later, there are seventeen states. It is not a complete victory for anti-discrimination, obviously (lots of states still to go) but it is serious progress in removing the discrimination against gay people getting married. And, again if we go back to 2006, that was the year in which the highest degree of economic inequality was ever recorded in the US  — until 2012 when it was higher. So you have a period in which, on the one hand, you have a series of battles against discrimination with great success while, on the other hand you don’t have anyone battling against exploitation at all and instead, you have exploitation getting worse and worse.

Part of the point of distinguishing class from race and gender is that class is a fundamentally unequal relation — it cannot be made equal in a capitalist society. Whereas race and gender are fundamentally equal relations and what a liberal society wants is for us to recognize the equality that in fact exists. Thus, nothing, in my view, is more confused than something like intersectionality, the idea that weaving all these things together will get you a more sophisticated account when in fact you get a more confused account — with the ideological effect of helping produce a society where people are extremely attached to a particular form of social justice (anti-discrimination) while being extremely disconnected from another model of social justice (anti-exploitation).

The work you are doing today is seeking to make a claim about the autonomy of art. Does this autonomy, at the core of something that might be called high art, still exist any longer in the face of mass commercialization and commodification?

I don’t really know anybody who argues that there no longer is high art; maybe they don’t think it is “higher” exactly, but there is a lot of art being produced and all you have to do is walk around a gallery in Chelsea or in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side and you’ll see a lot of people making what they consider high art. Whether it is good or bad is a different story. The reverse of that would that the art market is so expensive right now that high art, the art meant to be hung on peoples’ walls and that people pay a whole lot of money for, is doing better than it ever has.

The question of whether there should be such a thing as high art or in what sense it is “higher” is different. I think there was a moment  — and it was a while ago, maybe in the 1980s or ’90s — when it looked like there was a kind of cultural studies move, an effort to find a political value in popular art that would either rival or supersede high art. But it didn’t really work out. You have Madonna studies twenty years ago, you have whatever the equivalent is now, but what actually happens is that when academics write about whatever is popular at the moment, they usually end up looking a little foolish. After all, the people writing are in their forties, while the people are doing it are, like, nineteen. It’s not that different from when I was a kid and professors started wanting to write about Bob Dylan, which I always thought was stupid even then when I was totally into Bob Dylan.

I guess what I mean is that the hierarchy of arts hasn’t really been undone by an academic enthusiasm for pop culture.  But there’s a more significant issue in your question, one not so much connected with high art as such, but with the question of the autonomy of the work of art, because one thing that is true is that people, including people very much within the high art world, have been committed (it’s the essence of post-modernism) to the critique of autonomy, to the idea of open form and to the idea that the beholder’s relation to the work  — how you felt about it, how you responded to it — was a part of its meaning. And how I responded to it was also part of its meaning. Hence, insofar as we were different, our responses were different; the art would have different meanings for different audiences, and not only in individual terms, but perhaps more powerfully in race terms, gender terms, and a whole set of issues like that. But the whole idea of art’s autonomy is that it doesn’t do that. It draws a sort of frame around itself and seeks to be whatever it is and mean whatever it means independent of its audience. So I’ve been arguing in a series of essays, some of them will appear in my forthcoming book, The Beauty of A Social Problem, that the postmodern commitment to open form (to how the reader experiences the work) is a version of the anti-discrimination argument. What it is about is a world in which the most important thing is how we see others, how we respond to others, and how we feel about others. In other words, the work makes the reader’s affect crucial in the same way that the question of discrimination makes everyone’s affect crucial.

Class works entirely differently. You don’t belong to the working class because people treat you like you belong in the working class. The working class is not socially constructed; it’s economically constructed.   The relation between capital and labor is not a function of how people see each other. It’s not about the affective life of capital, but a structural difference that is built into capital itself. What I’m arguing in this book is that the autonomy of the work of art begins to become important again in the last ten years to a number of younger artists, born in 1974, ’76: older than you but younger than me, and especially in photography. What is important to them is precisely that they’re creating a work that is absolutely autonomous in its production from its consumption; it means what it means; it draws a boundary between itself and the world. What we get from this is not so much a class politics – these artists have a lot of different politics — but a class aesthetics. That is, they give us a vision of a world organized not in terms of how we see each or feel about each other but organized like the relation between labor and capital,

I think that as a historical development this is something new. Not that there haven’t been lots people committed to the autonomy of the work of art, but the autonomy of the work of art has meant different things at different times. In our period, it functions politically as the way to begin thinking about society structured not in the end by discrimination, prejudice, the various forms of normativity and the various critiques of normativity, but by class relations, i.e., ultimately by capitalism, rather than racism or sexism.

Do you see this class aesthetic as having a political potential?

Well, in one sense yes and in one sense no. Is it out there mobilizing people? No. If you want to get people to do things, you’re better off doing the kind of thing that hundreds of us at UIC have spent the last four or five years doing, which is organizing a union, fighting for a contract, and now if they keep on fucking with us, getting ready to strike. That is political activity. No work of art is going to get you there. None of the works of art that I described will do that. I do think that what the work of art does is begin to give you a way to think the social problem.

The title of my book, The Beauty of A Social Problem, is from Brecht and what Brecht was talking about was the performance of Mother Courage. What he famously says is, if the actress playing Mother Courage tries to establish sympathy with the audience, to get the audience’s sympathy, it’s catastrophic. The reason it’s catastrophic, he says, is that you lose the beauty of a social problem. The idea is that the beauty of art is lost in the response of the audience, and that losing that beauty is losing the politics as well.  What you want is art that, by not appealing to your sympathy, by asserting its independence, performs a kind of analytic role. In that way, the politics of the art is also the way in which the art is not political. It doesn’t imagine that the way it makes you feel is going to then produce a politics. What it imagines instead is that it is giving you a vision of the structural rather than the affective life of the world, and hence of things as they are. So, for example, I have a piece going up on about a brilliant artist named Owen Kydd. I gave it as a talk in Detroit, where a bunch of other people were also giving talks and showing what in Detroit is called “ruin porn.” What “ruin porn” is is these amazing photographs of rusted-out buildings.

Instances of the Rust Belt being rusted out in all its grandeur.

Yeah, and so the argument I was making was that the thing that I was showing — a video of a black plastic bag sort of stapled to a surface and then blown about, photographed as if with a still camera, but really a moving camera held still as the bag moved back and forth — the argument that I was making was that you understand more about Detroit today and the political economy that produced it from looking at at that black plastic bag and thinking about its relation to its making and its relation to its beholder then you’ll get from looking at all of the ruin porn in the world. The formal structure of capital begins to appear in a video like that, a formal structure that’s obscured by all of the various ways of making art which solicit the beholder’s sympathy or participation. They can’t actually grapple with the structure of our political economy because they can’t grapple with structure. Sorry, that part’s a little tautological but it’s the best I could do.

Write to Gavin Mueller at


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