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Saturday, December 14

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Walter Benn Michaels is a professor of English (American literature, literary theory) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is noted as one of the founders (with Stephen Greenblatt) of the New Historicism, an approach to literary criticism and theory based on the premise that a literary work should be considered a product of the time, place and circumstances of its composition rather than as an isolated creation. Michaels' current book is The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. From Henry Holt, the book's publisher: "Michaels shows that diversity has become everyone's sacred cow precisely because it offers a false vision of social justice, one that conveniently costs us nothing. The Trouble with Diversity urges us to start thinking about real justice, about equality instead of diversity. Attacking both the right and the left, it will be the most controversial political book of the year." Cheryl L. Reed concludes her review of the book in the Chicago Sun-Times by observing, "Perhaps the eeriest study cited by Michaels is one that concludes that the single best predictor of someone's net worth is not their race or their current salary, but their parents' income. It's time we ask ourselves if we have been deluded into believing there is such a concept as the 'American Dream,' or are we simply reverting back to a feudal caste system?"

Michaels' previous books include Our America (1995) and The Shape of the Signifier (2004) and he has contributed to The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe. He is just beginning a new book called The Death of a Beautiful Woman, or, the Idea of Form.

Q: By definition, objectivity should present a more or less unadulterated course towards truth. Do you find anything about objectivity, in theory and/or in practice, that would cause it to become more of a barrier than a guide in your approach to reading and interpreting literature?

Michaels: I don't think that either objectivity or (its supposed opposite) subjectivity has much to do with truth or with literature. What you need in order to say something worth saying about literature today is not so much a guide as a certain amount of contempt for what the other people are saying. Irritation is way better than objectivity.

Q: In a Post-9/11 world there will always be questions of just how humane humanity might truly be. In this vein, what role can secularism play in the rearing of a literature of tolerance? Or, to what degree can secularism assist in repairing a literature of destroyed tolerance?

Michaels: 9/11 has become one in a long series of events that have encouraged us to think of intolerance as our fundamental problem. But the central argument of my new book is that we should be worrying instead about inequality — above all, the economic kind. We should stop celebrating cultural difference and start minimizing class difference. And we need much less of the literature of tolerance than we already have. We need fewer Toni Morrisons, fewer Philip Roths, more Bret Easton Ellises and more Kathy Ackers.

Q: Experimental or not, is there any lasting victory for the writer or poet who has succeeded in crafting a voice/vision that refuses to recognize that it is only a measure within the ancestral pattern. I mean, where is literature without an ancestral pattern?

Michaels: I'm not sure what an ancestral pattern is. It's true I write at my grandfather's desk but it's even more true that I don't write anything he would want to read. I guess I would say that you don't need ancestral poems to make you want to write poetry, you just need beautiful ones. And, of course, if you manage to write something beautiful yourself, it makes you immortal — which is pretty lasting.

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to tqf@gapersblock.com.

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