Jeffrey Williams with William V. Spanos

William Spanos
William Spanos

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a transitional time in literary studies, as well as in American culture and history. Founded in 1970, the journal boundary 2 marked that transition, as its inaugural announcement explained:

. . .the essential subject matter of our journal will be what is now called “post-modern” literature. Though we are uncertain about the direction this literature is taking, we are inclined to see the age of Mallarmé, Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, Pound, etc. as having more or less run its course. We believe that since World War II a new imagination has been struggling to be born and that these last twenty years (like the thirty years or so before World War I) represent another period of transition. The function of boundary 2 will be to play midwife to this new, “postmodern” imagination by publishing poetry, fiction and drama that explore its possibilities and literary criticism and scholarship that attempt to clarify its direction.

William Spanos, co-founder and longtime editor of boundary 2, has worked over a long career to define the postmodern in both literature and in theory. In shepherding the journal as well as in his prolific writing, he has influenced the shape of contemporary criticism, investigating existentialism, poststructural theory, American studies and the politics of the American imperium.

Spanos began his career in a relatively traditional way, with his first book on The Christian Tradition in Modern British Verse Drama: The Poetics of Sacramental Time (Rutgers UP, 1967), although it also drew on his interest in Christian existentialism. That interest also led to his editing the anthology A Casebook on Existentialism (1966; rev. as Existentialism: A Casebook, 1976), which introduced then-current strands in continental philosophy to U.S. literary studies and from which developed his subsequent concern with Heidegger and poststructural theory.

Spanos was editor of boundary 2 from 1970 to 1986, when his former student Paul Bové became editor, but he has continued to serve as a member of its editorial collective. Much of his writing in the 1970s and ’80s dovetailed with the project of boundary 2 and was in the form of essays, such as “The Detective and the Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination,” boundary 2 1.1 (1972). Reprinted many times, it appears in a collection of his essays, Repetitions: The Postmodern Occasion in Literature and Culture (Louisiana State UP, 1986) and in Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays, ed. Paul A. Bové (Duke UP, 1995), a compilation of boundary 2 articles from 1972 to 1981. He also edited Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature (Indiana UP, 1979) and The Question of Textuality: Strategies of Reading in Contemporary American Criticism (with Bové and Daniel O’Hara; Indiana UP, 1982), which gathers work by Edward Said, Eugenio Donato, Evan Watkins, Jonathan Culler, Murray Krieger, Stanley Fish, Joseph Riddel, Jonathan Arac and many others from a symposium sponsored by boundary 2 held at Binghamton in 1978.

Culminating two decades of thinking since the 1990s, Spanos has published The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism (U of Minnesota P, 1993); Heidegger and Criticism: Retrieving the Cultural Politics of Destruction (U of Minnesota P, 1993); The Errant Art of Moby Dick: The Cold War, the Canon, and the Struggle for American Literary Studies (Duke UP, 1995); and America’s Shadow: An Anatomy of Empire (U of Minnesota P, 2000). He currently is completing three books and a memoir.

Born in 1925 in New Hampshire, Spanos attended Wesleyan University (BA, 1950), Columbia University (MA, 1954) and the University of Wisconsin (PhD, 1964). After brief sojourns teaching at the University of Kentucky and Knox College, he has been a professor at Binghamton University since 1966, where he is Distinguished Professor and still teaches a course every term.

This interview took place on August 6,  2006 at William Spanos’s house near Binghamton, New York. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, former editor of the minnesota review and transcribed by David Cerniglia.

Jeffrey Williams: First off, I want to ask you about boundary 2. What was the idea for it and how did it get started?

William Spanos: It started in 1970 when I was in Greece on a Fulbright during the Vietnam War and when the American government was shamelessly supporting a fascist dictatorship there. It was also when literary studies was still thinking in terms of the New Criticism. And, in that context, it struck me that we had arrived at some kind of boundary situation. That was a term that was very current in existentialist thinking that derived basically from Karl Jasper’s die Grenzsituation, which means a boundary or ultimate situation. We thought of that time in terms of a crisis moment, a time between an old modernism and a postmodernism. boundary 2, by the way, was the first literary journal to use the word “postmodern” in its title (boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature).

I felt that literary thinking had to be utterly rethought. This came out of my great interest, one I had developed in the latter part of my career as a graduate student and in the first couple of years of my teaching, in Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. My orientation was existentialist and, at that time, I thought that this postmodern moment had something radically to do with existentialism. The difference between the existentialism that was current and mine was that mine was informed by Heidegger’s ontological thinking.

In those first years the focus of boundary 2 was primarily on the revolution in thinking that was being called for by the disintegration of the metaphysical tradition of Western civilization. My focus was always on the ontological, the representation of Being that was fundamental to the Western tradition, which Heidegger called the onto-theological tradition. My whole orientation, as I said, was on the ontological revolution, not the social and political; that came later. The first two issues of the journal were on postmodernism in literature.

JW: What did you do to found the journal? It started with these theoretical coordinates, but how did you translate them into a journal with essays and even poems, and, if I recall, drawings and other things?

WS: My whole orientation here at Binghamton was that of a kind of odd man out. I didn’t have much of an influence on the administration as far as support was concerned, but I had a friend in the English department, the Canadian novelist Robert Kroetsch, who was co-editor with me at the beginning.

JW: How long was he co-editor for?

WS: Maybe seven or eight years, before he went to Manitoba. He had an enormous influence with the Binghamton administration. So when I got back from Greece—we worked out the idea of the journal in correspondence—we went to see the new president of the university, who was tremendously interested in getting a journal out of the English department. His name was John McGraw.

JW: 1970 was the time of the massive growth of the SUNY (State University of New York) system.

WS: Yes, and McGraw was a very progressive president. He bought a small press for the university, primarily to print boundary 2—he was that enthusiastic about it, when we told him what we were trying to do. After he left—he went to the University of Minnesota—it all went downhill. But that moment was a golden moment for boundary 2, as far as the contributions the university made to it. Even so, the work that we did was all manual. We had a couple of graduate students who did the copyediting, did the layout, did the typesetting—all that was done by the graduate students manually. The printer, for example, didn’t have italics, so we’d underline key words and titles.

JW: It’s probably hard for our students now to imagine that. How did that translate into the kinds of things you published? I know you published a lot of significant poets and more experimental writers. It was also a transitional moment socially and culturally, in the midst of the Vietnam war and the end of the ’60s.

WS: Well, three things occurred in that destabilized historical context: one, the resistance of students to the old university dispensation of disinterested inquiry, which they referred to in terms of relevance, as being irrelevant to the conditions in which they were living and going to Vietnam and dying for. They were demanding a rethinking of the structure of the university.

Secondly, the rise, in a very popular idiom, of existentialism in America—twenty years after existentialism emerged in France, so in a kind of watered down version, but nevertheless a version that was consonant with what was happening in the student population.

Thirdly, the emergence of a fiction and a poetry that was going radically against the grain of what, say, the New Critics thought was a great poem, in the sense that this new poetry and literature was open-ended, refused resolution, the sense of an ending, the gratifying dynamics of closure and so on. In many ways at that time, I thought that the momentum which I’m speaking primarily about was located in the Black Mountain school, which I became interested in very early on. In fact, the first issue of boundary 2 had an essay from David Antin who, although not a Black Mountain poet, was profoundly influenced by the open-ended orientation of Black Mountain. I thought that those contemporary poets coming out of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and so on, like Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, were even more revolutionary than Williams and Pound, as far as language was concerned. And there were also the novelists, Pynchon and Gaddis, Coover and Barth, Barthelme and other early writers of the 1960s.

JW: One interesting element in the early issues was that you have a number of interviews with significant poets.

WS: Dialogues. They weren’t interviews, they were dialogues, because I engaged them in what I call after Heidegger Auseinandersetzungen, antagonistic dialogues, to get the best out of them. I did interviews with Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, Nathaniel Tarn and a wonderful interview with Robert Creeley. That was a little later, in a big, special issue on Creeley (1978).

At the same time I was also interested in the theory of postmodern poetics; for instance I published an essay by Charles Altieri on postmodern interpretation, which became very famous. And at that time he was interested in these poets.

JW: What other kinds of things did you publish?

WS: To go back to those early issues, it’s a really mixed bag because no one really knew what exactly postmodernism was, and there are some that, looking back, sort of recuperated a more nuanced version of modernism. Many of them did not have a deconstructionist edge with the revolutionary dynamics that I felt were so crucial to the project. Incidentally, for this reason Bové, when he was asked 10 or 11 years ago by Duke University Press to collect some essays on postmodernism from early issues of the journal, he called the essay that I wrote, “The Detective and the Boundary,” and most of the others, “late modernist.”

JW: Looking back at it, I can glean a few phases of boundary 2. The first eight or so years focused more on a kind of literary postmodernism, featuring these poets, but in the next six or eight years, it became more invested in literary theory, with famous essays by Edward Said, my teacher Michael Sprinker and many other people, on Derrida, Foucault and the new French theory.

WS: First mine was a literary and an ontological postmodernism. The ontological was very important to me and that was the Heideggerian influence. The influence of Foucault became primary later on. That’s one of the important moments in the history of boundary 2. When I began to think about adding editors to the journal—I ran the journal as a kind of totalitarian and Kroetsch was simply a great moral support—my concern was the dismantling of the way of thinking Being that was consonant with the founding of the idea of Europe and the idea of the West. And then at a point when Foucault and the poststructuralists, Heidegger, Derrida, Lacan. . .

JW: Were they just starting to be translated then and talked about?

WS: They were just beginning to be translated into English, yes, and this was the context when I brought Bové, Jonathan Arac, Donald Pease and Dan O’Hara into the journal as associate editors.

JW: They were all early in their careers, yes?

WS: Yeah, they were all assistant professors then: Bové was at Columbia; Arac was at Princeton; O’Hara was at Princeton (no, O’Hara had just gone to Temple from Princeton as an assistant professor); Pease was at Dartmouth and had graduated from Chicago. They were all a second generation who minimized ontological poststructuralism. Despite the fact that Bové wrote his dissertation on Heidegger and Olson, at a certain point Bové transferred his focus from the early ontologically-oriented poststructuralism (Heidegger through Derrida, de Man, and so on), to Foucault and Said and a more politically-oriented poststructuralism.

I went along with that because they taught me—this is one of the great things about my relationship to those people—they taught me that their emphasis on the socio-political dynamics of the postmodern revolution was a continuation of my focus on the ontological, and it was at that moment that I came to what has been the supreme theme of my work, the idea that the interpretation of Being is not simply an ontological category, an ontological discipline. Being is an indissoluble continuum between the idea of the subject, gender, race, ethnicity, all the way to the global, international context, where postcolonialism comes in. These are absolutely interrelated sites, but one of the fundamental strategies of the Western tradition after the Enlightenment was to separate this relay of the sites of Being into disciplines, so that the relationship between, say, ontology and gender, or ontology and race, or ontology and the postcolonial were made invisible. That notion of the continuum constituted a discovery that these are all interrelated sites, so when you talk about the identity of the Western tradition you can’t simply restrict yourself to metaphysics. Metaphysics is a practice that manifests itself at all the other sites of Being, from a rarefied language—ontology, subject, epistemology—to the more practical sites, or the more worldly sites, to use Said’s words.

JW: How did you come upon them? I know Bové was your student, and one of the first PhD graduates from the English Department at Binghamton.

WS: Right. He did his dissertation on, as I said, destructive poetics. Joe Buttigieg was a contemporary of Bové’s. They were very close friends. For them, Foucault was the main figure, but there were also the neo-Marxists, Raymond Williams, Lukács, also Gramsci to a degree, although Foucault was at the center.

JW: So the second moment of boundary 2 was in the later ’70s. Said also started publishing a few very well-known essays in boundary 2 then, didn’t he?

WS: That’s right, Said published his essay on the New Left criticism (“Reflections on American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism”) that attacks poststructuralism. He gave that at the conference of 1978, where we got a lot of people in the poststructuralist context to come to Binghamton—Murray Krieger, Jonathan Culler, Homer Brown, Edward Said, Eugenio Donato, Joe Riddel, among others. That was the moment that, by way of Said’s very critical reading of these earlier poststructuralists, began the movement that eventually put an ontologically-oriented poststructuralism and a politically-oriented practice into a binary opposition, thus interrupting the movement toward the notion of a continuum between them. Of course Said had every justification to do that because we remained disciplinary: We were attending to the ontological site without any indication that there was any connection between the ontological and the political. So he was right in saying this poststructuralist discourse was unworldly.

That conference in Binghamton in 1978 was intended to remind people in the audience (and the readers of the book that came out of it, The Question of Textuality) of the 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins when Derrida introduced poststructuralism to the American academy by way of his now-famous essay, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”

JW: The iconic conference called, “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” out of which came the book The Structuralist Controversy.

WS: That’s right; that’s the moment that introduces poststructuralism to the American academy. The 1978 conference at Binghamton was intended to be critical of that, and Said was the agent, but the irony is that Said was interpreted after as saying we must annul the early poststructuralists, because they’re unworldly, they’re systematic, they don’t allow for agency and so on, and thus, as I said, you’ve got the beginnings of an unfortunate momentum in theory that split theory and practice by way of putting early poststructuralism in a binary opposition to what these new Saidians were doing, instead of seeing Said’s intervention as a development.

JW: So boundary 2 changed focus around 1978, following this theoretical trajectory, especially with your adding these young Turks to the collective. That’s on the editorial side; what did you see as the audience of the journal? Who was it directed toward and what influence did you perceive its having?

WS: When I was editing the journal, the audience increased very slowly. I think the highest subscription rate that I had at the end of my seventeen years editing the journal was like 1,000. I think at the moment when the journal began to become more obviously political it began to develop a bigger audience.

The other thing I want to say, which is important and is now troubling to me, is that the journal was very lively in the sense that I, as an editor, took chances. The essays were profoundly uneven, the poetry was profoundly uneven, but that unevenness gave it a kind of vital and explorative energy that, once the journal became rigorously professional, it lost and became less provocative. I mentioned this to my colleagues on the editorial board, and they were all aware of it, so that in the last six or seven years they have been trying to get more various kinds of things, to the point now where they don’t accept unsolicited submissions. They only solicit essays.

JW: Really? That seems a little too closed and would go in the opposite direction of taking chances. Some of the best moments for me as an editor are when I get an essay from someone over the transom, a grad student or new professor, and it’s really striking.

WS: At the time the announcement of this very significant editorial change occurred, two years ago, I was in favor of it because, given the historical circumstances which exist now, there’s information overload. I felt we needed, in the specific context of the Bush administration and those dehumanized people who are running not only the American government but the world, a concentrated force that was antagonistic to this monolithic, post-9/11 American exceptionalist ethos of the Bush administration.

JW: I’m not sure if boundary 2 quite does that, but it would be nice if it could. You edited the journal from 1970 to 1986, when you handed it off to Bové. Why did you hand it off?

WS: Two things: one, remember I told you the new president McGraw bought the small press to publish the journal? After he left the university, support of the journal decreased incrementally and, although I was able to sustain it, it became an incredibly difficult process where every single issue was a struggle. I had to go down to the administration building to convince the graduate provost to give me between one and three thousand dollars. Literally, I had to go and beg, and that became such an ordeal that I began looking for other venues. They made my scholarly, teaching, and life as an editor of the journal a nightmare.

And just at that time, Paul Bové—he was a junior editor—had gotten word from Duke University Press saying that they were interested in the journal and were wondering whether or not it was feasible that they could take it over. I said to Bové, “Go for it. I’m sick of the context in which I’m editing this journal.” I felt a great depression over the problems that I had with the Binghamton administration and a conservative English Department. So I transferred the editorship of the journal to Paul, and Duke took it over.

The other thing that’s important, he took over the editorship, but it was assumed as fundamental that he would not be an authorizing editor, that he would be the executive editor of a collective. We would make sure that decisions were going to be made by a collective, and we created bylaws for this.

JW: I wanted to ask you about the process, because I’ve heard that you all meet a couple of times a year and decide things then. How would you compare that to the way that you used?

WS: Three times a year. I was very adamant about what I wanted, although I wasn’t close-minded. I knew what I wanted and Paul or Dan would recommend something, and if I thought, “This is not what I want,” I would tell them. But now, all decisions are collectively decided at those three meetings.

As I said, from the beginning, I had an agenda. I had an agenda that was oriented against literary studies as those had been institutionalized when I was a graduate student by way of the New Criticism, and beyond that I prioritized the critique of the logocentric Western tradition. I didn’t take any essay that happened to be an interesting reading of Dickens or this, that and the other thing. They had to be oriented by this existentialist, poststructuralist critique. But, as I said, that agenda became much more political and more focused in the second phase of the history of boundary 2, which saw the inclusion of Bové, Arac and so forth.

JW: What do you think of the journals out there now? What do you think journal publishing needs?

WS: One of the things that I’ve been saying to my students—I hate to do this because I feel maybe it’s because of the fact of my aging or whatever—I think the whole world of academic publishing is information overload, and it doesn’t make a difference to the people it should reach. When I say that to Bové, he says, “We’re justified in being pessimistic, but you can’t be that pessimistic.” And, of course, I agree. Like Beckett’s Molloy, one can’t go on, but one must go on.

At a moment like the turbulent 1960s, there was debate about these questions by a lot more people than just graduate students. But I don’t see that coming now. You’d think that could be a possibility given what’s happening in Iraq right now, as this administration, in an amazing way, is disrupting and destabilizing and threatening the global context by its arrogantly stupid, dehumanized, American exceptionalist policies. You’d think that that situation, which is so reminiscent of Vietnam, would have activated some kind of a grassroots revolt, especially among the students, the way that the Johnson administration and the Nixon administration had activated the students in the university in the 1960s. I just don’t see that happening in 2006.

JW: For many of them, it might be because they’re being indentured by student debt. To shift back a bit, before boundary 2 you were a fairly traditional literary critic. Your first book, The Christian Tradition in Modern British Verse Drama, is not New Critical, but it is primarily literary interpretation.

WS: That book is profoundly logocentric, but I admit it was very influential in the sense that I was struggling to articulate a momentum even among those radical Christians whose plays I analyzed, including T.S. Eliot, from a theological perspective where the authoritative theo-logos was visible—the Church and so on—to one that was more worldly. That is why I used existential categories to talk about this momentum. I saw Eliot as a Christian existentialist. What I liked about the existential dimension of this Christianity was the fact that it was moving from the other-worldly to the worldly. The problem, of course, is that they simply naturalized the supernatural; they brought the Word of God, the incarnation, into the world of history. They gave time its due, but time is still informed by a principle, an authoritative logos.

JW: How did you come to do literature? You got a BA at Wesleyan in 1950—forgive me if I march out the bio—and then went to Columbia for an MA and finally went to Wisconsin for a PhD, which you finished in ’64. I know that you also taught at Mount Hermon prep school and had a lectureship at Kentucky while you were finishing, which was typical for postwar PhD candidates. And clearly you were informed by the postwar milieu of existentialism.

WS: I have to say that the origins of my existential and worldly perspective came, ironically, when I was an undergraduate at Wesleyan, when this fellow student of mine, a kind of oddball but a very smart guy by the name of David Mize, said to me, “I’ve been reading this incredibly bizarre book that I think you’ll like, given what I know about you, Bill.” And it happened to be Alexander Dru’s selected translation of Kierkegaard’s journals, where Kierkegaard says—a quote I’ve used a thousand times—”We think backwards, but we live forward.” So I read that, and I just was bowled over. That was in 1945, and although my frame of reference was basically New Critical and continued to be after that, that gnawed at me, so that by the time that I got to Wisconsin I was going against its grain. And the Wisconsin English Department was historicist, old-time historicists plus a few New Critics, and I was going against the grain of both of those, from this existentialist perspective.

From Kierkegaard, I went to Sartre, but Sartre brought me to Heidegger and then Heidegger—his critique of metaphysics—became an obsession.

JW: You were at Wisconsin as a PhD student in the early ’50s?

WS: No, I taught at Mount Hermon from ’51 to ’53. And at Mount Hermon, where Said was a student although I didn’t know it at the time, I encountered a couple of teachers who really had a tremendous impact on my life and thinking. One was named David Jewell, the others John Angevin and James White. All of them were recent graduates of Union Theological Seminary, where Reinhold Neibuhr, Paul Tillich—all those people who had come out of the Christian existentialist tradition—were teaching. This is where I renewed my enthusiasm for Kierkegaard.

JW: It’s interesting that the infusion into literary studies then was from religion or theology. So it wasn’t from a formation in Christianity or because you once wanted to be a priest?

WS: I grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church, but I never was particularly religious. Then, after I left Mount Hermon, I went to New York and worked as an editor for the Encyclopedia Americana, writing biographies and deadly stuff like that. All I can remember about those dismal three years was the biography I wrote on Arthur Honegger, the French composer. He was one of “Les Six,” Poulenc and Milhaud and so on, and he was so existentialist that I became enamored of his compositions, and I’ve always been, despite a certain traditionalism in his compositions, a great admirer of Honegger.

JW: That was late ’50s?

WS: Right after I left Mount Hermon, ’53 to ’56. Then I went to Wisconsin in ’56, and I finished my dissertation while I was at Kentucky. From there I went to Knox College.

JW: So you were at the UK and Knox from ’62 to ’66. Why did you first come to Binghamton? The campus couldn’t have been very developed.

WS: It was still Harpur College. But this guy I knew from Kentucky, who had a job at Binghamton, called me a couple years after he got there and said, “Bill, I think you might be interested in coming to Binghamton, because we are now expanding into a graduate university, and, knowing you, you’ll be a lot happier here than you were at Kentucky or at Knox College.” So I checked into it, and at that time SUNY was indeed expanding rapidly. They were going all out to create a selective PhD program at Binghamton, which it still is. I liked Knox College—the students were great, but I felt stifled because I had little opportunity to do scholarship. So I figured, boy, this is an opening, so abbed it.

JW: It’s typical of that era, too, right? Especially in the SUNY system.

WS: It was at that moment when the SUNY system began thinking seriously about creating graduate centers under the influence of Rockefeller, who wanted to make the SUNY system competitive with the California system. That was his megalomaniac thing, which of course has never happened.

JW: How was it there then? It must have been exciting.

WS: It was exciting in the sense that they would pay for my travel and whatever expenses I incurred as a scholar. They encouraged publication, and they would even pay for the offprints of essays that I had published. It didn’t last long, unfortunately. Retrospectively, we could say that that inaugural momentum was toward what Bill Readings much later called “the university of excellence.” They couldn’t have cared less that I was writing essays attacking everything the university stood for and the state stood for. They were interested in “performance.”

JW: How did the grad program develop?

WS: The problem is that we inherited, in the process of this expansion, especially in the humanities, a whole brotherhood of very conservative humanists. This is one reason why I, early on, began to think critically about humanists. They were totally committed humanists, and they were right-wing, pedagogically, in terms of their scholarship, and their politics. When I was hired, a very famous medieval scholar, Bernard Huppé—I’ll name him—told me, “You know, we’ve been getting a lot of pressure to teach modern literature, so, since you’ve done a lot of work in modern literature, you could teach this course on the undergraduate level. But, you know, all of us read modern literature, so any one of us could teach it.”

That was one aspect of the mentality of these conservative humanists. The other was that the English Department was WASP. I saw, in the process of my first seven or eight years, the English Department’s firing of people, say, an Italian who was teaching Conrad, because what right did a third-generation Italian have teaching Conrad? It was that bad.

It got better, but in the English Department the curriculum remained traditional and, as a consequence, my existentialist, poststructuralist orientation was anathema. I was always an outsider, always an exilic figure. I can use that term without any reservation to talk about my early experience at Binghamton, up until, say, the last 10 or 12 years. Whatever I said at departmental meetings was the kiss of death. I brought in all sorts of speakers, mostly young guys talking about postmodern theory, and none of the humanists would come. When I’d introduce them, I’d say to the audience of graduate students, “Here’s the counter-memory, but where’s the memory?”

JW: That’s another thing that’s probably hard for our students to imagine, how fraught the introduction of postmodern theory was, but also how vibrant it was. It seems to me your notion of postmodernism has expanded over time. At first it was more a description of a literary period and mode, but then it morphed into a much larger category and a more theoretical category.

WS: At a certain point, the term postmodernism became identified as part of the logic of late capitalism, in Fredric Jameson’s phrase. That was the absolute antithesis of what I thought postmodernism was; I thought it was post-modern, counter-memory, counter-history. And ever since then, of course, postmodernism has become exactly what Jameson said it was, complicitous with the logic of transnational capitalism. To me it became a totally empty term. I was one of the readers of Jameson’s manuscript for Duke, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. After that I told Bové, the term has become so meaningless that we should drop it from our title. Initially it was boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature, now it’s An International Journal of Literature and Culture. So I began to use the word “poststructuralist” instead of “postmodern.”

By the way, when I invoke poststructuralists I also include Heidegger, who precedes them, because the postmodern, as I understand it, was, in a revolutionary way, intended to delegitimate the Western interpretation of Being, which sees being meta ta physika, from above or beyond things as they are—the differences that time always already disseminates—and thus imposes a spatial category that objectifies or reifies something that is dynamic, for the purpose of taking hold of, manipulating, grasping or comprehending “it.” My understanding of postmodernism was based on Heidegger’s notion of De-struktion. When you understand De-struktion in terms of the hyphen, you are bearing witness to the dismantling of the structuralizing dynamics of metaphysical thinking, the structuring of temporality, which in essence cannot be structured. So postmodernism meant to me the dynamics that were de-structuring, de-colonizing, that which Western metaphysical “structuralism” structures, and therefore the releasing of the differential temporality that had been repressed by the history of Western civilization, and opening it up for positive thinking.

JW: More recently the term you seem to use most often is “posthumanism,” especially in your essays on Said and his recuperation of humanism and your book on The End of Education. Your view of posthumanism reinstalls a Greek genealogy; you basically make the argument that, under the Greek aegis, humanism was a much more critical activity and concerned with ontology, whereas under the Roman it turned into a more militaristic, imperial instrument. The parallel is obvious to contemporary American policies and politics.

WS: Especially in Said’s last book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, which everyone cites as his final pronouncement. Although Said has a quite different understanding of humanism than the traditional conservatives do, nevertheless his general and unnuanced commitment to the humanistic tradition in this posthumously published book lends itself to the recuperation of precisely the kind of humanism that he was very critical of and that I am as well.

JW: But you see hope for humanism or posthumanism?

WS: Yes. I go back to Heidegger’s great essay, “Letter on Humanism,” which is his answer to Jean Beaufret’s question: Is there any way of recovering the word “humanism” in a useful way? Heidegger’s response to this is a very complicated response. He begins the whole “antihumanist” momentum that gets picked up by Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Althusser. But I detect not a rejection of humanism by Heidegger in that essay but a rethinking of the human, which is to say a rethinking of the entire Western tradition’s understanding of the human. According to Heidegger, humanism begins with the Roman translation of what I would call an originative Greek thinking (which is always already on the way), to a derivative form of thinking which can be characterized by calculativity (knowing what you want from the end). So the idea of humanism that is precipitated by this translation of Greek thinking, originative thinking, to derivative thinking by the Romans, was intended, according to Heidegger, to give man a metaphysical identity that was universal, unchanging, and therefore a concept of man, which involved predictability, because the primary concern was the production of good citizens. How did Heidegger put this? “Eruditio et institutio in bonas artes”—scholarship and education in good conduct. And that was necessary because their primary concern was the conquest and subordination of the world outside the Roman metropolis.

In other words, what the Roman tradition does is to create a concept of man in which man is the measure of all things. Man is the determinant of all the differential aspects of Being, from the ontological all the way through to the humanity outside of the Western world which privileges Man with a capital letter. So this humanism, this humanist thinking, is profoundly imperial from its ontological roots, and this concept of Man as the measure, as the master, the overlord of Being, becomes fundamental, especially in the period of the Enlightenment—the so-called anthropological era, when the anthropologos has taken the place of the theologos. Although Heidegger doesn’t do a good job of articulating his new humanism, he does offer directives that I follow. That’s why I use the word “posthuman,” not “antihuman,” in the book on education. It’s a humanity that is demoted from the status of overlord of Being. That is the corrupt use of humanism: Man as the conqueror, Man as conquering force against the world or even against Being. That is opposed to the more positive force, the existential category of care.

JW: That is part of your engagement with Foucault. Heidegger and, more recently, Said, are also points of return for you. You also return to the Vietnam War and to American literature, particularly Melville. I can see the connection to the way that America is represented as a Roman imperium. Perhaps you could talk about the connections to American studies and American literature.

WS: That’s a complicated itinerary for me, that takes us right back to the Puritans, who had a theological concept of being. They were carrying out God’s errand in the wilderness. They were elected by God to perform this errand in the new wilderness because the old world had become corrupt and had abandoned His Word. This was put in terms of a providential history—America had to do that. As I read America’s history and American cultural production, the theologos that determined the errand in the wilderness for the Puritans was secularized at the time of the Revolution, which is, of course, the moment of the rise of the Enlightenment. The early colonists in the Revolutionary world—the makers of the Constitution—saw themselves not as Greeks, but as Romans, Roman senators, Roman republicans. That model, as in the case of Foucault’s analysis of the French Revolution, was a Roman model, precisely because of the resonance of Rome’s imperialism. Going back to the Puritans, Cotton Mather, in Magnalia Christi Americana, sees the analogy of the errand in the American wilderness not simply in terms of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, but also the exodus of Aeneas from the old, falling world and the planting of a new (imperial) world. It’s imperial through and through, even though the focus is an ontological category.

And in this perspective on America’s role in the modern world, which has its ground in a Puritan world that has been secularized, the word “Man” (with a capital letter) becomes determinative of an entire discourse of American cultural production, from the time of the Puritans all the way up through the present post-9/11 occasion. It’s what Samuel Huntington, in his book Who Are We?, calls for in the face of the “deconstruction of America”—his own words—and in the face of the new enemy, militant Islam; he calls for, the recuperation of the “Anglo-Protestant core culture.” And in between, as I’ve shown in an essay that has not been published yet, there are examples of the jeremiads of the Puritans: from Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels; the Bunker Hill Monument orations of Daniel Webster; Francis Parkman’s history of the French and Indian Wars (The Conspiracy of Pontiac); Fredrick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”; through the famously bad book, The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, a text that was influential in determining the Kennedy administration’s “New Frontier,” and its policies during the Vietnam War; to Samuel Huntington’s jeremiad, Who Are We?, calling America back to its errand in the wake of 9/11. I mean a movement from American Man’s following the logos of God to a transformation of this theologos to the anthropologos, a naturalization of that supernatural, which became a determinant of the whole history of America from the Revolution right up to this present post-9/11 moment, at least as it’s epitomized by the Bush administration and the policy experts like Huntington who are making these jeremiadic calls for the recuperation of the American exceptionalist identity.

JW: Melville has been clearly a point that you return to. How does Melville fit into that genealogy? Is he a counter-memory?

WS: Absolutely. Melville foresaw the Vietnam War, as I say in the last chapter of The Errant Art of Moby-Dick and proleptically was critical of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 policies.

JW: How so?

WS: Precisely because he saw Ahab as Ahabism, which is to say an interpretation of Being by way of reifying the whiteness of the whale—meaning the indeterminacy, the undefinability, the inexpressibility, the unspeakability of Being. Ahab reduced Being to this object that he could put a harpoon into and end mankind’s problem with the finiteness of mortality, and Ishmael is a poststructuralist in the sense that he deconstructs this violent naming of the unnamable, especially in two chapters, one called “Moby Dick,” where he talks about the naming of the white whale, and the second where he talks about the whiteness of the whale. The whale’s an unnamable and unstructurable being. So, in this sense, Melville is a proto-poststructuralist. That’s the whole thesis of my book.

Melville’s a defining figure in my work. It’s hard to say when I came to see Melville in that way and became really interested in American studies. I taught a seminar on Melville twelve, fifteen years ago, where I began to read him from this poststructuralist perspective, at the same time that I was listening to Donald Pease and the New Americanists. Pease was a voice that enlarged my intuition about Melville, although his reading of Melville in his book is very different from mine. Still, the way he talked about the Americanist tradition against the grain had a great influence on my own thinking and got me deeply involved in rereading the American literary and cultural tradition.

JW: It’s interesting that you have genuine dialogues with some of the people around you, like Said and Pease. And you continue to return to literature, but not in the way that conservatives call for. Does literature, or the possibility of literature, become a counter-memory?

WS: I think that one of the great disasters, as far as the development of theory is concerned, is the annulment of the whole history that produced poststructuralism and the question of what is human. And related to this is the annulment of the primacy of canonical literature as the agency for creating national identities. My students haven’t the foggiest idea about that history of literary criticism prior to their contemporary moment. Not simply the hegemony of the New Criticism but also the emergent struggle of the early poststructuralists to revolutionize that earlier tradition. They don’t know who Cleanth Brooks is. They haven’t read Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans or Twain’s Pudd’enhead Wilson or Faulkner’s The Bear. They don’t know the tradition that created them as Americans, so this gung-ho commitment to the globalized, broadly anti-imperial, postcolonial perspective is undertaken in a vacuum. They don’t know what they’re rebelling against. As I said in The End of Education, we must not abandon the canonical tradition; if we’re going to be able to be a counter-memory, we’d better know what the memory is. That might make me sound like a conservative, but as long as America is the overlord of the planet, we’ve got to know where America came from in order to resist it.


William V. Spanos is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Binghamton, SUNY and founding editor of boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture. He is also the author of many essays and books on modern and postmodern theory and literature. His most recent books include American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization: The Specter of Vietnam; The Legacy of Edward W. Said; Herman Melville and the American Calling; and The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor. Two more books are forthcoming: Shock and Awe: American Exceptionalism and the Imperatives of the Spectacle in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (UPNE); and A William V. Spanos Reader: Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative. Spanos is also the author of In the Neighborhood of Zero: A World War II Memoir

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