Michael Bérubé regularly crosses the divide between academic and popular spheres. Bérubé launched onto the scene in the early ’90s with a Village Voice article debunking charges of political correctness in the academy. Just out of grad school, he had already earned an academic reputation with articles in places like PMLA and a book on the reception of contemporary literature, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (Cornell University Press, 1992). But through the ’90s he came to serve as an informant of matters academic to the literate public, publishing at a brisk pace in the Voice, Harper’s, The New Yorker and The Nation. He also did early work defining disability studies with his book Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child (Pantheon, 1996), which teases out the theoretical nettle of the nature/nurture argument, as well as recounts parenting a child with Down syndrome. He staked out the blogosphere with American Airspace, which comments on politics as well as on more specialized pursuits like literary theory. His 2006 book, What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education (Norton), defends the humanities and higher education.
Following Marginal Forces, Bérubé’s second book, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994), calls for a more publicly relevant criticism. Responding to attacks on the university, he also co-edited the collection Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities (with Cary Nelson; Routledge, 1995). After Life as We Know It, he published a collection of his essays, The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies (NYU Press, 1998), which continues his commentary on cultural politics and focuses on the academic job crisis. It appears in the NYU Press series, Cultural Front, for which he serves as general editor. Alongside Liberal Arts, in 2006 he published a wide-ranging collection of his essays on the Sokal hoax and the science wars, the state of academe and the academic left, Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities (University of North Carolina Press). In addition, he edited the collection The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies (Blackwell, 2005). Since this interview, he has continued his commentary on cultural politics with The Left At War (NYU Press, 2009). Among his most notable journalistic pieces, see “Public Image Limited,” Village Voice June 18th, 1991; “Discipline and Theory,” Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, ed. Edmundson (Penguin, 1993); “Life as We Know It: A Father, A Son, and Genetic Destiny,” Harper’s, Dec. 1994; and “Public Academy,” New Yorker, 1996. His blog archive can be found at michaelberube.com.
Born in New York City in 1961, Bérubé attended Columbia University (BA, 1982) and the University of Virginia (MA, 1986; PhD, 1989). Beginning in 1989, he taught at the University of Illinois, where he ascended through the professorial ranks, and he moved in 2001 to Penn State to take the newly-created Paterno Family Professorship in English, which he has since resigned. Now he holds the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and is Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities there. In 2012-13 he served as the president of the Modern Language Association.
This interview took place in Jeffrey Williams’s apartment in Pittsburgh, on August 11th, 2006. It was conducted by Williams, then editor of minnesota review, and transcribed by David Cerniglia.
Jeffrey Williams: This year you have two new books on cultural politics and the academic left coming out, and you have a blog that is one of the more noteworthy ones for those of us in the humanities. It seems to me that your role now, or one of your roles, is defending liberal education. Certainly in What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?, you mount an even-toned and good-spirited defense of liberal education.
Michael Bérubé: Thanks for the kind words. I actually think of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? as continuous with the same project of Public Access. There’s a line somewhere in Public Access about how the first job is to scrape off the nonsense that has been said about us, then get around to explaining what it is we really do. I actually didn’t start Liberal Arts with that in mind; I started with a Chronicle of Higher Education essay I wrote on dealing with a disruptive student in a seminar. It turns out to be incredibly difficult to try to describe entire courses. The amount of labor that goes into a course comes to hundreds and hundreds of pages when put into prose, and at first the book was just going to be something like that, more along the lines of “this is what teaching undergraduates actually looks like.”
But as I was writing in 2004 and 2005, things just kept heating up. It was largely David Horowitz’s doing—he sort of hit his stride denouncing the American left, and of course the Ward Churchill phenomenon was a boon to that entire industry. So it became clear that I couldn’t simply proceed with a narrative of “Here’s what we do in our courses”—and it was worth going into some detail about where these attacks come from and what they look like. I do think that focusing too much on Horowitz is a mistake. I do it on the blog because it’s fun; my readers and I have had a good run, of about a year, driving him into conniptions. And I think we helped derail his project, Discover the Network, which grew out of his book, Unholy Alliance, which argues that there are deep connections between Islamist radicals and the American left. Because he’s Horowitz, he had drawn up the American left not only to include the far, far left of Ramsey Clark and Lynne Stewart, but Katie Couric and Roger Ebert. But in the end, Horowitz is a clown, although in saying that I want to note for the record that I’m not objectively anti-clown.
There are much more serious, and I think much more substantial, people making the same kind of argument as Horowitz’s, and I would point to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, whose president is Anne Neal. They are much more sober, much more measured, and therefore a much more dangerous kind of group. Also they’re set up precisely to deal with trustees, alumni and legislatures, and to hit the pressure points where the pressure would actually hurt. Some of the arguments coming from that quarter and from the National Review, say, are gaining real traction. So the first half of Liberal Arts is largely about that. I think people might be surprised, when they pick it up, how little Horowitz is in it; I hope Horowitz will be surprised, but he’s just one particularly visible facet of a much wider phenomenon. The second half of the book starts off with a chapter on an undergraduate survey, to give the bare bones of what I actually do in a classroom with various novels, and I try to recapture classroom discussions the best I can. Another chapter is on the postmodernism seminar that provoked this one student. One of the things revealed in that chapter is the fact that the student who was most provoked by the course wasn’t the disruptive kid who was somewhat conservative; the student who was most provoked was a political liberal, so far as I know.
JW: Your style has always been lively and sharp, and often funny. It struck me that you took a more measured, mature tone in What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts? The book is split between the two meanings of the word “liberal,” the first half debunking the conservative shibboleths about the political sense of liberal, and the second half is really a defense of liberal education, in the more neutral sense of “liberal arts,” defending the free discussion of ideas and a more cosmopolitan sense of the world.
MB: It’s a very traditional book in that sense. I’ve given up on trying to come up with formulations about the goal of liberal education that everyone would agree with, but I think cosmopolitanism beats the alternatives. I know why Tim Brennan plays cosmopolitanism off against internationalism, but I think for most purposes, in the public sphere, they look like two sides of the same thing. What I’m offering, simply, is the much broader stroke of opposing cosmopolitanism to parochialism. In the chapter on the postmodern seminar, for example, I look at how it was, from Clifford Geertz onwards, that the idea of “local knowledges” took such hold of us. Why would the local be taken as a good in itself? My explanation is not a history-of-ideas one; it’s more about our demographic. I think that on a certain wing of the left, we tend to imbue “local” with all kinds of warm and fuzzy feelings about independent bookstores and independent media. I like independent bookstores, I patronize them, and it’s good to get an independent cup of coffee, too, but it struck me as strange that the fetishization of the local would become so entrenched. David Simpson sort of got at this in his book The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge, but he didn’t really develop it. He suggested that if what we have are these petit recits, then that opens onto the question of whether they are fragments of something larger, some kind of totality we’re missing—which I think is the wrong way to go.
That’s the complex of arguments to which I oppose cosmopolitanism. It still gets a bad rap in quarters where it’s understood to entail rootlessness and a lack of grounding or commitment, or where it winds up being construed as the traveling theory of the leisure class. Not only do I disagree—I think cultivating the idea of “world citizens,” to take Martha Nussbaum’s phrase from Cultivating Humanity, now more than ever beats every alternative I can think of. It offers a rebuke to certain pragmatic nationalisms—and I also think the talk of supersession of the nation-state is running well ahead of the actual facts. Finally, I would much rather be associated with an internationalist left than with a so-called patriotic left, and I think cosmopolitanism works toward that end.
JW: I think the book is good at debunking some of the conservative uses of political liberalism and gives a defense of the welfare state, but the bulk of your book is really more a defense of the university, in an almost classical way. I’ve called the new incarnation we inhabit “the post-welfare state university” to conjoin the two.
MB: I didn’t fully develop the argument about the interdependence of the university and the welfare state, except in the final chapter through the analogy of the Social Security system. There’s less on the university and the welfare state than on the university and plural public spheres, the university and areas of intellectual and political life that are independent of the state.
JW: One particular possibility you hold out for the university is that it is a procedural space, where people learn to debate and learn the protocols of adjudicating arguments. In other words, the university’s important because it’s not an ivory tower but a public sphere—and, in fact, it seems like one of the more genuine public spheres, in contrast to the kind of politics that we get on TV.
MB: Possibly. I have some hope that there is a virtual public sphere constituted by some of the more serious blogs—which is not what I thought when I first started blogging, by the way. So I wouldn’t want to place all my chips on the university as our only public sphere. The mass system of higher education is admitting less of the mass, and the retrenchment on that score—who can go to college and how much they pay for it—is really pretty appalling, as you’ve recently argued and as Adolph Reed has argued with the Free Higher Ed campaign. (Had I known about that before, I would have put in a plug for it at the end of the book.) I just spent a couple days in Ireland—I’d never been before—and its combination of economic deregulation and free higher ed turned Ireland around. And it made me reflect a bit: What were the two explosive boom periods in American history? Post-Civil War, after the Morrill Act and the land grant universities, and post-World War II, after the GI Bill. I don’t think the investment in universities was a necessary or sufficient condition of either period of expansion, but it’s certainly a part of it. So I find the attack on universities in the post-war welfare state university to be of a piece with just the sort of conservative attempt to strike back at everything about liberalism that worked. (Again, Social Security is a good example. The problem with Social Security is that it’s paid for badly—there should not be a cap on the FICA tax.) My point is that we’ve got this mass public sphere, sure; but, if we had free higher ed, we could have, instead of a quarter of the population graduating from college, something well over a half. That would make it a great deal more public, to say the least; we could have universities as places for the discussion and working out of public ideas by a much larger fraction of the actual public.
The immediate inspiration for the pluralist line of argument in my book is John McGowan, whose Democracy’s Children I’d just been reading in 2002-3. It’s a book of essays; some of the essays are cantankerous and aggrieved in a kind of genial way, but they voice some of the same aggravation with certain pieties that I’d been feeling myself. Just to take one, he registers some annoyance with the idea of culture as a fallback, explanatory schema of last resort, whether we’re talking about cultural studies or corporate culture where certain mergers fail because it’s just their culture. Anyway, McGowan mounts a defense of what he calls “pragmatic pluralism.” I’ve spoken to him since, and he’d been reading a lot of Hannah Arendt and a lot of Kenneth Burke on his way to developing a kind of, I wouldn’t say utopian, but independent intellectual space for the working through of things, the ends of which you do not know.
JW: You often define yourself as being on the academic left. I’m never quite sure what this phrase means. How do you define the academic left and would you distinguish it from a more redistribution-oriented left or a Marxist left?
MB: I’m glad you asked because I’ve just been writing something about my branch of the left. I do think the academic left is a distinct entity like no other, with its own cultures and rituals—but we won’t use that explanatory schema in the last resort! What provoked me this week was the online backlash to my latest criticism of Noam Chomsky about the Balkans. That happened on the blog in late June, in response to a New Statesman interview that he’d given where he seemed to have gone a good deal further than I would have liked anyone to go, to say that Milosevic had no knowledge of Srebrenica and was horrified when he learned about it. It’s such a gratuitous remark, especially because the immediate context is an argument that if Milosevic can be tried for war crimes, so too can certain U.S. presidents. That’s really all you need to say. One of my arguments in response was to ask whether we would we take Bush and Cheney at face value if they said they did not know about Abu Ghraib and were horrified by it: Why would anyone on the left do that? And why would we extend the same courtesy to Milosevic? So that line of argument caused a bit of an uproar. There is always (and often for good reasons) suspicion of anyone launching a critique of Chomsky because he is so iconic, and all criticism is considered apostasy. So this week on the blog I said, let me try to explain what the difference is between the “democratic” and the “anti-imperialist” left, because the anti-imperialist left these days, I think, is leading itself right off the cliff to—well, the phrase this month is “we are all Hezbollah now.” I’m not Hezbollah, thank you, and I’m also not part of the Iraqi resistance. I find this just vexing.
Now, where I go well beyond procedural liberalism is to say the social ideal has to do with participatory parity. I get this from Nancy Fraser. Things that enhance the participatory parity of all citizens, whether with regard to gender or class or sexuality or disability, seem to be on the balance good things, and things that do not are not. First of all, this formulation will prevent you from sliding over into the we-are-all-Hezbollah-now left, or from having the slightest bit of sympathy for thugs to whom some people cut the benefit of the doubt because, for the moment, they are opposing the “empire.” You don’t want to be in the position of saying, well, the repression and the homophobia of such and such a regime—at least they’re anti-imperialist, revolutionary homophobia and repression, as opposed to reactionary, imperialist homophobia and repression. In the last 10 years or so, I have not only come around, as I argue in Liberal Arts, to a kind of re-appreciation of what the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was trying to do, but I’ve gotten increasingly impatient with that wing of the left that will cut some slack to whoever is the enemy of my enemy at the moment. Stuart Hall’s phrase for this was “fundamentalist leftism.” That was 20, 25 years ago, and I still don’t think that Stuart Hall’s rebuke to that left has really taken hold.
So that’s my brief about the democratic left. On the other hand, liberals—what to say? I settled on the word “liberal” for Liberal Arts not only because it’s in the phrase “liberal arts,” but because “progressive” is a lousy noun. I think I remain left of most liberals. I still think there’s some truth to the criticism of procedural liberalism—that if it isn’t supplemented by a theory of social justice, it merely prevents both the rich and poor from sleeping under bridges.
JW: Is that why you’re not a Marxist?
MB: Pretty much. But I’m still trying to work this out. I’m rereading The Hard Road to Renewal, partly because it’s out of print and partly because many people who give Stuart Hall grief for working at too high a level of abstraction tend to forget how very much in the moment and very specific many of his writings are. But I have the same questions Hall asked about what’s left of the Marxist project. Someone—Rich Puchalsky by name—appeared on the blog just yesterday saying that one of the reasons that the left I’m arguing against focuses on foreign policy is because it doesn’t have any vision any longer about actually existing society. So it’s much easier taking pot shots at U.S. foreign policy, because U.S. foreign policy is basically a reign of horror. I don’t know anymore what the Marxist project entails. I do know that there’s a common thread between conservatives—especially conservative media—and the far left: Even though they hate liberals, basically they don’t think that liberals really exist. Conservatives, when they go after “liberals,” as Horowitz did, immediately go for the far left. They think Ward Churchill is a liberal; they conflate a guy like Ward Churchill with Tom Brokaw, for god’s sake. At the same time, you find that the left thinks that liberals are really neoliberals, they’re really about privatization and the dominance of markets in the end. Not that there isn’t some truth to that. But I’m trying to make a case for this sliver that basically calls itself the democratic left. It consists of kind of the left wing of Dissent—a not-very-well-known group of eight left-of-liberals, but not as far left as anti-imperialists. People like Ian Williams, Danny Postel, Leo Casey—I’d rather designate myself as someone on the social democratic left.
JW: Other than your books, your blog is making a dent on the public sphere. It’s fairly well-known to those on the academic left, and you also might get some kid in Portland who’s fiercely green and anti-WTO or some retiree in Florida who’s pro-Social Security. How did it start and what do you do on it?
MB: I thought of it at first as a hobby. It started in 2004, and much of it was devoted to the ins and outs of the election. I didn’t really realize that you could get away with doing more substantial and more sustained work in the blog medium until about eight, nine months in. I posted something very brief and off the cuff about Derrida’s death, and then I realized, “Wait a minute, I work in this area,” and I published my class notes for when I taught “Signature, Event, Context” to undergraduates. I thought, let’s see how that goes, and off the charts is how it went. That was a revelation.
I had gotten some attention before that for my parody coverage of the Republican National Convention, the premise of which was that I watched the first two nights on Fox—the “moderates,” Giuliani and McCain, then working up to Schwarzenegger the next night—and found the convention completely compelling, and then that Ken Mehlman himself had read the blog and had flown me in to Madison Square Garden to cover the next two nights of it live—the fire-and-brimstone, completely insane Zell Miller and Voldemort/Cheney on night three, for instance. And then, because my RNC coverage got linked by Atrios, all of a sudden I was in the realm of 10,000 readers in one day, and something like that for the rest of the convention. I thought, with political snark—you almost can’t go anywhere in that territory where The Onion hasn’t been first, so there’s a natural limit to it. But I realized I could do more in that vein, and then with the Derrida piece I realized I have readers who will sit through a 2,000 word exposition of fairly difficult material, and of course I became spoiled. I don’t do that all the time—most blog posts don’t break 1,000 words, because you can’t ask people to read on a screen for that long—but I realized that if I did write more substantial things, people would read them. They could print them out, they could have them and read them on the bus, and so forth. It took me the better part of a year to realize that that was possible. I didn’t have comments on the blog for the first five months, either; I didn’t realize what kind of readers and what kind of give and take I could involve. The fact that I’ve got more non-academics reading this—a number of non-academics who really know their Gramsci—is very encouraging.
JW: About how many hits do you get a day? Do you know?
MB: It’s about 9,000 readers, but I have no idea whether people just come by and look at it and say, “Oh god, he’s on about this again?”
JW: Do you have a cycle? I know some days you have more personal things, maybe about your family, sometimes it’s more academic, when you talk about literary theory, and then you have overtly political things.
MB: I must have a unique readership. With the disability stuff, people tune in just for stories about Jamie. Very few people come by for the hockey blogging. I think I have five or six hockey fans. But the point is that very few people, I think, read me every day. Besides, nobody really wants to hear 4,000 words from a single person every day.
To stop flogging my own blog for a moment: One of the most prominent blog intellectuals in the country today not only explains biology so that a layperson can get it, but also smacks down creationism politically in just wonderful ways. His name is P.Z. Myers, and he teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Before blogs we wouldn’t have heard of him, but now he’s interviewed in the Minneapolis city paper, and his blog, Pharyngula, has about twice the readership of mine. Sean Carroll is part of a group blog called Cosmic Variance, and he does cosmology and astrophysics for the people. Brad DeLong, the former Clinton advisor, has an economics blog, and writes often on politics. The person I read most often in 2002 was economist Max Sawicky, whose blog was MaxSpeak, You Listen!
It took me a while to realize that I could do that kind of thing myself. Last year at this time I did a series called Theory Tuesdays because The Valve blog was doing this group review on that backlash anthology called Theory’s Empire. Now, you and I have been through, what, three anti-theory backlashes now? What’s interesting about this latest wave is that it makes some interesting sociological points about the culture of theory and the phenomenon of theory stardom. But it’s mixed in with people who think all of theory is bad; my parody of them is, “This just in: sign not multi-accentual after all.” What exactly are we being asked to return to? Sure enough, one of the guys from The Valve—a very bright guy and probably the only blogger who goes on longer than I do, John Holbo—believes a wrong turn was taken with Saussure, and I did ask him whether the sign is not arbitrary after all. So in response to The Valve event, I hauled out my class notes for the intro to grad studies course, but I only wound up posting four of them because they were so time consuming. I don’t write them in advance.
JW: Do you do them off the cuff?
MB: Yes. That’s the fun part of it. They’re not really meant to last for years. I think there’s a symbiotic relation with my other writing. To go back to something you spotted in Liberal Arts, with its somewhat more sober and middle-aged tone compared to the snark on the blog where people call each other “wankers” with impunity: Now I sort of have two separate rooms for those kinds of prose. But as I say, it took me a while to realize what kind of exchange the medium could sustain, and I still think of blog writing as a grab bag.
JW: Do you think the blog represents a revolution in print? There’s a belief, for instance, in the book, The Rise of the Creative Class, that in 20 years we’ll all sit at Starbucks doing our work on our screens.
MB: I’ve become so sick of that triumphalism. The very funny site Fafblog once had this line about how fast blogs move, that we go from Blog Bastille Day to the Blog Reign of Terror to a bunch of old, fat guys sitting around reminiscing about Blog Bastille Day in about six hours. Anyway, there’s an explanation that blogs perform some of the functions of traditional print media, from the beginnings of print culture in the 18th century. I think that’s right. The only thing I would add to that is to emphasize the phenomenon of hyperlinks; this is the one thing about which I’m really enthusiastic about new media—instead of just footnoting something, you actually provide the link to the entire source. Now, I have had some fun doing hyperlinks that are jokes. For example, a sort of blog cliché is to summarize an argument and say, “Read the whole thing here,” and I set up a dummy blog through Blogger and posted about 40 pages of the Grundrisse on it. But if you’re of a mind, you could embed in a blog extraordinary kinds of information that you couldn’t do with a periodical. I think that’s the one qualitative difference, and it’s a critical difference.
JW: You’re been known to be a crossover figure, with articles in Harper’s and the Voice and so on, but it seems that the blog might put you in a bigger sphere. With your blog and with What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts? coming out, are you moving to the pundit stage of things? Maybe O’Reilly or Hannity will call you to interview you.
MB: Actually, I wasn’t thinking of the punditocracy so much as the essayist/journalist tradition that I’ve always identified with. Like I said, I used to think of the blog as a hobby and once I realized that longer, more substantial essays would be read, I said, “Oh, this is great.” The downside is that the immediacy of the feedback is drug-like. I went from writing an academic book, which took several years, and then maybe you get a couple of reviews a couple years later, to writing for the Village Voice, where I would get letters and feedback within a couple weeks, sometimes within a couple days. And now it’s a couple of hours, which is about as much as I can take. That aspect of it is very seductive and leads you to become impatient: You’ve written something, and you haven’t heard for three or four days now—something must be wrong! But aside from that, I think blogging is just a continuation of what I was already doing.
As you once said, Jeff, if you went to graduate school in the ’80s, you wanted to grow up and become a theorist. Nobody wanted to grow up and become an essayist. It smacked of wanting to be a young Joseph Epstein in a bowtie. In some quarters it still does. But I think there is also another tradition of essayism. Actually my other book, Rhetorical Occasions, is essays. There are some connected pieces on topics like the science wars, and there’s also about a dozen or so blog entries, but it’s much more about “essayism” as a form.
JW: I can see how that’s a continuous thread in your work. Your first book, which people probably now don’t know as well as they should, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers, is a reception history of Pynchon and the African-American poet Melvin Tolson, who were roughly contemporaries. It’s very much an academic book, published by Cornell, but it deals with the overlap between academic and public spheres. You trace how the way the canon is made has shifted from journalism to the academic world, which now accords writers a standing—and assigns their books for courses.
MB: It’s important that the argument doesn’t need to be made anymore. I was writing at the tail end of the canon debates, and the year after my book was published, John Guillory published his much more substantial and much more widely known book, Cultural Capital, which pretty much sealed off the debate, and then there was the fact that it turned out not to be that hard to jostle the canon, especially in American literature: A bunch of feminists and minority critics showed up in the ’70s and ’80s and, my goodness, in 20 years the Norton Anthology of American Literature could not recognize its earlier self. I don’t want to overstate the ease of that, but the “canon” turned out to be a less repressive phenomenon than some had made it out to be.
In the opening of Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers I situate the debate around canonicity around the function of the university—and how come no one talks about the relationship between contemporary critics and contemporary writers? At the time, I was reading Paul Bové’s Intellectuals in Power and Jim Merod’s The Political Responsibility of the Critic, which were largely about the debate about general and specific intellectuals (that’ll take you back!). On one hand I was thinking about the general legitimation crisis concerning what people do in the humanities. The second thing Gerald Graff picked up on immediately. He wrote me a letter almost15 years ago, picking up this sentence on the next to last page, about my skepticism about certain kinds of celebrations of the avant-garde; he said, “If you were arguing against the idea of the avant-garde, then you should have made it clear much earlier,” and I said “I didn’t know that was my argument, but you’re right, it is.” It came out of my reaction to Tolson’s complete faith in the avant-garde. And I was thinking about this with regard to the various debates about difficult writing in theory. See, I never completely bought the “necessary difficulty” line; I didn’t buy it when I encountered it via T.S. Eliot, and I didn’t buy it when I encountered it via Judith Butler or Adorno either. I didn’t believe that a disruption of style or a rip in the very fabric of the known is necessary to produce epistemic or social change. I’m not against disruptions and ripped fabrics; I don’t demand that everyone write clearly. I don’t want to jump on that train.
But the modernist faith in the avant-garde comes up in any number of theoretical places. It comes up in Shklovsky’s belief in defamiliarization. It comes through in Hans Robert Jauss’s argument about how there’s a direct correlation between a work’s stylistic violation of the “horizon of expectations” and its literary value. I got more and more suspicious of that argument, partly because of my own former belief in it, and I thought, as sympathetic as I am to the modernist tradition, I don’t think that the difficulty of poetry or fiction or theory is necessarily tied to its effectivity. You can have interventions in the plain style that actually work to progressive or revolutionary ends, and I think you can have work that rips the fabric of the known that leads you places you don’t want to go. And yet the danger in making the anti-avant-garde argument, as Habermas once noted, is that you get applause from the wrong quarter.
JW: Maybe you could talk about your trajectory. You were trained at the University of Virginia, where you got your PhD. As we’ve talked about, we both went to grad school in the ’80s, in the last phase of high theory. You got your first job at Illinois and published Marginal Forces, which was from your dissertation. But then you sort of burst on the public stage with the Voice article, “Public Image Limited,” where you expose the shibboleths of PC, and you became a representative of PC in public debates. Then you moved, in the mid ’90s, to disability studies, although of course you’ve still been doing public criticism. And now you’re moving more toward blogging and a wider public. Forgive me for periodizing you into those four moments—it’s a habit I got from doing the Norton theory anthology.
MB: Now I get painfully self-conscious. But that’s always the case. First of all, it’s astonishing to me that it’s already 15 years ago. I had so much happen to me in those first five years. As far as the PC stuff goes, I had been reading the New Criterion and similar periodicals throughout the ’80s, and I realized there was a ready market for that kind of professor-bashing. I thought to myself—there’s so little knowledge of what we do, and theory is so alien to most people, that we’re going to be sitting ducks if this Kimball-D’Souza stuff enters the public sphere. And we were sitting ducks. The first responses from our official representatives—and I’m thinking of Stanley Fish and Catharine Stimpson, people like that—I thought just missed the mark terribly. Looking back now (I was a second-year assistant professor), what the hell was I thinking that I was going to step up and do this? Well, it was partly that Lisa Duggan was at Illinois—she was a postdoc at the Unit for Criticism in 1990-91—and she looked at “Public Image Limited” and said, “I know some people at the Village Voice who might be interested in this.” And it was partly my impatience with the official response. It was also the fact that no one was speaking to younger faculty.
And then I got more acclimated to writing for the Voice, where they would put you through four, five, six edits, which was just excruciating. It was, shall we say, a learning experience. So my first book is very much a traditional academic book. It isn’t terribly theory-laden, but it presumes a very high degree of knowledge of literary theory on the part of its readers. It presumes a specialized audience, and writing for a non-specialized audience turned out to be so challenging and so much fun, especially in one’s early 30s, when one hasn’t been fully socialized into academia. It wasn’t part of my first five-year plan when I first got to Illinois, but it became a career in and of itself. And then Mike Sprinker called me up after two or three of the Voice things appeared and said he wanted to put them together into a volume for Verso, and I started to think that these things would stand up to being bound and printed.
JW: I want to ask you more about that moment, especially since you became a kind of representative of our generation in academe. But to fill in the backstory first, I know you grew up in New York, in Queens. You went to Columbia as an undergrad, if I can estimate it correctly, from ’78 to ’82, and then to UVa from ’82 to ’89?
MB: ’83 to ’89. I took a year and a half off.
JW: To do what?
MB: To try to make the cash for the first year of graduate school.
JW: Is that when you were playing in a band?
MB: I started playing in bands in 1980, during my last two years in college. And during the second half of my senior year, this new band snapped me up as a freelance drummer, and it turned out that they were led by a strikingly good songwriter for a kid of 19, and so for about a year we had a run of being the Columbia band, which was not a minor thing at the time. We opened for the Ramones and so forth. He’s now one of the two leaders of the Loser’s Lounge, terrific musician, Dave Terhune. That band also featured Larry Gallagher, who’s now a singer-songwriter in the Bay Area, with two CDs to his name. I played in a band in Virginia as well for a couple of years in 1984-85—Baby Opaque, with Michael Dean and Todd Wilson.
JW: So a different moment and you could have been Pavement. At UVa, I know you had a seminar with Rorty, who seems to be one of the interlocutors over your shoulder.
MB: Yep, changed my life. He was kind enough, in ’94, to read through all of Public Access and send me a seven-page letter spelling out where his disagreements were. I thought that was so generous. He basically thought I was too hard on the social democratic left, the tradition with which he strongly identifies. I’m on that left too, so my salient differences with him now have more to do with the line he takes on the status of knowledge in science. It was Rorty’s class, and Ralph Cohen’s at the same time, and then Michael Levenson’s theory class in ’86, I think were the most substantial influences on me.
JW: What was your time at UVa like? A lot of good people have been through there, like Eyal Amiran and John Unsworth, who founded Postmodern Culture, and your future partner, Janet Lyon.
MB: It’s funny you ask—we had a graduate student who recently came to Penn State to study modernism. She wanted to work with Janet and had just read Alice Gambrell’s book, and she was talking to me at a party and I said, “Yeah, Alice Gambrell shared a house with us.” And the student said, “Oh, it was Janet Lyon, Alice Gambrell, and Michael Bérubé in the same house!” I said, “Yeah, we took turns feeding the dog. It was an exciting time.” I mean, I think some folks come out of some programs with the sense that they are the Future of Criticism. I can tell you that we didn’t have that sense. But we did have a sense that we were battling the old guard every day. It was a really polarized time when we were all taking classes. Virginia was deeply competitive in a weird way with Yale, and it was highly ranked, but it was a huge program, so there was a lot of unease about who would be admitted to the PhD program. It was a very different kind of environment from what I’m told you would find at Cornell or Hopkins. We had the sense that we were swimming upstream. Then this wholesale change happened in the mid- to late ’80s; partly it was the arrival of Eric Lott and Susan Fraiman and a whole raft of junior female faculty. There were almost no women at Virginia in the early ’80s. First came Alison Booth in ’86, then, right afterwards, Pat Gill, Deborah McDowell and Susan. In 10 years the department was no longer recognizable and the old guard had handed things over, in a peaceful transition, to the next generation. But the first couple years especially among the theory cohort of the graduate students, we felt like we had to run off our samizdat publications in the basement.
JW: So you got a job at Illinois in ’89?
MB: Yeah. The big cultural studies conference, out of which came the massive volume Cultural Studies, was at the end of my first year, and that was just mind bending. What people don’t usually know is that the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory spent the entire year going over the entire history from Hoggart and Williams forward. So, for us, the conference was the final exam of the year. But the conference was a phenomenon unto itself, the likes of which I’ve never quite seen since.
JW: You wrote about cultural studies in the Village Voice right after that, I think in ’93, in “Pop Goes the Academy.”
MB: ’92. Actually, I wrote the first VLS piece in 1991, on postmodernism, and I finished the essay the night Jamie was born. I went home from the hospital that day, it was five o’clock, and they really had to go to press. I called them saying, “I’m sorry, my son was born today, he has Down syndrome, I can’t get you the piece.” A hush fell over them. They understood completely but said that they would put off the issue, the tenth anniversary issue, for a day, but you have to get it to us by nine o’clock tomorrow. So that was completely weird. You want to talk about writing under duress. Then, for the next six or eight months, I didn’t write anything, of course. Jamie was way too precarious, and I only got back into things in ’92, once we were out of the woods. Then when he made his way into toddlerdom—it’s delayed toddlerdom, but it’s recognizable as toddlerdom—life became a good deal more normal, to use that strange word.
Then, by ’96, ’97, I was kind of exhausted. I think The Employment of English is tired in places, and I think some reviewers picked up on that. So I wound up directing Illinois’s humanities program for four years, and that was another kind of learning experience altogether.
JW: One of the pieces you wrote around that time was the one in Harper’s on Down syndrome, genetic theory and the culture debate. I really admire the essay because it applies theory in a way that makes sense of the actual world, and of course it’s written in a pretty riveting and moving personal story of Jamie. That was the first part of your book Life as We Know It.
MB: You know, I taught my first disability studies seminar last year, and I decided to throw in parts of Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. It’s amazing how well that thing stands up. It’s probably among the best books written in the last 25 years. And Gould was one of my prose heroes when I was growing up. He remarks on the fact that this damn genetic reductionism keeps rearing its ugly head every 10 or 15 years, every time there’s a political turn to the right. He’s entirely right, and he wrote a new preface to his book in ’94, right around the same time I was writing the Harper’s essay. What brought that about, of course, was the goddamn Bell Curve. It was an extraordinary moment, and you had to wonder what century we were living in. That sort of lit a fire under me.
And this goes back to going to a Jesuit high school. I went to Regis High School—speaking of the core curriculum!—where they taught us to take arguments as far as they go. So I thought if you can show that Down syndrome is much more various in its expression than most people understand, even though it’s very clearly a genetic syndrome—it’s not a phenomenon like autism where it’s really nebulous—it’s a chromosomal nondisjunction, it’s biochemistry. But its expression in the population is so various, and so dependent on social networks and social policies, that if you can make the nurture-over-nature case with Down syndrome, you have made it, a fortiori, for everything more biochemically nebulous than Down syndrome. That’s Jesuit training for you. And of course I’m just trying to follow Jamie, and his development is every bit as fascinating now as it was then.
JW: He’s fourteen now?
JW: You take up intellectual issues with relish, but you also deal with your personal life and your family in Life as We Know It. I don’t know that you’re big on exposure otherwise.
MB: No, not really, although I just got a response to something I wrote that said, this is well thought out, but Bérubé seems unable to marry even the slightest intellectual engagement of anything without going into the minute details of his personal life. It’s not really fair, but certainly it’s true with Life as We Know It, which is half memoir. And I do throw in, even at inappropriate times, personal anecdotes that may or may not actually illuminate the thing I’m talking about.
JW: I see it as more of a writerly habit. In many of your essays you start with an anecdote, but it’s a journalistic technique whereby you hook your reader in. Maybe it’s also a writer’s technique to get started.
MB: I do it sometimes too often—then it’s just a quick fix to the problem, “How am I going to start this?” There are other moments when I think it can be illuminating or expository. The question of how much of my family dynamics to reveal in the course of writing Life as We Know It was a very dicey question. The person whose informed consent needed to be most detailed, of course, was Janet’s. But I also struck something that Nick asked me to take out. (He’s said I could use it orally since.) It was really telling. Jamie came into his kindergarten class—the class was set up for some kind of parent/child event—and Janet had Jamie in her arms, and another parent found out that Jamie had Down syndrome and said, “Oh my god!” And Nick, who was six years old, turned to her and said, “He’s perfectly all right.” Just like that. I put that in the Harper’s essay and then-eight-year-old Nick asked me to take it out because, he said, “it makes me look like I know it all.” And I said, “I completely disagree. I think you said it in exactly the right way and that’s just what that woman needed to hear right then.” But I honored his wishes. We’ve come to the point now where I’ve worked out with Jamie the things I will or will not say about his life. He’s old enough now to understand what that kind of consent means. He knows perfectly well that he’s written about and that strangers somehow know him. So it is a live ethical question.
JW: Obviously your own personal circumstances and the events of your life brought you into disability studies. I can see how it ties to your thinking about theory and culture, but it seems to me that in the past few years you’ve become more interested in rights and political theory.
MB: Actually my next project is going to be almost exclusively literary. It’s not going to be much of a contribution to theories of disability. It occurred to me, upon rereading certain things I’ve taught for many years—the jumping off point actually was Kingston’s Woman Warrior—that much of the early disability criticism was about images of disability. It’s like the way feminists wrote about images of women 35 years ago. There are still some images of disability that are so clearly exploitative or evil that they have to be called out with regard to mimesis, but it occurred to me that this has implications for narrative theory—to go back to one of your old haunts, that the depiction of intellectual disability in narrative has implications for the self-reflexivity of narrative. That’s all I’ve got now, but I keep finding it coming up in strange places in fiction and film.
For example, in Woman Warrior, there’s a moment where Kingston’s narrator believes that the mentally retarded boy who’s hanging around the laundromat is going to be her prospective suitor, and the language is vicious—he’s a monster, he’s a birth defect. Of course Kingston is doing this quite deliberately. The man can speak; he says in this thick voice, “I own stores,” and he gives presents to people, and so forth, but he’s a figure of horror. In a way, his appearance spurs Kingston’s narrator to start telling her story. This is where the indirect relation to rights comes in: The ability to represent yourself and to tell a coherent story is absolutely crucial to every kind of narrative. Of course at the time Woman Warrior came out it was understood as a feminist text—it was about women’s silencing under patriarchy. But it’s also about disability and about people being rendered unable to tell stories. It seems to me to be an area in which disability studies hasn’t gone yet.
JW: To bring the timeline up to date, you were at Illinois for a number of years, until the late ’90s, and then around 2000 you moved to Penn State as the Paterno Professor.
MB: The Paterno Family Professor in Literature, in 2001. Not many people know about Joe Paterno’s academic career. He too went to a Jesuit high school, Brooklyn Prep, where he translated The Aeneid as a teenager, with the help of a Jesuit mentor. He then graduated as an English major from Brown and wrote a fan letter to Leslie Fiedler for Love and Death in the American Novel. So that’s why the chair’s endowed in English. You don’t find football coaches like that JoePa very often.
JW: Obviously your time through the ’90s was not particularly easy, but on the other hand, you’ve had quite a remarkable trajectory. You mentioned the star system before, but you could be billed as very much part of that star system.
MB: Actually, after ’96 I didn’t write anything but little Chronicle essays for the next two, three years, partly because I was directing the humanities center at Illinois, partly because I was pretty much drained. Then if you add some complicated family circumstances here and there, and, good Lord, scads of committees, both disciplinary and departmental committees. So for a while the Chronicle kept my byline in print, but I wasn’t doing any new work. I was recovering from the previous five years. But I’ve had a lot more time to write than most people, people who teach three, four courses a term and squeeze in a little bit of their “own work” here and there. Really I think from the early ’90s on I’ve had this whole other job description just called “writer.”
JW: Your writing is distinctive because it has a lot more verve than most academic writing, and you’re not afraid to use jokes, but it also makes a point. For instance, one of my favorite essays of yours is in the Edmundson collection, Wild Orchids. You start with the line, “It’s a beastly rough crowd I run with,” and you talk about your generation, how it’s produced a combination between Johnny Rotten and Cotton Mather, Rotten Mather. It’s snappy, but it also captures a situation.
MB: I think that’s something you find in vivid magazine writing as well. Probably not as maniacally as that paragraph, as it goes from Yeats to Rotten Mather. In terms of the process of composition, it actually has to do with hearing certain echoes when one is composing. I used to do the same thing with drumming: I’d hear and steal all kinds of fills in a mix-and-match kind of way. I didn’t think of Rotten Mather when I started the paragraph; it just seemed to fit. The other aspect of my fondness for allusion is that I have a silly sense of humor. Really, between Monty Python and the Simpsons, who can resist? But that’s all about how much you can get away with. If I had tried to run that by PMLA in my first or second published essay, it would have been flagged immediately, whereas for the Village Voice it’s almost de rigeur.
JW: In 1990, you had no five-year plan; if you had one now, what would it be? And where do you see the field going?
MB: I don’t know. I’m watching the theory wing sail off into regions I don’t know about—Agamben, Badiou and the later Zizek phenomenon. I keep apprised of it but don’t feel I have a stake in it. One phenomenon that started in the ’90s, that is evidenced by your essay on student debt in Dissent, is that you have a whole generation of academics in the humanities writing about public policy. I also think junior faculty are much more literate about the engine rooms of their workplaces, the engine rooms of the discipline, than you would have found 20 years ago. So there’s the turn toward the examination of the conditions under which we work.
We’ll see what happens with disability studies. As I said, I think it’s past its initial elbowing-its-way-in phase. Now the question is what can it contribute to the history of criticism.
I don’t think the crossover phenomenon is much of a phenomenon anymore. I don’t think people from my era of graduate school necessarily wanted to be crossovers, but it is not as uncommon to be an essayist as it would have been 20 years ago. I also have to say that there are more venues out there, both online and off, than there were 20 years ago. The state of cultural journalism, to use that term, is much, much better than it was 20 years ago. There’s the fact that a lot of graduate students bailed out of the academy in the 1990s and are now working in cultural journalism. There’s much more lively commerce between people working in journalism and people working in the academic humanities. That’s a pleasant surprise. I really don’t think the non-specialist press is as uniformly hostile or uncomprehending as it was in the 1980s, and it has to do with a lot of the work that got done in the ’90s and did make its way out into the public realm. If I look around for reasons to be cheerful—and you really do have to look—that’s one of them.