Jeffrey Williams with Michael Bérubé

Michael Bérubé
Michael Bérubé

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

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.”

Jeffrey Williams with Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler
Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler is a leading expositor of contemporary literary theory. His book, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Cornell UP, 1975; Routledge Classics, 2002), brought the terms and concerns of the Continental theory to an Anglo-American audience. It won the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize and has been a standard work in the field. He followed it with two books of influential essays, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Cornell UP, 1981; enl. ed., 2002; Routledge Classics, 2006) and On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Cornell UP, 1982; 25th Anniversary ed., 2008). Alongside those, he published several books focused on particular figures, including Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (Cornell UP, 1974; rev. ed. 1985; Davies, 2004), Roland Barthes (Oxford UP, 1983; rev. ed. Roland Barthes: A Very Short Introduction, 2002) and Saussure (Fontana, 1985; rev. ed. Ferdinand de Saussure, Cornell UP, 1986).

Beginning in the late 1980s, Culler turned to more general statements about literary study, considering its institutional context in Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions (U of Oklahoma P, 1988) and providing the guidebooks, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 1997) and Literary Theory (A Brief Insight) (Sterling, 2009). He also published On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (Blackwell, 1988) and The Literary in Theory (Stanford UP, 2007), which gathers essays on narrative, the fate of theory and the future of comparative literature. In addition, he edited, with Kevin Lamb, Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Stanford UP, 2003). This interview with Jonathan Culler took place on August 27th, 2007, in Culler’s office at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York). It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, then editor of the minnesota review and transcribed by Heather Steffen and Marisa Colabuono.

Jeffrey Williams: One could see you as a kind of a personification figure of contemporary theory. I came across a line in your recent book, The Literary in Theory, where you talk about becoming fascinated with the New Criticism when you first went to college. How did you first start in criticism, and what was the scene like?

Jonathan Culler: I guess my interest in criticism started after I graduated from high school. My father was on sabbatical in England, and I went along. I went two terms to an English public school, and in the spring went across to Paris. During those two terms we were concentrating on a handful of books that were set books for English A-level exams. We read Othello and then Henry IV, Part II and Donne, and there may have been another collection of poems, but what I especially remember was the Donne. We were reading, for a whole semester, a small group of poems, and we also read criticism and arguments about them. It was the sort of thing that most people would have done only in college, but I got a taste of it before I entered college. I hadn’t thought about criticism before; as a high school student, criticism was something you read in order to get an idea for a paper, but you weren’t interested in criticism as such.

And then when I came to Harvard. . .

Jeffrey Williams with Adolph Reed

Adolph Reed
Adolph Reed

The mid-1990s saw a number of celebrations of the public intellectual, notably of black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, bell hooks and Michael Eric Dyson. Adolph Reed poured some cold water on the parade. Just as he had criticized the 1984 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign for representing a self-appointed media elite rather than a bread-and-butter electorate, he criticized the new public intellectuals as an academic elite that didn’t have intellectual depth and didn’t do much political heavy lifting.

Reed himself, though, represents a certain kind of public intellectual. He has kept one foot firmly on academic ground in political science, writing analyses of the 1984 and 2004 elections and in intellectual history, notably of DuBois. At the same time, he has written regularly for magazines like The Village Voice and The Progressive. He was a founding delegate of the Labor Party in 1996, and he is co-chair of its Campaign for Free Higher Ed. Reed has consistently written on race, but he has tried to put the class politics back into race politics. For him, class “is the social relation through which other identities are constituted and experienced within political economy.”

Reed’s books include The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics (Yale UP, 1986); W. E. B. DuBois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line (Oxford UP, 1997); Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (U of Minnesota P, 1999); and Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New Press, 2000). He has also edited Race, Politics, and Culture: Critical Essays on the Radicalism of the 1960s (Greenwood, 1986); and Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and the Retreat from Racial Equality (Westview, 1999). Related to this interview, see also “The 2004 Election in Perspective: The Myth of the ‘Cultural Divide’ and the Triumph of Neoliberal Ideology,” American Quarterly (2005); “A GI Bill for Everybody,” Dissent (Fall 2001); “Free Higher Ed” (with Mark Dudzic), The Nation (23 Feb. 2004); and “Majoring in Debt,” The Progressive (Jan. 2004), as well as the website

Reed attended UNC-Chapel Hill (BA, 1971) and Atlanta University (MA, 1974; PhD, 1981). He has taught at Howard University (1976-78), Clark College (1979-80), Yale (1981-91), Northwestern (1991-97), University of Illinois-Chicago (1997-98) and The New School (1998-2004). He is currently a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He has also worked as a labor and community organizer in North Carolina, for Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta and as an organizer for the Labor Party.

This interview took place in Adolph Reed’s office at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 26, 2005. It was conducted by Jeffrey Williams, editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by Nilak Datta.

Jeffrey Williams: Your academic field is political science, although the people who read minnesota review are probably more familiar with your pieces in The Nation or The Progressive. They’re probably in literary and cultural studies, and people in literary and cultural studies are versed in a certain discourse of cultural politics, but they’re usually unfamiliar with political science. I think it’s a problem in cultural studies, that there’s a dearth of political theory.

Adolph Reed:  Yeah, it almost seems like the more that people declaim piously in favor of multidisciplinarity, the less inclined they are to read or engage outside their own narrow sub-specialty. There are not many disciplines with which proponents of multidisciplinarity engage, right? I’ve been struck at how infrequently the work of historians or political scientists, or economists, or even sociologists, gets cited in the domain of cultural politics. I suppose you could say that the same is true on the other side of the ledger; most of what goes on in political science is pretty stupid anyway. It could be possible to be a competent theorist without immersing oneself in multiple disciplinary debates, but I think all too often people are drawn to what they imagine theory to be because they think it comes with no heavy lifting.

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.

Jeffrey Williams with Toril Moi

Toril Moi
Toril Moi

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Toril Moi took place September 1, 2006 in Toril Moi’s office at Duke University. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, and transcribed by Heather Steffen.

Jeffrey Williams: Sexual/Textual Politics burst onto the scene in the mid-80s and changed the representation of feminism in the U.S. You became a kind of European informant of French feminism, and to some you were perceived as attacking Anglo-American feminism for its essentialism and waving a banner for French feminism. How do you see the reception of that book when you look back?

Toril Moi: The argument in the book wasn’t actually “Anglo-American feminism is bad; French feminism is good”; the argument was that the great thing about the Americans was their strong and explicit political allegiances, and that the actual politics of the French were often incredibly vague. I also thought that the Anglo-American development, which had been exciting to me because it was thinking about women and writing in completely new ways, was almost theoretically unconscious in the late 1970s, just as the theory wave was happening. I thought the French feminists that I read had a much more solid theoretical formation, but that they were lacking in politics. I also found them on the whole ahistorical and idealist. The idea that I was setting up a binary where one was positive and the other was negative was based on fairly superficial reading. I think that there are other problems with the book, but in each chapter I tried to give as fair an account of what the theorists in question were saying as I could, and then I tried to show where the problems were. I was also astounded when I heard that people thought I was a great fan of Irigaray and Cixous, which I have never been.

Martha Nussbaum with Jeffrey Williams

Martha Nussbaum. Courtesy of Sally Ryan for The New York Times.
Martha Nussbaum. Courtesy of Sally Ryan for The New York Times.

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Martha Nussbaum took place July 8, 2007  at Nussbaum’s office at the University of Chicago Law School. Transcribed by Heather Steffen and David Cerniglia.

“Philosophy should not be written in detachment from real life,” Martha Nussbaum declares in her 1997 book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard UP). One of the most prolific critics of her generation, with over thirty books, three hundred articles and fifty reviews in prominent journals like The New Republic, Nussbaum bridges the divide between specialized and public philosophy. She has drawn especially on the Stoics to reinvigorate moral and political philosophy, and she investigates the import of literature and the emotions in books ranging from The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 1986) to Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge UP, 2001).

Nancy K. Miller with Jeffrey Williams

Nancy Miller
Nancy K. Miller

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Nancy K. Miller took place on February 10, 2007 in Miller’s office at the CUNY Graduate Center. Transcribed by David Cerniglia.

Jeffrey Williams: To start, I want to ask about the trajectory of feminist criticism in the US. It seems that you were at key places at key times—you studied French at Columbia in the early ’70s when structuralism was in its heyday, but you were part of a cohort that developed if not invented feminist literary criticism. How did you come to do the work you did?

Nancy K. Miller: I went to graduate school for a PhD in 1969. It was really the beginning of the widespread development of feminism in the United States, and I started a women’s group with my friend Hester Eisenstein in January 1971. By then I was getting ready to write my dissertation, and there had already been the March for Equality. Sexual Politics was published in August 1970, and the first issue of Ms. Magazine came out in New York Magazine in ’72. So there was this sense that something was happening. It wasn’t particularly happening at Columbia, but it was happening in New York, and I felt that I was part of something. I certainly did not take any classes that had anything to do with feminism or women writers.

In any event, there was almost nothing recognizable as feminist criticism. When I told my advisor that I was very excited about Sexual Politics because it was a model for reading men’s writing, which is what I was going to be doing in the dissertation, he said—I will never forget—”Don’t be a second-rate Kate Millett. She wasn’t first-rate to begin with.” She was a Columbia PhD and had gotten her PhD, I think, in ’69 or ’70, so that certainly set a tone.

The Geography of Accumulation: David Harvey with Jeffrey J. Williams

photo of David Harvey
David Harvey

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with David Harvey took place September 20, 2007 and originally appeared in minnesota review Fall/Winter 2007 (69). Transcribed by Heather Steffen.

Jeffrey Williams: I want to cover the arc of your work and how you went from Explanation in Geography to A Brief History of Neoliberalism. But first, because the readers of minnesota review are largely a cultural studies audience and the book we probably know the best is The Condition of Postmodernity, I want to ask about that. It’s become a canonical theory book explaining the shift in production from Fordism to post-Fordism during the 1970s. How did you come to outline this change to post-Fordism?

David Harvey: I think there were a number of things going on around that time. I was getting irritated by the material coming out in the name of postmodernism, whatever that was. I was finding more and more people talking about it, and I think that, for people like myself who were coming out of a more straight Marxist tradition, you had to face up to either ignoring it or confronting it. At some point or other, I decided I’d confront it and try to reinterpret it. Since it seemed to me nobody really knew what postmodernism was, there was an opening there. But also it seemed to me I was fairly well-equipped because I had written this lengthy study on Second Empire Paris, where I had used people like Baudelaire and Zola and Balzac to help me interpret some of the shift into modernity during that period. So I felt that I had a good grasp on, if you like, the cultural transformations that occurred in Second Empire Paris alongside of the political economy, and I could redeploy it to the contemporary period.