Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Michaels and Others on Culture, Language, and Equality

Well, it appears that The Valve's wonderful book event on Walter Benn Michaels's The Trouble with Diversity is coming to an end. It's been terrific reading through all the various posts and comments; John, Scott & Co. deserve major kudos for putting it all together.

Three of the posts particularly struck me as dealing with some of the difficult issues buried deep within Michaels's book: John Holbo's typically (and wonderfully) overstuffed reflections on what culture can mean to liberals and conservatives; John Emerson's thoughts on the meaning of culture in modern "multiculturalism," and Scott Eric Kaufman's insights into cultural and linguistic diversity (which were inspired by this Unfogged post, which was in turn inspired by this essay by Michaels in the New York Times, thus bringing us full circle). Michaels's basic claim is that, by focusing on racial, ethnic, cultural, gender and other forms of diversity, liberals have lost the ability to talk about equality. His stronger claim is that a focus on such forms of difference actually prevents serious discussion about economic equality. Consequently, he feels that modern, identity- and culture-sensitive liberals have made their own progressive goals harder to achieve; that they have played into conservatives' hands in all their diversity-mongering over the past several decades. The primary problem which both of these claims face, however, is that if we are to figure out if it is true that an emphasis on cultural diversity interferes with the agenda for economic equality, we first need to what of "cultural diversity" Michaels's is talking about. Because there is more than one such kind, and not all of them have the same relationship to the economy.

John started off my own thoughts on Michaels by pointing out that there is "a certain sense, historically and--up to a point--philosophically" with arguing that "culture" can actually much more easily turn into a conservative device than an egalitarian one. I think that is quite correct, though it takes some effort to get clear on why that is. Real, deep, aristocratic, "right" conservatives do value diversity in a way that liberals do not. Not because they treat all diverse groups equally; on the contrary, this older conservatism has always affirmed that some groups are simply better than others--the natural aristocracy and all that, stretching back to Plato and forward to Burke. However, implicated in that hierarchicalinegalitarianan belief, is nonetheless a truly respectful acknowledgement of the multiplicity of organically, historically, culturally realized communities out there, and of how those communities define the individuals which reside within them in important ways. Liberalism, being a philosophical individualism, is not prepared to grant identity that kind of rootedness--or if it does grant it, doesn't fully respect its consequences, and wishes watch over and moderate them. (Will Kymlicka's "liberal culturalism," Susan Moller Okin's interpretation of the "right of exit," etc.)

John points out that thinkers like Lionel Trilling (or Alexis de Tocqueville, in a slightly different vein) feared that if democracy were ever fully and totally triumphant, it would result in a banal liberal individualism, in which we all become Millian self-determiners, and as a result, truly elite or effortful cultural distinctions (the sort that take whole communities and generations to pull off) would be lost. Again, I think this is correct; the great success of liberalism worried the Trillings and Tocquevilles of the world because they had a spot of this (necessarily aristocratic?) conservatism in them, and they worried about a world where all individuals can just make themselves and remake themselves over and over in the same old mediocre Millian ways, without regard to the cultural tasks one "belongs" to. And frankly, their concern is a valid one. But here a problem emerges for conservative rhetoric. Millian "remaking" has become, in the post-industrial, knowledge-worker capitalist world of today, primarily a function of dollars, and if identity and culture can be bought, and you can buy exactly as much as your own creativity and smarts allow you, then the conservative tradition has evolved into a dilemma--the new "aristocrats," the wealthy knowledge-workers, are exactly the people most capable of freeing themselves as individuals from culture and community, and running off and making their own brand new, idiosyncratic, unique, mega-church, private-school supporting, gated exurban communities, just as all good Millians should. And, of course, many liberals join them in this, driving Michaels's belief that many of those liberals don't see how they're buying into the system, all while convincing themselves that they're "really" pushing for egalitarianism via affirmative action, etc.

This is one of the reasons you have figures like Christopher Lasch or other "left conservatives" arguing against liberals because they don't see the importance of community, and also against those who call themselves conservatives because, in today's world, employing rhetoric which invokes (but rarely actually argues for) order and aristocracy and levels in society only ends up empowering a class of people that have no actual interest in and only the weakest understandings of community. Michaels expresses no sympathy whatsoever for community or identity or race, yet he is arguably picking up on a little bit of this left traditionalist frustration nonetheless. Modern glocapitalismptialism makes generating affective concern about stuff like race or culture, according to him, cheap. It's easy to do; it's just a commodity, and that means it plays into the hands of those who can profit from and sell such commodities. What Michaels is really seeking is that era when class and class alone grounded one's consciousness of one's community. He's looking for economic solidarity, which is another kind of community; he doesn't think you can really have equality or social justice, that you can really end poverty, without it. To the extent that Michaels argues that these liberal egalitarian goals haven't been reached at least in part because conservatives have helped liberals lose their economic and class focus, he's not entirely wrong; it's obviously correct that many of today's conservatives have co-opted diversity as an individualistic (and profit-making) end in itself, and thus have turned conservative language and thought towards anything but historically "conservative" ends. But is the problem here really the whole matter of culture and community and identity--that, with the emergence of modern individualism and capitalism, they can never be anything more than random amenities, and that a concern for them only adds even more weight to the burdens of economic competition and division? Perhaps not; for on the other hand, one could argue that the problem is that the liberals whom Michaels attacks are not really wrong to think about identity politics, but have unfortunately allowed themselves to focus on only part of what makes a cultural identity--the easily bought-and-sold part, the part that doesn't actually do anything one way or another for encouraging socio-economic recognition and equality, as opposed to the part which Tocqueville and Trilling (and Burke too, for that matter) had their eyes on, a part which, I would, is very much part of our socio-economic world.

This brought me to Emerson's post, which argued thoughtfully about two different uses of "culture":

The social-science meaning of "culture" is something like "All human traits and social structures which are learned and not strictly innate." In general non-innate traits are assumed to be variable from one society to the next, giving us multiple cultures. But the traditional meaning of culture was "high culture," the various things that make someone into a finer sort of person. Good manners, a taste for classical music, and so on. Multi-culturalism seems to use the first definition, but it's contaminated by second definition...The problem is that "high culture" (as Veblen shows) was defined by optional choices in luxury consumption, and when the non-elite non-western cultures were upgraded, they were...upgraded as consumption choices [my emphasis]. So culture was defined in terms of cuisine, and fabrics and dress, and music and dance, and poetry, and myth, and so on. We become multicultural by consuming non-western or non-white luxury products. And in fact, multiculturalism often does seem to be a kind of consumerism and noblesse oblige...This is all a manifestation of the characteristic division of American (or capitalist) life into work (production) and play (consumption). Work is necessary and real, and play (culture) is optional and not real. This is fake multi-culturalism. Hindu culture, for example, isn't just a lot of nice stuff you can buy. It's arranged marriage, purdah, the caste system, untouchability , food taboos, the rajahs (before the British arrived), and so on. Nobody really wants to adopt the serious structural aspects of Hindu culture. On serious structural issues, we all want to continue to be Americans.

I wouldn't use all of Emerson's terminology, but the fact is he's saying something very important here: that multicultural concerns are problematic for those liberals also concerned about economic equality to the extent that their multicultural concerns implicate them in a system which rewards those who can afford to live and bring with them the "acceptable" bits of a culture. Everyone modern, diversity concerned liberal wants a little bit of Hinduism in their life (bring on the dal chowder and the cucumber raita!), but not as practiced by the poor Hindus in India who still embrace all the "serious structural aspects of Hindu culture."

My feeling, perhaps predictably, is that it is only in seeking to address the economic status of Hindus within those structures, in seeking to make such communities self-sufficient and sustainable and decent, can we truly move towards equality. The great failure of many liberals who fetishize economic solidarity and populism as the solution to the "culture wars" (and here I'm thinking primarily of Thomas Frank) is that they do not appreciate how much the great populist and egalitarian movements toward social and economic equality in American history where themselves forthright about, and supportive of, the cultural "structures" benefitedhe people they benefitted lived. But that's an argument I've made extensively many times. (And please note: I am not saying that the above is sufficient for an egalitarian politics, only that it is probably necessary to it; criticizing certain liberal presumptions in pursuit of equality is hardly the same as saying that liberal practices and priorities are irrelevant to it.) What needs to be further said here is whether or not there's any way to get at those structures today without, on the one hand, playing into the hands of commodifiers who take conservative insights and reduce them to money relations that only make egalitarianism harder, or on the other hand, joining up with the old right and making where one culturally belongs the only question which matters (a proposition which is 1) seriously disputed by the real-world consequences of many modern liberal freedoms, and 2) so likely to be aristocratic that an egalitarian like Michaels is perhaps justified in condemning the whole thing).

I think there is one way, and that is through language, which was Scott's topic. A concern for linguistic diversity does not, of course, even come close to covering all the varieties of community and identity claims out; most obviously, the struggles over race and ethnicity and gender and religion which have over the past few decades often obsessed those (mostly academic) liberals whom Michaels complains about were carried out, with very few exceptions, in English. So targeting language as a structural source of diversity which really does have something to do with empowering and equalizing people neither completely undermines Michaels's point nor takes care of all the hard issues that would challenge his claims. Nonetheless, taking seriously language as a central component of a truly legitimate politics of identity and recognition would go a long way towards clarifying the debate.

Michaels himself does not appear any more patient with this take on diversity than any other. As he wrote in the New York Times:

[W]hy would it be a tragedy if English disappeared? Why is it a tragedy if Tlingit disappears? Although we can all agree it's a bad thing to try to get people to stop using their language, it's hard to see why it's a bad thing if their language disappears. Why? Because the very thing that made it a mistake for the missionaries to try to stop people from speaking Native American languages (it's not as if English was better) makes it a mistake to care whether people continue to speak Native American languages (it's not as if English is worse). We can see the point clearly by pretending for a second that English really is starting to vanish. Suppose our children start speaking a little Spanish, our grandchildren become bilingual and our great-grandchildren speak only Spanish. Since we can't speak Spanish, we can't talk to them. But if that's a problem, it won't last for long, and once it is solved, there will be no problem left. Just as the language we speak does everything we need it to do, the language they speak will do everything they need it to do...Our language is the one we speak, not the one our ancestors spoke.

Michaels presumption here is pretty straightforward: language is about communication, and so long as you're communicating, whatever your immediate literary or cultural or regional references, you can still express yourself as a person with a particular self-understanding. Thus, for Michaels the problem of language merely calls forth a liberal focus on the individual's interests and preferences. Forcing someone to learn a language or abandon one is wrong, because it can do violence to their self-understanding...but language death? The abandonment of a minority dialect for a metropolitan tongue? That may result in a person being unable to speak with their great-grandparents, but their self-constructed self is still the same. And so, Michaels argues elsewhere, ideally we should aim for a universal language, so we can get all these essentialist and culturalist obstacles out of the way and get back to working on economic opportunity and equality instead of comforting the poor in their restricted linguistic circles.

Well, you can probably guess, the dispute I have with the above begins with the idea of a "self-constructed self." There ain't no such animal. But that's not a difficult point to convince people of; the difficult part comes in how you explain everything else you accept as going into the construction of the self, and what kind of normative force you attach to it. For the purposes of this post, I'll simply footnote the long and (I think) persuasive argument about language and hermeneutical self-realization (begin here, then go here, then on to here), and assert that taking linguistic rights and diversity seriously brings culture into the discussion in such a way that does not communities, with collective needs. This is not an argument either for or against any particular language scheme as a route towards egalitarianism; there are good arguments (made by theorists like Thomas Pogge) that the empowerment and equalization of Hispanics in the U.S. depends upon emphasizing their education in and adoption of the English linguistic identity of the polity they have migrated to, and there are good arguments (made by scholars like Stephen May) which argue the opposite. Either way, language, far from being irrelevant to formingimpoverishedthat will get those in impoverihed ethnic or cultural communities into same class as their economic superiors, is actually one of the very best ways to think about class divisions in our multicultural world. (Philippe Van Parjis's work is a good starting point here; you can find essays by him and all the above scholars in this book here.)

By saying that language is more than a neutral tool of communication, to say that it matters in a cultural and also a normative sense, obviously means that one cannot--or at least should not--casually embrace Michaels's attitude above, in which he wants us to forget about how people speak and instead focus on how they earn and spend; it means that, actually, earning and spending and class consciousness generally, to the extent that they involve some sort of solidarity, will also have to involve the deep structures that the expressive capacities of language make manifest. True, depending on what sort of political arrangements are worked out, egalitarians may still end up tearing their hair out at the prospect of time in school and the voting booth and the union hall being "wasted" on constant squabbles over translation and linguistic maintenance. Two points. First, if egalitarians care about anything, presumably they care about the equal treatment of persons, and if ignoring language resulted in a lack of sensitivity to how it is that a "person" fully understands him or herself, then I'm not sure why one's preferred "egalitarianism" need be liberal--or indeed, even democratic!--at all. Second, perhaps not that much time will be wasted after all. As one commenter mentioned in the Unfogged post I linked to above, there is a difference between language and culture, as our concerns about hegemony indicate. There are good reasons to respect a community's defense of its specific identity, but those identies can and often are collectively aligned in important ways with dominant languages, with the result that "they [those who adopt a metropolitan language] in turn can contribute their cultural background, disseminate it in the widely understood new language, thus contributing further to the tongue's 'conversation' and making it all the more appealing." Perhaps the classic example here is how the Irish identity and sensibility came to be communicated through English--a process that came about through violence, to be sure, but with a result that both benefited the English-speaking world and strengthened and extended the presence of Irish culture within it, a point that need's to remembered by anyone who views linguistic assimilation as always colonialist and therefore tragic.

A language may be about more than communication, and I'm enough a Herderian (and even a Whorfian, or at least a sympthetic reader of some of the biological and neurological evidence which Scott cites) to readily accept that something essential is always lost in translation, and that such losses are always bad...but to use that fact to block the empowerment of a people through their own instrumental choices and options would be equally bad. Languages grow and change and adapt and even die out. Taking them seriously does not mean placing their preservation above any and all egalitarian concerns; it simply means that, in a liberal order which Michaels sees as addicted to diversity, language, as the field within which the natural and historical sources of a diverse peoples' identities are realized, provides an opportunity for egalitarians to acknowledge the conservative insight into culture while avoiding facile definitions of "culture" as something "high" or elite or consumable, all of which arguably lead one away from socio-economic equality. On the contrary, as I suggest above, language can even, in some circumstances (in particular when one is dealing with migrant or immigrant or indigenous persons), be a necessary part of any consciousness of equality at all.

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