Behind our Backs: Moishe Postone in Conversation

by cominsitu

Moishe_postone_Diego_Gonzalez_

Moishe Postone, who was Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of the College, History, and the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago, passed away in March of 2018 after a long battle with cancer. A founding editor of Critical Historical Studies, he is best known for his important and novel reinterpretation of Marx in Time, Labor, and Social Domination. His passing is a serious blow; his mind and his person will be deeply missed.

In the spring of 2015, we sat down with Professor Postone to talk about everything except Marx. Our conversation focused on the authors read in the Social Sciences Core (Soc Core) sequence that he chaired from 1990 to 2016, “Self, Culture, & Society.” Professor Postone was the most formative influence on the “Self, Culture, & Society” curriculum during his tenure as chair and was a passionate advocate for general education requirements.

All undergraduates at the University of Chicago are required to take a year-long, three-quarter course in the Soc Core. “Self, Culture, & Society” (“Self”) is one of the three most popular Soc Core sequences at the University, the others of which are “Classics of Social and Political Thought” (“Classics”) and “Power, Identity, and Resistance” (“Power”), both of which are mentioned below. The reading list for “Self, Culture, & Society,” circa 2015, was roughly as follows:

THE FALL QUARTER (SOCIETY)

  • Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations
  • Karl Marx’s Capital and other writings
  • Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

THE WINTER QUARTER (CULTURE)

  • Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
  • Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Savage Mind
  • Marshall Sahlins’ Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities
  • Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish
  • Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
  • Theodor Adorno’s “The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression in Listening”

THE SPRING QUARTER (SELF)

  • Sigmund Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis
  • Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization
  • Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex
  • Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

Part one

The History of the Social Sciences Core and the Value of General Education Requirements

BF

We wanted to start by asking you to talk a little bit about the history of the Core—the Soc Core in particular—your involvement in it, when you started, and any sort of changes, institutional or otherwise, that you’ve seen over the years.

MP

I’m only vaguely aware of the prehistory of this course. There used to be three years of Soc core that you had to take, and at the end of each yearlong course, you took a 6-9 hour comprehensive exam. In April you began reviewing and you suddenly saw the stuff that you thought you understood in October-November through very different eyes. I think this was very useful. The other thing that was useful was that nothing that you did during the year counted. You wrote papers, and you got an exam at the end of each quarter, but they were only advisory, to let you know how you were doing. The advantage was that if you got depressed for a few weeks or you got Mono, it doesn’t really knock you out. You can recover. The disadvantage is that April and May are high Dexedrine and Methedrine ingestion time.

But by the time I got to the College [as a student], there were two years of Soc Core. The first year was more or less “Classics of Social and Political Thought.” (There was another variant, which was “Documents of American History.”) And the second year was “Self, Culture, & Society,” which was sort of like a theoretical capstone. And when I began to teach in the Core in ‘87, there was only one required year, and so you had variants. You never used to have variants. The College used to be much smaller and more self-selecting. They pride themselves now on admitting only 7% of applicants, whereas a generation ago, it was 40%. But it was 40% of people who really wanted to be here, and it was a very edgy, sort of avant-garde place. It’s not anymore.

BF

So “Power, Identity, & Resistance” and “Classics of Social and Political Thought” as distinct Soc Core sequences came into existence when it was narrowed down to one year?

MP

Yes. But “Power” didn’t exist. There was only “Classics” and “Self.” There were faculty in the 80s who suggested that everyone teach a module on what they are interested in, and they got their wish. You can imagine how chaotic that was. That conglomeration was known commonly as “the state of nature.” After a while, the Deans decided to drain the state of nature, and they put in a course run by Don Levine, who was a sociological theorist (with, let’s say, a conservative bent), called “Wealth, Power and Virtue.” I don’t know exactly how Don faded into the side-wings. Then it became “Power.” One guy in “Power,” actually as a marketing ploy, added “Identity and Resistance.” There’s nothing on Identity in that course. It’s Power all the way down.

“Self, Culture, & Society” was, kind of, the same as it is now. The winter quarter used to be the apotheosis of Claude Levi-Strauss. Everything led up to him. So you read a lot of Durkheim, you read Saussure, and you read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. And all of it was to lead to the last class, which was Levi-Strauss.

JC

Was this because of Levi-Strauss’ influence at the University of Chicago?

MP

Yes, the anthropologists who created it were largely structuralists. And they thought this was the final say in science. There were those of us who respectfully disagreed. There were other things that I objected to back then: a common assignment in the spring quarter was that students should interpret a dream of theirs. I don’t think this is subject for a paper. I thought this transgressed a certain boundary between the personal and the pedagogical.

BF

So in 1987 you took over Soc…

MP

That’s when I started teaching it. I took it over around 1990. Today, 25 years later, I’m a little worried for the course. I think the University has lost a sense of the centrality of General Education, in favor of things that are indistinguishable from other Universities. You know, “Uchicago,” where you fold away the “Where Fun Comes to Die” t-shirts. When I was a student, which was an earlier geological age, there was a lot of fun, but there were no fraternities or sororities. There were clubs, lots of clubs, jazz clubs and blues clubs, and there were a lot of neighborhood people who were kind of bohemian, so it was maybe the only semi-bohemian neighborhood between Greenwich Village and North Beach. You had people who were early in their career in Hyde Park. You know, Second City, Mike Nichols and all that. But Bob Dylan was also here first before he went to Greenwich Village. What a little schmuck he was. We all thought—nothing will ever come of him. He’s just a bad Woody Guthrie imitator. When he started, there were various keepers of the flame. There were the communist kids, for whom folk music meant a very particular thing—Woody Guthrie. To commercialize that, just was anathema. Then there were other kids who were very much into the Blues. There was a great Blues house band that played every Wednesday night in the dormitory where the B School is now. That was The Butterfield Blues Band, and Elvin Bishop. That was just part of the neighborhood.

At any rate, I digress.

General Education for me—which was so mind-boggling for me—is about not just breadth but more importantly primary texts. I’d never had that. Most students don’t have that. There wasn’t an emphasis on information. When I was a student, I had to take two years of Humanities Core. Everybody did. One quarter of the Humanities sequences was “History as a Genre”. We read three books: Thucydides, the first volume of Gibbon, and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Try to imagine three more disparate approaches! It was just fantastic.

The “Western Civilization” Core (and its offspring “European Civilization”) reads primary sources—historical sources in translation. A lot of the non-European Civilization Cores don’t. They don’t have enough faculty, and they teach them secondary sources. At least that’s what I’ve been told. And many of them are lecture courses. I think that’s fine to broaden your education, but it’s not the same as a General Education course. It should be possible, no matter what civilization you’re studying, to give students primary source material, and for them to figure out what’s going on. For me, it was the equivalent of an intense study of cultural anthropology. You can’t read a Greek or a Roman text the same way you would read a mid-twentieth century American text. That’s something you have to learn.

We don’t read those kinds of works anymore, but we still insist that students don’t read secondary sources on Durkheim, Freud, or whatever, but learn rather to grapple with the texts. And I’m worried because there’s a breadth to the course that is inimical to scholarship. Even people that are more progressive want to teach in their specialty.

JC

So you feel that that pressure against the Soc Core is coming from the faculty, not from the students?

MP

It’s from the faculty. There used to be a cohort of people who were very much a backbone of this course, but they were all senior. It didn’t occur to me at the time. Bill Sewell, Bert Cohler, Ralph Austen, Jonathan Z. Smith. J.Z. Smith was a great presence in the course. He didn’t just give his great lecture [“Do the Rite Thing,”] in the winter, he actually taught sections. Staff meetings were very different. For me, administratively, it meant that I could call somebody up and say, I have 150 internship files to go through, I could use a second pair of eyes—you know, that sort of thing.

So now I’m afraid that the course is hanging by a very thin thread, which is me. I believe deeply in General Education. And I think the Canon Wars obscured its importance. I don’t think that everything written in the last 50 years is a lot better than what was written before then. It’s a bad way to go. In the social sciences, we don’t teach a canon in the humanities sense. We teach fundamental theory, which is not the same as a canon.

A theorist is trying to explain a phenomenon. By reading theory, students become aware of the phenomenon that the particular theorist is trying to explain, how this particular theorist goes about trying to grapple with this phenomenon and why they develop the kinds of categories they do in order to make sense of it. If you read theory like this, the categories themselves become a) up for grabs, b) something students become self-aware of, and c) something that students are taught how to spot, which is a skill. That’s very different from teaching positions, for example. And I’m afraid that a lot of teaching has become the teaching of positions. This is true even of the way in which Smith, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, etc. are taught. In many places, or in graduate school, as well, students are taught just enough—Weber, ah yes! rationalization and bureaucracy. Marx—ah yeah! class struggle.

JC

The Powerpoint intelligence.

MP

The hope is to generate depth. They can then cover more on their own. I think students actually need more General Education requirements, but that’s not gonna happen. To uncover texts with students, to show them how somebody is thinking, and what they’re doing with their categories, or why they think they have to come up with these categories, makes them much more self-aware of a whole variety of discourses in which they participate. And sometimes I think that doesn’t kick in for a while. There are many people who’ve had General Education who talk about it kicking in long after they graduated. It is a shame. Education used to be seen as a kind of repose, between school and your adult professional life. It’s losing that quality very rapidly.

A long time ago, when Hutchins [President of University of Chicago from 1929-1945, and architect of the Core Curriculum] created this General Education College, people in the departments wanted to have nothing to do with that. The departments were graduate departments, period. So you had a separate college faculty. Sometimes the College would hire people that the departments wouldn’t because they were, I would say, too broad for the departments. Daniel Bell and David Riesman had College appointments here, though they were not appointed to the Department of Sociology. And they couldn’t have been. Edward Shils, I think, barely had a B.A. People like Bell and Riesman, whatever one thinks of them, were very wide-ranging in their interests. Sociology’s become increasingly narrow, so much so that it’s narrowed itself out of existence. It’s like the Thin Man.

BF

What is your intuition as to what drives this move away from general education requirements and toward narrow specialization?

MP

What you’re rewarded for in the University, especially for Junior Faculty. You’ve got to publish, you’ve got to publish in peer-reviewed journals, and you don’t have time for this.

JC

I’m curious to hear a bit more on the political question of General Education. So oftentimes, the debate today, in our post-Canon Wars moment, seems to be conservatives who believe in General Education—David Brooks in the New York Times believes we have to learn about virtue…

BF

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

JC

And it’s radicals who believe in jettisoning General Education. I’m curious what you think about this dichotomy and how you might see a way out of it.

MP

The problem that I have is that both think that they are teaching Truth. And both use a similar vocabulary. “As we have learned from Plato…” “As we have learned from Derrida…” or “As we have known since Foucault…” These are uncontested. I think one of the ironies with a lot of post-Marxism is that it’s resolutely against the idea of progress, except epistemologically. There’s been epistemological progress. Foucault is closer to the truth than Marx or Weber or Durkheim or Freud. There’s the great epistemic break of the 1960s and 70s, whereas the real conservatives know that ever since Plato, it’s been downhill. Some would make an exception for Aristotle.

For me, there’s a similar habit of thought. I regard it as being critical on a surface level and uncritical on a deeper level. Starting with Plato you can come up with a powerful critique of modernity, the veil of illusions, and claim that real meaning resides elsewhere. And starting with Foucault—basically, everything is Power/Knowledge, except for me. There is a glaring absence of reflexivity in a lot of post-structuralist thought, as far as I can tell. The whole tradition that goes from Hegel to Marx to Lukacs to the Frankfurt School—people are unaware of it. They pick up bits and pieces of Adorno or Benjamin in the Humanities. But when I hear from students taking the Humanities Core that Benjamin’s essay is really kind of a Romantic piece, with nostalgia for the aura, I think—this is really kind of appalling.

JC

Is it something about the texts themselves in a General Education course that undermine this approach? Is it any original sources? Is it these particular works in this tradition?

MP

It depends on the course. When I took what was then called the “History of Western Civilization,” it was very different. We weren’t reading Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” in order to see the sorts of categories with which we can understand our world, but rather to try and see his categories, and what his world meant to him. One of my General Education professors once asked, rhetorically, to a large audience, when reading the Oration of Pericles: “Which twentieth-century politician does he remind you of?” The wheels were turning. Everybody’s thinking: “Well, Pericles is a great man, so it’s got to be somebody we like—FDR, or maybe JFK.” “No,” he said, “it’s Mussolini.” But then he would say why Pericles wasn’t Mussolini, and why Mussolini wasn’t Pericles, because they’re operating in fundamentally different contexts. The same language used in fifth-century Athens, if used in twentieth century Italy, has a completely different significance. I learned an enormous amount in that course.

But that’s very different from reading Freud or Durkheim or whomever to work out the categories with which they’re trying to explain our world. It’s a different exercise, and a different hermeneutic. I would never put them in a hierarchy. Both are very important. One is, if you will, a little more historical-ethnographic, the other more theoretical.

JC

This is a bit of an aside, but do you think that if higher education were free, it would be one way to regain a sense of the value of General Education?

MP

No, though I do believe that higher education should be free. But I don’t think what’s forcing this to happen is the fact that it’s not free. I think it has to do with the professionalization of the disciplines, and the corporatization of the university. The university’s spent a lot of money on middle-management MBAs, instead of on faculty or on students. There was a time where faculty were more self-aware. In the 90s, there were a few discussions about reforming General Education. The University brought in McKinsey. Faculty members like myself and Andy Abbott were very opposed. You had these 27-years-olds, who, as we used to say in Canada, didn’t know shit from shinola, and they’re telling us what education is supposed to be using their metrics. We basically said: we don’t know what you’re talking about, and we’re not going to pay any attention to you. At that point, in the University of Chicago faculty, you could do it. Now, you can’t because the administration has bought it.

General Education is basically an attempt to democratize what had been an elite mold. It’s a combination of Humboldt, with the whole idea of Bildung, and a little bit of Oxbridge, I think. There used to be the idea of an educated gentleman, who was able to confront a whole range of problems, from sewage in Calcutta to tribal warfare in Iraq on the basis of having thoroughly studied the Classics. Now, we don’t do that kind of canonical education, and Soc Core is of course much more critical than that. But the attempt to promote critical awareness flies in the face of vocational education. So it’s a critical attempt. I think it could be a profoundlydemocratic attempt.

Years ago I had a job teaching at a place called Richmond College, which was part of the City University system of New York. Out of a bunch of historical accidents, Richmond College became a hotbed of a certain kind of loosely defined left, maybe a playpen for the left. I was teaching there, Paul Rabinow was teaching there, Alan Wolfe was teaching there, quite a few people. I proposed an undergraduate course on Simmel and Weber, and I forget who else, maybe Marx. I was told I shouldn’t do that since these were working-class kids. I made them write a paragraph for every class. I wanted them to see, eventually, that they could understand this stuff. It took a lot of work, but I think it was successful. There can be something profoundly democratic about taking fundamental texts and having as many students as possible grappling with them. So if I had my druthers, not only would education be free, but there would be courses like this in all schools.


Part TWO

Freud, de Beauvoir, Fanon: The Spring Quarter (The Self)

BF

Since we’d like you to talk about theorists about whom you haven’t written, we thought we’d discuss the quarters in reverse order and start with the spring, which begins with a long section on Freud. Why does Freud belong in the Soc Core?

MP

I don’t see any theorist of the Self who approaches Freud in terms of complexity and is so amenable to the idea that humans are constituted on a very deep level, and not simply, as later psychoanalytic theorists thought: you’ve got your little human being this tall, and then they learn things, like not to burp in public. I think of post-Freudianism more or less the way I think of post-Marxism: it’s a reaction against a certain kind of Freudianism, and a certain kind of Marxism, that never bothered to go back to see if there was something that Freud and Marx had to say—this is part of what I do in my work—that would provide a critique of that tradition, and that would also allow you to grapple with current phenomena in ways in which more superficial theories don’t. Just as I think Marx is not simply the theorist of mid-19th century British capitalism, I don’t think Freud is only the theorist of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie of the beginning of the 20th century. On one level he is, on another level, it goes far beyond that.

Freud is maddening. He’s a theorist who, like any truly great theorist, didn’t fully understand the implications of what he wrote down. So to understand Freud, you don’t go to the interview in People magazine with Dr. Freud. That’s why I simply don’t believe—it’s been a long time since I read it—Sullivan’s The Biologist of the Mind, not for a minute. Sullivan doesn’t pay enough attention to Freud, to the theory, and pays too much attention to things he may have done or said.

I don’t think you can flatten social phenomena out by, in a sense, flattening the unconscious. I mean, isn’t that basically what—to mention another one of the most prominent anti-Freudians—Jeffrey Masson did? By denying that any of this could be the fantasy life of the girl, by accusing Freud of aiding and abetting child abuse, he transformed the theory of the unconscious back into an empirical theory. Which I think totally impoverished the theory, and assumes that there’s a one-to-one relation between experience and reaction. Everything that I think Freud was moving away from.

BF

What is it that you hope to impart to students in relation to Freud?

MP

I try above all to get them to take seriously this amazingly fertile mind, who simply does not take phenomena at face value. He is always opening up, questioning himself, and opening up further. Unfortunately there are times where the processes he uncovers, he reifies, I think. But they are nonetheless processes he uncovered. So I try to avoid teaching things like—here’s a map of the mind, superego, ego, id—I think it’s just too easy.

The main idea that I try to impart is that human beings are driven by unconscious impulses and, further, that the more those unconscious impulses are repressed, the more humans will be driven by them. Therapy is thus a kind of sober emancipation. It doesn’t make you happy, but it makes you more self-determining than you had been, by destroying the illusion that you were self-determining before. And it’s not an existentialist teaching, that you simply come to grips with your loss, which is the way I understand Lacanianism—you reconcile yourself to the tragedy of separation. I think in Freud there really is this sense of—you could live differently.

JC

What do you think of the choice of de Beauvoir and Fanon as the successors to Freud (and why these two in particular), and the other key thinkers in the theory of the self?

MP

It’s a good question. Ideally, if we had 36-week school years, we’d have sections that deal with gender and race—with regard to political economy, with regard to culture, and with regard to a theory of the self—but as is, they’re always shoehorned in, and we’re not doing justice to them. Unfortunately, de Beauvoir and Fanon carry alot of weight: they’re not just post-Freudians or thinkers of the self: they are in a sense signifying in the course issues of gender and race. And I think it’s really a problem.

Regarding other theorists of the self, we’ve tried other readings that didn’t work for one reason or another. A book that I like, even though it’s very old now, was Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism. She’s a little too close to French Structuralism for me, but I think her explication of the unconscious in that book is wonderful. It’s really wonderful. And I think that her critique of many of the feminist theorists of the time—Germaine Greer, Kate Millett—is very well-put: essentially, she was showing that they were quasi-positivists, that they missed the point about Freud. But for a lot of the students, it was too much Freud. After going through Freud, for many of them, it felt like going through Freud again. And that was a shame, because I think she has a much more sophisticated understanding of Freud than Simone de Beauvoir ever had. But Simone de Beauvoir has a historical reach in terms of her vision that I don’t think someone like Judith Butler has. Once you get into someone like Butler, it’s like nothing before 1980 exists. I don’t know if de Beauvoir is sufficiently reflexive historically, but she certainly presents a kind of a historical overview. In part, it’s because of her Engelsian Marxism.

JC

De Beauvoir and Fanon are responsible, in part, for the development of this category of the Other that is now common sense in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Do you have thoughts on this issue of the Other as it appears in a theory of the self?

MP

One of the reasons why Black Skins, White Masks is very uncomfortable for a lot of students is that it’s in part a psychoanalytic approach to the experience of being Other. In postcolonial thought, by contrast, the Other is a reified category. It’s reverse Orientalism, where you’re not allowed to do a critical analysis of a Muslim society. With what’s going on now, people are totally helpless conceptually.

JC

In a way he refuses the Levinasian hands-off position.

MP

Levinas, hin und her, it’s a liberal position. Who am I to say anything about the Other?

BF

There’s something about a subjective analysis of race that you get in Fanon that you don’t get in reading something more straightforward about the objective oppression of black people in the States or elsewhere. When, for instance, you read “The Black Man and Psychopathology,” that chapter where he gets into the white projections onto black men that make them overly sexualized, it gets you to a place where they’re discussing race in ways that are…

MP

Uncomfortable. One of the reasons I think Fanon is so challenging, for many students, is because he argues that the system of racism creates certain kinds of selves that are not free from it, that it does not sit like a carapace on the black self, which is just waiting to burst the carapace and emerge. In some respects, aspects of The Wretched of the Earth are for me a theoretical regression and indissolubly linked with a valorization of violence as liberating. There is a kind of fairy tale that racist structures remain external to people, and that all you have to do is change the structure and everything will poof! Then there’s just you and me. There’s no damage done. It’s a form of positivism. And I think Black Skin, White Masks makes students uncomfortable because that isn’t what he does there.

JC

That’s in a way a through-line about the theory of the self. For Freud too. For all three of them—Freud, de Beauvoir, Fanon, the theory of the self is a theory of damages.

MP

Yes, but Freud has multiple levels. Freud has a theory of the coming-into-being of humans. We’re not blobs of protoplasm. If you just stuck a human out in the forest, that’s what they would be, a blob of protoplasm. Not speaking, not having the skills of raccoons or wolves or whomever, being pretty helpless there.

BF

When you say that the virtue of Freud is that he understands us to be constituted on a deep level—to some extent that’s the start of social science. So I’m wondering, do you take something like psychoanalysis to be integral to social theory, or simply complementary? Do you think something like the unconscious is necessary to do good social theory?

JC

Or to put one other option out there, is it in tension with social theory?

MP

Well, it’s certainly in tension with some approaches. Is it necessary? For some things, probably. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to say that a great deal of our cultural production is sublimated sexual energy. Looking at the regulation of sexuality was a genius move. Showing that sexuality is so omnivorous that anything—this cup can be a sexual object. With hunger, you can move from sushi to tacos—even witchetty grub, if you’re an anthropologist, but hunger’s object is much more limited and defined. Sexuality, by contrast, is not instinctual, and as such, it’s a possible beginning of an explanation as to why there is this surplus energy that human beings have used to create a whole range of things, from tools to cave paintings to pottery. For me, there was an Aha! moment when I first read Freud’s work on sexuality. For me, that’s a stand-alone insight, because I think a lot of social theory doesn’t reach that level. So in some respects it’s more fundamental than social theory.

But it’s usually weaker when it comes to the historically-specific, so it should be married with something else. Marcuse tried, Adorno tried. In very different ways. Adorno looking much closer at the clinical work and much less at the metapsychological work than Marcuse. But I find it interesting that both of them took Freud seriously as an emancipatory thinker, really.

There are other things that require at least some psychoanalytic dimension: maybe it’s insufficient, but, for example, the appeal of Hitler. All the Western journalists are saying: this guy’s just a bad imitation of Charlie Chaplin, and the Germans are enthralled. The cathexis was so strong that it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a dimension that would be illuminated by psychoanalytic investigation. But how do you mediate psychoanalysis with the specificity of German history? It’s not self-evident the way you do it.

JC

This also seems true of the cathexis to nationalism. For Marcuse it’s this continuing connection to aggression.

MP

Yes, nationalism would be a real question, which has never been answered. You know Ben Anderson’s book on Imagined Communities? He starts with the monuments to WWI—why millions died for their country, supposedly. He never gets back there. His analysis of the difference between Indochina and South America in terms of traveling elites is nice, but it doesn’t answer the question of this enormous cathexis, which is nationalism. So I agree with that. But the Nazis had it in spades. Also, they’re soldiers. Soviet Monument in Berlin—80,000 Soviet soldiers died in the siege of Berlin. That’s double Vietnam, in one battle. It meant that they faced very, very stiff resistance.

JC

We’ve talked a bit about the authors that we read in the “Self” quarter, but we also wanted you to explain more broadly why a theory of the self has a place in a course on general education in social theory.

MP

Why not?

BF

Well, why not Politics, Culture, & Society?

MP

I wish we did politics as well, that we had four quarters. We don’t do enough on the political. But we’re the only people who do Culture, and the only people who do Self. In any extended way, I mean—in “Power, Identity, & Resistance,” I think they read Foucault and de Beauvoir, but they don’t read Freud. It’s like reading Lenin or Kautsky and never having read Marx. Maybe people don’t like the analogy…

In a sense, “Self, Culture, & Society” is about, in terms of content, theories of social constitution: the constitution by humans of society [the fall], the constitution by humans of systems of meaning, even though they are unaware of the fact because they operate within them, operating within a system that is humanly created [the winter], and finally the social and cultural constitution of the self [the spring]. People will talk about “social construction,” but usually what they mean is that the process by which a group is disadvantaged, disempowered, or marginalized is social. And that can go hand in hand with an idea of the indissoluble primacy of the self, a self being buffeted by the outside. There isn’t nearly the same emphasis on the self being constituted, and not only by patterns of prejudice (very old language, I know).

JC

So does the revelation of the self as socially-constituted mean a commitment to a critique of the self, even a dissolution of the self?

MP

There’s no such thing. Actually, there is: it’s called psychosis. There was this very interesting debate in the 60s between Marcuse and neo-Reichians, who, following Wilhelm, really believed there was a natural self, just as there is a natural sexuality that, if you just do away with repression, can emerge. Marcuse had a position with which I’m certainly much more sympathetic that there is a necessary process of human formation.

The critique of the self doesn’t have to end in its dissolution. So the quarter doesn’t have a programmatic end that way, other than to dereify a whole set of assumptions that they have. So it begins, it’s the possibility of a beginning. It’s like this brilliant line in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which saved the whole book for me: he’s telling all these embarrassing things about himself, the kinds of things you would only tell an analyst, and then at the very end, the analyst, Dr. Spielvogel says, “So, should we begin now?”


Part Three

Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault: The Winter Quarter (Culture)

MP

For me, the second quarter has to do with historical change in culture. In a way, Durkheim lays the ground for it in socially grounding the Kantian categories, doing the social turn. What he does with history is unsatisfying, but it opens up the possibility. The more rigorous cultural work coming out of Durkheim took the ahistorical direction: that’s Lévi-Strauss, everything based on Saussure. The logic is synchrony, diachrony is contingent. So how do you get historical change? Sahlins tries it with a contingent event: Captain Cook. That’s a wonderful analysis. It’s a wonderful little book. [Chuckling] I didn’t mean that! It’s a slim volume. When I was working on my dissertation in Frankfurt, one way of making money periodically was working at this giant book fair. It’s huge. The publisher for whom I worked was an American, and he said, “You know the joke making the rounds at the Frankfurter Bookmesse? What is the slimmest volume in the Frankfurt book fair? A Thousand Years of German Humor”—They’re good at many things, but humor’s not one of them.

At any rate, with Sahlins, it becomes contingent, and change comes from the outside. With Foucault, he doesn’t want to give up the idea of contingency, but it’s clearly an internal transformation. Nothing happens to Europe from the outside. It’s not like the Huns invade, and suddenly the ancien régime collapses. That reintroduces the idea of history as internal transformation. And from there I think you can go to Adorno and Benjamin, who are much better in terms of their understanding of history. For Foucault, historical change is contingent, but in every one of his books, things break at the same time. Whether you’re talking about prisons or asylums, it’s always that way.

But there are parts of the analysis that I think are wonderful. He gives you the break, but he also gives you the reformers, who are disgusted with the arbitrariness of the ancien régime, both the mob and the king. He makes the point, which some people don’t seem to get, that the reformers don’t really win. What wins out is actually something that existed all along under the ancien régime, but in a subterraneous way, and that’s the disciplines. The disciplines are the mole digging under the surface, and then once the ancien régime collapses, it emerges.

JC

So it’s a cunning of history argument?

MP

In spite of himself. If you notice, after the reformers he goes right back to the beginning of the 17th century, with the contrast that he draws between the Renaissance warrior and the soldier. The Renaissance warrior is an artist of himself. He is self-created. The soldier is a cog. We’ve all seen the movies where the British know when to kneel, when to stand up, when to fire, when to load. That’s a machine. And he’s very good on that.

BF

Let me try to spell out the logic of the quarter more slowly: you start with Durkheim because our categories are now social. Lévi-Strauss goes in the wrong direction…

MP

But it’s a very rigorous look at the categories of thought. But it’s completely non-historical. Once you’ve got Lévi-Strauss, what do you do with history?

JC

Why do you think history disappears in Lévi-Strauss?

MP

It’s explicit. The logic is synchrony. This is Saussurian linguistics. Change happens because systems adapt to contingent events. So synchrony is to system as diachrony is to event. At least as I understand it.

BF

What value then do you see in teaching Lévi-Strauss after Durkheim? Despite the rigor, he goes in a very different direction than everyone else.

MP

For me, there is an attempt to show that the cultural forms are not just random. Change might be contingent, but they are in a systemic relation to one another. Foucault suggests that, but he doesn’t really work it out. Benjamin and Adorno do work it out within a completely different paradigm.

JC

You’re saying Lévi-Strauss has a concept of totality that isn’t a historical totality…

MP

But is definitely a totality, yes. The meaning of anything only has its meaning in reference to the whole system. When the course was more influenced by anthropologists, we tried different approaches, Victor Turner, for instance. He posited almost a one-to-one relation: this color, this meaning. Lévi-Strauss was of course completely against that.

I didn’t like Turner because of another reason. I hadn’t realized it at first, but his informants were largely miners. Not minors. Miners. It’s a third world proletariat holding on to traditional forms. It would have been really interesting if he had introduced that, because then the question is: how are these forms that he describes, how can they be understood as part of this attempt to work out a complete break with tradition, and a new situation which has nothing to do with tradition? How are they making sense of their world, and how do we make sense of these various rituals with reference to the world? But Turner says, “I’m an anthropologist, and since I’m going to discover the authentically cultural, I’m going to bracket the fact that they’re copper miners (or gold miners, I forget which one it was). I’m going to bracket that to get at culture.” A) It’s Romantic, in the bad sense of the word, which a lot of anthropology used to be, and probably still is. And B) His analysis is inadequate to the object of investigation. Precisely what’s most interesting is bracketed. I don’t want to read a book where I have to correct everything.

JC

So, Durkheim equates pre-modern, or even pre-civilizational, religious forms with contemporary religion, defining out of existence this idea of religion as a system of beliefs…

MP

A brilliant move.

JC

It is.

MP

So smart. It changes the entire discourse.

JC

But I’m curious, earlier you seemed to think of Durkheim as a fundamentally historical thinker, but that seems in a way a kind of challenge to history.

MP

No, no, I think he’s got a very weak sense of history. It’s not worked out. But it is a social theory of religion, a social theory of the Kantian categories. It’s possible to give students a teensy bit of Kant here: there’s no access to the world as it is, it’s always mediated by the categories, the only way in which we can make sense of the various forms of sensory input is because we have these boxes that can order them, and the boxes are in the structure of the mind. For Durkheim, he accepts all of this, except that the boxes for him are social.

BF

Regarding Durkheim’s “weak sense of history,” I assume you were referring to the conclusion where he talks about moral mediocrity.

MP

How do you move to the level of abstraction that governs modern times [for Durkheim]? As societies get bigger, there’s a sinking down to a common denominator of what had been local beliefs. And that means it’s a process of abstraction that is rooted spatially in society’s getting bigger. There’s a linearity that I don’t agree with.

BF

That does seem to allow in one thing that I think is important in the work, which is that he’s able to account for his own position.

MP

Yes, and Lévi-Strauss can’t do that, and Foucault can’t do that. The one thing anthropologists hate about Durkheim is what I like about him. The anthropologists hate this kind of evolutionary theory, but in his framework, the evolutionary theory justifies the statement at the beginning of the book that the scientist can see further than the native.

JC

What do you make of the fact that the famous passages about collective effervescence are in the same book as a statement about the origin of the Kantian categories? And that there seems to be for him some tie there?

MP

Well…, no, it can’t be true. What I was going to say is that I don’t think he possibly imagines that in the late 19th or 20th century, collective effervescence is barbarism. That’s what I was about to say. And then it occurred to me: ah, he lived through Dreyfus. There was a lot of collective effervescence out on the street. There were essentially storm troopers on the street. So he knows it. Is he in denial because he’s such a good French Republican?

BF

We talked before about the dissolution of the self, and I think that the students often latch on to Foucault as the most radical of the theorists who would say that the self is nothing but the product of its construction. Could you speak to Foucault’s place in the winter quarter?

MP

In a funny way, I think that we use Foucault against his intention. To read Discipline and Punish is not really a good introduction to Foucault. In some sense, we’re providing an introduction to Freud, to Marx, but not Foucault.

Personally, I don’t think as highly of Foucault as most people do. I think there are too many things in his work the implications of which are not thought through. I basically think of Foucault as an attempt to historicize culture and the constitution of the self. But his historicization is too Cartesian for me.

JC

How so?

MP

The debate between Cartesianism and Newtonianism is that for Descartes, everything had to touch everything else. With Newton, there’s action at a distance. Similarly, for Foucault, everything is always touching everything else. You have people deciding on the disciplines, and the disciplines are molding the people. There are breaks, but they’re unmotivated. It’s brilliant description… I guess by my language I’m already giving away what I think. My question is: why are the disciplines suddenly a plausible way of organizing things? For control, sure, but there’s been social control before. It didn’t have that form. Why does it take on that form? It doesn’t begin, in his own account, in one place and then diffuse outward. But it begins roughly in the same historical period, in Hamburg, in Amsterdam, in Paris, England, then Philadelphia… what’s going on? Who’s educating the educators?

It’s pretty easy to tie it to a kind of Marxian tradition, but that’s not Foucauldianism. The way in which he introduces capitalism is, I think, beside the point because it doesn’t occur to me that the mode of rationalization he describes itself has to do with capitalism. In Foucault, you’ve got property, you’ve got these warehouses, so the question of the relation of crime to society changes. They’re not invalid points. But the idea that operating everything according to an increasingly mathematical metric, that that has a great deal to do with capitalism as a quantitative form, isn’t there.

I think it’s clear from everything I’ve said that I don’t think Foucault is so radical. Why is he so radical?

BF

Radical in the sense that there is no reality there apart from the discipline that makes it. So when you get to Adorno, there’s an individual there, but for Foucault, all that individuality is is an effect of discipline.

MP

Except that for Adorno, the individual that is under attack is itself historically-constituted. The problem for Foucault in this regard, which I’m afraid is true of a lot of French thought, is that there’s no reflexivity. What is the standpoint from which you say the individual doesn’t exist? What writer is saying this? One from outer space? What are the conditions of possibility of Foucault’s own knowledge? Without that reflexivity, for me, he’s not radical.

BF

So you start with Durkheim—the categories are social, but he can’t think history—and then Lévi-Strauss goes in the wrong way, Sahlins and Foucault try to introduce contingency, and it’s only Adorno and Benjamin that really figure it out. It’s interesting to think of the Frankfurt School as completing a project envisioned by Durkheim.

MP

That’s the way I teach it, but the Frankfurt School tradition is quite different, imbued deeply with Hegel and Marx, not just Kant. Of the big three, two are missing from the French tradition. I know Kojève does Hegel, and everyone talks Marx, but it’s surface level.

Weber: The Fall Quarter (Society)

BF

The one author we were hoping to have you say something about from the first quarter is Weber. From Smith to Marx, the transition is obvious. But Weber seems just as essential here.

MP

Weber is one of the most important social theorists of the late 19thand 20th centuries, certainly alongside Durkheim. Some people put him higher, some lower. A lot of his thought for most undergraduates is deadly. He’s a legal theorist. It’s boring. It’s these catalogues of things, technologies, and your eyes glaze over.

JC

Lots of lists.

MP

Lots of lists. But Weber’s notion of the cultural consequences of Puritanism: the pilgrim fathers, the idea that sports are good, anything else having to do with the body is bad. Reading this, students begin to recognize aspects of their world. I find it very useful. It’s also pretty easy to go from there to a brief discussion of the notion of masculinity: men don’t cry, men don’t show emotions. A lot of kids think gender, period. This is what masculinity is.

JC

Traditionally, Weber is thought of as post-Marx, Marx and Weber being in two different traditions.

MP

No. The first German academic to introduce Marx into the academy was Weber. Sure doesn’t sound like the Weber of Parsons. Weber’s a post-Marxist in that he’s for social democracy, but unlike a lot of liberals, he’s deeply concerned with capitalism. And his notion of what capitalism is is taken straight from Marx: the pursuit of ever-renewed profit. It’s not private property, it’s not the market, it’s not free enterprise. And that helps him set up this idea that your life becomes subservient to a process that has no end.

BF

What then does Weber add to Marx?

MP

I think it adds a dimension to their understanding, just as when you read E.P. Thompson. When you read theory, you should know a lot of history, so that as you’re reading the theory, the history is in the back of your mind, organizing your reading. One of the big fights I have with the Habermasians, many of whom are my friends, is that they mistake Habermas for a historian. They’re all philosophers, and clueless about history. They think that his schemata are actually historical, that he was doing history.

JC

Earlier, when you were schematizing the three quarters, you said that the third quarter is about the way in which society constitutes the self, the second quarter is about the constitution of systems of meaning that come to constitute us, and the first quarter is about the constitution of society. Is political economy—or the concept of capitalism—a way of understanding the constitution of society?

MP

We start with political economy because it structures things. It’s a massive transformation. Unlike some of my friends, I don’t think culture has its own historical logic. Economy doesn’t either. Capitalism does.

JC

So society itself is a concept of capitalism.

MP

Yes. I think Adorno actually wrote that. Here I agree with him. You don’t have people using the word society, maybe other than “high society,” until you have capitalism. It doesn’t mean anything. For me the transitional figure is Rousseau because Rousseau is trying to deal with levels of social being that escape the grasp of political philosophy, but he’s using the language of political philosophy to try to grapple with it. In that sense, he’s a very early social theorist. But his language is the language of political philosophy. Maybe one day, when I live to be 120, I’ll write a book on this. He’s not the only writer who uses a vocabulary to try to grasp something that frequently escapes that vocabulary because it is rooted in an earlier paradigm that the writer is helping already to change, conceptually.

BF

But you think social science really begins with Smith.

MP

It’s Smith who first begins to give you an anatomy of society with his categories that Rousseau doesn’t give you. The idea that capitalist modernity has a kind of structure that Smith called the division of labor: so incisive. And then you have categories that help understand why the division of labor looks the way it does. Structures and categories that are operative behind the backs of the actors. This is the important stuff.

BF

If you had to characterize the beginning of social science, it would be the discovery of that which works behind our backs?

MP

Yes, that which is created by humans behind their own backs in a non-random fashion.

JC

As a form of compulsion?

MP

Frequently it’s a form of compulsion. Certainly in capitalism it’s a form of compulsion.

BF

This is perhaps where the psychoanalytic idea of drive might fit.

MP

Yeah, very much so. I’ve got so many books I want to read that I probably won’t have time to read. I finally found online a very nice edition of Freud’s complete works in German. And I thought I could work my way through them. And I probably won’t.

JC

Do you think certain authors resonate with the students more than others?

MP

I don’t think it can be separated from the people teaching them. Years ago I was very good friends with a woman in the anthropology department, and every year, she said, the theorist they love the most is Lévi-Strauss. It’s clearly coming from her! Whereas if you’ve got a whole staff who can’t stand Lévi-Strauss, the students won’t like him either. My students love Marx. There are so many subtle hints that take place. It is a transferential situation. Today, we’re either pretending sexuality doesn’t exist or talking about it in terms of harassment. It behooves a teacher to be aware of erotic transference in the classroom. A lot of teachers, before psychoanalysis, used to take it as a statement about them, that they were just so sexually desirable. So you have to be aware of it, and then you deal with it, to use it in good ways. That then carries over to the way in which different authors are cathected for different teachers, that becomes part of the whole mix. So students can pick up on that, even if they don’t know they’re picking up on it, and even if you don’t push one or two authors.

I try very hard not to trash anyone. You’re trying to get them to take authors seriously, not to say, “they’re good, they’re not good.” So much of their thinking is now so narrow. A good friend of mine who’s kind of a maverick feminist and essayist, Laura Kipnis, just got sued at Northwestern under Title IX. She’s not gonna back down. She’s used to offending people, and she’ll continue to do so. Some people think it’s okay to shoot others down if they disagree with their views, if they think they’ve got the truth. There was a time in my lifetime when this was thought of as fascist. This shouting down.

BF

Just today, I encountered the flip side of that problem: we’re reading Jonathan Metzl’s Protest Psychosis, and the central problem is that on the one hand, schizophrenia is a political construction, and on the other hand, it’s a real disease. So is it a matter of labels, or is it social structure getting under our skin? And someone after class came up to me and asked, “So which is it? What’s the right answer?” The students often want the truth rather than a difficult conversation.

MP

But the answer isn’t that the truth is always ambiguous but that we’re giving them arguments, not truths. And sometimes arguments are very difficult. It’s a difficult problem. I wouldn’t have a fast answer in my hip pocket to that problem of schizophrenia.

JC

One last question: there’s some worry about the future of the course. What do you think will happen?

MP

Well, I don’t know because I’m going to go on half-time. This course was historically kept up by a cohort of departmental faculty. These were people who not only taught and were good citizens, but were actively involved with the course. Either they pass away like Bert Cohler. Or they retire like Bill Sewell, Ralph Austen, JZ Smith, John Lucy. There wer– 6–7 departmental faculty that were the real cohort of the core, and now they’re gone. Many of the departmental faculty today are no different than their positivist cousins: they’re very narrow, and don’t want to teach outside of their comfort zone. And so I’m worried about the Soc Core because I don’t see people willing to jump in. They would have to be broad-gauged people who are committed to the idea of general education for undergraduates.

BF

And if that doesn’t happen?

MP

I don’t know.