The Ends of History, A Reply from Walter Benn Michaels

Sunday, February 19, 2012

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[Walter Benn Michaels (UIC), one of the speakers at the Unit for Criticism's 2/10 symposium, The Ends of History, responds to recent posts by Ezra Claverie and Ben Bascom]

I had a good time at and learned a lot from the “Ends of History” symposium, especially in the discussions between the papers, so it’s great to see those discussions continuing. In terms of my own contribution, Ezra Claverie is exactly right in his characterization of my opposition to an “an ethically and politically committed brand of historicism,” which, it’s worth pointing out, is not quite the same as the dystopia--utopia (?)--Ben Bascom describes when he imagines a world in which “the past is considered incommunicable and/or unnecessary for what we do as cultural critics.” As Bascom no doubt realizes, I don’t for a second think that it’s impossible for us to understand the past or that it’s inappropriate for us to try to do so. I just think that there’s no ethical or political value in doing so and, more strongly, that there are real political problems with the kinds of ethics and politics (here’s where both identity and equality of opportunity come in) to which appeals to the past are integral.

So my idea is not that we shouldn’t write history; it is instead that we should stop thinking that the histories we write contribute in some way to social justice. And we should stop thinking of social justice as consisting above all in “the recognition and ethical treatment of difference” (Bascom). That was the point of my effort to link the rise of historicism to the rise in economic inequality – a form of difference which, I was suggesting, should be recognized only in order to be minimized. Thus the downside of Bascom’s historical highlight tour is that it perfectly embodies our usual enthusiasm for all forms of equality (from women getting to vote to “openly gay and lesbian citizens” getting to fight our endless imperial wars) except the economic ones. And the goal of my talk was to suggest how our historicism helps us to think this way and why it’s a bad way to think.


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