Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25: Theories for the New Millennium: Michael Rothberg's Opening Remarks

Monday, February 11, 2013

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism

I’m pleased to join Lauren Goodlad in welcoming you all to today’s symposium. And I am especially grateful to our visiting speakers, whose urgent and stirring work many of us have been reading and discussing in recent weeks during two lively seminar sessions. It’s also a pleasure to be working again with Lauren and the Unit for Criticism. We are lucky to have Lauren as Director of the Unit.

This event has particular significance for me, so allow me to reminisce for a moment. I still remember vividly the first time I saw Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. It was the fall of 1988, I was in my first and, as it turned out, last year in the Duke Literature Program, and I was in the house where Carolyn Lesjak was living on Clarendon St. in Durham. One of the older and more intimidating grad students—the one who always knew the answers to Jameson’s leading questions about, say, the three defining characteristics of Western Marxism—came down into the living room carrying a copy of a big red book. What’s that?, I remember wanting to know about the massive and strikingly designed volume. It was only a year later, in 1989, having left grad school and moved to New York City, that I finally started to read Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, on my own, in a soup kitchen on E. 3rd St., down the block from the Hell’s Angels. The building-shaking noise of their motorcycles accompanied my energetic underlining of Spivak, Jameson, Lefebvre, Fields, Mouffe, and company.

Little could I have imagined that fall—the fall of the fall of the Berlin Wall—that two and a half decades later I would be involved in organizing a conference marking the publication of the book. Even less could I have imagined that I would have the honor of working with and, right now, introducing to you, one of the organizers of the original Marxism conference and a coeditor of what must be one of the two or three most influential edited volumes of critical theory in the last half century: Cary Nelson.

Besides being Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the English Department at the University of Illinois, Cary Nelson is one of the founders, indeed the founding Director, of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. Our being here today is a direct consequence of his belief in the necessity of progressive institution building—and his savvy ability to actually get it done. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of creating these kinds of spaces of intellectual community that foster the imagination of alternative cultural and political futures. We’re all in Cary’s debt. Cary’s scholarly work, which is at the same time political work, falls roughly into three categories. He has been a path-breaking scholar of twentieth-century US poetry, especially the poetry of the left. Books such as Repression and Recovery and Revolutionary Memory, as well as the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, have fundamentally changed how we think about this field of cultural production. He has also been a critic of the academy and tireless advocate of its most marginalized members in books such as Manifesto of a Tenured Radical and the coauthored Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy as well as in collections such as Higher Education Under Fire and Will Teach for Food. Of course, Cary’s interest in the politics of the academy goes well beyond books—he recently completed six years as President of the American Association of University Professors and is regularly involved in consulting with and providing support for graduate student and faculty unions. Most recently, Cary helped draft a major AAUP report, Recommended Principles and Practices to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships. Finally, bringing us back to our reason for being here, Cary has played a crucial role in the shape that cultural studies and critical theory have taken in North America. Along with the Marxism conference and volume, he also co-organized and coedited the epochal Cultural Studies conference and collection along with such titles as Disciplinarity and Dissent in Cultural Studies.

Lauren and I were thrilled that Cary agreed to open our conference with some reflections on Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture and its legacies. Please join me in welcoming Cary Nelson.

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