Walter Benn Michaels (born 1948) is an American literary theorist, known as the author of Our America: Nativism, Modernism and Pluralism (1995) and The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (2004). Michaels’s work has generated a set of arguments and questions around a host of issues that are central to literary studies: problems of culture and race, identities national and personal, the difference between memory and history, disagreement and difference, and meaning and intention in interpretation.
Michaels gained his BA in 1970 and PhD in 1975 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Afterwards, he taught at Johns Hopkins University (1974-1977, 1987-2001) and the University of California, Berkeley (1977-1987). Since 2001, he has taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
His study of American Naturalism, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism; American Literature at the Turn of the Century, was published in 1987.
He is currently Professor in the Department of English, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he served as Head from 2001-2007.
In Our America, he argued that 1920s American nativist modernism was the “research and development” phase of an identitarianism that came to dominate twentieth century American ideas. Linked to this thesis was his argument that nativist modernism established our strategy for answering the question of which culture we should have by determining first what our race was. As he put it, “the idea of cultural identity — despite the fact that in recent years it has customarily been presented as an alternative to racial identity — is in fact, not only historically but logically, an extension of racial identity” (Michaels, “Response”). Central to the book was its contention that the notion of cultural identity, and identity as such, had become not a description of a group’s actual practices and values, but rather the object of an essentialist ambition of becoming what you already were.
Michaels’s critique of identity continued in the decade that followed, especially in his next book The Shape of the Signifier. This book, like his previous one, proceeded by revealing the shared logic between what were supposed to be antithetical political positions. What did it mean, the book wondered, that a liberal thinker like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and a multiculturalist like Toni Morrison were both interested in redescribing history – something that has to be learned – as a kind of memory – something you experienced? What did it mean, furthermore, for Paul de Man and other poststructuralists to focus on the “materiality of the signifier” – what words look like or feel like at the expense of what they mean – a focus they seemed to share with contemporary literary writers like Kathy Acker and Brett Easton Ellis and with contemporary science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson? What these strategies shared, the book went on to suggest, was an emerging primacy of the subject position, a primacy that rendered the question of who you were – your identity – as more important than what you believed. The war on terror, of course, has only completed this emergence, rendering obsolete, as Francis Fukuyama and Samuel P. Huntington seemed to say, any question of ideological disagreement about capitalism and social organization. Because in the war on terror, as President Bush has put it, you’re either for us or you’re against us – and with, in other words, the “evildoers.”
The speed of Michaels’s logic proceeds through readings of the homologies and simultaneities of what are supposed to be important differences. Like some other notable political theorists (such as Nancy Fraser), Michaels suggests that the language of identity has displaced an argument about economic inequality – that we now have a politics of recognition, but not a politics of redistribution. Such is the argument of his 2006 book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, which stresses that America is too preoccupied with issues regarding race at the expense of those involving class.