PRINT February 1994


When I first met Cornel West, in 1979 or ’80, I had been operating on the Eurocentric assumption that each of the three central philosophical traditions of Western culture—the German, the French, and the Anglo-American—had a proper style and language of its own. So I was wholly unprepared for Cornel’s disquisitions on Hegel, which he advanced, with great verve, in a thoroughly black style and idiom. I was thrilled. Happily, this exotism on my part soon faded. Many serious and not-so-serious conversations followed, though unfortunately they have become rarer as the years have passed: Cornel simply has no time. Having emerged as one of the leading black “organic” intellectuals in the United States, he is often on the road five days a week, speaking to an astonishingly wide range of people in an astonishingly wide range of places. And when we do have a chance now to “dialogue” (a favorite, apposite expression of his), it is not only exhilarating but frustrating: exhilarating because I am reminded that even if Cornel is here there and everywhere, he still reads everything, virtually, and can talk about it all in illuminating ways. As is the case with all great conversationalists, he has the gift of putting others at ease. That is why dialoguing with him is also frustrating: time being scarce, one tries to cover too many things. The present interview is no exception.
Our conversation here is marked, for better or worse, by obvious friendship. Familiarity, in the best of cases, makes for openness—what diplomats call frankness and others call disagreement. In that spirit I have tried to push Cornel a bit. He has become, in his words, a cultural critic rather than a strict philosopher, by which he means, I think, that his Gramscian and prophetic role has taken over his theoretical pursuits proper. Those who know him know by now the themes he tends to “highlight” (another typical and symptomatic Cornelism). Hence the following conversation reflects an attempt to do more than once again highlight the highlights; it is an attempt to see where he is heading with them.

ANDERS STEPHANSON: Since our first interview, in 1987, you’ve become a lot more public as a public intellectual. You’ve even graced the pages of Time, which is about as middlebrow American as you can get. So what happens to oppositional intellectuals when the media picks them up?

CORNEL WEST: You do get “mainstreamed”—there’s a selective appropriation of certain motifs in your work that are considered safe and acceptable. In my case the call for a multiracial alliance along radical democratic lines, and the call for redistribution of wealth downward, take the form of, “He thinks blacks and whites and others should actually get together and overcome balkanization and fragmentation.” So I have become associated with what many now consider the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., “blacks and whites coming together.” This turns a serious, substantial political message with a strong moral dimension into a moralistic cliché.

AS: How does one counteract that?

CW: You have to continually demystify your public image. When I talk about love, compassion, sympathy for less-fortunate fellow citizens, it is linked to an analysis of wealth and power, and to strategies of organizing and mobilizing. This is downplayed by the mainstream.

AS: Referring to the precarious position of black intellectuals, you’ve said that the “African American who takes seriously the life of the mind inhabits an isolated and insulated world.” Surely you yourself are anything but isolated.

CW: You do tend to be betwixt and between. On the one hand, a black community, not always but often suspicious of intellectuals, especially mainstream ones; on the other, a white world that rarely encounters a black intellectual it takes seriously.

AS: You set up a polarity between so-called successful black intellectuals who adapt to operate under the “white gaze” and unsuccessful ones outside, resentful and separatist. Yet you yourself have moved in predominantly white worlds without ceasing to be irreducibly black, as it were.

CW: Certainly I try to be myself, in a self-critical way. I have a black style, a black tone, a black intonation. At the same time, I do try to open myself up to communicating in different contexts. That’s why I call myself a “multicontextual” intellectual, which is part of being a public intellectual. Being able to communicate in a variety of contexts without losing the power of your message and your own quest for integrity and character, you are able not just to convince minds but to touch lives, to fuse a certain moral passion with a sense of intellectual sophistication, maybe even rigor.

AS: Your style of public speaking is a sort of intense improvisation that still manages to be highly structured. One might relate this to what you specify as the two dominant, “organic” black intellectual traditions, namely preaching and music: both, you say, are “oral, improvisational, and histrionic.” (“Histrionic” is not used pejoratively here, of course.) I remember once you were to address the Yale Architecture School. By way of preparation we had a brief chat about post-Modernism and architecture, after which you stopped by the bookstore and read the introduction to Paolo Portoghesi’s standard work on the subject; you then proceeded to blow the school away, leaving them with the feeling that they’d learned something about architecture front you! This, I remember, astounded you, to the point where you spent the following summer reading architecture books and becoming well informed in the area.

CW: Thank God I did! But a couple of things are going on here. First, audiences often expect less from intellects of color, so inadvertently you impress on those grounds. This is part of the white-supremacist legacy. Second, whatever I do I tend to cast in clear language and in frameworks that I’ve already thought much about. I try to broaden the subject by engaging in the synthetic, synoptic mode of thinking that characterizes my own work. Speaking on architecture that time, for example, I talked about post-Modernism historically as opposed to stylistically—about Fredric Jameson, about how post-Modern architecture differs from post-Modern literature and theory, and so forth. Up to that point I’m still playing my strongest card, so by the time I get to architectural practices and criticism, the field is already laid out and the audience is already with me. I do this across a whole range of disciplines.

AS: But not so much in your own academic fields of philosophy and religion.

CW: I am less and less knowledgeable in that sense. In the last three or four years, 80 percent of my reading has been in history and related subjects.

AS: Yes, Many of your talks—the stump part, so to speak—are indeed framed loosely according to Geoffrey Barraclough’s historical periodization, which sets up an Age of Europe from 1492 to 1945, then the American short century coupled with decolonization, after which follows, in your version, “decline,” or some such thing. Three things bother me about this. First, Barraclough was writing at the climax of African decolonization, which colored his perspective; you don’t take that into consideration. Second, the second world is present in Barraclough but nearly absent in your account, which moves from Europe to the third world via the U.S.; in the end what interests you is not the East/West system but the white world and the world of color. Yet much of the 20th century, including the process of decolonization, is incomprehensible without the Russian Revolution. Third, cannot one see the late 20th century as the global triumph of the “Age of Europe”? While Europe itself declines, its mutating but pioneering form of nation-state life and capitalist economy has been reproduced everywhere, even, now, in what used to be the second world.

CW: I get to that in my account of the attempted Americanization of the world between 1945 and ’73, through not only mass culture but also the kind of nationalism you get when the U.S. constitutes itself as an exemplary nation, a City upon a Hill. There are European elements in this process, but in terms of global impact it’s much more an American affair. So I agree with you about Europe, provided we look at it not geopolitically but as an idea or ideological project, filtered through Americanization. My periodization is of course otherwise a heuristic device, and doesn’t capture certain crucial events like the Russian Revolution.

I see the Soviet Union as less a carrier of a leftist tradition than a reconfigured empire competing with this American empire after 1945. I say this, however, not only as a radical democrat and a democratic socialist, but as someone who wants to track the impact of that Russian empire on decolonization in the third world. Though I see “communism” as a kind of ideological cover for the Russian empire, I part company with cold war liberals in that I’m looking from the viewpoint of, Who was helping these anticolonial freedom fighters? As W. E. B. Du Bois made clear a long time ago, the bipolar world after 1945 is a profoundly difficult problem to deal with when your focus is the wretched of the earth, the people exploited as the two empires scramble about. Du Bois was trying to walk that slippery tightrope and he fell off a number of times, with his panegyrics to “Uncle Joe.” On the other hand, he had some deep insights into the structural flaws of the U.S. empire.

AS: Have you begun to rethink the Barraclough framework at all? A lot has happened since you began to use it, in around 1985 to ’86.

CW: Good question. I have become much more Lukácsian. [laughs] What does it mean to live in a world where market forces penetrate every nook and cranny of our lives? The collapse of the Soviet empire, as significant as it was in getting oppression off the backs of second world brothers and sisters, left the world free for limitless commodification. As we now witness the Latin Americanization of Eastern Europe and the relatively unencumbered expansion of markets, not so much Lukács’ answers as his question comes back in a powerful way: the violent impact of commodification on body, spirit, and soul.

AS: Your discussions of Marxism often seem ambivalent. Sometimes Marxism appears as a form of analysis appropriate for the economic sphere, for market relations, for the nature of commodification. There is also, however, the assertion that Marxism isn’t enough, since it doesn’t speak to the existential “flattening out” of life in the late 20th century, or to racism, sexism, and so on. Yet when you make these latter criticisms you slide over the distinction between two different propositions: the deterministic view that the economic causes this and that, and the conditional view that the economic sphere is central for any form of basic transformation to take place, because, of all the various “logics” going on in the late 20th century, that of capitalist accumulation is the most fundamental. Since this latter view has been the dominant Marxist one in the West for the last thirty years, your criticisms seem largely directed against some orthodoxy of, say, 1963.

CW: I would tend to agree, but I’m wondering if that’s merely my own Marxist bias. I believe, for example, that a necessary condition for the transformation of white supremacy and male supremacy would include some reconfiguring of the process of capital accumulation, since historically they’ve been linked. But I must also ask whether a transformation of white supremacy, the pigmentocracy, would not itself shatter the economic oligarchy and lead toward change in the processes of capital accumulation, where, after all, men have played an overwhelming role. It isn’t clear to me that those who are fundamentally concerned with white supremacy or patriarchy couldn’t end up questioning the rule of capital, even if they didn’t accord it the centrality you and I would give it. These are questions I continuously ask myself, even if at the moment I am more in tune with the Marxist view.

AS: Inevitably, though, to have a conception of “what’s going on” is to have a conception of prioritization in history.

CW: You’re getting me into Grand Theory here a bit quickly! To put it bluntly, market conditions have produced technological innovation, and are linked to the emergence of nation states, which are shot through with bureaucratic institutions and white-supremacist, patriarchal, and homophobic practices. So right there you have a variety of processes that must he accounted for any time you talk about modernity. There are others, and at any given conjuncture one might be more important than the others, but these are the crucial ones. It is a field of forces, if you will.

You, however, were rushing toward Grand Theories of what’s pushing social totalities forward. I’d put on the brakes a little. There do have to be explanatory priorities, but I want theory, not Grand Theory in the sense of transtemporal forces providing the nudge for movements in time and space. For Marxists, these are usually market forces. I’m not against that, hut it does tend to submerge other factors in our field of forces. It all depends on how nuanced the mind of the Grand Theorist is.

AS: There’s a tendency I detect in your work, though, to be too ecumenical. You sometimes come close to arguing that you’re in favor of what is good and against what is bad. For example, you propose “to fuse the best of the life of the mind from within the academy with the best of the organized forces for greater democracy and freedom outside the academy.” Who would be against that? There’s an inclusiveness here that may be attractive in itself but that obscures where the enemy is.

CW: A kind of spineless liberalism, you mean?

AS: More a kind of anxiety of inclusion, strategically necessary perhaps but tending to enumerations of all things good, exhortations to take the best from a variety of approaches. The result is not always coherent.

CW: It’s part of the challenge I have to meet in the next few years. But keep in mind two different contexts here. One would be where I am looking at a specific historical situation and trying to make sense of it, as in my essay on the ’60s, where I’m trying to track the conflicts within the black community vis-à-vis both white-supremacist society and the black patriarchy. The other context is where I am making more general remarks, and this is where I always talk about “the best of,” as a way of keeping a critical disposition without necessarily having to specify how the coming together of “the best of” has analytic as opposed to exhortatory content. But there is a real gap there, and you’ve put your finger on it. There’s also another thing going on, however—the creative tension between my Christian and my Chekhovian world view.

AS: Chekhovian?

CW: For me, Chekhov is the most powerful voice of the 20th century in terms of what it means to live. He was such a great democrat, with a sense for the tragic, or the tragicomic.

AS: To me he has always implied the passivity of the observer.

CW: But there is a lot about agency there! He watched passivity, perhaps, but this was a man who worked 12 hours a day as a doctor yet wrote the best plays and stories this century has seen. What you get in Chekhov is not passivity but a kind of revolutionary patience: even as he promotes human agency he acknowledges its frailties and foibles. He gets through ideology, through class, through race, through politics, to the bare bones of compassion. And for me, though Chekhov isn’t religious, there is something deeply Christian about this: a deep, deep commitment to inclusiveness. Like a good high comedian, he levels human beings democratically by playing out our faults, but in his acknowledgment of human failure there is always a willingness to give people a second chance, always a reaching out. For me, this is linked to my own, Christian ethic of love and Christian sense of failure.

AS: I don’t recall much mention of Chekhov in your work.

CW: When I was a student up in Cambridge, we had a literary club among primarily black writers in which we read all the Russians. So I was already taken by Chekhov when I was 20, when I wrote the story “Sing a Song,” which ends the new, paperback edition of Prophetic Fragments.

AS: What is the tension you find between Christianity and Chekhov?

CW: The Christian pulls out a thicker notion of possibility. If Greek tragedy is a tragedy of necessity, where the fundamental theme is how necessity blinds, then Christian tragedy is a tragedy of possibility: the “impossible possibility,” in Karl Barth’s language, of victory over the most dire tragedy imaginable—the death of one’s soul. Chekhov, on the other hand, does not hold out that possibility. For him the best we can do is endure. Yet he says that the love ethic at the center of Christian tragedy is still the best way of life; you just do it, even though there’s no thick sense of possibility there. That’s why I talk about agency in Chekhov, an agency that is deeply temporary, that acknowledges the degradation of the present, acknowledges the vanishing of the past, acknowledges that the future might be no better. There is almost a curtailing of Christianity’s utopian impulse while lovingly holding on to the enduring. For me, hope is more Christian than Chekhovian. But as long as we can show acts that reflect our attempts to endure lovingly, that’s hope—small, minimal, but still not allowing cruelty or barbarism the last word.

AS: The Christian aspect of your stand isn’t merely instrumental—that is, it isn’t just tied to the church as the most extensive black community institution. There’s also a claim to deal with the despair of victimization through the idea of overturning, overcoming, and redeeming—through the sacrifice of the Cross.

CW: Jesus is a highly complex Palestinian Jew who has seized the imagination of millions, including myself. What you get there is not only an idea of the kingdom in which redemption is a strong component, but also a realization of the kingdom in yourself to the degree to which compassion is alive, the degree to which loving is alive.

AS: I understand that, but it’s hard to square with my own reading of the Bible.

CW: Of the whole? Or of which parts? There are so many voices there, which makes for great confusion but also for great creativity.

AS: But emanating from the New Testament is a precise, strong belief in a second coming, an end to history, a millennium devoid of contradiction. This strikes me as entirely contrary in spirit to your way of being toward the world. There is also a note of righteousness, which since the Reformation has often become dogmatic and repressive of difference.

CW: In Jesus, you cannot separate righteousness from love. Righteousness had earlier been associated with the Law, but the Gospels are about the two love commandments—love of neighbor/self, love of God—which tend to subsume the earlier, legalistic conceptions. That new righteousness, linked to love, lends itself to the Chekhovian interest in one’s fundamental concern with the other, with the stranger.

AS: This is all most attractive, but when I read the Book of Revelations I see millenarian justifications for 19th-century expansion and genocide in the American West—a worldly but also highly plausible appropriation of the Bible. Such other ways of understanding these texts never surface in your account, though you like to invoke criticality.

CW: I’m always critical of dominant forces in ecclesiastical institutional settings, and I’m always critical of the various hegemonies within the church. Also, when you look at the tradition from the Quakers to Frederick Douglass to King, what you get is precisely counterhegemonic elements: the millenarian projects you refer to are there, but the Scriptures themselves are part of an ideological contestation, the patriarchal voices against the counterpatriarchal ones, the millenarian ones against the more realized eschatological ones. The way the Scriptures were institutionalized was itself part of an ideological struggle. Edward Said reads the Exodus story as imperial expansion, subordination of the Canaanites, and so on, which is partly right. But the Exodus story can also be read in wholly different ways.

AS: These texts are obviously polyvalent, and lend themselves to interpretation. But there is nothing in your accounts about the historical appropriation of Christian ideology in the U.S.—no real historicization, if you will.

CW: I accept that there’s a link between 19th-century American expansion and the millenarian tradition; maybe this is only silently assumed in my work. But it is incumbent upon you, too, to highlight the ways in which millenarian thought has been used against empire and expansion.

AS: Fair enough, the opponents of expansion were often as Christian as the proponents, if in other ways. There were just fewer of them. But both sides considered the United States the end of history. Those opposed to expropriation of territory often invoked exactly that argument in saying that the U.S. had to follow its democratic destiny. Aren’t you in danger of tying into a near-nationalist self-conception here?

CW: As structurally flawed as the American experience has been (with dead red bodies, degraded, maimed, sometimes murdered black bodies, bruised women’s bodies, scarred working-class bodies), you still do have in America an attempt in democratic self-government, and an experience of ordinary people trying to manage their affairs. What you find in the more radical millenarians, who are trying to cut against the worst of this American experiment, is crude but serious attempts to preserve the democratic elements. And when they look around the world, they see very few similar examples. They are not so much thinking of the end of history, but they do get a hit Whiggish: “Look,” they say, “it would be nice if the world were in some way engaged in a struggle over the meaning of democracy,” the kind of struggle that’s part of the American experiment. I like that. As a radical democrat, I do believe that those experiments in democracy are significant laboratories for the way the rest of the world ought to look.

AS: That’s the quintessential question, isn’t it?

CW: The $64,000 question, brother. Now I have a continuity with a certain kind of Christian evangelism that is different from cheap proselytizing. It is an attempt to suggest that in terms of substance and content, democracy as a way of life, as a mode of governance, as a way of organizing the workplace, is an ideal that warrants application across the globe.

AS: What do you say once that’s said? What’s the next step?

CW: The next step is to decide why that’s not the case! One reason Marxism is a helpful analytic tool is that the rule of capital stands in the way of the democratization of the world. Not to talk about the rule of corporations is to refuse to take democracy seriously.

AS: I agree. But isn’t there a grain of American nationalism in your analysis?

CW: I loathe nationalism. It is a form of tribalism—the idolatry of the 20th century.

AS: Yet you can say that Jefferson, Emerson, and Lincoln “laid the foundations for the meaning and value of democracy in America and in the modern world.” To me this is suspect language.

CW: I certainly don’t want to invoke these icons uncritically. Read my Emerson chapter in The American Evasion of Philosophy; I’ve gotten into trouble for criticizing Emerson just because I talked about his link to empire. But I do argue that much of the discourse of democracy happens within this American crucible. It’s not Canadian; there is a great democratic debate in Argentina in the 1830s but it doesn’t last too long; there is a debate among the Russian populists in the 1880s and ’90s but it doesn’t last too long either. In U.S. history we get a continuous conversation. Also keep in mind that these discourses of mine are Gramscian gestures. It is our context I’m discussing, the various resources that can help us galvanize and regenerate radical democratic possibilities. So I’m looking at a particular set of narratives about a particular set of people.

AS: That’s reasonable. But you yourself have written that the “prophetic criticism” to which you aspire may be “blind to the pitfalls of Euro-American and New World African modernities.” In the passage in which it occurs, however, that intriguing remark is a finale, an ending: nothing follows it.

CW: Say more, say more! It’s true that I haven’t said too much about the degree to which this project is too U.S. centered, and so forth. I do want to understand the New World as a network of power and practices inextricably linked to the Old World, and therefore you’ve got to talk hemispherically.

AS: But do you? It seems to me you use “America” as a metonym for the hemisphere. There’s a leap in your account, from “America” and “the New World” to “the United States,” or rather to the black perception of the United States. A Haitian-American might not share that sensibility at all. When you say that “race matters,” you are, for understandable historical reasons, talking about the white/black issue, and in a specific way. But aren’t we now entering a situation where there really is a kind of multiracial system at hand, where the issue is becoming altogether more complicated?

CW: Haitians are still understood in black/white, rigidly Manichaean ways.

AS: What about Dominicans?

CW: Much more complicated case, because that population is predominantly of African descent but for some there is also the possibility of being white. But I do believe that a distinctive reactionary achievement of American civilization is the operationalizing of the ideology of whiteness. Even if it’s true that I have been insufficiently attentive to brown and red and yellow, the weight of that ideology of whiteness fundamentally affects whoever enters the country. The whiteness/blackness axis is too narrow in the long run, but keeping track of it is still going to get me close to the center of any reflection on race generally. For the ideologies of white supremacy deeply filter how browns view blacks and how blacks view browns. It’s also clear that white-supremacist ideology is a crucial factor in understanding how blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles view one another.

AS: I take that point; yet things are not as Manichaean as they used to be. Isn’t there a qualitative shift going on?

CW: My Chicano friend Professor Jorge Klor de Alva and I are starting to explore just this. He thinks there is; I myself am not so sure. The rapidly rising numbers of Latinos and Asians are real and important, but the ideology of whiteness remains at the center of how these groups see themselves and others. To me, historic shifts must amount to more than demography. In terms of self-understanding, in terms of political alignment, in terms of fundamental transformation, in terms of how white-supremacist ideology has functioned, I’m not so sure.

AS: I agree, but a kind of struggle over territory between minorities is gaining in intensity.

CW: At the street level most of the conflict is intramural—blacks hitting other blacks, browns hitting other browns. The interracial aspect is less accentuated.

AS: Is there not also a white containment policy in the offing, its dominant theme being a reworked ideology of “minority successes” (chiefly Asians) coupled with a confinement of the black and brown underclasses in spaces where violence will, as you say, remain largely intramural?

CW: That’s one reason I’m suspicious of talk about a historic shift: it tends to downplay the plight of the working poor, especially the black working poor. When you concentrate on black and brown conflict, white supremacy tends to drop out of the framework, and the rule of capital is nowhere to be seen. You must also remember that the whole motif of the “exceptional minority” has already been played out in the old motif of the “exceptional negro,” suggesting that we’re seeing not a historic shift but a transcoding of an old strategy to render certain kinds of social misery invisible.

AS: Let’s change subject. In a previous interview we agreed that the pictorial arts had not played as important a part in the black community as music and the spoken word. Some black artists got upset about this and accused me of racism and you of duplicity.

CW: They were right in two of their claims: one, that racism is more operative in the art world than we allowed. I would now put more of a burden on the external rather than the internal constraints; I let the art world off the hook last time around. Second, pictorial representation is much more widely at work in the black community than I acknowledged. I’m not convinced, though, that it has the same standing as music. And I do not believe we have produced an African-American painter comparable to a John Coltrane or a Duke Ellington. In fact I don’t even think we’ve produced a writer comparable to them. But you have this long history in which literacy was denied, in which pictorial art was downplayed—it’s no accident that black achievements appear most clearly where the traditions are more extensive. I learned lots from the painters but I still hang on to my claim about the preeminence of music.

AS: The original point was sociological; it had nothing to do with the value of black art as such.

CW: True. It’s also true that Jacob Lawrence is a true giant. And it’s no accident that he would pick up on the theme of migration, a major theme of black history. The novels tend to be concerned with rights, inclusions, integration, assimilation, these other things; it is mainly in painting and music that you get migration, in the blues for example. Farah Griffin’s superb new hook, Who Set You Flowin’?: The African-American Migration Narrative, challenges this.

AS: What about Horace Pippin?

CW: The fascinating thing is that he’s a self-taught master who is obsessed with the everyday life of extraordinarily ordinary negroes. I see this as in the tradition of Emerson and Dewey, as well as in the long tradition of trying to keep alive black dignity and decency when black people are being trashed by white supremacy. And he does this in a way that sidesteps mere artist protest, and also sidesteps trying to prove to white people that black people are reasoning humans—the tradition of art expressing negro identity as always under the white gaze. The most fascinating moments of black life are not under the white gaze, when white people are neither put in the gutter nor on a pedestal, when white people just don’t matter. The ideologies of whiteness are still operative in those moments, but the normative white gaze is being held at arm’s length.

AS: Isn’t there an argument for black separatism and nationalism at the end of that line of thought?

CW: Not necessarily. I see art like Pippin’s as the occasion for a certain flourishing of black humanity, which is a precondition for black people being able to see themselves as democratic agents. Black nationalism can be a vehicle for democratic impulses: when you feel that U.S. nationalism won’t protect you, won’t recognize you, you go off and talk about forming a nation. Nothing wrong with that. As critical as I am of nationalism, in this situation it can be a form of democratic impulse. Anticolonialism is a grand example.

AS: That brings me to multiculturalism, about which you’ve said some implicitly celebratory things, though you’ve also called it a “middle-class affair.” Much multiculturalism seems to me in line with ingrained American traditions, from the colonial period on, of wanting to remain within a particular subcommunity. Conflicts between these subcommunities are resolved by separation, not in substance; you simply move somewhere else. Segmentation, in the sense of not wanting to deal with others, is extraordinarily entrenched in the U.S. Politics become spatialized and segregated.

CW: Very American. Dewey had it right in 1927 when he argued that there is a proliferation of small publics but a disdain for public life. Small groups form around churches and synagogues, sex identities, enclaves, but the notion of a public life that you enter without necessarily being obsessed with your own, smaller public we hold at a distance. This leads to balkanization and fragmentation. If you’re a radical democrat, you believe that some affirmation of public life is necessary to keep democracy vital. It’s deeply dangerous if people shun public space, especially because it makes it more difficult to focus on the social misery in our society and in the world at large.

AS: How do you fit the current interest in “cultural studies” into this?

CW: Cultural studies is on the whole a response to the relative failures of English departments; it doesn’t come out of philosophy or history. The issues of race, class, gender, and empire have had a tremendous impact on the narrower paradigms of literary criticism. In that way the development of the cultural studies field is a positive move, since it reflects an attempt by literary critics to regain the historical sense they lost in the ’50s. But it is also a purely professional affair—an attempt by those who have remained in the mainstream of literary studies to respond to African-American studies, women’s studies, and social history, all of which have already talked about these issues of supremacy and inequality. Beyond that, I think cultural studies makes little sense without talking about scientific and technological culture. This isn’t really what they tend to have in mind, though.

AS: There is also a characteristic displacement to a second-order discourse, what might be called the “politics of representation.”

CW: Images, sounds, signs. It is limited to media. That is why it is incumbent to push people in cultural studies not to become just a displacement from old-style English studies to new-style English studies, recognizing race, class, gender, and Madonna.

AS: Let’s finally say a word or two about theory. You have usefully discussed the basic philosophical shifts of the ’70s and ’80s, emanating from both mainstream American pragmatic thought and that motley crew we like to think of as poststructuralism. These shifts, however, happened some time ago. Has anything happened in the last fifteen years?

CW: There has been a proliferation of various forms of deconstruction, which have run into various forms of identity politics and dead ends. Why? Because of insufficient historical consciousness, because no real importance was given to explanatory significance, and because there was a total preoccupation with the contemporary. The appropriation of deconstruction had affinities with the politics of identity and with pluralist American models. It was facilitated by the fact that pluralist models were already in place. And a philosophy of skepticism that questions notions of wholes and totality, and focuses on relations and interactions, also reinforces notions of enclaves—reinforces segmentation and fragmentation. The connection between identity politics and deconstruction is actually fascinating.

These moves still have to confront historical consciousness, especially the historical construction of class, race, and gender in the United States. What you end up with, then, is a cul-de-sac—an overemphasis on the politics of representation and a distance from historical sociology. You have yet to confront a certain kind of radical democratic project that will in turn force you to develop a deeper sense of history.

AS: I’d like to agree, but I’m not sure there is anything that would “force” the issue. The academic world is quite self-referential. It can produce discourse about discourse, since the politics of representation lend themselves to that sort of thing quite easily; it has no inherent need to check the discourse machine, the “exorbitation of language” and the “randomization of history,” to use Perry Anderson’s terms.

CW: But you would think that as we try to come to terms with the multilayered crisis in civilization, that would spark a hunger for historical consciousness and understanding, a looking to the past for resources for the struggle in the present.

AS: What will happen, then, to the theorization of identity?

CW: It will still be there, only deepened. That kind of politics is here to stay, because we are living at a moment when issues of the protection of people, the recognition of people, and various forms of association of people are inescapable. Sophisticated versions of identity politics will conjoin with the kind of grounding in historical sociology that talks about the links or bonds between groups, rather than the isolation and insulation of groups.

AS: Let me finally ask you about Richard Rorty, who has been enormously important for you as a teacher and a leading spirit. How do you see his work now?

CW: He was the brook of fire through which I had to come to terms with American pragmatism as a tradition. What I discovered there were some decisive connections to the meaning and value of democracy. Rorty himself would probably disagree; he sees no such links. For him, pragmatism is more free-floating from any democratic project.

AS: So what is the link?

CW: It is the pragmatic accentuation of fallibilism as the middle ground between sophomoric relativism and old-style foundationalism. Fallibilism always calls for self-correction and self-criticism, which together, in institutionalized form, to me constitute democratic practice: tolerance, accountability, people of equal status, disagreement mediated by mutual respect, and all of this sitting at the very center of how social arrangements are justified.

AS: That conception would contradict a notion of politics where the field is constituted on the friend/enemy distinction. Where is the “other side” in this?

CW: There will be friends and enemies because serious conversation is filled with conflict and cleavage. It may rechannel the militaristic energies of politics into dialogical ones, but the contentiousness remains.

AS: Since Rorty published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979, he has basically done variations on a theme and gone into cultural criticism. I always wondered what remained after you’d made the antifoundationalist or pragmatic moves you mentioned. Where do you go from there philosophically?

CW: You always have your philosophical training, so you’re able, you hope, to be subtle and nuanced in your reflections; but you’re actually doing cultural criticism. Thats’s what’s waiting in the wings.

AS: What about you, then?

CW: Oh yes. I have been a cultural critic since 1989.

AS: So you’re following in Rorty’s footsteps?

CW: My engagement is a much more political kind of cultural criticism, more closely linked to historical sociology. It’s two different genres of cultural criticism. His is critical of the academy and primarily literarily engaged, but with political concerns. Mine is public intellectual, politically engaged.