Pollitt on West

Daniel F. Vukovich vukovich at students.uiuc.edu
Thu Dec 31 13:19:34 PST 1998

At 11:33 AM 31-12-98 -0500, you wrote:

My basic point stands: there is
>no analysis of male dominance in family and its effects). He defended
>his association with Louis Farrakhan and David Blankenhorn on the
>grounds that he was influencing them through struggle. Other people also
>queried the wisdom of these alliances and his devotion to "the family."
>I think he was a bit taken aback.
> Well, you should read the documents and form your own opinion. Then
>you will have a basis for saying whether I am "harsh" and "ad hominem."
>Obviously I don't think I was.
>Happy New Year,
>Katha Pollitt


Thanks for fwd-ing my query, and double-thanks to Katha Pollitt for responding... it was generous for her to do so.

I am now even more suspicous of that book, and I (still) do not even need to read that Institute's document to "verify" that it is sexist, among other things. I described her criticisms as harsh and ad hominen, for a couple reasons. The main thrust of them were directed against West-the-flesh&blood-individual, as opposed to whatever larger issues that are in play here: thus I was a bit taken aback by her note of West's "confession" of his "many divorces." Obviously, this bit of biographical data is rather ironic in that West calls for the end of no-fault divorce; but, again, this tells me about West's personal failings, period. I am simply not interested in judging him "personally," and I think this mode or route of criticism is a dead end. The column also strikes me as criticising West via the mode of guilt-by-association, esp in re his participation with that civil society group. Again, it is not that I find this route "wrong" so much as I think it is ultimately a dead-end and not terribly illuminating: the point seems to be that West-himself is sexist or stupid or both. Now, hell, maybe he is in fact both these things (well, of course, he is anything but stupid...), but I dont think this should be the point of this or any article.

What else would I have preferred, what "larger issues"? Well, for one, and as Peter Kilander suggested, some discussion of how this act of West's is representative of a larger phenomenon of "backlash" aginst feminism, and/or a "backsliding" from "identity politics" on the part of the cerebral left as a whole, etc.

But it seems to me that one thing Pollitt or anyone else should have addressed is this: the phenomenon of academic or cerebral-Stars trying -- at long last -- to "intervene" or enter into civil society, or non-academic contexts. I say it is a good thing that West (or whomever) tries to do this, even though your ideological purity, wily nily, gets left at the door. It strikes me that there are two immediate obstacles/costs in doing such a thing: all that wonderful theory, and that whole wonderful political vision, will serve you about as well as does your ability to speak Mandarin. How does one speak their language (their "discourse"), without loosing one's intellectual/radical one? Overall, it seems like a damned-if-you-do, damned if you dont, situation. Of course, I can lay out my Maoist-Derridean-Feminist rhetoric in such "public" situations, and so keep my own version of purity, but what if I actually want to make a difference within such contexts?

And if I am a black intellectual, ensconced in academe and the upper middle-class generally, how in the hell can I *not* try and have some roots or contacts within the Nation of Islam, warts and all? In this the late bourgeois world of America, one's potential, to-be-aligned-with social movements are neither plentiful or pretty. But still, as anachronistic as it might seem, it strikes me that the organic-intellectual model of Gramsci, is a fine ideal, or is at least "tonic." An old radical once said: "an intellectual is like the hair, it cannot survive without attaching to some skin."

In sum: I suspect comrade West screwed up royally with that first document, and not only *necessarily* fell short of hitting the "right" politics in that book, but also turned in a less than stellar` peformance, even within these constraints. That there is no (or very little) discussion of male-dominance within the institution of the family, is damning. So, really, instead of rightly or wrongly grilling West-himself, why not make that -- male dominance, the culture of patriarchy, etc -- the point? I realize I might sound like I am trying to "rescue" West, but what I am trying to do is show some of the missing analytical context. I also think it behooves us to try and talk to one another in a respectful way, which includes, among other things, trying to "fairly" present the other side. Of course, perhaps Pollitt has indeed done so, but, again, her mode of argument does not tell me this. I think a sexist or anti-woman piece of trash needs to be called just that, and from us leftist males for a change, too. So, sometime somehow I shall actually read this damn book, and yet I am not happy having to now do so -- call me selfish, but a different "style" of column, a different critique of West's sexism, would have absolved me of this "burden".

Happy New Year to all,


---------------------------------------------------- Daniel Vukovich English; Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory University of Illinois Urbana, IL 61801 vukovich at uiuc.edu ph. 217-344-7843 ----------------------------------------------------

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