This interview by Scott McLemee was published in Inside Higher Ed on April 15, 2009.
Scott McLemee: Fifty years ago next month, C. Wright Mills published The Sociological Imagination, a classic critique of the field that includes, as an appendix, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” The essay is part profession of faith and part practical handbook—full of good advice, and not just for social scientists. “Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career,” wrote Mills; “whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works towards the perfection of his craft.” I’ve lauded the piece here before, and was glad to see it in the table of contents for The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, a volume published last year by Oxford University Press and edited by John H. Summers, a visiting scholar at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. But on closer examination, I saw that the editor hadn’t simply reprinted the appendix. This version of “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” was rather different: it was taken from the text that Mills had mimeographed for his students in the mid-1950s.
This evidence of digging around in the archives left me eager to read more of the editor’s own writings about Mills, listed in the bibliography, to see what insights he might have reached while excavating. And as luck would have it, we were introduced a short time later by a mutual friend. This somewhat expedited things, since Summers was just about to publish Every Fury on Earth (The Davies Group), a far-ranging collection of essays, including several on Mills.
Something of the maverick sociologist’s feeling for intellectual craftsmanship runs throughout Summers’ work. I don’t recall the last time I read anything so ardent about scholarship as a means to soul-making—or, for that matter, so angry at how academic life can distort that process. One of the remarkable things about Summers as a writer is that his frustration never runs to sarcasm—no small accomplishment.
We recently exchanged a few rounds of e-mail about his work. A transcript of that exchange follows.
SM: You identify yourself as an anarchist and quote passages in which both James Agee and C. Wright Mills did, too. But it’s not clear from your work (or theirs, for that matter) just how much this is a matter of feeling an affiliation with some strand of the anarchist movement and how much it is a matter of personal temperament. What sort of anarchist are you?
JS: May I split the difference between temperament and historical exemplars? Politically, anarchism is a democratic method for criticizing power; philosophically, a rough synonym for pragmatism, especially in William James’s effort to defend the creativity of perception against the lure of abstraction and intellectualism. Several years ago, I began to notice writers and scholars whom I admired calling themselves anarchists; not only James, Mills, and Agee, but Dwight Macdonald, who called himself a conservative anarchist. What I did not notice, and still have not found, was a serious discussion of these impulses. (As Macdonald said, most educated Americans mistakenly believe anarchism means chaos.) So I was drawn to anarchism out of frustrated curiosity. Sensibility had something to do with it, but that’s only to say the same thing twice: I don’t discover such things about myself but by reading.
SM: Dwight Macdonald edited and contributed to little political magazines—as did Mills—but also wrote for large-circulation publications. A couple of essays in your book were first published in the Journal of American History, and another appeared in an edited collection of papers. But the rest were written for magazines, newspapers, and Web sites. That sort of thing is normally just tolerated, though not encouraged. Aren’t you worried that being “public” means you aren’t “professional”? Isn’t that the kiss of death on the tenure track?
JS: The University of Rochester never asked me to make an invidious distinction between the public and the professional, but taught history as a form of criticism. If that sounds amateurish, as if critics are less serious than bibliomaniacs, then consider a short list of distinguished students and graduates from the Rochester history department and marvel at the blend of scholarly erudition and public commitment animating their work: Chris Lehmann, Kevin Mattson, Christopher Phelps, Rochelle Gurstein, Casey Nelson Blake, Cathy Tumber, Russell Jacoby. Has any small history department in recent memory made a comparable contribution? Anyway, as things stand, I see no special reason to worry. Are there any tenure-track jobs left to lose?
SM: The pages discussing your academic career, so far, are marked by frustration with the university as an institution shaped by “the downsizing and outsourcing techniques perfected by the corporations.” If history is a craft, you write, then historians should be organized into guilds—a medieval notion, as was Paul Goodman’s understanding of the university as “a community of scholars.” But how do you create that ethos? Isn’t the whole culture set up to teach people that they are monads of self-interest who need to learn to manipulate the system to get ahead?
JS: Although the university hosts conflicting voices, it rarely gives us an effectual debate about the ends of education. The profession, likewise, includes many perspectives while controlling them within a methodological straight-jacket. If the ethos should precede the institution, as you rightly suggest by your question, then it is up to the individual scholar to self-organize.
SM: Okay, how?
JS: How should I know? Paul Goodman, Lewis Mumford, and C. Wright Mills answered by telling us to study the gamut of social forms through which modern cultural history has transmitted itself, looking for links in a model of exemplary characters, images, events, and ideas. Christopher Lasch urged us to ask ourselves whether we possessed the moral resources implied by our cultural criticism. James Agee said we must be faithful to our perceptions wherever they may lie. I think the question of how to live as a scholar or writer is personal, inescapably so, in the exact sense that society forbids us to acknowledge. (Many more people have done much worse things by taking things impersonally than those who have been sensitive to personal meaning). Almost everyone acknowledges that our system of graduate education is obsolete, yet there is not a single serious proposal for reforming the profession. Linger on that failure for a moment. In a crumbling system, self-organization is less a matter for utopian speculation than survival.
SM: Your first major undertaking as an apprentice scholar in the 1990s was a critical analysis of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”—done, it sounds like, in the approved cultural-studies manner of the period. It’s kind of disappointing that you didn’t include that paper in the collection. But maybe it’s there between the lines? It sounds like one of your criticisms of academic life is, so to speak, its rampant if unacknowledged Carnegie-ism. Would you say more about your interest in his most famous text?
JS: I grew up in a conservative family in rural Pennsylvania as the son and grandson of small businessmen. To them, How To Win Friends and Influence People contained nothing but common sense. I declined their offer to enroll in the Carnegie seminar during high school. Not until I enrolled in the master’s program at George Mason University in 1994 did I begin to understand the sources of the book’s cynicism, the elision of sincerity and its performance. Carnegie, training his readers to detect weakness in others, undermined the possibility of a social gospel in Christian ethics. But my father and grandfather were not notably religious, and I sighted the irony of their devotion from another direction. Both of them are tall, tough men—no metrosexuals here. Yet they esteemed Carnegie, a mousy Methodist who told men to suppress their instinct for conflict behind a plastic smile. Early on, I decided I would not suppress myself in this way. The paper itself, though not worth publishing, gave me a short course on the therapeutic idiom in the business culture of the 1930s. I still find it curious that Carnegie, along with the period’s self-help gurus such as Walter Pitkin, Dorthea Brande, and Norman Vincent Peale (“positive thinkers” all) cited the philosophical psychology of John Dewey and William James repeatedly and enthusiastically. James’s essay, “The Energies of Men,” made the point of departure for Pitkin’s book, More Power To You! (1934). Carnegie called James “the most distinguished psychologist and philosopher America ever produced” and Dewey “America’s most profound philosopher.” In Think and Grow Rich (1939) Napoleon Hill gave one of his chapters a title that could have appeared in a Mills book: “Imagination: The Workshop of the Mind.” Thus is one returned to the paradox that major currents in American radical thought have not differed radically from the society they have criticized. But let me say that the most valuable part of my master’s degree from George Mason University was the chance to study with Roy Rosenzweig, one of the best men I have known.
SM: The admiration you express for Roy Rosenzweig was one of the things that surprised me the most about your book. Rosenzweig was the father of digital history. By contrast, you seem…well, not quite a Luddite, perhaps, but not an “early adopter.”
JS: Roy was easy to admire. I worked for his Center for History and New Media on projects such as History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web and the CD-Rom version of Who Built America? Under his direction, I published one of the first essays about labor history on the web. Roy worked in collaboration with Steve Brier and Josh Brown of the American Social History Project. The instances of kindness, instruction, and encouragement I received from Roy, Josh, and Steve have made me wonder—to return to your earlier question about organization of scholarly work—whether Centers or Projects are more conducive to cooperative learning than Departments. My experience this year at Alan Wolfe’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, at Boston College, suggests all over again that this may be so.
SM: Last year, Oxford University Press published your edition of selected writings by C. Wright Mills, including a series of lectures from 1959 derived from an unpublished manuscript called “The Cultural Apparatus.” By that title, Mills says he means “all of the organizations and milieux in which artistic, intellectual, and scientific work goes on, and by which entertainment and information are produced and distributed.” Why do we need this 50-year-old analysis today? I mean, we’re downstream from Habermas and Foucault now. Doesn’t that pretty much cover it for (respectively) hope and fear in regard to the cultural apparatus?
JS: Everyone can learn something from Mills’s “natural history of culture.” I say so confident in the knowledge of the reception accorded these lectures in 1959—the thousand or so letters on file at the University of Texas—as well as recent experience, having taught them last week in my history of radicalism course at The Cooper Union. The students there got it. Can one say the same for Habermas? I have found him damnably difficult to teach. At the end of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, he copied out a section of The Power Elite that reappears in the “cultural apparatus”: the idea of self-renewing publics, which implied the meaning of the intellectual vocation to lie in the continual search for them. Of course, I agree that we face a mode of cultural production, distribution, and consumption unlike the factory-style conditions Mills addressed. Do I diminish these lectures by saying their value is primarily historical? The history of ideas can be useful without being practically useful, all the more so in the case of old ideas lightly printed on sketch paper, unrealized rather than outworn, forgotten. James Agee, who loved to play the church organ, often spoke of his idea to write a history of the United States through the religious hymn music echoing in America’s vast land of small towns, hamlets, and churches. In what sense do we “need” to know all about Agee’s impossible idea?
SM: Another notion in Mills that interests you is his idea of the New Man. What’s that all about?
JS: Daniel Bell was right to discern an “end of ideology.” Mills, in his “Letter to the New Left,” did not deny that social reality had exhausted modern ideology. But Mills praised ideological striving while Bell refused to mourn its passing. Accordingly, many commentators on Mills have been tempted to find ideological motives in his thought, insisting that he was really a Trotskyist, a Marxist, a Deweyan, a Weberian, a Shachtmanite, and so on. Mills himself insisted he was “neither a con-former nor a re-former.” I think one way to understand his ideological striving without tripping over a label is to consult the long line of New Men in Europe and America. From his first book, The New Men of Power to his defense of Cuba’s “new men” in Listen Yankee!, Mills let this idea guide his work. The idea of the New Man puts biography at the center of the history of radicalism, which has been preoccupied with victimized social movements and which, in conception and method, looks like the historiography it claims to subvert. Why should biography sit on the sidelines of monographic scholarship when the New Man once dominated liberal and radical thought, showing up in Emerson’s “over-soul,” Nietzche’s “over-man,” Weber’s “new prophets,” and Adorno’s “New Type of Human Being” before he showed in Mills’s Havana?
The New Man stands beyond alienation, feels in his spiritual independence determined to make intelligible the mysterious processes of history. “We know that the new form of social production, to achieve the good life, needs only new men,” Marx wrote in 1856. The Soviets found their New Man in Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered—with Gladkov’s Cement featuring Dasha as the New Woman—while in America Alaine Locke claimed the creation of The New Negro as a greater achievement than any one work of art or literature so produced. Closer to Mills’s time, Frantz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, said de-colonialization “brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language and a new humanity. Decolonialization is the veritable creation of new men.” And while Mills was hailing the de-colonializers in Cuba, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (in A Thousand Days) was exulting over the mood of Kennedy’s Washington, “the excitement which comes from an injection of new men and new ideas, the release of energy which occurs when men with ideas have a chance to put them into practice.” Human character, so conceived by biographers of power, is an independent agent of political change, evidence of the plasticity of nature in the freedom of revolutionary spirit. It was Crevecoeur in his epistolary novel Letters from an American Farmer who asked “What then is the American, this new man?” and answered that he lived in “the most perfect society now existing in the world.”
SM: You haven’t started emulating Mills by eating gigantic, heart-clogging steak dinners, have you? JS: Steak dinners? With my wife, Anna, I am living on the subsistence wages accorded adjunct faculty. There is hope yet. Four months ago, Anna gave birth to our daughter, Niusha, who has been proving by sublime action what our education taught by pale precept: that our nature is innocent, intelligent, spontaneous, and, on the occasion, quite capable of making a fuss. Another child in the world, another born anarchist.