The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History

Princeton University Press
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The Shape of the Signifier is a critique of recent theory--primarily literary but also cultural and political. Bringing together previously unconnected strands of Michaels's thought--from "Against Theory" to Our America--it anatomizes what's fundamentally at stake when we think of literature in terms of the experience of the reader rather than the intention of the author, and when we substitute the question of who people are for the question of what they believe.

With signature virtuosity, Michaels shows how the replacement of ideological difference (we believe different things) with identitarian difference (we speak different languages, we have different bodies and different histories) organizes the thinking of writers from Richard Rorty to Octavia Butler to Samuel Huntington to Kathy Acker. He then examines how this shift produces the narrative logic of texts ranging from Toni Morrison's Beloved to Michael Hardt and Toni Negri's Empire. As with everything Michaels writes, The Shape of the Signifier is sure to leave controversy and debate in its wake.

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About the author

Walter Benn Michaels is Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism and Our America.
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Additional Information

Princeton University Press
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Published on
Oct 31, 2013
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Literary Criticism / American / General
Literary Criticism / General
Literary Criticism / Semiotics & Theory
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Eligible for Family Library

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A brilliant assault on our obsession with every difference except the one that really matters—the difference between rich and poor

If there's one thing Americans agree on, it's the value of diversity. Our corporations vie for slots in the Diversity Top 50, our universities brag about minority recruiting, and every month is Somebody's History Month. But in this provocative new book, Walter Benn Michaels argues that our enthusiastic celebration of "difference" masks our neglect of America's vast and growing economic divide. Affirmative action in schools has not made them more open, it's just guaranteed that the rich kids come in the appropriate colors. Diversity training in the workplace has not raised anybody's salary (except maybe the diversity trainers') but it has guaranteed that when your job is outsourced, your culture will be treated with respect.

With lacerating prose and exhilarating wit, Michaels takes on the many manifestations of our devotion to diversity, from companies apologizing for slavery, to a college president explaining why there aren't more women math professors, to the codes of conduct in the new "humane corporations." Looking at the books we read, the TV shows we watch, and the lawsuits we bring, Michaels shows that diversity has become everyone's sacred cow precisely because it offers a false vision of social justice, one that conveniently costs us nothing. The Trouble with Diversity urges us to start thinking about real justice, about equality instead of diversity. Attacking both the right and the left, it will be the most controversial political book of the year.

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