Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Quoted and Devoted

I'm not given to self-congratulation, unless it be of the ironic sort pertaining to my archival impulse. But when I get quoted correctly in an excellent article about something I care deeply about. . .

. . I simply have to share:

In an e-mail message, Mr. Negri writes, in Italian, that he is "clearly surprised by the success of Empire and Multitude" but considers it "important merely as a means of enlarging the discussion around the struggle." While his work with Mr. Hardt is certainly being read by activists in the antiglobalization and antiwar movements, it has also found a ready audience in aca-deme.

Harry Cleaver, an associate professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of the first scholars in the United States to write about Mr. Negri's work. He calls the collaboration with Mr. Hardt "an attempt to get out of the little back room of lefty circles, and reach a lot of other people, including postmodernists." Empire has turned up on reading lists in a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. "It's also being read in business schools," says Mr. Cleaver, perhaps on the principle that businesspeople should have some sense of a left-wing analysis.

If so, future M.B.A.'s ought to know that a considerable body of scholarship has been devoted to examining what some radical academics see as the hopelessly abstract character of Hardt-Negrian theory. Why develop a stratospheric theory of Empire, the critics complain, instead of analyzing the specific policies of, say, transnational corporations -- or the American government?

The abstractness is both a strength of the Empire theory and a source of frustration, says Charlie Bertsch, an assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona and a founding editor of the cultural-studies journal Bad Subjects. He admires the willingness of Mr. Hardt and Mr. Negri "to think big when most leftists seem to be thinking small." And the concept of multitude, he says, "invites in readers who would be turned off by reference to 'the people' or 'the masses.'" The authors "offer a warm and fuzzy welcome to almost anyone, aside from those on the far right, who is willing to resist 'Empire' as they define it."

But Mr. Bertsch also says he sometimes "has a hard time getting traction in either Empire or Multitude," because the authors "rarely get close enough to their topic to see its finer details."

Mr. Cleaver, the economist, acknowledges that "a lack of concreteness" in the books "can leave readers skeptical. But there's a lot more empirical background to the theories than is known to people reading them here." During the 1980s and '90s, he says, Mr. Negri and his colleagues in Europe published a large body of research on topics in economics, particularly concerning labor and immigration, in the French journal Future anterieur. "It was replaced recently by another journal called Multitudes," he says. "Very little of the work in those journals has been translated into English."
I strongly recommend reading the whole piece if you're interested.

I should point out that, despite my earlier complaints about Hardt and Negri's diffuseness, Multitudes has many practically oriented passages that do not take a Ph.D. to comprehend. When Skylar asked me what I was reading yesterday at "the Bagel Place," I told her it was about power and how to share it. "Read it to me," she insisted. I consented to give voice to the opening paragraph. I'm not sure whether Skylar made any sense of it, but Kim said, "That sounds familiar," and rapidly made the connection to Rousseau's prose style that I had been feeling my way towards all week. Rousseau writes like an expletive deleted, in case you've forgotten or never had the pleasure, so that's pretty high praise. Charlie Bob says, "Check it out!"

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