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The Age of the Crisis of Man

Both as intellectual and as literary history — as an account of the relation between the two in the mid-20th century and an attempt to reimagine the relation between the two in the early 21st century — Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (Princeton University Press, 2015) is an important and original book. We asked a number of critics working in related areas to say what they thought about it, and Greif to respond.


Mary Esteve

Mark Greif’s new book is a spirited, erudite, yet somewhat rickety triple-decker of American intellectual and literary history. Detailing midcentury intellectuals’ convergence on the idea that the human being was in existential, political, theological, and cultural “crisis,” the opening sections are the book’s most original and rewarding. With antiquarian zeal Greif dives into the recycling bin of midcentury history and emerges with a massive haul of nearly interchangeable titles by authors now obscure (The Science of Man in the World Crisis by Ralph Linton, Human Nature and the Human Condition by Joseph Wood Krutch, Who Is Man? by Abraham Joshua Heschel, for instance). If one of Greif’s points is to suggest the drear of an infinite series—the wealth-fatigue of a robust publishing industry and a thickening academic milieu—he nonetheless deftly sifts through this material, classifying its central concerns and arguing for significant continuities between prewar, wartime, and postwar intellectuals. He is particularly attentive to the discursive relays between skeptics who identified a fascist or totalitarian thrust in the putatively progressive idea of man’s malleability and those who, according to Greif’s classification, pondered the existential, historical, theological, and technological dimensions of man in crisis.

Greif goes on to show how this discourse contributed to a wide array of institutional formations and debates—from the University of Chicago’s Great Books program to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee and UNESCO, from Reinhold Niebuhr’s hardened “anti-Deweyan, permanent-nature message” (29) and Hannah Arendt’s searching disquisition on the failure of human rights to Dwight Macdonald’s programmatic anti-conformism. Greif’s insight is to understand crisis-of-man talk as something other than hyperbolic guy talk—despite the predominance of male participants—but less constructive than public talk about “practical matters”; hence the cri de coeur in his conclusion that today’s crisis-of-man talkers should “Stop! … just stop” (328). Channeling here a composite of Howard Dean and Nancy Reagan, he earlier characterizes this discourse as a species of vacuous but important talk—“meaningful because it was empty” (11)—one that largely aired itself in elite institutions like Ivy universities and highbrow journals like the Partisan Review. It’s provocatively “empty” because, Greif explains, nobody really expected a single definitive answer to the fundamental question of crisis-of-man talk, what is man? In fact “the underlying point” of the question was to elicit a “proliferation of answers” (13).

But just as the obscurer elements of Greif’s archive tend in this book to give way to synopses of well-known midcentury figures’ crisis-of-man contributions, the book’s central preoccupation turns out to be remarkably—I hesitate to say drearily—familiar. According to Greif, midcentury intellectuals were beset by the problem of how to resolve the conflict between universal, global, abstract man and particular, local, embodied man. As such these man talkers would hardly miss a beat in any number of graduate seminars held over the last 10 or 20 years. And yet these man talkers can’t be called anticipatory originals, since the universal-particular problem predates Greif’s midcentury by decades if not centuries, depending on where one locates the origins of American ethno-racial politics. Greif acknowledges a debt to historians such as David Hollinger who have devoted their careers to investigating this problem’s more pronounced coalescence around ethno-racial patterns of identity formation. But the book might have fruitfully investigated further how the early-20th century ethno-racial discourse, in particular, developed models of pluralism (including cosmopolitan malleability) upon which crisis-of-man’s proliferative “empty” talk arguably relied.

Instead, Greif turns to literary history in the book’s middle section—more precisely, to hyper-canonized novelists—to argue for the major impact crisis-of-man talk had on American culture. Noting midcentury literary criticism’s calls for a Great American Novel amid simultaneous laments over the death of the novel, Greif imagines a pressurized socio-ecosystem in which writers of “the novel had the obligation to humanize a fallen mankind” (104). Writers who fleshed out, belabored, and challenged the core claims of crisis-of-man talk are deemed to have met “the [midcentury] demand that artists answer the problems of the age” (98). It should come as no surprise, then, that Greif dwells exclusively on the midcentury’s most familiar: Bellow, Ellison, O’Connor, Pynchon, and (as a melded duo in dramatic failure) late Faulkner and Hemingway. (Greif also lodges the perplexing assertion that today’s curricular canon of 19th century American texts is “exactly the canon of books, unchanged” that midcentury intellectuals created: those by “Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville” [110]. He seems to think that Frederick Douglas could be left off this list—let alone Emily Dickinson or Harriet Beecher Stowe or that blasted perennial favorite among undergraduates, Edgar Allan Poe.)

This is where the book’s wobbly architecture becomes visible. For in contending that midcentury novelists internalized crisis-of-man discourse in “practical matters of hope and disappointment, expectation and opportunity, and competition and resentment within the literary field” (132), Greif generalizes far too willfully and falls into constrictive circularity. The claim functions to rule in as relevant to his history only those novelists who match his description of authorial obligation, while ruling out a whole raft of midcentury novelists who might not. In effect, he accepts the criteria by which midcentury literary critics, invested in a narrow canon and in themselves as canon-makers, defined their own authority. He does not test the strength of these criteria, say, by situating crisis-of-man critics in a wider “literary field” or by considering other novelists who might be engaged in less “empty” talk. In other words, Greif’s fixation on promoting the historical sway of crisis-of-man talk leads him to discuss only those novelists who confirm this talk’s influence.

Arguably more important, Greif restricts the idea of the universal to the one advanced by crisis-of-man talk. He thus misses the opportunity to consider how his stable of fiction writers, let alone numerous others, might be seen to redirect man talk’s construal of the universal-particular problem toward something less empty. That is, Greif tells of how midcentury intellectuals grappled with what might be imagined as a trait or condition shared by all human beings. This idea, as Hollinger notes, proved troublesome for projects like Alfred Kinsey’s: however progressive his research into sexual behavior might be for the de-stigmatization of sexual practice, his method of data collection—interviews with midcentury North Americans—dubiously presumed “specieswide” applicability (Hollinger 51). But other midcentury intellectuals had other ideas about universalism. Specifically, some understood universalism to be what Walter Benn Michaels calls “intrinsic,” in which case it is a matter of belief, not empirical proof: unlike empirical universalism, “which achieve[s] universality only if everyone has” the trait, beliefs are “true (if true) whether or not everyone believes them, false (when false) even if everyone believes them” (Michaels 178).

A belief may be theological, as in the case of O’Connor’s orthodox Catholicism; but it may also be secular, designating a steadfast commitment to a value, as in the case of O’Connor’s seeming suspicion of government efforts to reduce poverty. And in the midcentury, as the welfare state increasingly shaped the contours of American life, what increasingly drew intellectuals’ attention was the status of the belief in (the commitment to the value of) socioeconomic justice. This question informs, for instance, the pointed debate that took place over the 1950s and 60s between Kenneth Arrow’s social choice theory and John Rawls’s distributive justice theory. At stake, among other things, was whether the belief in individual preference trumped the belief in socioeconomic equity or vice versa. Neither position would be comprehensible without an underlying presumption of its universal status.

Recent critics of O’Connor have attended, albeit more implicitly than explicitly, to the way intrinsic universalism—and not merely the theological variety—enters her work. Susan Edmunds, for instance, sees Wise Blood as inflected by O’Connor’s savage disparagement of the welfare state: the novel “exposes the contradictions of a system prepared to offer freedom and security to qualifying white men, while leashing their domestic dependents to a lesser set of unfree and insecure attachments”—altogether a feeble substitute for the “biblical ideal of undivided community” (Edmunds 194, 195). The implication here is that (however unlikely) O’Connor would have reason to believe in the welfare state if it managed to develop a fair system of socioeconomic redistribution. By contrast, Andrew Hoberek argues that O’Connor is more committed to the value of Southern distinctiveness than to fairness. He suggests that her work resonates with other Southerners who see the region’s poverty as “a site of Lost Cause nostalgia,” such that “poor white Southerners came to seem less like subjects of economic exploitation than like bearers of a particular culture” (Hoberek 98). However divergent these accounts, both reveal O’Connor to be compellingly engaged in broad sociopolitical “practical matters,” such as Greif might wish. Nowhere does Greif discuss these critics’ insights. For his part he locates O’Connor’s literary value in her attack on man talk’s universalist claim of “the basic psychic commonality of all people” (214) and in her insistence that there is “more than one type of person in the world” (213), thus casting her presence in the midcentury literary field as little more than a virtuous scold.

In the book’s final section, which takes up the presence of crisis-of-man discourse within the rise of theory from the 1960s onward, Greif observes in passing that the kind of universalism espoused by Rawls—whereby a social-contractual decision-making procedure entails a hypothetical “veil of ignorance” that erases decision-makers’ knowledge of their subject position—was “a gain of sorts over naive universalism” (293). But it’s a gain only because Rawls acknowledged the non-empirical status of this scenario; thus Greif need not take it seriously as a threat to concrete particulars. In a certain sense, he is right, for Rawls’s theory (like that of his midcentury contemporary, Habermas) considered human particularity either a historical contingency or a positive outcome—a realization of the potential for individual flourishing—of liberal universalism. But what Greif fails to appreciate is that Rawls’s logic of universalism differed not in degree but in kind from empirical universalists. Where the bad anthropological philosophers populating Greif’s story made dubious truth claims about the nature or condition of man, Rawls asserted a truth premise about liberal agency and value: insofar as liberals believe in (are committed to the value of) socioeconomic justice, he implies, here is a universal procedure that can help to achieve it.

Despite the fact that Rawls thus engaged in the practical matters of public policy that Greif ultimately favors, it makes sense that he barely reaches the status of tertiary character in Greif’s story. This is because the book’s final portion concentrates on how particularism supplanted universalism, and how poststructuralist theory helped to make this happen. While there’s no question that the discourse of diversity has defined late-century American literary and cultural politics, I am only partially persuaded by Greif’s account that, one, this preoccupation can be “clarif[ied]” by tracking the morph of man talk into theory talk (285); and, two, that the triumph of diversity defines poststructuralist theory’s legacy. As already discussed, the long genealogy of American ethno-racial politics would indicate that by the late 20th century anything traveling under the cover of différance would be gladly welcomed by difference advocates and reined in by a politics of diversity. In this way, late-century New Critics, invested in the close reading entailed by deconstruction’s analytical methods, and politically minded literary critics, invested in all things different, might imagine themselves on the same page for once.

But, of course, the whole point of Derrida’s terminological invention is to convey the supplemental and disruptive force of that which exceeds the word, “difference,” as well as the concept of diversity. The logic of deconstruction is as liable to undermine the pretensions of ethno-racial, gender, sexual, class, and ability diversity as it to “poke” and “prod” the pretensions of universality (309). One of the central conduits through which Greif tells his story of man talk’s “transmutation” into theory talk is Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose career in linguistic anthropology, pursuing universalist structuralism, and later advocacy of ethnographic and cultural relativism betokens mid- to late-century shifts in intellectual commitments. As informative as this account is, it leaves out significant aspects of poststructuralism’s specific appeal as theory. To fill in the picture we might turn to Vincent Pecora’s account of the role Lévi-Strauss played in theory’s rise. His book, Households of the Soul, examines 19th and 20th century anthropology’s investment in the magical qualities of primitive societies—its potlatch practice, ritual sacrifice, and totemic devotion, for instance—alongside its naturalization of clan hierarchy. As Pecora tells it, “For Lévi-Strauss, all forms of economic circulation, symbolic and material, indeed, all systems of thought, depend on the same mythical completion of conceptual totality through the ‘supplementary ration’ inherent in the use of language, just as the totem had emerged as the source of the concept in Durkheim. Lévi-Strauss’s equation of the magical element in a system of gifts with a supplementary signifier in systems of thought is a crucial one for poststructuralist literary theory as a whole” (Pecora 50). What Pecora is getting at here is poststructuralism’s deep commitment to the potential universal of re-enchantment. This anti-humanist belief might be understood as the suppressed truth-cousin to what Greif calls man-talk’s “re-enlightenment” of anthropological universalism. But where Pecora’s critique creates space for a democratic liberal alternative to poststructuralist enchantment, Greif would have us think that the only alternative to the bad universal is the good, “practical” particular—as though the practical particular need no backing of intrinsic universal belief.


Edmunds, Susan. Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the U.S. Welfare State. Oxford and New York: Oxford U P, 2008.

Hoberek, Andrew. The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton U P, 2005.

Hollinger, David A. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton U P, 2004.

Pecora, Vincent P. Households of the Soul. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins U P, 1997.


Lisa Siraganian: On Zombie Discourses

Greif’s astonishingly comprehensive new book produces one of the most impressive accounts of the rise of particularism and the concomitant decline of universalism as a trend from mid-century modernism to the present day. Curiously, Greif locates this transformation in the genre of the novel and sees it as fundamentally about race, even though other genres grappled with the mid-century’s “crisis of man” discourse in other ways. Most problematically, Greif is never quite clear whether universalism per se is the central, indefatigable error of the discourse of man, or if the error is in thinking that universalism could be put into practice.

One way to think about this difference is to ask hypothetically if the discourse of the crisis of man would be better if it were less “maieutic” and performative. This is a hypothetical question because, as Greif explains, the discourse of man is necessarily and fundamentally maieutic in so far as its central form is to pose imperatives such as “We must think/ask/answer” while abstaining from the work of selecting from, or even bothering to listen to, the answers that we “must” generate (24). This point emerges most forcefully at the book’s end, with Greif’s spot-on, “layperson” response to today’s anthropocene discourses and our reciprocal urge to ponder state-of-humanity questions:

Anytime your inquiries lead you to say, “At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are, our solution and salvation must lie in a new picture of ourselves and humanity, this is our profound responsibility and a new opportunity”—just stop. You have begun asking the wrong analytic questions for your moment. Your answers will be preprogrammed in ways you can’t even begin to imagine or see, which the future will unhappily exhume. (328)

Whether in discussions of our own era’s “crises” of the anthropocene and the posthuman, or the mid-century’s crisis of man, any discourse posed in the “What is man?” formula fails to do the work it intends because the strictures of this discourse govern what can be spoken. We might ask “What is man?” in other kinds of contexts that will produce fruitful (“consequential”) thought, but when this question is posed as a response to a perceived, impending disaster, the questions and answers’ content is irrelevant. Asking and answering becomes essentially pointless.

Greif describes this distinct kind of discourse as empty (understandably), but also useful (counterintuitively). It’s empty because the content doesn’t matter. It’s useful because it still acts on its speakers in various ways, such as making you work on yourself and prompting you to produce language that also will stimulate others to answer the question, “What is Man?” The urge to ask and answer, passed along, translates into more and more attempts to find the x in “Man is x.

“What is Man?” discourse becomes virus-speech, functioning as an imperative to make smartish people perform the zombie utterance, “there must be something that must be protected” (12). Even if any individual author, whether Louis Mumford, Dwight Macdonald, or Hannah Arendt, truly believes in the particular answer he or she comes up with for “Man is x,” these statements primarily aim to keep open the set of possible values for x. The discourse of man thus becomes a way to perform its ultimate goal of saying (repeatedly, endlessly) that there is something about humanity worth saving and that it can be encapsulated in any given “Man is x” algebraic equation that one chooses to write… if and only if someone else is then infected to write one too.

This is an extremely compelling account of the purpose, effect, and cultural importance of the mid-century discourse of man. For one thing, it explains why so many well-intentioned people started writing so much unbearable prose. I had always struggled to explain postwar poet Charles Olson’s brief fixation on what I now recognize as the ubiquitous “What is man?” discourse. Like noxious weeds, the phrases sprout out of mid-century Olson texts such as “Human Universe” (1951), a philosophical essay working through his revolutionary “Projective Verse” poetics: “Even war and peace die (to be displaced by world government?) and man reverts to only two of his components, inertia and gas;” and “Can one restate man in any way to repossess him of his dynamic? I don’t know. But for myself a first answer lies in his systemic particulars.”1 These lines create an odd tenor in the essay, even allowing for Olson’s portentous, parenthetical style.

Thankfully, Olson more or less dropped the “What is Man?” discourse soon after and found other ways—via breath—to marry “systemic particulars” with collectivism. The strange, amalgamated character of “Maximus,” the historical soul of Gloucester, Massachusetts projected onto Olson’s own memory of his experiences there, becomes a way to fight for what he called “particularism” while staying true to his understandings of the “human universe.” But Greif’s book opens up a way see Olson’s solution to the “human universe” as a variation on a persistent theme. Frustrated with man-discourse’s hollow, generalized constructs, creative writers strategized ways to reify particulars—whether of race, gender, sexuality, or simply (as I have argued elsewhere) of one person’s phenomenological encounter with the world. That’s how we might explain Olson’s poem, “The Intended Angle of Vision Is From My Kitchen” (1959), or, a year later, Amiri Baraka’s stated goal of writing poetry as a way to “get closer to the way I sound peculiarly, as opposed to somebody else.”2

As mentioned above, The Age of the Crisis of Man compelling depicts the past seventy years of the view from my kitchen coming to look more inevitable. But Greif locates this transformation in the genre of the novel and frames it as essentially about race: Ellison’s The Invisible Man reveals that “no one can rely on an abstraction called ‘man’” (200), and, more grandly, that “the essential flaw in the American discourse of man had always been race” (261). In doing so, Greif holds up a particular genre and cultural period as unique bearers for a set of problems and questions that are the major post-Enlightenment problems.

At the very least, this move is vulnerable to the charge of selection bias—an issue in humanities’ scholarship since Foucault, as our research selectively incorporates more of social science’s premises and methods. On one level such capricious selection is fine—we’re not doing social science, after all—and on another level it creates problems because we rarely establish the difference between social science premises and methods and those premises and methods unique to the humanities.

In this case, Greif identifies a feature (race as an essential flaw of man-discourse) in a genre (the novel) at a certain moment (the 1950s) that is then attributed to the period’s characteristics more globally. However, that feature could just as plausibly be a generic feature of novels—and not uniquely of the discourse—during that time period, and arguably of a much broader period.

Had Greif chosen to focus on the poetry of the long modernist period, then his argument certainly would have incorporated race as an example of the trend towards particularism, but it would have been equally clear that fictions about race were only one lens to think through Olson’s “intended angle of vision.” Greif has important reasons for focusing on race fiction, and I take his point that the novel at this cultural moment claimed a profound “obligation to humanize a fallen mankind” (104). But other creative writers clearly felt that obligation too, as Olson’s and Baraka’s statements imply, even if the novel was afforded special privileges in responding to that duty. Here’s Olson again: “Can one restate man in any way to repossess him of his dynamic?” and from the same essay: “particularism has to be fought for, anew.”3 Poets felt and responded to this obligation to humanize a fallen mankind just as pointedly as any novelist—they simply took on the challenge in more capacious, meditative ways, befitting the conventions and literary history of their genre. Different selection, different selection bias.

Olson and Baraka’s work is key for me but other poetry could illustrate the same point. Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth” (1946), a strange surrealistic poem, depicts what I can only imagine is the transcendental (or maybe demonic) spirit of man flitting dreamily at night through purgatorial subway tunnels, while material “Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.”4 Both grounded “Man” and flighty “Man-Moth” are doomed, suggested by Bishop’s footnote explaining that “man-moth” was “newspaper misprint for ‘mammoth.’” Even if we’re not extinct now, humans will follow the man-moth/mammoth’s path soon enough. Yet the last stanza holds out hope that man might reconnect to his spiritual man-moth: “If you catch him” and watch him closely, man-moth might hand you his “one tear, his only possession,” if he doesn’t swallow it instead. Only that small, local gesture of actually sharing a private sorrow with another might enable “man” to reclaim his ascendant, man-moth humanity. It’s a point that resembles Arendt’s in Origins as paraphrased by Greif: moments of “‘humanity’ must be developed within local communities as part of a shared value common to all local communities” (95). These poets reveal that the mid-century race novel was neither uniquely nor exceptionally the site to challenge “humanity” discourse.

More problematic than selection bias is that the “discourse of man” makes clear that any particular attempt at putting universalism into practice could only sink the entire mid-century endeavor.

We can approach this issue in different ways. First, performative discourses such as the discourse of man are always already particularized and, as such, cannot make the universal claims attributed to them. Recall that the purpose of a maieutic discourse is to incessantly generate the sentence “Man is x = Reason y that Man should not be destroyed/ become fascistic/ turned into glue,” regardless of which “reason y” you state. Because the aim of the discourse is to find different potential values of x and y such that the equation still balances out, this discourse isn’t really aiming to make a universal claim. It’s aiming to find different particular values that enable us to perform it anew. To put it another way, the discourse of man was never about actually figuring out the fundamental universal aspects of man. It was about trying to voice solutions whose mystical enunciation would avoid the doom impending in the very next moment of the here and now: “You there! Answer philosophical-equations today to save humanity tomorrow!” What could be more particularized?

Secondly, the discourse of man would have been a particularist discourse masquerading as universalism even if it was neither maieutic nor performative. None of the era’s pontificators figured out that universalism did not mean a white, privileged, straight, mostly male perspective projected onto, and re-performed by, the rest of the world. Bellow and Ellison exposed how wrong that was.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the discourse of man could never be universally applied. Since there is no “universal man” out there in the world, any account of “universal man” describes no one. In that way, the discourse of man exposes a fundamental misunderstanding about abstraction that permeated mid-century discourse and continues to this day. Discussing Bellow’s novel Dangling Man (1944), Greif writes that “Joseph fails abstract man over and over again” (154). In other words, the novel hones in on “the essential emptiness that has already been a feature of the existence of any abstract Man or human being” (158). I don’t dispute this as an accurate account of Bellow’s understanding of abstract man, since the point is obviously that human beings can never be abstractions (it should go without saying). But clearly this account of abstraction doesn’t make any sense at all, which I would have thought would be Greif’s point from start to finish. In what sense can an abstraction be empty or full?

As soon as we envision an abstraction filled up with something—or even by understanding it as missing traits of some kind—we are no longer in the realm of an abstraction. Instead, we are envisioning what literary critics of the mid-century period called the “concrete universal,” the philosophical term they adopted to discuss the longstanding ontological question about literary form: namely, how it can be that “a work of literary art is in some peculiar sense a very individual thing or a very universal thing or both.”5 That’s how W.K. Wimsatt, Jr. puts the problem in 1947, later incorporating his ideas into one of the founding texts of New Criticism: The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (1954). Arguably, the mid-century discourse of man was a discourse of the concrete universal that mistakenly thought that it operated as a discourse of the universal. From that perspective, it makes sense that the novels of Ellison, Bellow, and others exposed the flaw, since New Criticism understood literature as the exemplary concrete universal.

But whether we’re dealing with the discourse of the concrete universal or the discourse of the universal, the point remains that particulars can’t give the lie to universalism. Particulars are a wholly other thing. Regardless of whether they help or hinder us in understanding or making sense of universals, they are fundamentally different from them. Greif’s book makes clear that discursive failures such as the discourse of man continue to dominate our accounts of the cultural work that is worth doing. The cringe-inducing discourse of man has come to stand in for universalism, and that legacy is its most lasting—and pernicious.


1. Charles Olson, “Human Universe,” in Collected Prose/Charles Olson, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 160.
2. Amiri Baraka, “LeRoi Jones: An Interview on Yugen,” interviewed by David Ossman in 1960, collected in Conversations with Amiri Baraka, ed. Charlie Reilly (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 6.
3. Olson, “Human Universe,” 156.
4. Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 14-15.
5. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., “The Structure of the ‘Concrete Universal’ in Literature,” PMLA 62:1 (March 1947), 262-80; 262.


Andrew Hoberek

We don’t usually think about genre when we consider works of criticism, although Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man all but explicitly asks us to. Greif’s book addresses, from a profoundly informed standpoint, mid-twentieth-century Euro-American concerns with the nature of and threats to “man” as a metaphysical category. It is the sort of big intellectual and literary history about a big topic that Greif’s own subjects wrote, and that got pushed out of English departments beginning in the 1970s by the combined pressures of identity politics and anti-foundationalist theory. Insofar as that’s precisely the moment at which Greif’s study ends, it’s among other things a book about the conditions of its own production—about what it means to write such a book now. It’s also, perhaps, useful to think about The Age of the Crisis of Man as a critical analogue of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Infinite Jest. Both revive a mode of writing (in Wallace’s case the big postmodern novel) associated with a now-denigrated form of privileged hubris, but both do so in a knowing, at times self-deprecatory way, as if to say, “I know what the problems with this form are, but it’s worth doing anyway, especially if one is careful about how one does it.”

There are strengths and weaknesses attendant on such a strategy. In Greif’s case, perhaps the major strength is that he pulls into history a period of thought—or let’s say two periods, the age of the crisis of man and the age of theory that followed it—which many of us lived through, and whose aftereffects remain present and underanalyzed even if we no longer go about our work in quite the same ways. In addition, Greif is also a sensitive reader, who in many cases remakes our understanding of the fiction he discusses in the middle of the book. He is less concerned with how we should interpret fiction than how we should read it, which leads for instance to accounts of how Flannery O’Connor anticipates and incorporates liberal readings of her stories in order to “humiliate” liberal readers in the interest of pushing them to higher, religious insights (220); or how we misread Thomas Pynchon if we take him as “a puzzle writer with clear solutions” rather than “a theme writer with moods” (231). At the same time, Greif’s concern with the discourse of the crisis of man does provide a larger, interpretive framework for the work of the writers he discusses. If, for instance, Ralph Ellison and African American literature more generally have been committed to an endless and politically distracting project of proving that black people are human beings,6 then Greif makes sense of Ellison’s meteoric mid-fifties rise by noting that everyone was trying to prove they were human at the time. This in turn helps explain the prominence in 1950s literature of writers from particular groups (the African American Ellison, the Jew Bellow, the Southerner O’Connor) who adopt a militantly universalist stance.

The weaknesses of Greif’s approach are the ones we are long familiar with from critiques of the history of ideas. Greif traces a discourse in isolation, moving from thinker to thinker and giving us a larger historical framework only when that framework is itself gestured towards by the discourse itself: the Holocaust, the threat of atomic destruction, the accelerated pace of technological innovation and social organization. Unlike Mark McGurl in The Program Era, Greif doesn’t place his intellectual history within a history of an institution (although as we might expect from an editor of n + 1, he does usefully attend to pieces published in the intellectual journals of the time); unlike Michael Clune in American Literature and the Free Market, he doesn’t set it alongside the history of another, seemingly unrelated discourse in order to draw out the unexpected connections between them.7Even this produces advantages, however: Greif, unlike McGurl and Clune and almost everybody else, begins in 1933 rather than 1945. And of course it’s unfair to ask a writer to do what they don’t do. But Greif’s approach does sometimes give us the story we already know, perhaps most notably for me in its late invocation of anticolonial struggle as one of the centrifugal forces responsible for the collapse of the discourse of man beginning in the 1960s. Greif notes early on that “The American discourse of the crisis of man in general was surprisingly oblivious to colonial thinking, and the futures after World War II of the colonial, soon-to-be postcolonial, peoples”—but only as a potential discourse of “difference” (21). The era of anticolonial struggle is, however, not only precisely contemporaneous with the discourse of the crisis of man (and thus similarly uninterested in the Euro-American organizing date of 1945). It is also, as many scholars have pointed out, itself deeply concerned with the idea of man—in particular, as Robin Kelley has noted, with the idea that the anticolonial fighter had succeeded the Marxian proletariat as the vanguard subject of history.8Through the Kennedy administration the US reached out to the developing world on the basis of this shared universalism, and it was only with the disastrous outcome of the Cold War proxy struggle in Vietnam that Americans came (as former colonial powers like England and France had earlier) to identify the third world with intransigent difference.

That said, perhaps the major contribution that flows from Greif’s intellectual history is his recognition that both the discourse of the crisis of man and the deconstructive theory that supposedly overthrew it depend upon a politics organized around the quest for such subjects. Thus a late vignette, in which Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, appearing on Dutch TV in the early seventies, represent the old and new orders. Foucault and Chomsky differ on the form of political subjecthood they champion: a preexisting conception of the human, in Chomsky’s case, or an as yet unimagined formation that will become possible if we reject the historically contingent version we have inherited, in Foucault’s. But both nonetheless champion a politics organized around subjectivity. Nor have we left this way of thinking behind today: in his conclusion Greif notes the manner in which contemporary theories of the Anthropocene epoch depend, for all their seeming attention to the non-human, on imagining a particular kind of person both responsible for and capable of intervening in this situation. To this Greif imagines himself saying,

Stop! Anytime your inquiries lead you to say, “At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are, our solution and salvation must lie in a new picture of ourselves and humanity, this is our profound responsibility and a new opportunity,”—just stop. Your have begun asking the wrong analytic questions for your moment. Your answers will be preprogrammed in ways you can’t even begin to imagine or see, which the future will happily exhume. (328)

Rather, he contends, we need to ask “concrete questions of value not requiring ‘who we are’ distinct from what we say and do,” and to look for “immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim” (328).

Greif’s rejection of questions about “who we are” is not by any means a simple critique of identity politics—if, as he elsewhere notes, such questions are as old as modernity itself, then for most of their existence they were the province of distinctly non-marginal groups. He notes that his frustration with such questions strike him in his role as a citizen, but not in his role “as a scholar and a historian” (329). Yet perhaps this frustration can also inspire new paths of of historical investigation for the period Greif discusses, ones suggested by the thing that Chomsky and Foucault hold, despite all their differences, in common. Neither, crucially, is a champion of institutions—Greif describes Chomsky as “a libertarian anarchist in the tradition of Thoreau” (314)—and they differ primarily on the question of the form of subjectivity in whose name they wish to smash the state. Greif’s is only the latest account of mid-twentieth-century thought and writing that focuses on the quest for a humanity or an individualism unencumbered by institutions—I have been guilty of this myself—primarily because this is what the great majority of thinkers and writers in this period thought that they were after. But perhaps we need to revisit their work, and the work of others whom we may have overlooked, with an eye for those instances in which writers seriously consider the forms of social organization through which people address concrete questions and take action—immediate or otherwise—in the pursuit of particular aims.

We need, that is, more literary and intellectual histories not of people but of institutions. McGurl’s book makes a good start in this regard, but the writing program is only one institution, and one whose aesthetic importance outweighs its political ones. Broadening our focus even further will help us think about things like the labor movement, or contemporary politics in countries like Venezuela and Greece, where members of the left hold actual positions of authority, with results that are not always ideal from a standpoint of moral or theoretical purity. This is the situation that the Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas has recently discussed in relation to the party’s critics on the left, whom he suggests operate out of a “profound fear of power”:

[T]hey think that people don’t understand this, but it’s perfectly obvious that these people and these organizations are scared down to the very marrow of their bones by the prospect of responsibility and power. That’s why they’re taking these ultra-left positions.[fn num=9]

This does not, of course, mean that we can’t criticize people in positions of responsibility and power; one can, for instance, take Barack Obama to task for decisions he has made.   What we can’t do is to imagine that he made these decisions because institutions are purely malevolent forces lying in wait to corrupt the idealistic. We need, rather, to think about institutions as complicated mechanisms that enable those who operate within them to do good and bad. By writing what we might take, at least for now, as the final word on the mid-twentieth-century crisis of man, Greif frees us to go back to the period and look for something other than men.


6. Kenneth Warren, So Black and So Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) and What Was African American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 44-80.
7. Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Michael Clune, American Literature and the Free Market, 1945-2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
8. Robin D. G. Kelley, “A Poetics of Anticolonialism,” in Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 10.
9. Sebastian Budgen & Costas Lapavitsas, “Greece: Phase Two,” Jacobin,, accessed 19 March 2015.


Michael W. Clune: If You Want to Know What You Are, Read This


Mark Greif’s brilliant new book reminds me of one of my favorite works of criticism. Niklas Luhman’s Love as Passion is a book which in terms of tone, style, and archive could not be more different than Greif’s. But both books explore how the “metamorphoses and reapplications or inversions of discourse” generate a rich array of problems and images before dead-ending (Greif, 318). For Luhman, the gradual development of the discourse of romantic love finally produces the inescapable dilemma of intimacy: Love means that you know what I want from you without me having to tell you. For Greif, the development of the midcentury discourse of human nature finally produces a fundamental contradiction expressed by the tension between the claims of difference and universality, liberation and justice, the particular and the general.

The chief delight of both books is the surprising illumination the rigorously pursued thesis casts on familiar literature. Greif’s astonishing reading of O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” for example, shows O’Connor both activating the expectations of her liberal universalist readers, while subtly refusing them in favor of a faith-based commitment to racial difference. It seems to me unlikely that Greif’s baroque but ultimately convincing interpretation could have been secured on any basis other than his disciplined focus on the discourse-space of the crisis of man.

I juxtapose Luhman’s and Greif’s books not to subordinate the latter’s tonal pragmatism to the former’s highly technical “systems theory,” but to point out a feature of Greif’s thinking that this juxtaposition highlights. The presupposition of both books is that the search for the essence of love or the human is in a certain sense empty. “An empty discourse is one that behaves as though it wishes to be filled by a single inductive or deductive answer…it…tacitly admits to unanswerability.” (12)

We cannot discover what these things really are. The true function of the incessant search for the nature of the human is to produce a certain pattern of writing, speaking, and thinking. This pattern or logic doesn’t get us any closer or further from its ostensible object. After reading Greif’s book we don’t, in fact, know anything more about humanity, or the rights and capacities that might follow from such knowledge. We do, however, know something of the way the discourse of the crisis of man has laid out a grid of possible intellectual and political positions. In this way, empty discourse creates real effects, though their value is, at best, ambivalent. The philosophical hero of Greif’s book, Hannah Arendt, articulates this ambivalence with her withering skepticism about one of the discourse’s proudest effects, the belief in ‘human rights.’ A friend of mine once captured the essence of this skepticism by asking whether anyone would willingly stay in a hotel that advertised itself as ‘humane.’

Now, if one believes that the nature of humanity is in principle discoverable, and if one becomes dissatisfied with the results of previous searchers, one might want to try a new strategy. One might begin to look for the human with new tools. But for Grief, when we have become dissatisfied with the impasses of the discourse of the human, we must turn, not forward to the object of the search, but backward to the history of the discourse itself, untwisting it, freeing ourselves from its imperatives. “If we wanted to seek the new, to break through the complex of repetitions, it would require confronting modernity… as the cage of our conceptions, and returning to the basic concrete project of taking apart and exhibiting our underlying notions.” (326)

But before we follow Greif’s advice to “just stop” asking about the nature of the human, we must ask: Is this really an unanswerable question? (328) I’m not so sure it is. I don’t, it is true, know the answer. But I think I might know the shape of an eventual answer, and I know this because of some of the midcentury literature I’ve read. I agree with Greif that none of the literature or philosophy he surveys approaches the question in a serious way, if by ‘serious’ we mean ‘expecting an answer.’ But this just means that he’s been looking in the wrong place.

A number of writers in the two most robust genres of postwar writing, however, have been looking in the right place. These genres—which develop out of powerful exemplars rooted in the midcentury and animated by the discourse of the crisis of man—constitute a search for human nature which is not empty in Greif’s sense. Science fiction and the memoir (or memoiristic novel), correspond to two basic and fruitful secular approaches to the question of the human. These literary genres are in turn accompanied and supported by two different scientific and philosophical research programs. Science fiction investigates the possibility of human nature as the outcome of recognition by a nonhuman other. Significant practioners of the literary memoir, on the other hand, investigate the possibility of grasping human nature without recognition.


Greif, who includes a characteristically lucid and sharp summary of the locus classicus of recognition theory in Hegel, shows how crucial recognition is to the establishment of individual identity in Ellison and Bellow. The encounter with the other shows me who I am. Recognition supplies not only my particular identity, but the very categories by which that identity is constituted. There is no logical reason why a person’s shoe size shouldn’t turn out to be definitive of her identity. But it turns out that in actual social encounters, various other features are picked out and organized according to rubrics—skin color, sense of humor, mathematical ability–which a hypothetical desert island orphan couldn’t possibly discover in advance.

Greif deftly shows how in Ellison’s novel, at least two different categories are in play in the various recognition scenes—that of (differential) race, that of (common) humanity—and these categories come into conflict. It might be more accurate to say that there is really only one category—that of race—and that humanity has no real content, and functions in the novel simply to conceal racial recognitions. Ellison’s protagonist pursues true identity and good relationships on the ground of recognition, not by trying to realize the category of the human, but by imagining a kind of “nominalism,” a form of recognition without categories. (179)

If recognition is crucial to identity in Ellison, Greif’s later chapters tell the familiar story of what Charles Taylor called the “politics of recognition,” which, as Nancy Fraser famously argued, came to replace the politics of redistribution in the postwar era. In Greif’s telling, not redistribution, but universalism comes apart in the politics of recognition. Grief shows people arguing about the dynamics of recognition, about how to create better recognitions, and especially about how to recognize those previously unrecognized. Implicit in all of this is the idea that who I am depends on how others see me.

Yet there’s something odd in Grief’s treatment of recognition. The book slides curiously from the question of the identity of the human, to the question of the identity of individual humans. The earlier, philosophical chapters concern the question of the nature of the human as such, while the later, primarily literary chapters, deploy the concept of recognition in the struggle to define particular people. But if recognition works to define individuals, how is it that no writer thought to apply this tool to the key question driving the crisis of man theorists. Why can’t the identity of humanity itself be established by recognition?

It turns out that many writers did attempt to use recognition to define the human in this period. To take only a very small sample of distinguished novels published in the years Greif explores, we have Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, H. P. Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness, Ursula K. LeGuinn’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, and, perhaps the most ambitious of them all, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus. The central question of the crisis of man discourse–the nature of the human– animates all of these books. Their authors understand how the encounter with another technological species would place the question of human nature on an entirely different plane, moving it from the realm of vapid abstraction criticized by Arendt, to the realm of concrete answers of the most vivid kind.

Just as an individual can’t possibly know which of her attributes count as central to her identity before the encounter with the other, what makes us distinctive as a technological species won’t emerge until we meet another. In fact, we can’t even be sure that “technological species” is the correct category for this human-alien recognition scene, a fact exploited by Heinlein and Wolfe (among others) in imagining non-technological alien others that nevertheless serve to establish the ground on which human identity can be explored in a non-empty way.

The fruit of science fiction’s labors has been to produce a range of possibilities for human nature, based on a range of possible recognition encounters with aliens. Science fiction has been rehearsing the postures of the possible beings we will turn out always to have been. These novels tell us: If we want to discover the nature of the human, here is where we should look for a real answer. The genre then applies imagination and scientific speculation to circumscribe the scope of this answer.

I anticipate several kinds of objections to describing science fictional models of alien encounters as taking a small but significant step towards understanding human nature. To those who think that thinking about aliens is pure escapist fantasy, I refer you to the many scientists currently at work scouring the heavens for signs of alien transmission. As Enrico Fermi argued during the age of the crisis of man, the real scientific puzzle isn’t why intelligent people would expect to find aliens, but why we haven’t seen any evidence of transmissions as of yet. To those who think that the science fictional approach to fundamental anthropology simply attempts to replace God as the guantror of human nature: You’re right. Science fiction is indeed trying to imagine a natural being that can do the humanity-defining work of God. This is not an empty project if you’re looking for human nature.

Others will object that science fiction writers simply project existing human cultural difference onto the stars. But first, we have no reason for thinking that extra-terrestrial life won’t have earthly analogues. If, as H.G. Wells imagined, the difference between human and alien ends up resembling the difference between 15th century Spain and 15th Century Yucatan, we’ll have discovered something new and important (though the pleasure of this knowledge will probably dim beside the prospect of our imminent enslavement and extermination). On the other hand, there’s no reason to suppose that extra-terrestrial life will have earthly analogues. But science fiction has this base covered too. Writers like Clarke and LeGuin and Lem (to say nothing of later writers like the Strugatsky brothers or Octavia Butler or Vernor Vinge) owe nothing to human cultural types in imagining the nonhuman.

Finally, some people will be dissatisfied with the science fictional approach because they think recognition is not, ultimately, a satisfying way of establishing human nature. This is a real objection. It animates the other major genre to pursue the nature of the human in an unempty way.


Accompanying the devotion to recognition Greif tracks from Ellison through the sixties, is something he doesn’t discuss: the disgust with recognition. The crisis of recognition shadows the crisis of man, and many of its key players are the same. Sartre, for instance, was a particularly influential critic of recognition. The other, far from establishing my nature, “is the radical negation of my experience, since he is the one for whom I am not subject but object.” (Being and Nothingness, wash square press 1993, p 310) This is as good a statement as any of the reasons why recognition fails to satisfy.

If Greif shows Ellison seeking a “nominalistic” recognition, I think Invisible Man is more accurately seen as the great American novel of the anti-recognition tradition. Race shows Ellison’s protagonist, not just a problem with the particular social world of midcentury America, but a problem with the recognition dynamic that establishes any social world. The gap Greif shows Ellison highlighting, the gap between how others see me and my experience, the gap, that is, between subject and object, is an ineradicable and unacceptable feature of every recognition scene. Nominalism just won’t solve this issue, nor does it even really try. The gap between the self offered to me in recognition and my experience always reduces to the brutally simple difference between subject and object. Dispensing with social or racial categories does nothing to change this.

Ellison’s novel ends with the narrator speculating about his grandfather’s cryptic deathbed injunction to “yes them to death.” “Could he have meant, hell he must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men.” (574) The liberal concept of “thin citizenship,” of constitutional citizenship, is here affirmed as a principle that incorporates individuals without recognition. But the particular strategy Ellison uses to escape recognition is less important here than the rejection of recognition itself. From this perspective, we should no more expect the science fictional species-level recognition to adequately define human nature than we should expect any of the black or white people Ellison’s narrator meets to dispel his invisibility.

The alternative to recognition is to seek the distinctive features of human nature within human experience. The memoir, or memoiristic novel, undertakes this project. The particular tradition I have in mind stretches from Proust and Celine, through Beckett, Ellison, Kathy Acker, and Thomas Bernhard, before issuing today in the explosion of ambitious examples of the genre including those by Ben Lerner, Shelia Heti, Tao Lin, and Karl Ove Knassgaurd.10

We need now to be explicit about something that Greif, in detailing the efforts of various writers and philosophers to grapple with the nature of humanity, never quite gets to. The precondition for philosophers and writers taking on this topic is the conviction that there is something about human nature that biology is powerless to tell us. In the modern era, the prestige of science is such that every non-scientific pursuit of truth needs to be explicitly or implicitly accompanied by an argument for why science’s methods are inadequate to the object in question. The price of making bad arguments, as Theory has discovered over the past two decades, is slow or fast death. The humanist investigation of human nature needs to be accompanied by a description of exactly where and why biology fails. I suspect part of the reason for the failure of the writers and philosophers Greif explores lies in their relative neglect of this issue, though to be fair, much of this discourse took place before the major modern successes of evolutionary theory.

The science fictional search for human nature is predicated on the philosophical idea that intersubjective recognition, and not the objective biological description of features, serves to secure identity. The memoiristic search is predicated on the conviction that biology is not yet able to grasp human nature, and on the suspicion that it may never be able to do so. The belief that grasping the nature of consciousness requires other philosophical and scientific tools than those on offer is of course quite old, but interest in the subject by neuroscientists, philosophers, and biologists reached a kind of tipping point in the late postwar era. Celebrated works by Thomas Nagel, Francis Crick, Francisco Varela, David Chalmers, and Galen Strawson define some of the intellectual landmarks.

One idea emerging from this matrix is that the first person provides access to a crucial kind of data about the human inaccessible from either the third person of science, or the second person of social recognition. Ambitious examples of literary memoiristic writing in the wake of Proust tend to develop models and to explore problems of consciousness in a more or less self aware way. The reign of the behaviorist/structuralist/poststructuralist dismissal of experience is long over in philosophical and scientific circles. The postmodernist suspicion of experience and ‘authenticity’ has similarly been buried by the neo-modernist writing now emerging from Proust’s many heirs. One of the tasks of contemporary criticism will be to catch up with this new phase of the literary exploration of human nature, and to bring it into meaningful contact with the way the question is pursued by other disciplines.

The limitations of space prevent me from responding to the splendid provocation of Greif’s book with more than a thumbnail sketch of the ways I think big questions are still worth pursuing, and are in fact being fruitfully pursued in memoir and science fiction.11


10. I am not of course claiming that all memoirstic writing is engaged in the pursuit of experience beyond recognition. There is, alas, a robust tradition of the memoir of recognition, the memoir which seeks to project a recognizable identity. Similarly, it would be foolish to pretend that science fiction as a genre is wholly or even primarily concerned with the alien recognition scenario. However, it does seem to me that apparently unrelated branches of that genre—books about AI, for instance—are in fact pursuing this aim through other means.
11. Full disclosure: I’m currently writing a science fictional memoir.


Mark Greif: Responses

The description of The Age of the Crisis of Man that I most recognize among the ones on offer here — the one I would confirm — appears in Michael Clune’s summary. I start with it, piecing it together from some of his sentences, because it will provide some context for readers who have not yet read my book, and give the point d’appui on which I stand in my responses:

[The book] explore[s] how the ‘metamorphoses and reapplications or inversions of discourse’ generate a rich array of problems and images before dead-ending. . . . For Greif, the development of the midcentury discourse of human nature finally produces a fundamental contradiction expressed by the tension between the claims of difference and universality, liberation and justice, the particular and the general. . . .

The presupposition . . . is that the search for the essence of love or the human is in a certain sense empty. . . . The true function of the incessant search for the nature of the human is to produce a certain pattern of writing, speaking, and thinking. . . . After reading Greif’s book, we don’t, in fact, know anything more about humanity, or the rights and capacities that might follow from such knowledge. We do, however, know something of the way the discourse of the crisis of man has laid out a grid of possible intellectual and political positions. In this way, empty discourse creates real effects, though their value is, at best, ambivalent.

I would happily have the philosophical underpinning of the book stand or fall on such an account. It is of course up to readers to see the degree to which I was able to successfully carry that aim through, and with what implications (for them, for me).

My chief resistance in these reviews of my book is necessarily to Mary Esteve’s, since her review is most dubious and critical of my approach. But I will try to answer, and also resist as necessary, Lisa Siraganian’s, Andrew Hoberek’s, and Michael Clune’s, too. I hope that my bluntness at times does not take away from the sense of my gratitude and indebtedness to each of these authors for taking seriously, and indeed taking to task, The Age of the Crisis of Man. I have received no profounder, more thought-provoking, or more helpful criticism than these reviews. None is an endorsement of my book. Which is all to the good.


Lisa Siraganian gives a just and compelling account of the book’s arguments about midcentury fiction, and I’m pleased to see that it opens up lines of inquiry for American poetry of the same period, beginning with Olson, Baraka, and Bishop. She turns to Olson’s “Human Universe” of 1951, and finds in this essay traces of the “discourse of the crisis of man” as well as necessary questions about its entwinement with the new poetics. “Here’s Olson again: ‘Can one restate man in any way to repossess him of his dynamic?’ and from the same essay: ‘particularism has to be fought for, anew.’ Poets felt and responded to this obligation to humanize a fallen mankind just as pointedly as any novelist—they simply took on the challenge in more capacious, meditative ways, befitting the conventions and literary history of their genre.” Fair enough.

Among Siraganian’s most powerful challenges is something she sees as “most problematic” in the book: “Greif is never quite clear whether universalism per se is the central, indefatigable error of the discourse of man, or if the error is in thinking that universalism could be put into practice.” There is some sense in which I just can’t conceive the question as a question, or conceive it at all, from this particular book’s presuppositions. The “discourse” the book describes is something that accretes, and changes, historically, moving forward in time, as different figures enter and leave, as topics and ideas move from one domain to another—often with unintended consequences from the point of view of previous speakers and domains. It has an itinerary, at most a constitution (frequently changed and amended), but not much of a nature. How could I conceive a “central, indefatigable error”—a single synchronic coalescence? But I fear I may be missing it just because of these presuppositions having to do with transit across domains—with change over time—and a kind of indifference to (not to mystify it with too-large words) the ontology of concepts or arguments. Similarly with what strike me as very profound, challenging, and powerful thoughts—ultimately, philosophical thoughts—late in Siraganian’s review about the natures of different kinds of discourses, about the nature of abstraction, and about the usefulness here of the very notion of the “‘concrete universal,’” drawn from debates on the ontology of the literary work of art, which would account for how a literary work can be “in a peculiar sense a very individual thing or a very universal thing or both.”


I’m grateful to Andrew Hoberek’s kind acknowledgment of the question of genre as alive for The Age of the Crisis of Man—specifically the question of the genres of intellectual-historical and literary-historical and literary-critical writing in which it was meant to participate. It’s true that I believe, in general, that the purpose of critique is to change practices, not humiliate practitioners to the point of abandoning meaningful or ambitious projects. And, specifically, that in later stages of construction of The Age of the Crisis of Man—once I felt I saw the range of domains that my investigation was taking me to, over many years—I did think about the “big intellectual and literary history about a big topic” as a mode of knowledge-production, and how I could contribute something comparable but benefiting from critiques and cautions.

The funny thing is that in integrating those critiques, one dimension I thought I was being most mindful of was strict attention to how “institutions” (and comparable conceptual entities) did and didn’t connect, interlock, communicate, and shape or determine effects. This also meant unusual strictness (for me) about what individuals could know, or have heard or read, and about problems of aggregation (at what scale do decisions, declarations, “debates,” written production, and even reception occur?), and chronology.

So, in that sense, it’s certainly true that my purpose was to start with a kind of tunnel vision and see how matters continually expanded, or new domains were touched, only when the linkages actually occurred—“the Holocaust” when commentators at different scales of reach and audience began to write about the disappearance of Europe’s Jews and the death camps; “the threat of atomic destruction,” more simply, only from the moment the US destroyed Hiroshima and thus revealed the atomic bomb, and so forth. The “institutions” in my history are of a very large number, and often of very different kinds: for example, “the German-Jewish academic refugees,” neo-Thomism, the London School of Economics, the University of Chicago, “French existentialism,” the Vienna Positivists, Partisan Review, Robert Maynard Hutchins’s and Mortimer Adler’s “The Great Books” project, the reconstruction of an American literary canon in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, world government agitation, the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, the National Book Award, and perhaps—seen from particular vantage points of individuals and groups in specific times and places and coteries—the fantasy of “the American novel.”

I think that the appeal to histories embedded in “an institution” as such—especially in literary study unconditioned by more formal sociology or at least literary sociology and sociology of knowledge—can become another shibboleth. I think it is already engaging in a kind of muddle about institutions and institutional analysis to consider Mark McGurl’s The Program Era to operate “within a history of an institution” (my italics), though McGurl’s book is a landmark, and work that strongly inspired me. McGurl uses the nomenclature of “the program” – for good strategic and rhetorical reasons – but I think it will be misleading for readers to take over that terminology as definitive of “an institution” in any simple way, as opposed to naming, say, a complex, a network, a discipline, even a tradition, or all of the above. In McGurl’s book, he writes literary-critical chapters on a series of fiction writers who trained and wrote and often taught within particular MFA-granting university programs in creative writing. Are Iowa, Stanford, Princeton the meaningful institutions? Is the discipline of university creative writing in the postwar US the meaningful institution? Much more important than answering this is paying attention to causation, situation, embeddedness—to a kind of sociological thinking, not always emphasized in training in literary history—which underlies the sorts of work which I sense Hoberek and I are united in admiring.


Now, to respond to Esteve. I hope it will be a sign of respect for the pressure of her arguments to take up her challenges very directly.

Insofar as “universalism versus particularism” is a core concern of the book, it is because the book can show (I think) a history of positions and arguments and works which precede our current constructions. One value of the history is to show a less divided, or a differently ordered, cosmos preceding our concepts. The charge of “circularity,” however, is what will appear when you can’t see an earlier period except through categories of the present. Because a variety of concepts of the present are in view in the book, and the book’s purpose is to provide unfamiliar and even disorienting histories for them, I fear those concepts loom so large for Esteve as to occlude the page. She is taking the categories of “graduate seminars held over the last 10 or 20 years” (Esteve) and piecing out the history I trace into those categories. So, even though the book is meant to revise and provide alternatives to familiar historiography of the period (for example, David Hollinger’s), Esteve objects that I should have “investigated further” on Hollinger’s lines—that is, pursuing the already familiar interpretations. This double-logic of “You are only pursuing the familiar” and “Why don’t you pursue what’s familiar?” is symptomatic of the whole review.

To write about someone is to prefer them; to describe something is to endorse it; concepts are of long-standing and don’t vary; we must recover the presence of strong beliefs — these seem to me the implied premises of Esteve’s reading of my book. Take the problem that I say that critics of the 1940s stated certain questions which they believed novels of the future must answer. I argue that these questions are addressed in detail in key novels which then won prizes, were publicized by those critics and others, and became lastingly canonical works: The Old Man and the Sea, Invisible Man, Dangling Man and The Adventures of Augie March, A Good Man is Hard to Find, V.. Esteve objects to the line of inquiry. She says I turn to the literary history to show the “major impact crisis-of-man talk had on American culture.” But I tried to make clear that the novelists aren’t generic representatives of “American culture” in my book, but figures situated within a matrix including both institutional risks and rewards particular to the literary field, in tension with their obligations to a wider “vernacular” experience of American life. Esteve attacks as “circular” the decision to focus on novelists who answered the critics’ criteria and reaped rewards, and I suppose the circularity would work like this: Choosing novelists who were influenced by critics’ criteria, and then elevated, will unfairly prove that all “novelists” (as such) were influenced by critics’ criteria. But I simply don’t make that more general claim. I’m specific about the individuals and the institutional channels through which influence and canonization occurred.

I think the larger problem is that Esteve wants my underlying question to be: “Do I, as a person, believe in the literary criteria that mid-century critics announced to their peers?” My question was, rather: “What were the criteria that mid-century critics announced, and were these criteria written into novels that were rewarded and canonized?” It doesn’t matter whether I like the criteria. I’m trying to record historical traces.

Or take Esteve’s problem that John Rawls is not a major character in my history. “It makes sense,” Esteve says, “that [Rawls] barely reaches the status of tertiary character in Greif’s story” — presumably she means it makes sense as a sign of my intellectual blind spots. But Rawls could hardly be a major character in a history of public thought between 1933 and 1973 when he did not publish his book (A Theory of Justice), nor find a readership nor attain broad influence, before 1971. And Esteve praises the “pointed debate that took place over the 1950s and 60s between Kenneth Arrow’s social choice theory and John Rawls’s distributive justice theory,” as if this should have been a needed corrective to something I am missing. But I don’t know of any “pointed debate” between Arrow and Rawls in the ‘50s and ‘60s, nor can I find one when I look.12 Arrow did write a review of Rawls in 1973, as you’d expect, and Rawls published a reply in 1974. This is a chronological, or, say, a historian’s quibble, but it matters. It’s just no good to have concepts floating over history without attention to their constitutions and modifications, in time, by individuals, and their reception by some plausible audience. “Rawls” may be a stalking horse or represent an idea simpliciter in another kind of methodology, but not in mine.

This is not to say that there couldn’t have been many other legitimate points to raise about particular figures who addressed the conflict over core beliefs (Esteve’s big interest) in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Rather than avoiding the topic, this question of belief is one of the four strands of essential conflict, at a meta-level (grouping the multiple individual conflicts), that I name and follow through those decades, from my Introduction forward, under the introductory rubric of “faith”: “faith–a vague word–as a worry about both religion and ideology. What sort of beliefs could and should be maintained in the midst of a world turned upside down? . . . It had a concrete political reference, too, in concerns over a ‘crisis of liberalism,’ meaning both economy and democracy” (10).

And Esteve does go to my O’Connor chapter for the status of strong, principled beliefs in this history — one big place for my discussion of what matters to Esteve — but I think she then ignores the analysis of O’Connor I give. She says I miss how O’Connor had commitments to an “intrinsic universalism” – her very odd phrase for a person’s principled beliefs generalizable to all people – that was not just theological. Esteve praises two other critics (one, Andrew Hoberek) who judge O’Connor’s relations to “the welfare state” or “Southern distinctiveness.” In fact my chapter is in large measure about O’Connor’s fiction’s principled relations to alternative sets of principled beliefs, those I group (following the era’s usage) under the name of “liberalism”: “liberal in the progressive and post-New Deal sense, defending progress toward the perfection of reasoned goals of equality and freedom, feeling compassion for outcasts because of their sociological circumstance and demographics and situation,” and “liberal too in the sense of church doctrine, both on the Protestant side . . . and on the Catholic side” (205). I parse all these alternative commitments, and O’Connor’s strong principles, and those of her short stories, in detail. If Esteve’s point is that these various principled beliefs should simply be sequestered from O’Connor’s commitments in theology, that would simply be a bad misunderstanding of O’Connor—and a reduction of O’Connor’s complexity, not a gain.

At bottom, I think the unity that makes sense of Esteve’s account of my book is a methodological refusal of history, and perhaps an insistence on the author’s embrace of “critique,” or commitments. But this would be critique only from the point of view of the speaking, “believing” person — from that person’s prior commitments — and it assumes that every act of writing, including mine, is something like a simple statement of commitments. It leaves no room for either the historical activity as such (descriptions of past positions), nor for forms of critique that open up gaps between various positions without endorsing one over another at the starting point (e.g. genealogical or historical critique, or imminent critique). Nor, in its quest to recover the presence of the “intrinsic” in people’s arguments — a very odd word for something like “firm belief” and “faith,” unless insofar as one wants to staple belief into the person, unvaryingly — does Esteve’s impetus allow for much subtlety about wavering, confusion, and change in the sphere of ideas (and among the people who communicate through them). I really think it is a mistake to think that you have discovered something forgotten, or magic, in the humdrum truth that all of us (and, here, “midcentury intellectuals”) have principles that we believe apply to all people, and that we hold them as “a matter of belief, not empirical proof” (17). Certainly this is a fairly ordinary, and assumed, feature of everyday epistemology. It isn’t lost in investigations of how people then argue when addressing others, justify themselves, persuade, and conflict, such that it needs to be insisted upon.


I have already, in some sense, expressed my agreement with Clune in quoting him at the beginning of this response. I hope that St. Peter hears Clune’s likening of my work to Luhmann’s and I hope St. Peter will let me sit within hearing of the systems-sage of Bielefeld and all the other wise ones, in the hereafter, in the circle round the throne.

I look forward to reading Clune’s science fictional memoir. I take his ingenious point — and I am convinced by it — that, within the logic I lay out for mid-century, the identity of the human as such could only be established if there were a super-human Other. Ordinarily we think of such a presence as necessarily supernatural, and invoke the absence alike of God (in a secular modernity) and of a “god’s eye view” (pace Nagel, in a perspectivist and pluralist modernity). Clune suggests the problem is solved if the super-human being, and eye, is not super-natural, but extraterrestrial. And the resulting form of reflection was undertaken and accomplished, from the midcentury to the present, by science fiction: “Science fiction is indeed trying to imagine a natural being that can do the humanity-defining work of God. This is not an empty project if you’re looking for human nature” (Clune). Clearly I should read more science fiction. Clune’s insight does makes one think a bit differently, for example, about the reasons for Hannah Arendt’s passionate injunction, in the preface to The Human Condition, against thinking of humanity in any terms that would allow it to leave the earth, or colonize the Moon or Mars — why even imagining human beings outside the context of a terrestrial grounding compromises her demarcation of what are, and aren’t, properly human pursuits for human beings, even when she doesn’t believe in either an essentialist or divine nature for the species “Man.” For such a hypothetical would have “solved” the human condition in a way incompatible with her sense of natality, a permanent unknownness in humanity, and new beginnings.

On the parallel search to develop a line of literary prose which is able to recover and anatomize the features of human nature outside of such recognition — Clune’s case for memoir — I am also impressed, and perhaps less easily convinced but more deeply intrigued. Though again I can only admire, or muse, rather than add much or object. I will say that among the contemporary neo-memoir writers Clune mentions — Heti, or Lerner, for example — I had been more struck by what I thought of as the “documentary” penetration of their texts, the power of the “real” to enter directly through tape-recorded speech, transcripts, art objects, historical occurrences, and so forth, than by these books’ status as memoirs. But if we think of them not primarily as heirs to Proust but as heirs to Montaigne, and consider these works’ capacity to undertake “experiments,” essentially — keeping in mind Clune’s canny analysis of the rivalry with science as the central condition on truth-telling about the human, outside of biology, in our time — then the documentary and the memoiristic impulses coalesce. This is something I would like to think about more.


12. In subsequent correspondence, Mary Esteve has pointed out to me that Rawls’s important article “Justice as Fairness,” published in 1958, made reference to Arrow in a footnote, and also that Rawls, Arrow, and Amartya Sen co-taught a graduate seminar after Arrow moved from Stanford to Harvard in 1968.  I pointed out in turn that, in that footnote, a widely known book is merely named as the second of three exemplary books of “recent welfare economics”; as for the graduate seminar in 1968, a bit of research shows that it enrolled only six students and became famous only in retrospect (again, after the publication of A Theory of Justice).  So I would say these are tough grounds for claiming the existence of a pointed debate between Rawls and Arrow in the 1950s and 1960s.

Esteve’s deeper point, however, is that Rawls published articles steadily in the 1950s through the 1960s, and his views should have been known in disciplinary circles within Anglo-American or analytic political philosophy before A Theory of Justice in 1971.  Rawls had already become a tenured professor in philosophy at Harvard, then still a department at an apex of its influence, in 1962.  On that evidence, it is wrong for me to charge Esteve with anachronism in calling for Rawls to be elevated from a minor to a major figure in my narrative of thought from 1933 to 1973—if one follows a different protocol for chronological significance, in a different mode of intellectual history.  Esteve relies, as I understand her, on a form of intellectual history in which the existence of a particular disciplinary circle helps to establish the ideas in available circulation, regardless of their actual distribution or reception. My method in Age of the Crisis of Man tried to insist on ideas’ significance only when, or once, they traveled, or changed location, or were exchanged across fields or sub-fields or domains.  A familiar way to put this is that I care much more about reception and influence for philosophical figures and positions, than for the positions themselves. (I use the fiction-writers quite differently—as means of seeing a kind of individual response to received ideas and positions, regardless of their fictions’ eventual reception—which has been a source of confusion).

In support of Esteve’s position, David Hollinger has urged on me much the same significance of Rawls, rooting his arguments also in the seminal “Justice as Fairness.”  The stakes of the reference to Rawls at that early date (rather than once A Theory of Justice was published), is to establish the existence of a substantive, coherent, cosmopolitan secular liberal picture of normativity for human life that is neither utilitarian and scientistic, nor theological, nor conservative, right at the heart of the period in which I diagnose a certain “emptiness” or failure to the aggregate discourse still centered on a longed-for figure of “Man.”

This, however, returns us to an earlier divergence of mine from Hollinger’s career-long reckoning (to which Esteve alludes) with other advocates of such a pluralist, cosmopolitan, liberal vision of the expansion of respect, fairness, and fellowship to all human beings even without any theological sanction.  I have suggested that, specifically for the decades I treat, Hollinger’s exemplary figures become somewhat insulated within university social sciences; my book traces other constitutions of the “public” ideas might reach.  (See Age of the Crisis of Man, 335-6, note 44.)

But it does make sense to me to say, for example, that if I currently end my last chapter with a convenient, symbolic 1971 debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky, as the theater of a kind of schism in humane thought which (I believe) came into being as the consequence of history rather than essential antimonies in thought (speaking, now, as a wishful individual of 2015), then an account which had included the whole of the 1970s really might have needed, in effect, to replace Chomsky with John Rawls as an “other” of Foucault for an Anglo-American university left though the ‘70s and 1980s, and toward the present (animating the opposite pole from “critique,” that of normativity and legalism).

Scholarship currently underway should also help to bring Rawls’s role and influence, and the pre-history of A Theory of Justice, into focus.  I have benefited personally from the superb work on Rawls of Katrina Forrester, of Queen Mary College, University of London, unpublished but forthcoming in her book Reinventing Morality; Prof. Hollinger has directed both Esteve and me to new work on Rawls by Mackenzie Bok of St. John’s College, Cambridge: P. Mackenzie Bok, “To the Mountaintop Again: The Early Rawls and Post-Protestant Ethics in Postwar America,” Modern Intellectual History, forthcoming.  Esteve recommends the discussion of Arrow and Rawls in S. M. Amadae, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2003).  For the size of the Rawls-Arrow-Sen seminar, I have relied on John A. Weymark, “An Introduction to Allan Gibbard’s Harvard Seminar Paper,” Economics and Philosophy 30:3 (November 2014): 263-268.