- Politics and Criticism:An Interview with Bruce Robbins
While we—those in the West, particularly on the Left—might criticize the oppressions of neo-imperialism, we also benefit from it. That is the quandary that Bruce Robbins confronts in his recent book, The Beneficiary (Duke UP, 2017), which looks at capitalism and global inequality through analyses of figures like George Orwell and Naomi Klein. Over his career, Robbins has sorted through quandaries of politics and literature, intellectuals and class, the public and the professional, and cosmopolitanism and globalization.
Robbins began as a critic of the British novel, focusing on the representation of class in The Servant's Hand: English Fiction From Below (Columbia UP, 1986; rpt. Duke, 1993), which examines the barely visible but pivotal role that servants play in the British novel. He expanded his consideration of class in Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State (Princeton UP, 2007) to those who rise above their class origins, such as protagonists in Horatio Alger stories, pointing out that, while usually taken to exemplify individual pluck, they show the importance of the institutions of the welfare state as well as of mentors.
Robbins has also turned his concern with class toward critics themselves, analyzing the complications of professionalization and the public effect of criticism, notably in his book Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (Verso, 1993). He also edited the collections Intellectuals: Aesthetics, Politics, Academics (Minnesota, 1990), and The Phantom Public Sphere (Minnesota, 1993), which arise out of his work on the journal Social Text, which he coedited with Andrew Ross from 1991-2000.
Through the 1990s, Robbins concentrated on what he calls "actually existing cosmopolitanism," which he introduces in Secular Vocations and develops in Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (NYU P, 1999), Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (Duke, 2012), and The Beneficiary. In conjunction with those, he coedited the collections Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation (with Pheng Cheah; Minnesota, 1998), Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, [End Page 489] Culture (with David Palumbo-Liu and Nirvana Tanoukhi; Duke, 2011), and Cosmopolitanisms (with Paulo Lemos Horta; NYU, 2017).
In addition, since the 1990s he has written regularly for venues such as The Nation, n + 1, and London Review of Books as well as academic ones. One issue he has focused on is the plight of Palestinians in the face of Israeli violence and occupation, co-sponsoring an "Open Letter from American Jews to Our Government" in full-page ads in The New York Times (2002) and elsewhere, and making the documentary film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists (2013), which features interviews with Tony Kushner, Judith Butler, and others.
Born in 1949 in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Robbins went to Harvard University, where he earned all his degrees (BA, 1971; MA, 1976; PhD, 1979), working with the influential comparativist Harry Levin, Edward Said, and Jonathan Arac, then his graduate student mentor. Robbins taught at the University of Geneva (1976-1981) and the University of Lausanne (1981-1984), returning to the U.S. in 1984 to teach at Rutgers and moving in 2001 to Columbia, where he is currently Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities.
This interview took place on 7 October 2017 in New York City and was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams. It was transcribed by Katie Eckenwiler, an MA student in English at Carnegie Mellon University.
It's hard to define your work succinctly. Even as far back as The Servant's Hand, you were never fixed in a specific school of criticism. Most people in that time could be placed in one, or adopted one—one was a deconstructive critic, a Marxist critic, a feminist critic, a reader response critic, and so on. How would you define your kind of criticism?
I didn't think I needed an adjective. When I was writing my thesis and my first book, I'm not sure that I was aware that other people had them and therefore that I should have one too. That may have been a little bit a...