In addition to his writing, Robbins co-edited the journal Social Text from 1991 to 2000, which saw pathbreaking issues on academic labor, postcolonialism, queer theory, and other fields. The journal was also the target of the so-called Sokal hoax (when a physicist published a hoax article that aimed to discredit contemporary theory) — an event that Robbins discusses below.
Most recently, Robbins has turned his hand to filmmaking, producing the documentary film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists (2013), which features interviews with Tony Kushner, Judith Butler, and others, and a forthcoming one on the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand.
This interview took place on October 7, 2017, in New York City and was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams.
JEFFREY J. WILLIAMS: Your new book, The Beneficiary, looks at an uncomfortable side of cosmopolitanism, underscoring that though we might criticize capitalism, we’re beneficiaries of it too. It’s a bookend to your last book, Perpetual War, which looks at globalization from the standpoint of the victims, instead of looking from the standpoint of those who benefit. Can you talk about that more?
BRUCE ROBBINS: As cosmopolitanism has caught on, a lot of people have decided that it is a banner they can march behind. I’ve of course been pleased, but also a little uneasy because the version of cosmopolitanism is sometimes not strenuous enough. It’s something that people can claim on the cheap. I have always been haunted by the ancient Greek normative sense that your cosmopolitan commitment has to prove itself in difficult moments, when the power of your community is being usurped and you’re being asked to go along with it, so it’s not always so easy or convenient.
Perpetual War was a moment when I said, if you’re not willing to detach yourself from your nation when it is making a war that you consider unjust, then you really can’t use the word cosmopolitanism appropriately. It’s not going to be comfortable to say I am detaching myself from my community when that community is sending men and women into harm’s way in a foreign place. People may spit on you, or worse. We don’t want to forget the more strenuous version of cosmopolitanism that involves detachment from military adventurism or war.
But at some point I realized it’s not just military entanglement that would define that more strenuous version of cosmopolitanism; it’s also the question of the economic well-being of people who are far away from you and belong to other countries. If you are willing to benefit from a system that systematically deprives people far away of a great deal of the product of their labor and ships that surplus over to you and makes your life more comfortable, and you’re not ready to say anything about that, that’s as bad a problem as going along with war.
The original idea was for Perpetual War and The Beneficiary to be labeled as two volumes of the same book, one of them about violence and the other about economics. The subtitle of Perpetual War is “Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence”; I took the subtitle “Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Inequality” off The Beneficiary, but I really think of the two as the same book. The basic idea is those of us in more prosperous countries are benefiting from a systematic siphoning off of surplus from the so-called less developed countries.
You mean where our shirts are made, and where our food is grown, and so on?
Right, and there’s a moral obligation for us to somehow factor that into how we think, feel, and act. It’s a simple idea, although I had a terrible time writing the book because I would have liked it to say what is to be done, and I don’t really have the answer for that. But I feel it was worth saying anyway because thinking about the beneficiary pushes us toward a discourse beyond what counts as humanitarianism. Ordinary versions of politics tend to be domestic and leave out the area outside the borders of the nation. Humanitarianism tends to address people as disinterested spectators of the suffering of others. What I’m trying to add is: “You’re not as disinterested as you think because you’re casually implicated in the catastrophes that you’re now being asked to look at. Surely that causal implication will make you think about your relation to those things differently.”
You have a key chapter on Orwell, citing where he talks about how, during World War II, the economy of England is predicated on India. He says something to the effect that even a coal miner, however exploited, depends on the labor of someone 10,000 miles away.
Orwell is the hero of the book. Without him, I wouldn’t have had a book. His dilemma is a good thing to remember these days. In 1942, he was asked by the BBC to make radio broadcasts to India and to talk people there into taking the side of the Allies against the Axis. He’s very anti-fascist and he wants to do that, but he asks, why should they listen given (a) that they know all these atrocities that the colonial power, Britain, has been perpetrating in India. What are the Nazis to them? They don’t know Nazis, but they know us. And (b) the majority of people, even the worst off in England, are living a lot better than they are. So what solidarity? The way he speaks in those BBC broadcasts reflects a desire to see something like global economic justice in the immediate interest of anti-fascism. So, I’m trying to enlist Orwell into a line that goes up through Naomi Klein.
You first introduced your version of cosmopolitanism in your 1993 book, Secular Vocations, where you use the phrase “comparative cosmopolitanisms.” One problem with cosmopolitanism is that, while it evokes a broad sense of community, it’s also associated with elitism. But part of your point is that there isn’t one universal version but different versions available.
I got involved with the word “cosmopolitanism” in the context of the culture wars. Some people were saying things that called me out, on the right but also on the left. On the left, for example, people were stressing the value of the local or the value of the situated. So I thought I could make this classic ancient Greek concept do some work for us as a new collectivity. I was inspired by James Clifford, who had started using the word cosmopolitanism, and by George Marcus and Paul Rabinow, who were trying to use cosmopolitanism as a synonym for culture that would break out of the model of the traveling European and the stationary native. They were looking at a kind of cosmopolitanism from below, which helped pluralize it, getting it away from a universal, ethical cosmopolitanism — which happened to be European, through a long history.
I think I made a mistake calling the first essay “Comparative Cosmopolitanisms,” even though that did make the plural point. The thing I wanted to push was “actually existing cosmopolitanism,” as opposed to a purely conceptual, hypothetical, normative version. What ought to interest us, in other words, is cosmopolitanism that actually exists in the world, experienced by diasporic communities, and so on. I also felt haunted by the normative force of the ancient Greek version, which involves detachment from the values of your own community. It took me back to Edward Said on exile and brought together things I already had in mind.
Cosmopolitanism fits with other terms you use, like “worldly,” which Said also uses. How does cosmopolitanism differ from internationalism, which is the more Marxist term?
In some places I would value internationalism more highly, but it’s hard to use that word at moments when there’s no politically organized internationalism. It feels like you’re making too large a claim. Going to Spain to fight against Franco — that’s internationalism. “Worldly” I claim, but it has slightly different connotations. Some of the work that cosmopolitanism did for me was to overlap with the word “secular,” as opposed to the sacred. It’s another of Said's words.
The recent post-secular move in literary criticism, which has been critical of Said, is another thing that makes me come out swinging. It seems grotesque to me that, with the creationists out there, critics should have so much trouble thinking of what they do as secular. I certainly feel like I’m in Said’s zone of influence when I make all of these claims.
Besides your own writing, one of the main things you did through the ’90s was edit Social Text. From 1991 to 2000, you were co-editor with Andrew Ross, and those were storied years, with important issues on postcolonialism and cosmopolitanism, reports from various places around the globe like Palestine, Puerto Rico, Japan, and China, and the “Fear of a Queer Planet” issue. Then in the mid-’90s, there was the big “Science Wars” issue that spurred a lot of controversy. And in the late ’90s you had a good bit on academic labor and the Yale graduate student strike issue.
Social Text in the ’90s had some very good years. But I don’t feel that I did as much with Social Text as you did with Minnesota Review. You were on your own and you were very proactive, creating issues or features. I ran into a lot of resistance when I did try to create things with the Social Text collective. It really was a collective. Sometimes it was eight people, sometimes it was 15 people, and sometimes it was 20 people negotiating with each other, getting on each other’s nerves, accepting initiatives that came from other places.
To be editor the way Andrew and I were editors did not mean telling people what was going to happen. Luckily there were some very good people who brought things in and made things happen. To be honest, sometimes I felt what I gave the journal was more, “Let’s make sure it’s done on time, let’s make sure the sentences make sense, and let’s make sure it actually comes out.”
The issues were a lot more regular than they had been before, and you expanded to four issues a year. It seemed like a special time for the journal.
Social Text was founded by John Brenkman, Fredric Jameson, and Stanley Aronowitz, and it was a very imposing institution already. I was honored to have anything to do with it, so I certainly didn’t feel like it was hitting its stride with Andrew and me. It was more that we were keeping it going. But I thought we were engaging in the issues of our time. On the graduate student strike issue, we were out in front, along with some of the other issues you mentioned.
One of the things that we did was get the journal attached to Duke University Press. That was very controversial for the collective. There were various people who basically said, “Over my dead body. We are an organ of the independent left.” But people like me were saying, “As an organ of the independent left, we’re not coming out. Plus, the person who is working as managing editor is getting paid nothing and doesn’t want anything to do with Social Text anymore.” It was not a good model. But we won that, Andrew and I, even though not everybody was on our side.
I have to ask about the Sokal affair, which I sometimes still see mentioned, as if it proved the rotten core of theory and cultural studies [Social Text published an essay by a physicist, Alan Sokal, in the “Science Wars” issue (1996) that claimed that gravity was a cultural construct, among other things, and the essay was revealed as a hoax on the day of publication].
First of all, Social Text was not a refereed journal; it was a journal decided by the editorial collective. And I think our assumption was that this is a physicist explaining to non-physicists something that all physicists know already. Obviously Social Text would be the wrong place for a physics piece, and the author had to know that. So we didn’t think the piece needed to be vetted for its physics.
I personally regret how things turned out, but I didn’t read the essay before it was published. Four people read it and agreed on it. The fact that it quoted Stanley Aronowitz positively more than 10 times and that he was a founding editor of the journal may have had something to do with the enthusiasm of certain members.
I can see how you’d publish it — if I were doing an issue on contemporary science, I’d beg and borrow to get a piece by an actual scientist. That’s what I thought was unfair — it’s not that you believed physics was fictitious, but you were trying to bring in a scientist across the disciplinary divide. But the fallout is where I might have done it differently. I would have immediately said I screwed up, I made an embarrassing mistake, but for the very good reason that I was trying to bring in someone from science.
That is not really how Social Text reacted. I had bad arguments with other people on the collective because Sokal wanted to publish his explanation for the hoax in Social Text. I was the only person on the collective who said of course we should publish Sokal’s explanation. Other people were very angry, and the collective argued about it for six hours. It seemed obvious to me that if we considered ourselves on the left, he did too, and we had to show our good faith by running it. I didn’t end up leaving the journal for another four years, but there were a few other things like that that made it hard working in a collective.
A few years ago, you made the film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, and you interviewed Tony Kushner, Judith Butler, James Schamus, Gary Shteyngart, and several others about the Palestinian issue, and about Western power and Israel. How did that come about?
It goes back to Sokal’s hoax. After it came out in Social Text, I debated Sokal publicly two or three times, and six years later I received an email from him which included an attachment, “An Open Letter from American Jews to Our Government,” and he was asking me what I thought. I didn’t hit the delete button, and read it and thought, “This is pretty good.” I thought at the time of the Sokal affair that he was a leftist. We disagreed about certain things, but there were other things we absolutely agreed about.
And about the Open Letter he and I agreed, and one thing led to another, and he and I ended up running a campaign together for some months to get signatures on the letter. I suggested some changes to it, Judith Butler suggested some changes, and we circulated it, and we got people to sign it and to send in money so that we could put it out as an ad. We got a designer and put it out in the Times in July 2002 with something like 4,000 signatures. The final title was “Peace in the Middle East: An Open Letter of American Jews to Our Government.” Then we got it translated into Hebrew and Arabic and French, and it was published in any number of places and got a lot of discussion. Sokal and I worked very closely together and ran the whole campaign, and we did the same thing again in 2006.
Afterward, there was some money left, but Alan by this point was living mostly in Europe, and it didn’t seem that people read newspapers to the same extent, or they read them online and missed most of the advertisements. So with $15,000 left, I thought I had a responsibility to the people who sent the money to make their voices heard, and making a film would be one way to do that. I signed up some interesting people to do interviews, and I gave the $15,000 to a filmmaker who was at the New School, and I tried to raise more money. We put a team together and went and did the interviews, so the film got made.
I can’t say that it’s being shown on every television station, but it’s been shown a lot on university campuses, in some friendly churches, not so much in synagogues. A lot of people have seen it online, where it’s available for free. It’s pretty inept technically speaking, but I feel pretty good about it. Someone like Tony Kushner or Judith Butler, they could read the telephone book, as the saying goes, and they would be great to listen to. That came out in 2013.
You’re working on another film now, aren’t you?
Yes, now I’m working on one the center of which is an interview with the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, whom I interviewed the summer before last.
He’s an oppositional historian in Israel, isn’t he?
Yes. He was an intellectual historian of France who at a certain stage of his career, when he was well established, reinvented himself and wrote a book called The Invention of the Jewish People. It was a best seller in Hebrew and was translated in 20 languages, and it came out in English with Verso. Then he wrote a second one, The Invention of the Land of Israel, and a third one, How I Stopped Being a Jew. The guy is fascinating, and after I had read the first book, I had a conversation with a Verso editor in New York, and I got the idea of interviewing him. One thing led to another and I cold-called him to see what he’d say, and he agreed to it. Now I’m putting it together and editing it from the footage.
How much footage do you have?
Probably two to three hours, the best part of which is an extraordinary walk around the campus of Tel Aviv University, where he both studied and taught his whole life, with him pointing out the houses that are left from the Palestinian village that was destroyed and all the people were sent into exile — not in order to build the university, but just in order to get rid of them. Then the university was built on their village. He said, “People should know this,” and I agree.
Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted more than 70 interviews with critics, philosophers, writers, and others, published in Minnesota Review, Sympoke, Iowa Review, Contemporary Literature, and elsewhere. His book How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University includes profiles drawn from interviews.