Walter Benn Michaels

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Walter Benn Michaels (born 1948) is an American literary theorist, known as the author of Our America: Nativism, Modernism and Pluralism (1995) and The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (2004).


Michaels earned his BA in 1970 and PhD in 1975 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Afterwards, he taught at Johns Hopkins University (1974–1977, 1987–2001) and the University of California, Berkeley (1977–1987). Since 2001, he has taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Department of English, for which he has served as Head (2001–2007).

"Against Theory", an article co-written by Michaels and Steven Knapp, is included in the Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism. His study of American Naturalism, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism; American Literature at the Turn of the Century, was published in 1987.


Michaels' work has received substantial criticism. To cite one example, in their 1994 article, "White Philosophies," Avery Gordon and Christopher J. Newfield claimed that Michaels fails to reckon with a widely recognized body of scholarship that identifies racism as a powerful structuring condition of the world: "Michaels's assimilation of cultural identity to racial essentialism lends an air of credibility to an analysis that would otherwise be more readily seen to reflect the perspective of historically white interests. This perspective ... avoids a reckoning with the fact that the moments of nearest approach between culture and race are, in U.S. history, those most likely to be utterly inseparable from power struggles."[1]

Selected works[edit]





  1. ^ Gordon, Avery; Newfield, Christopher (July 1994). "White Philosophy". Critical Inquiry. 20 (4): 737–757. 

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