John Michael Sprinker—a member of the editorial board of this journal, co-editor of the Haymarket series for Verso, a fiercely dedicated teacher and ferociously intelligent literary and cultural critic—died suddenly, of a massive coronary, on 12 August 1999, in Port Jefferson, New York. He was 49 years old.
There are so many reasons to honour Michael Sprinker and mourn his passing that it is hard to know where to begin, or how to order all that should be said. Given this difficulty, I hope I may be forgiven for starting with some common facets of our backgrounds, determinants we recognized so clearly that the degree to which they undergirded our twenty-year friendship hardly needed to be discussed. We were both baby-boom white guys hailing from the boondocks rather than from city or suburb, from homes situated on a thin petit-bourgeois ledge between the business and professional rulers of the small universes we came from, and the racist, reactionary, yet resistant white working-class people over whom those rulers more or less directly held sway. Accordingly, even as our cold-war childhoods in such kingdoms bred a fierce desire to escape our hometowns and transcend our origins, we were also blessed and cursed with the double vision that is able both to make out what lies above and what below its location, and to discern all too clearly the unequally co-constitutive relationship between the two views.
Thus, when, thanks to the expansion and partial democratization of the American educational system in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as to our own overdetermined academic achievements, Michael and I were able to make our escape from the small towns we had known to the ‘good schools’ to which we had won entry, we arrived fuelled with a blend of high cultural ambition and gut moral outrage, whose contradictions the élite collegiate environment of the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s tended to occlude as much as to sharpen. At the end of the 1970s, when I met Michael during the course of my on-campus interview for a job at Oregon State University, where he was already working, he was, it is fair to say, an intellectual devotee primarily of Derrida and Foucault, and a self-confessed armchair anarchist. Later, somewhat flippantly, he would say when asked that he became a Marxist and socialist by reading Marx—and, no doubt, something of this is true, especially if Althusser’s name is given alongside Marx’s. But I would also insist on the part played by the prolonged strain felt and insight gained from Michael’s social existence, first within that small-town petit-bourgeois universe, then as sublated, via the magic of élite academic-professional transformation, within the serried ranks of the professional managerial class.
But the experience of active membership in an explicitly socialist group was equally constitutive, especially during those exceptionally grim first years of Reaganite reaction. In Oregon, the two of us belonged to the local chapter of the New American Movement, a socialist-feminist organization now long since absorbed and neutralized by the Democratic Socialists of America (dsa), but then still very much alive and active, at least in our part of the world. The blur of activity in those years, within academic life and on the street alike, is hard now to recall in anything close to full detail. There were community film series to organize and run, fliers and posters to make up and post, coalitions to enter into and/or argue with, demonstrations to develop, sponsor, join; there were reading and study groups to form, new courses and curricula to develop and defend, as well as, for the two of us, a Marxist literary magazine, the minnesota review to edit, publish, and distribute twice a year. And, for Michael, there was the work he increasingly found himself doing ‘on the side’, as it were—as if, in those days, there were any sides to spare—for what was then still called New Left Books as often as Verso.
By the time Michael left Oregon, then, to take up a position at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, he had not simply found himself through his reading to be an Althusserian Marxist; rather, in the life of a fully active, vociferously socialist intellectual, he had found his home and his balance as well. During these years, in which so many other putatively left intellectuals devoted their energies and intellects to creating ‘post-Marxist’ identities and ‘post-socialist’ careers for themselves, Michael remained grounded in the strength of his devotion to the socialist project, and in the clarity of his understanding of his position and role within the long struggle to achieve it. At suny-Stony Brook, notwithstanding the everincreasing horror, contempt, and opposition of the majority of his colleagues, he inspired, sustained, provoked and supported one crop after another of brilliant radical intellectuals—then moved heaven and earth, against the odds in an incredibly inhospitable climate, to place his young protégés in jobs. He became a co-founding member of Solidarity, a small but significantly active socialist political formation, whose publication Against the Current he consistently upheld; likewise, he also played an increasingly major role in the Marxist Literary Group, whose annual Summer Institutes were never really fully underway without his withering wit and fervently committed, well-stocked mind ‘in the house’.
Meanwhile, as a Verso editor, he was responsible for seeing several of the most important interventions in left cultural history and theory of the 1980s and 1990s into print. In the Haymarket series of titles on us history, culture and politics, there is, for example, working-class autodidact Ted Allen’s magisterial two-volume study The Invention of Whiteness and David Roediger’s pathbreaking work, in The
All these tasks, and more, Michael took on and turned over, with the same astonishing combination of dispatch and thoroughness that characterized all his work, including his own scholarship. In a score of papers and a brace of public talks delivered virtually around the world, in Eastern Europe and India as well as in the us and uk, in Imaginary Relations (1987), History and Ideology in Proust (1994), and the book-length work on Marxist aesthetics he had nearly completed at the time of his death, from which the following essay is taken, he brought his formidably disciplined mind to bear on an historical critique and excavation of all the key concepts whose vexed relations and problematic histories continued to provoke his recuperative efforts, towards a revolutionary instance that recuperation might help serve to effect. ‘Deconstruction, Marxism, art, the past,’ he wrote in 1997, ‘the meaning of none of these terms is settled, conventional wisdom to the contrary notwithstanding.’ If, as I have suggested, Michael’s concern to recuperate, radicalize, and redeem these terms—and salvage Althusserian ‘science’ along the way to boot—was overdetermined by the contradictions he carried to college with him thirty years before, his reckoning with those contradictions was, and will remain, exemplary for its unflinching methodological rigour and unstintingly comprehensive scholarship. Michael, for all the ferocity of his radicalism, was also quite plainly a traditionalist, even a cultural conservative. He understood, with Adorno, that one must know one’s hegemonic cultural heritage well in order to hate it properly; he knew as well as Benjamin that even the dead are not safe from reappropriation and redestruction by a class enemy armed with the power to define aesthetic value and bestow cultural cachet. So, while fierce in his affection for Elvis and unabashed in his delight in South Park, he refused to cede Anglo-European high culture to the political reactionaries who would claim it as their own, or to abandon the rich historical tradition of Marxist aesthetics to the oblivion to which it is blithely consigned by many an amnesiac presentist practising ‘cultural studies’ today.