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New Left Review I/227, January-February 1998

Judith Butler

Merely Cultural

I propose to consider two different kinds of claims that have circulated recently, representing a culmination of sentiment that has been building for some time. [1] This paper was originally given as a lecture for the plenary panel on ‘Locations of Power’ at the Rethinking Marxism conference in Amherst,Massachusetts in December 1996 .It has been revised for publication here.We are grateful to Duke University Press for permission to publish this essay.It was previously published in Social Text ,nos.52-3 ,Fall/Winter 1997 ,which also carried a reply by Nancy Fraser,‘Heterosexism,Misrecognition,and Capitalism:A Response to Judith Butler ’ . One has to do with an explicitly Marxist objection to the reduction of Marxist scholarship and activism to the study of culture, sometimes understood as the reduction of Marxism to cultural studies. The second has to do with the tendency to relegate new social movements to the sphere of the cultural, indeed, to dismiss them as being preoccupied with what is called the ‘merely’ cultural, and then to construe this cultural politics as factionalizing, identitarian, and particularistic. If I fail to give the names of those I take to hold these views, I hope that I will be forgiven. The active cultural presumption of this essay is that we utter and hear such views, that they form some part of the debates that populate the intellectual landscape within progressive intellectual circles. I presume as well that to link individuals to such views runs the risk of deflecting attention from the meaning and effect of such views to the pettier politics of who said what, and who said what back—a form of cultural politics that, for the moment, I want to resist.

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