Ipropose to consider two different kinds of claims that have circulated recently, representing a culmination of sentiment that has been building for some time.footnote1 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.
These are some of the forms that this kind of argument has taken in the last year: that the cultural focus of left politics has abandoned the materialist project of Marxism, that it fails to address questions of economic equity and redistribution, that it fails as well to situate culture in terms of a systematic understanding of social and economic modes of production; that the cultural focus of left politics has splintered the Left into identitarian sects, that we have lost a set of common ideals and goals, a sense of a common history, a common set of values, a common language and even an objective and universal mode of rationality; that the cultural focus of left politics substitutes a self-centred and trivial form of politics that focuses on transient events, practices, and objects rather than offering a more robust, serious and comprehensive vision of the systematic interrelatedness of social and economic conditions.
Clearly, one more or less implicit presumption in some of these arguments is the notion that poststructuralism has thwarted Marxism, and that any ability to offer systematic accounts of social life or to assert norms of rationality—whether objective, universal, or both—is now seriously hampered by a poststructuralism that has entered the field of cultural politics, where that poststructuralism is construed as destructive, relativistic and politically paralyzing.
Perhaps you are already wondering how it is that I might take the time to rehearse these arguments in this way, giving them air-time, as it were, and perhaps you are also wondering whether or not I am already parodying these positions. Do I think that they are worthless, or do I think that they are important, deserving of a response? If I were parodying these positions, that might imply that I think that they are ridiculous, hollow, formulaic, that they have a generalizability and currency as discourse that allows for them to be taken up by almost anyone and to sound convincing, even if delivered by the most improbable person.
But what if my rehearsal involves a temporary identification with them, even as I myself participate in the cultural politics under attack? Is that temporary identification that I perform, the one that raises the question of whether I am involved in a parody of these positions, not precisely a moment in which, for better or worse, they become my position?