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New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 621-626
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Around 1990, after a decade of groundbreaking work on race, class, and gender, a number of influential critics turned a skeptical eye toward identity. Yet the scholars who initiated this critique were often those most aware of its risks. Working in the fields of feminism, social theory, critical race studies, and queer theory, these critics were well-positioned to understand the political and institutional importance of the work that had already been done in the name of identity. At the end of Gender Trouble, itself a key contribution to this emergent analysis, Judith Butler worried the relation between politics and the critique of identity. For Butler, as for many others at the time, the critique of identity did not spell the death of politics; rather, in challenging the hegemony of identity, she looked forward to the possibility of an alternative mode of politics. Butler wrote, "If identities were no longer fixed as the premises of a political syllogism, and politics no longer understood as a set of practices derived from the alleged interests that belong to a set of ready-made subjects, a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old." 1 Ten years ago, when identity was still the dominant mode of social analysis and activism, Butler's proposition sounded speculative. Today, when critics routinely announce the death of identity politics, it seems crucial to enquire further: has a "new configuration of politics" emerged from the ruins?
"Is There Life After Identity Politics?" was the name of a two-day symposium that the members of our editorial collective--all graduate students at the University of Virginia--organized in the spring of 1999. In a series of lectures and roundtables, the senior scholars who attended offered radically divergent responses to the question of identity's afterlife; they considered this question from a range of disciplines and institutional locations. Topics included the political usefulness of cultural identity; the place of identity-based disciplines in the academy; the [End Page 621] relation between universalism and local politics; the role of identity in the experience of everyday life; transnational identity and cultural performance in the borderlands. The lively debates sparked by the conference persuaded us that this question warranted fuller discussion. For this special issue of New Literary History we solicited essays from critics who we felt were thinking in particularly interesting ways about identity's afterlife.
In recent attacks from inside and outside the academy, both the philosophical viability and political utility of traditional categories of identity have come into question. Acknowledging that we cannot do without some account of the social, affective, material, and political realities that identity categories describe, critics have attempted to articulate a notion of identity that is antiessentialist but still attuned to the needs of transformative politics. "Identities" are now plural and "intersectional," produced by complex negotiations among the realities of race, sexuality, class, gender, and nation. Rather than being understood as innate and positive, identities are now thought of as relational and differential. In this respect, essentialized categories have given way to antiessentialist conceptions of identity such as "strategic essentialism" or "queer performativity." In thinking through the ways that individual subjects identify both with and against cultural groups, critics have developed nuanced theoretical accounts of both ambivalent identifications and "disidentifications." Identity has also been situated in a trans-national context, with consideration for the warping of racial, national, and ethnic identities under the pressure of diasporic shifts and global exchange. 2
Yet reconceiving identity does not mean leaving behind many of its principal mandates. It is essential to remember identity politics's fundamental lesson: that identities are often not embraced voluntarily but rather forced upon individuals and communities by homophobic, sexist, and racist power structures. Indeed, not all of the critics in this special issue are willing to concede that identity politics has entered its afterlife. Grant Farred re-narrates a positive genealogy of identity politics at a moment when many critics are concerned with its debilitating effects. David Palumbo-Liu suggests that instead of theorizing beyond identity, we should continue asking ourselves "how...