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New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 851-856
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I had a dream about the twenty-first century. Actually, it was a nightmare. In it there were two worlds; I had to choose between them. One world called The Left operated smoothly and efficiently, its population officially Organized and Unified around the Universal Progressive Agenda. The Agenda was posted everywhere, signed by the Universal Visionaries. I don't remember all the names, but I think I saw Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Eric Alterman? There were women and people of color--even a few queers--on all the Universal Welfare Committees, but everyone had learned the error of divisiveness from the teachings of the Visionaries (who were only incidentally all straight, white, and male--I think there was a woman too but I couldn't find her name), so there were none of those "identity" caucuses that had destroyed the twentieth-century Left.
The other world, The Gay Movement, was also very well run, and additionally very well dressed. Having overcome the infantilism and hedonism of twentieth century LGBT/Queer Liberation, this world based its operations on personal responsibility and maturity, or more specifically on business principles. Emphasizing the central importance of Marriage and Military Service to Public Life, The Gay Movement world devoted the remainder of its political efforts to sales and marketing. Under the banners Advertising Equals Access and A Dollar Is A Vote, the Responsible Leadership addressed The Donor Base through announcements in the very democratically distributed USA Today. There were very few names mentioned, but occasionally I could make out Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer, Elizabeth Birch?
This dystopic dream went on and on. I couldn't shake it. I started thinking that wandering back and forth between one nightmare world and the other had become my life. 1
I report this dream here to make a point: identity politics is a floating signifier. It has become primarily a term of disdain and condescension, and is invoked as a shorthand dismissal of many different political arguments and formations. One might easily critique identity politics one day, only to find one's own arguments chastised as representative of its limits and failures the next. Along with debates about the cultural left and cultural studies, debates over identity politics cover over and stand in for more significant disputes about democracy. 2
In my dreams, a leftist world stripped of identity politics and a queer world defined by single issue, mainstreamed, corporate versions of those politics are both dystopic. They are dystopic because they promise greater equality and democracy than the current neoliberal/heteronormative [End Page 851] political/economic order, but their proponents call for forms of centralization and hierarchy, and some kind of developmentally defined political character/quality often called "maturity" or "responsibility." Such forms and qualities rely on an authoritative center and marginalized periphery, on a firmly in-charge leadership and quiescent or compliant constituencies, and on paternalistic controls over normative public, political conduct. And this is equality and democracy?
Of course, there are huge political differences between the political visions and operations I have just compared. But the point I want to make is that the central question cannot be whether identity politics is good or bad, productive or a dead end, "so over" or still working. The many different formations so labeled vary from pro-corporate conservatives to liberal lobbyists to anarcho-syndicalists, and their critics range from right-wing hacks to New Left nostalgics to poststructuralist intellectuals. Debates organized around the term slip into disarray trying to pin down a determinedly floating signifier. The more significant, underlying question is--how can the myriad issues and constituencies that are now mobilized or mobilizable be connected, synergized, and moved in a broadly progressive direction?
I think Priscilla Wald's "Future Perfect: Grammar, Genes, and Geography" captures something important about the language of politics that addresses this question, and shapes the debates running through this volume. Her insistence that science intervenes in the social world through representational systems and mappings of populations applies equally to political rhetoric--the representations and mappings of...