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American Quarterly 55.3 (2003) 479-487
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What's the Matter?
John Carlos Rowe
University of California, Irvine
THIS COLLECTION RESPONDS IN SIGNIFICANT WAYS TO THE NEED FOR A NEW CULTURAL politics in the pedagogy, study, and practice of American studies. Influenced by the efforts of post-structuralists to broaden our understanding of materiality to include language and of feminists and queer theorists to include the body and sexuality, most of the fifteen essays incorporate these material aspects into models for new political coalitions. Acknowledging the limitations of traditional Marxian critique, the contributors share the goal of developing new methods of linking historically specific criticisms to long-term social change. The phrase "cultural politics" in the subtitle suggests that culture plays a far greater role in the production of social value than previously recognized, although the task of "revitalizing" such practices implies continuity with the cultural front of the 1930s Left and 1960s activism of the anti-war movement, second-wave feminism, and the Black Arts movement and Black Nationalism.
Despite the wide variety of cultural texts treated in this volume, the common point of reference is democracy, which the co-editors point out has remained quite stubbornly abstract and ahistorical in the commentary on the term and the concept. This formalism has divided democracy from politics; the co-editors argue that the new materialist approaches represented in their collection will help recuperate "democratic [End Page 479] politicality." One of the practical consequences of this critical work is to rehistoricize influential concepts of democracy, showing how they have served specific ideological purposes. Most of the contributors explain how democracy has been socially constructed as a useful concept in different periods, so that the reader of the entire volume gets an excellent overview of this historical process from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835-1839) to Bill Clinton's 1999-2000 Sexgate. There is much more coherence to this collection than the co-editors acknowledge in their effort to organize the volume as a series of "productive disagreements characteristic of democracy" (18). What the co-editors term the "practice of functional disunity" is a coherent position derived from mulitculturalists of the 1980s, so there is a false note in claiming that the essays represent the "fault lines" and "fissures" of U.S. democracy. To do so, the co-editors would have to include far more adversarial political positions than those represented here. With few exceptions, the contributors share the post-Marxian left politics, criticism of liberalism and neo-liberalism, anti-capitalism, and qualified advocacy of multiculturalism we identify with cultural studies.
I found myself categorizing the different essays according to whether they were primarily criticisms of historically specific versions of democracy or offered social and political alternatives to traditional ideas of democracy. My approach is frankly heuristic and in no way follows the co-editors' organization of the volume, but it is one way to write about each of these different essays without lapsing into utter fragmentation. This classification also helps me understand better the relationship between the two different kinds of "materialism" employed in this volume: the critical reading of historically specific uses of democracy and the application of fantasy, desire, will, and other psychic aspects of the democratic experience to utopian political goals. To be sure, what many of the contributors term the "embodiment" of these inner, subjective processes can contribute to new systems of control in the manner of Althusserian interpellation, but there are other, innovative ways for such intangible, abstract, and often unconscious forces to become visible and influential in new democratic politics. It is this latter possibility that strikes me as the most impressive feature of this collection, as it tries to fill in the psychoanalytic and aesthetic gaps in traditional approaches to historical materialism. In general, I would argue that the contributors to this volume share the conviction that the [End Page 480] critical reading of democracy'...