I should certainly know better than to read Dissent late at night, as I did yesterday with this article on the supposedly recent “politicization” of theory, because it’s hard to go to sleep when you’re really pissed off. The article starts off with the smug, incurious moralism that is characteristic of the magazine, with the author, Kevin Mattson reporting his response to Joan Scott:
She questioned Thompson’s faith in “rational” politics and the “abstract individual, the bearer of rights.” … And I remember thinking to myself: aren’t rational arguments in favor of rights a good thing? And especially for anyone who claims to be on the Left, seeing that universal rights are the basis of…well, just about everything?
Well, yes, those are questions you might ask yourself. And you might investigate those questions by reading the work of those who have argued that its possible to have a more complex appreciation of rights than that they are just “a good idea”; someone like Joan Scott. But Kevin Mattson only read Joan Scott to impress chicks (why else would you read the work of a woman, after all?), so actually thinking about what she’d written obviously didn’t occur to him.
The article’s main thesis, meanwhile, is just as annoying. Apparently, there has been a move away from postmodernism and towards “real” political commitment, because there were no poor people or political struggles in the 1990s. I’m not sure which is the stupider thesis here: that 90s postmodernism didn’t address political questions, or that there were no political struggles in the 90s; of course, the two go together. Take Mattson’s sneering at cultural studies’ interest in pornography and Madonna. Apparently feminist debates about pornography or the fact that people were being imprisoned for consensual but non-vanilla sexual activity aren’t serious political matters, but fripperies people were only interested in because, with Clinton in the White House and the booming economy of the 90s, there was no right-wing to struggle against or economic hardship to focus peoples minds. No, things are only political, apparently, when they concern “sweaty workers.”