1990 at 30

Introduction to 1990 at 30

J. Daniel Elam and Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

Out of Date: David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity and the Postmodern Condition

Natalie Melas

Splitting the Difference: Black Studies’ Theory Wars and bell hooks’s “Postmodern Blackness”

Kinohi Nishikawa

On the Unfinished Business of Theory from the South: Arjun Appadurai’s Globalization Theory

Hadji Bakara

The Nation We Knew: After Homi Bhabha’s “DissemiNation”

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

Future Metaphysics: Before and After Robert J. C. Young’s White Mythologies

J. Daniel Elam

The Dirty World: On Stuart Hall’s “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities”

Jay Garcia

Hearing What Black Women Have Been Telling Us All Along: On Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought

Meina Yates-Richard

Haircut Theory: Living with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble

Joan Lubin

When M. Mitterrand was a Faggot: Reading Ignorance and Pleasure in Eve Sedgwick’s “Axiomatic”

Clare Hemmings


In mid-2019, we issued a challenge to the participants in this dossier: they would "re-read" an important work of criticism published in 1990 in time to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its publication in 2020. What was it like to read each text thirty years after its publication; ten or fifteen or twenty-nine years after one's initial encounter; a few years, perhaps, since having read it most recently; maybe even (not that anyone would confess it) reading it, really reading it, for the very first time?

We selected nine major texts: Arjun Appadurai's "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy"; Homi Bhabha's "DissemiNation"; Judith Butler's Gender Trouble; Patricia Hill Collins's Black Feminist Thought; Stuart Hall's "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities"; David Harvey's Condition of Postmodernity; bell hooks's "Postmodern Blackness"; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet; and Robert J. C. Young's White Mythologies.

We set out to reflect on thirty years of humanistic inquiry and critique. We didn't know the first three months of 2020 would themselves last three decades. The global spread of COVID-19 has reminded us of our shared humanity as well as called into question the notion that any meaningful collectivity might be culled from it. The virus is in some respects egalitarian, but it has laid bare the horrific asymmetries of "preexisting conditions": atrocious racial inequality and white supremacy in the US; unequal distribution of resources and information; and the bloodthirsty opportunism of authoritarianism.

Academia does not exist outside of these contexts, and too many scholarly responses to the crisis have oscillated between self-flagellation and self-promotion. A virus makes for a specious but surprisingly effective way to justify extreme austerity. Some whose paychecks are not at risk have seized the chance to capitalize on others' suffering by securing lucrative book deals for their Lacanian ramblings or regurgitating their tepid Foucauldian takes. (To be sure, there have also been necessary and beautiful essays.) As we brace for radical changes in the management structure of the university and the consequent shrinking of the humanities, it seems nearly guaranteed that the most precarious members of the profession will be disregarded, and that many of those in relatively secure positions will squander the chance to defend the abstract virtues of "academic freedom" and “equal opportunity” as they zoom away.

In response to these conditions though without claiming to address them directly this dossier makes a different move. By conjoining 1990 and 2020, we juxtapose two moments of world-historical reckoning: the optimism at the end of the Cold War and the pessimism at the beginning of a pandemic. We foreground our sustained inhabitance of 1990 in 2020 and offer a critical time-warp, one that encompasses the speedy "time-space compression" of postmodernism and globalization theory, as well as the slow violence revealed by postcolonialism and critical race theory.

Over the past thirty years, texts in capital-T Theory (a category with hazily traced contours) became global classics and transcended the conditions of their emergence. We ask what it means as academic readers to borrow Ernest Renan's memorable phrasing to "have many things in common, and also [to] have forgotten many things."1 At a moment when we should renew our commitment to collaborative humanistic inquiry, are these still texts to which we might append our collective name?2

This cluster addresses familiar names and titles in the Anglo-American university. They might even be comforting, given the increasingly vast corpus of works we each have yet to read. These are texts that fill the stories we tell about ourselves as scholars, our stories of "progress, loss, and return."3 They take us back to the scenes of our scholarly formation: to the bedrooms in which we read furiously and with longing; to the coffee shops in which we practiced the politics of citation; to the seminar rooms and qualifying exams in which we performed our tentative knowledges and, as Joan Lubin writes in her piece, our "beautiful incomprehension." These are texts we read many times or once, in joy or hair-tearing frustration (or both, simultaneously). We have taught them, too: intimate with their arguments, or off-the-cuff, or in name only.

These texts are all representatives of the broader conversations in which they participated for example, on the careers of postmodernism or globalization though they might not be the most celebrated contributions. Some have become inextricable from disciplinary curricula. In other cases, we selected from a thinker a work that is not their best known, just to have them in the mix (how to read 1990 without Stuart Hall?). This list is neither comprehensive nor truly global in scope. The texts share purchase on vital issues and events of the late 1980s and 1990s and an enduring influence on literary and cultural criticism today.

But let's be clear: they haven't all followed the same trajectories. Many of these books and articles are "undead," in Lorraine Daston and Sharon Marcus's words: they "inaugurated subfields and even contributed to the founding of programs such as gender studies and nationalism studies," but also therefore "serve as the whipping boys of advanced training."4 Some are mainstays on undergraduate and graduate syllabi. Some have sat on our bookshelves since graduate school, largely decorative totems. Their key arguments feel "axiomatic" now, or like the fluoride treatment of humanities water.

A few of these texts have achieved celebrity beyond the academy. Natalie Melas recalls recommending Lyotard's Harvey-inspired book on "postmodernism for children" to befuddled friends. Lubin finds copies of Gender Trouble in all sorts of places: from her girlfriend's pile of borrowed books and Lisa Simpson's personal library, to Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack's first-semester course reading at Wesleyan.5 Others' legacies are less tangible today.

1990 was such a watershed year in "theory" that we decided to be strict about it. We might well have conceived of a "long-1990," but we resisted the allure of texts published in 89 and 91 including Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?" (1989), Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern (1991), Trinh T. Minh-ha's Woman, Native, Other (1989), the inaugural issue of differences (1989), and the edited volume The Empire Writes Back (1991), among others.6 Traces of these texts certainly appear in this 1990 constellation. As Jennifer Wenzel noted at the MLA panel where we first presented these essays, books are the products of years' work: what was published in 1990 is representative, in many ways, of debates that stretched over the course of the decade before. No matter how stubborn we might have been about publication dates, then, the texts we discuss undoubtedly tell us as much or more about the time and ideas "around 1990"7 than the year itself.

It was around 1990 that universities, especially in the United States, became the battleground for the "culture wars," an ongoing fight between conservative demands for the preservation of "western civilization," with its self-assured and universalist pretensions, and leftist demands for expanded curricula that included analyses of race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism and valued the situated knowledges such analyses would afford. Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals (also published in 1990), promised to reveal the "sham" at the core of these "politicized" new humanities; it "exposed" professors who taught Shakespeare's The Tempest in the context of imperialism or demanded that Jaws was worthy of critical attention. James Davison Hunter's The Culture Wars, which followed in 1991, connected these curricular scuffles to the increasingly polarized politics of the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2020, it is difficult to tell who won this war. It is unclear if the catch-phrase of 1990s theory "social construction" has been used to relativize or revolutionize the fact that, well, we live in society. Has the theory we fought for served as "a bulwark against sociological reductionism," or have we yet to theorize theory itself as "a condition at the level of the social"? These are the initial terms of the debate on postmodernism and Black Studies that Kinohi Nishikawa sketches in his essay, which suggests that the unfinished work of 1990s theory is not just figuring out how to intervene in the social and political (how to win the culture wars), but also assessing the careers of capital-T Theory as an archive that might yet teach us how and what to read. On the one hand, it seems unthinkable to read The Tempest now without paying attention to Caliban's enslavement. On the other, the expansion of the literary canon since 1990 has done little to upset the dominance of white Anglo-American writers over everyone else in the world.

Since 1990, there have of course been actual wars, including the longest-lasting war in US history. The First Gulf War officially began in August 1990; the US has been at perpetual war in or with Iraq and Afghanistan since.8 If the texts in this dossier are overly representative of an Anglo-American syllabus, it is both because of our particular institutional locations and because the Anglo-American university secured its global dominance during this period of oil-driven American imperial expansion. Reading 1990 at 30 means reading the critical-theoretical signatures of Anglo-American empire. It also provokes us to imagine how we might one day read 2020 at 30. Will geopolitical and economic realignments lead meaningfully to a post-war world or a post-American world? That the prefix "post" sounds fantastical is itself a sobering answer to the question.

An admission: part of the appeal of 1990 is that it is not 1989 and not entirely overdetermined by the monumental events of that year. We therefore take this opportunity to track various, some comparatively "minor," political and cultural events from 1990 specifically. 1990 was the year the first McDonald's opened in Russia and China (Appadurai's global economy); the year that saw Nelson Mandela's release from prison (Young's anticolonial critique); the year of the reunification of Germany and the independence of Namibia (Bhabha's narrated nations). 1990 saw the first website (hooks's and Harvey's postmodernism) and Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (Butler's gender trouble troubled by Hill Collins's Black feminism). In 1990, homosexuality was removed from the WHO's list of diseases (Sedgwick's closet epistemology), and Margaret Thatcher's reign as Prime Minister came to an end (the catalyst of Hall's cultural studies).

Melas and Nishikawa pick up on these "epochal" gestures in their essays on "postmodernism," a term that has dwindled in academic popularity and whose analytical force has atrophied since the 1980s and 1990s. It no longer seems appropriate, Melas notes, to speak with such bravado. In the wake of September 11, 2001, critical and literary theory moved away from the playfulness of simulacra and toward the precarity of human life. But hooks's "Postmodern Blackness," Nishikawa reminds us, was already using the experience of postmodernity and technological advances to argue that Black lives matter. The irony of "postmodernism" is that it was so successful in its demand for thinking relativity and uncertainty that we now find its epochal claims to be uncomfortably universal and grandly self-assured.

This is not the only success that appears pyrrhic given the perspective of thirty years. Perhaps some 1990s texts remain vital in 2020 because they were uncannily prescient; more likely though it's because not enough has changed. When is the enduring relevance of a theoretical argument the sign of its having failed to transform the world in which it hoped to intervene? Hadji Bakara and Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan reflect on two articles that our academic reading communities have gotten over and left behind: articles on the global and the nation by Arjun Appadurai and Homi Bhabha, respectively. Globalization sounds and feels "retro," Bakara observes, and has in recent years been eclipsed by more fashionable periodizing terms, turns, and conceptual rubrics like neoliberalism and the Anthropocene. But we need to consider the "unfinished business" of globalization theory, Bakara argues, with its simultaneously capacious and vexed understanding of the post-Cold War world. 2020 has already seen both heightened global coordination and increasingly sedimented nationalisms. We are painfully aware of the globality of deadly flows of contagion, of weapons, of capital and the violence of impeding what could otherwise be life-giving global flows of resources into places like Gaza and Iran. What could be more relevant today than the critical elaboration of the global, the nation, and the promise of subverting the hegemonic order? Contemplating our overfamiliarity with Bhabha, Srinivasan wonders if we absorbed the lessons of his "DissemiNation" too quickly, thinking we already knew what it meant for the nation to be narrated, overestimating the subversive potential of our cosmopolitan performativity.

Some of the texts discussed in this dossier are less remembered now for what they argued than for what they put into place. This came as a bit of a shock to each of us, as we discovered that the work was different from what we remembered, different from what we said in our lectures, different from what we meant in the drive-by footnote. We are different now, too, while the texts remain, in some undeniable (and literal) way, the same. Daniel Elam's essay registers his surprise at rereading Robert J. C. Young's White Mythologies and finding that its fights were about British Marxism, not colonialism; its contribution to postcolonial theory was to accidentally predict the field's mainstays. Jay Garcia returns to Stuart Hall, who realizes that exporting "cultural studies" to the United States will mean leaving behind the historical and political catalysts of the Birmingham Centre's project: British Marxism. Young's association with anticolonial critique stands in contrast, then, to the blanching that is to say, quite seriously, the whitening of Hall's intellectual project.9

Multiple essays strive to understand the abortive promises of 1990's theory: blanching, whitening, as well as disciplining. Since 1990, the theories that Edward Said famously hoped would be a "technique of trouble"10 have been variously institutionalized. Radical, oppositional knowledge projects in queer theory, postcolonialism, and Black feminist theory (among other fields) have been domesticated, at the expense of their critical force. As Meina Yates-Richard argues in her reading of Patricia Hill Collins's Black Feminist Thought, one consequence of the text's disciplinary traction has been consistent misreading (and not-reading). Black feminist theorists have been, Yates-Richard writes, "persistently enjoined to repeat themselves" at the same time as their interventions have been strategically coopted into the "echo-chamber of white feminist self-reflection." The consequence of being canonized, as Hill Collins's work has been, is that you might never be read, or heard, again. The citation will suffice.

To a lesser extent, this is also true of the two books that have become so essential to the identity of theory and criticism that they represent the foundations of entire fields: Judith Butler's Gender Trouble and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet. These texts changed the study of gender and sexuality within academe and transformed public discourses in the process. They are routinely celebrated for doing so. But Butler and Sedgwick also and more significantly transformed the way we understand the process of knowledge formation. For Lubin, rereading Butler means retheorizing the primary relationships between language and existence, interpellation and subject formation. Clare Hemmings foregrounds the place of "ignorance" in Sedgwick, inverting (for inverts) Foucault's knowledge/power nexus. Sexism and homophobia retain their force by their insistence on not knowing; Ronald Reagan's incompetence puts Francois Mitterand's multilingualism at such a severe disadvantage that diplomacy becomes buggery.

The essays here are neither invectives nor hagiographies. We are the benefactors (and purveyors) of both recuperative and paranoid readings, as well as readings that are inattentive or in questionable faith. Sedgwick's willful ignorance of queer theorists of color, from the vantage of 2020: is the hand-wringing footnote the new masturbating comma? Bhabha's non-duped cosmopolitanism is precisely how he errs. Young's claim to have "discovered" postcolonial theory might be correctly, if a bit ungenerously, rephrased as his having "columbused" it. Nor are we innocent: we have cited Black women to ensure that we don't have to listen to Black women. We overlook Harvey's nuance in favor of Jameson's catchphrases. Sometimes just having Gender Trouble at hand especially that neon pink and purple edition will get you laid.

In his forward to the second edition of Young's White Mythologies, Bhabha writes that a work of criticism aims, at the moment of its publication, to address "its time'": the present, the conjuncture, its contemporary moment. But what makes a book "survive," for Bhabha, is its ability to herald future collaborators and build comradeship: a certain critical generosity, but without compromise.11 Put otherwise, we might say that criticism's importance in the present is its intervention, and that criticism's legacy is its invitation. In 1990, a "commitment to theory" meant thinking the world anew: this was both the promise and defense of theory's association with obfuscation and difficulty.12 In 2020, our commitments to theory are less clear, or perhaps more diffuse. Our project here, then, is to open a conversation about the intellectual genealogies we share, despite and because of the divergent paths we have followed. These words made new imaginations possible; we inhabit worlds they could not have predicted. Thirty years later, we have inherited both.


  1. Ernest Renan, "What is a Nation?" (1882), in Homi Bhabha's Nation and Narration, 11.[]
  2. Aniket Jaaware demands the first-person plural "we" as a necessary fiction and a risky and infinitely open invitation (Practicing Caste, 2019); Kandice Chuh describes "we" as an invocation for an "illiberal humanities" (The Difference Aesthetics Makes, 2019). []
  3. Clare Hemmings, Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).[]
  4. Sharon Marcus and Lorraine Daston, "The Books that Wouldn't Die," The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 17, 2019. []
  5. Among many others, see Molly Fisher, "Think Gender is a Performance? You Have Judith Butler to Thank for That," The Cut, June 13, 2016.[]
  6. Some of these "around 1990" texts are addressed, explicitly or implicitly, in other recent books and special issues offering retrospective "time-warps." See Bashir Abu-Manneh, ed., After Said: Postcolonial Literary Studies in The Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2019); the special issue "-30- The End of the Story" of differences 30, no. 3 (2019); and "Teaching the Feminist Classics Now," edited by Jennifer Nash and Samantha Pinto, Feminist Formations 32, no. 1 (2020).[]
  7. We refer here to Leela Gandhi's and Deborah Nelson's project, "Around 1948," portions of which were published as a special issue of Critical Inquiry (Summer 2014). []
  8. These are, in chronological order: First Gulf War (1990-1991), Conflict in Iraq (1991-1993; 1993-2003), Operation Infinite Reach (missile strikes) in Afghanistan (technically 1978-present, but formally 1998-2001), War on Terror (2001-present).[]
  9. See, among others, James Vernon, "When Stuart Hall was White," Public Books, January 23, 2017.[]
  10. Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003). []
  11. Homi Bhabha, "Introduction" in White Mythologies (London: Routledge, 2003).[]
  12. These commitments and defenses are offered in various iterations by Bhabha (The Location of Culture, 1994), Henry Louis Gates (The Signifying Monkey, 1988); and Judith Butler ("A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back," New York Times, March 20, 1999). []

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