In a context in which the relations between our knowledge of and participation in the external world and such criteria as truth, objectivity, and rationality are being reexamined, the claims of a specifically political criticism come to occupy the center of the intellectual stage. Whether inspired by social and intellectual movements such as feminism, marxism, and antiimperialist nationalisms or by interdisciplinary academic developments such as deconstruction and, more generally, postmodernism, political criticism can be identified by at least a common desire to expose the social interests at work in the reading and writing of literature. It may not always be tied to larger programs or alternative models of cultural practice, but criticism is political to the extent that it defines as one of its goals the interrogation of the uses to which literary works are put, exploring the connections between social institutions and literary texts, between groups of people understood collectively in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and class, on the one hand, and discourses about cultural meanings and values, on the other. This chapter is an attempt to identify, define, and criticize what I see as an unexamined philosophical position latent in contemporary politicalcritical practice--cultural or historical relativism. Relativism appears less as an explicit claim than as a practical and theoretical bias and leads to historical simplification and political naiveté.
My specific contention is that a relativist position does not allow for a complex understanding of social and cultural phenomena since the vagueness of its definition of rationality precludes a serious analysis of