An open letter to Jodi Dean on leftist melancholia

On “leftist melancholia”

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Image: Albrecht Dürer’s “Melancholia” (1514).

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Dear Dr. Dean,

I noticed that you recently appeared on my friend Douglas Lain’s “Diet Soap” podcast.  As I’d heard of you before this, I thought I’d look up some of your writings and papers on OWS (as well as on other topics).

One of the results that came up almost immediately was the transcript to your recent talk on “Communist Desire,” which you presented on October 11 alongside Žižek at The Idea of Communism conference.  I found this piece to be especially interesting.  The diagnosis that you develop through your reading of Freud and Benjamin, as well as the subsequent critique you level at some of the more problematic and transhistorical statements made by Rancière, Badiou, and Negri, are valuable.

As a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society and an advocate of its political/critical project, I felt a particular affinity with the following lines from your talk:

If this left is rightly described as melancholic, and I agree with Brown that it is, then its melancholia derives from the real existing compromises and betrayals inextricable from its history, its accommodations with reality, whether of nationalist war, capitalist encirclement, or so-called market demands.  Lacan teaches that, like Kant’s categorical imperative, super-ego refuses to accept reality as an explanation for failure.  Impossible is no excuse — desire is always impossible to satisfy.  So it’s not surprising that a wide spectrum of the contemporary left have either accommodated themselves, in one way or another, to an inevitable capitalism or taken the practical failures of Marxism-Leninism to require a certain abandonment of antagonism, class, and revolutionary commitment to overturning capitalist arrangements of property and production.  Melancholic fantasy — the communist Master, authoritarian and obscene — as well as sublimated, melancholic practices — there was no alternative — shield them, us, from confrontation with guilt over this betrayal as they capture us in activities that feel productive, important, radical.

I would even go so far as to say that the Left’s compulsive engagement in seemingly “productive, important, radical” (pseudo-)activities and (pseudo-)practices — the pious gestures of a Left wracked with feelings of helplessness and melancholic self-hatred — is almost the exact inverse of what Herbert Marcuse described as “repressive desublimation.”  Though it the phrase might almost seem redundant, the recourse to naïve actionism (as Adorno termed it) or “activistism” (Henwood’s word for it) is symptomatic of a sort of repressive sublimation that has taken place on the Left.  What I mean by this is that the redirection of unsatisfied desire in apparently productive activities comes to serve as a way to repress the overwhelming sense of futility that has come to surround the Left’s hopes for radical social transformation.

As a result, protest has often become routinized as a merely salutary gesture that the Left makes before yielding to accommodation with the existing order.  Hence Chris Cutrone’s recent cautionary article “A Cry of Protest before Accommodation?” But you point out — correctly, I would say — that some groups on the Left have begun trying to work through its historical melancholia:

Perhaps I should use the past tense here and say “shielded” because it is starting to seem, more and more, that the left has worked or is working through its melancholia.   While acknowledging the incompleteness of psychoanalysis’s understanding of melancholia, Freud notes nonetheless that the unconscious work of melancholia comes to an end:  “Just as mourning impels the ego to give up the object by declaring the object to be dead and offering the ego the inducement of continuing to live, so does each single struggle of ambivalence loosen the fixation of the libido to the object by disparaging, denigrating it, and even as it were killing it.  It is possible for the process in the Ucs. [unconscious] to come to an end, either after the fury has spent itself or after the object has been abandoned as useless” (255).  Freud’s reference to “each single struggle of ambivalence” suggests that the repetitive activities I’ve associated with drive and sublimation might be understood more dialectically, that is, not merely as the form of accommodation but also as substantive practices of dis- and reattachment, unmaking and making.  Žižek in particular emphasizes this destructive dimension of the drive, the way its repetitions result in a clearing away of the old so as to make a space for the new.  Accordingly, in a setting marked by a general acceptance of the end of communism and of particular political-theoretical pursuits in ethics, affect, culture, and ontology, it seems less accurate to describe the left in terms of a structure of desire than to point to the fragmentation or even non-existence of a left as such.

In accordance the cited passage from Freud, where he states that “each single struggle of ambivalence loosen[s] the fixation of the libido to the object by disparaging, denigrating it, and even as it were killing it,” Platypus advances the slogan “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” This is, of course, an echo of Marx’s play on the old monarchical saying in The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1851, in which he declares: “The revolution is dead! Long live the revolution!”

(On the subject of our slogan, Žižek recently expressed his approval of it during an interview we conducted with him in Maastricht last month:

Haseeb Ahmed: A lot of what you say is very close to what Platypus has to say.  Platypus’s main slogan is “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!”
Slavoj Žižek: This is great! This is the only way to truly resuscitate the Left.  Because it refers to all varieties of the Left.  1968 is a model for how the movement recuperated and gave an incredible new boost to capitalism.  All the post-1968 phenomena show this.)

However, we regard our slogan to be just as much an imperative as it is a declarative statement.  The ghosts of the dead Left, which have mysteriously survived their own extinction, must be exorcised so that today’s Left can live.  Though I am extremely ambivalent when it comes to the New Left, I will give them credit for confronting (however inadequately) their predecessors in the Old Left, critiquing their latent Stalinism and joyless austerity.  So far, except in a few lines from David Graeber, #Occupy has yet to have that Oedipal moment where it finally kills off the New Left.  Perhaps it’s that there’s no equivalent to the intergenerational animus that existed between the “red diaper babies” and their parents.

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living, to be sure.  But this cannot be remedied by merely denying the legacy we have inherited from the past, for this only allows its errors and bad tendencies to slip back into our practice unconsciously.  Rather, we must “work through” (as you rightly put it, echoing Freud) this residual melancholy through a ruthless critical engagement with the history of the Left, so as to enact the dialectic of its transformation and reconstitution.  As Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics, “What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later.  It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.”

Thus, we must finally bury all those leftover sectarian and dogmatic Marxist tendencies that persist into the present.  Our preoccupation with the history of the Left is not borne out of any sort of nostalgic fascination with a bygone era, the “narcissism of the lost cause” (as Lacan put it), and still less out of some macabre, necrophiliac compulsion.  For it is Platypus’ sincere conviction that much of the emancipatory politics one sees today sustains itself only by scavenging the desiccated remains of what once was possible.  The historical consciousness we seek to cultivate is therefore along the lines of what Gramsci advocated when, in an early (1915) essay on “History,” he wrote:

[W]e feel an enormous, irresistible force from our human past.  We recognize the good things it has brought us, in the knowledge that what once was possible might someday be possible again.  But we also recognize the bad, in the many living fossils — anachronistic remnants and outmoded states of mind — that persist into the present.  And this is why we must call ourselves modern.  Because, though we feel the past fueling our struggle, it is a past that we have tamed — our servant, not our master — a past which illuminates and does not overshadow us.

It was in the spirit of answering this imperative that I tried to situate #Occupy in the context of past revolutionary struggles, in my “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street,” already more than two months old now.  For #Occupy does not simply offer itself as a solution to the existing problems of society, but poses its own existence as a problem to itself.  And without some heightened degree of self-reflection — toward which it has, admittedly, gestured — it could easily fall into the same idiocies and slapstick which have plagued past movements.

Nevertheless, it was because of the affinity I felt in reading your presentation on “Communist Desire” that I was somewhat puzzled to see that you were glad to hear that Doug Henwood was pulling out of the panel Platypus had set up on “The Crisis of the Left.”  Especially since — as Henwood himself admitted — his decision was largely predicated on some terrible and misleading advice given to him by Louis Proyect, a self-loathing academic at Columbia University who still hasn’t gotten over the fact that he wasted ten years of his life hurling Trotskyist rags.  Proyect, whose feelings we hurt in some criticisms we issued back in 2010, unimaginatively tried to compare us to the Eustonite movement in the U.K.  Of course, these charges were just as vapid and groundless as the criticisms Proyect leveled at you and Žižek back in mid-October of this year:

Google “Jodi Dean” and “Communist Desire” and you’ll be able to read the talk she gave this morning. It is a kind of psychoanalysis of the left[…]

My take on this is somewhat different than Professor Dean’s. My Rx for combating melancholia is victories, no matter how minor, against the bourgeoisie.  To achieve such victories, it will require strategy and tactics that Malcolm X once described as  “designed to get meaningful immediate results.”  Such actions are surely aided by a solid analysis of the relationship of class forces that can only be derived by a study of bourgeois society such as the kind found in classical Marxism and not Frankfurt-inspired philosophizing, I am afraid[…]

Dean unfortunately has bought into Žižek’s bad-boy routine and even defended it against his critics.

While Bhaskar Sunkara, someone who has at times been close to Platypus, wrote a rather dismissive critique of some of your “Communist Horizon” for Jacobin, I found his engagement with your ideas infinitely more thoughtful than Proyect’s.  I appreciated the back-and-forth exchange you had with him on their site.

So I guess it’s that I don’t know if your post on Henwood’s blog is indicative of some deeper antipathy you hold toward the Platypus Affiliated Society as an organization or not.  If we’ve done something to offend you, I’m sure it was unintentional.  This probably seems like a pretty standard declamation to make, but there really are a lot of vacuous rumors circulating the web about our group.  I mean, I can’t say I’m familiar with your work outside of the piece on “Communist Desire” (though I’m planning to read more), but at least from that it seemed like our projects were somewhat similar.

I don’t know if you’d be interested, but we’d love to include you on one of our panels, interview you, or perhaps even receive an article contribution from you on this theme of Left melancholia or #Occupy or something along these lines.

Anyway, I hope that this might perhaps clear up some of the misunderstandings that may have arisen between Platypus and yourself.

Best,
Ross

P.S. — Speaking of leftist melancholia, what are your thoughts on Adorno’s famous “melancholy science” as expressed in Minima Moralia?

2 thoughts on “An open letter to Jodi Dean on leftist melancholia

  1. I think Proyect is a computer specialist over at Columbia U., not a professor.
    Claiming that Platypus is “Eustonite” was a bit lazy, I agree. Platypus entertains a range of ideas. However, I’m somewhat in agreement with Proyect’s criticism of the particular pieces he attacked. Chris Cutrone may have merely been trying to make a point about not always accepting conventional wisdom when he observed that the Communist Party of Iraq was against US withdrawal because the US military was the most Left powerful element in that country full of religious extremism. If so, he should have chosen a better example to get people thinking than looking for the silver lining on the crime of the century.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. But if he’s not the reviled “academic,” then perhaps the more old-fashioned буржуазный специалист?

      Yeah, I know that Platypus’ criticisms of what we considered the shallow anti-imperialism of the anti-war movement (which had by 2008 almost wholly capitulated to the Democratic party and degenerated into little more than a series of vegan bake sales for the Obama campaign) drew a lot of heat. I personally feel that our stance has been vindicated. Unlike many of the groups that had been part of the anti-war marches, Platypus continued to participate in the movement even after most (the SDS, etc.) had abandoned it following the election of Obama.

      The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was an act of naked aggression on the part of the U.S., the U.K., and their opportunist allies who had been bought into joining the so-called “coalition of the willing.” Of course, the pious gestures made by the European states that protested the war were borne out of self-interest, not any higher moral character. The reason they didn’t like the U.S. invasion was that it disrupted the power networks they had established in the region by circumventing the sanctions.

      I despise religious extremism of every stripe. Unfortunately, Saddam (a ruthless dictator by any standard of measurement) had at least provided a strong secular state that repressed this Islamist nonsense. It appears something similar might happen now in Egypt now that Mubarak is gone and the Muslim Brotherhood has taken the reigns of power.

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