On “leftist melancholia”
Image: Albrecht Dürer’s “Melancholia” (1514).
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. Continue reading