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Resisting Left Melancholia

Wendy Brown12 February 2017

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Published in 2000, Without Guarantees — edited by Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg, and Angela McRobbie — brings together more than 30 essays inspired by, or written in honor of, the great cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died three years ago this week. "It is appropriate," the editors write in their preface: 

given the spirit of Stuart's own commitments that this volume has a second, subsidiary purpose. Cultural studies have been subjected to much abuse lately and the fragile institutional initiatives with which those words are entangled are now under great and growing pressure. In these circumstances it seemed right to try to make this public gift a modest interventionist act in its own right. Here then are some implicit and explicit reflections on what cultural studies can be and what it might become. 

Below, we present one of the essays collected in the volume: Wendy Brown's now classic reflection on Hall and the condition that Walter Benjamin termed "left melancholia." First published in
boundary 2 in 1999, Brown's essay spurred a debate that has continued through the present day. 


via Stuart Hall Foundation

“In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. ... only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”1 Walter Benjamin

It has become commonplace to lament the current beleaguered and disoriented condition of the Left. Stuart Hall is among the few who have tried to diagnose the sources and dynamics of this condition. From the earliest days of the rise of the Thatcher-Reagan-Gingrich Right in Europe and North America, Hall insisted that the “crisis of the Left” in the late twentieth century was due neither to internal divisions in the activist or academic Left nor to the clever rhetoric or funding schemes of the Right. Rather, he charged, this ascendency was consequent to the Left's own failure to apprehend the character of the age, and to develop a political critique and a moral-political vision appropriate to this character. For Hall, the rise of the Right was a symptom rather than a cause of this failure, just as the Left's dismissive or suspicious attitude toward cultural politics is for Hall not a sign of its unwavering principles but of its anachronistic habits of thought, and its fears and anxieties about revising those habits. In short, the Left's disintegration and disarray must be pinned not on external events or developments in the late twentieth century, but on the way the Left positions itself in relation to those events and developments.

In his reflections on two decades of Left troubles, Hall often teeters on the brink of psychological speculation — he speaks in terms of fears, anxieties, and rigidities — but despite his extensive use of psychoanalytic insight in his work on identity and subjectivity, here he never takes the plunge. Undoubtedly this hesitation pertains to Hall's abiding generosity and concern for coalition building, his sensitivity to the potentially chilling sectarian effects of psychologizing those with whom one disagrees. So in what follows I shall briefly go where our angel appropriately fears to tread. I want to think about Hall's account of Left travails in terms of “Left melancholia,” a term coined by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s.

Benjamin was neither categorically nor characterologically opposed to the value and valence of sadness as such, nor to the potential insights gleaned from brooding over one's losses. Indeed, he had a well-developed appreciation of the productive value of acedia, sadness, and mourning for political and cultural work. Moreover, in his study of Baudelaire, Benjamin treated melancholia itself as something of a creative wellspring. But “Left melancholia” is Benjamin's unambivalent epithet for the revolutionary hack who is, finally, not serious about political change, who is more attached to a particular political analysis or ideal — even to the failure of that ideal — than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present. In the context of Benjamin's enigmatic insistence on the political value of a dialectical historical grasp of the time of the Now, Left melancholia represents not only a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present, that is, a failure to understand history in terms other than “empty time” or “progress.” It signifies as well a certain narcissism with regard to one's past political attachments and identity that exceeds any contemporary investment in political mobilization, alliance, or transformation.2

The irony of melancholia, of course, is that attachment to the object of one's sorrowful loss supersedes any desire to recover from this loss, to live free of it in the present, to be unburdened by it. This is what renders melancholia a persistent condition, a state, indeed, a structure of desire, rather than a transient response to death or loss. In Freud's 1917 meditation on melancholia, he reminds us of a second singular feature of melancholy: it entails “a loss of a more ideal kind than mourning. The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love.”3 Moreover, Freud suggests, the melancholic will often not know precisely what about the object has been loved and lost — this would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious. 4 The loss precipitating melancholy is more often than not unavowed and unavowable. Finally, Freud suggests that the melancholic subject — who is low in self-regard, despairing, even suicidal — suffers this way because it has displaced a potential reproach of its once-loved object onto itself. The reproach of the loved object pertains to its failure to live up to the idealization by the beloved, and the displacement of this reproach results in the melancholic's misery. In other words, the love or idealization of the object is preserved, even as the loss of love occasioned by the shattered idealization is converted to the terrible suffering of the melancholic, a suffering resulting from a withdrawal of love but a withdrawal now turned against the self rather than the other.

Now why would Benjamin use the term “melancholia,” and the emotional economy it represents, to talk about a particular formation on and of the Left? Benjamin never offers a precise formulation of Left melancholy. Rather, he deploys it as a term of opprobrium for those beholden more to certain long-held sentiments and objects than to the possibilities of political transformation in the present. Benjamin is particularly attuned to the melancholic's investment in “things.” In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, he argues that “melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge,” here suggesting that the loyalty of the melancholic converts its truth (“every loyal vow or memory”) about its beloved into a thing, indeed, imbues knowledge itself with a thinglike quality. 5 Benjamin provides another version of this formulation: “in its tenacious self-absorption [melancholy] embraces dead objects in its contemplation.” 6 More simply, melancholia is “loyal to the world of things,” a formulation that suggests a certain logic of fetishism — with all the conservatism and withdrawal from human relations that fetishistic desire implies — contained within the melancholic logic. 7 In the critique of Kastner's poems in which Benjamin first coins “Left melancholia,” he suggests that sentiments themselves become things for the Left melancholic who “takes as much pride in the traces of former spiritual goods as the bourgeois do in their material goods.” 8 We come to love our Left passions and reasons, our Left analyses and convictions, more than we love the existing world that we presumably seek to alter with these terms or the future that would be aligned with them. Left melancholy, in short, is Benjamin's name for a mournful, conservative, backward-looking attachment to a feeling, analysis, or relationship that has been rendered thing-like and frozen in the heart of the putative Leftist. If Freud is helpful here, then this condition presumably issues from some unaccountable loss, some unavowably crushed ideal, contemporarily signified by the terms “Left,” “socialism,” “Marx,” or “movement.”

Certainly the losses, accountable and unaccountable, of the Left are many in our own time. The literal disintegration of socialist regimes and of the legitimacy of Marxism may well be the least of it. We are awash in the loss of a unified analysis and unified movement, in the loss of labour and class as inviolable predicates of political analysis and mobilization, in the loss of an inexorable and scientific forward movement of history, and in the loss of a viable alternative to the political economy of capitalism. And on the backs of these losses are still others: we are without a sense of international, and often even local, Left community; we are without conviction about the Truth of the social order; we are without a rich moral-political vision to guide and sustain political work. Thus we suffer with the sense not only of a lost movement but of a lost historical moment; we suffer with the sense not only of a lost theoretical and empirical coherence, but of a lost way of life and a lost course of pursuits.

This much many on the Left can forthrightly admit, even if we do not know what to do about it. But in the hollow core of all these losses, perhaps in the place of our political unconscious, is there also an unavowed loss — the promise that Left analysis and Left commitment would supply its adherents with a clear and certain path towards the good, the right, and the true? Is it not this promise that formed the basis for much of our pleasure in being on the Left, indeed, for our self-love as Leftists and for our fellow feeling towards other Leftists? And if this love cannot be given up without demanding a radical transformation in the very foundation of our love, in our very capacity for political love or attachment, are we not doomed to Left melancholia, a melancholia that is certain to have effects that are not only sorrowful but self-destructive? Freud again:

If the love for the object - a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up - takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering.9

Now our challenge would be to figure out who or what is this substitutive object. What do we hate that we might preserve the idealization of that romantic Left promise? What do we punish that we might save the old guarantees of the Left from our wrathful disappointment?

Two familiar answers emerge from recent quarrels and reproaches on the Left. The first is a set of social and political formations variously known as “cultural politics” or “identity politics.” Here the conventional charge from one portion of the Left is that political movements rooted in cultural identity — racial, sexual, ethnic, or gendered — not only elide the fundamental structure of modernity — capitalism — and its fundamental formation — class — but fragment Left political energies such that socialist coalition building is impossible. The second culprit also has various names — “post-structuralism,” “discourse analysis,” “postmodernism,” “trendy literary theory got up as political analysis.” The murder charges here are also familiar: post-foundational theories of the subject, truth, and social processes undermine the verifiable empirical objectivity necessary to sustain a theoretically coherent and factually true account of the world, and also challenge the putatively objective grounds of Left norms. Together or separately, these two phenomena are held responsible for the weak, fragmented, and disoriented character of the contemporary Left. This much is old news. But if read through the prism of Left melancholy, the element of displacement in both sets of charges may appear more starkly since we would be forced to ask: what aspects of Left analysis or orthodoxy have wilted on the vine for its adherents, but are safeguarded from this recognition through the scornful attention heaped on identity politics and poststructuralism? Indeed, what narcissistic identification with that Orthodoxy is preserved in the lament over the loss of its hold on young Leftists and the loss of its potency in the political field? What love for the promises and guarantees that a Left analysis once held is preserved, as responsibility for the tattered condition of those promises and guarantees is distributed onto debased others? And do we here also see a certain thingness of the Left take shape, its reification as something that “is,” the fantastical memory that it once “was,” at the very moment that it so clearly is not/one?

For all his political and intellectual generosity, it is what I have termed Left melancholics for whom Stuart Hall has least forbearance. If Hall understands our failure as a Left in the last quarter-century as a failure within the Left to apprehend this time, this is a failure that is only reiterated and not redressed by our complaints against those who are succeeding (liberal centrists, neo-conservatives, the Right), or by our complaints against one another (anti-racists, feminists, queer activists, and “postmodernists”). In Hall's understanding, this failure is not simply the consequence of adherence to a particular analytic orthodoxy - the determinism of Capital, the primacy of class — although it is certainly that. Rather, this failure results as well from a particular intellectual straitjacket — an insistence on a materialism that refuses the importance of the subject and the subjective, the question of style, the problematic of language. And it is the combination of these two causes of failure that is deadly: “Our sectarianism,” he argues in the conclusion of The Hard Road to Renewal, “consists not only of a defensiveness towards the agendas fixed by now-anachronistic political-economic formations (those of the 1930s and 1945), but is also due to a certain notion of politics, inhabited not so much as a theory, more as a habit of mind.”

We go on thinking a unilinear and irreversible political logic, driven by some abstract entity we call 'the economic' or 'capital', unfolding to its preordained end. Whereas, as Thatcherism clearly shows, politics actually works more like the logic of language: you can always put it another way if you try hard enough.10

Certainly the course of capital shapes the conditions of possibility in politics, but politics itself “is either conducted ideologically or not at all.”11 Or, in another of Hall's pithy formulas, “politics does not reflect majorities, it constructs them.”12

It is important to be clear here. Hall never claims that ideology determines the course of globalization, but that it harnesses it for one political purpose or another, and when it is successful, the political and economic strategies represented by a particular ideology will also themselves bring into being certain political-economic formations within global capitalist developments.

Now we are beginning . . . to move into a 'post-Fordist' society - what some theorists call disorganized capitalism, the era of "flexible specialization'. One way of reading present developments is that privatization' is Thatcherism's way of harnessing and appropriating this underlying movement within a specific economic and political strategy and constructing it within the terms of a specific philosophy. It has succeeded, to some degree, in aligning its historical, political, cultural and sexual ‘logics’ with some of the most powerful tendencies in the contemporary logics of capitalist development. And this, in part, is what gives it its supreme confidence, its air of ideological complacency: what makes it appear to ‘have history on its side', to be coterminous with the inevitable course of the future. The left, however, instead of rethinking its economic, political, and cultural strategies in the light of this deeper, underlying 'logic' of dispersal and diversification (which after all, need not necessarily be an enemy of greater democratization) simply resists it. If Thatcherism can lay claim to it, then we must have nothing to do with it. Is there any more certain way of rendering yourself historically anachronistic?13

If the contemporary Left often clings to the formations and formulations of another epoch, one in which the notions of unified movements, social totalities, and class-based politics were viable categories of political and theoretical analysis, this means that it literally renders itself a conservative force in history - one that not only misreads the present but instils traditionalism in the very heart of its praxis, in the place where commitment to risk and upheaval belongs. Walter Benjamin sketches this phenomenon in his attack on Erich Kästner, the popular Left-wing poet in the Weimar Republic who is the subject of his "Left melancholy” essay: “This poet is dissatisfied, indeed heavy-hearted. But this heaviness of heart derives from routine. For to be in a routine means to have sacrificed one's idiosyncracies, to have forfeited the gift of distaste. And that makes one heavy-hearted.”14 In a different tonality, Stuart Hall sketches this problem in the Left's response to Thatcherism:

I remember the moment in the 1979 election when Mr Callaghan, on his last political legs, so to speak, said with real astonishment about the offensive of Mrs Thatcher that ‘She means to tear society up by the roots.’ This was an unthinkable idea in the social-democratic vocabulary: a radical attack on the status quo. The truth is that traditionalist ideas, the ideas of social and moral respectability, have penetrated so deep inside socialist consciousness that it is quite common to find people committed to a radical political programme underpinned by wholly traditional feelings and sentiments.15

Traditionalism is hardly new in Left politics, but it has become especially pronounced and pernicious in recent years as a consequence of (1) its righteous formulation as a defence against the Thatcher-Reagan “revolutions” (epitomized in the dismantling of the welfare state and the privatization of a number of public functions and services), (2) the development of cultural politics, and especially sexual politics, (3) the disintegration of socialist regimes and the severe discrediting of Left political-economic aims this disintegration occasioned. The combination of these three phenomena yields Left formulations that tend to have as their primary content the defence of liberal New Deal politics and especially the welfare state on one hand, and the defence of civil liberties on the other. In short, the Left has come to represent a politics that seeks to protect a set of freedoms and entitlements that confront neither the dominations contained in both, nor the limited value of those freedoms and entitlements in contemporary configurations of capitalism. And when this traditionalism is conjoined with a loss of faith in the egalitarian vision so fundamental to the socialist challenge to the capitalist mode of distribution, and a loss of faith in the emancipatory vision fundamental to the socialist challenge to the capitalist mode of production, the problem of Left conservatism becomes very serious indeed. What emerges is a Left that operates without either a substantive critique of the status quo or a substantive alternative to it. But perhaps even more troubling, it is a Left that has become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness, a Left that is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness but in its own marginality and failure, a Left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is deathly, whose structure of desire is backward-looking and punishing.

What is entailed in throwing off the melancholic and conservative habits of the Left to invigorate it with a radical (from the Latin radix, meaning “root”), critical and visionary spirit again? This would be a spirit that embraces the notion of a deep and indeed unsettling transformation of society rather than recoiling at this prospect, even as we must be wisened to the fact that neither total revolution nor the automatic progress of history would carry us towards whatever reformulated vision we might develop. What political hope can we nurture that does not falsely ground itself in the notion that “history is on our side” or that there is some inevitability of popular attachment to whatever values we might develop as those of a new Left vision? What kind of socialism can we imagine that is neither state-run nor utopian, neither repressive nor libertarian, neither economically impoverished nor culturally grey? My emphasis on the melancholic logic of certain contemporary Left tendencies is not meant to recommend therapy as the route to answering these questions. It does, however, suggest that the feelings and sentiments — including those of sorrow, rage, and anxiety about broken promises and lost compasses — that sustain our attachments to Left analyses and Left projects ought to be examined for what they create in the way of potentially conservative and even self-destructive undersides of putatively progressive political aims.


1. “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Walter Benjamin, Essays and Reflections, edited by H. Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 255.

2. For Benjamin's bewitching formulation of the "Then” and the “Now” as political terms unapproachable by "Past” and "Present,” see his notes on method for The Arcades Project, published as “N [Re the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, edited by G. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), especially pp. 49, 51-2, and 80.

3. “Mourning and Melancholia,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by J. Strachey, (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), Volume XIV, p. 245.

4. Ibid.

5. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, translated by J. Osborne (London: Verso, 1977), pp. 156-7.

6. Ibid., p. 157.

7. Ibid.

8. Walter Benjamin, “Left-Wing Melancholy,” republished in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited A. Kaes, M. Jay, and E. Dimendberg (UC Press, 1994), p. 305.

9. "Mourning and Melancholia, p. 251.

10. Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal. Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso, 1988), p. 273.

11. Ibid., p. 274.

12. Ibid., p. 266.

13. Ibid., p. 276.

14. Benjamin, “Left-Wing Melancholy,” p. 305.

15. Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal, p. 194. One might recall, in another context, James Miller's scandalized response to a remark by Foucault that he “wanted to destroy the whole of society,” a remark Miller not only excised from the context of Foucault's critique of totalization represented by the very notion of social wholes, but also treated as a signature of decadent nihilism rather than as an utterance compatible with a radical Left tradition aspiring to uproot all existing social practices. See James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon & Schuster), 1993.



Filed under: history, political-theory, psychoanalysis, weekend-read