Since I’m perennially behind on my reading, I’m just now getting to the interview with Wendy Brown in the January issue of Contretemps, the one other people were talking about six months ago. I like it quite a bit, and for many of the reasons on display in the previous post: a refusal to subscribe to preplanned, teleological political projects; an openness to contingency and new ways of conceiving the world; a disobeying of dualistic political logics; a willingness to revise the past, present, and future. Also — and this is perhaps a “mere” stylistic point — I’m impressed that she engages with the interviewers, responds to the actual questions they ask, and at one point seems to genuinely have part of her theoretical foundation cracked by one of the interviewer’s questions.

But — and you know there was going to be a “but” — there are certain ways in which Brown’s warnings to the oppositional, statist left about blocking off present and future possibilities are mirrored by her rather closed, one-dimensional view of the past. In the interview, and in much of her recent work, Brown is concerned with the process of mourning; she says we must properly note and grieve the passing of both liberal democracy and a socialist future. Only a proper period of mourning can ensure that future action is loving and doesn’t revert to reactive aggression. I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of political mourning — though it might be useful to investigate more whether Brown’s direct transferring of psychoanalysis’s concept of individual mourning to the social level is all that apt — but I am concerned with both the object of that mourning and its duration and depth. Which is to say, are the things that Brown wants us to mourn really worth mourning? Aren’t those precisely the things that many of the fights over the last, say, thirty years have been against? What is feminism if not a struggle against liberal democracy? What are migrant and labor struggles if not a rejection of socialist-nationlist governmentality? To be sure, Brown frequently notes the left’s ambiguous relationship to democracy, but nevertheless insists on a grieving process. It’s hard to see why.

Maybe the real problem here is not with the mourning so much as it is with Brown’s conception of the past. Though she warns the left against reterritorializing the present and future, she seems at the same time to reterritorialize the past. That is, if much of the left errs by wanting to create a goal-driven, unified movement for social change, Brown errs by univocalizing the past. By insisting on a period of mourning for liberal democracy and socialism, she implies that everyone had the same relationship to them. By fetishizing mourning, she overlooks the joy and victory available in saying goodbye.


5 thoughts on “Mourning

  1. I’ve not read the interview yet but will now, in a bit. Your remarks on history here are great. I try to parse out that kind of stuff in terms of enunciation and consolidation, or in terms of aspirations and achievements. The first is almost always laudable and deserving of respect, the second much less so. So, for instance, many people in the CPs of the world thought they were doing right in the Spanish Civil War. They weren’t. Ditto for many passionate rank and file liberal and social democrats. The important point for me being not to think of the outcomes of those doctrines as pre-existing in the minds of the people who pushed for them, however predictable they look in retrospect. And however predictable they looked at the time to people with different viewpoints.

    That’s the other big one for me about this stuff, to say “mourn for X failed project” easily leaves out people who fought that project from the left. If anything, those people are the ones who should be at the forefront of our relation to the past.

    take it easy,

  2. N. and A., thanks for the kind words. Nate, re. your last point, that’s why I’m a little surprised to see this undue romanticism of democracy and liberalism coming from Brown, who is well aware of the injuries caused by these structures. But perhaps it’s a symptom of her not really giving too much weight to resistance, for lack of a better term. She–like a good number of posties, particularly of the Foucauldian it seems to me–seems to assume that such things commit suicide or just die and doesn’t see that they were at least partially killed.

    Can you unpack that first paragraph a bit? I’m very intrigued by it, but either I’m thick or these two Spaten Optimators have clouded by ability to read this evening. But man, those Germans know how to make beer.

  3. hi Eric,

    Doing my best to unpack (a challenge which sometimes makes one fear the luggage is a little light for its size)…

    I started thinking about this in thinking about Angela’s remarks on democracy and rights. Some rights claims serve as a demand or a self-asserstion, a sort of “we exist” directed at someone else but also directed at (constitutive of) the group which says “we.” That is, the announcing of a common grievance. So, take for instance for instance, a group of tenants who say “the lead paint in our walls is ridiculous!” as part of a campaign by an NGO to change housing law. The tenants’ activity qua shout of “that’s enough!” is an enunciation. The NGO taking people to the alderman’s office, the alderman, etc institutional channels, are mechanisms of consolidation, channeling. The glass around the small flame of enunciation. (That’s how I think of many of the CPs and unions of the world – glass surrounding small fires, such that when the wind blows hard they can sometimes prevent greater extinguishing, but when fires are higher outside the glass they prevent the fires joining up and getting bigger.) Just so it’s clear, I don’t think this is an ineliminable organizational/movement dynamic, just a common form. I think mechanisms like recallable delegates etc can militate against consolidation and so forth to some degree, though there’s not a magic procedural fix.

    On history, then, what I mean is that one can mourn a certain enunciatory quality of past projects (the sincerity of some leftists who worked for the AFL, for instance, is worth something, though not very much), but that has to also involve criticising the project’s relation to that which lived off of, which is largely a relation of capturing or at best of being secondary. And in at least some cases, I suspect more than are recorded unfortunately, there were people who shared – and in some cases held better or held more – the enuniatory quality with less of the consolidating quality.For instances, Harry Bridges is often held up as a progressive labor leader, but he was also an authoritarian who wreaked havoc on the lives of left opposition rank and file, who were at least as left as he was (in the case of Stan Weir, more so.)

    Is that better?
    take care,

  4. Yes, yes. Much clearer now. I thought maybe you were getting at something like that. That’s very well stated, by the way. And I agree very much. It’s sort of like mourning, but mourning while retaining a degree–hopefully a high degree–of skepticism and criticism, so that mistakes are not forgotten/forgiven because peoples’ hearts were in the right place. An appreciation but not a nostalgic, apologetic gloss. Brown actually balances this much better in some of her essays, moreso than in the interview, though even there, as I recall, she has some sharp comments–particularly her comparison of neoliberalism not to the deceased lover but to the deceased father…. I like your formulation.

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