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.