Friday, May 29, 2009

Left Melancholy and Whitlam's Ghosts

Some notes on Walter Benjamin's concept of Left Melancholy from various sources below:

Walter Benjamin, in a short essay published in 1931, spoke of a Left-Wing melancholy, a concept that American political theorist Wendy Brown has more recently taken up. Left melancholy applies to those no longer attached libidinal investments and commitments that ‘we’ make in political utopias and formations, especially to the socialist projects of the c20th that were given their (premature) death notices by Francis Fukuyama, among others, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, 1989-91. If for Freud “[m]ourning is commonly the reaction to the loss of a beloved person or an abstraction taking the place of the person, such as fatherland, freedom, an ideal and so on, [i]n some people, whom we for this reason suspect of having a pathological disposition, melancholia appears in the place of mourning”(2005. 203). If the loss of an ’object’ is worked-though in mourning a working-through whereby “the libido as a whole sever its bonds with the object” (204),

[m]elancholia is mentally characterized by a profoundly painful depression, a loss of interest in the outside world, the loss of the ability to love, the inhibition of any kind of performance and a reduction in the sense of self, expressed in self-recrimination and self-directed insults, intensifying into the delusory expectation of punishment. We have a better understanding of this when we bear in mind that mourning displays the same traits, apart from one: the disorder of self-esteem is absent. (204)

Benjamin intensified this sense of melancholia in a review of poetry published in 1931, where he aligns melancholy’s response to loss to a cultural form and political formation’s position in Weimar Germany. Of this formation he acerbically asks:

What, then, does the "intellectual elite" discover as it begins to take stock of its feelings? Those feelings themselves? They have long since been remaindered. What is left is the empty spaces where, in dusty heart-shaped trays, the feelings - nature and love, enthusiasm and humanity - once rested. Now the hollow forms are absentmindedly caressed. A know-all irony thinks it has much more in these supposed stereotypes than in the things themselves; it makes a great display of its poverty and turns the yawning emptiness into a celebration. For this is what is new about this objectivity - it takes as much pride in the traces of former spiritual goods as the bourgeois do in their material goods. Never have such comfortable arrangements been made in such an uncomfortable situation.
In short, this left-wing radicalism is precisely the attitude to which there is no longer, in general, any corresponding political action. It is not to the left of this or that tendency, but simply to the left of what is in general possible. For from the beginning all it has in mind is to enjoy itself in a negativistic quiet.
(1999: 424-5)

Rehabilitating and historicising Benjamin's concept Wendy Brown asks:

[I]f we are slipping from liberalism to fascism, and if radical democracy or socialism is nowhere on the political horizon, don't we have to defend liberal democratic institutions and values? Isn't this the lesson of Weimar? I have labored to suggest that this is not the right diagnosis of our predicament: it does not grasp what is at stake in neoliberal governmentality - which is not fascism - nor on what grounds it might be challenged. Indeed, the left defense of the welfare state in the 1980s, which seemed to stem from precisely such an analysis - "if we can't have socialism, at least we should preserve welfare state capitalism" - backfired from just such a misdiagnosis. On the one hand, rather than articulating an emancipatory vision that included the eradication rather than regulation of poverty, the Left appeared aligned with big government, big spending, and misplaced compassion for those construed as failing to give their lives proper entrepreneurial shape. On the other hand, the welfare state was dismantled on the grounds that had almost nothing to do with the terms of liberal democracy and everything to do with neoliberal economic and political rationality. We are not simply in the throes of a eight-wing or conservative positioning within liberal democracy but rather at the threshold of a different political formation, one that conducts and legitimates itself on different grounds from liberal democracy even as it does not immediately divest itself of the name.

This formation produces a twofold challenge for the Left. First, it compels us to consider the implications of losing liberal democracy and especially its implications for our own work by learning what the Left had depended on and demanded from liberal democracy, which aspects of it have formed the basis of our critiques of it, rebellions against it, and identity based on differentiation from it. We may also need to mourn liberal democracy, avowing our ambivalent attachment to it, our need for it, our mix of love and hostility toward it. The aim of this work is framed by the second challenge, that of devising intelligent strategies for challenging the neoliberal political-economic formation now taking shape and an intelligent countervision to this formation. (2005: 56-57)

In order to resituate these fragments on Left melancholy into the period and context of the object of my research here - the affects of the rise of Neoliberal governmentality on literary production and reception during the long Labor decade in Australia - we may first have to dispense with the notion of a single modernity, and with its complementary concept of a global historical vanguard that drags the so-called developing world in its wake. Of course, the idea of a universal, progressive history is what Benjamin, and following him, Brown critique as ‘historicism’:

[Thesis] XVI
A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to other to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.

Historicism rightly culminates in universal history. Materialist historiography differs from it as to method more clearly than from any other kind. Universal history has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time. Materialistic historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallized into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history – blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.
(“Theses on the Philosophy of History” 262-3)

Writing on his historical materialist antidote to the chain of empty homogeneous time(s) in historicism, Brown takes Benjamin to be intending a

staging [of] the present in terms of a constructed historical-political consciousness that itself blasts the present out of the continuum of history. A present figured as fecund rather than as determined on the one hand or as theologically presided over by empty time on the other produces what Benjamin famously calls “ a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. Only a chance, but a revolutionary one: this struggle over what the past could mean in the present is at the same time a struggle for the future. (2005: 13-14.)

The aim of the work of untimely political critique is, for Brown, “to contest settled accounts of what time is, what the times are, and what political tempo and temporality we should hew to in political life” (4). I want to underline this point about unsettling temporalities by drawing attention to the diverse ways in which Left-melancholy and Left-mourning happen and, as a consequence, sharpen the alterity between how Neoliberalism happens in Australian political culture and how it emerges and ascends in North America, South America, the United Kingdom.

Brown's essay is addressed to an American academic left audience, and one reading in the wake of the Neoconservative turn of the Bush administration after the 11 September, 2001 attacks, for whom the civil rights of their liberal democracy were and are more fundamentally under siege than similar rights in Australia in the wake of 9-11 and the bombings in Bali. Also it’s worth pointing out how what Brown in a later essay calls the present dangers of decontainment of the church from borders separating it from the state under neoceonservative political rationalities in North America is a minor phenomenon in Australian civil culture, as Amanda Lohrey has persuasively argued in her 2005 Quarterly Essay “Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia”.

So, while an Australian-based citizen-subject like me can certainly relate to similar articulations in a more locally experienced conjuncture it needs be recognised that American liberalism is different in significant ways to Australian liberalism, not least due to the historic compromises of the Deakinite Settlement and the establishment of the Court of Arbitration, the principle of the (white male) living wage, and their interlocking in a system of Protection (tariff and immigration). In the post-war period this assemblage combines with the commodities boom and Keynesian demand management to form the Labourist-Social-liberal armature. The organised Australian Labour movement was present at the inception of the Federation in 1901 and remained a strong cultural force, especially in nationalist print-cultures, throughout the c20th. Also, as Marian Sawer argues in her The Ethical State? Social Liberalism in Australia : "[i]t was fortuitous that the peak influence of social-liberal philosophy [. . .] coincided with Australia's nation-building period [c1890-c1914]. This conjuncture meant that these ideas were built into the design of the new national institutions and continued to influence later developments through path dependence" (35).

Closer to the present, the Neoliberalising of the economy and polity that the States underwent through Reagan's (1980-88) George Bush I's (1988-1992) presidencies was inflected through the morally and socially conservative cold war mentalities of the Republican party and its bloc in ways that weren't replicated in Australia until the culture wars of the mid-1990s. In some ways tha afterlife of these culture wars lingers like a lost limb for the Left: we still want to win them, even after all the light and heat has been taken out of such battles as were fought over the History of Settlement and refugee policy in the 1990s and early c21st. But under these skirmishes and battles lies a deeper problem of loss, that is knotted up in the Whitlam Government and its fall. The loss of that future - the spectre of progress that shimmers just ahead of us - is, I think, still to be worked through. And perhaps in working through it, something other than that Neoliberal future of a return to and from appreciating investments in one's self, can emerge.

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