Politics Out of History

These times are dispiriting, and to pretend otherwise is delusional at best. That said, we are all still very much alive and as capable of changing the course of history as anyone who came before us. We face impediments, of course. I’m particularly interested these days in trying to dig into the ways we reproduce our own helplessness and despair, since I seem to encounter it all the time. This leads towards psychology and philosophy and history, the various ways to contextualize how we make up our sense of ourselves and the world we live in.

After blogging a while back on the Wendy Brown interview I got quite interested in her work and just finished reading her 2001 book, Politics Out of History. I felt like I was cheating a bit, because in spite of however well-read I feel, there’s a lot more I haven’t gotten around to than I have. It’s not a Cliff’s Notes, but there is a feeling that I am sneaking around some difficult slogging by reading her book instead of the originals. In Politics Out of History, Brown goes over some very dense theory to glean the useful bits for her arguments addressing our melancholia, our lack of agency, our impotence and frequent political paralysis.

One of the hot-button issues that she takes up constructively is the problem of moralism, which she characterizes appropriately as “anti-politics.” She identifies a transition from morality to moralism when the sense that there is a general “good” toward which we are moving vanishes.

It is at this point that one finds moralizers standing against much but for very little, adopting a voice of moral judgment in the absence of a full-fledged moral apparatus and vision. Alternatively, the moralizer refuses the loss of the teleological and becomes reactionary: clinging without logical ground to the last comforting frame in the unraveling narrative” pluralism, the working class, universal values, the Movement, standpoint epistemology, a melting pot America, women’s essential nature” whatever it was that secured the status of the true, the status of the good, and their unbroken relationship. This, too, is a form of moralizing, but it takes the especially peculiar shape of reproaching history by personifying and reifying its effects in particular individuals, social formations, theories, or belief structures.

In our political culture it is rather difficult to raise objections to the moral fury that various people throw around. I often feel there is a strong urge towards self-censorship among political radicals, which mirrors the same dynamic among mainstream politicians and pundits too. The miniscule bit of independence and oppositional politics represented by Russ Feingold’s proposal to censure Bush has led to a mini-frenzy of recrimination and backbiting among liberals, all so afraid of the Echo Chamber which automatically denounces all critical expression as treasonous. Meanwhile, on the left, if one objects to a politics that repeatedly focuses on moralizing against victimization, whether framed by race or gender or other categories, one is immediately suspected of racism or sexism or some kind of prejudice” objecting to the dead-end politics proves it!

As vast quantities of left and liberal attention go to determining what socially marked individuals say, how they are represented, and how many of each kind appear in certain institutions or are appointed to various commissions, the sources that generate racism, poverty, violence against women, and other elements of social injustice remain relatively unarticulated and unaddressed. We are lost as how to address those sources; but rather than examine this loss or disorientation, rather than bear the humiliation of our impotence, we posture as if we were still fighting the big and good fight in our clamor over words and names. Don’t mourn, moralize”¦ (p. 36)”¦ contemporary political moralism tends to conflate persons with beliefs in completely nonvoluntaristic fashion: persons are equated with subject positions, which are equated with identities, which are equated with certain perspectives and values. To be a white woman is thus equated with speaking or thinking as a white woman, just as to include a “diversity of perspectives” is equated with populating a panel or a syllabus or an anthology with those who are formally” or, more precisely, phenotypically, physiologically, or behaviorally” marked as “diverse.” (p. 38)

This kind of thinking dominates so many nonprofits, community groups, and political organizing projects”¦ The whole discussion about the anti-globalization movement being “too white,” while worth raising in passing, became a perfect example of the demoralization and defeat that this frame of reference produces. Instead of connecting through passion and creativity, through shared predicaments and from there, reaching out to invite more people to participate, the actual participants are beaten up ideologically for the color of their skins and their lack of contrition! The inability of the movement to sustain itself beyond summit-hopping and extend itself into multiple locally-rooted oppositions has something to do with this endless cycle of recrimination.

Brown gets into some really interesting further reflections, which will probably piss some people off for being blatant psychologizing, but we have to raise these questions if we’re going to escape the cul-de-sac that left politics has become stuck in. How have these moralistic imperatives shaped our own sense of political agency? How do we unconsciously reproduce the very dynamics we oppose? In her third chapter called “Desire: The Desire to Be Punished” Freud’s ” “˜A Child is Being Beaten’ “ Brown applies some of Freud’s insights into sado-masochism to political consciousness and self-identity.

The questions animating my inquiry are these: If subordination or injury through these markings is not simply a matter of political oppression or repression producing a certain kind of social positioning, but instead entails an ongoing process of subject formation, to what degree might that process include the generation of desire for the mysterious and punitive social treatment its subjects also decry?”¦If desire is not inherently emancipatory” that is, if contemporary understandings of subject formation no longer allow us to view desiring subjects as desiring their freedom and well-being (including mere freedom from suffering)” from what source is an emancipatory future to be drawn? (p. 46)

As a founding member of the informal Committee for Full Enjoyment, this is a huge question for me. If desire is not clearly directed towards freedom and well-being, which I think she is correct to identify, on what basis do we construct our political goals? Where are we going if not towards a good life for all? How does our own confused sense of self, lack of confidence, fear of change, etc. cripple our ability to shape a radical politics that can actually change the world?

What if, in a political consciousness rooted in a critique of the ideology of universal liberal principles of equality and liberty, not simply a critique of but a fall from these principles partly forms the political personality that develops? Such a formation in those disenfranchised from liberal principles of equality and liberty by social markings of race, gender, and sexuality would have two crucial elements: the shattered idealizations of the principles themselves, and shattered idealizations of those who are socially dominant” whites, men, heterosexuals. Taken together, what Freud calls the “special sensitiveness and irritability” toward anyone who can be put in “the class of fathers” would shift toward anyone in a dominant group or upholding liberal idealism-and especially toward that group or person meeting both criteria. However, of importance here is not only the “easily offended” nature of this personality formation but also the way in which being offended comes to stand for being punished” the “offense” activates “the imagined situation of being beaten by [the loved object]”” and thus provides reassurance that the illicit and problematic object of desire is present. Indeed, if this economy of disappointed or humiliated attachment is a site not merely of sexual formation but also of political identity formation, then the need for such a set of idealizations in constituting political identity cannot be overstated. But neither can we underestimate the depth of guilt about these various idealizations and attachments and the political paralysis that results from this constitutive moment. (p. 58-59) [italics added]

I recently interviewed a person who played a big role in the 1970s Peoples’ Food System, and I was struck by her persistent pain and bitterness about the way Third Worldist politics contributed to its demise. I’m hoping to pull together a Talk for our Autumn series at CounterPULSE that gives us a chance to delve into this publicly, which will be really difficult! The necessary repudiation of endemic racism, rooted in slavery and the U.S. empire’s conduct in countless countries around the world, is an indispensable and foundational piece of our political legacy. But at the same time our political culture has stalled, even turned on itself, over an obsessive moralizing over an empty and ultimately depoliticized “diversity.”

Brown’s book takes on so much, far more than I can even really scratch here. A chapter called “Power: Power Without Logic Without Marx” applies the gnarly ideas about power developed by Foucault to show how even in Marx there is a deeply theological moment. Precisely at the point that we overcome our alienation and appropriate the means of production and re-integrate ourselves with our full creative capacities, power and politics would vanish in this curiously ahistorical endpoint. I got into a quick debate on this the other night with my good friend Mat Callahan, who insisted that this is indeed the point of our political efforts, and if it weren’t, why bother? Why not just get the best for yourself? But I think any human society will have politics, divisions, contestation, disagreements. Isn’t that the human condition? That’s not to say that we couldn’t go a long way towards living a much more harmonious and satisfying life together, and controlling democratically what we do is a crucial piece of that. But it won’t eliminate power or politics, both of which will continue to be produced in our daily interactions. The bigger question is how we constrain and shape power and politics to serve social and democratic ends. In this same chapter Brown also highlights a problem I’ve grappled with for quite a while, and can’t see any good answer to:

Workers alienated from their labor in a material sense can strike, subvert, or even seize the apparatus of production, but what of alienated psyches? Aren’t they as likely to act out as act up? Or perhaps even more dispiriting, aren’t they as likely to become one with the machinery as to throw a wrench in it? (p. 75)

Well, yes, that happens all the time. If anything a society that systematically fetishizes the products of human activity, and ultimately humans themselves, can’t help but insinuate itself into the deep psychology of its members. It is just one example of a whole panoply of ways that we are shaped by our material experience of this alienated life, and to presume that there is a deep unalienated core sensibility that will just emerge automatically or logically from its repression and burial seems rather too hopeful, to say the least! It’s certainly possible, and I work for it all the time, in as many ways as I can think of, but there is not certain relationship between that effort and the hoped-for results.

Which brings us to the last chapter (skipping some complicated and important stuff about Geneaological Politics and democracy, Nietzsche and Foucault) called “Futures: Specters and Angels” Benjamin and Derrida.” In this final chapter Brown explores the demise of a progressive sense of history. In the discussion I’m reminded of how my own well-being is determined to a great extent by how I see myself in history, by my sense of how the world landed on this particular configuration rather than infinite others.

By insisting on the political face of history as a persistent question about the way the past is remembered or disavowed, Derrida has rendered impossible (as does Benjamin) any pure categories in the attempt to separate history from memory. We inherit not “what really happened” to the dead but what lives on from that happening, what is conjured from it, how past generations and events occupy the force fields of the present, how they claim us, and how they haunt, plague, and inspirit our imaginations and visions for the future. (p. 150)”¦A characterization of the past as haunting the present and as conjurable in the present challenges not simply linear but progressive history. In Derrida’s reformulation, history emerges as that which shadows and constrains, incites or thwarts, rather than that which moves, directs, or unfolds. History as a ghostly phenomenon does not march forward” it doesn’t even march. Rather, it comes and goes, appears and recedes, materializes and evaporates, makes and gives up its claims. And it changes shape;: that is, the same event or formation does not haunt in the same way across time and space. (p. 151)

I like this concept of “hauntology” as historiography, which she’s examining in Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, because it reinforces my own sense of the contestability of history. I’ve said in public many times when giving variations on the Shaping San Francisco show that “˜history is a creative act in the present.’ It does not mean that there is no truth in history, but that there are too many overlapping and contestable points of view and interpretations to give any particular version the weight of Truth. Moreover, while we receive history in various ways, what we do with it, how we cast its meaning against our own lived experience, remains the most important variable in terms of political consequences. And let’s face, the amnesiac American culture that maddeningly reduces history to either an epithet or an endless stream of fake history nostalgia commodities, uses a degraded and false sense of history to bolster its (undeserved) self-esteem all the time.

It is a permanently contestable historiography, one that makes contestable histories an overt feature of our political life as it encourages us to struggle for and against particular conjurations of the past. It never claims to exhaust or settle historical questions. History becomes less what we dwell in, are propelled by, or are determined by than what we fight over, fight for, and aspire to honor in our practices of justice. (p. 154)

In reviewing some of the work of the Frankfurt School’s eminent Walter Benjamin, Brown focuses on his critique of “progress”. Having worked on a so-called “progressive” version of bottom-up local history here in San Francisco for so many years, this piqued my interest. According to this analysis, progressive history actually functions as its opposite, because it tends to reinforce “˜the way things are’ as inevitable and anyway, just as well, since it’s just a stage we have to go through on our way to the good society that progressive history assures us is ahead.

Benjamin’s objection to progressive historiography is therefore not simply its groundlessness as histiorography but the havoc it wreaks with a historically oriented political consciousness. Rather than focusing this consciousness on the parameters of the present, rather than engaging it to evoke and create historical memory, progress lifts consciousness out of time and space, treating past, present, and their relation as givens. (p. 160)He sees progress, so often understood by radicals and reformers as a wellspring of political hope, as functioning in just the opposite way. Progress reconciles and attaches its adherents to an inevitable (even fatalistic) and unwittingly normative account of political formations and events. The hopefulness that a progressive view of history offers is both delusional and ultimately conservative, precluding a politics devoted to bringing about a “state of emergency” that can break with the present or “blast open the continuum of history”. Moreover, Benjamin argues, while it is the downtrodden who often cling hardest to the progressive promise, progress always measures the condition of the dominant class and is part of the ideology that naturalizes its dominance. A progressive historiography ratifies the dominance of the bourgeoisie by tacitly articulating an ideology that erases the condition of the defeated or the oppressed in the name of a historical automatism, that is, in a process with no agent, no powers, and, most important, no victims” or at least none for whom anyone or anything is accountable. (p. 162-63)

It behooves us to pay some attention to the thoughts of people who wrote during the rise of Nazism in Germany, who faced a world that seemed to be descending into an abyss of unmatchable barbarism. In fact, it was. But the world did not end. The forces they were responding to didn’t disappear either. They are back in the saddle these days, probably as self-destructive as they were in the 1930s-40s, but obviously they bring an awful lot of horror with them. Perhaps we could say that Benjamin’s thoughts here were directed to the kind of automatism characteristic of 3rd (and 4th) International Communism. Even though communist parties have largely disappeared, the kind of thinking hasn’t gone by entirely. Still, perhaps it is more widely understood now that history provides no guarantees. Where we’re going is not set in cement, and the chances of altering course are always present.

Unfortunately, a lot of the folks who still call themselves “˜left’ or “˜progressive’ or any of those variations, are stuck. Me and my friends are stuck too, perhaps for somewhat different reasons. But I think one common roadblock is our inability to move beyond the forms of political expression and agency that we’ve received from the long 20th century. So much political thinking and writing fails to freshly examine the world and the changing terms of power and resistance. Here’s the last quote of this too long blog post!

We are more loyal to our left passions and reasons, our left analyses and convictions, than to the existing world that we presumably seek to alter with these terms or to the future that would be aligned with them. Left melancholy, in short, is Benjamin’s name for a mournful, conservative, backward-looking attachment to feelings, analyses, or relations that have become fetishized and frozen in the heart of the critic. (p. 170)

Since I don’t identify that much with the “˜left’ I don’t automatically take this personally. But as part of a broader “˜progressive’ milieu in the Bay Area and even internationally, there’s no mistaking the kind of fetishism criticized here. I’d like to push it one step further, though, beyond the terms of politics and political action. Among the best contributions of the squishy Bay Area subcultures are a greatly enhanced ability to facilitate group processes and real democratic practices, and secondly, an increased attention to the affective, to what we’re feeling while we’re working together. I think Brown’s book makes an incredibly important contribution to pointing us to deep thinking that unites formal political theory with these practical political and behavioral improvements. The ossified fetishism, un-selfconscious psychological loops, the fixed sense of history, all mitigate against creatively engaging with the real life we face in the 21st century.

1 comment to Politics Out of History

  • giovanni

    Wow Chris, what a tour de force! Very very very interesting, as are the similitudes and differences between Bay Area and Milan. Food for my mind!

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