- Politics without Nostalgia
When Wendy Brown writes about ‘Politics out of History’ she does not mean an ahistorical politics, but a politics that has lost its mooring in History as a grand narrative of progress. She accordingly situates her work within that paradoxical space where modernity and postmodernity — structured history and posthistoire — are entangled. Here she identifies a pervasive cultural and political malaise: a residual bad faith whereby we fetishise or mourn the anachronistic forms of a more meaningful history even as we jettison their foundations. Her aim is to think through the possibilities that emerge from these ruins of modernity and to resist the dangers of a reactionary, moralising or nostalgic politics that all too readily emerges from anxieties incurred on the threshold of post-modernity. Indeed she strikes a rather recuperative note in her introduction by espousing the hope that history ‘may finally become our own’ (p.17).
While the volume’s seven chapters are relatively free standing, each offers a perspective on this dominant theme of disintegration and possibility. Brown elicits key political signifiers that grant particular chapters their focus: morality, desire, power, conviction, progress. In each case she tries to combine criticisms of their current functioning with an account of their fragmentation and allusions to the opportunities that might yet emerge from their disintegration. Although a few contemporary examples are used, this is for the most part accomplished by a close, if often creative, reading of primary texts (by Nietzsche, Foucault, Marx, Freud, Derrida, Benjamin and so on). While this lends the book as a whole a somewhat fragmented appearance (no doubt appropriately so), it is held together by the excellent first chapter. Brown tells us here that her analyses are primarily ‘diagnostic’ and this opening essay indeed provides an incisive summary of the diverse elements and problems that have been associated with postmodernity (although this is not a term Brown herself favours). Each study, she tells us, ‘examines a few strands of the condition that this waning has produced’ and tries to ‘open’ its possibilities (pp.16–17).
The language in which these ambitions are expressed looks reminiscent of critical theory, but Brown’s thinking is always inflected by Nietzschean concerns about life-denying nihilism and ressentiment as well as by a psychoanalytical perspective and a Foucauldian sensitivity to the pervasiveness of modern forms of power. In a refreshing departure from the merely ethical orientation that has marked many recent writings in this genre, Brown’s emphasis is firmly on politics. Her sympathy for a broadly leftist agenda is evident despite a sometimes uncritical acceptance of Engelsian and poststructuralist reductions of Marxism to a crude expression of teleology and economism.
I mention the latter because it seems to me that a more sympathetic reading of historical materialism — as an ongoing methodology of historical analysis where material and ideal developments are recognised as dialectically interwoven — might have served Brown’s purposes very well. She is certainly interested in Marx, whose work is the subject of the fourth chapter. But the Foucauldian interpretation offered here, while original and scholarly, leaves us with an unsatisfyingly disengaged, abstract (structuralist) Marx who reified Power rather than analysing history’s contingent and emergent forms. This indeed lays Marx open to many of the criticisms Brown makes, but an emphasis on Marxism as a critical methodology might have allowed her a more congenial conclusion; one replete with opportunities for analysing contemporary socio-political and material as well as psycho-cultural structures. In Brown’s account, for example, alienation and commodity fetishism appear as psychological rather than objective conditions, while Marx’s aim of exposing their origins in social relations, and hence their contingency and amenability to political intervention, is underplayed. Instead the demystifying, denaturalising work of phenomenological or dialectical interrogation is accredited to Foucault, whose genealogical approach is described in the fifth chapter. Brown seems generally happier with this approach and her account of it is persuasive. Yet many of the virtues she ascribes to it were already practised by critical modernists in the Marxist tradition, while their work had the advantage of summoning the kind...