New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 805-825
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Feminism's Apocalyptic Futures
Robyn Wiegman *
The conference that served as the inaugurating occasion for this special issue of New Literary History framed its inquiry as a question: "Is There Life After Identity Politics?" For me, this question had two particularly important components. First, by asking whether identity retained a critical utility in the present, it indicated something of the depth of the intellectual exhaustion that characterized the discussion of identity throughout the 1990s, where even those long committed to its project had become invested in tracing its critical limits. Such limits might be characterized in a variety of ways, but certainly the failure of any individual identity rubric--race, gender, sexuality, nation, or ethnicity--to function in isolation has been key. Scholars have thus been in pursuit of identity's "multiplicity" or "intersectionality" in order to explicate what the categories on their own seemed to conceal: that no single analytic enables us to perceive the complexity by which human beings inhabit, in psychic and social terms, those relations of power identified by the critical rubrics of identity. 1
At the same time, the conference question brought to the fore an anxiety about the relation between past and future, which is to say an anxiety about the possibilities of imagining social transformation in a decade that witnessed the legal disestablishment of much of identity's democratic gains. For if identity politics are over, as the conference question tentatively proposed, it is because they have been severed, in California and elsewhere, from their ability to legislatively intervene in a series of historical exclusions; psychically and socially, they have lost what we might think of as the utopian generation of a future tense. "Identity politics" as we use the term now references, then, two [End Page 805] increasingly contradictory trajectories: the memory of identity's ability in the 1960s to rigorously challenge state-based practices of exclusion and the theoretical difficulty of identity categories to sustain a heterogeneous understanding of social power and subjective identification today. Hence the anxiety of the conference question: "Is There Life After Identity Politics?" I interpret this question to mean: can we reproduce political optimism if the content and measure of that optimism is now, critically and legislatively, dead?
In "Resisting Left Melancholy," Wendy Brown approaches the problem of producing utopian affect in a present that lacks the fierce public texture of social revolt by returning to Walter Benjamin's ruminations on temporality and revolutionary politics. 2 Benjamin's use of "left melancholy" served as a means to characterize a persistent political attachment to the past, one that in Brown's words, "represents not only a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present . . . [but] an attachment to the object of one's sorrowful loss [that] supercedes any desire to recover from this loss, to live free of it in the present, to be unburdened by it" (LM 20). Brown uses "left melancholy" to define the content of what others have called the "crisis of the left," diagnosing the attachment to the past that makes the present politically (as well as historically and temporally) incomprehensible. "Certainly the losses . . . of the Left are many in our own time," she writes. "The literal disintegration of socialist regimes and the legitimacy of Marxism may well be the least of it. . . . [W]e suffer with the sense of not only a lost movement but a lost historical moment; not only a lost theoretical and empirical coherence but a lost way of life and a lost course of pursuits" (LM 22). For Brown, as for Benjamin in another time, left melancholy is a response to the end of utopian affect, a fixation on the past as the "good, the right, and the true" (LM 22). In this attachment, the left becomes a conservative force by conserving the past; its radicalism is dismembered by temporal immobility.
"Resisting Left Melancholy" began as a public statement at the January 1998 Santa Cruz conference on "Left Conservatism." 3 Its critique of the New Left of the 1960s caused a...