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  • Left Conservatism, I
  • Wendy Brown (bio)

There is one thing that Chris left out of the genealogy of this conference which I want to note briefly. Originally neither Judith Butler nor I were supposed to be sitting here, but rather Wahneema Lubiano, Professor of English and African-American studies at Duke. For health reasons, she had to cancel, so between the two of us we’re trying to make up for that loss, but I think you should consider it a two/thirds substitute for what Wahneema would have contributed.

I mention this also because the lure that Chris offered when we were invited to replace Wahneema was that what we were going to do was have a workshop—we would each say a few things at the beginning but mostly we would all converse with each other. On other occasions I might enter this conversation at the philosophical level of analysis that Paul modelled so finely, and in fact, last year, to a piece of this audience, I argued in philosophical terms that Marx was no believer in either the Real or the True with a capital R or T. But my understanding of the occasion today is much looser intellectually, and maybe loose-canon like politically. I’m not offering a tight argument or a direct encounter with some of the philosophical issues that are at the root of what has been cast as an intra-Left argument. Rather I just want to set out, in a very general way, what I consider to be some of its political stakes.

Being a conservative myself in many respects, I want to distinguish the provisional appellation “left conservatism”—and I’m not sure it’s the right appellation—from the kind of conservatism that I hew to and defend. In academe, I’m the kind of conservative who loves the classics and believes the old and great books ought to be absolutely central in a college education. I’m the kind who believes students ought to know the history of European modernity in order to understand the origins and development of many current institutions, including capitalism, liberalism, and neo-colonialism. I’m also the kind who believes in lectures, note-taking, and analytic paper writing, rather than free-form or do-it-yourself pedagogy. In all of these respects, I have been named a conservative and my leftist credentials have been challenged.

In culture, I’m the kind of conservative who believes in the transcendental qualities of great love, great music, and great art. I still think there is something unique and grand and tragic about humanity, something that is neither fully distinguishable from nor fully collapsible into animals, machines, gods, or virtual spaces.

In politics, I’m the kind of conservative who still believes that politics represents, among other things, a kind of semi-autonomous space concerned with public life and public things, and that politics is inappropriately reduced to, saturated by or allowed to saturate personal life, literature, art, ethics, and morality.

These are all, of course, contentious claims. They are not the ones in which I want to dwell, but I wanted to begin here because I think there are kinds of conservatism that aim to conserve things of value, things that seem to the conservative to be imperilled by contemporary formations, forces, or ideas. In other words, I don’t think conservativism as such is a bad thing. I also think it is possible to be simultaneously conservative in certain ways and radically open to new historical developments, political formations, cultural expressions, and so forth. I think it is possible to be conservative toward some elements of the present and radically critical of others. It is possible to be invested in a radical critique of the present order and a radically different future, while caring for and wishing to conserve some dimension of the past and the present.

Now, what of this phenomenon provisionally being called left conservatism? First, I really want to call it provisional. I am not sure it will turn out to be useful or rightfully named. And here I want to gather us together before I distinguish us. The so-called left...

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