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  • Melancholia and Mania on the Trump Campaign Trail
  • Christina Tarnopolsky (bio)
A commentary on “American Overabundance and Cultural Malaise: Melancholia in Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin” by Mary Caputi, Theory & Event, Vol 4, No. 3 (2000)

Published in 2000 at the very beginning of the twenty-first century, Mary Caputi’s article “American Overabundance and Cultural Malaise: Melancholia in Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin” examines what she saw then as a prevailing condition of melancholia in America in the midst of opulence and overabundance. One of the characteristics of this melancholia was a nostalgic reaching back to the past in order to redeem the present, which was perceived as saturated with a dizzying array of signifiers, symbols, and commodities that seem hollowed out or vacuous when compared to the fullness of the past. According to Caputi, this nostalgic reaching back to the past had in fact started well before the beginning of the twenty-first century and was a key element of the neo-conservative movement that began in 1980, and which was epitomized by Ronald Reagan’s campaign and his slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again”. Here a notion of a more “innocent”, “pure” and “cohesive” America of the 1950’s or even of the Founding generation was seen as that lost but unified past that could somehow be recuperated in order to reconnect to certain values and meanings that had been rent asunder by the liberal attack on values and “the damaging excesses of liberal administrations.”1 The way to achieve this was, however, not through an embrace of traditionalism but rather through an embrace of capitalism that would ensure America’s place at the forefront of the globalizing, technologically savvy world symbolized by opulence and overabundance. This American preeminence was to be achieved by casting off “the abstemiousness of regulation and [allowing] market mechanisms to perform unhindered.”2 Ironically and presciently, Caputi states that one element of this 1980’s opulence was encapsulated in the figures of “Donald and Ivana Trump—the extravagant towers, the expensive clothes, the bouffant hairdo, and glittering jewelry.”3 Revisiting Caputi’s article with the hindsight of almost 20 more years of neoliberal governance in America, the aim of this essay is to offer a supplement to her account [End Page 100] of melancholia by turning to Sigmund Freud’s essay on it in order to explore the forces of aggression within melancholia, as well as within its companion, mania, as a way of shedding some light on the rise of a very different kind of Republican President, Donald Trump.

In her article, Caputi turns to Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin to understand this double move of nostalgic reminiscence and capitalism, but also to understand why the resulting opulence or overabundance did not result in the promised state of a recovery or reconnection to a lost past, but instead in a feeling of malaise and melancholia amidst overabundance. According to Caputi, both Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin see melancholia arising out of a feeling of loss in relation to an anterior condition of unity, in Kristeva’s case with the dreaded and loved maternal body, in Benjamin’s case with Adamic language and its intimacy with God’s creative powers. For Kristeva, the unity with the maternal body represents a pre-linguistic state because the body’s “ability to satiate made language unnecessary.”4 While conventional language makes subjectivity and separation from the mother possible, it also produces a subject that acutely feels the loss of the intimate unity with the maternal body and its accompanying feelings of fullness and satiety. On the other hand, Benjamin’s sees the anterior stage of Adamic language not as pre-linguistic but rather as a form of revelatory and creative language in opposition to later conventional and instrumental languages “intended [only] to denote, explain, clarify, and persuade.”5 This Adamic language or Ursprache involved a direct connection to God’s creative powers and transcendent meanings in opposition to the chaotic multiplicity of conventional languages and meanings that occurred after the Tower of Babel. For both authors, according to Caputi, melancholia registers a move away from an anterior state of meaningful closure, fixity, and unity...


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