- A Theory of Regret by Brian Price
by Brian Price. Duke University Press. 2017. $84.95 hardcover; $23.95 paperback; also available in e-book. 176 pages.
The most important thing is the word that the title doesn't begin with. The second most important thing is the second word with which it does. I will not elaborate on those assertions until the end of my review. By then, something will have changed; these lines will look different.
Brian Price's scholarship over the past decade and a half has been a patient demolishment of dogma. From his first monograph, Neither God nor Master, a work that unseats the vision of Robert Bresson as transcendental filmmaker, unconcealing a wholly new Bresson of radical politics; to his coeditorship of Color: The Film Reader, an influential collection that set in place a foundation for the, at the time, woefully neglected area of color scholarship in film; to his role as a cofounder of the journal and conference World Picture, one of the preeminent contemporary sites for theoretical inquiry, his work has challenged readers in film and visual studies with its philosophical depth and provocative [End Page 184] correctives to received wisdom.1 His most recent book, A Theory of Regret, is no exception, although here the challenge extends to audiences well beyond those in film and media studies, asking equally that philosophers and cultural theorists regard film not as a convenient source of example but as exemplary of a serious engagement with political thought.
But first, regret. Here, as in all of Price's writings, the effort hews to the true task of theory: theoria, contemplation, speculation, to look at something (otherwise; in a new light). The project of the book is to carefully and patiently think with regret—not to collapse the affect into a synonym for nostalgia (as occurs, say, in Dudley Andrew's Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film, in which poetic realism after 1940 is a "sign of nostalgia or regret, the movement's chief emotional register") or to figure regret as preeminent negative trauma apparent in a reckoning with one's total life (think John Berryman's "Henry, monstrous bug, laid himself down / on the machine in the penal colony / without a single regret. / He was all regret, swallowing his own vomit, / disappointing people, letting everyone down")—and definitely not to boast of its impossibility or lack as though either were a virtue.2 A Theory of Regret appears within a historical episteme that fetishizes nonregret through a simultaneous horror of regret and valuation of its absence. This is apparent in everything from activist efforts to eliminate it in advance from the realm of sexuality—such that regrettable sex is collapsed into bad sex, which is to say sex that fails in relation to the ethical—to motivational bromides promising a life with "no regrets," to anxieties about assured future regret predicated on one's present absence implicit in the very notion of a fear of missing out (FOMO). This twenty-first-century obsession with avoiding regret—FOMO was recently added to that bellwether of cultural tides, the Oxford English Dictionary—is matched by a concurrent sense that true, substantial regret is never adequately present where it is most vocally professed, that proliferations of repentance in the wake of retroactively condemned practice (Louis C.K. and others) are in fact deploying the discourse of regret precisely to evade the labor of meaningful political change.
For Price, thinking regret otherwise involves a double move. He suspends regret's philosophical tradition that regards it as a question of reason or evaluation of weighted choices while also refuting the cultural commonplace that tries to scrupulously avoid regret or that boasts of having none. The latter insistence is recast here as an expression of "adherence to what we have only ever believed in one way," which is to say an unchanging relation to thought (see his powerful reading of Adolf Eichmann's "I regret nothing" as a boast of ethical stupidity, such that having no regret is not merit but conviction, and "conviction is what follows from an...