Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Melancholy of Resistance

The invocation of melancholia to characterise the mood of the present, to characterise something of our ‘condition’, is a veritable cliché. Certainly, the concomitant attempt to make a politics out of that melancholia can often seem like the attempt to pile one cliché on top of another. In his usual pugnacious style Slavoj Žižek (2000) has noted how melancholia is to the taste of our times – indicating the preference for an attentive narcissism that ‘preserves’ the dead object and a reluctance to embrace the step to mourning that would imply internalisation and action. Typically, however, of this style of opening I am going to avoid that good advice and indulge in the very vice that I have just anatomised – trying to grasp a politics of melancholia, or better the limits of a particular instance of a politics of melancholia. Even more typically, for an academic, I am going to indulge that vice at one remove by considering one contemporary invocation and endorsement of the politics of melancholia: Andrew Gibson’s Intermittency: The Concept of Historical Reason in Recent French Philosophy (2012). My aim is to suggest, in this case, how an appeal to affect can block politics.

Rebecca Comay (2011) remarks on ‘the ideological versatility of melancholia: an uncompromising rejection of the existent (nothing short of total transformation is tolerable) coupled with an easy accommodation to whatever happens to be the case (everything is equally terrible, so why bother…).’ It is useful, I think, to analyse Gibson’s work because he hyperbolises this versatility, and so also speaks to and reveals the disavowed ideological underpinnings of much contemporary theory. In his work, as we will see, the ‘uncompromising rejection of the existent’ finally becomes indistinguishable from ‘an easy accommodation’. At the root of the ‘uncompromising’ is a ‘compromise’ that is all the more problematic for being concealed. What also becomes evident in Gibson’s explicit anti-Marxism is a more general tone of contemporary theory that rejects negation and dialectics as inevitably ‘compromised’. This is a book of the enemy; hence deserving of critique.

The core concept of Gibson’s book, derived from Christian Jambet, is an ‘anti-schematics of historical reason’. What this in fact means is that history is split into two: the history of law and the history of grace, with history divided between long stretches of ‘dead time’ (Gibson 2012: 223) and sudden irruptions of justice or the good through punctual and intermittent events. Therefore, ‘historical reason’ has a temporary and fragile existence and what we confront most of the time, and certainly for the last 30-odd years, are the ‘deserts stretches of dead time’, a ‘dead time [which] breeds melancholy.’ (Gibson 2012: 223) Gibson ratifies an experience of historical defeat, especially the ‘polar night’ of the 1980s, which is then translated into the metaphysical register of historical experience itself.

The ‘enemy’ for Gibson is any ‘progressive’ conception of historical reason as unfolding in and through history, and more specifically the usual melange of Hegel/Kojève. To characterise this ‘progressive’ conception Gibson indulges in the familiar commonplaces: ‘immanence; plenitude; the active principle; freedom; dialectical reason, negative and positive together; culmination; overcoming; the project; completion in the State; mediation; finitude; the schema.’ (2012: 6) The antonyms, vectored through the critique of Christian Jambet, are fairly, although not entirely, predictable: Metahistory interrupting immanence; intermittency; passivity; openness to being mastered; negative reason; sporadic truth; discrete singularities; irregular events; resistance to the State; immediacy; the infinite; and anti-schematics. This unabashed metaphysical dualism is the Gnostic principle of Gibson’s analysis.

Gibson’s alternative to the ‘progressive’, bewitched by the unfolding of historical reason, is a thinking that suggests that ‘historical reason’ only ever irrupts intermittently, and we live a ‘melancholic-ecstatic conception of history’ (Gibson 2012: 10) as we lurch from the melancholy of dead time to the ecstasy of the event. He characterises the philosophical element of the rare and intermittent event through readings of Alain Badiou, Françoise Proust, Christian Jambet, Guy Lardreau and Jacques Rancière, which are all ‘paired’ with literary examples that characterise the limits of melancholia the philosopher can never fully grasp. Gibson institutes a division of labour, with philosophy dealing with the moment of the event and literature dealing with the ‘remainder’ of melancholy. In fact, to add an example he does not mention, this anti-schematics seems allegorised most for me in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1978). In that film we have the traversal of the ‘wasteland’ of the zone, and the witnessing of the sudden moment of the irruption of grace (quite literally).

It is in the lengthy conclusion of the book that Gibson articulates his ‘own’ anti-schematics constituted through this traversal of contemporary thought. Here he particularly engages with ‘speculative realism’ – that odd non-movement, in which realism and speculative metaphysics are coupled together (Bryant et al (eds.) 2011) – to insist on history as ruled by absolute contingency. Fully-embracing that ‘randomization of history’ that Perry Anderson regarded as one of the signal vices of post-structuralism (Anderson 1983: 48), Gibson insists on the rarity of events, the irruption of contingency, and the persistence of the negative situation of the absence of events and the petty compromises and disgust of everyday life.

Melancholia, for Gibson, has a polemical and political (or anti-political) purpose. Embracing the melancholia breed by the dead times (á la T. S. Eliot) immunises us against false hopes and the embrace of ‘progress’. As he puts it:

Melancholy functions both as a scrupulous refusal of the contemporary will to contentment, its disregard for the contemporary ‘state of emergency’, and a cautionary brake on a century and more of a fruitless and finally bankrupt ‘left positivity’. (2012: 242)
In a rather typical ideological manoeuvre Gibson runs together the ‘affirmative’ culture of late capitalism, and the teleological positivity of neo-liberalism, with the supposed teleologies of ‘traditional’ Marxism (a ‘point’ also made by Jacques Rancière and Bruno Latour ). Lumped into one camp, ‘progressives’ now encompass a promiscuous set running from Newt Gingrich to any remaining Marxists, taking in reformist prophets of a re-created ‘caring’ capitalism and the marketeers of the new.
Christopher Nealon has noted the ironic violence of the identification of Marx and Marxism with its ‘object’ of critique, a trope with a long Cold War history. We find, in Nealon’s words, ‘the punishing, all-too-familiar reversal by which critics of capital, not its agents, are imagined as the bringers of violence into the world.’ (2011: 8) This practice involves turning the features of capital – teleology, economic determinism, and totality – onto its critics, ‘as though it were the critic who tried to name the totalizing work of capital, rather than capital, who was failing to do justice to particulars, or to aesthetic experience.’ (Nealon 2011: 10)

For Gibson the aim is to extract an ethics from this melancholia to allow us to ‘cope’ with the long periods of reaction, as the horizon of the event seems to take care of itself (if such an event should come along, Gibson notes it may well not). This is ‘an ethics of perseverance – the perseverance of the traces of subjectivity and truth, of the subject itself – through dead times, times in which truths appear to have failed.’ (Gibson 2012: 273) To ensure this possibility Gibson is explicit about the necessity of religion or theology against what he calls ‘the simple registers of Marxism.’ (2012: 276) In another contemporary ideological common-place Gibson regards religion as the place-holder of a density and depth of experience and thought that cannot be understood or matched by an ‘optimistic’ thought. Marxism is Brechtian plumpes-denken writ large, which may not sound that bad compared to the inflationary Augustianianism of ‘original sin’ and the ‘fallen state’ which dominates Gibson’s thinking.
More generously, there certainly is something (or very little), even if it is ‘through a glass darkly’, in Gibson’s remark on the necessity for perseverance amidst and against the ‘affirmative’ positivity of contemporary culture that resists negation. Like so many others, however, Gibson reifies negation into the grand event of rupture that may, or may not, arrive, on the one hand, and reifies it into the melancholia of an ‘atonal’ or ‘eventless’ everyday, on the other. Developing the speculative realist critique of correlationism – the tendency to posit the world and reality as always in relation to a human subject – Gibson remarks that: ‘A correlationist culture is characterized by the ubiquity and pure meaninglessness of positivity.’ (2012: 278) And yet, the melancholia of negativity, in Gibson’s hands, seems to give use little reason to persevere at all, except perhaps to await an event that will only flash briefly on the horizon. Here ‘perseverance’ and negativity take on the cynical cast of damming all attempts at historical change, and justify an attentisme which has lost even the minimal faith in the event.

This is not the melancholy of thinking defeat, or registering the difficulty of radical change, but the melancholy of consolation that justifies our own exceptional place as the ‘less deceived’. The vanity of the theorist is flattered by placing themselves as the lucid non-dupe who can, at least in thought, evade the crushing weight of the practico-inert:

To think intermittency is to run counter to the contemporary culture of plenitude, of which positivity is a crucial feature, and to persist with a Sartrean principle of austerity. This constitutes an emphatic, properly philosophical refusal to buy into the contemporary will to be swiftly controlled. (Gibson 2012: 279)
Of course, swiftly or slowly controlled doesn’t seem to make that much difference, especially as no action seems to be able to take place between those two states. In this case ‘lucidity’ becomes cynicism, disguised as tough-minded thinking.

To analyse this problem further I want to consider the crucial ‘ideologeme’ that justifies Gibson’s de-politicising political melancholy: this is the distinction and valorisation of revolt at the expense of revolution. Gibson implicitly favours revolt over revolution, re-articulating what Badiou diagnosed as the ‘speculative leftism’ of Lardreau and Jambet (Badiou 2005: 210-211) – in which the ‘pleb’ or resistant is always opposed to a finally triumphant power – but without the ‘leftism’. In doing so, Gibson not only ignores Badiou’s general diagnosis of this ‘infantile disorder’, but also Badiou’s specific criticisms of Lardreau and Jambet, whom he had dismissed as ‘Linbiaoists’ – i.e. as incarnating an ultra-left purity predicated on an absolute break that reproduced the ‘excesses’ of Lin Biao’s thought (Bosteels 2011: 148). The metaphysical One is replaced by the Manichean Two. The purpose served by Gibson’s gesture is the not uncommon one today of avoiding any imputation of ‘dirty hands’, even if this is now displaced firmly into the ideological past. The ‘purity’ of revolt is recoded as an interruptive moment that never solidifies into the bad attempt to impose ‘purity’ in the process of revolution, as ‘purity’ is the bad signifier of our times (‘purity’, inevitably ‘fatal’, we might say, to write a new entry in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas). Of course, this involves ignoring the violent experience of revolt, which speaks to one’s doubts in the depth of Gibson’s endorsement. Lacking any sense of the reality of revolt, any meaningful political content is evacuated from what was already an attenuated politics – a ‘revolt without revolt’, or a decaffeinated revolt.

We can dispute this valorisation of revolt through a resort to the analysis Furio Jesi offers of the Spartacist Insurrection of 1919 (Jesi 2012). Jesi gives a classical statement of the distinction between revolt – which ‘suspends historical time’ – and revolution – which is ‘wholly and deliberately immersed in historical time’. Of course, this is why ‘revolt’, reworked at the ‘event’, has value for Gibson, while the revolution does not. Now, while Fusi displays sympathy to the function of ‘revolt’ what he also does is indicate its historical and political limits. In particular he notes how revolt can serve the very forms of power it attacks. In the case of the Spartacist uprising the suspension of historical time it engaged in allowed the restoration of ‘normal’ capitalist time after the disruption of the time of war. Also, the action of revolt – punctual and immanent – can function as a release of energies that would otherwise coalesce into the more sustained historical process of revolution. In this more nuanced analysis we can see, at least, the necessity for a more careful historical analysis rather than the transfer of the problem into the metaphysical or spiritual register.

Gibson’s ‘solution’ can then be regarded as a ‘political melancholia’, in the symptomal sense, which fails to properly register the melancholia that belongs to the structure of revolt, and occludes the risks and dangers of revolt by passing these over to the revolution. In this way we can turn, with ‘clean hands’, to reactionary or dubious literary forms as justifications for our experience of the ‘remainder’ of dead time detached from any political content. The result is a deliberate consolation that, in effect, blocks any politics through the deployment of affect.


Anderson, Perry (1983) In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. London: Verso.

Badiou, Alain (2005) Being and Event, trans. Oliver Fletham. London: Continuum.

Bosteels, Bruno (2011) Badiou and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (eds.) (2011) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne:

Comay, Rebecca (2011) Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gibson, Andrew (2012) Intermittency: the Concept of Historical Reason in Recent French Philosophy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Jesi, Furio (2012) ‘The Suspension of Historical Time’, trans. Alberto Toscano. Chapter 1 of Spartakus. Simbologia della rivolta (2000), ed. Andrea Cavaletti. Turin: Bollati Boringhieri.

Latour, Bruno (2004) ‘Never Too Late to Read Tarde’. Domus 874.

Nealon, Christopher (2011) . The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Rancière, Jacques (2010) Chronicles of Consensual Times. London: Continuum.

Žižek, Slavoj (2000) ‘Melancholy and the Act,’ Critical Inquiry 26.4: 657-681.

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