Melancholy and Joy

I am continuing to think about the disconnect between two of my own posts. Perhaps these posts together speak to the emotional rollercoaster that was this presidential election — even for someone who is only really invested at a cultural level.

The first post, on Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism, describes the potentials to be found within dejection and a self-aware political nihilism. The second takes a moment to bask in the joy of Trump’s defeat regardless.

On Twitter, the tension between these two positions has been palpable. Protesters in Washington’s Black Lives Matter Plaza have already begun calling out those who have descended on their space of mourning, which they have occupied for sixty days, for one night of partying. “Where were you all”, they seem to say, “when we were here doing the hard work?”

I sense the same tension on my own timeline. There was a long comment left on yesterday’s post, claiming the democrats shouldn’t have won and all the reasons why… I think… It’s a ramble that I had a hard time making sense of, unfortunately.

I think the main issue here is that we are once again disarticulating the cultural response from the political reality. To speak of politics and joy seems uncontroversial, but the issue that lurks underneath here is that the left understands politics to be innately melancholic. Was the point missed yesterday when I wrote: “By all means retain your critical eye, but your hard nose helps no one, least of all the left”?

Left melancholia understands that politics is melancholy. If you’re not coming from a downtrodden place, it’s not politics proper. But the point to be made is that melancholy and joy are not polar opposites; they’re not conflicting modes of engagement. They are affects that are often entwined, and doing justice to both is always the best way forwards. Disavowing one in favour of the other does nothing. (And it is worth noting that that potential to undermine runs both ways.)

Consider that, whilst many of the critiques of the incumbent office are coming from black people, who see that nothing has changed and expect nothing to change, much of the joy seems to be coming from that same direction. Black culture has long been exemplary in this regard. Melancholy and joy exist side-by-side — uncomfortably, yes, but in a way that has often produced cultural and political change — and, if not change, at the very least a certain momentum, and a belief that cultural change can prefigure political change.

Some responses to this implicit suggestion on Twitter remained cynical. Steven Pinker doing a geriatric Charleston in celebration of Biden victory is a cringeworthy sight but why should that undermine a joyful response for anyone else?

It shouldn’t, but I understand the implicit suggestion: celebrations and positive affirmations can exemplify the dreamwork of capitalist realism in action. (This was something that came up in the reading group around Postcapitalist Desire run by Bristol Transformed.)

Top Cop Kamala Harris isn’t representative of any sort of progressive change. In fact, it’s why she did so poorly in her initial presidential run. Her law-and-order violence used against citizens in his district made her a non-starter for many, and yet now she’s being hailed as an identity politics slam-dunk — the first woman and the first woman of colour to hold the vice presidency.

How did we get from constantly ridiculing Harris as an inept politician and a useful idiot for the Democratic party’s reactionary tendencies to celebrating her most recent success? That’s not a rhetorical question but an important one. Pointing out that her presidential campaign was a mess demonstrates nothing more than you remember 2019. The questions are how has her reputation changed and why? In seeing how that public reception has turned on a dime, we can see the machinations of capitalist realism as they continue to operate.

To see the prize piled onto her a vice president-elect is to see the dreamwork of capitalist realism in action right before our eyes. It is to see the vulnerabilities and incompetencies of a Biden/Harris ticket wallpapered over in real time. Granted, there’s nothing to celebrate there.

And yet, whilst there is plenty to mourn regarding this election, there is still a lot to celebrate. I really liked Novara Media’s approach, for instance. Discussing the election to congress of Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Marie Newman, Michael Walker captures the mood perfectly when he suggests:

Joe Biden has been elected president but, at 77, he’s not going to be the party’s future. At Novara, we’re hoping that role will fall to the progressive new generation in the democratic party and in congress. Figures like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaid… And when it comes to progressive congresspeople, there was some good new this Tuesday: at least three more progressive were elected. ‘The Squad’ is expanding.

We can celebrate the defeat of Trump and we can also celebrate the gains that a progressive left within the Democratic party has achieved. After all, AOC alone has done more to develop progressive conversations in the US than any leader of the Democratic party could have, and that was under Trump’s hair-trigger red fear. The squad might be able to achieve much more under Biden than Trump.

AOC’s statement, in particular, on the election and the future of the party are clear indicators that she isn’t going away, and suggests that a Democratic win might embolden her and the rest of the Squad further.

In that sense, celebrating a Democratic victory is not the same as celebrating a Biden victory. Nor is celebration in and of itself an act of escapism. Time and time again, I always come back to Terre Thaemlitz’ wise words about dance culture on Midtown 120 Blues — to quote off the top of my head: “House isn’t an escape from suffering, suffering is in here with us. Let’s keep sight of the things we’re trying to momentarily escape from.”

Having a party in Black Lives Matter Plaza needn’t be a process in forgetting the hard fight the BLM movement has fought. These spaces are multifunctional and the left should encourage a politics that can embody both, rather than immediately chastising those who are happy to no longer live under the fear that Trump’s presidency brought.

Because any leftist politics is impotent if it cannot reflect the human condition and appreciate the hope and the fear, the joy and the melancholy. It is possible — in fact I think it is beautiful — to dance and mourn simultaneously.


  1. Matt, some quick responses below to your above post, in conjunction with your previous emtry and our respective comments about it. Firstly, I wish to apologise if my previous comment in your earlier post seemed harsh and dismissive, as I was somewhat surprised by your dismissal of the Corbyn gains in 2017 and its effect on the British Left (and further afield) at the time. But I hope the following will go some way to addressing some of the issues raised in your two posts on these and related subjects.

    The Libidinal Dialectics of the Dreamwork

    You write: “To see the prize piled onto her a vice president-elect is to see the dreamwork of capitalist realism in action right before our eyes. It is to see the vulnerabilities and incompetencies of a Biden/Harris ticket wallpapered over in real time. Granted, there’s nothing to celebrate there. And yet, whilst there is plenty to mourn regarding this election, there is still a lot to celebrate.”

    Yes, but this is only to see one dimension of the Mobian-banded dreamwork, disavowing how the dreamwork is sutured, its seamless inversions and reversals. The (psychoanalytic) Dreamwork, recall, is the unconscious process by means of which unconscious desires transform, twist, distort the conscious Latent Thought (whether anxious or celebratory, disturbing or pleasurable) into the Manifest Content of the dream, into its explicit imaged and surreal texture. The very invocation of “celebration” here is precisely how the dreamwork is seamlessly sutured: it is the alibi, the pretext, that is invoked in order to legitimize, cope with, the horror of what a Biden/Harris Administration will actually entail (and note that Biden has ALREADY appointed Neocon war criminal Dick Cheney as his foreign policy advisor, as if the Dems will be a Bush III Regime!). It is what ENABLES us to passively conform, however disavowedly, to that reactionary regime, what provides us with the very libidinal distance to cope with and sustain the geopolitical horrors of what will almost certainly ensue. We already know that Bernie Sanders has been, not once, but twice ruthlessly marginalised and ostracised (even though he not only might have won in 2016, but also won by a substantial margin if he had been running against Trump in 2020), and he and his supporters, including Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, will now be dealt with in a cynical and callous manner directly analogous to how Jeremy Corbyn has been treated by Britain’s Labour Right, by Capitalist-Legalist, Grey-Vampiric Keir Starmer.

    Certainly the ‘choice’ between Trump and Biden is not a choice at all, is a false choice – an ultimately debilitating and subjectively guilt-inducing Sophie’s Choice – manufactured by the dominant ideology itself, is implicitly within an imposed ideological framework determined by that hegemonic regime (when the Ethical Choice still remains the total rejection of that ideological framework itself, a “NO!” to it, its nihilation. For it is such a nihilating “NO!” that opens up the sublime space of the possibilities of freedom and the engineering of new desires, new worlds, new visions, the possibility and practice of Joy. It is the compromised idiot choice between two evils, not a choice of the “least worst” but of the lesser of two worsts. Trump’s defeat does get rid of one of these ‘worsts’, and that is a huge relief (is “half the battle” as it were), but a celebratory, gloating schadenfreude is near always just a symptom of a Pyrrhic Victory which serves to deflect attention from the real issues, the real problems.

    The Metaphysics of Melancholia

    The speaking animal, the human subject, is constitutively a melancholic subject, a nostalgic subject, a subject of Loss (and Excess – the excess called the real of desire), a subject of Lack (and Potentiality – the empty space of freedom), a retrospectively posited event inherent to the formation of subjectivity and the splitting of the subject into the tension that it is, the knotted conflict-difference between the symbolic (and the competing agencies of the Ego, the big Other of the ego-ideal and the imaginary self-image of the ideal-ego) and the fantasmatic real (the radical Outside, radical otherness and contingency, including the Id and Superego). This makes the human subject an eerie entity (in both senses – as something that is absent that should be present and as something that is present that should be absent, a spectral entity – an empty subject, a void, and an excess, with subjectivity as an echo, a ghostly after-effect. And also a weird entity, as a freak of nature both a part of nature and the part that doesn’t fit, as always being in the ‘wrong’ place, as ontologically ruptured.

    The strategy of the ‘permanent’ melancholic, however, of the subject libidinally invested in melancholia, is to reverse his fixation of desiring that which is lost, of that which is absent or departed, of the lost object of desire, into withdrawing all desire for what is in the world, for what is present – for fear that he will again lose that which he desires, so pre-empting any further loss by “losing’ it in advance. He loses the object-cause of desire itself, of that which causes desire. In short, the formal melancholic transforms the presence of desire for what is absent into the absence of desire for what is present: into depression. Except the unconscious drives persist, as they always do, being unconditional, insistent, and real. This is why depression is always exhausting for the depressive – emotionally, libidinally and physically. The difficult challenge, of course, is to move, to transform, from being a subject of desire (subjectivity determined by external destructive social power and forces) to being a subject of drive (emotional/libidinal reengineering via rational criteria), to traverse beyond the pleasure principle, beyond “good and evil”.

    Mourning, Grieving, is a Process, not a deferral: the bereavement process

    Mourning is the process by means of which loss is symbolized, the practices and rituals that enable the mourner to gain a minimum of symbolic distance from the unfathomable abyss of Loss in order to sustain the horror of the traumatic real, of transforming the fragile, radical contingency of finitude, mortality, and lack into the sustaining meaning born by the symbolic, of a full acknowledgement of that loss. A funeral, for instance, is an initial, preparatory mourning ritual event because it theatrically re-enacts the loss, the death; it is a simulated repetition or re-doubling of the death, a re-play, a repeating of it at a symbolic level, and so enabling the possibility of gaining an abstract aloofness, an essential fantasmatic distance from the excessive immediacy of the disturbing loss itself, the incomprehensible real of the death. A recognition that the only liveable life-world is not “raw reality” in itself (which is impossible) but a simulation, an escape from the Real, the simulation that is the reality that is always structured by such consensual symbolic fictions, signs and rituals and framed by unconscious fantasies and drives.

    But this mourning process is often avoided, denied, or deferred due to the very traumatic nature of loss – traumatic because it is a “re-realisation” of the horrific real of the primordial loss, of the spaltung that is the origin of subjectivity. If some event is deeply traumatic or horrific, then it simultaneously is something that’s too disturbing for us to want to ever remember and for that very same reason is something we can’t ever possibly forget, so for this reason there are two different though uncannily reciprocal strategies of the deferral of mourning, and are widespread in contemporary postmodern culture:

    1. Symptomal deferral: the loss is too horrific to consciously acknowledge, is something we can’t even bring ourselves to talk about, and is therefore consciously denied, repressed. But the repressed always returns (there is a certain homology between psychoanalysis’ repression/return of the repressed and Deleuze & Guattari’s deterritorialization/re-territorialization vis-a-vis capitalism) – frequently simultaneously – it returns by means of the symptom. What isn’t consciously remembered is nevertheless remembered or registered unconsciously, and the symptom is a material manifestation of this repressed truth, trauma, or belief. The most common symptom takes the form of – and is recognised by – some excess, an excessive behaviour, of a repetition compulsion, in short, of an addiction – from over-work to drug addictions, food addictions, fitness/health addictions of all kinds, to hidden transgressions, to self-harm, to depression. As earlier stated, the symptom that is depression is one of the coping strategies of the formal melancholic and, like all symptoms, has its own libidinal satisfactions, its jouissance. Though Lacan suggested that we “identify with our symptom”, as everyone has their fundamental symptom, this is in recognition of its crucial role as a coping mechanism (simply removing the symptom could be catastrophic, could lead to a relapse, to breakdown) and of not betraying desire (of “not giving way on desire”) as well as a recognition of the need for its interpretation by cathartic construction, for the symptom, though indicative of the repressed truth, is nevertheless always wrong, is always Thanatoidally destructive, whether of oneself or of others, an addiction that is also a crippling embodiment of the displaced death drive.

    2. Fetishistic deferral: this is the precise reverse of the symptom. The fetishist consciously acknowledges the loss, the lack, the trauma, and can openly discuss it, even do so in great technical detail, but at an unconscious level it is denied or disavowed, and the fetish object (which does not have to be some physical-empirical object, but can also be a purely posited virtual or spectral object or belief) is what enables this denial to be sustained. The libidinised fetish object is an embodiment of this unconscious disavowal, of the lost entity, is the embodiment of the denial of the truth, is effectively a Lie (invariably a neurotic subject, the fetishist is here telling a lie under the cloak of, the mask of, in the the guise of telling the truth). Through the fetish (an object, living, dead or posited, closely associated with the departed), the loss, the departed (the real of their desire) is imagined to persist, to live on through the object, is magically reanimated. In so doing, the fetish object serves as a superstitious symbolic stand-in for the departed, like a talisman, a family heirloom, a lucky charm, an imaginary-symbolic entity that permits the fetishist to indefinitely postpone the actually more difficult undertaking that is the grieving process. However, should the fetishist lose his precious fetish object, he or she will likely suffer a catastrophic breakdown, for the full impact of procrastinating, of postponing the traumatic loss, of the impossible-real of that loss, will now overpower and overwhelm fetishist. Like the symptom (a type of negative hallucination), the fetish (a type of positive hallucination) is also a coping mechanism, but one that sustains the illusion that no loss has really occurred, that things can continue on as before, that the departed hasn’t ‘really’ departed – a simulation of the former reality that is therefore based on a falsehood, that is a lie, the lie that sustains the hallucination of the pre-loss reality.

    Postmodern neoliberal late capitalism relies primarily on this fetishistic mode of ideology (while remaining challenged by the symptomal mode of ideology, by all these debilitating symptoms that it causes and reveal its denied truth), for it is by means of fetishes of all kinds (religions, New Ageisms, Oedipod families and reproductive futurism, reifying identity commodifications, rigid branding, interpassive beliefs, as well as capitalism’s other theological beliefs and fetishes, from “Money” and “Credit” and “Choice” to the “Individual” and the “Market”) that contemporary capitalism instantly re-stratifies and re-territorialises, and that therefore (near) always substantiates and perpetuates it as inherently “anti-accelerationist”.

    1. Not to worry! I appreciate your surprise. It was certainly not my intention to be dismissive. I certainly supported Corbyn before and after. I still stand by my assessment of that year. Any joy to be gained from Corbyn’s gains were utterly overshadowed by Grenfell a week later for me. The left I was involved with at that time was downtrodden and paranoid. Mark’s death may have been a factor but the point was more that it wasn’t the only tragedy. Maybe the effect was powerful further afield but, personally, I didn’t feel it. No shade on Corbyn. It was just an odd time.

      I should note that this post was written and scheduled before I’d seen your reply so it is no reflection on it. I’m still hoping to respond properly to your previous comments there, here and on the second “Keeping Up with Hauntology” post. I hope to get around to this sooner rather than later and give you the properly considered response your comments deserve!

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