The Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt was the host for a two-day symposium on the Value of Critique, wherein a collection of leading sociologists and social and cultural theorists met to discuss the meaning, value, and possibility of critique in our contemporary world. At a time when intellectual and political projects that carried universalist normativities seeking to improve the human condition have become something of the past, how does one engage with the current human condition in a critical manner that has some productive (and desirable) value?
This concern with the state of critique at a time when normative and political utopias are no longer considered to be relevant, is also a concern for Performing the State project and is at the core of Endre Dányi’s most recent research on melancholy politics. The questions that preoccupy him are centred around the ways in which politics-in-practice can be studied at a time when liberal democracy is being hijacked and /or claimed to be outdated by some of the most powerful players in international politics. More specifically, he asks: How might researcher-citizens deal with complex political challenges, such as the recent refugee crisis in Europe, which raise not only ideological but also political theoretical dilemmas vis-a-vis the modern state? How can they relate to such ambiguous public problems as drug use, which seem to defy national attempts to govern through legislation? And how might they even begin to conceptualise the concurrent practice of differing modes of the political, as is being called for by many indigenous groups? Do these and similar moments indicate the end of democratic politics as we know it?
What follows is a shortened version of the conversation we had about these and related questions after the Values of Critique symposium.
NA: In our conversations you mentioned that among the most interesting scholars who have been looking into the working mechanisms of modernity the predominant sentiment was either pessimism [for example, Paul Rabinow and his colleagues’ writings on the anthropology of the contemporary, or optimism that a new kind of modernity is possible to “compose”, for instance, Bruno Latour and his colleagues’ work on the anthropology of the moderns. You suggest that there is a third possibility, one that comes out of the political practices on the ground, rather than one that suggests comprehensive alternatives to them. In your own work you refer to this as melancholy politics. Would you elaborate on that?
ED: What I have in mind when I refer to melancholia is not a personal disposition but a ‘way of seeing’. Melancholy politics in this sense is a historically and culturally specific mode of engagement with the world: it takes the ‘bads’ as its point of departure, but – instead of offering grand visions of a better future, where these ‘bads’ are eliminated – it insists on telling and making differences on a practical level.
On the Left melancholy has often been associated with inaction. This is a position that was somewhat surprisingly first articulated by Walter Benjamin and then taken up by various cultural and political theorists in the second half of the 20th century (see, for instance, Wendy Brown’s article). At the same time, it was also Benjamin who did probably more than anyone else to show how melancholy may shift our understanding of what might be read as (political) action and where it might take place.
NA: You mentioned in previous conversations the impact Walter Benjamin had in constructing the methodological approach of your research project. Could you please expand on this for us?
ED: Benjamin is an ambiguous figure. He has had a strong presence in literary criticism and cultural studies, but he is pretty much absent in sociology and political theory. Just how helpful his concepts and methods can be for people interested in politics-in-practice is nicely demonstrated by the writings of such sociologists and cultural anthropologists as Susan Buck-Morss, John Law, Hugh Raffles, Derek Sayer, Allen Shelton, Kathleen Stewart, Michael Taussig, and Helen Verran. I’m not a Benjamin follower, but I’m deeply fascinated with the central problem of his personal and academic life, namely what do we do in the face of a looming catastrophe? The answer, which comes in tiny, sometimes cryptic fragments, is that we tell stories that somehow resist the terms on offer, and by doing so refigure the political space around us.
In my own research project I focus on three cases, which, I suggest, might be read as exemplifying what melancholy politics looks like in practice. One case is a hunger strike that took place in Brussels shortly before the recent refugee crisis in Europe. The hunger strikers were refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, and for a short while their action made visible all the paradoxes of our liberal democratic assumptions about the ‘body politic’ – both literally and figuratively. According to the logic of sovereignty, the refugees were not supposed to be ‘political beings’, and yet there they were, doing politics without uttering a word in the symbolic capital of Europe.
Contrast this with the other case I’ve been working on with my friend and colleague Michaela Spencer, which focuses on indigenous politics in northern Australia. The aboriginal people we’ve been working with have a complex political system that has not changed much in tens of thousands of years. Let me repeat that: in tens of thousands of years. And yet their politics is not recognized as such by the political institutions that were established less than three hundred years ago. Unlike refugees, indigenous people in the Northern Territory are acknowledged as political beings, but only on liberal democratic terms. That is, as Australian citizens, and not as members of different clan groups, belonging to different moieties, responsible for certain places and stories associated with them.
Once again, contrast this with the third case I’ve been looking at: international drug policy. Just how powerful liberal democratic mechanisms of political subjectification are can be well illustrated by the moral anxiety associated with drug users, who in many Western countries are more rejected as a group than any (ethnic, sexual, or other) minority. National political instruments have not been very useful in solving drug use as a global problem; the war on drugs has been called by policy experts at the UN the greatest policy failure of all times. At the same time, there have been several experiments in politics, like various harm reduction programmes in Canada, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere, that have successfully addressed this problem – not by solving it, but by finding better ways of living with it.
I could go on, but my point is this. The recent refugee crisis in Europe, the development of drug use as a global problem, and the in/compatibility of indigenous politics with Western political institutions all indicate moments where liberal democracy reaches its limits. (I owe the term to Thomas Scheffer. Unlike loud critics of liberal democracy from the left and right edges of the political spectrum, I don’t think these moments show that liberal democracy is hopelessly outdated or has become inadequate. Rather, I think they indicate another kind of politics, which is the companion of liberal democracy and which flourishes within liberal democratic settings
NA: How is this kind of politics/ or of seeing politics different from the cultural studies of the politics of everyday life, the weapons of the weak, or social movements, or the “rights” politics?
ED: At the risk of being unfair and overly simplistic, my problem with terms like ‘everyday politics’ or ‘weapons of the weak’ is that they tend to leave untouched our assumptions about how ‘systems’ or ‘strength’ works. Melancholy politics is not ‘small’, as opposed to, say, what happens in national parliaments. It’s more helpful to think of it a series of practices that connect the insides and the outsides, or the ‘aboves’ and the ‘belows’, of parliaments – that is, the streets, the legislative chambers, the media studios, the local councils, the EU agencies – in interesting ways. They acknowledge that we live in the ruins of liberal democracy, which implies both that the enthusiasm associated with the political institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries has disappeared, and that these institutions are not going to go away. In other words, what we’re experiencing is not post-democracy. It is democracy, but it’s at its limits, and our task is to find ways of articulating what distinguishes good democratic politics from bad democratic politics. It’s a new task.
NA: How do you place the critique or the normative position of the scholar who is studying politics from this melancholic departure point?
ED: One of Benjamin’s concern with ‘left-wing melancholy’ as the latest historical phase of melancholy was that it kept referring to writing as something that was supposed to inform or instruct political action. For Benjamin, writing was already political action, and I couldn’t agree more. When I write about practices that I recognize as elements of melancholy politics, my hope is that I’m doing melancholy politics myself. Using ethnographic materials, I’m telling stories about politics that mess with the standard narratives of liberal democracy, made up of clearly demarcated peoples, governable political issues, and predefined forms of representation. By doing so, I’m foregrounding practices that engage in democratic politics partly by redefining the political space around them. This is neither an optimistic nor a pessimistic exercise; it seems to be the right thing to do in the face of a looming catastrophe.