Melancholias

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a workshop on a fascinating subject (which I won’t detail here because it is grad student’s work, and I feel like such things should be kept private for their sake) where someone made a reflective statement along the lines of, “for me, these moments, the melancholic moments, between political action are the most dangerous.” I’ve been dwelling on the meanings of this thought off-and-on for a while, so it’s probably good practice to lay it out here, albeit very messily.

melancholia, usually defined as Freud defined it, is characterized by an inability to let go of the object of loss and invest in new objects of desire. there’s a fine line between mourning, in which this process of de-attachment is ultimately completed, and melancholy, in which it remains an eternal condition of being. it’s not a new idea to apply this concept to the realm of the political, as walter benjamin applied it to what he deemed the left-wing melancholics– a formulation that was recalled and meditated upon by wendy brown (‘resisting left melancholy’) and, for example, here in the context of the new age of global uprising. for the old-school leftists, melancholy precludes recognition of the new ideologies and strategies of political action, the new units of analysis and engagement, namely the new identity politics. which we all decry in murmurs but enact in reality. what i’m currently musing about is the possibility of describing a melancholia of multiculturalism and what that description would look like.

how do you conceptualize melancholy for a framework composed of artificial imaginings? taking this article as a starting point that describes the failure of multiculturalism policy in three european contexts, as well as the essay “a dialogue on racial melancholia” which is a commentary on the asian american experience of failed assimilation on a psychological level. this kind of question to me seems especially pertinent because the moment of danger, of the melancholic moment becoming an invitation to disaster, does not seem too far removed from the contemporary state of affairs, when fascist demagogues come closer to ruling the streets and the offices of power, not only in my home country but all over the world.

the melancholia of multiculturalism is felt differently depending on who you are, whether you are the one who has apparently been victimized by the failure or the one who is the failure.

freud also writes that ‘reproaches against the self in fact are displaced reproaches against the loved object that have been shifted onto the individual’s own ego.’ who/what is the loved object of multiculturalism? is it a (lost) ideal of universal values and human equality, a pre-identity politics scenario? [a useful question to ask would of course be if these values existed beyond the zone of ideals and rhetoric– not that universal values might not exist, but that any society was ever organized or operational on their bases.] multiculturalism is supposed to be an embrace of diversity, but embedded in this project is nevertheless a striving for certain universals– if we accommodate and manage diversity in the correct way, we will achieve a kind of harmony based on respect for key universal (national) values. unity-in-diversity requires the sharing of inherent or cultivated commonalities. but what does this melancholy obscure about the realities of the multiculturalism experiment in practice, that it set itself up for failure by predicating itself upon essentialization of different subectivities into the (one) different subjectivity?

the melancholy of multiculturalism becomes dangerous when multiculturalism’s failures become the fault of ‘the failures.’ the different ones who simply could not learn how to be different in the right way. the irony being, of course, that the failures are the outcomes of the criteria of success– those who perform difference in the ways they are unconsciously directed to, suddenly, in the melancholic moment, are turned into symbolic representations of the lost ideals of universality. it is also interesting to interrogate what sparks the melancholic moment. when does the failure cause the slide into the melancholic from the mourning? is there a moment? or is there only an arbitrariness to the tipping point, for a melancholy to arise from a construct built by its own skeptics and wreckers?

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