The passion of despair

In the first chapter of The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory after Hegel (2015), Robyn Marasco opens up a whole new field of possibility, or ways of thinking it — through despair.

‘Against a familiar ghost story that warns of the spectre of despair haunting radial political vision and the knight of resignation that follows in its path, I will venture an argument that the “negative passions” can enrich the political imagination and enliven political praxis’ (p. 6).

It is such a lightening read. Marasco challenges both the customary critique of despair as a problem of political depression, melancholia, response to trauma or form of resignation, on the one hand, and the customary – and presently fervent – investment in hope as a promise of political emancipation, social transformation and peaceful co-existence. In place of these ‘comfortable’ theorizations, she argues that despair properly understood as a critical political category is

‘the refutation of the end of history: it is that dynamic and restless passion that keeps things moving as earthly projects and purposes fall into disrepair’ (p. 13), in times when ‘things come undone and there is no way out suggested by reason or faith’ (p. 3).

Highlights of the chapter include…

  • the book emerges from close, critical readings of three male (new) left-Hegelians: Theodor Adorno, Georges Bataille and Frantz Fanon, as well as from some preliminary reassessments of the treatment of despair in G. W. F. Hegel and Søren Kierkegaard – in this way expanding the borders of the (Hegelian) critical-theoretical canon;
  • these men were, in Morasco’s terms, experimenting with ‘ruthless critique’ in hopeless conditions where ‘there is no end to or exit from the conditions of existence, and no rational hope that a brighter future will repay patient struggle in the present’ – dealing specifically with the ‘collapse of revolutionary projects and clarifying the tasks of critique in the context of genocidal racism, capitalist exploitation, totalitarian violence, colonial domination, and the historico-political horizon set by world war’ (pp. 1, 16);
  • in modern society, despair is less rooted in extraordinary events but is ‘structured by ordinary experience, the repetition of reinforcing relations of domination, cruelty, and inhumanity’ (p. 16);
  • passion, that which is beyond ‘reason’, has political value and is a fundamental element of critique and of revolutionary thought – it counters the relentless quest for reconciliation and relief by permitting the negative as a space of possibility in conditions of ruin;
  • courteous disagreements with Marx, Lukács, Lenin, Žižek, Habermas, Benhabib, Kompridis and Bennett (a list to which many could be added, including, e.g., Freire) that despair needs be interpreted as either collective pathology or paralysis;
  • a simultaneous move to critique and refuse the ‘imperative that critical theory offer sound reason for hope’ (p. 4) while theorizing despair as harbouring a vital energy which offers an ‘opportunity for thinking and praxis’ that is ‘linked to a concrete experience of freedom’ (p. 14);
  • analytical distinctions between despair as a ‘dialectical passion’ or comportment, a ‘historical condition and a social situation’ (p. 6), which is not unhappy, on the one hand, and related concepts such as mourning/melancholia, nostalgia, depression, trauma, wounded attachments and cruel optimism; it is a ‘misrelation to a present that concretely is, more than a past that never was or a future that ought to be’, on the other (p. 13);
  • an understand of despair as negatively dialectical and aporetic, and as a passion that ‘can never fully let go of its familiar and estranged other’, hope – unafraid of the negative even in the context of everyday life (p. 5)

And what of the Principle of Hope as outlined by Ernst Bloch, who is not a subject of inquiry in Morasco’s study precisely because his emphasis was this principle? We might, she argues, understand despair as that which ‘nourishes and enlivens’ the principle of hope (p. 10) – something Bloch alludes to with his related concepts of the ‘Not’ and the ‘Not Yet’. Indeed, there is a resonance between this notion of despair as a way of being that ‘anticipates the ordeal of attachments once they are inserted into time and history – how dreams get deferred, projects derailed, and causes lost’ (p. 6) – and Ana C. Dinerstein’s Blochian framework of the ‘organization of autonomy’ in hope movements, which includes dimensions of (1) negation, saying/being No; (2) creation, of alternatives; (3) contradiction, frustration and disappointment when mediating realities; and (4) excess or surplus possibility.

Morasco’s book is one of a number of things I am reading in an exploration of critical theories and philosophies of possibility from the perspectives of critical theorists who write from outside the body and geopolitics of ‘the canon’, particularly women. Next on my list is her 2010 article, “‘I would rather wait for you than believe that you are not coming at all”: revolutionary love in a post-revolutionary time’. Future thoughts to follow also on Amy Allen’s The Politics of Ourselves: Power, Autonomy and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory (2008) and The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016).

An utterly fabulous recent find was a book written by Joan Alway and published in 1995, entitled Critical Theory and Political Possibilities: Conceptions of Emancipatory Politics in the Works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas. Darrow Schecter also thought this was one of ‘four of the best exegetical works on the Frankfurt School and critical theory available in English’; I wonder why we don’t see more of it?

‘Critique has everything to do with despair, for ours is a world organized by the contention that Price is all – and even in revolt against this contention, critical theory cannot wholly escape it’ (p. 182).

Now on to the rest of the chapters – Adorno, Bataille, Fanon – and then into dialogue with other discourses of despair, hope and possibility which contend precisely that there are non-escape-like-exits (though not necessarily in or through critical theory)…


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