A Politics of Melancholia

Collaborative Group

Professor George Edmondson, Professor Klaus Mladek




A politics of melancholia is not hard to discern. It resides in the critical insight, taught by a long tradition of melancholic thinkers, that in order to open a space for the existence of the unreal that makes us courageous and just, we must first affirm the worst. Yet melancholia continues to be dismissed, even by some proponents, as merely an individual affliction that alienates its sufferer from community. Political philosophy typically regards the melancholic as abnormal, ingenious, “a beast or a god” (as Aristotle puts it), but not truly a man of the polis. It is common to follow a certain reading of Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” and pathologize, or else historicize, the affective registers of melancholia, reducing them to the withdrawn, reactive expressions of a misdirected social discontent. This project counteracts those misconceptions by affirming melancholia as the unacknowledged truth of communal life and by restoring the melancholics to their rightful place as poets of political thought. Drawing on Edmondson’s expertise in pre- and early modern literature and psychoanalysis, and Mladek’s expertise in modernist literature and critical theory, the project pursues two complementary aims. It tracks an affirmative form of melancholia from its origin in Plato and Aristotle to its two moments of resurgence, first in a transitional period from the middle ages to early modernity that produces writers such as Boccaccio, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare, then again in a cluster of modernist thinkers that includes Freud and Benjamin. The project then extends the new terminology and reading practices of affirmative melancholia to selected writings of Marx, Weber, Arendt, and de Tocqueville in order to delineate a melancholic strain in capitalism and in American politics. The result will be a coauthored book, "A Politics of Melancholia," that transforms the melancholic from the object of an outmoded analysis to the subject of a novel political thought: a figure whose condition manifests what is common and political to the point of constituting its very form. It will be the second collaboration between the authors, who previously coedited the collection "Sovereignty in Ruins: The Crisis in Politics." Award period: September 1, 2014 - August 31, 2016