The paradox of melancholia Paralysis and agency

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  • The paradox of melancholia Paralysis and agency

This proposal is generated against a backdrop of research, new concepts, debates and tensions in the social sciences concerning the role of the emotions in social life. In the 1996 Zaharoff lecture, Naomi Schor suggested that this turn to emotion, and in particular to melancholia, signified the end of the post-modern paradigm. Our objective in this workshop is to tease out some of the key tensions emerging in this new paradigm. Key questions are:

  • Is the melancholia of the 21st century different from that of earlier epochs and if so, how?
  • If melancholia has operated as a form of dissent across the ages — as a social agent of change through resistance to the status quo — how can we understand the idea of melancholia as resistance in relation to contemporary articulations of melancholia as the dominant affect of Empire and reaction?
  • If one creates out of melancholia, what is the relationship between the passivity of melancholia, the emptying of meaning from social categories and its rejuvenation in new art forms and social movements and in turn in new vectors of social change?

The influential works of sociologist Paul Gilroy (After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture (2004)); Post Colonial Melancholia (2005) have placed melancholia at the center of understanding the affective regimes of new nationalisms. Anne Cheng’s groundbreaking The Melancholy of Race (2000) highlights melancholia as the discourse defining relations between immigrants and dominant cultures; in The Psychic Life of Power; Theories of Subjection, Judith Butler has re-conceptualised gendered embodiment through the lens of melancholic incorporation; Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun, like the early work of psychoanalysts Torok and Abrahams, has instigated a whole new field of scholarship on trauma and memory in response to the traumatic upheavals and conflicts of recent decades. In Australia, Ross Gibson’s groundbreaking Seven Versions of an Australian Badland has re-thought contemporary Australian subjectivity in relation to a residual melancholia. In sociology, new research in mobilities and identities has highlighted intensifying melancholia as a residue of new forms of individualism and mobility.

As has often been noted, melancholia has always been a slippery concept, defying definition or easy capture and enabling multiple physical, psychological, sociological and semantic meanings. Despite the poly-valence of the term, contemporary social theorists, (with few exceptions: see Khanna 2003) deploy melancholia as a trait that references those aspects of social, sexual and racial experience that cannot be articulated. This theorization of melancholia, (deriving from Freud’s demarcation of melancholia from mourning) cannot account for the role that melancholia has played historically in both creative production and in the mobilization of identity formations that resist hegemonic forces. A significant early work by German sociologist Wolf Lepenies, Melancholy and Society (1969), explored how the loss of political power on the part of both castes and classes translated into melancholic literary formations, which in turn played a significant role in the unfolding political dynamics of modern Europe. Lepenies analysis challenged an implicit normativity underpinning sociological theory and its valorisation of the ideal of social agency by suggesting that melancholia has been prescribed in social and political thought as disparate as the utopian philosophy of the 17th century to twentieth century totalitarian and fascist ideologies. Commonly, the ideal of social action is posited as a palliative against the destabilising possibilities of an affect that leads individuals and groups to repudiate socially sanctioned or idealised codes of behaviour and action.

For artists of all kinds (and in all ages) melancholia has been represented as an essential component in creativity, tempering tedium with spleen, inspiration with self-critique, tristesse with jouissance. In Deleuze and Guattari’s conception, the melancholic lost object operates as a form of production-desire in which the creative work is forged from an ascesis closely allied with failure. Negativity is a motivating factor. While for psychoanalysts this may indicate a kind of pathology, many artists have articulated it is as springboard for radicality.

Our objective in this workshop is to address this underlying paradox of melancholia — as both paralysis and agency.

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