SEMINAR – Rethinking Left-Wing Melancholia: Between Marx and Benjamin

At the beginning of the 1980s, the rise of memory in the public sphere coincided with the crisis of Marxism, a current of thought that had deeply shaped the humanities of the previous decades. Consequently, Marxism did not contribute to the “memorial moment” characteristic of the turn of the twenty-first century. The Marxist vision of history, nevertheless, included a memorial prescription: to select the events of the past in order to inscribe them into the future. It was a “strategic” memory of past revolutions, a future-oriented memory. Today, the end of real socialism has broken this dialectic between past and future, and the eclipse of utopias engendered by our “presentist” time has almost extinguished this left memory. The dialectical tension between the past as a “field of experience” and the future as a “horizon of expectation” (Koselleck) becomes a kind of mutilated, “negative dialectic.” In this context, a melancholic vision of history as remembrance (Eingedenken) of the vanquished that belonged to a hidden tradition of the left deserves to be rediscovered. Walter Benjamin was its most significant interpreter, but it also includes many other thinkers, from Auguste Blanqui to Rosa Luxemburg, from Lucien Goldmann to Daniel Bensaid. This left-wing melancholia meant neither passivity nor resignation; it was a work of mourning that stimulated critical thought and empowered the vanquished, allowing them to rebuild projects and organize actions. It was the necessary condition for recognizing defeats avoiding any reconciliation with the dominant order.

Enzo Traverso is a historian specializing in contemporary Europe with a focus on intellectual history of the twentieth century in a comparative perspective. He studied at the University of Genoa, Italy, and received his Ph.D. from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris (1989). He specializes in contemporary Europe, focusing on intellectual history of the twentieth century in a comparative perspective. Before coming to Cornell, he was a professor of political science at the University Jules Verne of Picardy, France, and a member of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He has also been visiting professor at several European as well as Latin American Universities. His publications include The Origins of Nazi Violence (The New Press, 2003); Fire and Blood: The European Civil War (Verso, 2016); The End of Jewish Modernity: History of a Conservative Turn (Pluto Press, 2016); Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory (Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2016).

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Co-sponsored by the Program in Critical Theory and a planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the establishment of the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs.