Wendy Brown on Walls and Anxiety

I haven’t come across Wendy Brown before, apparently she’s an American professor of political science and recently she gave an interview on Broken Power Lines (an excellent blog which is ‘devoted to how power never functions as intended’ – I like that) about the current political situation in which we find ourselves.

Professor Brown says that directionlessness and meaninglessness are features of late modernity and that neoliberalisation provides direction without providing meaning.  This has some resonance for me, I’ve always been a little sceptical about the importance some commentators attach to ‘meaning’ (because it’s a term that can easily become overly portentous) but I do recognise that in the UK there’s a fundamental emptiness at the bottom of neoliberal free market dogma. This is best expressed at the moment by the posturing of politicians in the run up to our forthcoming general election. The question (as ever) is not how best to produce a just and fair society but which of these hollow men are best placed to ‘manage’ the vagaries of globalisation and the free market. The ‘quotidian nihilism’ that Brown talks about has its most obvious expression in continually falling turnout rates and the cynicism with which British politicians operate.

The question is- how can we combat/challenge this emptiness and replace it with something productive? The other problem we have is to figure out whether this malaise is an inevitable feature of late modernity (as Brown suggests) or whether it’s a product of this particular long wave of capital. I’d go with the latter primarily because there’s a lot of features of late modernity that I quite like. In terms of combating the emptiness, it seems to me that getting bogged down in ‘meaning’ as a replacement is a waste of time, like Richard Rorty I’m much more drawn to alternatives that are both useful and interesting without wishing to attach any further depth.

We now come to walls and anxiety. Brown’s view would seem to be that we are becoming more anxious because we are using our sense of place as globalisation whittles away at the nation state and that we need walls to be able to define ourselves. When I first read this I didn’t think that it applied to me- I’m a citizen of the free world and despise petty nationalisms so I recognised that this anxiety could apply to others but that I was was immune. Yesterday, however, a friend asked me if I liked living in Ventnor and I said that I did because I can’t see the rest of England from it. Ventnor is a resort town on the south coast of the Isle of Wight that is sandwiched between the English Channel to the south and 750ft high downland to the north so we are well and truly ‘boundaried’.  Living for the last 17 years has given me a strong sense of place and is a refreshing contrast to other places in which I have lived (Essex, Middlesbrough) which don’t have similar walls. So, whilst I’m not that bothered by national boundaries, I have to recognise that my own walls are very important to me and perhaps we need to give greater political consideration to this sense of place (which is different from identity).

Incidentally, Broken Power Lines also contains a review of 24 city which is the latest film by the very clever Jia Zhang-Ke which everybody should see.

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