Melancholic Universalism


What do I mean by “melancholic universalism”? Melancholic universalism is the requirement to identify with the universal that repudiates you. I can imagine this statement might not make immediate sense: surely, the universal does not repudiate anyone; surely, for the universal to be “universal” it includes everyone.

Not so sure.

I would say: the universal is a structure not an event. It is how those who are assembled are assembled. It is how an assembly becomes a universe.

The universal is the promise of inclusion that has become heavy or weighed down by the way the promise has been send out and about: to promise is to send out as I explored in my book The Promise of Happiness (2010). The promise of the universal is what conceals the very failure of the universal to be universal. In contemporary theory this paradox of the promise that conceals its own failure (any failure becomes failure to live up to the promise) has led to the reinvention of universalism as formalism: the universal as pure or empty form, as abstraction from something or anything in particular.

But remember: abstraction is an activity. To abstract is to drag away. The very effort to drag the universal away from the particular is what makes the promise of the universal a particular promise; a promise that seems empty enough to be filled by anyone is how a promise evokes someone.

It is the emptiness of the promise that is the form of the universal; it is how the universal takes form around some bodies that do not have to transform themselves to enter the room kept open by the universal.

The universal: what a drag. The universal is drag; in drag.

Formalist universalism: how universalism stays up. I talked about universalism as a theoretical brick wall in my book, Willful Subjects (2014). That is to say: universalism is a wall that exists in the world of “theory.” In the fourth chapter I described how those lodged as particular can dislodge the general. Assembling a willfulness archive gives us another way to challenge the formalist universalism of philosophers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, which rests on more and less muted critiques of “particularism” and “identity politics.” The latter for example argues in relation to St. Paul thathis universe is no longer that of the multitude of groups that want to ‘find their voice,’ and assert their particular identity, their ‘way of life,’ but that of a fighting collective grounded in the reference to an unconditional universalism” (2003: 10). Žižek is not necessarily making an argument in his own terms here; but the use of quote marks works to create a caricature of identity politics that is familiar both from his own writing and more general consensus. We need to challenge this consensus. Perhaps some have “ways of life” because others have lives: some have to find voices because others are given voices; some have to assert their particulars because others have their particulars given general expression.

I was using the language of the general will rather than universalism here. General: to generalise. Universal: to universalise.

And: no matter how convincing feminist and anti-racist critiques of universalism (of how the white man becomes the universal subject) universalism seems to come back up, right up, straight and upright, very quickly. I have also called this mechanism a “spring back mechanism.” An order is quickly e-established because the effort to transform that order becomes too exhausting. Universalism: when you push against it, you become pushy.

Back to the same thing.

Same old, same old.

The following two descriptions are from two endnotes of Willful Subjects (2014):


As Judith Butler describes with characteristic precision: “Hegel is clearly exposing what happens when a faction sets itself up as the universal and claims to represent the general will, where the general will supersedes the individual wills of which it is composed and, in fact, exists at their expense. The ‘will’ that is officially represented by the government is thus haunted by a ‘will’ that is excluded from the representative function. Thus the government is established on the basis of a paranoid economy in which it must repeatedly establish its one claim to universality by erasing all remnants of those wills it excludes from the domain of representation” (2000: 22). The universal is haunted by the will whose exclusion it both demands and conceals. Perhaps Willful Subjects has given this ghost a history.


I would extend this critique to Badiou’s formal universalism resting on set theory. If this book was read as a willful subject who was returning Badiou’s address, the book might say: hey I am not part of your set! We can use our particulars to challenge the very form of universality, which is only empty insofar as it extends from some particulars and not others whilst “emptying” the set from the very signs of this extension (the universal is an emptiness that cannot receive other particulars – just like the emptiness of the French secular nation based on laicité cannot accommodate the particularity of the veil). My argument extends over a century of feminist challenges to universalism. We have to keep up the challenge as the critiques of universalism do not seem to get through: I would describe universalism as a theoretical brick wall, which is to say a wall that exists in the actual world of theory. I realised what is at stake in Badiou and Zizek’s work for those of us who want to dislodge the universal, which I have primarily addressed in terms of the general will, when I read John D. Caputo’s introduction to an edited collection on St. Paul and the philosophers in which he lavishes praise on both. Caputo writes: “Each segment of identity politics creates a new market of specialty magazines, books, bars, websites, DVDS, radio stations, a lecture circuit for its most marketable propaganderizes, and so on” (2009: 6). He then states “cultural identity” fits “hand in glove with the ever-proliferating system of global culture” (6). We must challenge these kinds of caricatures of identity politics which not only assume identity as in the hand of the market (almost as if identity is created to express the will of the market) but also for its gross under-description of what is stake in challenging the universal. We might note the irony that Zizek and Badiou might not need to create a so-called “segment of identity politics” to guarantee their own lecture tours (indeed the critique of identity politics is probably more profitable and more inductive to the logic of capital; their critiques have mobility as they participate in “giving hand” of the right of some to occupy space).  I would also suggest that the willingness to attribute agency to capital is part of rather than a critique of capitalist agency. I would also remind readers that markets do have their own hands (the myth of the invisible hand is the capitalist myth) and the markets are supplemented by hands. If the markets don’t want what is otherwise socially and politically valued, then ideology becomes a retainer: the use of ideological reasoning over the market was evident in the cutting of courses with high student numbers in universities in the UK. The hands of management will become visible only at some points; but they are always at work. The Universalist philosophers are handy: they grab the universal with two hands.

We can begin to see in these descriptions why I now want to describe universalism as melancholic. Not all universalism is melancholic. That is precisely my point: that the universal is distributed. Some embody its promise; others embody the failure to live up to the promise.

Universalism becomes melancholic when you are required to identify with the very promise that you fail to embody.

You can break a promise without making a promise.

This history: broken promises.

But then: universalism is how some of us can enter the room. It is how that entry is narrated as magical; as progress.  It is how universalism becomes the requirement to be grateful for what you have to give up.

Feminist uses of universalism are usually melancholic: you identify with the universal even though it has been predicated on the universalising of a subject whom you cannot be.

No wonder: I find feminist universalism depressing! It is depressing.

We have been here before: male universal, female relative; women understood as female relatives. Sexism is predicated on universalism; racism too.

Universalism: how some are understood as being in relation.

In his exceptional book Melancholia and Moralism Douglas Crimp offers an analysis of gay conservatism as melancholic that I am drawing upon here (2004: 13). Conservative gays identify with the family even though the family repudiates them and their desires. Note the question of identification is not simply at the level of sharing an ideal: it is also a form of work (and emotional labour). You try to be as close to the thing (that is the source of your rejection) as you can be. You try and demonstrate that you are normal even when your desires take you away from the normal. The normal is certainly formal. You assume that this approximation might be rewarded with recognition: oh, you too, you are just like us; after all, you are just like us. You mime in the hope that those you mimic become approving of you; that they might register your becoming with approval. This approximation is often vain or in vain. You are repudiated, still. You fail to be what you aspire to be.

You are putting yourself close to the very scene of your own rejection.

And: scenes of rejection follow.

To be rejected by the universal whose promise is not extended to you: melancholic universalism.

Rejection; dejection.

Melancholic universalism is also an activity: but I want to use it to describe something other than a conscious effort to be like or proximate to the thing that rejects you. I want to describe it as a requirement or a compulsion: you must identify with the very thing that rejects you in order to be in the world at all. The all registers here as necessary for being. Of course we don’t always do what we must do. But the effort not to identify with the universal comes with great cost: you are identified as doing “identity politics,” too attached to your own particulars.  Your very existence is then explained as an over-attachment to existence; as coming at the cost of the universal, to those whose entry into the room is not barred by the how of their appearance.

In one of the notes above, I refer to the example of the veiled Muslim woman, as the one who cannot be accommodated by the universal. She must transform herself in order to enter the room. The white man can stay wearing what he is wearing: a suit say, a tie, say. The white woman too can wear what she was wearing. Her clothes; they are particular, yes, preferences, choices, but she does not have to give them up.

Some differences become idiosyncratic. Welcome; come in, come in.

An aside: whiteness is often performed as idiosyncrasy. Differences: individuated, quirky, not expressive of anything other than yourself. This is how: when white people are violent they are usually described as loners. Their deviation from the promise is exceptional.

Whiteness: universal. To leave this universal for those who have already entered it: to become a loner.

Those who don’t enter it: to become relative, or a relative.


Brown: relative. Brown: you can enter the universal if you give up your relative.

And so: only some differences become attachments that must be given up. Other differences are welcomed by the very requirement that some differences are given up. For those who have to give up something to enter something: your entry is melancholic.  You are giving up the very thing that renders the room not open to you even when the room is understood as open to you.

I first offered reflections on this theme in my book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion published over 10 years ago in 2004. It was in the chapter on love. I referred specifically to the work of Julia Kristeva.  Let me share what I wrote then:

Kristeva responds to the “problem” posed by immigration in the following way:

First there is the interior impact of immigration, which often makes it feel as though it had to give up traditional values, including the values of freedom and culture that were obtained at the cost of long and painful struggles (why accept [that daughters of Maghrebin immigrants wear] the Muslim scarf [to school]) (1993: 36).

The bracketed sentence evokes the figure of the “veiled/ Muslim woman” who comes into play as a figure that challenges the values that have become felt as crucial to the nation (including the values of freedom and culture). These values are what the nation as love object can give. She becomes a symbol of what the nation must give up to “be itself”, a discourse that would require her unveiling in order to fulfil the promise of freedom for all. It is not surprising that Kristeva poses the following question, which is clearly a rhetorical question: “Is it possible that the ‘abstract’ advantages of French universalism may prove to be superior to the “concrete” benefits of the Muslim scarf” (1993: 47). Kristeva implies that the right to wear the scarf (with its multiple meanings) may give the Muslim women less than the rights afforded by entry into the abstraction of the idea of the nation. Modernity is understood as an empty form of universalism, one that does not take the shape of particular bodies, and as such can allow others into the community of strangers as long as they give up the visible signs of their “concrete difference.”

The argument moves from the national idea to a “national ideal” via an analogy with the ego ideal. The “Muslim scarf” is not only “not” the idea of freedom “won” as the freedom of the nation, but it also challenges the image the nation has of itself: “The involves a breach of the national image and it corresponds, on the individual level, to the good image of itself that the child makes up with the help of the ego ideal and the parental superego” (1993: 37). The trauma of the Muslim scarf for the French nation is here like the trauma of “failing” to live up to the ego ideal, an ideal that depends on love and identification with the parent. Hence the nation becomes depressed when it is faced with the scarf and this shame and depression is what is used by the right wing discourse of anti-immigration: “Le Pen’s nationalism takes advantage of such depression” (1993: 37). The implications is that the task of the radical might not be to celebrate the right to the scarf as this would sustain the psychic conditions that enable anti-immigration and nationalism to flourish as a politics. However, Kristeva does not make this argument explicitly. Instead, she suggests that “we must not be ashamed of European and particularly French culture” (1993: 38). First, the presence of the veiled other causes the depression and shame of not living up to the national ideal. Second, the imperative is not to feel shame about French culture. In other words, the juxtaposition of these two arguments implies that the “the Muslim wish to join the French community” [i](1993: 37) might also depend on the elimination of the source of national shame: the concrete difference made visible by the veil itself. The argument suggests that by eliminating the veil, which stands in for concrete difference, the abstract national idea can be returned to an ideal that is enlarged by the appearance of others. Under such conditions, national pride or love, rather than shame and depression, would be possible, and it would not depend on aggression or hostility towards others.

However, the argument that the national idea is abstract (and the difference of the Muslim woman is concrete) breaks down. The intimacy of the national idea with an ideal image suggests the national idea takes the shape of a particular kind of body, which is assumed in its “freedom” to be unmarked. The ideal is an approximation of an image of “Frenchness,” as an ideal that is deferred, but which nevertheless depends on being inhabitable by some bodies rather than others. The Muslim woman must give up her concrete difference in the interests of the national ideal, in which freedom takes the form of a particular kind of body (a particularity that is given value precisely insofar as it is represented as abstract-able or detach-able from particular bodies). Such an ideal is not positively embodied by any person: it is not a positive value in that sense. Rather, it accrues value through its exchange, an exchange that is determined precisely by the capacity of some bodies to inhabit the national body, to be recognisable as living up to the national ideal and as passing through the ideal. But other bodies, those that cannot be recognised in the abstraction of the unmarked, cannot accrue value, and become blockages in the economy; they cannot pass as French, or pass their way into the community. The veil in blocking the economy of the national ideal is represented as a betrayal not only of the nation, but of freedom and culture itself  -as the freedom to move and acquire value. Hence the veil cannot be integrated into the national ideal – as part of the story of the nation as a love object – and stands for an unassimilable difference. She becomes the unlovable object that cannot be incorporated or “had” and whose loss cannot be grieved by the nation.

Love for the nation is hence bound up with how bodies inhabit the nation in relation to an ideal. I would follow Kristeva by arguing that the nation is hence an effect of how bodies move towards it, as an object of love that is shared. Or more precisely “the it” of “the nation” as an ideal or loved object  is produced as an effect of the movement of bodies and the direction of that movement (the loved object is hence an effect of “towardness”). As a result, the promise of the nation is not an empty or abstract one that can then be simply filled and transformed by others. Rather, the nation is a concrete effect of how some bodies have moved towards and away from other bodies, a movement that works to create the very affect and effect of boundaries and borders, as well as allows the “approximation” of what can now call the character of the nation (“likeness”). In Kristeva’s text, moving towards the abstract promise of the nation requires moving away from the veiled woman, as a sign of a difference that cannot be inhabited by those who already inhabit the national ideal. This “limitation” shows how the ideal is not empty, but is already an effect of the privilege for some bodies to inhabit spaces as hosts (bodies-at-home), and hence to decide who gets let into the body of the nation, either through intentional acts of legislation or policy formation, or more everyday and inter-corporeal forms of encounter.

End of quote.

I think melancholic universalism is one way of describing what I was accounting for in this book.

And of course: universalism is so often written in the language of love.

Melancholic universalism: describes not just or only the affective state of those who are required to identify with what repudiates them but those who insist on the universal that repudiates others.

The insistence is the promise.

Melancholic universalism is another way of describing the promise of happiness; how depression is associated with concrete difference, and how some differences become concrete and not others. That wall again: it is hard again. It comes up for those who are not accommodated. For those who are accommodated there is no wall at all.

Enter; easy, look, easy, just do it.

The universal as a slogan.

This is from a note in The Promise of Happiness:

The nation as it were becomes the universal through being imagined as the bearer of the promise of happiness. It is no accident that V. S. Naipaul’s (1990) identification with universal culture proceeds through asserting the ideality of happiness: “It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don”t imagine my father”s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.” (np) The universality of happiness is one that is shaped around particular bodies: it cannot admit fanatics who appear outside the horizon of the human. I would describe Naipaul’s identification with universality as melancholic; it cannot grieve for the loss the grandfather who can appear only as the one who does not understand happiness, who suffers from what we might call “happiness illiteracy.” Nor can it cover over his inability to inhabit this universal given the family has already left its trace.

I think I would now give an account on slightly different terms: I would describe Naipaul’s description as an expression of what is required: to enter the room, to enter the universe you have to “give up” the parts of you that cannot be accommodated.

Remember: brown becomes universal if you give up your relatives.

You announce your departure from the parents of your parents: from Hinduism, from fanaticism, from culture as custom.

That announcement is how you enter the room

of the universal:

by giving up part of your own history retold as fanaticism or “identity politics.”

How fitting; the universal is fitting.

An elastic band can snap; this is a stretch.

A stretch: how you try and avoid  a snap.

There is grief in this position: of that there is no question.


Butler, Judith (2000). “Restaging the Universal” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and

Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso. 11-43.

Caputo, John D. (2009) “Introduction: Postcards from Paul: Subtraction Versus Grafting” in John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff (eds). St Paul among the Philosophers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1-26.

Crimp, Douglas (2004). Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Kristeva, Julia (1993). Nations without Nationalism, trans. L.S.Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press.

Naipaul, V.S. (1990). “Our Universal Civilization,” New York Times.

[i] We might note how this narrative constructs the French as “not Muslim” and the Muslims as “not French”, at the same time as it transforms migration into a wish to inhabit “the nation”. Hospitality and love are here constructed as opening the nation to others only insofar as they give up “being not us”, so “becoming us” whilst “not being us”.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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5 Responses to Melancholic Universalism

  1. Pingback: You Are Oppressing Me! | feministkilljoys

  2. Thank you for this! I quoted the very first bit in a blog that I wrote today re: critical religion/the critical study of religion.

  3. Archipelago says:

    Hello, we at Archipelago are really keen to publish this text in our forthcoming journal. The publication will be freely distributed. Keen to hear from you.

  4. Pingback: Bogus | feministkilljoys

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