What’s the Use?

Political Disappointment: A Cultural History from Reconstruction to the AIDS Crisis BY SARA MARCUS. CAMBRIDGE, MA: HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS. 256 pages. $40.

The cover of Political Disappointment: A Cultural History from Reconstruction to the AIDS Crisis

WHEN HOMER SIMPSON wakes up gray in the face one morning, poisoned by a long-spoiled sandwich, it’s not because the ten-foot hoagie was never nourishing. It is Homer’s pathological reluctance to let go that pits him against his own stomach. Cradling the sandwich’s putrefied remains in the sickbed to which it has condemned him, Homer “can’t stay mad” at the snack so large it once seemed it would just keep giving. The emotional life of the political left, according to many of its theorists, can often, in this sense, feel Homeric. From Benjamin, Adorno, and Marx to Wendy Brown, Enzo Traverso, and Jodi Dean, scholars have warned that a movement “awash in loss” can get stuck in melancholic romances with out-of-date desires. Rather than finding new paths to political fulfillment in the present, the left will try to sate itself with longing for the past. Muttering things about Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in our sleep, we make entire lives for ourselves in disappointment while failing to reckon with defeat. 

For those who feel queasy at this portrait, sweet relief is seemingly promised in a new book by cultural historian Sara Marcus. In Political Disappointment, Marcus offers an alternative perspective on the mental state of society’s chronic political losers. The book looks at the tendency to dwell in thwarted desire but focuses less on the pathology in that dwelling than on its potential. The author draws inspiration from W. E. B. Du Bois, who saw in the disappointed souls of post-Reconstruction Black folks an atmosphere in which to rethink the lost ideal of “multiracial democracy,” without losing sight of its basic emancipatory force. Marcus argues that, despite events that have proved such ideals “untimely,” disappointment has often provided a kind of emotional holding pen—a place where the desire for change, at least in some form, can survive.  

This perspective appeals to Marcus as a thinking disappointee. Her own formative demoralization came in the aftermath of protests at the Philadelphia Republican National Convention in 2000, where she volunteered as a legal adviser. After the notion that “another world is possible” was met with mass arrests, inflated bails, and groundless criminal charges, Marcus turned away from the world of large-scale dissent toward grassroots community projects, scholarship, and writing. In 2010, she published Girls to the Front, a history of the radical feminist punk Riot Grrrl movement. She frames her turn to writing as an opportunity to “think my way through the promises and letdowns of the political projects that had defined the past few years in my life and the lives of my communities.” In Political Disappointment, she connects these specific disappointments with the towering letdown of “America” in general (another idealistic project doomed to disappoint) and sets out to understand the shifting fortunes of a loosely indexed “left.” 

The Simpsons, 1989–, still from a TV show on FOX. Season 4 episode 13.
The Simpsons, 1989–, still from a TV show on FOX. Season 4 episode 13.

She begins by mapping leftist moods of frustration across the twentieth century, a time when disappointment “shaped many of the . . . most important works of literature and art.” This approach implicitly promises to show how cultural forms and political action meaningfully relate to one another. After all, we do not take to the streets without some stir to the imagination––as Riot Grrl inspired so many to do in the 1990s––nor fail to achieve our aims without this involving some failure of vision.Yet Marcus examines “broad historical forces” not through moments of cultural importance but rather “comparatively minor or passing moments in literature and sound: an uneven stack of fermatas in a transcribed spiritual, an old woman’s cough in a short story.” This is an intriguing decision when the burden of proof on political relevance for “culture” can often feel heavy. In times as baroquely apocalyptic as our own, to call a much-discussed movie “political,” let alone a passing cough, risks looking like something of a displacement of struggle from activism to art––a deferral of organizing action or protest when time is in short supply. 

Perhaps this explains why Marcus moves through the book’s introduction with a ratcheting modesty as to her aims. She opens with conviction as to disappointment’s political generativity but goes on to describe her case studies as generative “aesthetically, conceptually, socially, and perhaps even politically,” the words “perhaps even” introducing the shadow of a doubt. On page 2 we are promised a book on disappointment’s “political possibilities.” By page 20, it’s clear that the focus is on disappointment as a “driver of cultural practice.” This refinement of scope is, of course, a scholarly obligation. In the manner of any good academic work, Marcus dutifully distinguishes herself from her counterparts in The Field. 

Take Lauren Berlant, whose work on “cruel optimism” Marcus is keen to distinguish from her own interest in scenes of failed fantasy. For Marcus, the nub of their difference lies in her own emphasis on hopes worth preserving, where Berlant critiques the kind of doomed fantasies that get in the way of human flourishing––that we might Get Rich with Real Estate, find happiness in a dog. There is also, however, a difference in how they treat these subjects: Berlant is concerned with the specific political culture that feeds us schmaltz and ambition to suppress dissent, in how disappointment becomes the definitive mood at a particular conjuncture. Marcus is more concerned with how disappointments shape culture in general, tracking moments of disappointed feeling over time while suspending the urge to historicize concretely. 

Berlant was keenly aware of the danger in such an approach: disappointed desire can easily lapse into fetish. When desire is “untimely,” when it cannot find an appropriate object on which to rest, it often looks for an easy substitute—the feverish deconstruction, say, of microaesthetics in art. The disappointed cultural theorist totters on a tightrope to political insight, beneath which lies a crash mat of exquisitely overthought nonsense. Always they must take care not to frame the art of X (here disappointment) as an end in itself while calling it “political.” Just as the left melancholic clings to dead desires as though they were material things, the disappointed cultural theorist risks clinging to the art of political disappointment as though this were the ultimate point.  

How does Marcus handle this vertiginous challenge? Can we make political sense of this work, setting out as it does to tell “a clarifying story about the twentieth century”? To a certain extent I think we can, a fact that rests largely on Marcus’s first, robustly political analysis: of the failure of post–Civil War Reconstruction to prevail over forces of white supremacy. For Marcus, this Ur-disappointment can be seen to ramify throughout the twentieth century. The rise of Jim Crow segregation in the late nineteenth century was a bludgeon to ideas of historical progress. Discontent, she argues, was metabolized in cultural forms that, carefully read, can be seen to yield novel and productive theories of historical time—for instance, that struggle can evolve erratically beyond the life spans of those who initiate it. 

Marcus is indeed a careful reader and an elegant theorist of disappointment, demonstrating a particular talent for the study of transcription. In studying the transfer of ideas from one medium (say song) to another (musical notation), she notices historical conflict over which desires to preserve and which to leave behind. Here is a useful demonstration of the value of literature and music in times of political failure, as cultural forms nurse political energies and potentially reroute them toward refined future projects. For example, in the 1870s the Fisk Jubilee Singers reincarnated Black spirituals as choral arrangements. Following Du Bois, Marcus finds a new, more complex kind of hope in the translated songs––a range of feeling that disrupts a former faith in an “ultimate justice of things.” In Du Bois’s multivoiced transcriptions Marcus detects a splintering of a “singular desire for freedom” into “multiple, partial ideals.” The hybrid, unstable transcriptions of Fisk founding member Ella Sheppard prove a particular source of insight, musically embodying the halting and uncertain quality of forward movement. 

Pointing at Sheppard’s use of fermatas, Marcus explains how the music makes vivid the possibility of multiple coexisting temporalities. This, she concludes, opens space for “collaborative practices of justice.” Here we begin to address the basic question of political use. “Collaborative justice,” however, is the somewhat vague answer with which the inquiry all but ends. We might expect that a diverse selection of cultural artifacts would yield a multiplicity of complex political ideas, yet Marcus will return to “collaboration”––across factions, identities, and life spans––in a reiterative search for aesthetic features that correspond with this one idea. The disappointed cacophonies of the civil rights movement give way, we will learn, to the “coalitional” practice of marching in silence. The futile bid to be heard on the part of 1970s feminists produces more sophisticated practices of “coalitional” listening, as do the devastated efforts of AIDS activists in the ’80s and ’90s. As I read, I began to feel as though art could offer little more than an incitement to cooperation. On one reading, “new possibilities” for the leftist imagination could be taken as the simple possibility of less internal bickering.  

It is not that culture can’t in fact germinate or clarify new political thought and new action. For cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall, the discipline’s potential lay precisely in its power to grasp the character of the age, so that political visions could be shaped according to that character. The failure of the left in Hall’s time, he thought, was not a matter of divisions within the group, but a failure to attempt this kind of understanding. Yet as we progress through the coughs, breaths, silences, and enjambments that make up the matter of this book, it feels increasingly as though the intended subject of understanding is less, in fact, a disappointed age, than the aesthetics of disappointment, however intriguing, as ends in themselves. 

In Chapter 4, for instance, Marcus offers a discussion of feminist frustration, in which she attributes the failures of pre-’70s liberation struggles to the movement’s naive understanding of “voice.” For too long, feminism had been grounded in aimless ideas of being heard. Yet from the inevitable disappointment that ensued, Marcus argues, there emerged a more “multimedia” notion of voice, one which could enable the “productive coalitional efforts” whose absence had held the movement back. Marcus takes, as one example, the coalitional potential in historical “seeing” contained within Audre Lorde’s transcription of voice onto the page. For Marcus, when voice is visually rendered “in all its sonic, embodied, mediated complexity,” the ground is laid for uneasy solidarities across difference. Referencing Lorde’s address to an academic conference on “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Marcus explains that speech, for Lorde, is meaningful “because of the collectives it assembles,” provided, that is, “it is rendered through a sonic voice that is vulnerable to faltering.” 

By “sonic” Marcus seems to mean: of a quality that can register vulnerability and therefore difference. Yet is this really what allows a voice to best fulfill its political potential? Perhaps, if you are more concerned with the identities inscribed in qualities of speech than with the broader politics of what is said; with “difference” as a matter of affiliation rather than concrete political interests. Marcus quotes Lorde on the inefficacy of silence: “My silences had not protected me. And your silence will not protect you.” Here, Marcus focuses on the pithy indication of a desire to speak to a broader “you,” one beyond Lorde’s immediate identifying group of Black woman warrior poets. And yet, within Lorde’s address, there is also an implicit array of things to say—a set of priorities that constitutes the “we” of “we were never meant to survive” beyond mere shared existence. 

Lorde is not simply speaking to a common, feminine need to be heard or even to be heard in a sophisticated way. When she writes that “the machine will try to grind you into dust,” she refers to the necropolitical machine of white heteropatriarchal capitalism, which targets a specific “you” divided for specific political ends. She advocates not just speech but particular counter-principles in her speech—for instance, those of “collective work and responsibility.” “Collective,” here, is far from a generalized term of ethical “togetherness,” but rather a modus operandi for a materialist feminist left. While Marcus is wary of liberal feminisms that seek to deny, rather than cut across, class difference, her evasive treatment of collectivity inadvertently threatens to reinscribe their logic. Marcus goes on to conclude from the work of the Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers “that the task at hand . . .  is to recognize seeing as itself productive,” again since seeing has the power to elucidate the complex nature of “sonic” voice. Having forgotten, at this point in reading, what disappointment had to do with all this, I found myself landing on phrases like “the disappointment of voice.” At which point, I unclenched my brain and forgave myself for having lost the thread of what any of this had to do with politics. 

The method of working backward from conclusion to aesthetic example gets giddiest in Chapter 5. Here, the art of ’90s AIDS activism is found, again and again, to be answering musician Bernice Johnson Reagon’s call for “building coalitions and for thinking beyond the boundaries of individual life-spans.” Marlon Riggs’s film Tongues Untied (1989), we learn, begins to “assemble . . . a coalition that exceeds any individual life-span.” Black Is . . . Black Ain’t (1995; also Riggs’s) uses sonic and visual layering to “seed collaborations that extend beyond individual life-spans.” David Wojnarowicz’s large-scale paintings “open the possibility of solidarity beyond the borders of individual identities and life-spans,” and his audio journals, recorded a couple of years before he died of AIDS, “provide the most poignant records of his practices of listening beyond the boundaries of individual life-spans.” The idea is important and moving, yet the reduction of all these artworks to tools for its hammering home had the effect of making me resent it. 

Not least out of frustration for what is missed in this approach. Marcus refers in this chapter, for instance, to Douglas Crimp’s 1992 essay “Right on, Girlfriend!” which did, as she says, point to undeniable issues within the ACT UP movement, and saw promise in more active coalitions. Yet Crimp’s essay also refers extensively to more properly political challenges: the “normalization of AIDS” by the Bush administration, the congressional assault on government support of queer culture, and, more generally, the issues that stem from a capitalist biopolitical approach to public health. The desire for something other than these challenges in fact pervades the era’s bitterly disappointed visual culture, and yet the question of how, and of what forms such desire might take, are withheld from this book. Without a preparedness to ask open questions of the works arrayed before us, we are left with forgone conclusions, left simply with words like “coalition.” 

Is coalition always the most useful conclusion for the left? Was it in the twentieth century? As Marcus herself notes in the book’s second chapter, in which she discusses the American Communist Party’s turn toward the Popular Front, it was arguably just that swivel toward a “big tent” approach that made the party such a source of disappointment. Heralding coalition with segregationist movements, leading to the endorsement of Klan-affiliated officials, here was a decisive watering down of anti-racist values. The fact is that radical movements always need more than sheer weight of numbers: they need a sense of who they are, what they want, and what they will do if they win. ACT UP may have grown through coalition, yet this was not in itself a robustly political act. As Mark Harrington of the movement’s Treatment and Data Committee later remarked, there was “no guiding agenda” for how to address the political crisis of AIDS. Reaching toward power “sort of felt like reaching the Wizard of Oz. You’ve gotten to the center of the whole system and there’s just this schmuck behind a curtain.” Leftist scholars like Marcus have a genuine interest in political desire. But if we want to reckon seriously with the forms it might take, we must surrender academic control to the surprises of the sources themselves. There is a role for the artistic imagination in political work, but one for scholars to uncover, not decide.  

Amber Husain is the author of Meat Love (Mack, 2023).