Often the best books give us language for things we already knew but maybe can’t always put into words, and “Enjoyment Left & Right” by Todd McGowan certainly did that for me.
McGowan, a professor in the English department at the University of Vermont, is an expert on Hegel, psychoanalysis and existentialism, and the intersection of these lines of thought within cinema (he explores these ideas in the podcast with professor Ryan Engley called “Why Theory”). The book uses the lens of Enjoyment to “overcome the contradictions and conflicts that arise in a world that appears split between right and left.” By showing the distinct ways in which the Right and Left “enjoy,” McGowan provides a theoretically rich yet accessible guide for readers to understands the psycho-analytical dynamics that undergird these respective political and ideological movements.
Though there are numerous passages I can point to, one that stood out is that despite its “structural advantages, the Right operates with an enjoyment that it cannot universalize, in contrast to that of the Left, which is inherently universalist. Universality is the basis of the leftist emancipatory project. It leaves no one behind, whereas the rightist project depends on some not just being left behind but actively ostracized.”
As someone whose politics more closely align with that of the political Left, I’ve often thought about how the Right has some engrained advantages in the political sphere. One of them is Us vs. Them ideation, which allows the Right to say, do, think, etc. things beyond what Leftists can, since universalism and pluralism are limiting principles; on the Left, any Them is a (potential) Us. Electorally, the Left is overwhelmingly more diverse than the Right, and so ostracizing undermines its project in ways it simply doesn’t for the Right. This asymmetry manifests itself in everything from rightwing comedy (to me, the conservative comedian is at bottom Nelson from The Simpsons pointing and saying “ha ha!”), to their (in my estimation, evil) push to link LGBTQ people and their allies to pedophilia, to Republicans saying things about “Blue States” that, not just Democrats, but the entire political spectrum would find unconscionable if voiced by Democrats about “Red States.”
Though many on the Right would surely take exception to me saying this, Lefties (despite their imperfections and contradictions) generally have retained the ability to be disarmed by the humanity of others (even legitimate enemies) in a way that seems diminished, muted and even erased for many on the Right. And I think part of the reason why is the Left (speaking generally) doesn’t exactly “enjoy” fighting the Right. To the extent it does, this enjoyment is fleeting. You certainly can find videos of folks on the Left dunking on or even saying dehumanizing things about conservatives, but there really isn’t an (ideological or economic) imperative to “trigger the cons.” On the Right, there are whole reactionary ecosystems whose reason for being is “triggering the libs.” All of this has to do with Enjoyment.
“Enjoyment Right & Left” sparked some self-reflection on a (candid, at the risk of sounding defeatist) feeling that I and many others on the Left have: we don’t exactly “enjoy” being on the Left, even if our moral, ideological, spiritual, etc. compasses steer us that way. There is a kind of impotence in being on the Left, particularly in the disconnect between all the good things you think undergird its emancipatory project and the lack of power the Left has in capital P politics. When I find myself wanting to engage in Left-infighting about things like cancel culture, identity politics, the “professional managerial class,” force the vote, distinctions between leftists and liberals, etc. and contemplate a devastating takedown I’d inflict on some pundit or podcaster, the very next thought is often “but that would be meaningless.” I can only surmise that if I was a reactionary, winning would feel exhilarating. But as a Lefty, non-material political gains feel at best a win-lose, at worst a lose-lose.
McGowan succinctly encapsulates my thoughts on these ideas, writing “the existence of an enemy gives the Right an inherent enjoyment advantage over the Left. It is physically easier to adhere to the Right rather than the Left because a genuine leftism forces the subject to see itself as a part of the problem. Confronting an enemy is always less difficult than enduring one’s own contradiction.” He argues that the Right needs an enemy, while the Left has itself.
But I take his call for those on the Left to enjoy being on the Left seriously. It was something I needed without realizing it. Being on the Left feels both right and righteous, but I never considered whether or not I enjoy being a Lefty.
Tangentially, the book made me think about other topics. I wondered what a book on “Jealousy Left & Right” would look like. My best guess would be that the Left is jealous of the Right’s shamelessness — or maybe to put another way, the Right’s arbitrariness about when “conservative” principles matter and when they don’t. I also would guess that the Right is jealous of the Left’s lack of cognitive dissonance. The Right sees the disconnect between its belief in its moral righteousness and the fact that it doesn’t support most of policies that most of the people think are good. This jealousy can only be sublimated, since the Right largely exists in a media ecosystem where self-criticism is either prohibited or moderated to the point of sterility. As the contemporary truism goes, the Left has the culture but wants the politics, while the Right has the politics but wants the culture. The paradox is that, in many ways, both sides need the thing it has in order to get what it wants— which causes a depressing stalemate for 99 percent of us.
I could ramble on, but I’ll end it there. I am thankful for this book. I enjoyed it very much and think you would to. Go check it out!
(Side: I also listen to the podcast, which is where I learned about the book. There are many great episodes, but I honestly wasn’t expecting my favorite episode so far to be the one on Christmas movies).