Wendy Brown received her BA in both Economics and Politics from UC Santa Cruz, and her M.A and Ph.D in political philosophy from Princeton University. Before she took a position at UC Berkeley in 1999, Brown taught at Williams College and UC Santa Cruz. At Berkeley, beyond her primary teaching roles in Political Theory and Critical Theory, Brown is also an affiliated faculty member of the Department of Rhetoric, the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, the Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the Designated Emphasis in Early Modern Studies.
Among the honorary lectures Brown has delivered are the Beaverbrook Annual Lecture at McGill University (2015); the Pembroke Center keynote at Brown University (2015); a keynote at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility (2016); the fourth "Democracy Lecture" – following Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein, and Paul Mason – in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (2017); a plenary speech at the European Sociological Association conference in Athens (2017); the Wellek Lectures at UC Irvine (2018); and the Gauss Lecture at Princeton University (2018).
Brown's work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has received many awards. Brown served as Council Member of the American Political Science Association (2007–09) and as Chair of the UC Humanities Research Institute Board of Governors (2009–11). In 2012, her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty won the David Eastman Award. Brown received the 2016 Distinguished Teaching Award, UC Berkeley's most prestigious honor for teaching. She received a UC Presidents Humanities Research Fellowship (2017–18) and is currently a Guggenheim Fellow (2017–18).
Brown's thinking on the decline of sovereignty and the hollowing out of democracy has found popular and journalistic audiences, with discussions of her arguments appearing in The Guardian and New York Times' articles. Brown has appeared in documentary films including "The Value of the Humanities" (2014) and "What is Democracy?" (directed by Astra Taylor, 2017).
Together with Michel Feher, Brown is co-editor of the Zone Books' series Near Futures and its digital supplement Near Futures Online.
States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (1995)
In this work Brown asks how a sense of woundedness can become the basis for individual and collective forms of identity. From outlawing hate speech to banning pornography, Brown argues, well-intentioned attempts at protection can legitimize the state while harming subjects by codifying their identities as helpless or in need of continuous governmental regulation. While breaking ground in political theory, this work also represents one of Brown's key interventions in feminist and queer theory. The book offers a novel account of legal and political power as constitutive of norms of sexuality and gender. Through the concept of "wounded attachments", Brown contends that psychic injury may accompany and sustain racial, ethnic, and gender categories, particularly in relation to state law and discursive formations. In this and other works Brown has criticized representatives of second wave feminism, such as Catharine MacKinnon, for reinscribing the category of "woman" as an essentialized identity premised on injury.
Politics Out of History (2001)
This book comprises a series of essays on contemporary political issues from the problem of moralism in politics to the legacies of past injustices in the present. Throughout her thematically overlapping chapters, Brown asks: "What happens to left and liberal political orientations when faith in progress is broken, when both the sovereign individual and sovereign states seem tenuous, when desire seems as likely to seek punishment as freedom, when all political conviction is revealed as contingent and subjective?" Much of this book takes history and liberalism themselves as objects of theoretical reflection and sites of contestation. Drawing on a range of thinkers, such as Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Benjamin and Derrida, Brown rethinks the disorientation and possibility inherent to contemporary democracy.
Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (2005)
This work consists of seven articles responding to particular occasions, each of which "mimic, in certain ways, the experience of the political realm: one is challenged to think here, now, about a problem that is set and framed by someone else, and to do so before a particular audience or in dialogue with others not of one's own choosing." Each individual essay begins with a specific problem: what is the relationship between love, loyalty, and dissent in contemporary American political life?; how did neoliberal rationality become a form of governmentality?; what are the main problems of women's studies programs?; and so on. According to Brown, the essays do not aim to definitively answer the given questions but "to critically interrogate the framing and naming practices, challenge the dogmas (including those of the Left and of feminism), and discern the constitutive powers shaping the problem at hand."
Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (2006)
In this book, Brown subverts the usual and widely accepted notion that tolerance is one of the most remarkable achievements of Western modernity. She suggests that tolerance (or toleration) cannot be perceived as the complete opposite to violence. At times, it can also be used to justify violence. Brown argues that tolerance primarily operates as a discourse of subject construction and a mode of governmentality that addresses or confirms asymmetric relations between different groups, each of which must then "tolerate" other groups and categories or "be tolerated" by the dominant groups and categories.
In a debate with Rainer Forst at the ICI in Berlin Brown addressed this problematic again, later published as a co-authored book, The Power of Tolerance (2014). Here Brown argues against primarily moral or normative approaches to power and discourse, and warns against the dangers of uncritically celebrating the liberal ideal of tolerance, as frequently happens in Western notions of historical, civilizational or moral progress.
Les Habits neufs de la politique mondiale (2007)
Published exclusively in French, Les habits neufs de la politique mondiale (The New Clothes of World Politics) argues that the following political fact is irreversible: liberal democracy, as a global social and historical modality of statecraft, is dying. The two movements delivering such blows, neoliberalism and neoconservatism, feature both resonances and disonances. Brown argues that whilst the former acts as a political rationality, a mode of general regulation of behavior, the latter is both necessary to its survival, and parasitic of its survival. As a form of governmentality that redefines freedom, neoliberalism will moralize politics, limiting its scope; this is the function of neo-conservatism.
Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2010)
This book examines the revival of wall-building under shifting conditions of global capitalism. Brown not only problematizes the assumed functions of walls, such as the prevention of crime, migration, smuggling, and so on. She also argues that walling has taken on new a significance due to its symbolic function in an increasingly globalized and precarious world of financial capital. As individual identity as well as nation-state sovereignty are threatened, walls become objects invested with individual and collective desire. Anxious efforts to shore up national identity are thus projected onto borders as well as new material structures that would appear to secure them. The book was reprinted with a new preface by the author following the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (2015)
Brown's study begins by engaging and revising key arguments in Michel Foucault's The Birth of Biopolitics with the aim of analyzing different ways that democracy is being hollowed out by neoliberal rationality. She describes neoliberalism as a thoroughgoing attack on the most foundational ideas and practices of democracy. The individual chapters of the book examine the effects of neoliberalization on higher education, law, governance, the basic principles of liberal democratic institutions, as well as radical democratic imaginaries.
Brown treats "neoliberalism as a governing rationality through which everything is 'economized' and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm." To address such threats, Brown argues, democracy must be reinvigorated not only as an object of theoretical inquiry but also as a site of political struggle.
Neoliberalism's Frankenstein: Authoritarian Freedom, White Nationalism, and the Weaponization of Moral Values
Brown is currently researching right nationalism in the US, completing a book provisionally titled Neoliberalism's Frankenstein: Authoritarian Freedom, White Nationalism, and the Weaponization of Moral Values. The book will shift between the frames of neoliberal governmentality, Nietzsche's social analysis and Marcuse's psychoanalysis to explain the production of a society unmoored from moral concerns (hence social justice), obligations to truth (the post-truth moment) and democratic interests (replaced by the self-interest of human capital). Brown draws from The Will to Power by Nietzsche and Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, attributing these right energies to a combination of world-historical nihilism and forces of consumer culture in advance industrial society. Nihilism has, Brown argues, largely generated 'neoliberal reason itself, which posits no value apart from that generated by price and speculative markets.'
Wendy Brown giving the Democracy Lecture at the HKW Berlin in 2017. Photo by Santiago Engelhardt.
A prominent public intellectual in the United States, Brown has written and spoken about issues of free speech, public education, political protest, LGBTQ issues, sexual assault, Donald Trump, conservatism, neoliberalism, and other matters of national and international concern.
For decades, Brown has been active in efforts to resist measures toward the privatization of the University of California system. In her capacity as co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, she raised awareness, organized marches, and spoke publicly about the privatization of public education. She has been critical of the university's decision to cut costs by utilizing lecturers rather than hiring tenure and tenure track professors. Relatedly, she has voiced concern over the perils of the UC's proposed online education programs.
Brown has criticized university administration for their response to sexual assault. "I think many faculty feel there are repeat harassers on our faculty who are never charged ... Graduate students gave up on careers, and these perpetrators were allowed to continue, and that was wrong—never should have happened," she said.
At the "99 Mile March" to Sacramento she addressed her criticism to more general trends: "We are marching to draw attention to the plight of public education in California and to implore Californians to re-invest in it. For all its resources, innovation and wealth, California has sunk to nearly the bottom of the nation in per student spending, and our public higher education system, once the envy of the world, is in real peril." Brown supported Occupy Wall Street as part of the UC faculty council, claiming that "We understand this to be part of what (the movement) stands for. We are delighted by the protests and consider our campaign to be at one with it."
Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (Zone Books, 2010, 2nd printing with a new Preface, 2017).
Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton University Press, 2006).
Edgework: Critical Essays in Knowledge and Politics (Princeton University Press, 2005).
Politics Out of History (Princeton University Press, 2001).
States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton University Press, 1995).
Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading in Political Thought (Rowman and Littlefield, 1988).
Edited and co-authored books
Authoritarianism, co-authored with Peter E. Gordon and Max Pensky (University of Chicago Press, 2018).
The Power of Tolerance, co-authored with Rainer Forst (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014; Berlin: Turia & Kant, 2014).
Is Critique Secular? Injury, Blasphemy and Free Speech, co-authored with Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood and Talal Asad (University of California Press, 2009); re-issued, with a new co-authored introduction (Fordham University Press, 2015).
Left Legalism/Left Critique, ed. with Janet Halley (Duke University Press, 2002).
Chapters in books
"Climate Change and Crises of Humanism," in Life Adrift: Climate Change, Migration, Critique, Andrew Baldwin and Giovanni Bettini (eds.), (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017).
"Neoliberalism and the Economization of Rights," Critical Theory in Critical Times: Transforming the Global Political and Economic Order, edited by Penelope Deutscher and Cristina Lafont (Columbia University Press, 2017).
"Religious Freedom's Oxymoronic Edge", Politics of Religious Freedom, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
with Joan Wallach Scott, "Power", Critical Terms for the Study of Gender, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
"Property of the Dead: The Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance and/on the Mamilla Cemetery," Laura Gioscia, ed. ¿Más allá de la tolerancia? Ciudadanía y diversidad en el Uruguay contemporáneo. Ediciones Trilce, Montevideo, Uruguay, 2014.
"Civilizational Delusions: Secularism, Equality, Tolerance," Unveiling Democracy: Secularism and Religion in Liberal Democratic States, Maille, Nielsen and Salee, eds. (Brussels: PIE Peter Lang Publishers, 2013).
"We are all democrats now...", Democracy in What State? (Columbia University Press, 2011).
"Speaking Power to Truth," Truth and Democratic Politics, eds. Jeremy Elkins and Andrew Norris (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
"Thinking in Time: An Epilogue on Ethics and Politics", The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott's Critical Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.
"The Sacred, the Secular and the Profane: Charles Taylor and Karl Marx," in Varieties of Secularism in A Secular Age, edited by Calhoun and VanAntwerpen (Harvard University Press, 2010).
"Sovereign Hesitations," Derrida and the Time of the Political, eds. Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac (Duke University Press, 2009).
"Subjects of Tolerance: Why We are Civilized and They are the Barbarians," Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-secular World, edited by Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan (Fordham University Press, 2006).
"Political Idealization and Its Discontents," Dissent in Dangerous Times, Austin Sarat, ed. (Michigan University Press, 2004).
"Renaissance Italy: Machiavelli," Feminist Interpretations of Niccoló Machiavelli, Maria Falco, ed. (Penn State University Press, 2004).
"After Marriage," response to Mary Lyndon Shanley's "Just Marriage," in Just Marriage: On the Public Importance of Private Unions (Oxford University Press, 2004).
"The Subject of Privacy," New Perspectives on Privacy, Beatte Roessler, ed. (Stanford University Press, 2004).
"At the Edge," in What is Political Theory? ed. Donald Moon and Stephen White, Sage Publications, 2004.
"Resisting Left Melancholia," Without Guarantees: Essays in Honor of Stuart Hall, eds. Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg, and Angela McRobbie (Verso, 2000).
^"States of Injury book description". Press.princeton.edu. Retrieved June 6, 2017. Prior to States of Injury, Brown addressed Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989) in The Nation, characterizing it as a "profoundly static world view and undemocratic, perhaps even anti-democratic, political sensibility" as well as "flatly dated" and "developed at 'the dawn of feminism's second wave ... framed by a political-intellectual context that no longer exists -- a male Marxist monopoly on radical social discourse'". See Wendy Brown, "Consciousness Razing", The Nation, January 8/15, 1990, pp. 61–64. for reinscribing the category of "woman" as an essentialized identity premised on injury.