Wendy Brown received her BA in both Economics and Political Science 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.
Brown lectures around the world and has held numerous visiting and honorary positions, including at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, the Goethe University in Frankfurt, the UC Humanities Research Institute in Irvine, the Institute for the Humanities Critical Theory Summer School at Birkbeck, University of London (2012, 2015), a Senior Invited Fellow of the Center for Humanities at Cornell University (2013), a Visiting Professor at Columbia University (2014), a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Lecturer (2014), a Visiting Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University (2015), the Shimizu Visiting Professor of Law at the London School of Economics (2015), and a Visiting Professor at the European Graduate School (2016).
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). Brown delivered the fourth "Democracy Lecture" – following Thomas Piketty (2014), Naomi Klein (2015) and Paul Mason (2016) – in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. She was a plenary speaker at the 2017 European Sociological Association conference in Athens, Greece.
Together with Michel Feher, Brown is co-editor of the Zone Books' series Near Futures and its digital supplement Near Futures Online.
Brown has established new paradigms in critical legal studies and feminist theory. She has produced a body of work drawing from Marx's critique of capitalism and its relation to religion and secularism, Nietzsche's usefulness for thinking about power and the ruses of morality, Max Weber on the modern organization of power, Freudian psychoanalysis and its implications for political identification, Foucault's work on governmentality and neoliberalism, as well as other contemporary continental philosophers. Bringing these resources together with her own thinking on a range of topics, Brown's work aims to diagnose modern and contemporary formations of political power, and to discern the threats to democracy entailed by such formations.
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.
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.”
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.
To substantiate her thesis, Brown examines the tolerance discourse of figures like George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Samuel Huntington, Susan Okin, Michael Ignatieff, Bernard Lewis, and Seyla Benhabib and argues that “tolerance as a political practice is always conferred by the dominant, it is always a certain expression of domination even as it offers protection or incorporation to the less powerful.” Among those influenced by Brown's thinking on this subject are Joan Wallach Scott and Slavoj Žižek, whose respective works The Politics of the Veil (2007) and Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (2007) draw heavily on Brown's account of tolerance discourse.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Brown is a native of California and lives in Berkeley with her partner Judith Butler and son.