I recently looked back at Judith Butler’s response to her having been awarded a “prize” for writing in an especially non-commonsensical style. She observes that the recipients—or “targets,” as she aptly redescribes—of such a prize “have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” This then raises “a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?”
Though I do not pretend myself able to fully answer this question, the general implications and force of it are evident. What struck me, particularly, was how this intersects with questions of anger. When one is subjected to speech, “commonsensical” speech, that carries within it—or better, expresses, enacts, makes real—sets of relations that cause pain to that subject, how might such a subjected one respond? Silence is probably the case, more often than not, and more often that one would realize and/or like to admit. When the silence does happen to be broken, however, what then? What sort of speech emerges?
I think this last question, though explicitly a question of speech, is also necessarily a question of affect. Modalities of feeling are both effected by and motivations for speech that responds to the subjection of commonsensical speech. This is what brings me to anger, which is one such modality. The relation of angry speech to commonsensical speech is, I think, irresolvable. Angry speech can be a lot of things, though two forms that interest me are equally incapable of assimilation to commonsense (there are no doubt other forms, here being excluded from my aim, which would be forms of anger that belong to commonsense, i.e. commonsense’s anger against anger).
This is to say that anger should never be presumed to make sense. “It does not make sense that you’re so angry”—so says commonsensical speech. Anger never makes sense as long as one presumes that it must make commonsense. The sense that anger makes can be seen only when it is understood as siding with senselessness, when it is understood as a refusal of the work known as making sense.
The first form of angry speech is more immediate. Faced with subjection, the subject feels the need to resist but in doing so feels itself robbed of language. Speaking, or speaking “normally,” requires speaking in a way that would excise anger. It is in view of this sense, in fact, that silence may often be pursued. But when silence does not happen to be pursued, and by way of a kind of revolt against the terror of commonsense’s silencing power, angry speech emerges, and it emerges in a bare, brute manner: the expletive, the condemnation, in short, the enactment of a refusal, the declaration that I can speak in a way that refuses assimilation to commonsense.
The second form—the one gets awards for people like Butler—also refuses commonsense, but it does so in a hyper-“abstract” way. The reason it cannot be reduced to commonsense is that it tries to articulate a sensibility, a feeling, a desire that is precluded by commonsense. Perhaps commonsense might allow such a desire, but this would only be the case once the desire had been translated into more commonsensical terms—once the desire had learned to communicate in a charitable, dialogical, integrated manner. So what this form of angry speech is doing is making impossible, in advance, its translation into commonsense. It is doing, at the level of hyper-“abstraction,” what is also being done at the level of the expletive.
Note, also, that to focus on these two forms is not to discount silence. On the contrary, the fact that apart from these two forms there must be silence, that they are closer to silence than they are to commonsense, indicates that we must never presume that we will be able to talk about how all of this fits together. Better silence than the commonsensical speech we are offered.
In both / all three of these cases, we could say that we are dealing with occasional speech, where “occasion” should be understood not as the application of a universally known thing to a particular moment, but rather as the moment in which the presumption of universally known things becomes the object of antagonism.