Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality

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.

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21 Responses to “Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So in a sense, “difficult” writing is a more precisely articulated “fuck you”? I like it.

  2. Znarf Akfak (@ZnarfAkfak) Says:

    Angry speech is indeed very similar to an expletive, especially from the perspective of the possibility of a meaningful response, or its lack thereof. If I were to call Dan’s mom all sorts of names, it would make no sense for him to prove to me the factual inaccuracy of my claims. The rebuttal in both language games is moot. Yet Butler’s rhetorical style is far from angry. Maybe someone might characterize it as pent-up anger, but more often than not she sounds (on paper and in lectures) extremely calculated and thoughtful and, yes, calm, even if you don’t find her sensible. In other words, she could not be foreclosing the possibility of a meaningful discourse, as is the case with an expletive or an angry speech. The “prize” she got (like most of the “Analytic” reactions to Derrida) is much closer to a manifestation of anger than she normally is. This is anger directed at those who have a stage on which they can “speak” and an audience who “listens” to them, which, to the observer, seems like nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes. In this and many other situations, laughter tends to be way more effective than anger.

  3. DanWhistler Says:

    Really enjoyable, Dan – when you “exclude” the anger of commonsense from your post is this solely because it doesn’t interest you or do you think in some way the logic of your position means that the forms of anger of commonsense are not “proper” or somehow “genuine” forms of anger? (I.e. is there something more distinctively angry about the anger of occasional speech than the anger of universalism?)

  4. danbarber Says:

    Dan, i do think there is a relation between the anger i’m talking about an commonsense’s anger. And i do think the former is somehow prior to the latter. I’m thinking along the lines of affirmative v. reactive anger, something like that. Adam, you may have undone the dialectical tension, but yeah.

  5. danbarber Says:

    Znarf, true, though i think “foreclosing the possibility of meaningful discourse” and “being inassimilable to common sense” are not the same. I agree Butler is not doing the former, but I think she is doing the latter. Maybe the point is that meaningful discourse can occur only once inassimilability to common sense is established.

  6. Joe Miller Says:

    James C. Scott covered this territory in his Domination and the Art of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. “Commonsense” would be the public transcript that the ruling classes have penned for their own benefit. Everyone must act in accordance with its terms. The more elusive, inassimilable “private transcripts” written by their subordinates are relegated to the private sphere until times of social upheaval. They contain the suppressed grievances and imprecations that the lower classes cannot utter in the presence of their masters, and vice versa. However, they can be safely expressed in public through the use of folk songs, jokes, carnivals, euphemisms, etc.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m sorry — I know I have a tendency toward oversimplification. Sometimes it worries me that I haven’t picked up the discipline of “difficult” writing.

  8. Znarf Akfak (@ZnarfAkfak) Says:

    Really, Joe? Do you really wish to equate the grad school discourse, with Butler at the helm, to the grievances of the lower classes? Really? Isn’t it closer to elitism than to folklore?

  9. Kampen Says:

    I would like to nominate Brandy Daniels for an anger-writing award in her recent posts on gender.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I understand your skepticism, but surely, Znarf, sometimes the two discourses can overlap in their concerns and (in the broad sense) their strategies. If immediate accessibility is the key to non-elitism, then any folktale requiring in-group knowledge to grasp its full meaning is in some sense “elitist” — hence it doesn’t seem like a very helpful criterion.

  11. Znarf Akfak (@ZnarfAkfak) Says:

    You got it backwards, Adam. The claim is that inaccessibility is not necessarily a marker of non-elitism, not that accessibility is necessarily the marker of non-elitism.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Who thinks that inaccessibility is “necessarily a marker of non-elitism”?

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think I was confused — you’re reacting against the idea that inaccessibility might betoken something other than elitism, something that would be importantly similar to the strategies of folklore, carnival, etc. And I suppose I’m wary of the very notion of “elitism” given its use as a rhetorical weapon of commonsense, above all in America.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    To put it differently, I am wary of rhetorical strategies that seem to naturalize the lack of education of the lower classes, as though that’s their unchangable and — worse — most authentic state.

  15. Znarf Akfak (@ZnarfAkfak) Says:

    These are all fine things to be “wary” of, Adam. Unfortunately they do not logically follow from anything I said. Maybe my comments “betokened” yours, but let’s leave it at that, given that too many potatoes bewaits to be peeled for the latke party.

  16. Mark N. Says:

    The examples she leads with are a bit odd. I agree that it was once considered “common sense” for white people to own slaves, and for women not to vote, and that this is good reason to be skeptical of “common sense”. But those aren’t good case studies for the necessity of “difficult” writing. Abolitionist and suffragette writing is for the most part quite clear and direct, and deliberately aimed at popular audiences, because its goal was to convince the general public that their view of commonsense was incorrect and immoral, and that they ought to revise their views.

  17. danbarber Says:

    Regarding Joe’s reference to Scott, I see the connection in terms of what i’m getting at with commonsense — I’m drawing on a basic notion of interpellation here, one that could be identified in many cases. So the connection of commonsense with ruling class, etc., makes sense. But I’m not sure that angry speech, in the way that it is suppressed and/or uttered, can be identified with what Scott’s getting at.

  18. danbarber Says:

    One other thing, which may be obvious (but since the question of Butler’s tone has come up…): part of what i’m trying to make sense of here is the simultaneity of anger and speech that seems sensible, or polite-seeming, or even elite and meaning-promising. My proposal is that this really *is* a simultaneity, i.e. that we should not presume that they are exclusive of one another. The idea is that anger is actually being articulated by such “overarticulate” speech; if such speech has a very high degree of articulation, the “highness” of this degree actually is produced / generated by the anger.

    This is also to say that there is, for me, no suspicion of any repression of anger on the part of overarticulate speech. Rather, overarticulate speech is a modality of anger. The expletive is another modality. But then these two modalities ought to be seen not as source and derivation, copy and origin, but rather as nonidentical — as two modalities of the same thing, where that same thing cannot be said other than as an oscillation between the two modalities. (And what keeps this oscillation going is that neither mode can ever turn itself into the form, “so what i’m really saying is this commonsensical point, which is that etc., etc.”)

  19. danbarber Says:

    In other words, i do not think that anger is “really” the expletive and overarticulate speech is then the sublimation of anger. Rather, both expletive and overarticulateness are expressive modes of angry speech. Hence their nonidentical relation. (And yes, though i do not want to speak for her, i take Brandy’s posts to be exemplary of this — and i also take the responses, in which her articulation was assimilated to commonsensical politeness, and then accused of disingenuousness when it was connected to real anger, as exactly the sort of thing that ought to be opposed.)

  20. Ruth Marshall Says:

    I don’t think Scott is a particularly good example of what Dan’s getting at, because he’s not just talking about any or all the ways in which the commonsensical script is undermined, he’s talking about anger as a particular kind of manifestation (to use Benjamin’s term) which breaks with the commonsensical in a specific way. It may be true that a variety of subaltern strategies, such as derision, carnival et al, also do this, but I think he means to index anger specifically. So my question is, to turn again to Benjamin’s text (Critique of Violence), what is the relation between anger and violence? Surely there is one? Does thinking about anger as a form of violence provide a purchase on the relation between anger and regimes of sense-making or the commonsensical? Even if we don’t have to endorse Benjamin’s account of anger as an anarchic “pure manifestation”, it might be another (perhaps quite different) way of saying anger breaks with the commonsensical script, where here the ‘script’ is formalized in law?


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