The following was given as the Annual Lecture of the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions
On September 27th of this year, the political and cultural polarisations of our times were dramatically played out in a single, globally-broadcast event: the testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh in the US Senate, regarding Kavanaugh’s suitability to join the US Supreme Court. Blasey Ford alleged that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in 1982 when she was fifteen years old, and had decided to go public with her experience for the first time – despite the trauma of doing so – after it emerged in June 2018 that Kavanaugh was to be nominated for the vacant space on the Supreme Court. As you will I’m sure recall, Kavanaugh swore his innocence, his nomination eventually passed the Senate Vote, and he was sworn in on October 6th.
The testimonies of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh were both fraught with emotion. Blasey Ford confessed to being “terrified” as she recounted the events of 36 years previously. Kavanaugh broke down half-way through recounting something his ten-year-old daughter had said to him, and his voice frequently wobbled as he decried “threats of violence” upon his family and what he called the “intimidation” that he believed was trying to drive him out of public life.
One of the terms that has arisen to describe the divided times we live in is ‘tribalism’, implying that polarisation and affective communion have now reached the point where our beliefs about truth and justice are now wholly determined by who we instinctively affiliate with. According to the ‘tribes’ thesis, where one stands on the Kavanaugh controversy is ultimately settled by base identification. Following the Kavanaugh hearings, polls did indeed show that 76% of Democrats believed Blasey Ford’s account, and 76% of Republicans believed Kavanaugh’s.
The threat of ‘tribalism’ is of a politics led by affective affinities, which descends into a radical relativism. From such a perspective, both parties claimed to have been wronged, both parties were visibly suffering and the question of ‘truth’ ultimately came down to who one empathised with instinctively. What kind of pain – what kind of sufferer or victim – was one willing to grant credibility to in the public sphere? To Blasey Ford’s sympathisers and supporters, it was excruciating if not altogether surprising to hear Donald Trump say at Kavanaugh’s swearing in ceremony:
On behalf of our nation I want to apologise to Brett and the entire Kavanaugh family for the terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure.
Not for the first time, Trump’s mania was employed to draw a kind of extraordinary equivalence, treating Kavanaugh as the trauma victim not Blasey Ford, and thereby making a clear public statement about the hierarchy and official credibility of suffering in American society.
To speak of ‘tribalism’ – and for that matter, ‘identity’ – is therefore to risk being complicit in this kind of Trumpian politics. If we’re to escape this, the qualitative differences between the performances and affective states of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh must be unpicked – not simply to say that ‘we’ in this room believe her (as I would imagine most of us probably do), but beyond that, to clarify different appeals to justice and emotion at stake in this.
The first thing we can note, as many did at the time, is the extraordinary reversal of types and roles (including of historically constructed gender stereotypes) that occurred on that day in the Senate. Blasey Ford fought back her emotions, in an effort to act like a credible, objective witness, and to do so out of respect for the grand civic institutions she was speaking to. “I am here not because I want to be. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty” she said. When asked how she could be sure of her memories, she resorted to the objectivist rhetoric of her academic discipline, reporting that “indelible on the hippocampus” were certain impressions.
Kavanaugh, by contrast, shocked many observers by engaging in petty politics and growing enraged. Most alarmingly, he abandoned any claim to apolitical neutrality. He claimed that a campaign against him was “fuelled by pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election… [and] revenge on the part of the Clintons and millions of dollars from outside leftwing opposition groups. This is a circus”. While Blasey Ford sought to conceal the extent of her pain, due to the public civic context she was in, Kavanaugh trivialised the civic and public status of the occasion in order to highlight his pain.
A second crucial distinction concerns time. Blasey Ford was recounting a trauma that had taken place 28 years previously. Kavanaugh claimed to be enduring a trauma in the present; he was performing victimhood in real-time. It was clear from Blasey Ford’s testimony that hers was no ordinary memory. She spoke of how the details “have been seared into my memory and haunted me episodically as an adult”. Nevertheless, she did her best to report the events in a factual fashion. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, was full of apocalyptic predictions for how the on-going attacks on him would leave scars decades into the future. “I fear for the future”, he claimed. Despite the fact that it was Kavanaugh himself who was stirring up partisan conflicts, his dark warning about some post-juridical future served as a way of diverting attention away from the question of justice towards the past.
The Kavanaugh hearing raises a variety of questions about an emotion that has become central to our political era: anger. Pankaj Mishra tells us that we live in An Age of Anger. The rise of Trump is frequently associated with a surging anger in the face of threats to racial and economic status. The Brexit vote has been described as a “howl of rage”. Rather than focus on anger as a single affective state, what I want to do this evening is to consider the temporalities or speeds of anger. Much of what we want from anger (though this is itself frustrated much of the time) is that it arises in the right place at the right time. And much of what is unseemly about anger is that it will be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The nature of such an emotion is that we cannot decide exactly when to get angry, or how long to remain angry for. Nevertheless, by picking apart some of the chronic elements of anger – its relation to past, present and future – we might be able to move beyond the sense that, in this populist digital age, anger has just descended on all of us equally and indiscriminately like a fog.
Varieties and speeds of anger
Kavanaugh’s behaviour in the Senate that day in September was palpably angry, with the injury to status – “my family and good name” – the principle trigger. The fact that here was a judge of all things losing self-control, becoming possessed by their emotions, denigrated the civic system of justice, and pointed towards some higher or deeper ontological moral order that needed asserting. As Peter Sloterdijk writes:
When the public order is accused of malfunctioning or of being a part of the problem (we might think of preferential treatment in court proceedings), individuals can take themselves to be appointed to represent justice as wild judges.[i]
Donald Trump, and in a literal sense Kavanaugh himself, might count as an instance of the ‘wild judge’, the figure whose rage speaks of some ideal of retribution that exceeds the merely civic or legal. The civic or legal basis for punishment and score-settling is considered inadequate, and something more visceral and transcendent is needed. Strikingly, however, the redress that Kavanaugh’s rage sought was purely to himself, and Blasey Ford was entirely irrelevant to his affective state.
Could we speak of Blasey Ford as angry? This certainly wasn’t how she described her feelings. Nevertheless, something had propelled her to the Senate that day, and surely it was more than some patriotic or Kantian principle of ‘civic duty’. She was sufficiently moved to react to Kavanaugh’s nomination, in spite of the costs to herself of doing so. The terrible time-lapse between the assault in 1982 and the sharing of the experience – first with a therapist in the 1990s, and later publicly – offered far too great an opportunity for anger to turn inwards, in a corrosive, self-destructive fashion. And yet this was also part of the crime she had suffered – that (in her words) “has had the most lasting impact on my life”. She hoped not only to influence the make-up of the Supreme Court as a citizen or advisor, but to have her suffering recognised – to see her suffering count for something. Was she seeking retribution against Kavanaugh, or was she seeking to uphold the integrity of the American justice system? Surely it was both.
Martha Nussbaum has argued, somewhat optimistically, that the creation of a judicial order is what enables us to be rid of anger.[ii] By transitioning from an affective state of revenge, rage and retribution towards one of public judgement and measured punishment, scores are settled and we leave the past behind. The project of justice is one of replacing and cancelling anger. By Nussbaum’s account, we should applaud Blasey Ford for bringing her testimony to the Senate, but we should emphasise the civic and measured way in which she did so. Where Kavanaugh’s rage made a moral settlement less likely in future (contrary to his own statements), Blasey Ford’s temper was potentially productive, in making a better society possible as an outcome. This was the ‘civic duty’ which she spoke of.
Nussbaum’s critique of anger is instrumental in nature. It highlights the impossibility of ever achieving any ultimate sense of settlement or retribution, where anger is at work. For Nussbaum, the only anger that ever really achieves what it desires is an anger based in status: if I am enraged that you are rising relative to me, then pushing you down really will restore the situation I desire, and my anger has paid off. The anger that Trump taps into, and which Kavanaugh’s supporters perhaps feel, has this kind of logic to it, that it may genuinely serve to reassert the supremacy of the white man. But this is, as Nussbaum stresses, normatively problematic, in that its only goal is to restore contingent status inequalities.
Against the claim that anger is merely ‘counter-productive’ or ‘useless’, Amia Srinivasan has argued that (quite regardless of its consequences), anger can be ‘apt’ in the sense that we can have good reasons to be angry, that have nothing to do with the effects of our anger.[iii] As Srinivasan argues:
I think we do not arrive at a full understanding of injustice and oppression if we do not acknowledge that our political arrangements provide ample occasions for anger that is at once apt and counterproductive: anger that is the justified response to the political facts, but nonetheless makes the angry person worse off.[iv]
Nevertheless, Srinivasan’s argument also implies that anger does carry the potential to make the person better off, if they can steer a path between repressing it and feeling obliged to release it. If anger can be allowed to happen, and then connected to its reasons, then something both psychoanalytically and politically transformational can take place. As she argues, anger must be more than ‘permissible’ but less than ‘obligatory’.
But the question of whether we see anger as ‘counter-productive’ (as Nussbaum does) or as ‘apt’ (as Srinivasan does) is partly a question of how long we are willing to let anger endure for, and what we hope to transpire (either for us individually or for society) once it has endured. The anger one feels in the midst of a conflict is going to be different from the anger one feels about it the next day. This in turn is going to be different from whatever has transpired a week or year or decade later, for better or worse. The key point is that anger is a dynamic phenomenon, that undergoes transformations, transitions and mutations. Controversies surrounding the status and authority of anger partly come down to whether the same term can be applied to different moments in time, between the initial provocation and the subsequent feelings of injustice or resentment that can brew for years.
What Nussbaum appears to mean by anger might be better embodied in the erratic behaviour of Brett Kavanaugh: something that is not just temporary, but playing out at speed, with little opportunity for reflection or reasoning. Her understanding of anger is as a communication mechanism, that relates to issues of danger and safety in disorderly situations. Nussbaum remarks that anger “has a very limited but real utility, which derives, very likely, from its evolutionary role as a “fight-or-flight mechanism””.[v] As soon as it is translated into something more enduring or political, it ceases to be anger. Srinivasan, by contrast – but in common with feminist scholars such as Audre Lorde – sees anger as something that not only accommodates reasons, but can be justified by them. As Lorde argued, anger may require articulating and translating into action, but this doesn’t mean that it ceases to be anger.[vi] Anger is a crucial political propeller.
One way of understanding the ambiguity of anger is that it has certain properties in common both with justice and with violence. Central to the feeling or instinct of anger is that deliberate injuries need re-paying in some way: an idea of balancing-out or score-settling. This may seem like revenge, resentment or gratuitous harm – but it also overlaps with justice (something that is recognised in situations where victim’s testimonies are taken into account when during a sentencing procedure). At the same time, anger clearly has the capacity to overwhelm us, to accelerate social relations until we are in a situation of violence. Perhaps this is more suitably referred to as ‘rage’, but it still has the basic form of action/reaction, punch/counter-punch, attack/counter-attack, that we associate with anger.
Part of the difference at stake here is speed: how long do we hold on to our anger, before reacting? Where one ‘flies into a rage’ or is attacked very suddenly, one becomes possessed by anger, and the reaction is virtually instantaneous. The anger that points towards justice (or is constrained by the justice system) is a slower phenomenon, that allows time for reflection, discussion and understanding – where, in Srinivasan’s terms, ‘reasons’ can be identified. We might, therefore, borrow from the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s terminology and speak of ‘anger fast and slow’. In Thinking Fast & Slow, Kahneman distinguishes between the part of the mind that “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” (‘System 1’) and the part that “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it” and allows for “continuous monitoring of your own behaviour” (‘System 2’).[vii]
Thomas Hobbes’s famous ‘state of nature’, characterised by a ‘war of all against all’, and an absence of any possibility of justice, might be viewed as a situation in which there is never enough time for one person to recognise or understand another. The logic that breeds violence, in Hobbes’s account, is that – because the mind of the other is unknown to me – it makes sense for me to engage in pre-emptive violence, almost instinctively. I must act now before it’s too late. I do not have the time in order to find out who this person is or what they want. No good being right if you’re already dead. The introduction of civil government – and the mechanics of justice – allow for social relations to operate at a slower speed, allowing – amongst other things – the exercise of reason to occur. Civil society is what allows ‘system 2’ thinking to start taking charge.
Viewed like this, perhaps anger exists as a type of continuum between states of violence and those of justice – something that operates at different speeds, offering different possibilities for thought to intrude into cycles of reactivity. The anger that Nussbaum associates with ‘fight or flight’ (or Kahneman with ‘thinking fast’) is one that suffers from too little time, and from which violence ensues. To slow anger down needn’t involve trying to destroy it or convert it into something it is not. On the contrary, the discovery that one has reasons to be angry – that anger is more apt than one realised – may add to it in certain respects, and lend it momentum. We needn’t follow Nussbaum into suggesting that anger is useless, but we might accept that a politically valuable anger is one that is capable of being married to thinking and to reasoning in certain respects, that necessarily are destroyed by speed.
The problem of schizoid or cybernetic anger
For over a century, a dominant anxiety of Western societies has been that we might hold on to our anger for too long, even cherish it, allowing it to mutate into something ugly, malicious or self-destructive. Nietzsche’s characterisation of Christian morality as rooted in resentment rested on the assumption that the weak were unwilling to truly forgive or forget past suffering, and would continually seek retribution against the strong. The human desire to punish, both self and other, stems ultimately from the tyranny of memory – the inability to let go of past wrongs. The Freudian idea of the super-ego (or conscience) is of an internalised parental-moral authority from the past, through which the self turns viciously inwards, criticising and judging its own feelings and desires. Ideals of moral fairness and perfect equality therefore pose a threat, whereby an over-developed sense of responsibility and/or resentment develops, which eventually tips into a guilt complex.
The lesson of Nietzsche, Freud and psychoanalysis more broadly is that a society that places too much faith in morality and civility turns anger into a toxin, that is carried around, damaging the carrier, who occasionally projects that outwards onto miscellaneous others. Melancholia, from a Freudian perspective, arises where an individual does not express the anger at losing some loved object, and instead clings on to their own internal pain as a substitute, refusing to ever relinquish it. This is really society’s crime not the individual’s: it is where the individual feels unable to release their anger, that they hold onto it or turn it upon themselves. It would not be surprising if, in those long years of the 1980s and 90s, Christine Blasey Ford had done this, at great harm to herself. Anger turns into a sense of guilt, that one is to blame for harms one has suffered. This is a depressive anger that has been thought about too much, and spoken about too little.
Populism arguably taps into built-up reserves of anger on a more collective scale, or what Sloterdijk calls ‘rage banks’. In her careful ethnographic study of the emotional world of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana, Arlie Russell Hochschild uncovers what she terms the ‘deep story’ of people who – over several years and decades – came to the conclusion that the moral economy of the United States was fundamentally broken or bogus.[viii] Basic notions of fairness and justice had been abandoned, and faith in government or politics to improve things been betrayed. This too has a depressive or melancholic quality, that renders something like Nussbaum’s expectation that justice will see everybody ‘moving on’ a little sociologically and psychoanalytically naïve.
In the terms that I’m using here, we might say that this is an anger that has become too slow, too deprived of external objects or causes to speak of. The harmed person has not been permitted to speak or not been listened to, and their anger has therefore turned in other destructive directions: either themselves or some kind of scape-goat, such as the immigrant, or – in Hochschild’s case – above all the government. The ‘rage bank’ of is ready to be lanced by the person whose personality is adequate to that task, and Donald Trump was that person. Hochschild writes that the communities she’d studied for five years leading up to 2016 were, in retrospect, a “tinderbox” waiting to have a match thrown on them, with Trump being that match.
The crucial feature of Trump’s personality in this respect is a complete absence of memory, producing an inability to experience the depressive weight of responsibility. Showing no capacity for ‘slow’ anger (the anger that yearns for justice), Trump exists only in a state of constantly ‘fast’ anger – the anger that veers towards violence. Trump’s persona and affective state is one of perpetual real-time: the emotions that he displays are entirely of the now, and appear to represent nothing of the past. Just as Kavanaugh’s performance of rage on the 28th September was a cancellation of the past, the ecstasy offered by Trump lies in a destruction of memory and the fleeting sense that pain might be eradicated. Trump’s famous disregard for facts is, more importantly, a refusal to be bound by any form of record of the past.
Trump’s behaviour offers an acute manifestation of what Melanie Klein termed the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position, where every bad aspect of the self is projected outwards onto others, and all negative or frustrating experiences can be explained away as the fault of someone else. Klein argued that the problem of this tendency was that it exhibits what she termed a “detached hostility”, that provided the analyst with very little to work with. She illustrated this with a case as follows:
[the patient told her] he experienced anxiety and did not know why. He then made comparisons with people more successful and fortunate than himself. These remarks also had a reference to me. Very strong feelings of frustration, envy and grievance came to the fore. When I interpreted… that these feelings were directed against the analyst and that he wanted to destroy me, his mood changed abruptly. The tone of his voice became flat, he spoke in a slow expressionless way, and he said that he felt detached from the whole situation. He added that my interpretation seemed correct, but it did not matter. In fact, he no longer had any wishes, and nothing was worth bothering with.[ix]
As Klein put it, part of his ego had temporarily “gone out of existence”. This pattern makes such people far harder to analyse, Klein argues, as they can seem to evaporate under any scrutiny. Sloterdijk makes a similar observation, when he says
In the case of pure rage there is no complex inner life, no hidden psychic world, no private secret through which the hero would become understandable to other human beings. Rather, the basic principle is that the inner life of the actor should become wholly manifest and wholly public.[x]
Similarly Trump’s rage is an entirely external one, leaving the question of his character, self or subjectivity entirely unanswered, indeed unanswerable. Trump’s emotions to seemingly evaporate, leaving a flat, disaffected voice and manner – similar to the man described by Klein – speaks of a disconnect with the conscious self, let alone any conscience.
This type of ‘fast anger’ has a cathartic effect for those over-burdened with ‘slow anger’, who take some kind of vicarious glee in it. Hochschild writes of the “secular rapture” that Trump supporters experience in his presence. But it is deeply destructive of efforts to discuss and interrogate the past, in a slower, analytical, empirical or commemorative fashion. Just as Kavanaugh fought Ford’s memories by hurling out threats regarding the future, paranoid-schizoid rage disrupts efforts to remember, with a view to shaping the future. Guilt becomes impossible, but so does any form of interrogation or reasoning.
The anger of this type of person can only possibly be ‘real-time’, but can never be (in Srinivasan’s terms) ‘apt’. Rage and trauma possess the subject, but the subject never possesses them, indeed, while occupying the paranoid-schizoid position, the self lacks any recognition that they are the author or locus of their own thoughts or feelings. Efforts to pin guilt on such a figure are extremely difficult, as the media is discovering in its attempts to regulate Trump with facts and other reminders of past events.
Yet the anxiety confronting liberal democracies right now is that the conditions are in place which both promote and reward such a psychic state, especially in the transformations of the media landscape. In the age of ubiquitous smart interfaces, we are increasingly governed via our fast-thinking, rapid reactions, rather than our slower, reasoned selves and feelings. The success of Kahneman’s book (together with similar titles such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) reflects a business fixation with seeking to engage consumers and technology users without the mediation of conscious thought. Technologies and interfaces increasingly connect with our fast, embodied, instinctive, reactive selves, rather than our slow, reflective, thoughtful selves. Real-time media (most significantly social media) provides a basis for affective synchronicity, that can manifest itself publicly, but also immediately, without the time or space to be reflected on or inspected.
Under such conditions, we are surrounded by more and more signs and images of how we and others feel right now (emoji, photography, mood-monitors, data visualisations) but the spaces for recall and reflection, or for interrogating an emotion or experience over time, are shrunken in the process. The society of ubiquitous data capture (including the capture of sentiments via affective computing) is one where the task of memory is outsourced to the databank – a kind of literal, technical manifestation of Sloterdijk’s ‘rage bank’ – whilst individuals simply emote in the here and now, leaving a trail of data for future reference. We shift from an age of ‘feedback’ (where we reflect on, judge and reason about past experiences, including our feelings) to one of what media scholar Mark Hansen terms ‘feed-forward’, in which we live in a perpetual, ideally guilt-less present that is planting data seeds for future analysis. “I fear for the future!”, was Kavanaugh’s cry.
It is quite clear that anger – fast anger, that is – is a dominant affective state in such a society. Studies have shown that, of any emotion, anger has the capacity to travel furthest and fastest on twitter: tweets containing high concentrations of ‘moral emotion’ are more contagious than those with less.[xi] The speed of social media (and real-time media) means that social exchange pulls towards the poll of violence, rather than to that of justice. In place of the reasoned (albeit, angry) mobilisation and retribution that seeks justice, we see a quickfire escalation of punch and counter-punch. The condition of a perpetual present – of constant ‘real-time’ – has certain properties in common with Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’, which is a condition of trauma, that mobilises all of the powers of the nervous system in the service of self-defence and attack.
The acceleration of exchange eradicates the space for thought, memory and reflection. Digital technology facilitates the acceleration of market exchange to the point of high-frequency trading, with ghostly events such as ‘flash crashes’ that follow. In the same way, public dialogue is pushed towards a speed of exchange where there is no space to let an emotion linger, be held, or develop any interiority, before some reaction or counter-offensive is unleashed. Social life therefore becomes a form of trauma that is a perpetual now. As Bessel van der Kolk has written, “trauma is the ultimate experience of “this will last forever””.
The value that is most sought-after in the digital commons – recognition – becomes impossible to attain, because the space of listening and inter-personal understanding is closed down. Further rage ensues, when recognition is not possible. Troll culture ensues once dreams of recognition have been abandoned, and replaced merely by the quest for attention, producing a storm of distraction and outrage. Where recognition implies some inter-personal consciousness, attention is merely the behaviour of one’s eyeballs – Kahneman’s ‘system 1’ thinking, through which we navigate fast-moving, potentially hostile environments. The more hostile the other becomes, the more attention it will gain – no doubt also a function of basic evolutionary survival mechanisms.
The cybernetic fantasy of constant real-time response and counter-response, counter-counter-response, risks inculcating a kind of paranoid-schizoid position from which the self only ever encounters the other as bad as hostile, and loses any sense of inner self in the process. As privacy (and interiority) is eroded, all fault must lie elsewhere, although this also produces the eerie evaporation of affect – such as the patient described by Klein, or in the form of Trump’s affectless intonations. To dwell in a space of constant digital flow is to risk evacuating the self of all feeling, which is a relief but nevertheless a vacuum. The alternative is the over-bearing sense of guilt that could arise, should the full implications of one’s entire data-trail – of tweets, swipes, emails, interactions – ever catch up with one. As Klein argued, a refusal of all feelings of guilt means a refusal of agency altogether, until guilt descends all at once in the form of an online public shaming process.
The political problem of this fast, real-time, online anger is that, while it has the capacity to disrupt and even destroy processes of slower reckoning and remembering, it doesn’t tell us anything about the world. Unlike slower forms of anger, it doesn’t tell us who we are, what we value, or what is worth paying attention to. It is without any referent – a feeling, but without a self who feels, or any sense of why. If ever one starts to recall one moment of rage (and to wonder whether it was appropriate), another will soon come along to prevent the risk of responsibility acruing. Of course that offers an escape from intense pains and resentments, that do potentially have a story to tell. But in that sense, they are a bizarre form of anaesthetic, where a pointless, ephemeral pain is used to distract from a more enduring and potentially meaningful one.
Spaces of understanding
The personal and political problem of justice is that, very often, it just arrives too slowly or too late. What do we do with our anger while waiting for justice or a reasonable retribution? Where does it go? Does it build up as a type of ‘rage bank’, as Sloterdijk argues, which is then stored until it can be lanced in some explosive moment? Do we seek out a scapegoat, to divert it towards? Or does it get turned upon ourselves in some guilty, self-recriminating way? These are all potential conditions of a politics of resentment. The alternative is not to sit back and wait, but to use anger as a source of energy, to move – and accelerate – the bearer towards the moment of rebalancing. Using anger to move does not necessarily mean ‘moving on’.
Who other than she can say what Christine Blasey Ford battled through over the years in order to arrive at the Senate Committee on 27th September, with the capacity to remember and report on the crime of which she was a victim, and to identify the perpetrator. Who can say what varieties of inward and outward anger were involved in propelling and repelling her on that journey. It was not ultimately a judicial hearing, but she brought the necessary combination of affective and cognitive qualities that are required in order for justice to be possible, despite the many years in which those qualities could easily have been redirected somewhere less apt and less productive. This was a remarkable achievement in its own right.
The threat we face right now is of the ‘wild judges’, who will do what they can to prevent slower, considered, difficult forms of dialogue from taking place. In the hands of these figures, anger reveals nothing about society, but merely obscures and disrupts the slower efforts to pursue justice. Anger becomes a weapon, that undermines other forms of listening and understanding, but puts nothing else in their place. What is society’s response to these forces to be? How will trolls be kept away from public dialogue? How will testimonies (including angry ones) be heard, without being shouted down, purely as a distraction?
The problem is, in some respects, the opposite of the one that spawned psychoanalysis in the late 19th century. Anger that becomes too slow risks turning to resentment and guilt, but today we face the threat of anger that has grown too fast, and eliminated the possibility of any investigation or reasoning. Its ‘aptness’ is neither here nor there, seeing as it exists wholly in the present tense. All this anger can ever say is: this is happening right now. This anger is a constant flow of data, but never amounting to any form of knowledge or understanding.
Adding the prefix ‘slow’ to things has become a new type of bourgeois affectation: slow food, slow fashion, slow news. But where anger is concerned, the need for anger to be slowed down seems pressing. To be against anger altogether – as if it’s irrational or vengeful or violent – is to buy into a form of political quietism, or liberal complacency about the adequacy of procedural justice. As Hannah Arendt wrote in On violence, “rage and violence turn irrational only when they are directed against substitutes.”[xii] But if anger is to be directed where it is deserved – where it is apt – not only must this avoid the problem of scape-goating, but it must be insulated from the culture of affective noise and scattergun violence that is gradually taking over the public sphere.
Many thanks to Ben Gook and Lydia Prior for their suggestions and comments on this lecture.
[i] P. Sloterdijk (2012) Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation. Columbia University Press p. 65
[ii] M. Nussbaum (2016) Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. Oxford University Press
[iii] A. Srinivasan (2018) The Aptness of Anger. Journal of Political Philosophy. 26: 2
[iv] Ibid. p. 7
[v] Nussbaum (2016) p. 39
[vii] D. Kahneman (2012) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin
[viii] A. Hochschild (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New Press
[ix] M. Klein (1946) Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. Envy & Gratitude, p. 19
[x] P. Sloterdijk (2012) p. 9
[xi] W. Brady et al (2017) Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralised content in social networks. PNAS http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/06/20/1618923114
[xii] H. Arendt (1970) On Violence, p. 64