If you even saw this photograph you probably didn’t pay much attention to it. After all, it looks like many of the images that have come out of places like Lebanon and Iraq in recent years. One more terrorist, suicide bombing carefully planned and executed by a group of political extremists and religious fanatics. What more is there to say? Nothing, perhaps, until we discover that the explosion is in Austin, Texas, not the war torn Middle East, and it was caused by a lone U.S. citizen who flew a small airplane into a building that housed the IRS as an expression of his rage against corporate profits and the U.S. government in general.
The key thing to notice is how quickly the whole event seems to have slipped from national consciousness despite the sense in which it might be characterized as a small scale 9/11 attack: an airplane flown into a government building, animated by a dissident, vengeful desire to bring the political system down. That’s not the story we got, of course, as most reports focused on the bomber as a deeply disturbed, single individual animated by an inarticulate fury, despite the fact that he left behind a somewhat lengthy political manifesto explaining his long smoldering (and not irrational) anger at what he perceived to be an unjust political system. The above photograph is telling in this regard. Shot with a long lens and tightly cropped around the point of the explosion shortly after impact, the building is consumed by billows of smoke that shroud the intense flames that burn just below the surface awaiting to erupt. It is in its own way a picture of latent affect that serves as an allegory for the predicament of expressing anger in contemporary times: The smoke can serve as a screen to mask the raw affect for a time, but ultimately it is incapable of giving it a productive form or containing it for very long. The result is either dangerously explosive or sheer futility—and sometimes both.
Too often, it seems, we treat anger as an inherently irrational and inchoate expression of political engagement, typically representing it in the roar of an inarticulate mob. But as Aristotle made clear, anger is not madness. Indeed, it is and can be a legitimate and rational political emotion, quite necessary as a motivational resistance to the forces of injustice, and made effective in the careful and deliberate performance of the cultural norms of appropriate social and political recognition. The problem is that in contemporary times we lack useful models for the effective expression and enactment of productive political anger. Either we get the silly rants of groups like the “tea-baggers,” which function as little more than a parody of anger, or we get the truly irrational futility of individuals flying planes into buildings or going on shooting rampages. Neither serves the purposes of a robust democratic public culture.
What we need are exemplars of the performance of political anger that animate the demands for justice and restitution in pointed but measured ways. Where we will find them, it is hard to say, but in the meantime it is important to keep in mind that the political scenarios in which we frame enactments of anger carry a powerful normative force that should never go unmarked as transparent expressions of affect.
Photo Credit: Trey Jones/AP