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ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

February 24th, 2010

The Politics of Anger

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Politics of Anger

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

3 Responses to ' The Politics of Anger '

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  1. Dave McLane said,

    on February 24th, 2010 at 6:50 am

    As you said, “Where we will find them, it is hard to say …” I’ve been asking that question for a long time (I”m 74) and haven’t found the answer except to say part of the problem is the “the” which alludes to static. So whatever it is, moves, changes, with the times as they move and change.

    The latest hint that came to me is LAB color space which could be a metaphor for mind space which puts into words my sense that (at least part of) the problem is (some/many) people’s minds being too small to contain more than simple ideas, starting with mine.

    Maybe what I’m looking for not isn’t a bigger mind space, but one with more dimensions. First there was black&white, then there was RGB, then there was CMYK, then there is LAB which has a neutral center, something like the hara, Japanese term for the human center.

    In any case, it seems that my (head, heart) out-of-control irrational anger changes when I remember to include my hara which, believe it or not, was marked at birth by a small mole.

    Not much on my website, just an intro. My work is on OMNI http://tinyurl.com/yf93xb3

  2. lucaites said,

    on February 24th, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Dave: Your point about the “static” is very well taken. I was trying to get at that some by alluding to the sense in which affect is framed by different political scenarios to different normative ends — the Middle East bomber is part of an army of kamikazes, the Texas bomber is simply a poor sap who lost out to emotions–but admittedly the point is somewhat allusive, and not exactly your point when you focus on movement, change and the like. But even with that my sense is that there are some features of such political emotions that have some stability (e.g., productive anger needs to be addressed an arguably clear injustice or slight, that it implies the need for some kind of recognition and restitution, and the like). How we animate that is the problem. Thanks for writing.

  3. Dave McLane said,

    on February 26th, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Sorry take so long to continue but busy busy.

    While the idea that “productive anger needs to be addressed an arguably clear injustice …” sounds like a good idea, it fails as a way to proceed as there are all to often exactly zero clear injustices in a multi-cultural/multi-dimensional world.

    Not my idea but part of the basis for the 1950 movie Rashomon where multiple people “see” different things. Also part of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

    I read that last summer when I visited the Lincoln Memorial as I transited from the end of the Lincoln Highway honoring Lincoln as the person who brought things together to the start of the US60 where many/most people I talked with thought of Lincoln as the person who split the country apart.

    Thus I think the challenge of the 21st century is how to keep from killing each other when there is no agreement as to what constitutes an “injustice.”

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