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Why Engage Public Anger

A reply to Chakravarti's Introduction to 'Sing the Rage'

To read the introduction to Sing the Rage click here

“Sing the Rage” is a bold title for a bold book. It is no small provocation to thus entitle a book that argues for a more robust engagement with anger in public life in today’s democratic societies. The title is a further challenge for readers who recall the proem[1] to Homer’s Iliad, to which Chakravarti’s epigraph (p. vi) still more directly points us. For, immediately after Homer begins his epic with these words, he goes on to describe how that rage sent the souls of countless heroes (both Greek and foreign) to their deaths, and brought manifold tears and pains to Achilles’ countrymen. If this is what it means to sing the rage — of Achilles, or of victims of Apartheid, or of genocide survivors, or of the resentful members of fragile democratic polities whom it has become customary to hold responsible for such recent upheavals as Brexit and Trump — are we really sure that Chakravarti’s plea for greater “engagement” with public displays of anger is warranted?

In asking this question this way, I hope to raise a challenge to her book and its central goals; a challenge she herself raises in asking whether or not it is really possible to articulate the conditions under which increased public engagement with anger is salutary even when that “anger shows no signs of being directed to a socially sanctioned movement or a commonly identified type of injustice” (p. 9). In her Introduction, Chakravarti repeatedly refers to the Greek tradition from which our classic typology of anger and the political philosophical tradition of arguments for and against public engagement with the passions, and this particular passion, derive. She does not, however, explicitly anchor “the hard case” for her thesis named here in its deepest Greek precedent. Following an established tradition in (especially Continental) political philosophy, she rather refers us to Antigone. This, I believe, is an easier case for her; I will briefly retrace why and how and then ask us what changes if we refer her thesis to Homer and Achilles, rather than Sophocles and Antigone.

Chakravarti’s appeal to Antigone is elegant and appropriate, first because it gives her the opportunity to articulate a vision of how the refusal to listen to grief, and the attempted exclusion of anger from the public space, can end in disaster. In this regard, she echoes the exchange between Butler and Honig on Antigone and the “politics of mourning,” suggesting that interpretations of Sophocles’ drama, and its antihero, echo debates about survivor testimony and political adjudication of political injustices (pp.17-18). More deeply, and beyond the politics of mourning, Chakravarti argues that Antigone’s story suggests how “societies, through a politics of listening, can respond to the anger expressed in testimony in ways that are connected to justice and politics but have been overlooked when the focus is solely on criminal guilt and responsibility or catharsis and healing” (pp. 14-15). That is, in imagining a civil procedure for listening to Antigone, or contemporary survivors of (particularly state-sanctioned) injustice, we can see how it might be possible to avoid catastrophic outcomes that follow from the repression or exclusion of anger.

Yet, while Antigone indeed provides a striking theoretical parallel to the struggles for recognition of survivors of injustice in post-conflict societies, I wonder if this Greek anchor for the reflection on the possibilities for public engagement with anger ducks the hard question. For in comparing survivor testimony to Antigone’s “illegal” witnessing of her brother’s body as a proper object of grief, we don’t quite reach the case where the anger does not derive from a widely-recognized or socially-sanctioned claim for restoration or retribution after some real or imagined harm (as we, with Chakravarti, follow Aristotle defining anger). A different Greek tragedy does raise this case: Homer’s Iliad and the rage of Achilles. In reading her claim for public engagement with anger, I keep coming back to this question: would we agree with Chakravarti’s insistence that democratic societies find a way past the liberal focus on retribution and the therapeutic focus on catharsis to a mode of listening to anger that enriches public life, even if that meant to listening those who sound a lot like Achilles?

To see both why Achilles has a case at all, and also why it is not an easy case for Chakravarti’s claim, let us recall that the word Homer uses to describe Achilles’ anger in the very first word of the poem is mēnis; we must in particular notice that this is a marked term, usually reserved only for gods. Achilles is the only (half) human to whom it is attributed in this form. Let us further recall that this divinely intense anger derives proximally from the fact that his most cherished war prize, the enslaved Briseis, has been taken from him by Agamemnon. That likely seems to a modern, liberal democratic reader as supremely shallow and both an utterly contemptible and morally offensive ground for anger that putatively merits public engagement. But, if we follow the hints of the proem, we find that while the proximal cause of his anger does not and will not speak to us, it is not the true and fundamental cause of Achilles’ rage. Rather, the deepest cause is that it is the intention of Zeus (Dios) that sets “godly” (dios) Achilles against Agamemnon. With this wordplay, bringing Zeus (spoken of in the genitive case) into homophony with the adjective that describes Achilles himself, it becomes clear that the anger we sing emanates from the fact of our mortality. For, while his mother is a goddess, Achilles is mortal and no mortal is or can be a god — none of us, however close we might get, can be an immortal. The source of the rage that Homer asks the Muse to sing, and (as I believe) that Chakravarti is asking us to engage with so as to render some form of (non-retributive) justice to those who have suffered injustice, is essentially the very fact of our susceptibility to violence, first and foremost at the hands our fellows.

In this respect, I do not think we can simply ignore the case of Achilles. For all his privilege, as a demigod and as a prince, and with all his moral disreputability as part of an offensive military force and displaying egomaniacal tendencies, and with whatever traits of character we find objectionable, he still presents us with what I believe is exactly the hard case Chakravarti names in her Introduction. What are we to do with anger in public, when that anger is not generated by a socially sanctioned movement or a moral consensus concerning past wrongs? Achilles’ anger is generated by the brute fact of what Butler has analyzed in a series of works over the past dozen years as our vulnerability as social and linguistic, as well as biological, beings. As such, it is precisely the sort of anger that doesn’t seem positive or necessary in the way that the anger of those subjected to Apartheid or Jim Crow does, and yet must find some sort of public recognition for all the reasons that Chakravarti’s book makes clear.

Thus, I believe Chakravarti is both fundamentally right and of vital importance to understanding and attaining a greater public engagement with anger — today more than ever. When she writes that “experience of listening should contribute to the transition from victim to citizen that is one of the primary goals of engagement with anger” (p. 4), I believe she has hit upon a central demand for the broken politics that plagues contemporary democratic societies, and not only those whose past calls for a truth and reconciliation process or transitional justice. Liberal democracies, thanks to their institutionalization of the liberal attitude toward public passions that Chakravarti analyzes with such precision, have an anger problem. They need, desperately, to find a way to come to terms with it. That, I take it, is her diagnosis and I believe the time between her book’s publication and this reply demonstrate its accuracy.

If her diagnosis is sadly accurate, so too, I believe is Chakrvarti’s prognosis as well, and this is ground for some comfort. Namely, I think she is basically right to insist with Adriana Caverero that it is “through the act of vocalizing that we assert our identity in the public sphere, and such a focus corresponds to the praxis of listening rather than seeing” (p. 21). It may seem strange to hear a phenomenological argument about human faculties as a response to a pressing political problem, but this appeal (through Caverero) to an argument about the metaphysics of vision that haunts classical political philosophy from its origins in Greek art as well as Greek thought, is directed at the very heart of the matter. For it is the privileging of vision, combined with the more mundane aspect of racial, social, and economic privilege, that entails the state’s focus on the visibility of the harm. Visibility justifies the anger that is meant to have public significance. When we shift the focus away from vision and visibility, and toward vocalization, we immediately find ourselves — and the state — in the position of those who need to hear, to receive sensory data, and to listen to its message.

But I do find myself wondering just how widely this thesis applies. How often (if ever) will we, after all, agree that we have Antigone before us? And if we don’t agree, then how is the politics of listening going to help us do any better at avoiding the very exclusionary politics that led to the injustice in the first place? In the face of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the resentment-filled Blue Lives Matter movement it inspired, this question seems very pressing indeed. Perhaps all the more so in light of the shooting of Justine Damond (the “most innocent victim of a police shooting” ever) and the response it produced, in contrast to the shooting of Philando Castille, and so many others.

I take Chakravarti’s central demand to be that we practice listening to whatever impassioned fellow citizens and non-citizens have to say, especially those who advance claims against the state, instead of demanding that they make their harms visible so that we can judge their anger to be justified and/or righteous. For this to work, it must be the case that democratic societies at large and we, their citizens, can engage in this practice even (indeed especially) when we don’t like what we hear and more particularly when we don’t believe it is grounded in righteousness or justification at all. And such a practice seems wildly beyond our means in contemporary fractured liberal democracies, whose politics appear with each passing day to be ever more in shambles.


[1] The opening lines of the epic establish its central theme and introduce its narrative focus. The Iliad’s proem reads (in a literal translation I borrow and somewhat amend from my colleague David Hayes): “Rage, sing Goddess, the baleful rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, that brought countless woes upon the Achaeans and sent many strong souls of heroes to their doom in Hades, and made they themselves a feast for dogs and birds. Thus, the intention of Zeus was fulfilled, from the very moment he first set them to strife one against the other, the son of Atreus and godly Achilles.”

Michael Weinman

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