09/11/2016

Brexit/Trump are both in part about the idea that you can always negotiate your way out of an irretrievable situation – you do it by moving unpredictably, breaking decisively with the existing setup, declaring bankruptcy if you have to, then playing hardball for a more favourable deal. It’s a table-flip strategy. A large part of Trump’s pitch has been that he’s the sort of motherfucker who can bring it off – who can make outrageous demands, screw people over, and get away with it. You don’t have to like the guy you bring in to do that; you just have to believe he can do it.

A lot of this has to do with an unendurable feeling of being inescapably beholden. White voters prefer irresponsibility, amnesia, the clean break and the clean slate, to the very difficult reckoning with history and present reality that would actually have to be undertaken to move our societies past post-imperial stagnation and into some sort of responsible global citizenship. What do we (white voters) owe to the world – to migrants and refugees, to the countries we’ve blockaded and bombed, whose resources we’ve extracted and whose labour we’ve exploited, under threat of terrifying violence? What do we owe to our domestic “minority” populations, which are not really so “minor” any more? We’d really rather not think about it. It might, on any reasonable reckoning, turn out to be rather too much. What does Trump say, what does Farage say? Fuck you, we’re not paying. Let’s make a deal: kiss my ass. Do they expect to get away with it?

And it must be said that nothing about Hillary promised any movement past the holding pattern, the desolation of places and populations left to fall into managed or unmanaged decline, the exportation of violence abroad, or the importation of the same violence, with increasing ferocity, into domestic struggles. She may have felt that the position was hers by right, as simply the most senior, most competent, most deserving person in the race. But in truth she did less than nothing, politically speaking, to earn it.

Anger as an energy

I’m trying to envisage what a “rational basis for anger, misery, hatred, love, care, and so on” (Power, 2016) might look like. At one level, it might be simply that the Principle of Reason – “nothing is without (a) reason” – can be applied to all of these things: when one is angry, miserable etc. there is usually a reason for it, a cause which can be addressed. At another level there are Damasio-style arguments about how cognition needs affect to fire it up, and is always embedded in affective circuits. Somewhere in between there’s a Lacanian story to be told about the relationship between symptom and truth. But I’m not sure that any of these is quite what’s intended; the strong version of the claim would seem to be that anger or love are themselves directly rational, in the sense that they are adequated to reality: to be angry at some things is to grasp them, to think them rightly, just as the love of some things is also already a way of bringing those things properly into thought. When we say that someone is irrationally angry – which people often are, and sometimes ruinously – we must also acknowledge that someone might be rationally angry. What makes the difference?

W. H. Auden takes D. H. Lawrence to task somewhere in The Orators for saying “Anger is sometimes just. Justice is never just”*, a sentiment which he takes to mean “beat up those who disagree with you” (he actually says that it’s good advice for lovers, but in politics translates into fascism…). I know quite a few people who think like Lawrence; nowadays, people who think like Auden tend to call them SJWs, focussing on their over-the-top polemical fervour. Even Lawrence doesn’t say “Anger is always just”, though; the idea is that “Anger” may or may not be just, but “Justice”, which purports to determine what is just impartially, without anger, always falls short of the just.

Auden ended up wanting, and trying to model in verse, a civil discourse which could defuse anger in order to make way for the justice of mutual recognition (he seems to have had, post-war, a strongly Arendtian notion of this). Its principle means were irony and detachment. These are, as SJWs recognise, forms of violence, albeit intradiscursive violence: the (symbolic) violence of (symbolic) alienation against expression, against the means by which anger might find direct or “phatic” expression. They contain violence, in both senses of that phrase. The problem is that mutual recognition is not complete – can hardly begin – if I do not recognise the possible justice of your anger, if I am always prepared to turn it aside symbolically. That is I think the violence of philosophy. In non-philosophy, a la Laruelle, there is a barely concealed anger at philosophy’s studied obtuseness with respect to anger, its refusal to incorporate into its matrix of recognition the most elementary facts of human vulnerability and woundedness. What is the charge of “sufficiency”, if not a version of the lover’s accusation: “you think you know everything, don’t you?”

  • So it turns out that Auden was somewhat misquoting Lawrence, and I am not entirely certain that I have not misquoted Auden. Lawrence: “The only justice is to follow the sincere intuition of the soul, angry or gentle. Anger is just, and pity is just, but judgement is never just”. Auden, in at least one source I can find online, has: “Anger is just, justice is never just” (no “sometimes” there). Auden, quoted in another (by James Fenton): “Anger is sometimes just, justice is never just”. I don’t have my copy of Mendelson’s The English Auden to hand, so I can’t readily check this; I remember it as “Anger is sometimes just”, but even if that is what Auden wrote, it isn’t what Lawrence wrote – “judgement” is not quite “justice” (and what happened to “pity”?). Lawrence’s “sincere intuition of the soul” is precisely the sort of thing philosophy teaches us to hold in disrepute; if I have a lingering aversion to the expression “lived experience”, it comes from the same source (why “lived”? What precisely does that add to “experience”, other than a sort of halo of significance? And the same goes for “sincere” in Lawrence’s formulation, which tidies away the awkward question of whether intuition is to be trusted by qualifying it as an especially trustworthy sort of intuition).