I’ve been pausing for the past few days over the thought of writing something on Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech. I’m not skilled at writing on such things, and there has certainly been no lack of commentary on this speech from other fronts. In any event, as always seems to be the case with current affairs, my thoughts are at a tangent to much of what – even I would agree – is more important to discuss about this speech… Just a few brief words then, tonight, since this tangent keeps nagging at my thoughts…
What struck me at the time I listened to the speech, and what has kept returning to mind over the past few days, are two themes: the discussion of anger, and the role subterranean anger plays in politics; and the more tacit conception of political transformation as a process that does not emerge from a “pure” space, where good or bad, ideal or regressive, impulses exist in some form untouched by their opposites. Trauma and transformative potential, while not identical, are intertwined legacies of contemporary historical dynamics – the possibility that we could be other and more, is part of what constitutes the traumatic, scarring experience of what, in practice, we are. Those who would effect transformation emerge from this complex crucible – scars and hopes, trauma and creation, interpenetrate. There is no untainted space from which politics begins. What distinguishes transformative politics is the commitment that something transcendent already does reside within our imperfections – that part of what we already are, is the possibility to become something better and more – that our present situation, in and through its imperfections, is not our fate or some kind of static given, but the seed around which as-yet-unrealised possibilities can crystallise. The movement here is very complex – a strange, difficult combination of acceptance and acknowledgement of our starting point, with collective self-criticism that refuses to accept that this starting point must also be an end. Obama’s speech touches on such issues – and also suggests that, absent the active assertion of the possibility for transformation, scarring and anger remain as forces that can be tapped and mobilised against transformative practice.
The problem may be even more complex. As I’ve written in relation to Adorno’s work before, there is a sense in which active participation in transformative projects aggressively confronts us with the non-necessity of our own scars and traumas – forces us to surrender the reassurance that our lives had to be the way they have been – compels us to give up the notion that nothing could have been done. Asserting the possibility for a different future involves the direct confrontation with the loss of that past that could have been ours – that past that now never will be – while at the same time we assert our own potency in effecting change. Adorno suggests that the psychological demands here are both high and conflictual, pulling in different directions. Particularly in circumstances in which transformative politics seem all too likely to fail, one risk is the temptation to retreat from what can be an unbearable recognition that history could have taken a different course: to endorse retroactively the necessity for our own loss by imposing a similar loss on others, to identify with and become part of what has created our own scars. The issue of what we do with our anger – of how we acknowledge and open a space for anger over sacrifices that have by now become constitutive of us, and that can therefore no longer be rescinded – is therefore a central political question…
Apologies for not being able to develop these thoughts in a more adequate way. There is a sense in which this constellation of issues – the hybridity of people and of our times – the inadequacy of abstracting individuals or situations into clearcut categories – is always very close to me, too close to enable effective writing… There is something about the simultaneous practice of a kind of fundamental acceptance, combined with a refusal to link acceptance with a passivity in the face of the given – something about the need to bind a fundamental empathy together with a relentless critique – that strikes me as central to the practice of transformation. Perhaps some day I’ll be better able to express what I mean…
I like this nuance with regard to anger. I tend to find that politics of both ‘sides’—that is, both kinda governmental and activist—get too simplistic on this front. There’s something interesting, I think, about the way that the utopic urge can lead to anger, and to an anger that’s often not so very productive, precisely because it refuses the fundamental acceptance you’re marking here. That acceptance is often linked automatically with passivity, I suppose because it appears to some to be accepting the terms of the debate (where I would see it as precisely challenging those terms, just… in a circumscribed or (ooh!) immanent way, rather than through an ‘I haz troof’ fundamentalism?). Sorry, this is very confused now that I come to write it out. But I think there’s something key about the distinction between a critical approach to politics, and a utopic one, which plays through in the shape of the anger produced: the utopic gets not only angry but kind of resistant to renegotiating with the actual, whilst the critical gets angry but permits the kind of negotiation with what already is… (and really, it would probably help if my comments didn’t just repeat your post, wouldn’t it? ;-P)
I mentioned this to you backchannels, but wanted to put something here about it, because I think it’s interesting. Sara Ahmed talks about anger a bit, and the political significance of happiness (her next book). She marks that often, particularly in relation to multiculturalism in the UK, the anger of immigrants is treated as not a response to the problems of multiculturalism, and its injustices, but as the bar to a happy, multicultural society. This often gets configured as it being the angry immigrant’s responsibility to get over, to leave behind their anger in order that ‘we can move into the future together,’ as these things are so often expressed. But this bizarre sense of futurity that is grounded on and, indeed, constituted by, the refusal to acknowledge suffering… well, it seems to be motivated by a real inability to imagine a real future, complex, variegated and open to (re)negotiation, rather than singular, completed, and unified… (and they say phallocentrism’s dead ;-))
Not to be too self-obsessed, but there’s an interesting point here in relation to suffering, I think, which is that it is seen as bad form, politically, to keep insisting on one’s suffering, particularly, but not only, after the injustice that caused it has been altered. Once the cause of the suffering is alleviated, it seems, the suffering is reinscribed as individual and as no longer a collective or communal responsibility. This fascinates me, because in some sense it assumes that present justice erases past injustice, and that the future is bought off the repudiation of the past, and of, in fact, the flow of that past into the future; that is, of history… Anyway, random thoughts (and excessive italicisation. I think it’s a thesis-related issue… ;-P).
Sorry to take so long to respond (although you may have some sense of why :-P). Your final point – on the issue of the treatment of suffering once historical/social/political circumstances have changed – is I think quite interesting – although my first thought, to be honest, was to remember all the various circumstances where a discourse will claim that an injustice has been altered, when… maybe not so much 🙂 This has the same individualising effect – or, at least, it’s a public political gamble with the intent to reposition suffering as individual – but without the merits of a collective resolution of an injustice, even into the future…
Off to bed… 🙂
N., based on this post I think you might be interested in the work of a friend and former student of mine, J. Howard. The work is on the social psychology of recovery from disorders, although we have talked quite a bit about how the analysis applies to all sorts of ways that identity-laden relationships to the past (e.g. race, gender) have to be interpretively transformed in order to “recover from recovery.”
Here’s a quote from the project description:
“[T]he social- psychological process of identifying with a disorder label tends to, over time, create a self-perpetuating dynamic that increases the salience of the disorder identity by narrowing the complexity of one’s self-concept and discouraging an orientation toward change (i.e., recovery). That is, as individuals construct autobiographical narratives around the disorder label, their understandings of their current experiences, interpretations of the past, and expectations for the future increasingly reinforce an essentialized understanding of themselves as fundamentally disordered.”
Obviously anger is mixed in with this process and must be transformed for the “13th step” to occur.
I’m a professional historian, but I’ve been known to remark that anyone who feels traumatized by a history from before their birth should sue their historian. What hurts and angers us is our knowledge and interpretation of the past in the present, not the past itself. The language of ‘scarring’ is diagnostic of this sort of interpretation, but it is not essential. (Lest I be misunderstood, I am not myself unfamiliar with unpleasant history, but I do find it doesn’t need to haunt me.) Of course, the therapeutics of history look different than ‘the truth’, but what can you do. My touchstone for this, by the way, is Watzlawick, Weakland and Frisch, _Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution_, which is an essentially Wittgensteinian analysis of problems as games and solutions as different games.
Anyway if my friend’s approach seems interesting to you, in print see Howard, J. 2006. “Expecting and Accepting: The Temporal Ambiguity of Recovery Identities.” Social Psychology Quarterly 69(4):307-324.
Carl – Many thanks for this – I will look it up, and I am interested in the topic. I suspect I agree with what sounds to me like the thrust of what you are saying – that the narrativisation of trauma as trauma enacts something as traumatic? There was a cross-blog discussion on psychoanalytic theory some time back that discussed this issue – this is always one of these lingering issues that I mean to do much more work on, but haven’t quite unearthed the space to do it. There’s something in the way this issue is often discussed, that is reminiscent of a “fetish” of a more Marxian kind – where something is taken to be intrinsically or essentially present, when that thing is actually enacted in more contingent ways. But I may be misinterpreting, or not making any sense, in this abbreviated form… But thank you for the reference – that will be very interesting to me.
Yes, that’s exactly it.
I think you’re right to connect this to fetishization in the marxian sense, although my friend’s tradition is more symbolic interactionismy. The idea of contingent enactment through performance makes the connection. The point is that an idea becomes ‘real’ in treating it as such. In this sense, identity is something like a script. That’s not very human, as both Marx and Goffman might say.
The call (for selves or others) to recover from identity (by changing script) is implicit in a whole range of critical positions. Feminists call on men to recover from normative masculinity, for example, and Beauvoir (like Nietzsche before her) thought women needed to recover from femininity. It gets especially tricky when the identity in question, like being “Black,” in the U.S. context, is being asserted as a proud rejection of ascribed stigma. This can create important leverage to challenge and overthrow oppression. But the identity accordingly contains oppression and conflict as essential components, so ‘recovering’ from it would seem to be critical for the longer-term recovery from oppression; the alternative is to “reinforce an essentialized understanding of themselves as fundamentally disordered.”
And in your own work, I imagine there are a variety of identity-laden histories it would be helpful if suburbanites recovered from.