Theory Teacher's Blog

Love and Anger in the Commonwealth

Thanks to Topspun’s post about Paolo Virno and other recent books of theory at his Seven Red blog, I just started reading Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s new book, Commonwealth. In this book, they explore what a viable ethics might look like in an era of postmodern globalization — an era they called Empire with a capital “E” in their earlier book Empire, which was an international bestseller nine years ago. I haven’t got very far into the new book yet, because I just bought it yesterday on the way home from work, and because I should be grading a ton of papers right now, not reading stuff for fun… and then also, because something they wrote got me to looking up stuff on the internet instead of reading further. Yes, yes, that’s right, I was procrastinating, but anyway, what they wrote is that the two central concepts of the book are “poverty” and “love,” and of course they define love not in terms of the bourgeois romantic love between two people that leads to marital bliss and the white picket fence in a capitalist economy, but in terms of the production of commonalities and social life that leads to a radical interrogation of — and resistance to — the privations of capitalism… and that leads to a breaking down of the white picket fence and to a sharing of the common wealth.

In some ways, I like this starting point, but I couldn’t help but wonder about love as a central concept for a revolutionary political project. What about its opposite, anger and hate? So, just for fun, I did three searches on Amazon.com, first “love” and then “anger” and “hate.” Not surprisingly, most of the titles that came up for all three words were “self-help” books, which I’ve heard is one of the most profitable genres in bookstores these days. Also not surprisingly, the books that came up for love were all about expressing love, finding the right love, and even love’s utility (or use value, which I throught was a bit odd), etc. In contrast, the books that came up for anger were all about controlling, repressing, overcoming, and transcending anger. And this is not surprising since for Christians, love is good, while both anger and hate are bad. To put it another way, we are supposed to transcend anger and hate, but we are not supposed to transcend love. Love is the path to transcendence, enlightenment, civility, social life, and so on.

But what if we flip this? Isn’t it possible that sometimes love can be bad, and sometimes anger and hate can be good? Consider that love can sometimes lead one into self-destructive attachments and mistaken identifications. Consider too that there are lot of injustices in the world that one ought to be angry about and hate. In fact, not being angry about injustice is (one might say) a sign that you are ethically dead. And one can imagine two people coming together in love after first discovering a shared hatred of social injustice. So, I’m curious what a book whose starting point is anger and hate might look like. Are anger and hate ever ethical?… What about rage? What would a book by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt that began with “rage and wealth” as its central concepts instead of “poverty and love” look like?

Perhaps it’s better that their starting points are love and poverty, but it’s hard for me not to consider anger when I start thinking about all the injustices of global capitalism (e.g., sweatshops, slavery, sexual abuse, destruction of the environment, war, etc.) I got to thinking about starting points a few days ago after watching the movie Examined Life, which just came out on DVD. This movie interviews a number of very different philosophers and theorists: Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, and Sunaura Taylor…  and also Michael Hardt. The director of the film presents each of them with two prompts. The first is a statement by Socrates that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living,” and the second is the notion of taking philosophy out of the university and putting it in the streets. (This is inspired, I suppose, by the Greek notion of philosophy as a paripatetic endeavor — i.e., philosophy while walking, philosophy as movement — and so all of the philosophers in the movie are walking around somewhere as they talk.) What’s nice about this film is that it offers undergraduates an image of some of today’s biggest names in philosophy talking about stuff they see as they walk around like ordinary people in the world. What is disappointing about the film is that none of them are making philosophical arguments with any depth or rigor. And none of them explain how their approach might differ from another philosopher’s approach, so the stakes of their points of view are never clear. Also, most of them rarely engage with their environment in any significant way, so ultimately what we-the-audience are left with is something that’s not really philosophy and not really in the streets.

However, what I find most useful about this film is not what they are saying but their starting points and where each philosopher chose to situate himself or herself. If I were to teach this in  a classroom, that’s what I would ask all my students to pay attention to and compare/contrast. A public park? an airport terminal? shops on the street? I think the choices of location by the analytic philosophsers (Nussbaum, Appiah, and Singer respectively) reveal how unimaginative, boring, and (at the end of the day) less useful their senses of ethics are. In contrast, Hardt’s choice is beautifully ironic, since he is rowing a boat around a pond in New York’s central park while talking about his experience meeting communists in El Salvador who understood revolution in terms of guns and struggle against oppression. His choice illuminates what’s hard about thinking about a revolution that would connect both locations, and I thought this choice was more honest and less trite than if he had walked around an impoverished neighborhood and expressed love for random homeless people (as the concepts “love” and “poverty” in his book Commonwealth might suggest he would do.) Even better than Hardt is Zizek, who begins by walking around piles of trash in a dump — in other words, if we really want to examine ourselves as Socrates says we should, we need to start with our shit. And perhaps even better than Zizek is Butler, who begins by taking a walk and talking with someone with a severe disability. In other words, in contrast to all of the other philosophers in the movie, Butler starts with dialogue rather than with monologue. And she also starts with doing something that is so easy for most of us that we might take it for granted, but so difficult for the one she is talking to.

So… starting points… love and anger…. That is the question.

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October 31, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

4 Comments »

  1. Obviously, the concept of “constructive anger” hasn’t been addressed (enough) in society, let alone defined. You might want to expand on that (like, I don’t know, writing a book about it). On the other hand, the concept of universal love has been around for ages (the idea of Agape, most religions, many philosophers, etc). This bring up a few questions, like why anger hasn’t been addressed enough philosophically, and if there is really such thing as “constructive anger,” or if all anger is necessarily destructive? If the anger moves someone to political action, doesn’t that constitute an act of love? Conversely, how does one start hating systems without a universal love of those it’s destroying? Those are your starting points.

    Maybe I should finish the Hardt and Negri trilogy for some insight…

    Comment by M--- | October 31, 2009 | Reply

  2. So to answer your central question (if I wasn’t clear in my last post), I agree that rage and anger can be ethical — but then the next question how is it channeled and applied, precisely because that in itself is potent and destructive. That being said, I think that there are situations where anger is always destructive, harmful and a waste of energy (mostly when it does not apply to a larger social conscious, but to individuals and the “vulnerable,” for lack of a better word), and where love is always necessary and fruitful (a lot of the time when it applied to a larger social context). Then there is everything in between. The context matters.

    I also hope that my last post indicates that I have a problem with dichotomizing the two starting different points to begin with. But if one must, it should be clear that there is an extremely complex relationship between “love” and “hate” and “anger.”

    Comment by M--- | October 31, 2009 | Reply

  3. steve: I’ll have fuller comments later on commonwealth, and will link back here. At this point, I’ll just say that it’s much better than multitude, and that there’s a lot (A LOT) of inside baseball in this thing. for example, the chapter titled “a force to combat evil” is almost entirely a response to virno’s work, but mentions him only in the footnotes (in the earlier chapter where virno is mentioned more explicitly, the rebuttals never come back to his points, though they dwell on agamben for a good while). it’s pretty easy to miss some of the finer points in this book because the conversations are so embedded.

    Comment by topspun | November 6, 2009 | Reply

  4. Thanks M—, I totally agree with you about deconstructing the dichotomy (or binary opposition) between love and hate and between charity and anger. I’ll have to do some research to see what people have written about constructive anger, but I think I’d also like to problematize or deconstruct the dichotomy of “constructive” and “destructive” that you pose.

    One thing I didn’t mention before, but was thinking about, is the Christian concept of divine wrath. In some Christian schematics, God is pure love, but there is also divine anger. In contrast, human love is partial and incomplete, and so too is human righteousness always inherently corrupt. Some formulations of the Christian ethos seem very servile to me — serve the status quo because only God has the right to get angry. But other formulations seem to allow that humans can be agents of God’s wrath. Strange.

    And thanks Topspun. I look forward to your post on Commonwealth. I’ve fininshed reading “Part One” and I also noticed a lot of “inside baseball” as you put it. In part one, they seem to be critiquing Agamben for pages and pages, but they only mention him once in a footnote. I remember trying to read Agamben’s book Homo Sacer back in graduate school and found his prose painful, confusing, and unconvincing, so I never quite understood why he was so “hip” in 2003–2004. I somehow suspect that the Bush administration is what “made” Agamben’s career because his book State of Exception was such a timely response to the Bush doctrine. I’ve never read it, but I like Hardt and Negri’s critique of Agamben that the “exception” is not just in the “sovereign” but also in the very mundane, everyday make-up of capitalist economics.

    Anyway, part of me thinks I really should familiarize myself with Agamben’s work, but then I feel that I don’t have the time to read two or three books that I don’t actually like or enjoy. (Lots of papers to grade, lots of articles on other topics to write.) I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for a short-cut?

    Comment by steventhomas | November 18, 2009 | Reply


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