Look Back in Anger

Review of Pankaj Mishra's Age of Anger

The below text is adapted from an article originally printed in The Advocate.

We're nearing 170 years since Karl Marx drafted the unofficial slogan of modernity: "All that is solid melts into air." The modern experience has long been understood as one of painful ambiguity, in which rapid progress entails equally rapid dislocation and the extension of freedom dissolves traditional structures of meaning. The growth of mass production sinks thousands of artisans into a toiling proletariat. The extension of religious toleration accompanies a rapid proliferation of schisms and doctrinal conflict. Technological development entails the stultifying rationalization of the social world. These are familiar narratives, and they have similar implications for individual subjectivity. Modern individuals find themselves grasping for ways to make sense of a world in constant flux, a world in which they feel isolated and directionless, a world they feel has robbed them.

The "structure of feeling" that emerges as traditional structures of meaning collapse is Pankaj Mishra’s object of study in Age of Anger. The persistent disorder of the modern world has frustrated liberal expectations of indefinite progress, Marxist expectations of working class liberation, and Romantic expectations of a retreat into prelapsarian harmony. What has prevailed instead is an omnipresent frustration from which social conflicts bubble up in a non-correlative scatterplot formation. Skittering across time and space, Mishra sketches the outlines of this modern disposition with striking clarity and an impressive scope of reference.

While Age of Anger nods to nearly every major social thinker of the past three centuries, two great internal critics of modernity are especially central. Rousseau and Nietzsche assume the role of a Janus-faced Virgil to Mishra's Dante, each guiding him through separate patterns of social reaction. The former exemplifies the utopian response, committed to "restoring the moral and spiritual unity" attributed to previous eras. The latter adeptly diagnoses the grimy underside of Romantic critiques. In Mishra's adapted Nietzschean analysis, the commitment to restoring social unity stems from ressentiment, the simmering discontentment of the weak and isolated. It finds its motive in envy and its form in sabotage. While the modern era calls for Rousseauian reflection on the nature of true freedom, equality, and community, Mishra suggests, its rhythm has instead been dictated by the violent paroxysms of ressentiment.

Examples are in no short supply. Anarchist assassins appear alongside Fascist paramilitaries, ISIS conscripts, the September 11 hijackers, and Timothy McVeigh. Despite the evident differences in their ideological and material positions, these figures of terror share a kind of collective psychology, characterized by a general frustration inculcated by modern life which drives them to disruptive, symbolic acts of violence. Some readers may bristle at associations of, say, the Jacobins with Pol Pot, but Mishra's more eclectic comparisons are excused somewhat by his central premise.

Mishra stakes much of his argument on the presupposition that "the unfolding of time" has "no deep logic," and this premise is readily reflected in Age of Anger's structure. The chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically, and it is not uncommon for a single paragraph to span three continents. Expressly eschewing materialist analysis and system-building, the book instead offers a collage, bringing together disparate but complementary elements into a cohesive image. The congruence between normative commitment and research method is striking.

As guiding principles go, the assumption that history lacks a coherent logic is a common and eminently reasonable one. Mishra occasionally allows the unstructured character he attributes to history to bleed into social organization generally, declining to comment more than superficially on the myriad forms of institutional domination that shape the ressentiment he so painstakingly catalogues. For instance, Mishra periodically notes that the subjects of this structure of feeling are almost invariably "angry young men," aching for a "moral victory over the unmanly self." Yet he offers no real account of the patriarchal domination that would pattern this kind of mass psychology, despite it being structurally common to every setting he visits. He notices, for instance, the erotic charge of early Italian Fascist rallies, as well as the weaponization of male sexuality more broadly, yet these reflections remain sporadic and impressionistic. The reader is afforded little opportunity to reflect on or interrogate the clearly gendered character of modern ressentiment.

This curious silence highlights a tension that persists throughout Age of Anger, a text torn between its own skepticism toward structural analysis and the historical inescapability of structural phenomena. Colonialism, patriarchy, and racial capitalism have had an undeniable role in shaping various expressions of ressentiment. While the omission of systematic institutional and material considerations makes possible a study of tremendous scope in a relatively short book, this happens at the expense of rendering the central argument unfocused and impressionistic. Mishra sublimates concrete relations of power into the chaotic totality of modernity, which necessarily obfuscates the dynamics particular to any given episode of political violence. The history that results is undeniably captivating, but it never quite coalesces into more than an array of carefully selected anecdotes.

There are also times when Mishra doesn’t entirely commit to his vision of formless history. The book’s centerpiece essays — "Losing My Religion" and "Regaining My Religion" — trace strong parallels between eighteenth-century Europe and the present-day Middle East and South Asia. Iran circa 1979 evokes France circa 1789, Modi's India evokes interwar Germany, and so on. This constellation does entail an interesting subversion of Orientalist tropes, such that violent conflict prevails in these countries not because of their residual barbarism, but because of their thoroughgoing modernity. Still, the parallels drawn with earlier European history cannot help but leave the impression that, for instance, Iran is two centuries behind France according to Mishra's rubric.

The implicit vision is that the modern era inaugurates a pattern of eternal recurrence, slowly expanding to sweep more and more nations into the cycle of angry ages. That is to say, if one dives below the whirlpool of names and dates on Age of Anger's surface, a coherent chronology does come into focus — a chronology that reasserts the West as an historical ground zero from which modernity eddies out into the surrounding world. Just as social scientific "objectivity" is often a Trojan horse for normative commitments, Mishra's disavowal of theories of history seems to disguise his own.

April 20, 2018

 

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