On Rage and Swagger

The following is an excerpt from Roman Letters from Oslo Editions (2011)


When we spoke last, it was — and how could it not be? — of rioting and necessity, of taking and being taken by times you don’t choose. Lust for what has nothing to do with sex, or perhaps only diagonally, and carrying yourself, getting carried, what could be a battering fury and its restraints, willed and imposed.

A couple of months earlier, we wrote back and forth about swagger, the political kind, an aesthetic but much more, those rare instances of walking tall and grinding and not cowering or self-pleasuring in its feelings of being betrayed. Those women in China, the Black Panthers, the strident snappy dressers of autonomia, Toussaint, the particular withheld grin of the Kyrgyzstani man in fisherman sweater and fanny pack, strolling down the strewn road with a RPG and riot shield taken from the cops.

In Rome, where I’m trying to learn to talk differently, the word that bounces around my head the most is la rabbia — rage. Or better, in a falsely literalized equivalent, the rage, something you could come down with or become ruled by. The plague, the clap, the war, the day.

To become rabid, enraged — arrabbiata — like a dog, locked-jaw and foam, hating water and men and life.

Pasolini made a stunning film called La Rabbia — it’s up there with Marechera’s looting poem in being one of those singularly venomous examples of how “political art” doesn’t have to make you loathe both politics and art. It was paired, in release, with a trashy little right-wing film to represent “two sides” of the spectrum, and even on its own terms, it loses its way politically, falls into the worst traps of Pasolini’s thought. But rabidly, its seeking, incantational bile swallows the whole spectrum. When it lasts, and it doesn’t last long enough, there is nothing that is not profoundly conservative, weak-tongued, and pettily fascist alongside it.

I’ve been thinking that swagger and rage are necessarily bound together. This is a first try to say something about that. In brief: Swagger is the manifested expression of a deferral, a deferral of rage’s coming undone, coming apart, coming out. Of rage becoming raging. It is the held-out appearance of holding back what rage cannot be, cannot do while still being rage. Not just baring its teeth, but becoming the snarling consumption of whatever exists at a time.

And we swagger because we do not know how to part with our rage, which we cherish and press cutting close, but we learn to swagger — or rather, we’re swaggered, briefly, while the wind blows and things burn and our hands are full — because we know it darkly all the same.

Scattered thoughts on each. Swagger, in the way we meant it, shouldn’t be gendered as particularly male, not some cocksure masculinity. That would closer to the petty hysteria of machismo, the solitary equivalent of that recurrent moment that you said makes you detest watching soccer in a bar, the hanging pause before the yells. I don’t know what to call that, other than the gasp, and the after-the-fact nervous shoring up, of the urge simultaneously to belong and to be exception, to be one among many and to be the only man in the room.

Swagger has a form that is a swagger of objects, often mistaken for the swagger of who carries, wears, drives, uses those objects. (The meaning of its crass, truncated version swag, or swag bag, i.e. shitty cheap objects given or won, contains this.) For example, you can get decked out in new gear, in whatever appropriate social costume this means for you (meaning, you can carry, or pretend to be carried by, like you’re spirit incarnate, the swagger of a hustler or of an anarchist, and there’s no difference, it’s just constellating things so as to be the pure surface form of what you declare to be, the pretense of an inhuman assemblage of style and intent, of total social instrumentality, so that there can be no mistaking, if you know the codes, if you’re in the game). So when MJG boasts, “I don’t really give a fuck ‘bout swagger, I wear the same outfit three days,” he’s talking about that form, the kind of swagger that can be taken on or off.

Because the whole song, and beyond it the whole point of that kind of rap boast, is to claim you swagger whether or not you own swagger at that moment, i.e. came up from nothing but now have swagger to spare because you had that realest of real God-given swagger from the start. (As he says elsewhere, “Your swagger is not my fashion,” meaning, first, that he’s not that interested in high-fashion and Gucci this Fendi that, and, second, that fashion and swagger can never be the same thing.)

The rage of objects, however, is the same rage as that of bodies and that of us.

And if we mean swagger, we don’t mean the essentialist fantasy of “you got it, or you don’t,” with its pathetic justification of getting rich because you deserved it, not because the random swerve of events pulled you golden up over the masses of the swaggerless.

Because what you have or don’t have, or what has you or doesn’t (or better: what has us and you feel as a hot stone in your intestines) is rage, and swagger is the just momentary sense — and the walk with it, and the angle of the head, and how a group surges briefly into view — of containing rage, being able to let it go or not. It’s a flirtation with both the possibility of being dangerous and deciding to not be, as if it’s always waiting, coiled-spring tense, rustling in the wings.

Swagger is the drunken, slippery tightrope walk at the edge of self-control, on the bent wire circling around a dense lodestone that is rage.

What of la rabbia, of rage?

It isn’t anger, which knows its source, and it isn’t fury, which is always a process of unfolding. The Furies were those who tore furiously.

One is in a rage beyond cause and enraged without target.

Rage isn’t pathological, and it isn’t hydraulic. It’s not something for Freud or for Galen or even for Burton, it isn’t an outpouring or a flooding at the gates, echoing across the buoyed vessels of a crowd or drowning the skull of the one betrayed.

That’s just excitement or anger or raw hurt or, at its best, the contamination of an inchoate grouping of people that, germinally, begins a “we.”

Rage is a gathering that collects nothing.

That swollen redness around an unhealing cut, not the infection or the pus, but that throbbing heat that threatens to spread, and it carries you on.

The humours can’t describe it, because it’s more than the choleric and because rage is closer to black bile — it is melancholy stopped up, the repetition of not mourning itself stuck. But it is not a liquid or a solid.

It is molasses thick and lightlessly hot, a curling worm of stone. It sticks in the throat and the veins. Not luminous and shedding, no luxuriance or life-giving expenditure, no navigation and beacon, it is pointless all the same. Stupid in its going-on, a dead star that didn’t take the hint, it burns in a tar night without shining and nothing is illuminated.

Rage is dumber than a split lip.

There are things that make us enraged, above all ways of death: when police kill unarmed teenagers, when states murder behind the veil of law, when bands of racists go cruising for brown targets. When they don’t even bother laying hands directly, when rates of profit change and work leaves or never came in the first place, when rent goes up and food costs more and wages don’t change accordingly, and all that happens is the walls get taller and the guards get permission to open fire.

But rage forgets all this. It is the crucial idiotic center of the urge toward politics — that is, the practice of sharing space with other humans, the compression of bodies and urges into a polis — that has nothing to do with parties or laws. Rage is illegitimate, forgetful.

Lightlessly hot.

You can see it here, occasionally, on the walls, in the rarer graffiti, not the threadbare more of some name or some icon or what one wants or doesn’t want. But where the paint is closer to an acid and it has only stripped the sheen from the wall so that the words that come forward are the rage of building itself. A dusky stuck-throat singing, no expressive howl or yawp, no triumphal this but the seething that which is the bare scent of things.

Above all, rage doesn’t think, but it is the thought of necessity. This is felt, not thought, in that buzzing in our ears, that blockage in the temples: for blockage is the real tactic and expression of what rage is. There’s a stencil I’ve seen twice in Rome, which doesn’t read the classic Prendiamoci la città — we take the city — but Blocca la città – block the city, because the city here means the eternality of motion that makes it unlivable, a non-home, even as it builds and clears and builds once more. So rage wants not the purgative fantasy of destroying things or of taking, but simply of arresting, of throwing itself into the thresher, the road, the circuits, to make of its density a project, an interruption, and the end of projects. Rage is the prospect of the momentary, sticky freezing of the messiness of a situation, but not to make things black and white or provide some base friend-enemy optic, even as we think that if rage were unbound (which is to say, not rage at all, for it cannot unbind), if it were let loose it would give us that and we want it because it would be nice to have known externally what we think we know damn well. But rage doesn’t reveal the correct line or the better deviation. It stops up our veins, and the veins of the city, and the heart is black for one buzzing instant that yawns out, and there is nothing to wait for, no clarification to come, now nor never.

The city’s breath is held clutched by something that is not it.

None of this goes anywhere. But there’s something about this city that makes it impossible for me not to think of rage. And more, to think about swagger in its briefer joys, when feeling tough is shot through with the vulnerable openness to what isn’t you, feeling foreign and torn through with what you don’t choose.

The knowing, barely, of our rage is an opening to other winds.

Swagger opens to that, in its impossible speculative gesture of acting like rage could be expressed and used. If swagger is a walking tall, it’s a wounded, blown-open walking, not stoically or stone faced, but porous and without shine, pocked, the imagined scars over rage’s non-closure. Admitting we fuck up endlessly and don’t know better, knowing that many things should not happen and should not exist and having no idea what should exist, or how, in their place.

Back to the immediate: This constant walking has me sun-baked, and the breeze isn’t killing the heat. On my calves, there are tiny amber crystals of pus from where bugs bit me. My face feels alien to me, and I’m terribly sober at this table, and all this means that tonight I’m without swagger of any proud kind. And perhaps our whole counter-world, too, where a couple red flags mark not just a neighborhood, but the fact that it’s an exception, that these flags mean that over the city and country different colors fly, that our wanting has to wall itself away, perhaps at most dictating what kind of vocabulary we use for what sort of crowd is spilling out onto the street.

But still. But still we’re that unhealing, that tide or torn edge. And though it is felt dark and unwelcome in the solitude of one body at a time, carried without destination or purpose, unsharable, still it belongs to no one, and that’s the point in common.