An Open Letter to Hannah KY McCann on Anger, Reason and the Act of Reading

Dear Hannah,

I would like to thank you for your article, ‘In Defence of Anger: Taking a Break from the Rational Thinking Man’ (1 June). It counts among those thoughtful writings addressed to the events of the past few weeks – events that signal, simultaneously, watershed changes to Australian society and the perpetuation of deeply routed prejudices about who can speak and be heard in the public sphere.

Your article has many strengths. It is a talent jealously sought after to be able to communicate the reified arguments of academic debate – here you treat the deconstruction of the reason/affect binary – in a way that is compelling and accessible to a popular audience.

But your greatest strength is to bring attention to the assumptions that underlie how the public sphere is constituted on the basis of assumptions about gender and rationality. Throughout the history of Western philosophy, the feminine has been the other of reason – a site of emotion and affectivity that is excluded from the sphere of rational debate. What is disturbing, as you note, is that these assumptions animate much of the reporting in the mainstream media in Australia, especially those unabashedly partisan papers owned by Rupert Murdoch.

I do, however, have some reservations about the way that your article situates the ‘read-in’ in your wider discussion about affect and rationality.

The read-in was something that happened quite spontaneously. There is a statue outside the Chancelry building of Saraswati, the ‘Goddess of Knowledge’, which, as the rationale notes, is not depicted “as elaborately dressed and holding a plamleaf manuscript,” but rather “as a modern young woman holding a book, more thoughtful and contemplative than grand.”

I took this an invitation. It was an invitation to reappropriate the space outside the Chancelry as a way of manifesting a shared discontent over the changes that the Abbott government had proposed for tertiary education, changes that our Chancelry had supported before the budget was even announced.

The problem, almost from the start, was that the media insisted on interpreting the protest in terms of a single word that I used at the end of my statement of intent: “pacifistic.” The protest was, no doubt, pacifistic, but it was many other things as well, such as “humble.” But the media’s angle was as it had been with all the other student protests: it focused on the means used by students rather than their concerns.

The discussion, from the Q&A protest onwards, has been focused almost exclusively about whether the means used by protesters are legitimate. Tony Jones’ comments as his program went back on air are indicative of this: “we had a little musical interlude while we got democracy back on track. […] That is not what democracy is all about and those students should understand that.” Jones here purports to speak for democracy – and democracy in his meaning is some kind of orderly public sphere where esteemed speakers and public personas are able to respond to carefully selected questions. Any question that strays too far outside of the established framework is inevitably answered with: “we’ll take that as a comment.”

The ‘read-in’ too was interpreted in terms of the question of means. The article in The Canberra Times (‘Read all about it: ANU student launches read-in protest against university fee hikes’, May 26) opened with the almost hyperbolic description of it as “an effort to re-frame student activism in Australia” and then tried to link it to Annabel Crabb’s article, ‘Student’s Soviet-era anti-budget protests outdated in our era of communication.’ Crabb had reprimanded the student protests in The Sydney Morning Herald day before (May 25), even going so far as to contend that students were hypocrites: “They accuse [Abbott] of extreme conservatism. But if conservatism is the stubborn refusal to evolve, then fighting a war of ideas with Soviet-era artillery strays awfully close to the mark.” Crabb’s disingenuous contention that the ‘era of communication’ somehow made mass demonstrates obsolete fitted within the overall narrative of the media – a narrative that focused its attention on criticising the means of students rather than engaging with their concerns.

The problem, however, is that the rhetoric of the media seems to have lead to divisions among students too. There were a number of students who wrote to me concerned that the read-in was somehow a “protest against protests,” that it was “conservative,” “passive” and “apathetic.” At first I was incredulous that anyone could come to such a conclusion – we were, after all, engaging in a form of protest. Perhaps this form of protest was idiosyncratic and unusual, but that hardly made it “anti-protest.”

However, while the media created these misconceptions, they were reinforced by the visits that Ian Young made to the read-in. At the beginning of the read-in, I never anticipated that anyone other than concerned students would join us. I imagined that our presence outside the Chancelry would act as a conspicuous reminder of the concern that students had about these changes. Yet on the Monday a number of students at the Education Action Group meeting crossed paths with Ian Young as he was leaving his office and some of them organised for him to make an appearance at the read-in the next day.

Raphael Kabo captured the ambivalence that prevailed among students following these visits in his article ‘In Defence of Knowledge: the ANU Read-In, Politics, and a mention of Deregulation Duck’ (May 30): “The first of these visits was seen as a positive step towards student-administration dialogue. By their third and fourth visits, the shine had worn off. […] Each question was expertly dodge and avoided. […] They talked pure spin. And every time, their PAs would however behind them, taking notes than us, snapping photos.”

I think that your cynicism about these visits is well founded. As you put it: “Though reasonable discussion might sound great in theory, issues arise when a minority hold power over the majority, and it is left to the powerful to dictate discourse and discussion.” One need only think back to the ‘Melian Dialogue’ in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. While the Melians, a small non-aligned polis, attempted to argue for their independence by appealing to principles of justice, the Athenians, who had greater military might, bluntly stated: “since you know as well as we do that right […] is only in question between equals in power; that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (5.89)

My feeling is that your article stipulates that the read-in was not merely naïve on account of its purportedly “utopian vision of thoughtful debate,” but even that it itself was suspect for “championing rational thinking man as the figure of success.”

This is a serious contention. It is serious because it would mean that the read-in created an exclusionary space in which those who expressed emotion and anger were marginalised.

I concede that, at times, the read-in took forms that none of us could have anticipated. This was inevitable given that it was an action that was experimental, non-hierarchical and diverse in nature. However, to suggest that the read-in was co-opted by hegemonic ideas about rationality would be a considerable misrepresentation.

The read-in was not an action in opposition to emotion, but an attempt to enact emotions in a novel way. This enactment was motivated by the writings of the radical feminist, Judith Butler, who has been a constant inspiration not merely for me but, as I gathered from our conversations, to you too. It was for that reason that I cited the closing remarks of Butler’s book Dispossession: The Performative in the Political to describe the protest: “the collective assembling of bodies is an exercise of the popular will, and a way of asserting, in bodily form, one of the most basic presumptions of democracy, namely that political and public institutions are bound to represent the people […]. In this way, those bodies enact a message, performatively […]” even when they do simple actions, such as reading.

Butler’s writing invites us to rethink the binaries of the Western tradition: nature/culture, gender/sex, reason/affect. In this spirit, you are right to challenge the media’s assumption – a deeply gendered one – of a rational public sphere that must be protected against violent outbursts of emotion. But the way to challenge such a binary cannot be to reject reason altogether in favour of anger – to, as you put it, mount a “defence of anger.”

Just as reason can be marginalising to students who have legitimate concerns, anger can also be alienating and destructive. Just as there is a violence of reason, an exclusionary violence that silences voices of those who are deemed irrational, there is no less dangerous violence of anger.

The challenge – a task that is as difficult as it is necessary – is to deconstruct the binary itself by demonstrating the subtle ways in which emotion and reason intertwine in political life. That is what I found strange and promising about attempting to make reading itself something subversive.

While we may not, as you suggest, have been entirely successful in this endeavour, I know that you share our wider discontents. In the spirit of this shared opposition, I hope that we can continue to combat these changes together as part of part of a wider student movement; a movement with a variety of tactics, form the mass demonstration to the humble read-in.

With solidarity and admiration,