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THE SUBJECT OF OUR TIME: MIDDLE CLASS ANGER
September 24, 2014
'Am I a trembling creature, or do I have the right?' famously asked himself Rodion Raskolnikov, the confused murderer and main protagonist of Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment. 'The right' in his case meant the license to kill, to play god, to decide who deserves to live and who does not. Poor, desperate and embittered, Raskolnikov ends up murdering the elderly pawnbroker and her sister, who happens to stumble upon the crime scene. His logic is that the world is unfair, full of individuals unworthy of existing, and that one has no other choice but to take justice into one's hands. He is an educated and intelligent man, but he feels trapped, and anger releases him.
Narratives are mirrors of society. Interestingly enough, the most influential recent television projects also concern middle class anger – notably, Dexter (2006-2013) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013), while medieval epic shows such as Game of Thrones (2011-) reflect on the subject by 'defamiliarising' it, by fooling the viewers into thinking that the story is about some medieval brutes and them – the normal, decent people. The subject of a brutal male being trapped in a civilised middle class body is also explored in a number of iconic films such as Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) as well as in a number of comedies (Anger Management, (2003), directed by Peter Segal).
As television is rapidly taking over cinema, recent TV dramas are closer to the core of social issues than the increasingly infantile Hollywood. Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones explore the subject of open aggression in all its physicality, corporeality and disgustingness, with blood, bones, and mutilated bodies galore. Moreover, they show that human beings who murder other human beings often do this without any shade of guilt or sympathy for the victim. In other words, they are not exactly human – deep down they are animals, and, even though they occasionally grapple with moral dilemmas, they are mostly scared of social retribution, and not concerned with the 'state of their souls' or with the pain they inflict on the victims.
For millions of years, man had to survive: fight for the scarce resources, sack settlements and towns, knock out opponents, cut off heads and other body parts; enslave, rape, attack. At the core of our psychology still lies the survival instinct, frowned upon by modern society yet, paradoxically, constantly triggered by it. Urban environments are not safe, and modern lifestyle is not as quiet as we are often told.
All this stands in stark contrast with the middle class definition of what it means to be a respectable person, a proper member of society, a good family man or woman. Both Dexter and Breaking Bad present an interesting – and rather similar – view of the middle class's release of aggression, and its transformation from the passive to the active state. Dexter Morgan (Michael C Hall) is an undiscovered maniac who works in a police laboratory (which conveniently allows him to sustain his hobby), and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a chemistry teacher turned dangerous criminal. Both have double lives – one ordinary, featuring a family, a suburban house and a stable job, and the other involving killing, thieving, cooking drugs and breaking into other people's houses.
This Jekyll-Hyde transformation is as ugly as it is shocking for the audience who identify with the protagonists: white collars in urban environments are not supposed to pull brutal faces while sawing and chopping bodies. They are not supposed to saw and chop bodies in the first place. Social expectations repress natural aggression, and freeze it in a passive state. Dexter Morgan has the habit of arriving at work with a large box of doughnuts and distributing them with a fake smile which means to signify his acceptance of society's rules as well as demonstrate his friendly intentions towards fellow human beings. Walter White has to prevent his 'nice teacher' mask from falling off his rapidly deteriorating civilised face in order to preserve some kind of normalcy in his life. Yet, in a struggle like this, the darkness is always going to win (Stevenson thought so too). It would be wrong to glorify or glamorise this anger because it leads to complete disintegration of personality.
The people in the protagonists' ordinary lives see them as 'common men', just 'ordinary people', but for most of human history the 'normal man' was nowhere as civilised as your average neat-looking Western school teacher. In the grand scheme of things, middle classes are still a historical novelty, a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. Just because you have an office job, it does not mean that occasionally you do not want to punch a random stranger in the face for jumping the queue or for shoving you aside during the rush hour. Anger, triggered by the need to survive, is not going to dissipate just because you want it to. It has a tendency to accumulate when ignored or repressed.
Besides, the social 'middle' is a precarious position in which the issues of social and economic survival in an increasingly complex and financially unstable world are particularly acute. Walter White has lung cancer, and justifies his decision to become a meth maker by the necessity to leave some money for his wife and two children. As a school teacher, he cannot provide for his family in a dignified way. He feels that society betrayed him; that it did not return the favour, that it still owes him. His anger is released when he realises that for most of his life he had not been allowed to act; that he had spent years in passivity and social obedience, and that it did not bring him many financial benefits. In the long term, he realises, it does not pay to be a nice man.
The middle class has a lot to lose. It does not have the power of the super rich, or the 'nothing to lose' freedom of the poor. Those in the middle have children, houses, cars, gardens and jobs which, dead end as they may look, still pay the bills. One move in the wrong direction may disturb the precarious balance and topple the artificial construct that is 'decent behaviour'. The political message is – 'do not struggle for control, do not ask yourself whether you have the right, do not try to be an agent because the desire for agency will destroy you'. Agency generates conflict. Yet, while it is politically more beneficial for the middle class not to act but to be lie dormant, the problem of passive aggression still remains. Contemporary television tends to discuss it hyperbolically, in the form of 'murder as an extreme kind of agency', but a lesser metaphor would not have been able to get to the bottom of and explore this – still taboo – subject.