After centuries of absence, “rage” as a term for revelry has returned to our tongues. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary posit that Shakespeare used “rage” in a way similar to how we use it today. “Those pampered animals, that rage savage sensuality,” he wrote in Much Ado About Nothing, could very well be today’s college students. Shakespeare was not the first to use “rage” to refer to the bacchanal, but he was the last for a very long time.
The first sprinklings of modern celebratory “rage” appear in magazines and books from the mid-1980s and early 1990s Anglophone world that pair “rage” and “rager” with “rave” and “raver.” A New Zealand newspaper from the time tells of an encounter with a (presumably intoxicated) partier. “He refused to ‘point the finger’ at where Mr. Maddox got the dope. ‘This has spoilt a good day. I have been raging all day.’”
Like most forms of counterculture that can easily be commodified, electronic music moved from gritty, underground clubs to house parties in affluent suburbs. Fast-paced techno beats and ecstasy, once diversions from the urban doldrums of post-industrial capitalism, became the backdrop for suburban teenage exuberance. Within a decade, the rave scene’s vernacular made the move, too.
Today, “rage” is everywhere. It is embroidered on hats, printed on t-shirts, and emblazoned garishly on tank tops. We send it in text messages, affix to it hashtags, and post it on Facebook. Rage is what we do after a long week of work, before a long break from work, or when we have nothing else to do.
“Ready to #rage”
What does it mean to rage? The word’s attractiveness results from the contingencies it contains. “Rage” is an expression of promise and uncertainty. The potentialities inherent in raging create the possibility for spontaneity in a place where it rarely exists. Life at Princeton is highly routinized. We live according to the logic of the Google Calendar. We schedule leisure time. We diastinguish between productive and unproductive activity. To rage in the moment is to temporarily shatter the predictability of existence in our human capital factory. There is no program or schedule for raging. And if you have one then you aren’t doing it right. There is no time limit. There is no goal other than the activity itself. And for a time, however brief, the next item on the agenda is undetermined.
We rage–we get smashed, or fucked up, or shitfaced–because the grind of daily life can be devastatingly boring and crushingly stressful. The way we use “rage” today is not divorced from its more traditional meaning. When we go out to “rage,” we are often raging against something. “Rage” contains anger and dissatisfaction and provides an opportunity for release—in the thundering bass-wobbles that pulsate through chests and the unceasing motion of bodies sharing a too-small-space—with little or no regard for the future. To rage is to submit to the violent disorganization of time, bodies, and senses, to revel in myopic unawareness of what comes after the party.
Virgil, unintentionally, may have summed up the ethos of a Millennial party in the Aeneid when Turnus pleads, “let me rage before I die,” though Drake and Rick Ross put it more accessibly.
Sadly, we know too well what organized “rage” looks like: sexual assault, physical injuries, and lethal alcohol consumption that have hurt or claimed the lives of friends of friends. It looks like violence. Perhaps Princeton, with its official hostility to Greek associations, seems removed from the deadly bacchanalia of larger institutions that have frat houses and students living off-campus. But Princeton has eating clubs—co-ed frats with a genteel aesthetic —as well as fraternities and sororities that shape the contours of the social terrain more than any Orange Key tour guide will ever admit. Princetonians are no strangers to hospitalizations, sexual assault, and freak accidents that occur under the auspices of organizations that exist solely for the purpose of systematizing revelry. It is this kind of systemization that can land more than a dozen of us in the hospital in a single weekend.
Every element of formality and structure eliminates the sense of contingency inherent in raging. A list, pass or wristband limits the diversity of encounters. Membership and selection engender conformity and obedience. The institution, association, or club, with a history and a roster, concretizes the class, gender, racial, and sexual hierarchies that can turn a party into something much more sinister. Instead of directing the pent-up exasperation from too much work and too little sleep outwards into the campus void, institutionalized “rage” directs the violence it encompasses towards those doing the raging. Social pressure to perform, the power dynamics of privilege, and the threat of real or potential violence transform raging into a weapon used against those who partake in it.
There is no “rage” without danger or risk. The threat of physical or emotional harm is inextricably tied to the acts that constitute “rage.” Pleasure and pain, the two-headed sensory beast, have haunted our culture for as long as we can remember. “No cruelty, no feast,” Nietzsche neatly observed. But when the kind of reasoning that governs the rest of university life subsumes “rage,” “rage” loses all possibility except the possibility of violence.
Maybe it’s just slang. But slang does not materialize from nowhere, moving from invisibility to ubiquity. It comes from experienced reality, from the feelings that are responses to everyday occurrences. “The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process,” wrote the German cultural critic and theorist Siegfried Kracauer, “can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from the epoch’s judgments about itself.” Few things are more surface-level than the words we carelessly and often unthinkingly throw around in daily conversation or the kinds of parties we frequent, slouching towards the same places each weekend as if it were second nature.
While I am unwilling and unqualified to make a generalization about our epoch, I am ready to generalize, perhaps recklessly, about our campus’ culture. At Princeton, “rage” has come to be something of a universal signifier for any event that features alcohol and enough people to constitute a crowd. The word’s pervasiveness suggests the intimate connection between celebration and pleasure and anger and pain. Linked by violence, the two sides of “rage” can be found on campus.
We are alternately frustrated, stressed, and dissatisfied, and we sometimes find ways of releasing those feelings in a way that turns raging’s potential for violence towards the abstract entity of the University instead of against each other. But not often enough. The tyranny of structure threatens every party. It’s our challenge to keep it in check.