Making Rage Work for Us: An Interview with OCH Research Fellow Dr. Zenia Kish - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

Making Rage Work for Us: An Interview with OCH Research Fellow Dr. Zenia Kish

Dr. Zenia Kish is a graduate of NYU and currently an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa. She was also selected as a 2020-2021 OCH faculty research fellow. Here, she answers some questions about her interest in the topic of rage and how it can be a powerful force for change.


Why are you interested in the topic of rage?

Rage is a complex emotional and social expression that, in the US context at least, is often repressed or redirected. It is often depicted as uncontrollable, outside the bounds of reason, and individualized. And yet, rage has long been central to building movements for social and political change. I am excited to explore the uses and abuses of rage because this country has been vibrating with it very openly in recent years. I am drawn to how expressions of righteous rage in social movements, the legal system, the immigration system, our workplaces, and many other arenas are renewing fights for justice. With a majority of Americans reportedly now supporting the Black Lives Matter movement for the first time, the public conversation cannot so easily dismiss collective expressions of rage as a simple reactionary or anti-social force. We are seeing creative and constructive models of rage demonstrated through renewed challenges to the racialized, gendered, and settler colonial status quo ripple across the country. Many of these shifts have manifested in Tulsa in powerful ways, from the vibrant celebration of Juneteenth in Greenwood to the recent Supreme Court decision affirming Muscogee land rights, we are seeing in close-up how our communities can move forward.

At the same time, rage is also the emotional register of many reactionary forces that endanger public discourse and safety, from online trolls to news agencies whose brand is rooted in stoking resentment. We are surrounded with examples of rage sparked by perceptions of loss—of status, of privilege, of individual liberties—that can mask the underlying forces at work. Rage can thus act as a smokescreen that deflects deeper analysis of structural inequalities with personal expressions of aggrievement.

These different deployments of rage—as a force for collective clarity of purpose and justice, or as a form of obfuscation that reinforces power inequalities—are all around us. We need to work within these tensions to envision how to make rage work for us, not against us, as we strive toward a more just world.

What questions do you hope to explore during the upcoming academic year?

I had a lot of fun brainstorming topics I hope to cover in our Rage seminar this year. A large part of the seminar will be concerned with the question of how rage is instrumental in bringing about social progress, particularly in relation to movements for social justice. Against the backdrop of movements like #MeToo, we’ll explore the uses of feminist rage from a few directions, including Sara Ahmed’s insistence that feminists’ attachment to anger can be a constructive force for engaging new forms of world-making. Gender, of course, can never be isolated from other dimensions of identity, so we will also think specifically about how Black feminist rage has long challenged the limits to how both identity and political action are conceptualized in the U.S.

We will also spend time reading and thinking with James Baldwin as we discuss the contemporary Movement for Black Lives. I’ve organized a conversation on HBO’s Watchmen with critical race and culture scholars Rebecca Wanzo and André Carrington that will connect popular culture’s engagement with Tulsa’s own history of racial violence, which is important to center as we approach the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Additionally, to contextualize anger at the excessive and unnecessary suffering caused by the current pandemic, we will look back to HIV/AIDS activists who mobilized to fight the neglect and failures of the state and healthcare system during that epidemic. In all of these cases, rage has been targeted in powerful ways to improve lives and cultivate new political possibilities.

We will also consider the role of rage in our current political and media landscapes. We will build a conversation about reactionary media and the lead-up to the election in connection with the fall event All the Rage about how anger shapes and circumscribes our highly mediated political culture. Through the seminar, we will also look at the immigration system in the US and the forms of violence it reproduces along the border and through the legal, detention, and deportation systems that are increasingly squeezing shut the window of successful immigration.

There is a lot to be angry about right now, and I want to help build a collective conversation around the value of sharing rage and putting it to work.

Why do you think it’s important to examine and discuss the notion of rage in an interdisciplinary way?

I don’t really know any other way to think except through interdisciplinary frameworks—this approach has been central to my education and work. Emotions can be theorized from so many different directions, which is exciting but also produces the feeling that there is always more beyond one’s grasp. It is that sense of incomplete understanding that animates the range of topics I hope to cover in the seminar this year. I will incorporate scholarly and creative texts that represent diverse scholarly fields, but I think that just as much of the interdisciplinary richness will come through in our seminar conversations. The frameworks and histories we explore will be tools for us to cultivate dialogue that hopefully connects thinking and doing, reflecting and making. Collective rage can be a powerful force for change, and I want to challenge us to open it up for questioning in as many ways as we can squeeze in. Any time I ask friends where they see rage in their lives, or how they understand its social functions, I always get wildly different answers, which invites open-minded exploration.

Tell us a bit about yourself – your fields of study, interests, etc.

My academic training has been deeply interdisciplinary, fostering both intellectual flexibility and, at times, too many research interests! After a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and literary studies at the University of Toronto, I moved on to a Master’s degree in media studies at Western University in Ontario. I worked on representations of racialized otherness in media representations of Hurricane Katrina survivors, many of whom were marginalized as “refugees” in their own country, reproducing the environmental and structural racism that already defined places like New Orleans. This work began my education in critical race theory, and helped steer me toward a PhD in American Studies at New York University. At NYU, I researched what we now call the Great Recession and the emergent financial cultures that arose in its wake, while deepening my studies of critical race theory, U.S. empire, food politics, and digital media cultures.

During a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, I deepened my interests in critical food and agriculture, and joined an NSF-funded project on the future of food as imagined in Silicon Valley. For the past 18 months, I have been conducting interviews and participant observation with entrepreneurs and investors attempting to reinvent what and how we eat through new technologies. I also recently co-edited, with my Media Studies colleague Emily Contois, a book on Instagram and food, bringing together international contributors for a first-of-its-kind exploration how this popular social media platform is changing our menus and our palates.

Just as I am interested in food as a crucial site for enacting identity and power, so too I am fascinated by how financial cultures understanding and organize inequality. In my dissertation, I conducted an ethnography of impact investors, who seek to make investing more ethical by pursuing social and environmental returns in addition to profits. I am currently working on a book that expands this focus to examine the media culture of philanthrocapitalism more broadly, from the internal cultures cultivated by ethical investors to the social media campaigns conducted by philanthropists who comprise a fairly novel form of celebrity.

To learn more about our annual theme, visit our Cou/Rage page. See our 2020-21 research fellow announcement here.