June 26, 2016

Resentment, Good and Bad: Some Reflections on Eric Gans’s Latest Chronicle, “The Triumph of Resentment”

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:57 pm

What should we do about resentment? Is there some non-resentful position from which we can ask that question? Interestingly, there may be: among the hundred or so flowers blooming on the right these days, one of them, represented by the blog Reactionary Futures and building upon the “Unqualified Reservations” of Mencius Moldbug, argues, very cogently, for a new kind of absolutism. The idea is that power divided ultimately leads to chaos: a single, undisputed locus of sovereignty is the only basis for social order. The models for this proposed order seem to be absolute monarchies and corporate CEOs. How to get there, and how to sustain it seem to me unanswered questions (the only answer I’ve seen so far seems to be “virtuous elites and rulers”), but this argument (predicated, how accurately I have not determined, on the thinking of Thomas Carlyle and Bernard De Jouvenel) takes into account (explicitly) Rene Girard’s understanding of the unlimited, envious, rivalrous desire constitutive of the human. If all resentment is resentment at another’s centrality, the way to eliminate resentment, or, at least reduce it to manageable proportions, would be to establish a single, uncontested, efficient center that no one could resent effectively. There is certainly enough historical evidence to suggest that human beings have demonstrated a preference for this kind of solution.

If, that is, we think about resentment in quantitative terms, in which case the point is to reduce it as much as possible. Gans often speaks about resentment in these terms, and he does so in this Chronicle as well, and if there is a basis for doing so, and we can, in fact, identify a non-resentful position from which such “measurements” can be made, it is certainly worthwhile keeping quantitative resentment talk around. But there are other ways to speak about resentment, also present in Gans’s Chronicle: to “restore a general suspicion of resentment” is not quite the same as “reducing” it, because it implies that some resentments can be cleared of suspicion, and it’s also possible that “suspicion of resentment” is nothing more than “resentment of resentment,” which would lead us to choose between more and less legitimate resentments. This is difficult because resentment precedes and, in “sublimated” form, is the basis of “legitimation,” “justification,” and so on. So, the transcendence of resentment would be a transcendent resentment, which does seem a fairly accurate description of the Old Testament God. Similar ambiguity seems to attach to the “control” of resentment (rather than just of “violence”), which seems to suggest the establishing of constraints and means of channeling resentment, rather than simply minimizing it. From a “qualitative” perspective, constraining resentment might, in some senses, involve generating more of it, or at least exhibiting some forms of it more overtly.

If we are to distinguish between more and less acceptable forms of resentment (a qualitative approach which might, if we want to be optimistic, be preparatory to a “quantitative” approach), I would suggest that the thing for our transcendentalizing resentment to target is what we could call “unrestricted, unqualified resentment.” If one resents a lack of reciprocity in general, one’s resentment cannot be addressed, and will always escalate, because it will always be possible to identify some way in which social relations could be more reciprocal, and advances in reciprocity will provide models for otherwise undetectable failings. Resentments on behalf of some historically established mode of discipline, on the other hand—on behalf of monarchy, or monogamy, or church, or property—are intrinsically limited, since resentment of breaches of the institutional norms will subside with the re-secured stability of the institution (at which point the leaders of the institution will themselves rein in resentment on its behalf). In this case one resents attempts to set up new centers at the expense of established ones (to presuppose the very norms that the new center proceeds to undermine), and resenting one center on behalf of another prevents the unlimited destruction implied in an attack on all centers from a presumed centerlessness. It even leaves open the possibility that the new center will turn out to have had a point.

Gans’s list of the effects of resentment includes a diverse group: “It was resentment that made Eve give Adam the apple, resentment that made Achilles conduct a sit-down strike against Agamemnon, resentment that motivated the Jews to leave Egypt, that got Jesus crucified…” It’s certainly interesting to see the Exodus on the list, even though, when you come to think of it, it was an extremely risky decision and judgment of the results, even to this day, may remain mixed. Also, from the Moldbugian approach, the rejection of the fairly well perfected God-Emperor system of ancient Egypt might very well be the beginning of all the problems we face today. (Also some of the non-problems, though, at least from a non-Moldbugian perspective.) Achilles’s resentment at his superior value going unrecognized by the military/political hierarchy of the Greeks leads to a new form of reciprocity, the mutual respect of enemies, in his agreeing to return Hector’s body to Priam. (Although, admittedly, it’s not clear what this does for his relations with Agamemnon.) And the need for the divinized imperial system to suppress (resent?) anthropological insights into its limitations and sources of power beyond its ken seems to legitimate the necessarily risky efforts needed to preserve those insights and activate those sources of power. The resentments of the alt-right seem to me similarly limited and productive, insofar as they, like Achilles, resent on behalf of values required but undervalued by the resented institutions themselves, on the one hand, and on behalf of truths placed in danger by their victimary opponents, on the other (there is no claim made by the victimocrats which the alt-rightists have any reason to fear addressing thoroughly and publicly. As Gans’s reference to the rejection of causality by today’s victimary activists makes clear, the same is not true for the other side). The “parrhesia” I have associated with the alt-right may be seen as very resentful (how do we assess the resentment of the cynic Diogenes who, when Alexander the Great asked him what he, Alexander, could do for him, requested that Alexander get out of his sun?), but it resents the decadent suppression of anthropological truths that themselves generate resentment (like Gans’s proposal all those years ago)—and we might see that as initiating a virtuous circle of transcendentalizing resentments.

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