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

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

  1. John

    A little quibble, for what it’s worth. I don’t think it entirely correct to say that all resentment is resentment of another’s centrality. We resent those we feel are alienating us from centrality and these people may or may not be central in any meaningful sense. What is increasingly common today is resentment of the relatively undisciplined and undifferentiated; one might say that such people represent new “mobocratic centres” or, less paradoxically, the unacknowledged centres of the Utopian elite sacrificers out to destruct an inherited order in the name of redeeming its victims. Still, when I resent, e.g., the incompetent driver or impossible interlocutor; the doctors who go out of their way to be casual in dress and manner better to (not) represent authority which in any case is now simply statistical (talking about your specific case like they are quoting the abstract of some journal article); the student who studiously ignores all traditions in a mindless relativism, I have a hard time resenting them as people taking a better space from my own marginal one, on the road or in what is left of inherited culture, or institutions. I resent above all the decadent formlessness that frustrates, though no doubt there is some extent to which I am blind to new centres in formation. But i think this quibble, claiming I often resent somewhat less persons than the general lack of personhood (or am I deluding myself?), is only to second your hopeful claims for the productivity of certain resentments. (Or am I deluding myself – is the road to renewed reciprocity dependent on recognizing the other as a resentment-worthy person, like the child of the monotheistic God?)

  2. adam Post author

    It seemed to me upon rereading Gans’s The End of Culture that resentment at another’s centrality is the more rigorous use of the term. Obviously, that doesn’t settle the question once and for all, and, anyway, we’d need to have some way of analyzing the instances you refer to here. Either we revisit the definition; or we stretch the definition to cover these cases; or we say these cases represent not “resentment” but something else (which we would then have to name and account for–and it’s always a problem for a theory when it has to claim that something normally designated by a particular term is not “really” that thing). As you say, we don’t really have an argument here, but the question of whether growing “indifferentiation” represents a “center” that is replacing or “occupying” space needed for another, more differentiated one, is an interesting one. The doctor and student you mention seem to fit the paradigm better: we can identify a new, victimocratic and/or therapeutic, center here. They really are eroding something–and, of course, all resentments aren’t equally intense. The driver? Well, if there are enough of them to constitute a phenomenon–I have been noticing that cars entering the highway via the on ramp are becoming less and less likely to account for the speed differential between themselves and the oncoming car in the lane they are entering–as long as they are ahead of you, they enter, even if you have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting them. It’s the kind of thing where you wonder if it’s just you. If this really is happening, it certainly represents a normative shift from elementary civility to a kind of litigious approach to interactions, since in any car crash the car coming from behind is by definition at fault–so, you can always get away with cutting in front of someone. That seems to fit the model of competing centers.

  3. John

    Well, how about resenting drivers who are texting? Presumably they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in court and one resents their potential mindless violence, lack of discipline, not the centre of their social network.

    It seems to me that if it’s not resentment proper, then my ill feelings towards the poorly disciplined might be:

    1) an extension of the animalistic capacity for warfare

    2) some kind of frustration whose origin would be in failures to reproduce the rituals that ground our scenic imagination.

    3) ?

    It’s been many years, i will have to re-read The End of Culture.

  4. adam Post author

    I suppose the center need not be a social network–it can be a kind of cultural black hole, a centripetal pull toward spontaneous impulse as the implicit legitimation of social action. It may also be that, insofar as we do resent what maybe unorganized acts without any discernible “center,” we attribute (perhaps rightly) a kind of center in order to “fill out” the resentment–a social “trend” or “tendency” of some kind, following some historical “logic.”. Anyway, we ultimately want accurate and comprehensive descriptions of such phenomena, not just conformity to an a priori concept.

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