Sovereign Resentments

All talk of centrality must come around to being talk of resentment as well. In Gans’s account of the originary scene, resentment kicks in immediately after the center is secured through the issuance of the originary sign. Mimetic desire leads to the crisis; resentment comes in its wake, as the center now forbids us from satisfying our desire for the object located there. Resentment becomes a moral and political factor with the ascension of the Big Man, who occupies the center and thereby becomes a resentment attractor. All modes of centrality from here on in are modeled on the Big Man, that is, human centrality. All resentment is directed at someone who has usurped, or prevented us from occupying, “our” center. Others don’t recognize your accomplishments, your potential, the real significance of your actions, your true character, etc.—all resentment towards someone (some other center) interfering with your centrality. But not all resentments are created equal: surely some deserve recognition and others don’t. Who decides, though? Power—the mode of centrality that confers recognition. But that, in turn, means that all resentment is really of power—it is power that allows one to go unrecognized, power who recognizes the one who is less worthy than you. Resentment constitutes a “power imaginary”: a representation of the “good center” that would provide me with the recognition due me. If what you really want is that mode of power, though, you should adopt its resentments towards those who have or would usurp it. That’s a very good way of transcending your own resentments, because you would then have to realize that the mode of power you desire doesn’t, in fact, have to recognize your centrality, at least not as you imagine it—if you continue to desire it anyway, you may be wrong politically but you at least have a chance of discovering what is right, because you have become interested in power securing itself.

Addressing resentments is the responsibility of the power center within whose orbit that resentment has been shaped. The first obligation of the center is to contain the resentments within its sphere. This is done by creating vehicles for shaping and directing that resentment: the justice system is such a vehicle. It would be wrong to think about resentment as spontaneous—there will always be resentment, but there is no pre-social, natural form of resentment. Resentment is always shaped by power. If we think we have been treated “unequally,” it is because our legal and political system forces us to think in terms of “equality”; if we think someone has failed to do their duty toward us, it is because “duty” is the coin of the moral and political realm. In other words, power judges us in terms of “equality” or “duty.” The best framing is the one that unites power and accountability, that gives everyone the power to do what they are obliged to do—in other words, absolutist framing. That makes it possible for resentment to be directed towards some power/accountability misfit, the repair of which is always possible for the occupant of the power center (or, perhaps, the illusory appearance of a misfit can be corrected for). New ways of framing resentments generate new resentments, because the center now offers a new target, so this work of suturing power and accountability can never come to an end.

These reflections were inspired, in part, by Andrew Willard Jones’s Before Church and State: A Study in the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX. Jones seeks (successfully, as far as I can see) to show that the French kingdom under St. Louis recognized neither a “separation of Church and State,” and therefore no conflict between them, nor “sovereignty,” in the sense of a single source of power and a legitimate monopoly on violence. What the sacramental kingdom did recognize is the “business of the peace and the faith,” a business carried on collaboratively by all the power centers of society. Categories like “heresy” and “rebellion” pointed to a single nexus of social unrest that needed to be bound up with the peace and faith of the realm. According to Jones, while the category of “sovereignty” presupposes the primacy of division, conflict and violence, and hence the need to concentrate power in a single source, the sacramental order presupposes the primacy of peace, with conflict and violence seen as aberrations—in which case, power is essentially reactive to breaches of the peace and faith, and can be carried out by any responsible agent—even a tavern owner. There are conflicts over jurisdiction, but the king does decide on these conflicts, even sometimes deciding against himself and ceding the right to punish to a lower power center. (Not to quibble at this point, but whoever has the responsibility to punish, settle a quarrel, or forgive is given the power and fully authorized to do so, which seems to me the essence of sovereignty. But I’ll set the terminological question aside for now, while conceding that Jones is right in terms of historical usage, so the usefulness of “sovereignty” and  “absolutism” will have to be shown to override precedent.)

What I am trying to do here, then, is resituate the sacramental order on anthropological grounds. The sign and the center, the form of peace, precede resentment, the source of violence, so there is a helpful symmetry between the two approaches. The crucial distinction here is between resentments framed in terms of the system of justice and those which refuse that system; or, more broadly, between those willing to have their resentments framed and those who insist upon unbounded resentments. The latter must be attacked as heresy and rebellion. But if not in the name of the true faith, then in what name? (I don’t mean to object to a sovereignty based on faith, just to develop an anthropological model that would transcend any specific sacramental order.) I make a demand of the center—that my own centrality, such as it is, be recognized. In making this demand, I imagine a power center that would recognize at its true worth my centrality, the absoluteness and power of my request in the terms of that power center itself; in the process, I concede that the power center might estimate my worth differently than I do. Hence, I end up decentering myself, and reformulating my demand to the center to one that justice be done, regardless of its consequences for myself. In making this demand I restructure my own centrality so that I might be recognized as one willing to do the bidding of the power center. I take on the resentments of that power center. This reciprocal relation continues, and is continually restructured as new imperatives from the center realign its centrality and my own. New obligations emerge, to my fellow “centers,” who mediate my relationship to the power center. Insofar as the power center keeps remediating these relationships, I imagine the power center itself recognizing a higher mode of centrality, one that I can pray it consults. It is in the name of that higher mode of centrality that we can identify heresy and rebellion. For now, we can consider that higher mode of centrality the imperative to continue to aim our frames for resentment lower, that is, detect resentments and turn them into tributes to and tributaries of the center at ever more preliminary stages.

Resentment runs as deep as desire, which is to say it constitutes humanness. We must always have faith in and resent challenges to the center that grants us our centrality. Resentment is a discovery procedure—what we call disinterestedness or objectivity is resentment on behalf of, or donated to, some center with which we engage in imperative exchange. The social order, then, is built out of donated resentments—which also means that all subversion directs the flow of resentments out of their established channels, into anarchist fantasies generating demands that resist integration into a sovereign structure. Structured resentment becomes love: that on whose behalf I resent I also want to protect from my own resentment, which is to say the conversion of my own desire into demands for centrality. Love is ceding centrality to the other. And anything named by sovereign resentment can be treated as a center, and loved accordingly. The beloved is an endless source of names. This means that the source of rights, as granted by a particular power center within a specific history of settling resentments, is what one has loved well. Jones talks about “use” over time as a source of rights—the noble might drive some peasants who have been using wood from his forests off his land, but if those peasants complain and claim that they have been using that wood for generations the magistrate might agree with them and see the lord’s eviction of them as “violent,” regardless of his own claims to have had the property in his family’s possession since before recorded time. Proper use, i.e., love, overrides title deeds, which represent just one piece of evidence in any dispute, not the deciding one.

Love and resentment articulate the relations between centrality, power and sovereignty. The test of true love and resentment on behalf of is found in language. We can always start with the “I want…” implicit or explicit in every utterance, and trace it back to the absolute imperative it obeys—who told you to want that, and how were you told? What have you done with that imperative along the way (what questions have you converted it into, and what would acceptable answers be)? Everything we say leaves tracks of this process of assimilating imperatives into desires. And if we follow those tracks we can bring our desires into closer alignment with higher imperatives. A good way of putting liberalism through the wood-chipper is to displace resentful questions regarding rights and their violations, inequalities and their masks, and to simply ask, what would be the best thing for everyone here? It’s interesting that liberalism tends to make such a question seem like a joke—imagine, in the middle of a court case, the lawyers, judge, plaintiff and defendant just gathering together and trying to figure out what’s really the right thing to do. Even if they could all agree separately, the situation compels them to disagree as forcefully as possible. Asking why we want what we want and how wanting that embeds us in a containable structure of resentment is a way to start normalizing such questions. And normalizing such questions is the path toward securing sovereignty.

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