Resentment is the one category that cannot be deconstructed. Nietzsche, who discovered the power of resentment, was destroyed by it at the same time. For to discover resentment in another is at the same moment to discover it in oneself. Only resentment can know resentment; yet resentment knows nothing, since it distorts the reality of what it observes. Nor can anyone reveal resentment without being contaminated by it; history only gives us models for putting it off, for spreading it thin enough to let some light pass through its opacity. No “genealogy,” no act of deconstruction can separate itself from the construction of the order it resents. No use of language can represent, and defer by representing, its own resentment, yet all of culture is nothing but this attempt.
To resent is to deconstruct the pretensions of a central figure; deconstruction is resentment in action. French deconstruction, following Jacques Derrida, sees the text as a spurious claim of centrality resentable and therefore–an a priori obsessively confirmed through close reading–resentful. The American school, following Paul de Man, finds in the ineluctability of resentment the basis for an esthetic: the artwork acknowledges the resentment that the discursive text pretends to ignore. Where the theoretical text claims to be objectively separated from the resentments it describes, the artwork allows no separation between representation and what is represented. Art “deconstructs itself” in anticipating and attempting to satisfy the resentful eye of the beholder, with its suspicious question “what’s in it for me?”
Today we no longer share the faith in art that once lent it privilege in the deferral of resentment. We can begin to circumscribe the era of this privilege–roughly from Kant to Andy Warhol–as that of an immature market society where one could claim, as writers like Théophile Gautier did in the 1830s, that the values of art could be separated from the values of commerce. But the very fact of speaking of “values” reveals that the world of art is no more than an extended double of the market. Emma Bovary, who “consumes” novels as imaginary models of compensatory behavior, is a harbinger of the future. The esthetic is never reduced to simple “utilitarianism,” but its label can only offer a blanket guarantee for as long as the beholder can appreciate “beauty” in the Kantian mode as an autonomous source of pleasure. Art is presumably less resentful than expository prose because it shows us in sensual images what the latter tells us with concepts; the image demonstrates what the discourse only expounds. But the very comparison is already the beginning of the fusion of the two modes. The revelatory, “autoprobatory” nature of images becomes too dangerous, too painful–too resentful–to believe in. Once the image appears as a supplementary gift of the text and not the representation of a revealed truth, its esthetic status has been “bracketed,” and “texuality” is born–born to be deconstructed.
But it is one thing to describe another’s text as “metaphysical” and to situate one’s own text in its “margins,” and another to describe the text as resentful and one’s own as only more subtly so–and therefore more worthy of resentment. The discourse of what we call “theory” demystifies on the condition of not mentioning the very principle of its demystification. Not to speak of resentment is the simplest way to defer it.
If I have made one contribution to classical scholarship, it is my reading of the first word of the Iliad, menin, the accusative of menis, generally translated as “wrath,” as resentment, the resentment of Achilles against Agamemnon for having taken away his captive with impunity. What we admire in the ancients was that they dared speak openly of resentment, and by this very act made it something other that what Nietzsche would condemn as the hypocritical ressentiment of Judeo-Christian societies. But to hold Christianity responsible for the current theoretical silence around the concept of resentment and mimetic theory in general is hardly to do justice to historical specificity. Christianity remains the source of the deepest ethical insights of Western liberal democracy, including Nietzsche’s own; the horrible failure of twentieth-century revolution should put an end to Enlightenment illusions about the virtues of dechristianization.
I witnessed the reticence surrounding the concept of resentment in the discussion on “compassion” that followed Stacey Meeker‘s talk on “Witnessing” last year (see Chronicle 97). A few GA veterans pointed out that the “compassion” that attracts us to victims was not a simple “emotion” but a mask for the guilt that reflects our fear of the other’s resentment. “Compassion,” like “true love,” is a utopian category of desire that exists only at the horizon of all the mimetic tendencies with which it must constantly do battle. (On this score, the Christian understanding of desire shows itself far superior to the Nietzschean.) But the other members of the audience would have none of this. They felt compassion, and that was that. Like the fictional characters analyzed by Girard in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, they refused to admit the possibility that they could experience mediated desire.
Why is this so? My esteemed colleagues at UCLA have finally forced me to face up to the reality that Douglas Collins has been trying to get me to understand all these years. As he puts his Schumpeterian insight, the modern market must insulate itself from the resentment it generates, and the sociological instrument of this insulation is the “institutional middle class,” the market equivalent of Milovan Djilas‘s “New Class,” Max Weber‘s bureaucracy with a moral rather than merely structural function. This class, which has become the backbone of the Democratic party, is centered in the “helping professions”; in the academy it is particularly dominant in the Humanities and “soft” social sciences. Its function is to dissimulate resentment by the production of what Collins likes to call “empathic” effects.
The claim that what Robert Sheaffer–an interesting “amateur” theoretician of resentment to whom I shall return in a future column–calls “envy control” is the founding principle of human society strikes me as more valid by every reasonable intellectual criterion than, for example, Richard Rorty’s popular idea, borrowed from Judith Shklar, that the good society is one that avoids cruelty. The idea of avoiding cruelty is so sanctimoniously self-serving, in a word, so sacrificial–Cruelty as the black-hatted Bad Guy–that it makes me nostalgic for the Aztecs who supplied themselves with protein by slaughtering their neighbors; no mealy-mouthed hypocrites there! But this Nietzschean reaction, however natural, only plays into the hands of the “institutional middle class,” with its “empathic” notions of compassion and cruelty-avoidance. As proof, Nietzsche himself has become a hero of this class, which is to say, of the Left, which he execrated. His revaluation of all values is now, with fitting irony, put to just the opposite use to that for which it was intended: the consecration of the victimary. This should be a warning to all thinkers who dare speak of resentment.
I have never quarreled with this analysis, but until now treated the revelation of the truth of the system as a goal independent of the system itself. But now I realize that for this revelation in turn to add new degrees of freedom to the system, it must be made not simply available but accessible to the membership of the liberal democracy in which we operate–the worst of all systems with the exception of all the others. This is the real challenge that Generative Anthropology must now attempt to meet, even at the cost of no longer calling itself ” Generative Anthropology.”
If GA’s true public is not the empathic class but the “general public” that the empaths must ostensibly protect from the realization of its own resentfulness, then GA must find a new mode of expression. To despair of finding this mode is to despair of its anthropological validity; if this truth is truly liberating, then it must be expressible in such a way as to liberate.
If we want to maintain the position that human culture operates by deferring resentment, we cannot avoid taking into account the resentment this very position arouses. Only if it can successfully meet this challenge will originary thinking enter its second phase and begin to contribute more actively to human thought. To put this in more positive terms: regardless of its power, if an anthropology arouses resentment rather than love, it still has room for improvement. For GA to remain faithful to the very premise of minimalist thought, it may be necessary no longer to speak of “GA.” Originary thinking is not a doctrine; to create what is truly a generative anthropology, it may be preferable to stop calling it “Generative Anthropology.” However I may insist on its minimalism, the mere fact that it bears a name is a liability. The ancient Hebrews are still with us because they understood that to give a name to the central principle is to falsify the dynamic nature of its centrality.