I began these columns, and gave them their title, as an attempt to affirm love over resentment. But a glance at the news should convince anyone that it is resentment rather than love that makes the world go ’round. There is no need to list the slaughters that take place daily, and which from the Holocaust to Rwanda-Burundi to Bosnia to Wednesday’s suicide bombing in Sri Lanka are primarily motivated by resentment. The classical model of violence is found in La Fontaine‘s Le loup et l’agneau, where the wolf claims the lamb is muddying the water simply as a pretext for eating him. Today we understand these matters better. The killers are not motivated by a cynical desire to further their self-interest by fabricating grievances against their victims. The truth is just the opposite: it is not self-interest that disguises itself as a sense of injustice, but a sense of injustice that teaches people their “self-interest.” The resentment comes first; profiting from it comes later, if at all–suicide bombers profit little from their work. Nor does resentment usually result in massacres; they are but the tip of the iceberg.
And how often are the examples of “love” in the news nothing but resentment in disguise? Celebrity marriages, Di‘s or Clinton‘s adulteries are pretexts for Schadenfreude. At best the public self can shower pity on some pathetic figure–a child who needs a new kidney, a whale lost in a river–that even we can feel superior to.
Yet these visible phenomena give a distorted view of our social reality. Precisely because they involve the media-mediated center of our public scene of representation, they cannot reveal the decentralized, omnicentric relations of love that dominate our lives, that hold our world together just a bit more than the force of resentment tears it apart. We live in a world where public recognition is increasingly depreciated, where in order to maintain oneself in the center of public attention one must increasingly display victimary rather than heroic qualities. If our society lacks heroes, it is because we are not disposed to hero-worship. The apparent exceptions only confirm the rule. Colin Powell receives general admiration, not simply “because of his race,” but because his race supplies the victimary element that permits us to admire him. What athlete today inspires the worshipful affection that surrounded a Babe Ruth or a Joe Louis in their day? Perhaps Magic Johnson, with his little-boy cheerfulness, especially now that he has become HIV-positive. Sports reporting incites us rather to envy athletes’ salaries than to admire their athletic accomplishments.
The pursuit of fame will continue to tempt us, but as demography makes it increasingly more difficult to attain, the force of mimetic rivalry will assure that the famous are increasingly less heroic. This phenomenon trickles down from the center of the public stage into the various subordinate arenas within which we operate. The heavies in my own little corner of the academic world exercise power under cover of victimary disguises. Like so many little Trotskys, they mask their ruthlessness with a passion for the oppressed. Yet more ominously, they are networkers who can only occupy the center in a crowd.
One symbolic indication of the decline of the motivating value of the public scene is the recent tendency of politicians leaving Washington to spend more time with their family. We need not believe in the sincerity of all these declarations to see in them a meaningful trend. The politician may be leaving to use his acquired contacts in a well-paid consultantship or to write a celebrity book; but his declaration that his family is the most important thing in his life pays homage to the life-styles of those who will never be on prime-time news.
To sum it all up in an image: television is the key locus of the public scene today, and it is impossible to behave authentically on television. The Heideggerian idea of authenticity is dangerous enough for its death not to appear as a good thing. But perhaps it is a good thing in a way I had not anticipated.
Authenticity can be salvaged as an ideal if it respects the human marketplace without however being dependent on public acclaim. The marketplace itself has always operated this way. One does not seek immediate satisfaction in the market; one defers satisfaction and invests one’s capital in the hope of establishing a local or even universal monopoly. Today we think of this capital less as money than as education, experience, time spent creating something the market will be forced to appreciate. To win in the market is less to win today than to anticipate its movements tomorrow.
In the long run, we will all be dead, as Keynes put it. But it is when we are dead that we can afford to be famous. All the clownishness and victimary posturing are unnecessary after death. Death is the only dignified means of attaining victimary status.
It used to be fairly common to hear of creating for posterity; Stendhal, writing in the 1830s, used to speak about being read in 1880, or even in 1930. Today, how many people speak about being read in 2090? The word posterity makes most people smile.
Rira bien qui rira le dernier, as Rameau’s nephew used to say: he who laughs last laughs best.