The politics of the past few years, dominated by the reality and threat of Islamic terrorism, seem designed to persuade us of the primacy of resentment in human affairs. People who are willing not merely to risk death but to court it in the hope of killing as many of the enemy as possible would seem to offer an incontrovertible proof that not love but resentment conquers all. But ever since Nietzsche first theorized le ressentiment, it has been clear that the scene of resentment and the power it generates are dependent on a complementary phenomenon that allows the marginal man of resentment to triumph over the forces that control the scenic configuration–a phenomenon for which Nietzsche provides no real explanation. I call this phenomenon white guilt.
The term is often used to refer to the guilt experienced by whites over the unfair advantages they owe to racism. At least two books, both published in 1997, contain the phrase in their–uncannily similar–titles: Race card: White Guilt, Black Resentment, and the Assault on Truth and Justice, ed. Peter Collier and David Horowitz, and Black Anxiety, White Guilt, and the Politics of Status Frustration by T. Alexander Smith and Lenahan O’Connell. But since in our intuitive semiotic system white is not, as the optics treatises tell us, a combination of all the colors, but the absence of color–the state of unmarkedness–I feel justified in defining white guilt by metaphysical rather than mere physical whiteness. No doubt the notion of white guilt in Western culture depends on a coincidence of the metaphysical and the physical, but it is the first that is primary: white guilt is the guilt of the unmarked toward the marked.
As a point of reference, in the December 12, 2004 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Michael Kinsley half congratulates and half commiserates with himself over the speed with which gay marriage has come close to general acceptance, and in some circles has come to be looked upon as a right. Kinsley ends his piece thus:
[The acceleration of the process of recognizing injustice] means that all of us who consider ourselves good-hearted, well-meaning, empathetic Americans–but don’t claim to be great visionaries–are probably staring right now at an injustice that will soon seem obvious, and we just don’t see it. Somewhere in this country a gay black woman, grateful beneficiary of past and present perceptual transformations, has said something today in all innocence that will strike her just a few years from now as unbelievably callous, cruel and wrong.
Kinsley’s black lesbian will soon realize she is oppressing someone “blacker.” What better illustration could be given of the power of white guilt than this anticipatory certitude of new victims to discover?
The moment of resentment in the originary scene occurs when the participants realize that the sacred interdiction of the central object makes it inaccessible to them. In a prehuman hierarchy, the participants’ hostility, which we should not yet call resentment, would be directed at those higher in the pecking order. These animal societies permit the one-on-one externalization of aggression, either in an actual fight for supremacy or in a gesture of ritualized submission. What is specific to human resentment is its dependence on the sign that designates the object at the center of a scene. Resentment felt toward one’s fellows is mediated through the center; the transference of aggression to the center, the result of the abdication of the alpha animal under the collective pressure of the group, is the Girardian scapegoat mechanism, which subsequently provokes the sparagmos or communal destruction/division of the central object/victim.
The originary moment of white guilt is located after the sparagmos, once the victim has been divided up among the participants. Both Freud’s and Girard’s originary scenarios situate a form of guilt at this point. In Totem and Taboo, the sons feel guilty for having murdered their father, and as a consequence they renounce the women for the sake of whom the murder had originally taken place. In Violence and the Sacred, the relief felt by the killers of the “emissary victim” is the source of his divinization. Girard’s notion runs less risk of anachronism than Freud’s, since it does not require a subjective feeling of guilt. But the important point from an originary perspective is that the participants feel that they owe the victim, or more precisely, the sacred being the victim incarnates, honor and sacrifice.
In the originary scene, the only marked figure is the central one; all the participants are “white.” At the conclusion of the scene, the victim no longer exists to provide a referent for the originary sign, which can henceforth be recalled only in the historical context of the originary event. The ostensive sign has nothing to point to but the empty place that the victim occupied; the tension between the empty locus and the remembered victim is what corresponds in the originary scene to our concept of guilt. Resentment and guilt are inseparable, since the imaginary expulsion of the central figure that fulfills the fantasy of resentment is what leaves the place (imaginarily) empty. This movement has the same structure as that of esthetic experience, in which the spectator’s consciousness oscillates between the sign and its imaginary referent; the spectator is resentful at his dependency on the esthetic sign, guilty for its imaginary short-circuiting. The participants’ reaction to the sparagmos is not Rousseau’s “natural” pity for the victim but a sense of sacrilege at the violation of the sacred referent. This violation having been carried out as a communal act, originary guilt implies the possibility of blackmailing the other participants, a possibility that remains latent in premodern societies where responsibility for the sacrilege is reenacted and expurgated through sacrifice.
This analysis suggests that the underlying source of white guilt is not the exercise of violence but the effacement of the sacred referent. Hence it should be no surprise that those who perpetrate overt acts of violence against the victims of society are the last people to whom white guilt can be attributed. What postmodernity discovers is that for merely ignoring those designated as victims, the unmarked members of society can be made to feel white guilt by these victims and above all by their agents. The victims themselves need not be capable of articulating a complaint; indeed, they need not be human or even sentient. Radical environmentalism is fueled by white guilt just as much as affirmative action or class action tobacco suits or opposition to the death penalty. The convicted mass murderer, the lung cancer victim, the “disadvantaged minority” student, the tree about to be logged, even the ozone layer all occupy the same position in the configuration of white guilt; that of someone or something I have done no violence to, but to the effacement of whose victimary and therefore sacred status I am guilty of having contributed.
White Guilt in History
The resentment of modernity, exemplified by a line running from Hamlet through Molière’s Misanthrope to Rousseau and the Romantics, was an impotent nihilism dependent on the scene from which the subject preferred to claim expulsion rather than acting either to rejoin or to destroy it. Hegel’s schöne Seele is a variant of this line in which resentment is “sublimed” into an overwhelming sense of the evil of the world, an evil that can contaminate us only from without, and that we combat, or at least denounce, in vain.
Modern resentment is not yet white guilt because the resentful subject does not admit to complicity in the expulsion of which he sees himself the victim. Its dynamic is situated within a society for which the self-styled exclusion of the romantic victim, by personalizing the anonymity of urban society by a vision of persecution, is secretly a mode of integration. No doubt the romantic intelligentsia, once their attachment to the Restoration had worn off, became champions of the peuple and imputers of guilt to the bourgeoisie–although the latter was more violently scorned for its philistinism than for its oppression of the proletariat. But the 19th-century radical intelligentsia never conceived the provocation of white guilt as its primary mission, which would in effect have been an admission of defeat. The true revolutionary wants to win, not just make his opponent feel guilty. The revolutionary bourgeois intellectual gave up his guilt when he went over to the proletarian cause and fought for his class’s annihilation.
The abolition of de jure differences in political status after WWII could not have been obtained without white guilt. But the early conquests of the postwar era were predicated on a restricted form of white guilt to which they could promise a closure devoid of Kinsleyan anxieties. Guilt for segregation or colonialism ends with the phenomenon itself, just as guilt for depriving women of the vote ends when the vote is granted. To end de jure privileges is to create a society of equals, a meritocracy. The disillusioned Roosevelt liberals to whom this appeared to be the ultimate state of the market system have today for the most part joined the neoconservative camp. For the meritocratic ideal is vulnerable to the resentment inevitably generated in those less successful than they would like to be, and our political system dictates that if these individuals are members of ascriptive groups that can with any credibility claim to be stigmatized, movements will arise to promote their interests by appealing to the white guilt of the rest of society.
The heyday of unrestricted white guilt begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR. With market society no longer menaced by a rival socioeconomic system, any serious opposition to it is henceforth internal. At this point the revolutionary intelligentsia is forced to recognize the essential identity of what had previously appeared as two ontologically distinct and opposed entities: the class of oppressors and the class of their denouncers. The intelligentsia is no longer the voice of the proletariat who stand outside the power-structure by their non-possession of the means of production, but the conscience of the universal bourgeoisie; the purveyors and the sufferers, the subjects and objects of white guilt are the same. The only difference, but that difference is everything, is that the intellectuals would purge their guilt by undertaking to spread its awareness to those who continue to ignore it.
The resentment of those who see themselves as victims can achieve results only by allying itself with the far greater force of white guilt. What may be called victimary liberalism is the ideology of those who devote their political energy to the cultivation of white guilt–first their own, then everyone else’s. Rather than an expression of resentment at failure, white guilt is cultivated as a compensation for success. White guilt is not left to individual or even group psychology; it is administered by a network of institutions that channel its energy into expiatory gestures that they seek to impose on the rest of the population. “Activist” groups conceive it their mission to defend the interests of nature, animals, foreign workers, and so on, in preference to those of their generally affluent membership. The Democratic Party and its associated “blue” institutions, the media, entertainment, and the university, are the most visible components of this network, which 9/11 perturbed but which has since more than fully recovered. Even Kinsley is disturbed by the increasing banalization of institutionalized white guilt; with the exception of a small vocal faction of conservatives poorly represented in prestigious universities and media venues, the intelligentsia takes for granted that unrestricted white guilt is the unique touchstone of ethical judgment.
The intense contempt in which the intellectual class holds the Bush electorate in the recent election has its source in their apparent indifference to white guilt. By hating the “neocon” establishment, the victimary liberal admits and simultaneously rejects his own complicity in the oppression he denounces. In this regard, Islamic terrorism is a source of genuine fear but also of moral relief, enabling the intellectual to hold the Administration entirely responsible for having made us a target and to forget that the Islamists’ resentment is directed not at specific American policies but at the entire market system. The relationship between the intellectual left and the terrorists is symbiotic precisely because it is not symmetrical. (If there is symmetry, it is between the terrorists and the “hawks,” neither of whom is appreciably influenced by white guilt.) The left condemns Western society for oppressing its Other while the Islamists denounce their own rulers’ softness. The terrorists carry out in reality the same actions that our local revolutionaries perform symbolically; how many times have the World Trade Center and the Pentagon been burned in effigy during antiglobal protests at international trade conferences? That intellectuals and Islamists have a common enemy explains why the former tend to express less hostility to the latter than to the representatives of global market society.
Is Kinsley Right?
Because church attendance is a good predictor of red/blue status, the current red-blue divide, with its anomalously inverted class symbolism of rednecks and blue-bloods, is often described as a battle between secularism and theocracy. But the simplest, sharpest way of distinguishing the two camps is by how they stand with respect to white guilt. Reds are distinguished from blues as those insufficiently susceptible to white guilt to make it the keystone of their politics. Although the reds dominated the 2004 elections, the blue vote was not all that far from 50%. Thus the question is: was this election a historic setback for victimary thinking and the white guilt that sustains it, or is it bucking a long-term trend that has already gone far beyond abolishing segregation and apartheid to promoting gay marriage and establishing gender equity commissions?
Next week’s Chronicle will attempt to provide an answer to this question.