The most significant of generational watersheds may well fall between the prewar generation and that of the baby-boomers. It separates those of us whose primary experience of resentment is individual from those who suffer injustice by gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. But only retrospective contrast with the boomers makes me refer to my–nameless–generation. For me, resentment is personal. Even when I find myself victimized as a member of a group, my reaction is that my victimizers have done me a personal injustice in not recognizing my distinction from all other members of this group.
Collective resentment easily overpowers individual resentment; yet only the latter stimulates original, or originary, thoughts. The opposition between personal and collective resentment parallels that between high and popular culture, and the ambiguities of the latter distinction reflect those of the first. The solitary romantic hero becomes a figure of popular culture when his solitude is no longer a spontaneous reaction to the bourgeois world but is not yet debunked as a form of mimetic desire. The popular-romantic hero is solitary like everyone else, just as the participant in today’s youth culture is, much less self-consciously, an uncompromising rebel like everyone else. Only the spirit who, like Flaubert, denounces romantic cliches as cliches, abandons the collective expression of resentment for his own.
The central event that separates the modern era from the postmodern is the Holocaust. The Nazi persecution of the Jews enshrined a victimary model that was applied in the years following World War II to a variety of unequal collective relationships, notably colonialism, which disappeared far more swiftly than anyone expected, and American racial discrimination, which was eliminated de jure by the mid-60s. These successes reinforced the prestige of the victimary model, which is only now coming into question, notably in the delegitimation of affirmative action.
The victimary model that emerged from the Holocaust was strictly collective, subsuming the individual victim within an objectively defined or ascriptive group. The Holocaust was not a sui generis phenomenon that changed the direction of history, but a climactic event that punctuated a change already under way. The feasibility of this uniquely systematic persecution implies that, beyond the blame for concrete disasters such as Germany’s loss of World War I, the people-defined-as-an-individual–the Jew–was made to pay the price for the end of the era of individuality itself. Modern market society was reaching the point at which personal uniqueness would have to define itself within instead of outside the market; Nazi antisemitism was a desperate attempt to arrest this development.
The early consumer society of conspicuous consumption put a premium on quantitative excess, in dialectical correspondence with the excesses of the modernist imagination. The high culture of modernism seeks the most original expression of the most originary sense of the human, one by definition hostile to the bourgeois limitations of the market. At the same time, the rise of political antisemitism focuses blame for the contradictions of capitalism on the particular group who, having refused the figure of the Mediator, is fantasized to be the secret master of the mediations of the market. The idea of the Jews as both a faceless mass and an individualized set of conspirators, each performing his specific task for the good of all–and the ruin of all others–makes the Jew the sole successful negotiator of the transition from individual to collective identity, and consequently the primary victim of the transition from individual to collective resentment.
One of the more endearingly pathological expressions of this transition is Herbert Marcuse‘s now-forgotten One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964, just in time to foment the Great Revolt of 1968. Marcuse complains that, in the USSR as in the USA, the Establishment has so seduced the population with tawdry wish-fulfillments that the other-dimensional revolutionary spirit has been killed off. This operation is particularly egregious in the cultural-intellectual sphere, where radical ideas are granted what he calls repressive tolerance, meaning that people are kept too busy with movies and sex to pay any attention to them. Here the old ideal of the free individual receives its final defense against the temptations of consumer society to which it is fast succumbing. The real horror of repressive tolerance is that it relocates individual self-definition within the marketplace. The economic failure of socialism was not yet apparent in 1964, but its ethical failure, and its eventual collapse, were prefigured in Marcuse’s bizarre assimilation of the Soviet system to an abstractly defined consumerism.
The generation that has grown up since WW II feels its resentments collectively. It learns to do this in adolescence, when, as Marcuse–or Alan Bloom–might have put it, it is seduced by the youth culture that originated with rock’n’roll in the mid-50s into identifying itself as an oppressed collectivity excluded from adult society.
As adults, members of this generation differentiate themselves in exquisite detail through the refinements of the marketplace; their lives are consumed in learning what to buy and where to buy it. But in the absence of the spiritual individuality provided by personal resentment, the central core of their self lacks cultural content; it is limited to the physical body.
Whence the obsessive concern with hygiene that has led to the demonization of secondary smoke. An unreasoning fear of physical invasion by disease factors incites this ecology-minded generation to scandalous wastefulness. The very people who proudly recycle throw out food at the least chance of spoilage, use armfuls of paper products to clean the slightest mess, generate obscene quantities of laundry and dirty dishes. Many refuse to flush public toilets lest they come in contact with alien bacteria; leaving behind unpleasant sights and smells is as nothing to the chance of contagion. This excessive fear of “germs” reflects a weakened sense of the self as a naked body that can be protected from death only by a constant consumption of goods and energy.
But by uncanny analogy with the naked bodies who entered the gas chambers, this body denuded of culture bears nonetheless the sign of a collective identity. The Holocaust taught succeeding generations that our cultural identity emerges not from our soul but from our body; our body is what others can see, and kill. The White guilt-obsessed yuppie and the minority activist share this same vision of the self, because they react to the same defining event.
Sometimes I wonder if generative anthropology is not a pre-war individualist’s last-ditch effort to define the world for himself before the alphas and betas of our Brave New World can get to it… But the human is fated to think about itself, and fundamental anthropological reflection can only be carried out by a form of thought that situates the manifold data of cultural life within the single focus of the individual mind.