In her talk on “witnessing” that concluded the UCLA GA – Religion series last month, Stacey Meeker suggested an interesting paradigm. If we consider the scenic center in its capacity as the center of significance, the relation of the observing periphery to it is one of resentment. But the witness to “trauma,” one of Stacey’s two witnessing categories, is made to feel not resentment but guilt. The centrality of the victim is experienced primarily as undesirable; our feeling of guilt reflects our sense of dependency on the scene of cultural representation that we all share. Guilt is thus the inverse of resentment, which equally reflects this dependency. I resent the person in the center because I cannot help participating in the scene of which he is the center–which means that I cannot, or, in the self-conscious modern mode inaugurated by Hamlet, will not, put an end to his centrality. Similarly, I feel guilty because the centralized victim’s sufferings, even if I have not caused them, generate cultural meanings from which I benefit. I participate in the victim’s sacrifice just as I worship the central divinity, whether I do either overtly or not.

What is most interesting about guilt and resentment is that people do not generally admit to either of them. At Stacey’s talk, a few people objected to the term “guilt” and wanted to speak rather of “compassion.” Com-passion, fellow-feeling, Rousseau’s pity–these are “egalitarian” emotions that stem not from my coercion by the other’s centrality but from my conscious or unconscious generosity in identifying with his sufferings. In other words, these emotions express unmediated desire; they are of Girard’s mensonge romantique. The notion of compassion is only useful to describe my feeling for persons whose role in my world transcends their scene of suffering: a man may be said to show his wife compassion because he shares her impairment on all the scenes of his life, not just on the immediate scene of her suffering. (Even here, sympathy is a better term, and the husband himself would use neither but say that he suffers to see her suffer.) People resist terms like “guilt” and “resentment” because they make explicit the mimetic nature of desire that the free individual prefers to deny. Yet the ubiquity of “trauma witnessing” in advertising and propaganda suggests that it makes use of a mechanism inherent in the scene of representation itself. We are indeed free to resist our feelings of guilt or resentment, but only après coup. Indeed, it is best not to speak of these phenomena in psychological terms at all; they are not emotions but structural relations of the scene.

Compassion is an sentiment not lacking in political connotations. Conservatives tend to reject it; it is liberals who “feel your pain.” The liberal emphasizes and cultivates compassion because he considers it a valid discovery principle for political action. When you feel compassion, you know there is a problem to be solved. GA’s analysis takes no a priori stand on political matters, but by preferring the mimetic category of guilt to the ostensibly free-standing one of compassion, it undercuts this liberal epistemology. For if guilt is generated by the very mechanism of the “trauma” scene, this scene may then be used as a means of generating it. The question of what prior operations led, not to the sufferings we see, but to the fact that we see them, is one that the model of compassion does not pose, since it implies a free-floating universal attention rather than admitting its dependency on a preestablished scenic organization. 

A particular vigilance is required to overcome the inherent effect of the scene of representation. Even the most evidently self-serving display of beggary, for example, always generates a certain reaction, and a certain income, since, provided the suffering itself be genuine, the guilt it generates is prior to any reflection on the process of its generation. (In contrast, if the suffering is not merely theatrical but counterfeit, it will generate intense resentment, since the center has been unjustifiably usurped.) Thus a refusal based on cynical distrust of the terms of self-presentation alone, however flagrant, indicates deficient generosity–a fact that panhandlers exploit, for example, in addressing a man when he is with a woman he wishes to impress.

The scenic view of GA is critical of the liberal analysis of compassion, but it is not therefore identical with the conservative position. The latter rejects compassion as per se a sign of liberalism. Rather than analyzing it as guilt and proceeding to examine the scene on which it was produced, the conservative uses the sentiment itself as proof that such sentiments must be denied, thereby conferring on it, with colors reversed, the same epistemological value as his liberal adversary. But since the Holocaust, if not since the Crucifixion, certain victimary relations have been accepted as unambiguously authentic–whence the distressing effect on most people of “Holocaust denial.” The guilt that is behind compassion, in other words, cannot simply be denied without mutilating one’s conscience in the manner of Nazi death camp trainees. Conservatives’ “Nuke the whales” bumper stickers pay homage to the scenic structure of guilt they would humorously have us deny. But this guilt must be acknowledged before it can be either implemented or resisted. This is the “deconstructive” truth of originary analysis.

If compassion is the romantic euphemism for guilt, that for resentment is sense of injustice. When I resent someone for his greater centrality on some scene or other, my first reaction is to condemn his advantage over me as unjust. In contrast to compassion, injustice is a term we can hardly do without. I explained in “The Unique Source of Religion and Morality” (Anthropoetics I, 1) that resentment is our epistemological guide, our sense-organ for injustice; one need make no utilitarian calculations to feel when one is getting shafted. No doubt most of the time the shafting is in the eye of the beholder, but whether it is or not, what we call our “sense of injustice” is indistiguishable from our resentment.

The dissymmetry between injustice and compassion becomes easier to understand when we realize that guilt too may take injustice for its object. If the other’s suffering is indeed caused by an injustice that favors me, then my guilt has the inverse function of resentment: the unmasking of my own unjust privilege, about which I do well to feel guilty. But in either case, and this is the real point, injustice is not self-evident. No doubt the Holocaust was an injustice, American slavery was an injustice. But was the Roman destruction of Carthage or Athenian slavery an injustice? As compared to what? As a catch-all concept for the divergences that resentment reveals of ethical reality from the model of reciprocal morality, the notion of injustice provides a horizon of moral reflection, not a criterion of practical judgment. Thus it is easy to understand that resentment will discover a great deal more “injustice” than will guilt. Avowed guilt is problematic as an ethical concept; it implies the insistence of a moral critique of the ethical that appears in the West primarily in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, e.g., in the prophet Nathan’s “You are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7) that arouses David’s guilt for sending Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to his death.

Both guilt and resentment see injustice from the outside in, giving respectively negative and positive valence to the central position. But there is a structural difference between the two attitudes. Resentment is deluded in its essence; it can only be experienced as a sense of injustice, never quaresentment. One can become aware of one’s own resentment, but the feeling itself cannot reflect on itself as a mere effect of scenic reality. To resent someone’s greater centrality is to experience it as unjust, however easily one is able to justify it. In contrast, the sentiment of guilt is not in itself deluded. When I am sensitive to the immorality of my superiority to the central other, whether or not socially countenanced, I admit to feeling guilty. Otherwise, in the general case, I deny my feeling of guilt by calling it “compassion.” This does not exclude the possibility of the same lucidity I referred to in the case of resentment. I may recognize that I have no reason to feel guilty because the object of my guilt is not suffering from an injustice in any way connected to me, yet realize that my sentiment is nonetheless one of guilt rather than compassion.

But for this to happen, I must have an understanding of the scenic structure of human experience–in a word, I must have at least an elementary notion of Generative Anthropology.