Although the perceptive reader of these Chronicles may detect here and there faint traces of resentment, the Index reveals that I haven’t dealt explicitly with the subject for over three years. It’s time the Chronicles took another look at this concept that supplies 49% (some would say 99%) of their inspiration.
Whatever the anecdotal evidence of animal revenge, resentment is a peculiarly human phenomenon. At first glance, re-sentiment (the French ressentiment was Nietzsche’s version) appears to be an emotion. But strictly speaking, an emotion is a physiologically correlated psychological state. Sadness, joy, and anger are emotions, roughly equivalent to those found in other mammals, who all share the layer of the brain called the “limbic system” (see Thomas Lewis et al., A General Theory of Love, Random House, 2000). Resentment is inevitably associated with emotion: it makes us angry, sad, or both. But its specific causality within the human condition is irreducible to mere emotion.
Resentment has always been misunderstood. The pejorative connotation of the term gives it the appearance of a mimetically exaggerated appetite, equivalent to the “deadly sin” of envy. But envy is a looser term than resentment. Envy moves from (1) the scandalous revelation of the other’s asymmetry to (2) the exterior indication or “fetish” of this asymmetry; it displaces onto the object the desire that resentment focuses on the rival. Envy is defined as coveting the possessions of others, as in the Tenth Commandment, in contrast to jealousy, which, closer to avarice, is the obsession with one’s own possessions. But, significantly, in common usage, the object of jealousy has become that traditionally appropriate to envy. I am less likely to say “I envy my rival” than “I am jealous of him.” It would be more accurate to say that I am jealous of my lover, but this feeling is more commonly expressed as a “state of mind” without an object: “I am jealous.” (“I envy you” is, in contrast, an expression of praise, an indirect acknowledgement of your high status.) The attraction of the term “jealousy” demonstrates the exteriority of the object (2) to the fundamental human relation (1). Through this displacement, my desire for the object makes it seem as if already mine; by calling my envy “jealousy,” I imaginarily appropriate my rival’s possession.
Resentment, unlike envy, is concerned with the rival, not the object. As opposed to appetites and emotions, or to such mixed categories as the “sins,” resentment cannot be separated from the scene on which self and other appear. Unassimilable to an object-relation, it is not an internal state but a collective or, in Durkheim’s vocabulary, a “social” relation. In the hypothetical originary scene, with the sacred object at the center of a circle, resentment may be defined as our (potential) reaction to a violation of the equidistance of the participants on the periphery from the center. The difficulty is to articulate this “reaction.” In my early reflections on the subject (in The End of Culture), I hypothesized that resentment was limited to hierarchical societies, which consecrate this asymmetry as rank. Hunter-gatherers have equal status at the ritual feast, whereas the fellah is as nothing to the Pharaoh. This dependence on social consecration is too restrictive; the potential for resentment must be conceived as present from the outset. But this too poses certain problems.
The equalitarian configuration of the originary scene would never have arisen without the mimetic rivalry that precludes any participant, even the heretofore “alpha” individual, from occupying a privileged position. Yet we cannot call the participant’s reaction to a violation of symmetry “resentment,” because resentment depends on the representation of difference. Where difference is present from the start, is in the relation between periphery and sacred center. Transcendent status does not inhere in the central being a priori; it must be conferred on it, and in participating in this conferral, the individual participant is obliged to renounce any prior possibility of a “horizontal” relationship with the object. I called the reaction to this renunciation originary resentment, humanity’s primordial temptation with respect to the sacred, as exemplified in the Western religious tradition by Satan’s rivalry with God and Adam’s Fall. The point of this concept was to serve as an originary model for resentment between those on the periphery: the scandal of my absolute inferiority to the center must precede that of my relative inferiority to my rival, since what I feel as “inferiority” is a relation of significance, in contrast to the pecking-order rivalries of the animal world. Yet it is easy to misunderstand this concept as “metaphysical” rather than minimal, and it is unnecessary to my argument here.
Let it suffice then to say that the peace-bringing symmetry of the originary configuration, as registered in the memory of the participants, makes them aware of any subsequent violation of the symmetry of that configuration. This awareness, which makes resentment possible, figures in the minimal constitution of the human, along with other effects of representation/signification such as the sacred, desire, and the esthetic. None of these phenomena can be given a merely physiological definition, not even desire, which too, as opposed to appetite, is dependent on the (collective and individual) representation of its object.
Resentment has at its core a scenic representation. Yet the already-noted pejorative nature of the term suggests that this representation is not normally identified with the concept of resentment. We rarely admit to resenting others; we observe resentment more readily in our enemies than in those with whose desires we identify. Its central importance in human history is obscured by this reluctance. What then is the conceptual content normally associated with the configuration I have analyzed as that of resentment? Let us say that I resent Bill Gates. The simple fact that he has more money than I doesn’t explain my resentment. I resent him only when I come to feel that this much is too much, more than he deserves. Bill Gates’s wealth, in other words, does me an injustice. (The same injustice may be done to others like me, perhaps to everyone; I may associate myself with them in my resentment, even feel resentment on their behalf, as political activists are wont to do.) The articulation of resentment as the “feeling of injustice” makes explicit its structure. Injustice is the core representation or idea of resentment, which gives rise to its feeling (anger, rage, depression…). We feel injustice if and only if we consider ourselves capable in principle–perhaps not in practical reality–of justifying this sentiment. To put it more precisely: to say we “feel injustice” at a given moment, whether justifiably or not in the broad scheme of things, is to say we think at that moment that (1) there is an objective criterion of justice, one that everyone must agree on, and (2) that this criterion has been violated in such a way that everyone is obliged to recognize the violation. (Those who refuse to recognize it are blinding themselves to truth.)
In contrast to theological or Kantian “imperatives,” the originary hypothesis provides an anthropological model for our intuition of (in)justice in the reciprocal exchange of the originary sign. Although advanced societies create differential access to certain signs, there is no hierarchy inherent in the sign, in language, itself. Even in the most rigid hierarchy, it always remains, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “self-evident” to us that we are “created equal.” The originary hypothesis explains the universality of this intuition: it is inherent in human communication through representation. We are all equal in our common possession of language.
The egalitarian configuration of the originary scene provides the minimal model for the resentment we feel when our sense of justice is violated. We should be careful to distinguish this minimal intuition of (in)justice from the “idea of justice” about which we communicate and establish guidelines. We can trace the evolution of diké and dikaiosyné from Homer to Plato and beyond. But at bottom, there really is no such positive “sentiment” as a “sense of justice.” What we call our “sense of justice” refers to the egalitarian model or norm that we become conscious of only when we sense, or resent, that the originary configuration of equality has been violated.
To experience a feeling of injustice is, minimally, neither to suffer nor to be “oppressed”; it is (1) to imagine oneself in a symmetric configuration with another person or persons and (2) to experience the violation of this configuration. The feeling of injustice is inconceivable without inner, if not an outer, rage; its representational kernel is not a cognitive “structure.” Perception of the violation of the symmetrical configuration calls in principle for action to reestablish symmetry, and this call mobilizes the emotions. (I will leave it moot at this point whether it be useful to speak of the “adaptive value” of the emotional accompaniment to the representational core of resentment, not knowing how one could go about separating their respective genetic causality.) That the sense of injustice is mediated through representation does not mean that it is “imaginary.” It goes without saying that resentments come in all degrees of intensity; my sense of outraged symmetry is incomparably more intense in a public humiliation than when I read in the newspaper about someone who earns more money than I do.
Just as our model explains our rage at injustice, it explains the intermittent nature of our less critical resentments. We do not spend the whole day resenting Bill Gates; only when we begin to dwell on him do we come to resent him, because what we “dwell on” is precisely our symmetry with him. As all revolutionaries know, a sine qua non of revolutions is the generation, voluntary or involuntary, of an imaginary symmetrical configuration in which we situate ourselves alongside whoever it is we are supposed to rebel against. It is only when we conceive this model that our inferiority becomes a scandal and we suddenly realize that “we’re just as good as they are,” whether “they” be lords, kings, bosses, colonizers, males, whites, straights…
The fact that resentment requires a “realization” is by no means a denial of the universality of the human intuition of equality. On the contrary, the imaginary symmetry derived from the originary sharing of the sign, the minimal kernel of our resentment at inequality, remains latent within all humans regardless of power relations. In rigid hierarchies, where the inferior has virtually no chance of attaining equal status with the superior, there is little opportunity for imaginary comparison and, as a general rule, relatively little resentment of those of higher status, although it remains a permanent possibility. Resentment is likely to be stronger in situations of “rising expectations,” where status has become more fluid, at least in the imagination of those below. These are hypotheses for a serious history of resentment to confirm or modify.
Resentment depends on the internalization, that is, the imaginary representation, of a collective scene. The transmission of this scene from one generation to another takes place neither by explicit cultural communication nor via some obscure “collective unconscious”; it is language itself that transmits from generation to generation the symmetrical scene of human culture. The kind of neurological circuitry by which this scene is realized in the brain is something I am not qualified to speculate on, although I certainly hope that others will explore it. My argument is independent of this circuitry. It reaffirms the substance of the originary hypothesis, which is that phenomena such as resentment that are contingent on representation are most parsimoniously explained by situating them within our model of the originary scene of representation.
What resentment, even more clearly than desire, reveals about this scene is that it is not, as metaphysics would have it, a kind of screen or tabula rasa on which representations or ideas “appear.” It is in the first place a human configuration, and the attention paid to the center of the scene is dependent on the equal distance from it taken by the humans on the periphery. (This restates in originary, and negative, terms Durkheim’s intuition that our cognitive powers have their origin in “society.”) This dependency is demonstrated by the power of resentment to disrupt our disinterested contemplation of the center. As soon as I perceive my neighbor to have some privilege I lack, my attention can no longer focus on anything but his possession of that privilege. As this little Russian fable suggests, we are more concerned with the asymmetry itself than with its “enviable” cause:
God appears to a peasant and tells him, “You may have anything you desire, but whatever I give to you, I will give twice as much to your neighbor.” The peasant replies, “I would like you to put out one of my eyes.”