Thinking about the story of Adam and Eve in reference to last week’s Chronicle has led me to the question of sin. I choose this old-fashioned term not only because it is the central element in the Genesis story (although “original sin” is a Christian, not a Hebrew concept), but also because the questions this story raises about sexual/gender difference and the resentments it arouses confirm the validity of this term in the context of both generative anthropology and contemporary human morality—contexts that I have been laboring for over thirty years to show are fundamentally the same.
Sin, that is, resentment, is indeed original, or better, originary. What I call originary resentment is the resentment directed at the central object of the originary event—hence away from one’s fellows on the periphery—when the object’s very designation/sacralization by the sign makes it inaccessible to its designators. What makes this the origin of the specifically human phenomenon of resentment is that it is focused in the first place on the sacred center itself, accessible during the originary event only through the mediation of the sign, rather than on the others as rivals. In the originary scenario, the designation/consecration of the central object would be followed by the sparagmos in which the object, but never the sacred center itself, is divided and consumed. Thus in distinction to animals in conflict, who remain fixed in pecking-order rivalries, humans experience resentment through the mediation of the sacred.
That is what makes resentment sinful; it is not mere one-on-one rivalry, but rivalry for possession of the divine. René Girard specifically described the triangular scheme of Mensonge romantique as a form of idolatry in which a human “mediator” takes the place of the divinity. Although at this stage Girard was not constructing an originary anthropology, it is clear from his description of mediation as a deviated form of worship that its originary model was indeed worship of the sacred center, which, as GA proposes, was at the origin the effective source of the deferral of conflict. In a word, resentment is sinful because it is ultimately resentment against God.
I have always found morally dubious the victimary response to the Holocaust that defines the postmodern era (in contrast with such self-serving definitions as the “end of master [actually ‘meta’] narratives”). The victimary extends the Nazi-Jew model of absolute oppression to asymmetric relationships of all kinds by attributing to them the absolute binary structure of oppressor and victim. This permits the victimary thinker to affirm as wholly justified the resentment of the “victim” and his/her defenders, ignoring the common sinfulness, or propensity to resentment, of both “victim” and “oppressor.” This suggests that a reaffirmation of the anthropological insights contained in the biblical tradition might begin to serve as an antidote to victimary thinking and the victimocracy it has spawned.
No doubt in the case of a guard and a prisoner in a concentration camp, the sinfulness of the latter’s hatred is not of primary concern; above all, we do not accept the legitimacy of the victim’s powerless status, however “legal” in the Nazi or Communist context. But the concentration camp is not an example of an enduring social order, and certainly not a legitimate model of modern Western society. Inequalities of status and reward, however justified by the overall organization of a given society, will always violate our internal sense of the “moral model” of reciprocity and generate resentment, but granting free rein to selected categories of resenters is a violation of our common humanity. The constant pressure of the victimary critique against the fund of good will that sustains the institutions of Western society risks eroding the latter beyond repair.
A Brief History of Resentment in the Modern Era
I will divide this capsule history into three periods: The Old Regime, the Revolutionary-Bourgeois Era (1789-1945), and the Postmodern-Victimary Era.
The Old Regime
The old regime may be understood for our purposes as a traditional honor-based society. Membership in social orders was largely fixed, and the resentments generated by the interactions between the orders were in normal circumstances unspoken. In contrast, resentment was an explicit element in relations between individuals. In distinction from the Nietzsche-Scheler notion of resentment in the bourgeois era as a shameful sense of frustrated rage, aristocratic society used the word freely to designate the reaction to a perceived violation of one’s honor, which would normally not be left unavenged. Corneille’s Rome, unique objet de mon ressentiment! (Horace IV, 5) was typical of the frank avowal of resentment in pre-revolutionary France. Resentment in this sense was considered rather a virtue than a vice, even though its “pagan” nature could never be fully reconciled with the Christian ideal of “turning the other cheek.” For honor was not simply an individual but a family and indirectly a social value, one on which a man’s dependents relied for security in the present and continuity in future generations.
Resentment and the French Revolution
In contrast with resentment in defense of individual honor, the ideological justification of resentment against the overall social order, considered as unjust, is a product of the French Revolution. In previous ideological battles, for example the religious wars that pervaded Europe for a century after the Reformation, each side’s position was grounded in an existing religio-social order. The English civil wars of the 17th century, which opposed Puritan/Protestants and Anglican/Catholics, leading to the execution of one king and the exiling of another, still followed this model. The Whigs and Tories (both terms that, interestingly enough, originally designated rebellious factions, the Protestant Whigamores, and the Irish word toraidhe meaning “outlaw”) both represented existing social fractions that came into conflict within the overall world of British society. (It was Walter Scott’s depiction of both sides of the residual battles over the results of the Glorious Revolution in 1715 and 1745 that inaugurated the modern “polyphonic” novel.) Only in the French Revolution was there a radical attempt to remake the entire society on ideological grounds, replacing fundamental social relationships, notably those between the “estates,” with an abstract model of equality that had never been tested in practice—and that the American revolutionaries of a few years previously would never have dreamt of implementing. The imperatives to use tu instead of vous and citoyen in place of the usual titles were the most obvious signs of this radical imperative.
It was this ideological radicalism, apparent even in the early days of the Revolution, that shocked Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790), who had championed the American revolutionaries and had at first been sympathetic to the French. Burkean conservatism is respect for tradition under siege, for established although necessarily resentment-producing social difference, judged as prima facie preferable to what we would call today a return to the Rawlsian “original position.” The left-right opposition that began with the seating in the Parisian National Assembly is a reflection of the symmetrical resentments of these two positions. The left embodies the resentment of the old order, and the right, resentment of this opposition and the disorder it risks creating more than the simple affirmation of the order itself, which, having already been modified, has forever lost its sacred status. (Burke’s chief concern was that England, as opposed to France, not thus depart from its traditions.)
Bourgeois society: from the revolutionary to the victimary
The whole of the bourgeois/revolutionary era was marked by the salience of resentment, not (until Nietzsche) as a concept, but as a political force. What the French still commemorate each July 14 is the “people” promenading the heads of the Bastille soldiers on pikes. This was no longer a “peasant revolt,” a mere outpouring of rage, but the unleashing of an anger that would wholly transform the French polity.
And which, local violence aside, appeared at first to have created a new era of civilization, one that would have its own “rational” system of weights and measures (which has been adopted everywhere but in the US) and its own calendar (which has not). In a scenario that would be repeated throughout the revolutionary era, resentment against the defeated old regime was redirected against insufficiently radical revolutionaries (Girondins, Kerenskyites, Mensheviks). The end result, after much violence and many agonizing reappraisals in France and elsewhere, and a series of minor crises in Great Britain, was that the political tensions of market society could be kept in check only by some kind of parliamentary system.
The revolutionary/bourgeois era was marked by a retreat of the notion of sinfulness. Revolutionary resentment was hailed as a welcome sign of non-servile reciprocity in the “estate” that had previously accepted its inferior position in the old regime’s social hierarchy. The resentment of the right was equally self-righteous. Bourgeois politics, “democratic” or not, required the equilibration of the opposing resentments of elite and mass, city and country, bourgeois and “proletarians”; the market economy whose emergence had undermined the old order embodied no simple “rational” solution to the allocation of power and resources. In the more or less democratic politics of market society, resentments were negotiated among factions, ministerial and parliamentary. The old regime’s duality of a stable social hierarchy within which individuals contested the limits of each other’s honor gave way to a world where individual and collective battles both concerned “interests,” and resentment was the signal to a given party that its interests were in jeopardy.
In contrast, the attempt to resolve social tensions through utopian schemes led to disaster. The disappointment generated in June 1848 by the closing of the failed ateliers nationaux that were supposed to provide jobs for the unemployed sparked the bloody conflict that marked the effective end of the 1789-era revolutions in France—and planted the seed that would lead to the abortive 1871 Commune de Paris, a foretaste of the socialist/fascist revolutions that would eventually culminate in WWII and the Holocaust.
La belle époque at the turn of the 20th century took its positive aura from what appeared to be the long-term stability of bourgeois society. We will never know if WWI was “inevitable” or the result of a chaotic series of errors and miscalculations, notably concerning the deadly indecisiveness of the military technology of the era. At any rate, the trauma of the war exacerbated the social tensions of the market system, and in several countries humiliated or perturbed by the war, Italy, Russia, and Germany, or encouraged by it, as was Japan, generated resentments that overflowed the capacity of the parliamentary system and spilled into totalitarian and militarist movements.
The totalitarian revolutions against the bourgeois order exalted resentment as a motive for social action to the point where it became wasteful to continue to experience it as an emotion. Some of us are old enough to recall the Marxist eschatology in which “capitalism” was condemned less for its inequities than its historical backwardness; our energies should be employed, not in resenting capitalism, but in hastening the arrival of socialism, where all resentments would be abolished. This process was thought of as simply rational; “the end justifies the means.” If the kulaks had to be exterminated, so be it; the verdict of history was independent of individual emotions. The Nazis, as we know, took a similar approach to the extermination of the Jews, who alone made impossible the harmony of Aryan rule. Kristallnacht was not the model to follow in the Final Solution, which was to be soberly systematic. How indeed resent the Jews while leading them to the gas chamber? Who cannot recall Himmler’s horrible yet almost moving praise of the courage of SS men who were able to see—and create—piles of thousands of bodies without flinching?
Thus the revolutionary era, which began by opening up the old hierarchies to resentment in order to give birth to a new, privilege-free society, ended with the creation of tyrannies that purported to liberate humanity by means of unspeakable violence from the resentments generated by the market society that had succeeded to the old order. Erecting resentment into a political principle spawned what have been no doubt the greatest human horrors to date.
Postmodern victimary politics
The victimary era that followed WWII saw the rapid dissolution of hierarchies built on group identity, notably, racial segregation in the US and eventually in South Africa, and the entire system of Western colonialism. The Holocaust Nazi-Jew model was the major force in stimulating this development because its dehumanized violence made it appear as the reductio ad absurdum of all de jure distinctions based on group identity. The anti-colonial struggle had begun before the war, for example in India, but the defeat of the Axis that openly promoted “racial” superiority destroyed for good the legitimacy of the principle of group difference.
The Nazi-Jew model gave new legitimacy to “revolutionary” resentment, now attached to “subaltern” ascriptive identities of race, gender, and class, to which were added later such characteristics as sexual orientation, handicap, and age. Social class has tended to merge into race as the racial/ethnic stratification of American and other Western societies has come to substitute for class difference. Although victimary resentment is not personal resentment within a functional hierarchy, the worker resenting the foreman or the servant the master, “subalterns” of all kinds are primed to suspect functional superiority of reflecting not merit but group advantage.
Since this Chronicle is focused on the present, I will not insist here on the internal evolution of the postmodern victimary era (see, for example, Chronicles 426 and 427), but concentrate my remarks on the phase of this period following the end of the Cold War, that coda of the age of revolution that kept alive the hope of doing away with “capitalism” for another generation. Today’s Islamic militantism, however invigorated by the post-colonial “white guilt” of the West, is in no way capable of replacing communism as an apparently viable alternative to the market system. Yet the lack of any such alternative has led only to an intensification of victimary politics to which, following Adam Katz, I call victimocracy. Despite its persistent indulgence of left as opposed to right totalitarianism (e.g., Cuba), victimocracy, unlike the revolutionary movements of the previous era, lacks any vision of a future beyond market society.
In contrast with traditional, ritual-based society, bourgeois market society cannot rely on static norms of behavior, and so generates resentments on a far larger scale. One can understand the broadly felt impatience, beginning in the Romantic era, with a social order that cannot provide a “model of virtue” for its participants. Churchill’s line about democracy being the worst system with the exception of all the others applies equally to the market economy.
One might have expected, however, that the discrediting of the presumptive alternatives to the market system, and perhaps even more strikingly, the absence of any new ones— for surely China’s authoritarian market model, hardly stable even in its own terms, is not a viable alternative for advanced industrial societies—would have led to a certain humility on the part of those inclined to complain of the unfairness of the liberal-democratic system. One might have thought, that is, that the old idea of our sinful nature would make a comeback. Instead, the history of resentment took a new turn, and the postwar Holocaust model, rather than dissolving along with the hopes of “socialism,” only became radicalized.
It is in its uncritical endorsement of the resentments of those who can claim, sometimes spuriously (cf the Cherokee Elizabeth Warren), to belong to a certified victim group, that our age makes us regret the social value of the lost notion of sin. As opposed to crime, guilt for which must be determined case by case via standard legal procedures, sinfulness is a universal human trait. Resentment is no doubt the typical way we detect injustice, but it is not proof of injustice. Encouraging “victims” in their resentment allows them to project all their own sinfulness onto their “oppressors,” whom they are further encouraged to denounce to the authorities on the principle of “zero tolerance” of oppression, however defined.
The victimocracy’s uncritical reliance on the epistemology of resentment seems to be in a state of constant expansion. In Chronicle 449 I mentioned the report of a UCLA campus survey that, after having sought out and found a few incidents that gave evidence of racism, declared campus racism to be a serious problem, notwithstanding what would appear to be the extreme paucity of such incidents in a community of some 40,000 people. This result was recently reinforced by another “campus climate” survey in which students and others were asked to indicate whether they had experienced incidents of offensive conduct: “24% of respondents believed that they had personally experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct at a UC campus/location…” “Believing one has experienced” is thus presented as evidence of the experience itself, with no hint that skepticism concerning one’s own resentment is even theoretically possible.
It goes without saying that all persons, from whatever ascriptive groups, should be treated with fairness and human decency. But I believe that this can only be done once we go back to our religious tradition’s categorization of humans as bearers, not just of the “selfish gene,” but of sinfulness, a tendency to resent others above and beyond reaction to genuine injustice. The farther we go in giving free rein to the resentment of victimary groups, the more intergroup tension and the less tolerance we will create, and the less lovingly people will behave toward one another. The newly popular notion of “micro-aggression” is founded on the conviction that whatever efforts are made to eradicate it, the “hegemonic” stain of racism, sexism, and so on, like that on Lady Macbeth’s hand, can never be cleansed entirely, and that the apparently most innocent interactions, if analyzed with sufficient perspicacity, will reveal it. Like fanatical environmentalists for whom no concentration of a pollutant is low enough, the masters of micro-aggression will never accord an “oppressor” a clean bill of health.
All social orders are, in the first place, means for controlling resentment. It is not for nothing that the first word of Western culture, the menin of the Iliad, refers to Achilles’ “rage” that is in reality his resentment, his inability to “rage” in an active sense. As our means of detecting injustice, resentment must be checked by what we call our conscience, which is, in effect, our sense of our own potential sinfulness. The victimocracy is fated to discover that allowing any group, be it women, blacks, gays, the handicapped… to locate all sin outside itself is a recipe for social dissolution.
What can save us from this dystopia is to recall the sense of sin we learn from the understanding of our origin. GA is in this respect a path to the humanistic understanding of what has already been part of our great religious traditions. Call it resentment, call it mimetic desire, our inherent potential for sinfulness requires from all of us constant humility and vigilance. As Pascal reminded the beautiful souls of his era, qui veut faire l’ange, fait la bête—who would act as an angel, acts as a beast.