Embarrassed Resentment

(I’ve been reflecting on this subject as I prepare for my next qualifying exam.)

It is often observed by thinkers informed by Girard’s work that, with the escalation of mimetic rivalry in modern market society, resentment too is on the rise. (My understanding of resentment derives from Girard’s definition of ressentiment as it draws on both Max Scheler’s and Nietzsche’s definitions.) Recognizing and discussing resentment is often offensive to those who theorizes–and advocate for–a more peaceful social order. In my experience, those sceptical of resentment’s origin in mimetic desire worry that any discourse foregrounding our propensity to resent will tend to essentialize violence as a constitutive element of the human. This anxiety regarding theories of resentment combined with the embarrassment caused by acknowledging impotent jealousy in the highly competitive modern marketplace (e.g. the University) may be the chief sources of reticence to serious discussions of resentment.

The contemporary thinker, striving to attain Nietzsche’s utopian freedom from the ressentiment of slave morality, disavows the sting accompanying her thwarted attempts to distinguish herself in the marketplace of ideas. The modern subject denies resentment with good reason, since acknowledging the sentiment is to betray, what Girard terms, a lack of being–a defeated admission that one’s desires are derivative instead of self-fulfilled. Because they appear to desire themselves alone, the self-fulfilled act as mimetic magnets for the desire of others. In doing so, the seemingly autonomous, unresentful subject wins the game of mimetic desire. Alternatively, to admit resentment is to own one’s failure to acquire the value bestowed by the mimetic desire of others. While the majority of contemporary researchers and intellectuals avoid the embarrassing scandal of discussing market society’s endemic resentment, its source–mimetic desire–goes unexamined.

I believe that at least some of the scepticism confronting mimetic theory derives from the anxieties aroused by its assertion of resentment’s pervasiveness, an assertion which points to the unsavoury subject of culture’s violent evolutionary history.

How does this assessment mesh with your experience? When discussing mimetic theory with sceptics, what’s the optimal way to broach the prickly issue of resentment?

Read 1 comment

  1. This question of ‘how to discuss mimetic theory with skeptics’ is an important one, I think, and the issue of resentment is a part of that worth exploring.
    I like your idea that to admit to resentment is admitting mimetic desire and rivalry – to ‘disavow the sting’.
    You suggest that this is an uncomfortable position for a subject who wants to believe in a peaceful society. This reminds me of an article I read recently about the issue of refugees in Australia — a very, very hot topic in Australian culture and politics, with really furious and passionate rhetoric being bellowed from all sides. The article I read suggested that the pro-refugee-rights groups are making a fundamental mistake: their campaigns always appeal to the idea that Australians are ‘fair’, ‘honest’, ‘open’ – qualities aligned with peace and justice. This writer argued that such propaganda is completely at odds with the reality of Australian culture and values, which may actually privilege selfishness and aggression. But because nobody can stand to admit as much, the only possible political rhetoric must be built on these tired cliches of supposed Australian values. Perhaps, the writer suggested, we would get further in the refugee debate if we admitted that most Australians are selfish and resentful creatures!
    It is allowable to direct these epithets at individual politicians. But to admit that the majority of the country as a whole is resentful, this cannot be allowed. Even those who are fighting passionately and earnestly against resentment can not name it.

Leave a Reply