- A Thymotic Left? Peter Sloterdijk and the Psychopolitics of Ressentiment
As its subtitle makes clear, Peter Sloterdijk’s Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation (2006) continues a line of research that begins with the Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), which already abounded with references to psychopolitics. Far from psychologising political powers, psychopolitics deals with the ecology and economy of energies or affects that are articulated only on a collective level. In this sense, Sloterdijk is indebted to crowd psychologists such as Hermann Broch and Elias Canetti, to the mimetic anthropology of Gabriel Tarde and René Girard, as well as to media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan or Jean Baudrillard. But his primary inspiration is Nietzschean, insofar as psychopolitics is inseparable from “a self-aware antipolitical therapeutics” which seeks “not to depoliticize individuals, but to deneuroticize politics”1 (Sloterdijk 1990, 90) with regard to the basic affect constellation of the West: ressentiment.
Although I argue that the problem of ressentiment is central to Sloterdijk’s general philosophical project, the strategies for its overcoming have shifted to such an extent that, at first sight, there appears an almost unbridgeable gap between his earlier and later works. This explains why Sloterdijk’s early Critique was eagerly received by Left Wing critical theorists as antidote against the stagnation of revolutionary enthusiasm in postwar Kritische Theorie, whereas later works such as Rage and Time or God’s Zeal (2007) are bound to disappoint those who expect Sloterdijk to be the next big thing in “theory.” For instead of healing honourable theoria of its “veil of conventions, lies, abstractions, and discretions” (1987, xxxviii), he now situates his work provocatively “After Theory,” insofar as critical theory always ever was a variety of “the spirit that has been fuelled by ingenious ressentiment of submission to mere facts” (2010b, 228, 95). Worse still, he emphasizes that this [End Page 47] also means “After Politics.” In response, Slavoj Žižek and Alberto Toscano have already denounced Sloterdijk’s recent books. Žižek wonders whether his “obsessive-compulsive urge to find beneath solidarity the envy of the weak and thirst for revenge…is sustained by a disavowed envy and ressentiment of its own, the envy of the universal emancipatory position” (Žižek 2008, 165). And Toscano’s judgment is no less severe: “Sloterdijk belongs to those intellectual clinicians of our historical moment who think that we must both affirm the defeat of militant passions at the hands of a global capitalism and contend with the jaded apathy that allegedly characterized a completed liberalism, albeit one unsettled by the recidivism of religious zeal” (2010, 34–35). Must we therefore blame Sloterdijk for a variant of the cynical defeatism of the mourning left that he himself had wanted to cure in his debut?
Ressentiment Criticism and Beyond
According to Nietzsche, ressentiment is a “feeling of vengefulness (Rachegefühl).” It occurs when, due to some impotence, a “reaction ceases to be acted in order to become something felt (senti)” (Deleuze 2006, 111). As interiorized reaction, it is the local and surreptitious illness that defines “those who came off badly” in any healthy civilization, i.e., any culture based on a natural hierarchy between masters and slaves.
While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself… the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naive nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment; he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble. A race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree: namely, as a condition of existence of the first importance.(1887, I §10)
It is this timeless portrait of the man of ressentiment which Sloterdijk polemically reproduces in his evaluation of our contemporary capacity for critique in the Critique of Cynical Reason.
The problem with critical theory as it has developed in the course of the twentieth century, according to Sloterdijk, is that the discontents of...