- Sentiments of ResentmentDesiring Others, Desiring Justice
In his recent book, Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra considers the uncoordinated bursts of violence that have punctuated the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall as tangible manifestations of the latest wave of crisis in liberal modernity. Rather than fostering peace and prosperity across the globe, he argues, the economic globalization of the last half century has created a claustrophobic and unequal world populated by frustrated individuals prone to anger and revenge. "The result is, as Hannah Arendt feared, 'a tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else,' or ressentiment, … an existential resentment of other people's being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness."1 Resentment was recently defined as the dominant mood of our age. More and more often, according to commentators such as Marco Belpoliti, individuals feel a sense of animosity toward others, toward the world in general, that stems from a wrong, offense, affront, or frustration that the individual has or has perceived to have suffered.2
Beyond resentment, Peter Sloterdijk wrote of the recent return of another forgotten thymotic element, namely, rage.3 After decades of suppression or [End Page 179] attempted transcendence, the ongoing economic crisis and recrudescence of global terrorism have demonstrated the centrality of rage, as well as its potential role in revolutions and emancipatory political struggles. Martha Nussbaum has also agreed that anger has once again become not just ubiquitous but also "popular" Yet she is much less convinced that negative emotions such as resentment and rage have a role to play in democratic politics—in fact, Nussbaum's work is emblematic in stigmatizing these feelings as normatively problematic and politically pernicious.4 Concerning resentment, in particular, Nussbaum argues that this sentiment is not only corrosive of human relationships, but detrimental, on a collective and political scale, to civic compassion and social order.5
Are we truly living in an age of resentment? And where does this negative emotion sit within René Girard's mimetic theory? In this paper I argue, first, that resentment emerges as an important affect within mimetic theory, one intimately linked to Girard's understanding of the triangular nature of desire and the perversely imitative dynamics sitting at its heart. Girard's reading of resentment does indeed illuminate aspects of our global modern condition. However, I also argue that Girard's conceptualization of resentment is somewhat narrow when it collapses resentment into ressentiment. In so doing, it not only obscures alternative generative mechanisms of resentment whose imitative import is limited, but it also negates the political value of resentment. Resentment not only can stem from highly mimetic forms of identifications, but can emerge as something other than the mere operations of envy and mimetic rivalry. Not all resentment, in other words, is about ressentiment. As I argue in the following, this matters not only in conceptual and theoretical terms, but also in political terms—the way in which one escapes or transcends resentment is different depending on whether this is a mimetic or anti-mimetic sentiment.
THE PLACE OF RESENTMENT IN MIMETIC THEORY
As an approach that grapples with the entanglements of desire, Réne Girard's mimetic theory is deeply invested in affect and emotions, particularly those linked to the often conflictual and rivalrous nature of the mimetic condition. As Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Paul Dumouchel, and Jean-Michel Oughourlian have illustrated, envy and jealousy feature in Girard's conceptual palimpsest only subtly and yet they arguably they form its ubiquitous affective underpinnings.6 The same could be said about resentment. Rather than a purely psychological, individual disposition—and just like envy and jealousy—resentment is the [End Page 180] relational expression of a mode of desiring that is central to Girard's understanding of the mimetic condition. After a brief illustration of the place of resentment in Girard's triangular model of desire, this section investigates the equation of resentment and ressentiment that emerges from Girard's writings due to, on the one hand, the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Scheler, and on the other Girard's own conservative inclinations...