Here is Eric Gans, back in 1998, presenting the problem of resentment in all its knottiness:
Resentment is the one category that cannot be deconstructed. Nietzsche, who discovered the power of resentment, was destroyed by it all the same. For to discover resentment in another is at the same moment to discover it in oneself. Only resentment can know resentment; yet resentment knows nothing since it distorts the reality of what it observes. Nor can anyone reveal resentment without being contaminated by it; history only gives us models for putting it off, for spreading it thin enough to let some light pass through its opacity. No “genealogy,” no act of deconstruction can separate itself from the construction of the order it resents. No use of language can represent, and defer by representing, its own resentment, yet all of culture is nothing but this attempt. (Chronicle 144, “Beyond ‘Generative Anthropology’ I. Deferring Resentment”)
Since this passage introduces the ouroboros-like character of resentment, let me add: doesn’t it follow that to identify the resentment of another (as, it must be admitted, Gans, and not him alone, often claims to do) is to throw one’s own resentment into the mix and thereby “out” oneself along with the other as resenting? The inquiry into resentment, which is always the resentment of specific selves and others, is presumably part of culture, so this inquiry is itself part of the impossible attempt to represent and defer its own resentment. All deconstructions or “critiques” of some central figure are driven by resentment, indeed all of “secular culture,” as we can see in this passage from The End of Culture, where Gans defines resentment more explicitly as a product of “moral” objections to “ethical” (i.e., necessary) hierarchies:
Resentment may be defined as the scandal of the peripheral self at the centrality of the other which transforms the equality of the original scene of representation into an absolute polarity of significance. It differs from mere envy in being directed not at contingent but at communally significant and hence ethically necessary differences. It is thus a necessary evil. but its necessity makes it, at the same time, an instrument of a new form of solidarity that is no longer bound by the concrete ethical limitations of ritual. This solidarity is expressed in secular esthetic and theoretical culture, that is, in art and philosophy, and, ultimately, in the sciences, where it appears purified of all contact with its origins in desire. (174)
This much earlier (1985) passage suggests how the attempt to defer by understanding resentment is made: by creating new spaces in which everyone desires but cannot obtain, once and for all, the same thing: beautiful objects, truth, and so on. But, presumably even in science, the origins of these cultural products in desire (and therefore resentment) cannot really be effaced. In a sense, then, they are all failures, however great, transcendent or world transforming.
We will find many more references to esthetic articulations of resentment than philosophical, and many more philosophical than scientific, in Gans’s work, but I think fewest of all to political or, even, more practical, judicial, articulations of resentment. The possibility that well designed and administered institutions might defer or lessen resentment rarely, if ever (I can’t think of any example, but I could be overlooking something) seems worthy of consideration in Gans’s thought. But wouldn’t that be the first place you’d look? Isn’t a court or justice system precisely where the “moral” would be built into the “ethical”? We could imagine many different judicial systems, because each would have its own way of assessing evidence, appointing judges, revising traditional procedures, etc. In fact, one might argue that there’s no necessary tension between the moral and the ethical here—the use of those weird looking wigs in the British courts is certainly “ethical,” but why wouldn’t that, by ensuring decorum and respect for the proceedings, facilitate rather than interfere with the provision of “reciprocity”? (Must the judge or jury be resentful as they study the motivations and actions of the various parties? If so, whom must they resent, in that case?)
Maybe Gans never takes up this question because the court system is where resentments may be reconciled, whereas the resentments that generate culture (through the attempt to understand and thereby defer them) are the irreconcilable ones. The ancient Israelites’ imagining of a God who was the king of kings, greater than any merely worldly emperor, and who would stand in judgment of those lesser kings, would certainly be a response to some irreconcilable resentment. Of course, even in this case, the irreconcilable is reconciled through the use of a legal, juridical, frame, albeit metaphorized. It may also be worth pointing out that we can trace the emergence of a judicial system out of what were once essentially scapegoating rituals (trial by fire, etc.), and that the development of notions like “proof” and “evidence” that resulted had a lot to do with development of science (and probably, back in ancient Greece, philosophy as well). If vengeance is the Lord’s, that means it’s not yours, and, as directed toward the subject of a monarch, that limitation of the right of vengeance is an injunction against rebellion—the king is precisely he who judges and not he who is judged on this level of existence. At any rate, must there be resentment in a well-ordered judicial and political order? If so, why? Is the very existence of a human judge “scandalous”?
Gans, much more recently (2019) has written (but not for the first time, I think) of an “Epistemology of Resentment” (Chronicle 621) which is an interesting phrase to put next to that earlier claim that “resentment knows nothing.” The epistemology of resentment, although he doesn’t quite put it this way, is the foundation of modernity: liberalism, democracy and the rest. Here Gans refers to the French Revolution, where he sees “the world’s first, tacit, if not explicit, affirmation of resentment as the source of moral authority.” “We need no Aristotle or Montesquieu to analyze the various forms of sovereignty; our resentment of the Old Regime demonstrates its injustice.” Here, let’s note, the notion of “justice” is built into the notion of resentment, but once you use a phrase like “sense of injustice,” it’s hard to avoid adding the qualifier (as Gans does) “whether ‘objectively’ justified or not” (but Gans surely believes some resentments are more “justified” than others, because he is clearly more resentful towards some than towards others—it’s not all perspectivalism, is it?). Even here, though, the alternatives Gans mentions for addressing such resentments are, on the one hand, “an offering of sacrifice (and food!),” and, on the other hand (for “less desperate times”), the mimetically satisfying example of its presumably justified discharge in popular culture alongside the high-cultural display of our eternal connection to the terror of the moment of origin”—but nothing, once again, as familiar and presumably sometimes effective as a judgment in favor of a plaintiff. (Note Gans’s qualifications every time the question of how “justified” a resentment may or may not be is introduced by the logic of his own discussion—it seems to be a theoretical point of great importance to resist stating outright that we could sometimes decide rightly between two sides.)
How to do justice to this indispensable concept of resentment has been perplexing me for a while. I think that Gans finds his very powerful insight that resentment comes into its own as a force once ritual has been weakened (it is bound up with secularity) very troubling, and with good reason. Resentment is there from the beginning, on the originary scene itself, where it takes the form of resentment toward the denying center, but it is bound up immediately in ritual. Resentment within the “egalitarian” order gets turned into a question of transgressing against the center, so it could never become “resentment-in-itself.” It seems reasonable that the way to bind resentment back up again would therefore be to once again treat expressions of it as transgressions against the center, albeit the centers reconstructed post-ritual, which would ultimately be the “state” or imperial center, with the judicial system that always comes along with it. It seems to me that there may be something in Gans’s thinking that resists such an approach with great tenacity. Maybe it’s that the possibility of a decidable justice sounds vaguely “fascist,” but the same argument for institutionally containing resentment can be made for a liberal or democratic state, unless we want to insist in advance that such a state could never provide justice (because it could only provide a field for the expression of resentments?). Maybe he just thinks it’s impossible, and therefore not even worth considering, but, in that case, it couldn’t be too difficult to consider the idea and demonstrate its impossibility. So, why does Gans present resentment in a way that makes it seem unbound and, at best, only occasionally and unpredictably appeasable?
I think the answer is to be found in an expression Gans has used, more than once, in studying “wokeism,” where he explicitly eschews condemning the phenomenon and enjoins us to instead “learn from it.” On the one hand, this could simply be a scholarly caution about not letting our own resentments cloud our analysis and would therefore apply to other phenomenon we might otherwise wish to prevent, but what is different here is precisely Gans’s insistence that wokeism represents the “moral model” constructed on the originary scene, which gives wokeism a kind of epistemological priority that wouldn’t be granted to, say, Nazism or Communism. But in that case, the resentment that Gans has in other places shown to have emerged as such in secular culture, or in revolutionary modernity, is now situated back on the originary scene. At some point along the way, the claim that the moral model involves the congregation around the center turned into the claim that the moral model involves the organization of the community against the individual member who stands out. Why? Perhaps because without the emergence of resentment “in itself” in secular and then modern culture, GA itself would not have been possible: the “moral” could not have been sufficiently separated out from the “ethical.” So, my hypothesis is that, since resentment “unbound” is originary for the emergence of GA, at a certain point it became, for Gans, originary altogether—to oppose it would be unthinkable, and even to imagine sufficiently well-run institutions to subsume it within the ethical would seem “dangerous” and bordering on the inhuman. (This would also help to account for the centrality of Romanticism, with its always barely contained Promethean resentment, to Gans’s thinking.)
Resentment, though, must always be bound up in the exchange relations with the center, which means that if we can’t start with the assumption that it may be remediable, all we can do is resent in turn (or simply protect ourselves from it). Making explicit the possible remediation of any resentment must be done on post-ritual terms (the problem of living post-ritually is one humanity hasn’t solved), which means resentment needs to be defined in terms of an exchange between periphery and center. So, I will put it as follows: “Resentment is your fulfilling of an imperative, having the reciprocal imperative you issue go unfulfilled, while not letting that reciprocal imperative lapse.” You did what you were supposed to, and in exchange some other is to do what he is supposed to (fulfill an imperative at least implicit in your action), and you’re holding them to it (regardless of any actual power you have to hold them to it). This seems to me a usefully public and institutional way of defining resentment, by grounding it in the structure of ritual—a structure that can be resituated in relation to a post-ritual center. We’re not, then, in the position of describing resentment as a “sense” or a “feeling,” which also means we don’t have to claim the ability to peer inside of others’ emotions and locate something there they might deny---it removes our discussion of resentment from the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which interestingly, is fairly obviously a generator of resentment—what arouses resentment more forcefully than being told you’re feeling it when you just don’t think you do? (It would be ironic if the effect of introducing the clarifying concept of resentment into discussions of culture were to produce more of it.) Resentment, or, we can say, a refusal to release an other from imperative you consider them bound by, will either show up in your language or not. If you’re resentful, you will be accusing the object of your resentment of failing to abide by some binding imperative that would constitute an exchange with one you have followed—this accusation, explicit or implicit, would be legible, and could be demonstrated or at least discussed publicly.
(Is my discussion here exhibiting resentment toward Gans? We could answer this question—not that there couldn’t be disagreements—by determining whether my discussion of him implies I consider him has having failed in some obligation he undertook by formulating the concept that I, in turn, took from him as an imperative—and that I still consider him under this obligation. I won’t venture to answer this question, as perhaps we should avoid doing regarding resentments actually or possibly imputed to us.)
One’s resentment will be evident in their language, but I mean this in the broadest sense—resentment, like all meaning making, is a performance. Sometimes one will explicitly demand the fulfillment of the presumably binding imperative, stating in detail its terms. Sometimes one “acts out” in ways that only make sense as a way of drawing attention to oneself as aggrieved in a way so specific as to be unmistakable, unless one were to be so oblivious as to aggravate the resentment by failing to “read” the signs. Sometimes resentment is in the inner monologue that gets refined and perfected but never uttered—but even in this case that monologuing will ‘wedge” its ways into shared discourse in discernable ways—discernable for those sufficiently mimetically attuned to circulating signs of resentment. And the understanding of resentment I’m positing here makes it possible to scale up resentment to the social level in fairly precise ways and without attributing some “feeling” to millions of people—imperatives, what we owe each other, are inscribed in laws and institutions and the traditions that allow for their interpretation.
We could also, in this way, speak more freely about justified and unjustified resentments: whether or not following an imperative confers upon the fulfiller of that imperative the “right” to issue a new imperative is, in Gans’s terms, an “ethical” question, depending upon the ways institutions customarily and sometimes through written forms handle questions of “ought.” One could obviously be wildly wrong in imagining that just because he did what he imagined he was supposed to this in turn entailed that another was supposed to reciprocate, and in that particular way. But we’d also be in a better position to contest resentment by, first of all, asking: what exactly do you think that other is obliged to do now, why, and how? And my definition also allows for us to define precisely the way out of resentment: allow the imperative you consider the other bound to fulfill lapse, as far as you are concerned (which also by the way helps us to see the longevity of some resentments—until they’re fulfilled, or the subject is released, imperatives are, strictly speaking, forever)—in other words, this definition of resentment also gives us a definition of forgiveness. Perhaps, following the logic of the succession of speech forms in The Origin of Language, one reshapes the imperative as an interrogative, a request for some kind of disclosure.
Gans mentions repeatedly that the reason resentment becomes so titanic in the modern world is that it gets removed from the entire web of obligations that reify expressions of resentment in orders governed by what Girard calls “external mediation.” Accepting the explosiveness of resentment is accepting modernity, and who could refuse that? The only ways of mitigating unbounded resentment Gans ever suggests are creating wealth through the free market and appeasing leftist demands in the liberal democratic political system. I suppose one could continue to wait for that to work out (was that sarcasm indicative of resentment?). The other approach would be work to formalize the social gradations that clearly already and continue to exist, not to make them permanent, but to attach webs of obligations and responsibilities to them. Contain resentment within pedagogical relationships where failures of reciprocity can be made visible, maybe appealed, maybe remedied, maybe recorded, gaining in specificity and information rather than in vagueness and vastness. You could say this violates some modern principle of equality or universality, or that it’s unrealistic, or utopian—but those would all be resentful responses, with the resentment being directed at those who would take away from us those resentments that have come to define us, that we allow others to cultivate so that we in turn can cultivate them. To be a modern subject is to hold in reserve the right to access the inexhaustible well of resentment. The less resentful response is to, wherever and in whatever way possible, draw out, amplify and formalize the obligations that tie us together in our labors, leisures, and uses of language together.