Sunday, May 06, 2007

Ressentiment and the Ambiguity of “Responding Actively”

In my last comment, I asked these questions,

“What is ressentiment? To what material conditions is ressentiment a response? By whom and for whom is ressentiment a response?”

Today and over the following weeks, I want to continue to try to answer these questions.

Please bear with me – the purpose of this excursion is not to wander away from our interrogation of what the Enlightenment is, nor to discontinue the pursuit of using “ desiring one’s own repression” accurately and responsibly. I believe that the concept of ressentiment directly bears on these, and we’ve got to come to it sooner or later—let’s do it now.

In the last comment, I gave this answer to what ressentiment is,

“Ressentiment is born of the inability to respond actively. Ressentiment legitimates and justifies this inability. Ressentiment posits that it is possible to NOT ACT…that it is possible to respond WITHOUT ACTING.”

This answer is Nietzsche’s, based on this,

“The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is "outside," what is "different," what is "not itself"; and this No is its creative deed. This inversion of the value-positing eye—this need to direct one's view outward instead of back to oneself—is of the essence of ressentiment; in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all—its action is fundamentally reaction.” – Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, section 10.

Nietzsche does not deny that ressentiment is creative, or that it gives birth to values—he goes so far as to emphasize ressentiment’s creativity and powers of valuation. He does, however, claim that this creativity is based on a false reaction which is not active—is not that of deeds; that the creativity of ressentiment is a compensatory mechanism; and exists within the realm of the imaginary. Ressentiment’s creative deed is, Nietzshe says, a kind of nay-saying, a NO.

Nietzsche also uses the following elements to describe and delineate how ressentiment is not a properly active response : it says NO to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself.” It needs a hostile external world, (which implies, I think, that ressentiment will then “create” such a hostile external world for itself.) It needs external stimuli – its action is fundamentally reaction.

This all seems quite clear…. But is it really? Is it clear or is it clearly mere Nietzschean bluster and hysterically-flustered rhetoric?

How do we decide who is saying NO to what’s “outside”, what is “different”, what is “not itself” and who is saying YES? How do we know what is “outside”, what is “ different”, what is “not itself”? Is it even clear who is saying NO and who is saying YES? Is it really obvious what a triumphant affirmation of ‘itself’ is, or who among us in the history of humankind has exhibited this triumphant affirmation of ‘itself’? Is it clear whose revenge is merely imaginary? Is it clear what a deed is and is not? Is it clear who has been denied the capacity to respond actively, who it is who has this capacity and uses it, or even what this so-called capacity consists in? Or who it is who says, one way or the other?

The meaning of “ desiring one’s own repression” is not clarified, at least not now, by linking it to the meaning of “ressentiment” unless we give Nietzsche a personal and unphilosophical authority to dictate—to assert and insinuate—meaning, which I know that I refuse to give him.


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