The Dark Ages of Perspectivism

Jean Baudrillard, in a commentary titled “The Despair of Having Everything,” asserts that the attacks of 9-11 were not carried out by people “from whom we have taken everything and to whom we have given nothing back.” Rather, the rage felt by the militants of al Qaeda requires from us a reversal of perspective to grasp – for it is “the hatred felt by those to whom we have taken everything and who can give nothing in return.”

Not surprisingly, this is a passage that my undergraduates generally find utterly mystifying. Not even the historical explanations that wars have often served as a vital medium of cultural exchange, such as the discovery of algebra by the European crusaders or the adoption of tournament-style combats at the court of Saladin, seem to provide enough of a grip for making sense of what Baudrillard has in mind. G. K. Chesterton brings us somewhat closer to clarity with his formula that love causes us to appreciate the differences and individuality of the other, whereas hatred makes us imitate him or her. Writing on the eve of the Great War, he observes, “the more we love Germany, the more pleased we shall be that Germany should be different from ourselves, should keep her own ritual and conviviality and we ours. But the more we hate Germany, the more we shall copy German guns and German fortifications in order to be better armed against Germany. The more modern nations detest each other, the more meekly they follow each other…”

Of course, except on the fringes of the right, most Americans would be hard pressed to name any quality which they would find admirable among the militants of al Qaeda. It’s hard to forget how Bill Maher was chased from network TV for having the temerity to suggest that carrying out a suicide attack entails a modicum of courage. At a recent meeting of the Colloquium for the Study of Violence and Religion, I got into a conversation with a fellow participant, a well- and widely-read doctor, who remarked that the Muslim world envies the West for its technological advances, whereas we in the West envy the Muslim world for their sense of honor and readiness to defend dignity. But do we in the West truly admire these qualities? The doctor, it is true, grew up in an earlier time, when such values were not objects of immediate ridicule, indeed when they were regarded as essential for the well-being of any society. Having grown up in the wake of the sixties and seventies, I on the other hand have grown up with far higher doses of individualism and cynicism. As Michael Gillespie puts it, in reference to Hegel’s idea of bourgeoisification (the early form of hedonistic consumer society): the modern state “resembles the individual in the state of nature, who lacks the inner resolve to conquer his desire.”

Liberal democratic capitalism thus constitutes the effort to build society in such a way as to accommodate our lack of “inner resolve to conquer [our] desire.” Such an activity is necessarily expansionist, meaning that the world will have to be made safe for it. This unfortunate reality is explored with tremendous insight in Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America which lays out, in terms that will unsettle those on both the Left and the Right, why an individualistic, hedonistic, and consumerist society (as well as a progressive one) will necessarily take the form of an empire. Berman, unlike the vast majority of cultural critics out there, is hard-headed enough to suggest that the overcoming individualism and consumerism will necessarily come at a high and harsh price, namely at the cost of much of what we currently take for granted as individual freedom.

But it is a passage from Berman’s earlier book, The Twilight of American Culture, that best captures to my mind the intellectual deficit of our posthistorical empire, this ominous inability to find something worthwhile in one’s enemies. Writing of the startling decline in literacy that swept over Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, Berman observes that even the educated displayed a precipitous decline in intellectual capacity. Scholarly activity was limited mostly to copying manuscripts, with almost no attempt at analysis or debate over what texts actually meant: “From A.D. 600 to 1000, most people forgot how to read or think.” But what is more frightening, in a formulation that Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Adorno would appreciate, is that they “forgot they had forgotten.” Chief among the capacities they lost was the “cognitive ability of comparing different viewpoints and perspectives,” which is for example evident in Augustine’s Confessions, in which he constructs the worldview of the Manichaeans in order to critique it.

But isn’t one of the consequences of deconstruction precisely the sense that the intellectual activity of constructing the perspective of the other in one’s own mind a form of intellectual imperialism, a kind of mastery that prepares the way for colonization and elimination of otherness? Or is its tendency to focus on difference in the abstract, apart from concrete differences, a symptom of the fear that the study of concrete differences would undermine the grounds for tolerance? In my view, much contemporary theory cannot move beyond the liberal pluralistic subject, or a subject that is on its way to becoming more liberal, more secular, and more enlightened. In spite of all the talk about respecting difference, there is really only one path for the subject to follow. And what if he or she does not follow it? Is this a subject with whom we can reach some kind of negotiated settlement, or are we so convinced of the rightness of our ways that we should rule out in advance any kind of theologico-political peace talks, given that we believe nothing is to be given up – or is to be gained – from such a dialogue?

To get out of this rut, we need not so much as to “historicize” as to develop an “unhistorical consciousness” of which Nietzsche speaks in “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.”

Once more Baudrillard: “To understand the hatred the rest of the world feels towards the West, we must reverse our perspectives. This is not the hatred felt by people from whom we have taken everything and to whom we have given nothing back. Rather, it is the hatred felt by those to whom we have given everything and who can give nothing in return. Their hatred stems from humiliation, not from dispossession or exploitation.”

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4 responses

  1. Fascinating post! Leaves open the question, though, of why anyone should want to change their lifestyle (hedonistic/barbaric though it be) simply to deflect the ressentiment of others. Baudrillard makes the enemies of the West sound like people who’d want to kill Santa Claus.

    Here’s a fun and possibly relevant quote from Schumpeter: “The evolution of the capitalist style of life could easily-—and perhaps most tellingly–be described in terms of the genesis of the modern lounge suit.”

  2. Victorianist, I think that people have made sweeping and painful changes to their lifestyle in the past, as Americans did during World War II. What strikes me is that these changes seem far more difficult to make in the present. The same kind of social superego does not exist any more.

    Also, the wealthy and powerful have always had to contend with the ressentiment of the poor. I would argue that the poor have an easier time being ruled by an elite that pays tribute to virtue than one that they sense is given over to excess and dissipation. At a certain point, the perception of the excessive enjoyment of the other becomes unbearable This principle tends to become invisible in secular societies, though Zizek pays some attention to it in his more recent work – the point being that in politics, envy can be a tremendously powerful force. Zizek talks about the readiness to sustain injury to oneself in order to deprive the other of his or her enjoyment.

    This is the point that Thomas Frank misses in his analyses of the politics of middle America. He wonders why so many middle Americans persist in voting Republican, against their rational interests, and never answers this question, other than to say that they are deluded. I would say that there is something sublime about voting against one’s self-interest. Also, hurting the political enemy brings gratifications that at least for the short term exceed those associated with furthering one’s self-interest.

  3. patrick seth williams | Reply

    An alternate question that can be posed is not “how do the rich contend with the ressentiment of the poor” but rather “how do people in positions of near power (to change the terms from Marx to Foucault briefly) use the ressentiment of the powerless to achieve greater power, while simultaneously creating a false entitlement among the powerless”? This seems to be the key to a totalitarian takeover of society.

    I find two good literary examples of this to be Sinclair Lewis’ _It Can’t Happen Here_ and Melville’s _Moby Dick_. In Lewis’ dystopian narrative of a Fascist takeover of the US government in the guise of democracy, what aids the Fascists is appealing _not_ to the poor specifically but to the lumpenproletariat (to use Marx’s term). Lewis shows explicitly how the material values of the lumpenproletariat correspond to those of the bourgeois although the lumpenproletariat are not in a position to capitalize – quite literally – on their desires. Buzz Windrip the Fascist-turned-President for life (or for approximately two years give or take before being disposed by his second in command who is in turn disposed by his second in command) wins the Presidency by appealing to this class of individuals.

    Although the sailors on board the Pequod in Moby Dick are not necessarily part of the lumpenproletariat – although I think I could make an argument that that is exactly what they are – Ahab capitalizes on their feelings in much the same way. It’s not, repeat not, the Spanish gold that entices the sailors to so wholly ascribe to Ahab’s monomaniacal quest, but rather the fact that the sailors feel that in some way the quest has become their own. This seems to me to be the apotheosis of ressentiment. The sailors do not actually achieve a modicum of power and, in fact, become all the more powerless to Ahab’s totalitarian control but yet they believe they have power.

  4. Patrick, thanks for pointing me to Sinclair Lewis’ novel. I wonder though if its portrayal of the lumpenproletariat presents them as have-nots willing and ready to hurt themselves in order to strike at the haves. Note that depriving others of enjoyment is also a way for the disgruntled to achieve equality. As for your remarks on Moby-Dick, I am reminded of the saying that every soldier in Napoleon’s army carried a marshal’s baton in his backpack. I agree that the obedience of the crew to Ahab’s quest cannot be accounted for by the doubloon, at least by its fair market value. Rather, the significance of the coin has to do with Ahab’s interpretation of it, as it serves as a kind of mirror not only for his own suffering but of the human fate itself: “Born in throes, ‘t is fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs!” But I am not certain if ressentiment is the prime factor at work here as much as the authority that accumulates to the person who has suffered from those who fear suffering. Some people seek redemption because of their suffering, others seek redemption to avoid suffering – I think it is the latter who end up becoming participants in catastrophic projects.

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