In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche offers a withering criticism of what he calls ressentiment, the habit among the oppressed to focus all their attention on their oppressors, to obsessively document why those oppressors are evil. Ressentiment defines the oppressed as good, but only negatively: we oppressed are good only because we are not them. Ressentiment largely ignores the oppressed and their qualities because it is consumed with detailing the evil of the oppressors. Nietzsche thinks ressentiment is bad because it causes the oppressed to become trapped in a destructive energy, an energy whose purpose is only to obliterate what exists, rather than to create something new in the world. But what’s worse is that ressentiment’s consuming obsession renders the oppressed totally blind to themselves, to their capacities, to their potentials, to their strength, to their power to act into the world and create something new. The oppressed blind themselves to what we might call, after Deleuze & Guattari, their puissance. The endless attention paid to the oppressors makes it seem like they are the only ones capable of acting into the world, the only ones capable of creative agency. But of course they are not the only capable ones. We (the oppressed, the mass of people) are capable too. But we won’t see that ability unless we wean ourselves off of the easy drug of ressentiment.
My sense is that a large majority of the left media is consumed by ressentiment, that it spends most of its time complaining about the evils of those in power. One particularly spectacular example is Jim Hightower’s obsession with the Koch brothers, but there are countless others. And so this media, just like the corporate media, pays very little attention to how people everywhere are using their power to creatively construct another world.
It frustrates me, even to the point of ressentiment, and alas I guess this post in mostly in that key. So enough of this post. Enough of ressentiment. Here’s to becoming obsessed with our own puissance instead.
8 thoughts on “No to Ressentiment, Yes to Puissance!”
I like this reading of Nietzsche, as it takes it not only makes ressentiment less psychological but also appears less like a personal failing. Could the Deleuzian twist also be a shift toward desire and the molecular? A passage from A Thousand Plateaus might suggest so : “The American singer Patti Smith sings the bible of the American dentist: Don’t go for the root, follow the canal…” (19).
I do think of puissance and desiring-production as roughly similar, though I have not thought that through rigorously…
I have got the ‘personal failing’ or ‘blaming the victim’ worry from some, but I think locating the issue (and the decision) in the bodies and minds of people themselves is the only option–are we going to choose to liberate ourselves or to remain oppressed? Either way, the choice is ours, not theirs.
Your rightly identify the danger. I find it most pervasive in the “capacity building” paradigm, which is the dominant approach in both contemporary leftist movements and global development policy.
Returning puissance to the realm of desire, such as your suggestion to focus on desiring-production, may be the crucial analytic to distinguish our own approach from neoliberal empowerment initiatives.
By the way, this passage about Patti Smith torments me somewhat. It has been a few years now that I’m looking for a song by Patti, an interview (before Thousand Plateaus, in the 70’s most probably) that could exemplify what Deleuze and Guattari are talking about “Don’t go for the root, follow the canal…”. Do you have any clue?
Great post, Mark — very helpful as I revise a paper on statism in spaces of post-68 student activism in Mexico City. Saludos desde Bolivia (otra vez) ~
Thanks Nick, glad it was helpful. What’s ressentiment in Spanish?
Thanks for replying, Mark. I’m working on a blog post that links to this one. Will post soon. Perhaps you’ll find it of interest. On the Spanish: I see some commentators retain “ressentiment” in italics for the density of the word, but “resentimiento” is also an adequate translation.
Pingback: Back in Bolivia, reading Brazil’s Dance with the Devil | For Another Critique of the Pyramid