One of Nietzsche's chief accomplishments was his elaboration of the description of the phenomenon of ressentiment. He did not invent this idea; it had been used in many places before. I especially see an important usage of the concept in the writings of Rousseau, and something similar can be found in Goethe. But Nietzsche was particularly insightful about ressentiment, both at the psychological level, and in analyzing its importance as a force in world history. In Nietzsche's eyes, the ressentiment of the oppressed towards those who were more powerful was the motivating force behind the "revolt in morals" of the "slave morality" - a force that was behind such events as Socrates and Plato, the rise of the Christian religion, the French Revolution, and much, much more. I think it's fair to say that Nietzsche was pushing for moving beyond ressentiment in some sense, transcending it in some way.
We misunderstand ressentiment, however, if we imagine that it is something that is simply "bad." Nietzsche spoke of going "beyond good and evil," after all. One of the beautiful, paradoxical riddles of the maze-like pattern of ressentiment is that those who simply denounce ressentiment are, themselves, captured by ressentiment. To free ourselves of ressentiment, we must learn to appreciate ressentiment, to be grateful toward ressentiment, to celebrate its awesome accomplishments. Indeed, Nietzsche believed that the slave morality had given depth to human existence, had given meaning to our lives, and in fact had been the only thing that gave our lives meaning thus far - those who had lived by the old "master morality" had lived meaningless lives, and they are more to be pitied than respected. (Nietzsche himself can, of course, be seen as a person motivated by great ressentiment.)
Some of the greatest feats that humans have accomplished, in philosophy, in art, in religion, and so on, can be seen as exquisite articulations of ressentiment. First and foremost in my mind in this regard is Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. Perhaps the theses of Society of the Spectacle cannot be upheld as objectively true in a scientific sense, but they still "ring true" - they are emotionally true - because they perfectly describe a kind of ressentiment that anyone with a pulse - anyone who is not totally dead inside - feels, and feels acutely - namely, our ressentiment toward the all-embracing spectacle that has completely captured contemporary society, and which seems to pursue its own interests above and beyond those of the individual people who work to maintain it - just as capital has its own interests, which are ultimately more powerful and consequential than those of the capitalists themselves. And part of the problem is simply the fact that this spectacle is so emotionally unsatisfying. As Debord says, "Reality rises up within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real." Yes, but often it doesn't feel real. It feels inauthentic, ersatz, contrived. It feels boring, and as William S. Burroughs says, boredom always implies an undischarged desire.
This was on my mind as I watched the hearings of the January 6th committee this past Thursday. It's not that I doubt that what the committee is saying is true. I think it's essentially accurate, as far as it goes. But I cannot shake the deep, gut-level feeling of ressentiment that I feel towards the spectacle of the Jan 6th hearings, precisely because it is a spectacle, and especially when I agree with them. The slick, prime-time production, for which they brought in critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker Nick Quested, has been grating, particularly after the reviews came in:
USA Today called it "riveting." Actually, just about every news outlet calls it "riveting."
"Gripping." - The Globe and Mail
CNN calls it "visceral."
Even before it began, Newsweek anticipated "bombshells."
The New York Times called it "revelatory" and "dramatic."
"More riveting than Watergate!" gushes RealClearPolitics.
Is it? I watched the whole thing, but I'd be lying if I claimed that my attention didn't wander sometimes. It's more emotionally engaging than, say, a Transformers movie, but that's not saying much. Nearly every news outlet has highlighted that there is a great deal of new information we've never seen before. To be fair, there is some - but not much. Most of the hearings merely confirm what we already believed - no matter which side of political struggle we happen to be on.
Democracy implies participation in power - which, of course, I support. But the flip side of this is the tendency of power to implicate us in itself, through a kind of pseudo-participation. This spectacular tendency reaches its apogee in an event like this, which has no practical import, no specific form of action to be taken, which exists merely where we are harangued into a moral responsibility to participate, but our participation means nothing other than an obligation to watch. "Every American should be watching these hearings!" said my boss at work, so I did my duty.
I notice the faces of the people at the hearing - not the ones speaking, but everyone else: the interns, the staffers, the press, the private citizens, and I notice their discomfort, I feel their feeling of being watched - the embarrassment, the restlessness, the feeling of what it is like to just be doing one's job, the knowledge that they are supposed to be serious and solemn, and, just flickering in the background every now and then, the underlying absurdity - the sensation of arbitrariness, vertigo, the "What am I doing here? What are we doing here?" feeling. The agitation. It's the same feeling that I tried to capture in my earlier article, "What is a Ritual?" Of course, the feeling is mine - my own ressentiment toward the spectacle.