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Keeping Score

The Bitterest Pill

Nietzsche (c) Silvia Siles

For such a significant emotion in people’s lives, resentment rarely gets the coverage it deserves. The sickly and awkward cousin of belonging and acceptance, resentment is shunned and rarely admitted to – either in public or private. The voicing of resentment is an admittance that something is wrong – that the public self is built on wounds that have never truly healed (if healing is the right word). The existence of resentment as a strong force in emotional contexts makes a mockery of empty calls for happiness, aiming for quick fixes while glossing over the pain of anger, bitterness and regret.

While maybe not a significant emotion in the public sphere, resentment is a mainstay of popular culture – beloved of soaps and TV dramas, the dark underbelly of family and community life offering a platform for relationship strip tearing. It provides a compelling spectacle that rings true to the viewer (because it is true). Psychotherapy is no stranger to resentment either.

So where does resentment fit in the relational world, the world of Dirty Looks? One of the most illuminating essays in this regard is Amelie Rorty’s The dramas of resentment. Rorty rightly places resentment and its Neitzschean older sibling resentiment at the heart of the relational world, an emotion that “feeds itself on the past, chewing over painful memories of humiliations, insults, and injuries, regurgitating them until their very bitterness acquires a savoury taste.”

Nietzsche 1862a
Nietzsche 1862a (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rorty is also right to illustrate the dependent nature of resent(i)ment; it loves to call on its close friends – bitterness, humiliation, misrecognition and exclusion. These feed the force of resentment, powering it to even greater levels of frustration:

Nietzschean re-sentiment is allied to a tribe of nasty cousins, to envy, schadenfreude, hatred, rage, to the stench of the self-destructive plots of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Man from the Underground.

But resent(i)ment is nothing without the relational; it ceases to exist outside of the ceaseless gaze of others and their feared judgments. In this context and viewed as objectively (!) as possible, the emotion can be understood as a powerful phenomenon in its own right. But in order to be understood thus, resent(i)ment must be accepted as an inevitable and all too human by-product of existing, of living in a world where relations are inescapable. As Rorty puts it,

We are objectively and practically dependent on one another. And although we moralizingly call comparisons odious, we live and move in a world of constantly tested and hotly contended hierarchical comparisons of power. Even self-reliant, self-disciplined Emersonians, even rationally autonomous Kantians, even otherworldly mystics find themselves internalizing what they take to be the glancing look of their fellows.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.