Digital Project

A Note on Resentment

1.

On February 20, 2016, I was in Boston visiting a friend.1 We’d decided to take a walk downtown, and by chance, through Boston Common, where hundreds of Chinese people had gathered to condemn the conviction of the New York Police Department officer Peter Liang for manslaughter. Two years earlier, Liang had been patrolling a public housing complex in East New York, Brooklyn, and shot to death Akai Gurley, an unarmed twenty-eight-year-old black man, in an unlit stairwell. He was the first NYPD officer convicted in a line-of-duty shooting case since 2005. Now Liang’s supporters clustered around the bandstand and along the pathways, chanting and holding up signs that read no scapegoat and one tragedy two victims. I shook as I walked past them: this was the first time I had ever seen a group of Chinese people protesting. They were protesting in more than thirty cities that day, I later learned.

The rallying cries made a violent equivalence: Why did a Chinese man have to pay the price for the crimes of countless white men? (As if he had not committed the crime.) To me, this was a feeble pose of solidarity, one that revealed the unexamined anti-blackness of the protesters to the world watching on. Of course, I understood the quiet resentment of being relatively voiceless and faceless, of being seen as an accessory to whiteness—of being Asian in this country. This recognition, though sympathetic, provoked a sense of shame. A couple of demonstrators, identifying me as a fellow Chinese, held out flyers and encouraged me to join them. Eyes averted, I took the flyers and quickened my pace.

The protests against Liang’s conviction illustrated the ease with which resentment can be—and, historically, has been—marshaled to serve white supremacy. In the past few decades, resentment has increasingly come to be associated not merely with “an indignant sense of injury or insult received or perceived,” in the OED’s words, and not merely with a lack of power, but with the privations and entitlements of particular identities. No doubt this has much to do with the migration of our social lives on to the internet, and countless articles have been written about the cultivation of resentment on web forums and social media platforms, especially in relation to the ascendance of Donald Trump and his neofascist brethren around the world. White men who claim (or are reported) to be consumed by resentment suddenly are highly visible and aggressive, their most extreme viewpoints emboldened by their newfound communities. Thanks to the coordination of media outlets, religious organizations, lobbyists, political action committees, media-friendly neo-Nazis, Koch-backed astroturfing campaigns, billionaire donors, and so on, the right has channeled resentment into spectacular political victories (as well as explosive violence).2

I’d be lying if I denied that the sight of a mass of Chinese people speaking in unison—in anger!—moved me, but the sustenance was bitter. I couldn’t help but also think of the small but assertive groups of conservative Chinese Americans that have used WeChat to mobilize support for Trump and successfully impede legislation supporting affirmative action and sanctuary cities and states. Clearly, resentment mobilizes people. But is an ugly stammer better than no sound at all? Is it a precursor to speech that is more refined, less myopic in its demands, clearer in its vision? Or yet another lesson in the limits of resentment as a basis for justice and solidarity?

In States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (1995), Wendy Brown describes the emergence of resentment as the dominant political expression of the last several decades. Her account of “identity politics,” which supplanted the class-based struggle that drove the left for much of the twentieth century (and was animated by a vision of a just world that was to be achieved through that struggle), draws on Nietzsche’s analysis of ressentiment as the foundation of Christian morality: the powerless of society, denied direct recourse against their oppressors, enacted a “slave revolt” by institutionalizing suffering as a moral virtue, which established the opposition between good and evil (and those who belong in one category or the other). According to Brown, identity politics, contrary to Marxism, allows for a sense of community “without requiring profound comprehension of the world in which one is situated.” This makes sense as a response to the corrosion of so many long-standing sources of collective identity. “Identity politics, with its fierce assertion and production of subjects, appears less a radical political response to postmodernity than a symptom of its ruptures and disorienting effects,” she writes. The emphasis in progressive politics on securing rights (e.g., the legalization of gay marriage) rather than on democratization speaks to how we are conditioned to desire protection over freedom, stability over contestation. The effect is to codify and essentialize our “injuries” as well as the underlying power relationships. In other words, we get attached to our own exclusion and suffering: this is the stuff of our identities. To maintain a sense of who we are in a world without much to offer in terms of belonging, we must continually seek out objects on which to displace our pain, a process that becomes an act of self-definition.

Brown’s argument brings to mind the familiar rebukes of call-out culture. (The National Review, for instance, explains snowflakes via ressentiment—“a theory of morality that says the success of the successful is proof of their wickedness”—and links their “obsession” with microaggressions to their “micrototalitarian tendencies.”) There’s no denying that identity politics can wield injury to claim infallibility and dole out punishment to those who violate a moral hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, this is how Trumpists, as well as avowedly pragmatic liberals, characterize most demands for redress from marginalized people, the customary objects of white resentment. They dismiss calls for reparations for slavery or safe spaces or acknowledgments that American cities stand on stolen land as symptoms of an infantile and self-defeating “PC culture.” The resentment of people of color, as opposed to the discontent voiced by the fabled white working class, is deemed unproductive at best, pathological at worst.3 Recall the interminable period leading up to and following the election during which we were repeatedly told that working-class whites had been forgotten, left behind, and that our political future could only be secured by empathizing with their plight, which is to say restoring them to their rightful, central place in the national imagination.

The reduction of white resentment to economic concerns now has been thoroughly debunked.4 But the exhausting examination of white resentment—mostly by white people, who perhaps were the only ones shocked by the overwhelming white support for Trump—has overshadowed any political possibilities for the affect beyond rallies blanketed with maga hats. Few encourage the resentment that has shaped vocabularies and narratives that are necessary to challenge capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, oligarchy, heteronormativity, and that has fueled so many and such various collective responses. Maybe this is because the resentment hasn’t been identified as such. We’re used to resentment signaling an impasse or failure, not operating as a generative, even transformative force. But what begins as a private grievance often ends up as something else, something more, when shared with another, when voiced by a crowd.

2.

Around the time of the protests against Liang’s conviction—and in the long wake of the failure to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and so many others; the takeover of Congress by radical right-wingers; the revelation that sexual harassment and assault are rampant and disregarded on campuses and in Hollywood, publishing, restaurants, arts institutions, everywhere—we recognized that everyone we knew was mired in resentment. The feeling saturated our social-media feeds, dominated our conversations with friends, occupied our minds as we struggled to fall asleep and to wake up. After Trump was elected, the resentment came to seem less like a state of mind than an ineluctable mood, something we were living in.

We conceived of this issue partly as a way to make sense of the disparate but interrelated phenomena that have made the last few years feel unlivable, the future a foregone conclusion. In Ugly Feelings (2005), Sianne Ngai approaches emotions as “signs that not only render visible different registers of problem (formal, ideological, sociohistorical) but conjoin these problems in a distinctive manner.” Ngai’s set of “unprestigious” feelings, including irritation, anxiety, and paranoia, speaks to a sense of dispossession and futility, “a general state of obstructed agency with respect to other human actors or to the social as such.” Resentment fits the description, but, unlike these amoral feelings, offers the potential for release; after all, resentment is associated with revenge.

Expressing resentment, and finding those who share the sentiment, is easier than ever. Yet there are no proper outlets for communicating such an unpalatable emotion; in fact, the inability to present grievances directly to the source, to speak to power and be heard, is the necessary condition for resentment.5 Resentment makes us fixate on the past, on every way in which we’ve been wronged, and, like connective tissue, mediates between what is private, intimate, and public. The resentment we feel toward patriarchy or whiteness comes to bear on our relationships with particular men and particular white people (and vice versa). The resentment we feel toward capitalism comes to bear on our jobs, the coworkers we see each day, and the industries we bolster. That is to say: resentments proliferate endlessly, in novel configurations, on every scale. (Resentful works often are identifiable by their excessive length: Renata Adler’s infamous 1980 takedown of celebrated New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, for example, runs to nearly eight thousand words. Reading the piece, which ostensibly is an indictment of the state of criticism, you can’t help but think: This seems personal.) It’s easy to see why, despite the availability of platforms through which to amplify our resentments, when airing the feeling we rely on the usual targets and narratives, which offer to do the work for us. Otherwise, we repress our bitterness or direct it at those nearest to us. This may be why the expression of resentment so often is misguided and crude, and thus maligned as a result of insecurity rather than a desire for justice, of a personal pathology rather than external conditions. But as the work of articulating resentment helps us see, these oppositions are not mutually exclusive; rather, they're structured in complicated ways.

Writing and artworks that channel resentment often come up against the tendency to think of the feeling as stubbornly attached to subject positions, with the emphasis on “subject” rather than “position” (which turns the self into something hermetic, separable from the complex systems that govern our lives). The subjectivity of the speaker often is interpreted as a transparent expression of identity—typically the author's—formed by or in reaction to trauma. Consider, for instance, June Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights” (1980):

I am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.
and the problems of South Africa and the problems
of Exxon Corporation and the problems of white
America in general and the problems of the teachers
and the preachers and the F.B.I. and the social
workers and my particular Mom and Dad/I am very
familiar with the problems because the problems
turn out to be
me
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of
myself
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul and […]

The speaker links the “problems” of imperialism, apartheid, environmental depredation, nationalism, and racism to the problems of teachers, preachers, social workers, her own parents, and, finally, herself. The poem, which goes on for more than one hundred lines, poses as a paranoid outburst of someone pathologically attached to her own suffering and who has internalized the judgment of her oppressors. “The problems / turn out to be / me,” she writes. “I have been raped / be- / cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age / the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the / wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic.” But the pose is ironic. In a turn made explicit at the end of the poem, the speaker rejects the reduction of her humanity to her identity markers and the violence she’s endured because of them: “but let this be unmistakable this poem / is not consent I do not consent.” These markers are reclaimed as a source of resistance because, unwittingly, they offer testimony: she is an archive of the violence, immediate and historic, local and global, named in the poem. Despite what the CIA or Exxon or white people might have you believe, the “problems” in the poem are continuous, part of the same order that marks certain bodies as disposable.

Reading this testimony, especially aloud, induces breathlessness, a sense of being overwhelmed by the accumulating wrongs. We feel the speaker’s resentment in our bodies, too, and this offers an ambiguous kind of possibility. Shared feeling has no predetermined course, and certainly has no inherent capacity to bring about political change.6 Ngai argues that art’s obsession with its own lack of political efficacy makes it uniquely suited to theorizing powerlessness and examining the work of negative emotions. But she also observes that ugly feelings now are “the psychic fuel on which capitalist society runs,” reconfigured as professional ideals like flexibility and opportunism. Resentment is no exception; in fact, given how readily it’s exploited to divert attention from material conditions, the affect might serve capitalism better than any other. On the flip side, in the age of the Californian Ideology and unrelentingly upbeat technofuturism, we’re told that resentment should be released in the drive toward optimization. Grudges simmer, pettiness is forever.

Nonetheless, we’re interested in recuperating resentment in part because the affect brings people together, animating not just protests and friendship but collective efforts to think critically and creatively about the systematic erasure of those who have been marked as “wrong.”7 “Poem about My Rights” and other such works of literature and art demonstrate how resentment can be channeled to describe conditions of power and desire, rather than to obfuscate and recriminate. (The poem’s ironic mode of address reminds us of another resentful, more pithy response to injustice: an artful letter written in 1865 by a freed man, Jourdon Anderson, to his former master, Colonel P. H. Anderson. Couched in sardonic niceties, Anderson repudiates the colonel’s offer of employment by asking for the wages owed to him and his wife: $11,680 for fifty-two years of work between them.)

We’re proposing to hold on to resentment not so much as a means of plotting the downfall of our enemies—though why not, it is the resentment issue—but as a starting point for thinking and making and belonging. We’ve approached artists, writers, filmmakers, scholars, and others who we imagine to be compelled by resentment with questions: Who, if anyone, has a right to be resentful? How can resentment be useful? (Must resentment be useful?) What are the possibilities and limitations of resentment—as a basis for thinking, speaking, and writing, establishing intimacy and forging solidarity? How does resentment shape not only how we speak but what we say? How is resentment stoked, policed, circulated, and mobilized? How does resentment channel our attentions and efforts, and to what ends?

While we’ve gotten mixed reactions, we’ve yet to have the invitation understood as an accusation. We’ve been careful to say something like: “Of course, we don’t mean to characterize you or your work as resentful!” Some have been puzzled and have respectfully told us that they don’t find any utility in resentment. One person said that resentment, like a grudge, is a deeply corporeal experience that can debilitate or kill, which was as sweet as a warning can be, and gave us pause. We’ve realized, working on this issue, that resentment is the condition of having desires furnished by a world that continually denies their fulfillment, that makes desiring into an act of violence, whether to ourselves or others (most likely to both). To describe and claim our resentment is to ask about the horizons of the feeling, and about the worlds we straddle versus the worlds we want to inhabit.

Among the works in this issue are an introduction to a headhunting agency that recruits non-indigenous accomplices to serve the ends of indigenous people; an essay on resentment and ressentiment in black art and politics; a conversation on the debt economy in Palestine; an oral history on how black Britons experience the welfare system; a workbook drawing on conventions of English as a Second Language learning; and a court of ghosts trying cases of gentrification and sexual harassment in Manhattan’s Chinatown. In their myriad forms, these works index history’s traumatic repetitions and offer views of where, if not toward exhaustion, resentment can lead us.




Postscript

When resentment fails to find an outlet, whether as the basis of new intimacies or as an explosive outpouring directed at someone or something, it eats up our emotional and physical resources (and, in the unhappiest of cases, destroys our relationships). Resentment actually is sickening: a pervasive toxicity with holistic implications, a public health concern. “The data is just as established as smoking, and the size of the effect is the same,” the psychiatrist Charles Raison told the author of a CNN article called “Blaming Others Can Ruin Your Health”.8 Studies show that the bitter and angry are at higher risk for illnesses, high blood pressure, and death from heart disease. After all, to be resentful is to identify a threat, which releases a surge of cortisol that triggers flight-or-fight mode, jacks up your heart rate, disrupts your immune system, throws your reproductive and digestive systems out of whack. The persistence of resentment perpetuates the reaction, which leads to “anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Of course, this issue of Triple Canopy is meant to be an outlet for resentment, but its usefulness is complicated by the nature of the underlying work, which also is a source of resentment. To resent one’s work is commonplace, and to complain about the kind of work we do is to invite additional resentment. But we’d be remiss not to address the resentment of the culture industry, which valorizes the meaningful, enriching, and politically urgent work of elucidating—or even helping to solve—whichever societal ill seems to be worthy of attention at the moment. However airtight the rhetoric, powerlessness tends to remain powerlessness; and so the endless resentment that imbues our lives also infects our efforts to reconcile our lives with our politics, which can be exhausting.

If you work at a magazine, gallery, nonprofit, or museum in New York, L.A., or any other city with a sizable art world presence, you’ve likely experienced an intractable ambivalence in justifying all this labor, all this time and care, while contributing to the exacerbation of housing crises and upholding (white) institutional power. This is true whether you’re white or not, whether you’re wealthy or not. We—one and a half Chinese editors—have devoted months and months to developing this issue of the magazine for an audience that largely is white and part of an industry in which the workers and funders largely are white. This protracted timeline is in part a reflection of our institutional ethos: our original commitment to “slowing down the internet,” and, after the internet subsumed everything else, “slowing down the world.” Issues aren’t bounded by time constraints—why should they be, given that they primarily live online and that no printer demands our proofs?—or limited to text with a few illustrative images—why shouldn’t they contain performances, songs, exhibitions, books? We ended up with a magazine of incredible flexibility and indeterminate timelines, which can feel both liberating and, as anyone who has tried quickly to parse what we do, opaque.

But maybe the more radical gesture for artists and arts organizations today is not to slow things down, but, plainly, to concede space. Our most consequential political battles are waged at the boundaries of neighborhoods and nations, boundaries that increasingly are destabilized by the global economy and the speculation that underwrites it. Like many of our peers, we both depend on the art market to pay ourselves and our contributors and participate in the New York real estate market.9 In an effort to find spaces better suited to working and communing, we’ve moved from one rapidly gentrifying neighborhood to the next: Downtown Brooklyn, Greenpoint, and then Manhattan’s Chinatown—the kind of reverse migration that’s fodder for headlines about outlandish outer-borough prices. We landed at our current space on Canal Street (and rehabbed what had been a warehouse of storage lockers for street vendors into a tasteful white-walled office) following a capital campaign, in a period of extreme flux for the neighborhood. There’s been an incursion of whiter, higher-educated, and deeper-pocketed renters and buyers, as well as the businesses that employ and cater to them, epitomized by the upscale food-and-homewares market across the street from us. One developer, Albert Laboz, has brought together a group of local commercial real-estate landlords to turn twenty-two storefronts on Canal between Broadway and West Broadway, which have been vacant for years, into an “Experiential Arts & Innovation District.”

Longtime residents and businesses, community organizers, and anti-gentrification activists have been pitted against developers, politicians, galleries, arts organizations, and the press. (The most recent racist promotion for displacement: a New York Times article about the neighborhood’s “edginess” and “grittiness” with the headline “Canal Street Cleans Up Nicely.”) The lines aren’t necessarily drawn along race, however: the young founder of the Canal Street Market, Philip Chong, is a Chinatown native. So are other developers bringing luxury condos to the neighborhood, like Alexander Chu and Shing Wah Yeung, and the district’s City Council member, Margaret Chin, who has been criticized for not backing the community-based planning initiative Chinatown Working Group’s detailed proposal to rezone the neighborhood.

It’s difficult not to harp on these changes in a city where space is at such a premium, homelessness is so widespread, and real-estate developers are so untouchable. (Our distress at work follows us home: most New Yorkers spend at least one third of their income on rent and three out of ten spend more than half; in the past three years, the price of a vacant apartment has increased by 30 percent.) Since doing worthwhile work and paying reasonable wages doesn’t render us faultless, a good deal of cultural workers have conversed, coordinated, and mobilized with members of the communities threatened by gentrification.10 One group, Chinatown Art Brigade, has put together a pledge that outlines how newly arrived businesses and organizations can help resist gentrification; another, Art Against Displacement, “refuses to let the work of cultural producers be instrumentalized towards the displacement of long-term residents and businesses.” Triple Canopy has taken the pledge and we’d like to echo the refusal, but we worry about how much the work matters so long as we’re occupying this space, so long as we’re paying “market rate.” The evictions continue, the designer condos proliferate (yet seem never to be filled), the poverty rate inches towards 20 percent. The point, however puerile: is what we do worth the complicity? Even if the answer is yes, how could we not, on some level, resent ourselves?

1 “I” being Emily Wang and not Matthew Shen Goodman, the coeditor of this issue and coauthor of this introduction.

2 The weaponization of resentment to stoke division in the last half-century has accompanied the decline of industrial manufacturing, the ascent of finance capitalism, the lowering of taxes, the disinvestment in public education, the dismantling of social welfare programs, etc. The resulting surge in inequality, along with the paucity of opportunities for meaningful social and economic advancement, have contributed to widespread resentment, which has been compounded by the efforts of conservatives to blame demographic changes (even as they insist that the solution is more of the same).

3 These demands may be morally inflected, but they are not appeals to our shared humanity, to the essential dignity and worth of every individual. They are, in the main, material claims: for land, housing, wages. And they suggest that what is moral cannot be thought of apart from the conditions that provide us with the means to live, eat, rest, and be together; no “essential dignity” has ever guaranteed recognition and protection from the state or those who imagine themselves to be its managers. The moral action, then, is obvious: whatever will bring about or restore those conditions.

4 A study published in April 2018 by the political scientist Diana Mutz asserts that white men who voted for Trump were motivated by anxiety about the loss of their privileged status rather than concern for their economic welfare. She describes the 2016 election as “an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.”

5 Resentment also can result from a willful misperception of one’s powerlessness, which is to say that there are plenty of mainstream channels, such as the New York Times opinion pages, for the airing of grievances by white men who insist that they’re not heard.

6 When Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in 1989, some critics feared that the film’s climactic explosion of racial tensions would trigger real-life violence. David Denby, in his review for New York, wrote that the dramatic structure of the film “primes black people to cheer the explosion as an act of revenge,” and chastised Lee for what he took to be an irresponsible and incoherent conclusion: “The end of this movie is a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible. Lee wants to rouse people, to ‘wake them up.’ But to do what?”

7 Within academia and literature, for instance, see The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (2015), eds. Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap; and Thinking its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (2013), by Dorothy J. Wang.

8 This article begins with an anecdote about a black man who, while in college two decades ago, was so bitter at the racist students who harassed him—tearing his posters off his walls, spitting and banging on his doors—that he was hospitalized with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the thickening of the heart. After a janitor passed by and offered a prayer, the student forgave his assailants, and three days later he walked out of the hospital.

9 In 2013, some asshole attempted an overwrought takedown in response to our capital campaign that promised to fund a new online platform. “Physical space—long prized by the art world and its associated institutions—should perhaps not be a primary concern for an online magazine,” admonished the writer. As one Triple Canopy editor pointed out in her response, this was a willful misunderstanding of how far one hundred thousand dollars goes in New York City and how that money actually would be spent: not on real-estate speculation but on paying people decent wages. The salvo in question now is only accessible via the Wayback Machine, as the publication has vanished from the web, leaving the URL to a vendor of vaping supplies; we’ve avoided that fate in part through said capital campaigns, which have allowed us to build a robust digital infrastructure and not sell our website to vendors of Peach Yogurt E-Juice.

10 The discourse around arts-led gentrification in New York is decidedly less militant than in Los Angeles, where anti-displacement coalitions in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights often have articulated a much more simple, direct demand to galleries and arts organizations: leave.