(hey, type here for great stuff)

access to tools for the beginning of infinity

It didn’t start afresh: genealogy of resentment & self-righteousness

From frustration to self-righteousness: here’s a look at the genealogy of resentment in the so-called Culture Wars —and what youth culture has to do with it.

Finishing college the same year Fight Club hit the theaters (that is, 1999) may have been perceived as a curse —or a blessing. I had not read the 1996 book by Chuck Palahniuk, whom I discovered through the movie, something that had happened to me three years earlier when the adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting hit the theaters in Barcelona.

Fight Club’s narrator, an insomniac young everyman tired of the rat race, has done everything to find the contemporary Nirvana of success and happiness, to no avail. He then meets (imagines?) Tyler Durden is the archetype of a hero on a quest for self-discovery, rejecting materialism and quantified success and exploring his path beyond consumerism, social standards, and the mandates of advertising culture.

A charismatic yet destructive anarchist type, Tyler Durden wants to create his own path, yet he seems to thrive only in chaos, resorting to gratuitous violence. Durden appears to follow the action/reaction dialectic of history explored by idealist philosophers, from Hegel (who applied the framework of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis to everything) to Karl Marx and the idea of class struggle.

Durden doesn’t want to live at the margins of a decadent society but wants to dismantle it motivated by rage. Ultimately, Durden’s destructive impulses will lead to dogmatic self-righteousness and self-destruction.

Mallrats of Zarathustra

As a young member of Generation X myself, closer to millennials in age and attitude than to older members of my cohort (I imagined them listening to Pixies, Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Pavement all day long), I enjoyed the movie but didn’t see a role model in Tyler Durden, the movie’s Nietzschean superman. Yet I was in sync with the uneasy members of my generation when it came to rebelling against the pressures to define oneself by consumerism, which led to conformity, alienation, and emptiness.

A British sitcom from the 80s named The Young Ones looked like the perfect blend of “no real future” apathy in post-industrial Europe, powered by surreal, hilarious gags. The series was aired on Catalan TV and was quite popular among misfits.

Fight Club’s narrator (Edward Norton) and his übermensch alter ego Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt)

The Young Ones were four youngsters sharing a rundown apartment representing each an archetypical urban tribe: Adrian, a misanthropic heavy metal fan; Rik, a cynical vegetarian who sees himself as an anarchist (the eternal, sophisticated college student, pedantic and self-assured); Nigel, an innocent pacifist hippy with a gloomy view of the future; Christopher, a sharp proto-yuppie; and Vyvyan, a belligerent, if not violent, punk menacing the rest with a Sid Vicious attitude to everything. In a way, it was easier to laugh at this BBC Two series than getting too self-absorbed by gloominess.

The alternative to consumerism seemed to be “reacting” against the status quo (consumerist life) by reconnecting with one’s primal self, whatever that meant. However, there’s no clearcut primal self to look back to or easy way back to simple living when all the collected personal experience refers to uprooted suburban existence. To picture this more clearly, it’d be difficult to portray Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as one more character within Kevin Smith’s Mallrats or Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites.

Reactionary / Revolutionary

I presumed that those who didn’t find a constructive passion that allowed them to thrive early on (say, a passion, a skill to explore) would miss the path of a “healthy fight club,” that is, a way to release frustration and set for a limitless career path; they would resort ultimately to resentment, nihilism, violence, and reactionary beliefs. In suburban Barcelona, that frustration morphed into different blends, including ultra aesthetics (including skinheads), soccer hooliganism, and political extremism.

One’s journey to self-discovery leads to managing expectations: what’s the alternative to a complex path of an all-in process of self-discovery, with all the hard work and bad days in between? It didn’t seem that Tyler Durden’s rage and destructive impulses were an alternative to humility and hard work but mere self-deception.

That said, I appreciated the character’s Quixotic fight to maintain his autonomy and identity in a world dominated by consumerism. But why resort to violence to confront the cycle of alienation and dissatisfaction? Why the childish obsession with strength and testosterone? The real strength—I presumed—was quite the opposite, more in the fashion expressed by Henry David Thoreau with his takes on civil disobedience.

Youth dissatisfaction in the late 90s and early 2000s didn’t differ much from the contestatory punk years or the 1968 cultural turmoil in Pague, Paris, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s not that different from what’s happening now in American elite colleges either. The self-perceived as oppressed identified their oppressors, whereas those seeing themselves as the guardians of tradition had a diametrically opposed view of who was oppressing whom. In college, I had already dealt with so many weekend revolutionaries, as well as old professors decrying modernity, to be fully aware of this interesting, self-replicating phenomenon of action/reaction. In this dialectic, nobody is ever sure of who is the revolutionary and who is the reactionary.

The School of Resentment

Two decades later, the same forces thrive in online forums, feasting in the coming-of-age insecurities and doubts of today’s youngest cohorts. It’s the eternal return (another idea developed by Nietzsche) of what the influential literary critic Harold Bloom, author of The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), called “The School of Resentment”:

“In the universities, the most surprising and reprehensible development came some twenty years ago, around 1968, and has had a very long-range effect, one that is still percolating. Suddenly, all sorts of people, faculty members at the universities, graduate and undergraduate students, began to blame the universities not just for their own palpable ills and malfeasances but for all the ills of history and society. They were blamed, and to some extent still are, by the budding school of resentment and its precursors, as though they were not only representative of these ills but, weirdly enough, as though they had somehow helped cause these ills and, even more weirdly, quite surrealistically, as though they were somehow capable of ameliorating these ills.”

Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1, The Paris Review, Issue 118, Spring 1991

To be clear, Harold Bloom reacted against the rise in America of the so-called French Theory, or the literary criticism that was trying to account for any sort of structural oppression instead of focusing, first and foremost, on the intrinsic quality of a given work.

Bloom didn’t see the new efforts by young scholars as intrinsically wrong. Instead, he thought that focusing on race-class-gender (back then, taking shape through Marxist critical theory and literary criticism, new historicism, feminist criticism, theories of concealed oppression such as the concept of intersectionality, poststructuralism, etc.) meant studying things other than the intrinsic qualities of, in this case, the literary canon.

Fighting for the Canon

Most scholars treated Bloom as a Yale snob, the equivalent of William F. Buckley Jr. on the American campus. Even if perceived as a defensive, rather reactionary scholar unable to descend from his ivory tower, Harold Bloom defended himself by stating that his specialty, the Western literary canon, was under threat by those fighting to add authors and works from minority groups with no scrupulous regard to aesthetic merit or influence over time. Above all, he was aware of the fact that people were choosing consumable cultural artifacts over the intelligent and rewarding evergreens of the world’s literature.

He considered it very dangerous to analyze works written in another historical period with the moral compass of contemporary society, given that most canonical works from the past could be analyzed as works promoting sexism, racism, and all sorts of biased, wicked values repulsive from today’s perspective. But should we read Shakespeare or Whitman from a race-class-gender perspective, imposing our view on masterworks composed generations ago? Isn’t the goal of education to widen our scope and perception of the world across the ages?

Richard Rorty, a pragmatist philosopher who considered himself a liberal, was also attacked by the Left in the 80s and 90s for refusing to integrate a framework based on “social justice” into his works on contingency. His detractors reminded him that there’s no bigger contingency for somebody at a disadvantage than the obstacles found within the world.

Not surprisingly, Rorty had something to say about Harold Bloom’s idea of the “School of Resentment” trying to advance an agenda in American colleges (let’s remember, Bloom was stating this in the early 90s). According to Rorty, Bloom was at least accurate in describing one thing: the intellectuals denounced by Bloom used a confrontational attitude to attack Western culture.

“Most radical critics of American institutions (for example, the admirers of Althusserian, Heideggerian, or Foucaldian social thought—the people for whom Harold Bloom has invented the sobriquet ‘The School of Resentment’) would not be caught dead with an expression of hopefulness on their faces. Their reaction to American inertia and impotence is rage, contempt, and the use of …’ subversive, oppositional discourse,’ rather than suggestions about how we might do things differently.”

On ‘What is History? From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White, Keith Jenkins, 1995 (Keith Jenkins quoting Richard Rorty, p. 130)

On self-righteousness

Little did I know as a teenager growing up in Barcelona in the nineties about the brewing cultural wars regarding the self-perception of what “Western culture” is and what the “canons” of such culture are. At that stage in life, I was just absorbed by the blend of manufactured nonconformity that most applied to me pre-Internet, which was the “alternative” label exported to the world by the likes of Seattle’s Sub Pop, Geffen Records, and MTV.

And I presume that, to my college self growing up in a peripheral Western country, somebody like Harold Bloom would have represented an antagonist (the paternalizing professor, guardian of the old guard and proselytizer of institutional knowledge, a Samuel Johnson of our age).

If Harold Bloom, author of the influential book about the Western Canon in literature and defender of the likes of Shakespeare, Dante, and Cervantes, argued against ideology in literary criticism, the intellectual and aesthetic standards that he vindicated aren’t immutable totems. In wanting to fight against the self-righteousness of multiculturalism, Marxism, feminism, neoconservatism, Afrocentrism, or the New Historicism, wasn’t Harold Bloom himself a guardian of his own self-righteousness —a dogmatic one, for that matter?

One thing I liked about his point was that nothing good is brewed on bitterness and rumination. I felt resentment wasn’t the way to find constructive ways to express my rebelliousness and non-conformity, which arrived through my peers’ recommendations to read books and watch movies depicting characters in my position. Nothing good could come out of negativity. I was set for an optimistic look into the (post-postmodern) world.

The malaise explored by Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting, later adapted to the screen, resonated with those trying to conquer nihilism. I was in college back then, and when I graduated in 1999 the Internet was already a place to explore and find like-minded people—or at least the illusion of it—all over the world, even before social networks.

Who sanctions what’s fair and unfair, right and wrong

When, in 2006 or so, I bought the Internet domain “faircompanies,” which was free in the main suffixes, I remember liking the ambivalence of the two words combined. “Fair” bears several meanings, and so does “companies.” As a noun, a company is, of course, the legal entity that expanded modernity and capitalism, but it’s also the condition of being with others. Being in company of somebody denotes choice and the possibility of friendship, enjoyment.

That’s why it shocks me each time somebody associates this combination with the intention of sanctioning what’s “fair,” as defunct sites and databases such as GoodGuide tried to do years ago.

Everything was intrinsically right with a service that tried to evaluate products based on objective metrics. However, for example, some of its measurements were based on expensive environmental studies and certifications only big companies can afford, so entire categories such as short-circuit organic produce or uncertified grass-fed meat would have never made any rankings despite their measurable quality, as explained by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), a book that represented a first in understanding the complex underlying between the food industry, health, and the environment.

For the same reason, guides stop being helpful when they are more markers of righteousness than utility-based, exhaustive catalogs; any resource trying to cover, say, sustainability will become insular and self-absorbed if it doesn’t open itself to the eclectic experimentation happening in the real world.

Emerson and the souls of critics

Our small online shop was a great start to consider topics for videos, though there’s one type of righteous comment that will always show up when the car used by somebody isn’t efficient enough, the house isn’t frugal enough, etc. In those situations, somebody might say: “‘fair’ companies? Really?” As if we, a small shop of two, could sanction—or even want to discern unequivocally—what’s right and wrong. Any entity or person who decides to have acquired such capabilities (company, human, AI) will be suspiciously doing the equivalent of the medieval church selling indulgences to people based upon one arbitrary metric.

Also, sanctioning unequivocally what’s good and evil, right or wrong, fair or unfair, would equal elevating oneself as a self-righteous sanctioner much in the fashion of the punctilious literary and art critic:

“Those who are esteemed umpires of taste are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essays, Second Series (1883), p. 9

So, we saw the domain name as an appropriately ambiguous way of denoting at once our interest in pursuing the stuff that was of our interest, thanks to being in “good company” of others: people visited but also books read, things seen, paths walked. We also wanted to report on people, things, and businesses that inspired us, mainly after reading essays such as Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing and realizing that taking responsibility for one’s products can be compatible with a profitable business.

As an aside, Chouinard and Pollan’s mentioned books were published in 2006, and their reading influenced both the birth of *faircompanies and Kirsten’s YouTube channel. They are accounts based on experience and the old art of improving temporary conjectures by refuting old ones via trial and error and experience (and not by announcing what’s right or wrong based on dogmatic convictions).

Nietzsche and resentment

The problem with self-righteousness, argued German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is the usual connection between the act of defending morality (or what’s right and wrong) with concealing goals that have little to do with the task (he thought it was mere resentment, writing a book On The Genealogy of Morality, 1887, to proof his thesis). He may have had a point when he made this connection, especially in an age when parents’ associations and academic boards lobby to get books banned to, according to their claims, protect their children from potential harm.

Nietzsche focuses on resentment versus other emotions because, unlike, say, hatred and contempt, it’s created from a sense of inferiority:

“Resentment, born of weakness, harms no one more than the weak person himself.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (written in 1888, published in 1908)

“Rather than taking responsibility from one’s own inferior position, resentment always projects the responsibility onto other people (or groups or institutions). Simply stated, resentment is a vitriolic emotion that is always aimed outward and whose presupposition is one’s own sense of oppression or inferiority. Nietzsche’s most profound philosophical ad hominem argument is that people who defend Morality are actually expressing their resentment, and the ‘moral’ values that they present as ideal and objective are, in fact, nothing but expressions of bitter resentment and should be understood as such.”

Living with Nietzsche: What the Great “Immoralist” has to Teach Us, Robert C. Solomon, Chapter 4, p. 90 (January 2004)

To Bloom, Shakespeare is at the center of the Western canon, which tells what Anglo-Saxons think about the hierarchy of their perception of “The West.” But Italians could resort to Dante, Germans to Goethe, Spaniards to Cervantes, and the French could pick among many heavyweights, though to me, it’d be Victor Hugo.

An Oxford scholar debunking “The West” as a self-contained silo

Josephine Quinn, a historian and archaeologist at the University of Oxford, analyzes in a new book How the World Made the West.

To Quinn, the idea of self-contained civilizations is, at best, reductionistic, if not distorted. The very idea of civilization isn’t as old as we think, she argues. First used in the mid-18th century, the concept didn’t take hold until the late 19th century (!). The Economist reviews the book:

“In that imperialist age, historians found that Greek, Roman and Christian civilizations made nice building blocks that could be stacked into a grand-looking construct, which they labeled “Western” or ‘European’ civilization. To this, they attributed a host of inherited “classical” virtues: vigor, rationality, justice, democracy and courage to experiment and explore. Other civilizations, by contrast, were regarded as inferior.”

Until recently, history has been perceived as a clash among powerful, hostile civilizations, and books like Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996) claimed that such rival models had little or “non-existent” contact.

“What is non-existent is any truth to that notion. Ms Quinn’s brisk, scholarly romp across the arc of European history shows that, far from being rare, contact across and between cultures, often over surprisingly long distances, has been the main motor of human advancement in every age. Rather than being prickly and inward-looking, most societies have proved receptive to ideas, fashions and technologies from their neighbors.”

Fighting self-righteousness with a proclaimed cure based on maximalist, simplified ideas (like defining unequivocally what belongs to the West and its excellence in the arts) seems self-righteous. The problem with the likes of Harold Bloom is that, in defending their position against those who sanction stuff based on morality, they become guardians of their own orthodoxy.

Reading Ralph Ellison and being blown away

Perhaps, the point I wanted to make with this article is that the culture wars make me very suspicious, especially when commentators and self-proclaimed intellectuals argue that this problem started a mere few years ago with wokism and a sudden politicization within academia. It’s simply not true. Dig enough time in classical Greek and Latin philosophy, and you’ll find long commentaries of old, respectful philosophers and poets decrying the low morality and insolence of the young and warning against decadence.

We all need to explore our rebellion, especially during our formative years when non-conformism and exploration are crucial. Knowing other points of view, as long as they are authoritative and have an inquestionable intellectual and/or literary merit, enriches everyone involved.

More than caricaturing people’s struggles, we should keep an open attitude and explore the sources when possible. One can learn a lot about literature and underlying racial tensions in the US by reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and James Baldwin’s essays from the Library of America, but also by exploring music lyrics and understanding other people’s experiences. In that regard, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates while living in Paris, where he spent some time on a scholarship. I appreciated being invited into his experience when I got Between the World and Me in my hands.

Today’s young aren’t only judged as we were 20 years ago and others were 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago; we built tools that record every single misstep they make. People deserve to make mistakes during their formative years. The world needs more insolent youngsters, not less; more Rimbauds and Patti Smiths, not less.