Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Victimary Thinking Forever?

No. 230: Saturday, March 31, 2001

I suggested in Chronicle 224 that we are leaving the victimary postmodern era and entering a "post-millennial" era of non-victimary dialogue. What seems more likely is that we are leaving the acute form of the victimary for the chronic, the heroic for the banal. Both formulations refer to the damping of violence through dialogue, but the nuance is crucial, since it distinguishes what amounts to a utopian absence of hostility--and utopias are ever dangerous--from an endemic state of suspicion--the ère du soupçon detected by Nathalie Sarraute some forty-odd years ago.

If there is a single explanation for GA’s relative obscurity (despite the yearly doubling of our website volume), it is its incompatibility with victimary thinking. Although certain radical modes have subsided, victimary discourse has become so endemic in our intellectual and cultural life that only in such contexts as this is it possible to speak of it with (relative) impunity. I have no desire to give offence to those who gain privilege and power by asserting their own--or their clientele’s--victimary status. The temptations to do so are too great; in the absence of either the reality check of the natural sciences or the constraint of an authoritarian ideology, the "soft" sector of the academy is bound to be driven by the "winner take all" principle characteristic of the global marketplace. Contrary to intuition, there is little room for controversy in the soft intellectual world, where victimary discourse is the lingua franca, any deviation from it is discouraged if not punished, and a principled stand against it cannot be recognized as such. To claim that one simply wishes to treat everyone equally is taken as a defense of "white male" privilege, even in the mouth of a principled black man like UC Regent Ward Connerly.

Yet this academic discourse is clearly more abject than the human relations that accompany it. In my experience, relations between the races and the sexes in the United States have never been more reciprocal and equitable. Should this not count as proof that victimary discourse facilitates improvement of relations between unequally powerful groups, that legitimizing the expression of resentment is the least violent means of discharging this resentment and engaging the dialogue of reciprocity?

Here is a hypothesis to focus the mind: Victimary thinking is the post-millennial replacement for utopianism. When we lack a blueprint for changing the world, only resentment can tell us what to change, and among the competing resentments, those with the most collective force are fittest for survival. This explains why, upon the collapse of apocalyptic utopianism, intellectual discourse, far from submitting to the criteria of market-driven rationality, denounces this rationality at every turn as perpetuating "domination," "hegemony," "patriarchy," "exploitation," "under-representation," etc. No market success goes unsuspected by this discourse--except its own.

Whether or not the fact that a certain group stands lower than another according to some criterion is scandalous in itself, the effort to correct the imbalance offers an outlet for the resentful energies formerly applied to utopianism. The market system welcomes these energies, which have nothing like the destructive force of the twentieth-century utopias. Affirmative action in its various guises is an indefinitely ongoing project that legitimizes an empowering victimary rhetoric. Even where no political progress is made--and some usually is--to denounce the patriarchy is to play a trump card when the opponent with all his aces is trumpless.

I shall illustrate the hold of victimary discourse on the academy by examining a recent work by J. Hillis Miller, a distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. In an essay on "the transnational university" in Black Holes (Stanford, 1999), Miller, quoting with approval Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (Harvard, 1996), reflects on the replacement of the "university of an idea" with the "university of excellence." The latter criterion, as Miller and, presumably, Readings point out, is tautologically oriented to the marketplace, since "excellence," at least as my Dean and her superiors view it, is simply a synonym for "marketability": what is excellent is what those "in the field" consider excellent. Excellence in the Humanities, as in physics and medicine, corresponds to objective achievement, an objective achievement in the Humanities being one that is recognized by an objectively large number of people.

Seeing this point made at the start of his essay gave me hope that Miller would bring new insight to the Humanities’ increasing slavery to the academic marketplace. Alas, Miller’s essay is perceptive in every area but the one that counts, the political analysis of the university in general and the Humanities in particular. I can accept the linguistic PC (she for he, United States for American, Chicano and Chicana…) as a sign of respect for (victimized) Others; I can even abide the hook-line-and-sinker acceptance of the race/class/gender cliché that considers "United States" culture the expression of the self-interest of heterosexual white males (a category whose inclusiveness would have shocked those who not so long ago barred Catholics and Jews from their society). These ideological choices have no direct bearing on the accuracy of the author’s analysis. The real problem is that this analysis is based on a wholly misleading picture of the Humanities in our universities today.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, an example might be worth a hundred. As evidence for his position that the university, now that the Cold War has ended, is becoming dominated by private corporations, Miller quotes (p. 55) University of California President Atkinson re the university’s role in preparing students for the "global marketplace." (Shades of Clark Kerr’s "multiversity" and the 1964 Free Speech Movement.) Now it so happens that, just last month, I and my colleagues received a memo from this same President Atkinson about a well-funded program he was instituting for the purpose of including more "underrepresented minorities" on the faculty. At UCLA, the largest item in the Chancellor’s budget this year is funding for committees on "Gender Equity," on which I have already reported in Chronicle 219

I am happy to stipulate, as the lawyers say, that these and other similar initiatives are fully justified, and that race-based affirmative action, currently illegal in California, is nevertheless a good thing to be promoted by all means possible. My objection to Miller’s analysis is simply one of fact. As Miller insightfully affirms in reference to every cultural postulation other than this one, using terms like "hegemonic" to refer to white male culture is a performative rather than constative use of language: it creates the category it assigns. All’s fair in love and war, but please don’t tell me that the present evolution of the Humanities displays subordination to corporate practices and the hegemony of the white male. The "cultural studies" world is the mother of all academic marketplaces, in which those who would defend "subaltern" voices against the hegemony of international corporations are handsomely funded, largely if indirectly by these very same corporations. I think of myself as having something to say on a good number of subjects. My last invitation to a Humanities conference dates from 1992. In contrast, there are those who attend such conferences every month. I will let you guess the level of white-male hegemony in the areas of study most of them focus on.

Sadly but understandably, those such as Professor Miller to whom the profession has given little personal cause for resentment cannot help us to take an objective view of the victimary culture in which we operate. This is, therefore, a task I am assigning myself over the next year or two, inch’Allah, as an late friend of mine was wont to say. I, at least, am aware of my own resentment, and aware that it is my own, not that of a group, whether mine or someone else’s, of which I have made myself a representative. I don’t even represent lower-middle-class heterosexual Jewish males born in the Bronx in 1941, few of whom share my political views, let alone my intellectual perspective (most have remained Yankee fans, however). Independently of both the vast majority of "United States" academic humanists from the Bronx and elsewhere, who continue to echo victimary resentments with uncritical vehemence, and the conservative minority whose analysis is largely limited to the denunciation of the preceding--and who have their own, albeit more limited, funding sources and self-congratulatory conferences--I propose, on the basis of the originary hypothesis, to study the evolution of victimary thinking and to construct a model of its operation. With nothing to lose but my Anthropoetics budget of $0 per annum, I can afford to be as unbiased as they come.

My personal stake in this investigation is my hope, as a participant in the "Judeo-Christian tradition," to transcend through understanding my resentment of these phenomena. Victimary thinking is a powerful ethical epistemology whose force in the emerging global society we should not underestimate. Implicit in our end of history that does not put an end to history is the perpetuation of victimary thinking as the constitutive principle of post-millennial politics. If the post-millennial is a useful category to oppose to the postmodern, it cannot be because it marks the end of victimary thinking; such an "end" is just as utopian as the "end of history."

What utopias and dystopias have in common, and may therefore be considered essential to utopianism regardless of its valence, is that in either case people have a place and know their place. In a utopia, they like this place. In a dystopia, some may hate their place and not all may accept it, but they know it because their masters accept and defend theirs. If our world is neither utopia nor dystopia, and depends for its survival on the deferral of both, it is because no one is secure in his position; all of us are real or potential subjects and objects of victimary resentment and vulnerable therefore to the inevitable expressions of this resentment.

It is essential to victimary thinking to claim we are truly living in a dystopia; but in what kind of dystopia is this claim itself tolerated and even echoed by the so-called oppressors? The only true utopians left are the neo-Nazis, who maintain their "Aryan" dream in defiance of public sentiment. Which proves once again that if victimary thinking is bad, utopianism is a lot worse. What makes post-millennial victimary discourse effective is that it continues to circulate and transform itself rather than stagnating and fermenting into a monstrous ideology. The expression of resentment within the political process and its dominant position in the academy may best be thought of as means for accelerating this circulation. Just as in Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, private (or group) resentments enhance the public exchange system. Whether or not this must indefinitely remain the case is the crucial question for one who would model the operation of victimary thinking in our era.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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