Cognitive Aspects of Resentment and Action vs. Inaction

The last conceptual point about resentment concerns frames of understanding and the possibilities of action. It is clear that emotion is often thought of as not being ‘cognitive’. We speak of blind rage or unthinking emotion. But at the point where a sociology of resentment extricates the sentiments from the individual level to the collective or ‘structural’ level, it seems likely that cognition and sentiment or emotion will be combined. Indeed people are resentful because of what they see as the ‘way of the world’ as it affects them and people like them, and such resentful sentiments have a collective presence. As Melzer and Musolf argue, ‘implicit in Scheler’s discussion is the role of cognitive elements. Neither structural nor situational features, per se—but agency, based on definitions of these features by actors—elicit the emotion’ (p. 246). Barbalet argued that ressentiment must include ‘personal insight in the disjunction between social rights and social outcomes’ (Barbalet 1998: 137; cited in Melzer and Musolf 2002: 246). Both Hoggett et al. (2013: 577) and Melzer and Musolf (2002: 244) discuss the way both Nietzsche and Scheler view ‘passivity’ as a component of ressentiment; Melzer and Musolf in particular see this as incompatible with a sociological analysis. They point out that Scheler contradicted himself in arguing about the French Revolution of 1789. In a footnote Scheler describes the French Revolution as the ‘greatest achievement of ressentiment in the modern era’ (Scheler 1994, 2007: 147 footnote 54). To summarise, we shall see the sociology of resentment as gathering up components of the special term ressentiment, including especially the sense that resentment has a collective presence and force, that it is enduring and socially situated rather than a fleeting individual emotion, and that it is expressed within class contexts and power relations. Powerlessness has always been a key element of ressenti- ment because the envy, hurt, sense of loss and feelings of being slighted are combined with a collective sense of these ‘wrongs’ as originating in sources and forces which people cannot influence or effectively oppose. Hence the sense of resentment carries with it a feeling of ‘blocked emotion’ (cf. Hoggett et al. 2013).

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