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On Viciousness.                                                   




Are advanced societies (and most societies are headed this way) becoming ‘grudge’ societies? Is the support the modern ‘individual’ seems to need for his or her sense of well-being, his or her spiritual sustenance, based upon nurturing a culture of the grudge? Object of the grudge? Take your pick: anti-women, anti-men, the ‘grasping’ old, the ‘undeserving’ young, the State, all and every form of government (as such, in other words, everyone must be ‘a rebel’ of some description). And of course ‘against’ any and all kinds of ‘them’; all the usual Others of modern societies (based on any and every difference from the point of origin, from the original identity, measuring, defining, the distance from ones own community of identification). All the better now to be used as a means of self-empowerment and as an excuse for various forms of abuse - of violence, imaginary and real, symbolic and actual. All stemming from the most convenient form of self-definition: self-definition as one of the denied, one of those who have been denied (what ought to be theirs by right), and so are excused… all and everything. Ironically, the modern version of this trope of exclusion works by self-definition as a kind of Other. ‘We are all victims now’. The latest move on the chessboard of entitlement. The latest turn in the politics of identity. So moving from a restricted to a general rhetoric of victimhood; a general economy of victimhood. So, of course, leaving no debt of hospitality or charity for others…


Have advanced societies in fact not done away with the traditional material of ‘face’ and ‘honour codes’, but merely driven them into a corner where they have become … vicious?


A very (Post)Modern morality. From hiding the sicknesses (of the self) to parading them - as the best and blatant excuse for conscious wrong-doing (not least when the original wrong-doing is questioned). ‘I know… but…’, or ‘How dare you… who do you think you are (who are you to think you are better!’). From ‘innocent’ wrongdoing (due to unawareness or forgetfulness – or wishful thinking…) to the awareness of doing wrong (as requiring the putting away or extinction of the good if it dares stand witness as accuser in the public sphere). The double consciousness that appears here functions as actively hiding the knowledge of the good… or brushing it out of sight (again, politics has long operated this kind of policy; co-opt or remove the contrasting pole, demonise or, even better, appropriate the offending ideal).


Perhaps nothing new as regards the double-consciousness of wrong-doing, generally called guilt; but now with the addition of the response of viciousness… as a ‘gut’ response (as the response which says ‘you are no different’ -‘why spoil my fun’- added to the manners of the habitual bully).


The double-consciousness actualized in the relation of self to an actual other is what promotes viciousness; that I know (the fact and extent of my wrongdoing) may be bad enough (or perhaps stands as a badge of self-assertion over others, over all that is felt Other to the desires of the self): but for others to know (the others or Other over which one is asserting one’s self); this is not acceptable. For if one’s self-assertion is lost, countermanded, then all that one is, is lost; one is made to look a fool… or worse… Whence the mindless lashing out of the bully (well, if we are to be precise, never completely mindless… the bully always somehow has enough presence of mind, somehow just finding enough self-control, never to loose his temper with someone bigger, someone stronger…).


The guilty eye sheltered behind the aggressive pout, swaggering attitude and snarling mouth…



Doing wrong, justification; personal exceptionalism.


Being wrong, without guilt.


Committing offense; going on the offensive.




Yet double-consciousness may be necessary for self-protection in a variety of (inhospitable) contexts, not least for those working with ideas who may find themselves particularly exposed (Leo Strauss suggests that to some measure all aware-individuals must, more especially if they are involved in the practice of writing, of making culture, be prepared to either write ‘in code’ or keep a kind of ‘double-entry bookkeeping’; the 17th century philosopher, Leibnitz, is probably the best known exemplar of this strategy). Survival in totalitarian societies, religious or secular, usually requires some degree of compartmentalisation and self-division; as also do issues arising from private versus business or political ethics… Even the act of smoking requires denial or the admission of a self-damaging contradiction. So any reminder of this diremption or self-division, a self-inconsistency felt as a wound (for those acts that involve hypocrisy or implied guilt) can also cause a vicious response…. collective or individual. On the other hand, double consciousness remains useful to support values if one finds oneself ‘beyond belief’ (beyond the props of religion, metaphysics or universal reason) or to help survive conflicting loyalties (source of most narratives and much lyric poetry, sustainer of the popular song). Ironic tension or antiphrasis is the interior structure (mirror image self-division) that accompanies exterior tensions, divisions, pressures or requirements.


One example lies in the relation of knowledge to social division, in the relation of knowing and not-knowing, regarding role play and other social masks, as when we pretend to ourselves that something is the case, when we know (in private) that it is in fact not the case – one of the arts of living. This complex is at the root of Durkheim’s ‘homo duplex’ (the self as divided between private and public knowledge), or reconceptualised as Taussig’s ‘Public Secret’, as describing the means of covering-over the realities of social antagonisms and power imbalances… again, of public, professed or ritual identity as against private being or personal understanding.


So double-consciousness can be source of wisdom (or anyway patience, the appearance of wisdom) as well as viciousness. Ironic modern consciousness, or ‘ironic self-awareness’ is key to any affirmation of values (after religion); a new basis for civil life, indeed if not for the continuance of civility itself… what we rather vaguely refer to as ‘civilised values’ (although perhaps ‘ideals’, ‘the ideals of a civilized life’, might be more accurate). We affirm what needs to be affirmed for the living of a civilized life even though we realize that these values lack any metaphysical foundation – nevertheless we must behave ‘as if’… This is the governing antiphrasis or irony of a world ‘beyond belief’, where we can no longer believe, but must assert values. A world without belief still requires values (often asserted in the form of a ‘performative’, it is so if we say it is so, a situation made possible by the very human gift of the bestowal of value – things and relations, a tree, or a friendship, are precious if we say they are so, sacred, even, if we decide they are so…).


Conversely the kind of double consciousness which produces viciousness is one that must hide its knowledge, from others, certainly – even (though only partially, incompletely) from the self… (but incompletely, as the memory, the nagging and inconvenient trace of the actual past must remain). Must conceal its self-knowledge at all costs; and respond to any threat of recognition or reminder (real or imaginary) of its inner truth (the concealed admission of wrong-doing) with viciousness. A denial (or perverted kind of self-defense) supported in the worst of cases (but eagerly) by violence.


And what of the attempt to be beyond irony, beyond an ironic understanding of self? Like other forms of knowledge, and exactly as in the case of the cultural trope of ‘the Fall’, once awareness has been attained it is difficult to forget (the past can be rewritten but it can not be rewound). Active-forgetting (Nietzsche) can only go so far (and anyway is more of a strategy), however economic self-interest (always close to our theme) will manifest a vestigial sense of guilt if based upon the forgetting of an inconvenient fact (pollution and injury to others); vestigial but sufficient to require extirpation through hatred of the persons who would remind - not least those who are the victims of our action. Externally applied terror, indeed, appears to be the most efficient way at guaranteeing ‘active forgetting’ or protecting self-interested absent mindedness. In general, and on the grounds of bitter experience, we may assume the price of the unified or undivided self is too high.


(…unless unified by the knowledge of its inconsistency).


Perhaps good and bad self-division, the relation of irony to the self as awareness, is best exemplified in hypocrisy. Hypocrisy (for better or for worse; as manners or as self-interest) is a type of knowing double-awareness (we often use the word, ‘cynical’ here, for negative actions of this type). But viciousness seems to attempt even the denial of such a conscious sense of doubling, desiring a fundamentalist monism of thought; an attempt at (the maintenance, or appearance of) an undivided self by means of the elimination of the other (perhaps beginning with the other in the self, the other point of view that we once held, the source of the ironic ‘knowing’ relation). The logic of the scapegoat and destructive sacrificial rituals (from racism and prejudice to ethnic cleansing and the pogrom) begins here. (In this sense regimes too can be vicious, in the silencing of opponents, as of inconvenient truths… and in the extermination of their designated scapegoats if they believe that the continuation of their constituency depends upon it – ironically such groups are often more in receipt of persecution than the actual opponents of a given regime…).


(Yet the vague and troubling presence of a remainder, the persistence of a reminder, would explain the perpetual repetition of justification, of viciousness, as a ritual, becoming ritual, as a perpetually applied medicine, to an un-healing wound…)


Economics & Class. Rich and poor alike are ready sources of viciousness. The response of the rich (or those otherwise comparatively advantaged) to loosing wealth and privilege: the response of the poor to any questioning of identity or status – and, of course, whatever little income they may possess. Any loss of comfort or perceived advantage is taken as if an existential threat or as an insult to a morbidly over-sensitive sense of ‘honour.’ Ironic: as it is often any (often imagined) attempt to disperse a prior moral blindness (any aspersion that some activity ought not to be the case) that is read as a personal threat. (Any reminder of dishonour is unwelcome). The latter obtains because ‘honour’ is defined by implied social position (how one believes one should be treated) and not by a clear sense of what constitutes ‘good’ or honourable behaviour (what one ought to do).


There is a concept of the poor as ‘full of honour’, or of morality – because… ‘its all they have’ (the ‘myth of pastoral’ functions in a similar way). However ressentiment is the ‘poor mans’ (or modern equivalent in matters of spirit) response to an implied or imagined slight (occasioned perhaps even more by the fact of someone’s existence than their actions towards someone…). To be poor in modern societies increasingly implies a gradient, rather than class difference as such (the ressentiment-laden individual usually aspires to, when they do not belong to, the ‘higher’ class, the rung above, if not higher; the ressentiment is a matter of caste maintenance or perceived inequalities of the soul, or culture, of education) – of spiritual and not objective poverty.


(And if we ever wanted to know how the ‘poor’ or those once poor would respond to any threat to their newfound economic wealth, or indeed to their supposed status, we anyway only needed to look to the history of the rich…)


Loosing things: loosing ‘self’. Personal economics feed directly into the sense of being a person (plans denied, personhood frustrated; as ones space in the world gets smaller so does the self; self as attached to matter lost is dented). The response, reactive in all senses, un-thought and so un-creatively dependant on the stimulus, often includes the search for scapegoats; a search differentiated by the pre-requirement that any putative solution must be easy on ones pocket and energies – whence the need for easy targets, and easy answers… not requiring any dealings with the powers of the world (or only in the form of a posturing fantasy) nor any risk to oneself. The politics (and mindset) of the bully and the coward. Not surprisingly, not admitted as such. (Such a reminder would be unwelcome and itself read -and responded to- as a radical loss of self. A call to arms… a call to viciousness.)


Loosing self: personal psychology. As when ones good self-image is read as denied by other’s perception of ones (bad, inadequate or underhand) actions. Blame the messenger; even if the other was unaware of the moral reminder he or she represented; nevertheless an aggressive response quickly ensues. (If the messenger poses no physical threat, that is: if the maker of awareness does pose a threat, then a cowardly snarl or muted growling ensues… precisely like that of a dog snarling with a lowered head…)


Now it’s personal!


In the opposition of the ‘power-self’ to the ‘moral-self’ (the self as defined by capability and the self as defined by the ability to be governed by a moral code; the self as defined by size relative to others, and the self as defined by self-restraint relative to others); in this opposition we see the belief that if one possesses the former then all need for the latter is thus obviated. Here the self as a self which is self-mastering, so the self recognized as such, as separate from passing whims, is opposed to a self as undifferentiated from any and every desire (usually imitated from some real, or even imaginary, peer group). We note the popular fantasy of the powerful self as getting and achieving; but also note that the stare of the other reminds one of the moral aspect, of the lack of a moral self, therefore the discomforting sense of division and lack are reinstituted… The other does not confirm, recognize, so reconfirm, our ‘’successful’ self as a moral self (a continuation of the ‘little ritual’ of daily recognition, Hegel’s contest of Lord and Servant as unending process, or Hobbes’ struggle for possessions and position in the ‘state of nature’ before the institution of the State). So leaving recourse only to the power-self. Viciousness results. An inversion of Hegel’s opposition in the sense that the superior loses the contest whereas the inferior wins (the inferior would not accept a contest where he would not win); or as in Nietzsche’s reading where the ‘Slave’, subject to assault for the temerity of his or her gaze, has the morality, but the ‘Master’ is the bully and coward. Hobbes’ ‘nasty and brutish’ perhaps captures it best. Foucault and modern linguistics remind us that the implied power gradient, the threat of violence, alters the discourse, imposing modes of address and response, which recognize the gradient, and deny the moral element - ‘speaking truth to power’ is ineffective if it is not obsequious (the fantasy that it is effective stems from the notion that the powerful can be shamed into correct behaviour… whereas shaming can only occur with peers or neighbours, those similar in social position or in geographical proximity).


(Morality in the discourse of modern societies, of modern institutions, is anyway subject to the contradiction that its production is both mobilized or appropriated by the institution or interest group in question, and yet must maintain its status as a ‘resisting’ form of knowledge, an attempt at ‘doing right being good’ – so both product and critique of a given society’s relations of power.)


Hierarchy in society appears to be one perpetual (because inevitable) source of viciousness (the degree of hierarchy is another matter). Maintaining or seeking position (and all recognition implies a re-confirmation of this) means that any loss of ‘position’ results in a shaking of the self, often calling forth an aggressive response - if one can get away with it. As with other forms of immoral or illegal behaviour, this is also a case of ‘getting away with it’… of morality entirely ceding to pragmatism. So signaling a retreat from internalized Law to exterior law, morality as decided by a look over ones shoulder, by the ghost that may be lurking in the eye of the other…. All sense of Law as the (moral) Law within only surviving, in residue, in the awareness of the Other; all our others (real or imaginary) and their power to make us feel under judgment. Reminded of the Law we should have reminded ourselves of. A reminder producing viciousness.


A response to the realization that one might be the proud possessor of a lower moral being, of lower moral standards than those watching; provoking inner realization (or reminder of what was already known but pushed aside) but simultaneous outward denial. Such a realization could be the cause of a path of self-improvement (usually through education). However this course of action would require that we recognize our insufficiency… And it is such that it would seem we are programmed not to admit. It appears as if an awareness of ‘wrongdoing’ without internalized codes of behaviour that make such an awareness an inner judgment on ones own wrongdoing requires more than most of us are capable of attaining. These codes are now, in general, perceived as existing as outside of the self; shadowy incursions onto the self’s self-sufficiency, unwelcome guests at the feast of the self’s self-eulogizing, unwanted witnesses to gluttony of the self’s self-heroisation, so many bearers of cold water to the festival of the self’s unlimited self-valourisationVain-glorious. Boasting. Kicking against all pricks. Everyman a miles gloriouses. A bloated balloon waiting for the pin of recognition. Awaiting the pin-prick of conscience. Other-driven (despite the desperate denial of dependency).


So the formation of self as against… (even as it continues in a state of dependency). As against all those who would make it aware. (Refusing awareness that must already be there). Easy to understand why if we abandon the ‘Marlboro Man’ view of the self as solid and indivisible (itself as part of the problem, for the experience of the self as not such leads to the search for a certainty of self as guaranteed by certain community, which in turn requires certain others; as identity definition often works by means of the negative, so we are back with definition against…). Alternatively we may see the self as fragile, and so endlessly renewed, multiple, fragmented; renegotiated by aspects of its social relations with others, complete with the usual divided loyalties that provide the basis for the higher, more complex, cultural forms (no tragedy without agon). The fragile self would be both descriptive of our identity in (post)modern conditions, as well as prescriptive of a modest attitude to ones self, and therapeutic in the best sense as offering a key to self-awareness and non-toxic methods of self-improvement or non-exclusive identity formation. By contrast the ‘solid’ self hypothesis (ideology might be a better word) offers a version of ‘why should we care what they think’… the italics to include quite literally all; from everybody (else) as a generalized paranoia or fear of the public gaze, largely imaginary, but internalised as antagonistic and judgmental, to the proto-pogrom, pre-lashing-out, singling out of groups and individuals as fodder for potential sadism, the reduction and forced abjection of others for the sake of an ego too fragile to sustain itself without hatred, too unaware to know better.


Moreover in assuming the role of the ‘always-already’ injured, we have ready access to moral self-righteousness as a means or excuse for aggressive behaviour… as a means of assertion in competitive world, as an excuse for the expression of ‘self’ in a world obsessed by individuality and expression of self… (but left untrained in ‘the arts of the self’). Morality, alas, also has its temptations; its Tartuffes!


Picture a self happily sinning, transgressing (typically thinking its getting one ‘over on the others’) until inconveniently recognized - made aware, through the eyes of an other- that it is not a self that is wining, but conning… or falling… the positive in its own eyes, transvalued, in the eyes of the other, by means of the eye of the other (of the I in the Other) into a negative. So reminded of its fallen state. An unwelcome reminder.


(Of this self as discussed above… can it be said to constitute the majority of modern persons? Or only an aspect… albeit one shared by most?)


A reminder of the divided self (’one’ is no longer one, but two) - bridged by fantasy. Or by an ‘unconscious’ constituted by an external denial and an inward inner admission often boasted of to others of a similar kind, or the order of the Same, where lack of moral standing is not an issue… and may be a badge of membership, as the excuse for the breaking of the law, falling beneath the law, as countered by the imagining of being ‘above’ the Law… (the fantasy of all in a society of ‘individuals’ – where everybody is finally the same, finally ‘equal’ in their self-estimate as above everybody else…).


Imaginary self and imaginary (lauding) others as permitting; but the (appearance of) real others (appearing to) deny… so recourse to the aggressive response.


Hatred made worse by the presence of another, of others, their recognition of your faults, of the lack felt as on display, a provocation taken as a personal insult – a loosing of face, a dented self-image, a loosing of ones secret sufficiency, insufficiency on show, self-image undermined – in public, by an other, by others.


Hatred made worse by losing (true of rich and poor…) and by loosing things (the things used in the aggrandizement of the self, before the self, and so before others, imaginary others, as when the self imagines the others as imagining ones self); a personal wound.


Loss (economic). Foremost among causes, economic loss: as history shows, all ruling elites become vicious when faced with loss (the passage of elites out of history, indicates all too often the degree of destructiveness of which they are capable); the better-off, or even those who have arrived at a state they would describe as comfortable, in modern society, are no exception. For the poor also, as economic crises bear witness, the cause of economic loss, of absolute privation even for those worst effected, will bring out the worst in terms of human destructiveness and self delusion (the desperation which enables those whose parents have suffered – or more rarely, those themselves who have suffered, from the terrors of left and right populism in absolute power, to once again place their faith in such movements…). The path is that to the scapegoat, here as in other matters to do with the putative unity of the self, or unity of self and others (community). And then there is modern capitalism’s constant rubbing of the wound of desire, always indicating what more one ‘needs’, enticing one to want more, from matching the neighbours’ life-style, or at least the one alluded to in the Sunday colour supplement or currently popular soap opera, to the moving of the goalposts that property prices bring about, creating a new poor, and an anxious ‘new rich’ looking for ever new opportunities to stay up on their newly arrived level of expenditure and consumption… their new rung on the social ladder of distinction and degree. A wound that, when it cannot longer be assuaged by commodities, may be placated by an older economy, that of human sacrifice.


From where indeed would come the impulse for millenarian movements, for our totalitarian dreams of a total (and so ‘final’) solution. Where else indeed… source of our 20th century social religions and the rebirth of many a traditional religion. Religion assuaging the wound which in its beginnings was economic, but all too quickly becoming social, recognition-based, a wounded ‘face’ as catalyst to new beliefs (based upon the usual re-alignment of recognition and community). Rebirth of religion from the spirit of personal tragedy.


The wound of face (of wounded ‘face’) to be assuaged by the face of the new Leader.


Loss (of face). Social loss as status centers upon loss of face, imagined loss of caste, or recognition loss: For individuals it is not only loss of economic clout (and so of social status) but of their projected or imaginary self… how they would want to be seen (how they like to believe that they are seen). This morbidly sensitive barometer of any slight, and often, sudden loss of self includes all moments when we are caught doing something we ought not to be doing, when we imagine we are caught, by another’s gaze in the process of doing such… with a concurrent loss of self-esteem felt as keenly as any physical wounding. Just as some believe themselves to be above the Law (upper case indicating, as usual that, we are talking about what is felt to be right and just ‘in general’, and not just ‘in law’, small case - as indeed, ‘above’ the law), so some find themselves below it… And this precisely is their problem: that they are aware that it is a case of ‘below’… and moreover that they are perceived as in such a position by others (in actuality or in their own imaginations).


Response: ‘how dare you make me feel bad, just what is wrong with you…?’


When double consciousness is the cause we find a redoubling of aggression… as the self consciousness of the fault is added to the bill to be paid ... by the other.


Whatever the source of loss, the aggressive response it elicits disfigures society, lowering the standards of public behaviour in public places (now showing the grossness and bullying once limited to the living room or bedroom); disfiguring public life (the realm of private life, as many recipients of domestic violence know, has been disfigured by such cowardice for a long time).


All wounds assuaged by the impulse to violence.


Only assuming that the other is not able to hit back.








Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2013