Imperfect notes on an imperfect world
Imperfect world
In Conversation with Joseph Vogl

In Conversation with Joseph Vogl

Imperfect World

In his seminal analysis, Max Scheler defined ressentiment in the following terms:

Ressentiment is a self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.

It is tricky concept that speaks to a tricky reality. Recently, it has been explored by Pankaj Mishra in his book, Age of Anger. In an accompanying article he observes:

In an era of globalised commerce, these disparities now exist everywhere, along with enlarged notions of individual aspiration and equality. Accordingly, ressentiment, an existential resentment of others, is poisoning civil society and undermining political liberty everywhere.

One of Mishra’s points is that the surfacing and spread of this anger is neither incidental nor accidental, it is deeply connected to prevailing political and economic structures. These themes are further examined by Joseph Vogl in Capital and Ressentiment: A Brief Theory of the Present (2022). In it, he writes:

…the social affect of ressentiment occupies a privileged position: in the current economic system, it functions as both a product and a productive force, and precisely with its politically and socially erosive forces contributes to the stabilization of finance and information capitalism.

In drawing these connections, Vogl is extending and advancing themes he explored previously in The Ascendancy of Finance (2017) and The Specter of Capital (2014). Through these books, Vogl develops a careful and nuanced reading of the profound ways our societies are structured by the role of capital. In his most recent work, he moves beyond the standard story about the financialization of economies, and identifies the deeply synergistic dynamic with the advance of technological changes in how information is generated, communicated and responded to. Vogl foregrounds this relationship: ‘the informatization of the financial sector and the financialization of the information economy’. Important consequences flow from the rise of platform capitalism:

Previously, new zones of human and social capital were opened up under the financialization of the economy: for example, through the privatization of public infrastructures, social systems, or pension and preventative services of all kinds. Now, in a similar way, the production of raw data material has transformed everyday online behavior and modes of communication (as well as other remnants of economic wastelands such as street routes, house views, or movement patterns) into the source of a permanent extraction of surplus value.

From his careful analysis, Vogl makes a vital observation: ressentiment is a feature, not a bug, of the way that platform capitalism operates. Peter Chambers, my conversation partner, captures something in comparing it with the use of chemical weapons:

Ressentiment in the present functions in communication analogously to the way gas warfare functioned at Ypres and after: it deprives the whole environment of its ability to sustain life. Ressentiment matters collectively – because it is an attack on the communicative environment as a whole. Like chlorine and mustard, it replaces the very ‘air’ that sustains our sociable humanity with something that induces burning eyes, vomiting, sickening dizziness, communicative asphyxiation.

Vogl, Mishra, Chambers: all of them are speaking to the specific toxicity of a mediated and represented world, relations that exist on and through digital platforms. Recalling Scheler: ‘Ressentiment … has quite definite causes and consequences.’ Indeed. And these must be recognised and reckoned with.

Vogl’s thought-provoking treatment of ressentiment formed the basis of our conversation with him, alongside a deep appreciation for the way he moves from literary theory to social and critical theory. Vogl joined us from Princeton, where he is a Regular Visiting Professor, and until last year, he was Professor of Modern German Literature, Cultural and Media Studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (2006–2023). We hope you enjoy this stimulating engagement with Vogl’s nuanced, rich scholarship.

Imperfect notes on an imperfect world
Imperfect world
’Imperfect world’ is a series of conversations exploring exploring where politics, society, and technology meet. Hosted by Japan-based scholar, Dr Christopher Hobson.