September 17, 2020  (Web Review)

The Toxic Reigns of Resentment

Bullfrog Films, 52 min., not rated, DVD: $295.00, May 5

Reviewer rating: 2.0/4

A group of eight academics discuss the emotion of resentment and its contemporary socio-political implications in this documentary by Jürgen Schaflechner and Tim von den Hoff. The interviewees are Wendy Brown (University of California at Berkeley), Grayson Hunt (University of Texas at Austin), Rahel Jaeggi (Humboldt University), Robert Pfaller (University of Art and Design, Linz), Gyan Prakash (Princeton University), Alexander Nehamas (Princeton University), Sjoerd van Tuinen (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) and Peter Sloterdijk (University of Art and Design, Karlsruhe). In a series of eight segments—Concept, History, Global Resentment, Scapegoating, Political Correctness, Pleasure of Resentment, Empowerment and an Epilogue, separated by brief snippets of music and dance—all of them contribute to an explanation of what resentment means (an emotional response to injury and humiliation), how its expression has changed over time (from the Middle Ages to the present), and how in today’s world it has moved from the personal to the political, generating populist and nationalist movements that espouse discriminatory and exclusionary policies against minority groups and immigrants. Such movements, it is argued, arise from feelings many have about their loss of privilege and prospects for betterment as a result of globalization and neo-liberal economic and social systems, and give rise to authoritarian figures like Donald Trump. The response to them, however, has only exacerbated the situation by stigmatizing their adherents and demanding codes of conduct that are limiting and peremptory. Curtailing freedom of speech by identifying some modes of expression as politically incorrect has only made things worse; it has also infantilized university education by making it entirely too easy for students to demand the use of safe zones and trigger words to prevent the chance that they might be offended by what happens in a classroom. It is precisely the clash of different viewpoints, on campus and in life, that is productive, the scholars suggest, and institutionalizing mechanisms that obstruct it in the name of avoiding upset is contrary to the whole purpose of the educational process. The speakers are, for the most part, pessimistic about the likelihood of matters improving, either politically or educationally, in the near future. The Toxic Reigns of Resentment offers a thoughtful analysis of how politics based on feelings of injury and humiliation have impacted the modern world as a whole, and specifically the system of higher education. It suffers, however, from the fact that the observations of the interviewees are presented in discrete excerpts from individually-shot sessions; since the eight scholars never have an opportunity to interact with one another, the film effectively takes the form of a single lecture in which the speaker changes from moment to moment, rather than a seminar in which the participants can challenge each other. While thought-provoking, therefore, it also comes across as a bit cut-and-dried. Still, it can serve as a means of stimulating debate on a central issue in today’s contentious world. A strong optional purchase. Aud: C, P. (F. Swietek