Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Punishment and resentment

Nevertheless, despair is veritably a self-consuming, but an impotent self-consuming that cannot do what it wants to do.  What it wants to do is to consume itself, something it cannot do, and this impotence is a new form of self-consuming, in which despair is once again unable to do what it wants to do, to consume itself; this is an intensification, or the law of intensification. --Kierkegaard [Hong translation of The Sickness Unto Death, p. 18]
Kierkegaard is interested in the disanalogy that the analogy between despair and vertigo suggests:
Upon [the spirit] rests the responsibility for all despair at every moment of its existence, however much the despairing person speaks of his despair as a misfortune and however ingeniously he deceives himself and others, confusing it with [the] case of dizziness, with which despair, although qualitatively different, has much in common, since dizziness corresponds, in the category of the psychical, to what despair is in the category of the spirit, and it lends itself to numerous analogies to despair. [p. 16]
Robert Frank, in Passion within Reason, discusses some aversive experiments with rats.  Cause them pain when you give them a certain food, and they'll stop eating that food, of course.  But you can reverse this experience by reversing the modalities.  If you cause them pleasure, later, when they are forced to eat that food, they'll unlearn their avoidance.  On the other hand, if you cause them nausea when they eat a certain food (even several hours later), they'll never unlearn their aversion.

Nausea (which Derrida points out is a central affect for the purposes of judgment [as Freud suggests in his great essay "Negation"], but one that Kant fails to discuss in the Critique of Judgment) and vertigo are differently aversive from pain.  How?  Well, for one thing, they are somehow totalizing.  Pain is something that just happens to one, and in most cases it is possible to sustain some clarity of thought even in pain - clarity of thought about the pain it may be (as I know from having had a kidney stone), but still clarity of thought.  Nausea and dizziness are different, all-engrossing, panic-inducing, mind-eroding.

Now it seems to me that our fantasies of revenge (and people's actual acts of revenge) are massively more about causing pain (including the psychic pain of grief, whose analogy to physical pain J.B. Pontalis has brilliantly defended) than about causing nausea or vertigo.  It's not that pain is worse (though of course it may be).  It's that pain is more in tune with the idea of punishment than nausea or vertigo are.

I think that this is because punishment is not so much about the gratification of seeing someone else suffer as it is about making that person understand why he or she is justly suffering.  Resentment is about making those you resent see why you resent them, where that "why" has the full force of justice behind it (cf. P.F. Strawson's great essay on "Freedom and Resentment").  Pain is external, or feels external.  (Elaine Scarry points out that the vocabulary for pain is always instrumental: burning, stabbing, piercing, even throbbing, as though being squeezed.)  Pain speaks to a relation to the outside world, to external things that injure us.  So injuring another is being in a relationship to them.  In French injurier means insult; etymologically injury (from injuria) means counter to the law, so counter to justice: injustice or wrong.  So injury in English suggests one person doing something to another: causing them pain and the damage that pain represents.  It attacks their bodily integrity (or the integrity of their world), but leaves their mind whole.

And so too does punishment.  Thomas Harris's fantasy of Mason Verger's fantasy of revenge on Hannibal Lecter would have Hannibal watching himself being eaten alive by hogs, kept alive and alert to his own consumption.  I think punishment can go only a little farther (as it does in ancient mythology): being forced to eat yourself (or your children), not because the idea is nauseating but because it brings the externalized destruction of body integrity to its zenith, while preserving the mind whole.  (Harris probably goes a little to far and loses a bit of his force when Clarice and Hannibal eat the brain of the conscious Paul Krendler from his open skull, carpaccio by carpaccio.  Here though we might have a fantasied rediscovery of Leibniz's view that all is surface, that the stripping away of each surface of the brain still constitutes and act of bodily harm and can still be perceived by the mind facing its own imminent death.  But I don't think Harris sells it, and the scene is nauseating rather than gratifying.  Though that may be the point; but still it doesn't feel like punishment.)

So why do we want to keep the mind whole?  For the same reason that we fantasize our enemies in  hell knowing their own sinfulness, knowing what they've done to deserve this.  It's because punishment aims at teaching -- this is what's crucial to the idea of altruistic punishment, even though not spelled out in most of its analysts -- at reform and correction, and so there's an acknowledgement in punishment of the humanity of its objects.  That's why Ugolino is conscious and aware of what he's doing in eating Ruggieri's head: Ugolino is still human, and his punishment is also a means of communication.  The communication is two-way: punishment communicates his crime to him, and makes him feel it; he can describe how he feels to the rest of us, because punishment is still a way of keeping others in the nexus of the human. Causing nausea or vertigo lacks that essential criterion for punishment.

So what about despair then?  Despair, we could say, is something like the successful vector towards correction that punishment aims at.  It affects the soul even as it keeps it whole, mindful of its sins and conscious of them.  Despair is the the borderline between punishment and aversiveness which no longer belongs to the ethical world of punishment.  If we can get someone to despair, we've succeeded. Punishment has had a moral success.  Anything more, like vertigo or nausea, has nothing to do with punishment, and becomes pointlessly dreadful.  Pain always seems structured as though it has a point.  (Obviously I'm talking about how we meditate or fantasize about these things, not about the truth of real pain.)  Despair is where that point or purpose disappears: it is a vanishing point or moment of transition.

It's not that pain causes despair directly (though it can cause despair, it can't cause what Kierkegaard means by despair directly).  It's that pain can remind you of what you've done to others, and that can bring home to you a reason for remorse (etymologically: eating yourself up alive!) and despair.

(Although I'm not so sure that this connection works elegantly, what's important about it is how it helps distinguish despair from vertigo.)

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