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Didier Fassin on Resentment and Ressentiment

Professor Didier Fassin delivered the Roger Allan Moore Lecture on Friday, February 3, 2012 at the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School.

In this lecture, titled, “On Resentment and Ressentiment,” Didier Fassin discusses the differences between the concepts of resentment and ressentiment, specifically as formulated by Jean Améry and the implications of that distinction in the framework of what he terms moral anthropology.

“Forgiving and forgetting,” Fassin quotes Améry, “induced by social pressure, is immoral…my resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity.”

According to Fassin,

“Not only does Améry offer a counterpoint to the consensual evaluation of empathy and pardon as personal virtues, but he also offers a antithesis to contemporary policy of amnesty and atonement as universal paradigms to the almost unanimous celebration of good moral sentiments over the past two centuries and its recent revival through humanitarianism and reconciliation in international relations, he offers a solitary resistance by introducing this linguistic and ethical differentiation between resentment and ressentiment.”

So he (Fassin) sets out to make two basic points (which he attributes to Améry): to substitute the anthropological meaning of ressentiment for the ordinary psychological signification of the term resentment, and to “radically inverse” the moral depreciation associated with both terms, resentment and ressentiment. He uses two settings (drawn from his own ethnographic work), post-apartheid South Africa and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s agenda, and policing, politics of security and the actions of anti-crime squads vis a vis immigrants in France:

“I contend that to understand the violence of the polemics in South Africa and of the police in France, one has to consider the moral justification of these agents, which in both case have for foundation a sentiment of rancor, however this sentiment does not seem to have the same factual or moral grounds. This is why in deciphering the two scenes I will differentiate analytically what I call ressentiment in the first case and resentment in the second.”

Recorded content consists of: Opening remarks by Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, Introduction by Paul Farmer, Lecture by Didier Fassin, and Comments by: Paul Farmer, Anne Becker, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman. My gratitude goes to Seth Hannah for recording the session.

I invite your feedback, given the significance and provocative nature of the points made by Fassin.


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