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Colonial Ressentiment, Enlightenment Thought, and the Impasses of Decolonization

Sunil Agnani, University of Illinois at Chicago
Thursday, November 9, 2017 -
4:30pm to 6:00pm
A71 Louis A. Simpson International Building
Thursday, November 9, 2017 -
4:30pm to 6:00pm

But, you will ask, in what does this general will [volonté générale] reside?
Where can I consult it?… In the principles of written law of all the civilized
nations [les nations policées]; in the social practices of savage and barbarous
peoples… and even in those two passions—indignation and resentment
[l'indignation & le ressentiment]—which nature seems to have extended
as far as animals to compensate for social laws and public retribution. 

—Diderot, “Natural Law”/Droit Naturel (1755) from Encyclopédie

What might Diderot have meant in proposing that two passions, indignation and ressentiment, were the repositories for a general will, akin to written law (for civilized peoples) or social practices (for peuples sauvages)? This talk is based on Dr. Agnani's article, "Colonial Ressentiment, Enlightenment Thought, and the Impasses of Decolonization," which aims to trace one term which arises in some eighteenth-century writings on empire and slavery, namely that of ressentiment (in contrast with studies of sympathy, with which it is of course tied). He includes some pertinent moments in the work of Denis Diderot and Edmund Burke from the 1770s and 1780s, exploring the forms of political sympathy and anger that Diderot (especially in the Histoire des deux Indes) expresses ranged alongside the contemporary thought of Burke as counterweight. He shifts from there to the 1880s to consider Friedrich Nietzsche’s use of the concept in On the Genealogy of Morality (GM), published in 1887, emphasizing connections between the discussion of ressentiment and temporality. Finally, he makes links with the thought of Frantz Fanon and Ranajit Guha to explore how the sentiments of conquest are reflected in a conception of the past inextricably marked by colonialism. Nietzsche retains the French term ressentiment in his work, and Dr. Agnani has therefore kept it for the most part since it provides a terminological link between Diderot, Nietzsche and Fanon. Clearly, much of its meaning is carried by the English term "resentment," which Dr. Agnani will address.

Sunil Agnani is an Associate Professor in the Departments of English and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is currently the Director of Graduate Studies in English. He has held previous positions at the Princeton Society of Fellows and the University of Michigan, and is the author of a book on Denis Diderot and Edmund Burke, Hating Empire Properly: The Two Indies and Limits of Enlightenment Anticolonialism (winner of the 2014 Harry Levin Prize for Best First Book, American Comparative Literature Association/ACLA), which examines the role of ressentiment and revenge in European anticolonial thought of the Enlightenment.

Last year Dr. Agnani was a fellow at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago for a project entitled “Overcoming Resentment: Enlightenment Thought and the Impasses of Decolonization.” Work in progress includes “Edmund Burke & Hannah Arendt: Poverty, Resentment & the Social Question.” He has published articles in PMLA, Cultural Critique, The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, Studies in English Literature (SEL), and contributed chapters to volumes from Bloomsbury Press, EHESS press (Paris), ENS ÉDITIONS (Paris), and Stanford press. Fellowships include those from the Humanities Research Center at Rice University and the John Carter Brown Library.

Co-sponsored with the Program in South Asian Studies.

Sponsored by
Fung Global Fellows Program