Envy as Consumer Credo and Political Temperament

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It’s hard to compete with the righteous wrath of the disinherited. I am not mentioning this to deconstruct once again the problematic attraction of class exotica or racial aroma. I’d like to circumvent blame games of that kind via a more descriptive conjecture of envy as an analytic premise. Obviously, there is good reason to believe the token Eurocentric Subject is still comfortable defining the rest of the world as simply digressions from itself. But this does not mean that traditional utensils still do justice to the complex consumer mentality that has developed over the centuries. I’m referring to ever more complex blends of DIY anthropology, quick-fix solidarity and sustainable hedonism — all of which warrant terms more malleable than the tired models of racism, tolerance, essentialism, or xenophobia. Perhaps it may prove useful to resuscitate envy from the netherworlds of individual pathology.

The notion of envy is relevant not only in terms of specific objects of desire, but also to exclusion spatially defined, particularly when traces of the conspiratorial are at play. Consider the eerily brutal sounds of a party to which you haven’t been invited. Or compare the handling of spatial commodities such as the Middle East or the Orient, even in “progressive” arenas like Third Text, a journal long hailed as the cutting edge of postcolonial acumen. Third Text mentions the “collectivist” spirit of “the Arab street,” “Al Jazeera,” and “Al Qaeda” in one breath (“The first of these new, airy forms of collectivism [is that of] the collectivism of public opinion rising and falling on the Arab street or ricocheting across Al Jazeera’s or Al Qaeda’s networks or whispering in this or that secret, self-isolated cell gathered together in a cave”), thereby throwing the very party it can thus feel excluded from — and which it can thereafter describe from without.1

To take another example: Have you ever compared the marketing value of White Trash to that of Brown Immigrants? In the eyes of those who are neither, the white working class is common, taste-less, ugly and embarrassing, while people from places cast as outside (Muslims and famine victims and such), are at least solemn, serene, enduring, old-fashioned and dignified. If the working class is now a peroxided caricature of the political leviathan it once was, Cultural Others still have a certain poise. They safeguard the simple family values of religiosity and devotion that all great-grandparents share, the kind you’d never want yourself, but that you f ind reassuring to have around.2

Someone with an outstanding eye for such delicious shifts in mass consumer sensitivity was German artist Martin Kippenberger, who in 1985 devised a flyer with the slogan, “What’s your favorite minority — Who do you envy most?” shortly before embarking on a working holiday to Brazil, which he explained as a “Magical Misery Tour.” The advantage to Kippenberger’s approach, of course, is that it brings up issues of exploitation and pays homage to the frisson of flinching, to the pleasant poetics of voyeurism. If, as scores of theorists have been arguing over the last few decades, we underestimate the complexity of pornography, voyeurism, and other pleasures of the gaze, perhaps this applies to envy as well.

Stemming from the Latin invidere (in: “upon,” videre: “to see”), the verb initially meant “to look at with malice, cast an evil eye upon.” It betrays not only a penchant for the visual, but also the animist subtext of the term’s age-old demonization; fear of the evil eye was equally relevant in the drafting of the Tenth Commandment — thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ox. Incidentally, the Tenth is the one Commandment that relies entirely on self-censorship and a dynamic of private guilt, as opposed to the physical, clear-cut acts of stealing, fibbing, or sleeping with your neighbors.

Even the Seven Deadly Sins were initially only six in number, until St. Gregory the Great added envy to the list in the late sixth century. Prefect of Rome, Gregory renounced both political career and family wealth in favor of a life as a monk — “he who had been wont to go about the city clad in the trabea and aglow with silk and jewels now clad in a worthless garment served the altar of the Lord” and all that. In a gesture as self-congratulatory as it was disarmingly honest, Gregory ranked envy and pride, two things he’d demonstratively abandoned, as the two most Deadly of the Deadly, imbuing them more decisively than ever with connotations of petty material greed.

Envy later became the butt of countless soundbites in various Quotation Encyclopedias, with Francis Bacon naming it the “vilest affection, and the most depraved” and Samuel Johnson claiming envy was “unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable means and desires not so much its own happiness as another’s misery.” If it is hardly surprising that the literati, with their tangled triad of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, would deprecate envy — when they’re not applauding it with Oscar Wildean coquetry — it is perhaps more surprising that Adam Smith, corner-stone of capitalism as we know it, described envy as an “odious and detestable passion.” But surely enough, even today, envy is still a forceful, knock-down argument against any form of economic egalitarianism.

Should anyone succeed in proving envy to be among your motives for demands for redistribution then you’re suddenly deprived of any authoritative ethical ground on which to base those demands. This leads to an unfortunate double bind: if sentiments of envy are neurotic, denying them categorically would imply there’s nothing to covet — and hence no reason to redistribute anything in the first place. This, as some have pointed out, is disingenuous in a society that worships wealth and power, and systematically nurtures envy in order to encourage consumption.

I am not pleading for a simple reversal (covet thy neighbor), for in matters of sheer survival or career rivalry, envy is hard to translate into political action. Contrary to its reputation, envy doesn’t necessarily imply a decisive drive for actual ownership, membership, or identification. Take a recent essay on Saddam Hussein, written by Amatzia Baram under the auspices of the German Orient Institute: “Since his days of exile in Cairo, Saddam Hussein developed a highly ambivalent attitude toward Nasser, ranging all the way from admiration and a wish to emulate him to [later on] opposition and envy.”3 The interest here lies not in Saddam’s sentiments per se, so meticulously identified by Dr. Baram, politicopsychoanalyst supreme, but in the very textual shift from “admiration/emulation” to an awareness that the respective object of desire was not necessarily worth emulating. It indicates that envy is not the binary opposite of noble emotions of respect and approval, but a critical shift away from the virtues of adulation altogether.

Allow me to end with a phrase by Carolyn Steedman: “by allowing envy to enter into political understanding, the proper struggle of people in a state of dispossession to gain their inheritance might be seen not as sordid greed for the things of the marketplace but attempts to alter a world that has produced in them states of unfulfilled desire.” Steedman is not rallying you to hold mass envy sessions on campus, with titillating slideshows and outraged soapbox orators, but to rehabilitate the notion of envy as an analytical tool. To this end, envy would need to exit the rhetoric of private neuroses of want and deficiency, and become a marker of an intellectual mentality not only unabashedly consumerist, but also crudely judgmental, avoiding all the customary channels of politico-stylistic self-censorship. To envy, in other words, is to acknowledge an itch without intellectualizing it into something with which your Über-Ich would agree.

1 Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette, “Periodising Collectivism,” Third Text, issue 6, 2004
2 Beverley Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture, New York: Routledge 2004
3 Amatzia Baram “Saddam Husayn and Nasirism: 1968-2000,” in Orient, Vol. 41, No. 3, (Hamburg), September 2000, pp. 461-472