I have always associated dignity with the reactionary values, and so I am inclined to piss on it. There is a longstanding strain of revolutionary thought that lies behind this idea. One of the great pamphleteers of the French Revolution, J-R. Hèbert, published a newspaper of astonishing obscenity, Le Père Duchesne, which dedicated itself to stripping the dignity from the French aristocracy. The paper was subtitled, Je suis le veritable Pere Duschene, foutre – which can be roughly be translated as No shit, I’m the real Father Duchene. Hèbert was one of the great purveyors of an obscene distortion of Marie-Antoinette, making her a prostitute, an incestous mother, practically a cannibal. He also was one of her prosecutors at the Trial, which Marie Antoinette dominated. If you think HRC’s farcical persecution for Benghazi was a disgrace, read about Marie Antoinette’s trial, and weep. Chantal Thomas wrote a striking and important book about the “reine scelerat” in the 80s, which dismantled the combination of misogyny and psychopathology that went into this image.
Of course, values do not simply line up as reactionary and revolutionary. They are symptoms of more complex states of social confrontation. While nothing makes me bray like a donkey more than the language of the monarchial court commonly employed by journalists who write about politicians, I am realizing, under Trump, how the stripping of dignity can work to promote the worst kind of reaction, the kind that shocks a liberal political structure in which reaction – in terms of the radical increase in the power of capital – has already been undermining.
This has made me re-consider the value and place of dignity and the place of stripping the dignity from a person. This is not just a ritual adjunct to real power – it is how power operates at the critical instant.
Cicero once wrote that “the goal at which statesmen like himself and his correspondent ought to aim in the conduct of affairs of State was cum dignitate otium”. (Wirzubinski, 1954). This phrase was taken up by the humanists, and puzzled over by the classicists. What was dignitas, and what was otium? The usual idea was that the statesman would be ‘respected’ and he would employ that respect to insure the ‘tranquility’ of his subjects. Respect was also construed as keeping “one’s good name”.
But what if the person in power has no good name? Has, in other words, no dignity at all? This, it turns out, creates a curious sense of powerlessness. In Gothic literature, there is a subtheme of the clown torturer, the man usually with no name, or an assumed one. Whose goal is to wound, irreparably, the name of the other – the other’s good name with him or herself.
The horror this aroused doesn’t have, at its disposal, in-dignation. Which has long been an important limit on power. Such is the flattening power of the president with the name – and no good one. The Bush era was, by many measures, much worse than the present one; even so, it did not have this dreamy layer of horror. Bush was not only aware of his good name, he rode to power on his name. But Trump? The man lived for scandal. And now he is at the center, scandal in power, and he evidently loves it.
I want my indignation back.