Forgiveness entails two aspects: first, it involves an act of imputation, an assertion that an other has committed an offence and is culpable for it, and which thereby establishes a social debt; and second, an act of release, which involves a sacrifice of social debt and a gift to the other of revalidated social standing. This gift attempts to repair or preserve the face of the other, which potentially had been damaged in the act of offence. Although the offender is not the primary victim of the offensive or injurious action, s/he often is injured socially and/or interpersonally by the affects of that offense, particularly the guiltiness that stems from acknowledged or imputed culpability. Both aspects are crucial to forgiveness. Imputation gives the offended some measure of power in registering the other’s guilt, granting the situation of offense meaning that validates the experience of the offended. Imputation in this sense is an act of contained aggression and symbolic violence. But is does not function alone. If it is to refashion the social relations breached by the offense, it also must release the offender from the stigma of imputation, containing the exposure of the other to social and interpersonal forms of rancor and stigma due to guilt. In forgiveness, the offended takes on the responsibility of preserving the face of the other, the offended. He or she does so by foreclosing the power of the offense to define the offender and his or her position in the social field. As such, it is a sacrifice and a gift.
Forgiveness is the self’s quiet assault on the power of the malicious and the injurious. Its aim is to repair the breaches and fracture the malicious that the injurious create within the self, between the self and other(s), within self-narratives and memory-vignettes, across the social order and in the fields of representation. It does this in two crucial ways: publicly, as a ritualised speech-act, and privately, as a form of affective reattunement to be fully functional both of these must apply. Publicly, forgiveness operates as a ritual and not as a transaction, because forgiveness, unlike a transaction, can neither require nor demand reciprocity. Forgiveness always operates within the possibility of its repudiation by the other. As a ritualised speech-act, it imposes its own version of things on the other beyond the other’s power of negation, something a transaction, enmeshed in the logic of exchange, cannot achieve. Public ritual of forgiveness, in spite of this structural non-reciprocity, holds the other accountable even in the act of releasement of that accountability, a releasement that, ephemerally, negates the ongoing force that the malicious purports to have. It does this in two ways: first, by proclaiming a judgment of what is not one’s own—the other’s malevolence, indifference or harm—and releasing the self socially from the stigmatizing traces of the offence; second, by speaking into being a version of self and a form of social dignity that negates and survives the malicious. Privately, forgiveness involves affective reattunement, which begins with decathexis of the breach in self and self-narrative wrought by the malicious. This entails a releasing of the affect held by the psychic wound whose splitting force has generated a new, fractured identity-possibility for the self. The self must withdraw investments in the identity possibilities constituted by psychic injury and the rectitude that transforms such injury into victimhood and identity formation. This involves the self’s release of the shame wrought by injury and malice. Forgiveness, then, in its potential twofold structure enables the self to generate an event and a condition of being that, at least ephemerally, negates much of the retroactive and ongoing force of the malicious and the injurious.
Forgiveness is the self’s quiet assault on the power of the malicious and the injurious. Its aim is to repair or mitigate the breaches and fractures the malicious and the injurious create within the self, between the self and other(s), and across the social order. It does this in two ways: publicly, as a ritualised speech-act, wherein forgiveness forges a special form of recognition, in which recognition of oneself as one who forgives stands in for and displaces various forms of non-recognition by the other(s); and privately, as a form of affective reattunement, in which a ‘decathexis’ of the breach wrought by the malicious releases the self from an imposed shame and facilitates the reassertion of a self which has affirmatively assimilated injury, a process necessary for its release. For forgiveness to be fully functional, it needs to operate both publicly and privately, both as a ritual speech-act and as a manifestation of affective reattunement. Publicly, it needs to operate as a ritual and not as a transaction, because forgiveness, unlike a transaction, can neither require nor demand reciprocity. As Paul Ricoeur might have said, forgiveness, as public ritual is a form of imputation, a way of holding the other accountable, yet it still must be able to function under conditions of non-reciprocity. Forgiveness always operates in the ineluctable possibility of its repudiation by the other. It functions as a ritual affirmation that itself refuses to recognize the other’s power of negation; as ritualised speech-act, it imposes its own version of things on the other beyond the other’s power of negation, something a transaction, enmeshed in the logic of exchange, cannot achieve. Public rituals of forgiveness, in spite of this structural nonreciprocity, hold the other accountable even in the act of releasement of that accountability, a releasement that, ephemerally, negates the ongoing force that the malicious or injurious purports to have. It does this in two ways: first, by verbally taking on and naming what is not one’s own – the other’s malevolence, indifference or harm – and releasing the self socially from the stigmatising traces of those capacities; and, second, by speaking into being a version of self and a form of social dignity that negates and survives the malicious. Privately, forgiveness involves affective reattunement, which begins with a decathexis of the breach in self-wrought by the malicious or the injurious. This entails an affective releasing of the psychic wound whose splitting force has generated a new, fractured identity-possibility for the self. While the breach may well be stigmatised psychically, in order for forgiveness to occur the self that has become simultaneously fractured and organized by an injurious breach must destigmatise that breach; that is, the self must withdraw investments in the identity possibilities constituted by psychic injury and the rectitude that transforms such injury into victimhood and identity formation. This involves the self’s assimilation and release of the shame wrought by injury and malice. And this assimilation is itself a negation of the power of the malicious, a form of non-recognition that negates. Forgiveness, then, in its twofold structure – as public ritual and speech-act, and as affective reattunement – enables the self to generate an event and a condition of being that, at least ephemerally, negates much of the retroactive and ongoing force of the malicious and the injurious.
Forgiveness has become, in current theory, a symptom of a fundamental ambivalence in social order: are social relations founded on necessary reciprocity, in which social expenditures and debts require responses that restore equity or balance (what one might call justice)? Or are social relations founded on ‘pure moral relations,’ that is, relations in which a donation of some kind to the other prompts or prescribes no need of response or reciprocation? Marcel Henaff, in The Price of Truth, traces this rift to a transition from societies based on ceremonial gift exchange (in which gifts are performative acts of recognition) to societies in which central political organization has vastly lessened the need for ceremonial exchange, and in which ‘pure’ gift-giving, the attempt to advance the welfare of the other through a gift that expects no return, has come to dominate. These structures of gift-giving provide some of the substructures of forgiveness, which can be conceptualized metaphorically as a gift in response to offense. Socially, an offense disrupts social equilibrium and equity, creating an asymmetry or imbalance. This mishap creates individual or collective social debt. Theories of bilateral forgiveness see such debt as enmeshed in a structure of equity based on restored reciprocity—I will forgive you if you give me the gift of regret and apology. In contrast, theories of unilateral or ‘pure’ forgiveness assume no structure of equity, considering forgiveness as a kind of extravagant generosity, a delivery of social grace without encumbrance. Forgiveness, however, in our postmodern world, is structured by the simultaneous pressures of reciprocity and debt on the one hand, and charity and extravagance on the other. Due to this inevitably dual structure, forgiveness remains fundamentally ambivalent, riven between impurity and justice and inequity and grace.
Revenge is often thought to be a response to an insult or injury that attempts to restore balance or equity between the revenger and the offender. Such restoration is supposed to occur through a form of retaliation that generates a response equivalent to the original injury - an eye for an eye, to use the Biblical formula. I would argue, however, that revenge is more about a symbolic assertion of dominance than simply about social redress or rebalancing. It is an act of self-fashioning self-assertion that responds to the desubjectification produced by the offense itself. We live in a social world in which we have been subjectified; that is, our world is one in which we base our identities and sense of self on our acceptance of and compliance with the habits, dispositions and behaviours that fit with the kind of person we are supposed to be, given our particular social standing. Revenge emerges as a response to an event that attacks our sense of this subject-position. Because revenge’s response is about symbolic reconstruction, it is often excessive in relation to the original offense, as it typically wishes to demonstrate the personal power, social standing and mastery of the person seeking revenge. Consequently, revenge normally refuses social forms of redress, decontextualising the offence into a binary form. The offence becomes a personal matter between offender and offended, split off from social context. Revenge then takes up this decontextualised event and redresses it with a personal attack that is primarily designed to symbolise the power and agency of the offender in order to restore recognition that had been violated by the offence. It is a symbolic act of resubjectifcation that psychologically has to do with restoring a fantasy self. This is why revenge often resists rational thought.
One of the more crucial and underdeveloped areas of complexity in explorations of forgiveness in the West is the relationship between forgiveness and memory. Part of this stems from the paradigm established by Bishop Joseph Butler in the 19th century that forgiveness entails the overcoming of resentment. Even though resentment is an emotion that exists only in relation to memory (it is an emotion of the archived past), Butler’s focus was on forgiveness as a change in sentiment rather than as an alteration of memory or, more precisely, as an alteration in the emotional charge of memory. Writers as diverse as Griswold, Jankélévitch and Derrida follow (divergently) in this path, treating forgiveness more as an act or event in the present than as a way of relating to the complexity of the past and to memory as the medium of that past. I would argue instead that only by exploring memory and its effects on emotions/sentiments and on present and future behaviour can one begin to understand forgiveness. This entails a thorough analysis of memory itself, as that is the primary medium through which offense is preserved. Memory, of course, can come in several forms: narrative, affective, traumatic, archival, documentary, etc., and each of these forms poses its own particular opportunities for and resistances to forgiveness. In all cases, forgiveness responds to a particular memory form and works to alter or reconfigure that memory’s affective load, its symbolic weight and/or its meaning. Especially powerful in evoking a need for forgiveness is what I would call the phenomenon of imperative memory: insistent memories that drive or mandate present and future behaviour and dispositions. Such non-inert memories comprise the predominant terrain of forgiveness, and unfolding the complex relations between imperative memory and forgiveness is the focus of this chapter.