In my post yesterday on Irving Howe, I linked to an essay I wrote about ten years ago on language and violence. Several readers expressed an interest in the piece, so I’ve decided to repost some excerpts from it here; the full version is here. Though it came out in 2006, it speaks, from a distance, to some of the issues we’re currently wrestling with in France and elsewhere.
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In 1965, George Steiner asked, “Is there any science-fiction pornography?”
Mostly rhetorical, the question was a typically Steinerian prompt to a typically Steinerian rumination on the relationship between sex and language. With its ability to alter “the co-ordinates of space and time” to “set effect before cause,” science fiction would seem the natural workshop of pornographic invention.
But it wasn’t. “Despite all the lyric or obsessed cant about the boundless varieties and dynamics of sex, the actual sum of possible gestures, consummations, and imaginings is drastically limited,” Steiner wrote. “There just aren’t that many orifices.”
These limits necessarily meant there was precious little, and certainly nothing new, to say about erotic arousal. “The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series”—and thus there could be no science-fiction pornography, at least not in the sense of “something new, an invention by the human imagination of new sexual experience.”
Yet, here we are, more than thirty years later, swimming in porn, with the pool growing larger—the images more startling, the words more fanciful—by the day. Cybersex has probably not altered the coordinates of time and space, but the union of telephone and computer has certainly introduced new dimensions to an old experience. Far from exhausting the capacities of language, porn now seems to occupy entire continents of discussion; the blogger’s “money quote” is only the most recent outpost.
Steiner may be right that all this talk is doomed to be repetitive, but repetition does have its pleasures, not all of them the same. Ironically, Steiner may have anticipated this verbal plenitude in his own essay: whatever his misgivings about the possibilities of a public language about sex, the title of his piece, “Night Words,” not to mention its fevered pitch and prose, did hint at a coming Esperanto of eros.
It should be no surprise that violence, sex’s Siamese twin, should inspire a similar performative contradiction from our leading intellectuals. How many times have we been told by writers that violence is a nullity about which there is nothing interesting or new to be said, only to discover, from these very same writers, that there is much that is both interesting and new to be said about it?
Throughout her career, Hannah Arendt spoke at length, often imaginatively, about violence, without ever questioning her notion that “mute violence” was sheer redundancy. Elaine Scarry began The Body in Pain with the claim that pain’s “resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes but is essential to what it is”—and then spent more than three hundred pages demonstrating, sometimes inadvertently, that that was not the case.
Perhaps Robert Paul Wolff expressed this contradiction best when, in his 1969 essay on the topic, he opened with the following disclaimer:
Everything I shall say in this essay has been said before, and much of it seems to me to be obvious as well as unoriginal. I offer two excuses for laying used goods before you. In the first place, I think that what I have to say about violence is true. Now, there are many ways to speak falsehood and only one to speak truth. It follows, as Kierkegaard pointed out, that the truth is likely to become boring. On a subject as ancient and much discussed as ours today, we may probably assume that a novel—and, hence, interesting—view of violence is likely to be false.
With due respect to Arendt, it is difficult to accept her proposition that violence is mute when philosophers expend so many words trying to figure out what it is. When, after all, is the infliction of pain an act of violence as opposed to an exercise of force, power, coercion, or punishment? Must violence be intentional? Must the pain it administers be physical? Does violence require a perpetrator—and a specific act—or can it be the damaging effect of a faceless system?
The debates over whether what happened at Abu Ghraib was “torture,” “abuse,” or “misconduct”—and who or what was ultimately responsible for it—suggest that these language games are not wholly academic. And though jurists and civil libertarians may object to the conflation of language and violence entailed by the notion of hate speech, that conflation probably expresses a commingling of categories we simply cannot escape.
How can we square this notion of violence as a linguistic nullity with the riot of talk that surrounds it? The example of pornography might prove instructive. The sexually forbidden naturally provokes a sense of titillation and curiosity, which, when satisfied, is succeeded by feelings of mute depression—whether because it is only the taboo that makes the sexual act in question exciting or because a proper acquaintance with the act reveals that it is not all that one imagined it would be.
Perhaps violence operates in a similar fashion: when we hurt or destroy a feared or hated object, we experience a sense of loss because the object that aroused such passion within us is now no more or is sufficiently subdued to claim our attention no longer. As Forster wrote in A Passage to India, “The aims of battle and the fruits of conquest are never the same; the latter have their value and only the saint rejects them, but their hint of immortality vanishes as soon as they are held in the hand.”
And so we drift—from dirty talk to silence, from violence to the void.
But there may be a less exotic explanation for our contradictory attitude toward violence, particularly political violence, which is what most concerns writers on the subject.
On the one hand, we like to think of violence as the antithesis of civilization, law, morality, and rational discourse. On the other hand, political violence requires, as Arendt herself acknowledged, organization and planning among men and women, who must be in agreement about what they are attacking and how they will attack it. It requires instruments of hurt and pain, which are the products of written if not spoken design. It is regulated by law and structured—some would say constituted—by social mores. It must be justified by reference to some higher purpose: God, the Revolution, the State. No wonder we talk—and talk— about violence; the only wonder is that we think we don’t.
[What followed was a discussion of a book on violence by William Pfaff. I’ve omitted that discussion here.]
Why is it that when confronted with extremist violence and its defenders, whether on the right or the left, analysts resort to the categories of psychology as opposed to politics, economics, or ideology? Pfaff is certainly not alone in his approach: consider the recent round of psychoanalysis to which Al Qaeda has been subjected or Robert Lindner’s Cold War classic, The Fifty-Minute Hour, which featured an extended chapter on “Mac” the Communist.
Psychological factors influence anyone’s decision to take up arms or to speak on behalf of those who do. But those who emphasize these factors tend to ignore the central tenet of their most subtle and acute analyst: that the normal person is merely a hysteric in disguise, that the rational is often irrationality congealed. If we are to go down the road of psychoanalyzing violence, why not put Henry Kissinger or the RAND Corporation on the couch too?
There is more than a question of consistency at stake here, for the choice of psychology as the preferred mode of explanation often reflects little more than our own political prejudices. Violence we favor is deemed strategic and realistic, a response to genuine political exigencies. Violence we reject is dismissed as fanatic and lunatic, the outward manifestation of some inner drama. What gets overlooked in such designations is that violence is an inescapably human activity, reflecting a full range of concerns and considerations, requiring an empathic, though critical, attention to mind and world.
I was recently reminded of this bifurcated approach to violence by two articles in the same issue of The New Yorker. In one, a profile of Oriana Fallaci, Margaret Talbot tells how Fallaci’s father inspired and encouraged his teenage daughter to work against the Fascists in Italy. Roused by her father’s example, a pig-tailed Fallaci “carried explosives and delivered messages” and led escaping American and British POWs across dangerous minefields.
When Fallaci’s mother later discovered what her daughter had been doing, she scolded her husband, “You would have sacrificed newly born children! You and your ideas.” But then she softened: “Well, but I had a feeling you were doing something like that.” Talbot relates this story without comment, allowing it to serve as the capstone of a charming—and entirely political—tale of one family’s idealistic rebellion against evil.
At the back of the magazine, David Denby takes a different tack with a vaguely similar story. This time the setting is the Middle East, and the topic is a new documentary, “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber,” a dense political history of suicide bombing.
Denby is not interested, however, in the politics of the bombers: “The real center of interest, for me, at least, lies in the families of the young men who died.” But his interest is frustrated by the refusal of these families to express their grief in public, leading him to wonder whether they have any grief at all.
One Iranian mother says of her son, who died in battle (presumably on a suicide mission during the Iran-Iraq War), “He became a martyr for God.” Such statements lead Denby to conclude that the parents “speak as if the boys had attained a purely official identity, as if they were not their own dead children.” (How these comments are any different from a Midwestern father telling a reporter, twenty years after the fact, that his son died defending his country in Vietnam, Denby does not explain.) Denby is equally frustrated by the fact that the parents insist on seeing their sons’ destruction through a political or religious lens and that “any kind of psychological explanation is ignored.”
Now, Talbot is a reporter and Denby is a critic, and they may not share the same opinion about political violence or the proper response of parents to the death of their children. Fallaci, moreover, managed to survive her ordeal while the sons in the film are dead. Indeed, survival and death were their respective goals. But something tells me that these factors alone do not explain the magazine’s opposing accounts of political violence—one emphasizing its humanity, the other its freakishness, one its politics, the other its psychology (or the lack of it).
Every culture has its martyred heroes—from the first wave of soldiers at Omaha Beach, whose only goal was to wash ashore, dead but with their guns intact so that the next wave could use them, to Samson declaring that he would die with the Philistines—and its demonized enemies, its rational use of force and its psychopathic cult of violence. And in every culture it has been the job of intellectuals to keep people clear about the difference between the two. Mill did it for imperial Europe. Why should imperial America expect anything less (or more) from William Pfaff, let alone David Denby?
But perhaps we should expect our writers to do more than simply mirror the larger culture. After all, few intellectuals today divide the sexual world into regions of the normal and abnormal. Why can’t they throw away that map for violence too? Why not accept that people take up arms for a variety of reasons—some just, others unjust—and acknowledge that while the choice of violence, as well as the means, may be immoral or illegitimate, it hardly takes a psychopath to make it?