Thoughts on Violence

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.

* * * * *

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?


  1. ken rosenberg January 15, 2015 at 1:59 am | #

    Corey, In the 1960s, I read an essay by Hannah Arendt. It included a discussion of how the Zionist movement in the early 20th century had a left, center and right. And that the right had taken the movement over. Do you know the reference? Might be worth a discussion. As I recall, the left Zionists were already worried about conflicts between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Ken Rosenberg  From: Corey Robin To: Sent: Wednesday, January 14, 2015 7:36 PM Subject: [New post] Thoughts on Violence #yiv4824608454 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4824608454 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4824608454 a.yiv4824608454primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4824608454 a.yiv4824608454primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4824608454 a.yiv4824608454primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4824608454 a.yiv4824608454primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4824608454 | Corey Robin posted: “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 c” | |

    • BillR January 15, 2015 at 8:22 pm | #

      The concept of “Left” and fierce nationalism are about as miscible as oil and water. There can be no Left Zionism by definition, any more than “socialism” and “national socialism” can have any kind of overlap. Liberal Zionism is also a nonstarter for the same reason (nationalism and liberalism; particularism and universalism are mutually incompatible).

      Ze’ev Sternhell wrote about the chimera that was “Nationalist Socialism”–the founding ideology of Israel:

      Nationalist socialism, properly understood, appeared in Europe in the last years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth as a alternative to both Marxism and liberalism. In contrast with social democracy, this ideology of national unity par excellence was the product of an encounter between anti-Marxist and antireformist tendencies in socialism on one hand and ethnic, cultural, and religious nationalism on the other. The uniqueness of European nationalist socialism, whose origins can be traced to the pre-Marxist socialism of Proudhon, in relation to all other types of socialism, lay in one essential point: its acceptance of the principle of the nation’s primacy and its subjection of the values of socialism to the service of the nation. In this way, socialism lost its universal significance and became an essential tool in the process of building the nation-state. Thus, the univelsal values of socialism were subordinated to the particuutlistic valules of nationalism. In practice, this was expressed by a total rejection of the concept of class warfare and by the claim of transcending social contradictions for the benefit of the collectivity as a whole. This form of socialism preached the organic unity of the nation and the mobilization of all classes of society for the achievement of national objectives. According to the theory, this process was to be led by natural elites, whose membership was determined not by class, origin, or educational qualifications but by sentiment, dedication, and a readiness to make sacrifices for all. Nationalist socialism quite naturally disliked people with large fortunes, the spoiled aristocracy, and all those to whom money came easily and who could allow themselves to be idle. It lashed out mercilessly at the bourgeoisie whose money moved from one financial center to another and whose checkbook, close to its heart, served as its identity card. In contrst with all these, nationalist socialism presented the working man with both feet firmly planted on the soil of his native country – the farmer, whose horizons are restricted to the piece of land he tills, the bourgeois, who runs his own enterprise, and the industrial worker: the rich and poor who contribute the sweat of their brow, their talents, and their money to increasing the collective wealth.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant January 16, 2015 at 8:51 am | #

        I understand that you are referencing a European ideological development (one that found its most vigorous expression in German fascism)…

        But I cannot help but see its echoes in American rightist ideology, from TV commercials to the Tea Party.

      • BillR January 16, 2015 at 11:22 am | #

        Even though they’re European these ideas resonate across many other cultures:

        This text explains how Israeli ‘nationist socialism’ drew upon the ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder, mediated by Aaron David Gordon.

        There are many similarities with ‘white Australia’ of the 1950s – and no doubt ‘white America’, and Japan of the 1970s, too.

        Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism and the Making of the Jewish State

      • David Chuter January 16, 2015 at 4:35 pm | #

        “National” is a treacherous word here, because it doesn’t mean what it means in a term like “national interest”. The “nation” or “people” of national socialism is essentialist, the “volk” the “narod”, into which you are born and which you can never leave. Biology is politics, and the survival of the “people” justifies any measure you care to take. That means that people who are biologically linked to you and live outside your territory must be recovered, but also that people who are not biologically linked to you, but do live in your country, must be expelled or even killed. For this reason, whilst there are left and right versions of collectivism, I find it harder to envisage left and right versions of socialism, if that term is to retain any meaning.

      • BillR January 16, 2015 at 6:33 pm | #

        The logical implication of trying to create a continent neatly divided into coherent territorial states, each inhabited by a separate ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population, was the mass expulsion or extermination of minorities. Such was and is the murderous reductio ad absurdum of nationalism in its territorial version, although this was not fully demonstrated until the 1940s. …The homogeneous territorial nation could now be seen as a programme that could be realized only by barbarians, or at least by barbarian means.

        Eric Hobsbawm

        Norman Finkelstein used above as an epigraph to a chapter in Image and Reality of Israel-Palestine conflict.

        Israel’s Prime Minister ‘Netanyahu then went back to Israel and gave a speech to young Diaspora Jews visiting on “birthright” trips, telling them to move to Israel, because it is “their land” and they are unsafe elsewhere.’

        After all what could be more logical than folks born and raised in places like Los Angeles and Brooklyn moving to West Bank to claim their “birthright” while centuries old Palestinian homes are razed by armored bulldozers. Rachel Corrie saw the horror of this situation before she too was bulldozed.

  2. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant January 15, 2015 at 9:04 am | #

    And here I thought I was the only one who considers political violence in the manner explored in this post.

    Thank you for a terrific essay!

    Cue the mind-reading of the Tsarnaev brothers and the killers in the recent attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher food store.

    Removing/avoiding politics from political violence we don’t approve of (or even in that of which we do approve) is not limited to violence. In a presentation archived in “Talking Stick TV”, Glenn Greenwald explores the reaction to dissidence by officialdom taking the form of pathologizing it out of the political realm so that it, like unapproved of political violence, is seen at least in that kind of instance as a species of mental disorder or confusion.

    Examining the human nature of the human acts that some may disapprove of invites the risk of undercutting the “them-ization” of other persons and puts at additional risk the political mobilizations (usually those of entrenched and reactionary power) for which that such disapproval paves its way.

    And we can’t have that.

  3. David Chuter January 15, 2015 at 12:51 pm | #

    Agree with much of the post, and also Donald Pruden. There are three of us who think much the same way, obviously!

    Maybe it would help if we developed this analysis in the form of a syllogism (OK, four points), which would run something like the following:

    – True pacifism is rare, and consistent pacifism is even rarer. Most people therefore agree that violence is acceptable in certain contexts.
    – On the other hand, not many people see violence as the first solution, and there are strong cultural pressures to avoid it if we can.
    – Which means that most people have an uncomfortably relativistic approach to violence: I support it for causes or groups I support or identify with, and I oppose it for causes or groups I dislike.
    – But of course we like to think of ourselves as principled and consistent, and therefore we invent typologies and distinctions to comfort ourselves that we are actually applying universal principles.

    One way in which we do this is by the de-legitimisation of the “enemy” (a thought that goes back to Carl Schmitt, at least, I think). The enemy is illegitimate not because of what they do, but just because of who they are. We, on the other hand, can act as we please because we are legitimate, and any violence we use is automatically justified.

    This is why language is so important as a tool for de-legitimisation. Our enemies are “dictators” in charge of “regimes” who “rail against the West” and “oppress their people” through a “reign of terror” to “cling to power” with “death squads” that “target civilians” and “pro-democracy” protesters. Obviously, therefore, they can have no legitimate right to use violence, whereas our right is unquestioned.

    For that reason, I think it would be a useful exercise, maybe for students, to go through one of the stories in a major international media outlet on (say) the Islamic State and remove all of the emotionally charged vocabulary. I suspect the resulting text would be unpublishable anywhere in the mainstream media.

  4. xenon2 January 15, 2015 at 6:27 pm | #

    ‘And so we drift—from dirty talk to silence, from violence to the void.’

  5. Roquentin January 15, 2015 at 10:28 pm | #

    This is only partially on topic, but I spent a series of evenings at the Brooklyn Public Library a few years back reading a copy of Sorel’s Reflections on Violence. They didn’t loan out their only copy so I had to read it there. I seem to remember you referring to him as a reactionary (with reservations) in the Reactionary Mind and having issues with it. As in I grumbled a little when I saw the sentence and kept right on rolling. Sorel was an eccentric who summarized so much of of the mood in Europe with that text. For better or worse he captured the Zeitgeist. That’s the only reason I can see him as being as influential on the far right as the far left. There was this general loss of faith in the parliamentary system and a turn to street violence across the board. All of this is a long way of saying that I agree about there being plenty to say about violence.

    The argument was surprisingly persuasive. Maybe it was what I needed in my life at that point. It was in the days after 2008, and my anger and frustration with the inability of our representative democracy (or those in Europe for that matter) to do anything to control finance capital was at an all time high. But what Sorel meant by violence was mostly just getting out into the street and striking, and maybe that’s what I needed to hear too.

  6. Jara Handala January 26, 2015 at 9:55 am | #

    On human violence one can learn much from the work of Mr Hal Draper, a Brooklyn lad who died 25 years ago today. He himself, like Ms Arendt, had a lot of time for a lad from just outside Luxemburg, who in his early years had the idea that the supreme political affect might be indignation, with “criticism [as] the head of passion [. . .] Criticism is no longer an end in itself, but simply a means.”

    Indignation is, as Caton put it, “the self-forgetting passion, the passion that summons men from immersion in themselves to concern for justice; it is anger at the injustice suffered by others; it is a passion to animate men to revolution.”

    Likewise the lad from near Luxemburg thought that “[s]hame is a kind of anger turned in on itself.” His next sentence pitched this at the level where it can hurt the most, the struggle between states: “[a]nd if a whole nation were to feel ashamed it would be like a lion recoiling in order to spring.”

    Not without good reason Scheff saw “humiliated fury as the key affect in Hitler’s life” (lots of square brackets here).

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant January 26, 2015 at 10:43 am | #

      ‘Not without good reason Scheff saw “humiliated fury as the key affect in Hitler’s life”’

      That is a correct assessment. I think that is also largely true of post-Southern Strategy conservative America. That explains why political conservatism’s rage is so…. personal. No matter what the issue (the “liberal media”; abortion; gay rights; feminism; any critique of Fox News; any critique of the personality of the late Chris Kyle; taxes; environmentalism; whether America is a secular society with a large Christian majority — or if America is a Christian nation, full stop).

      American conservatism takes all progressive critique so personally. For proof, read the hasbarist trolls that come to this blog — they cannot resist the desire to insult people who criticize Israeli state behavior. As if such a critique were an attack on Jewish persons per se. Critique of policy is insult; therefore, it must be met with insult. Just swap that out for any of the others I have listed and check out the reactions in other websites’ comments sections: feminists critics treated to misogynist insult, larded over with rape and death threats; race — well, we don’t even need to describe that, but one can conduct a similar survey of sites where race is a/the central topic. It can numbing.

      Such rage in conservatism, such humiliated fury — because marginalized “others” have gotten their voice and some rights and lost a lot of their fear of the powerful and their enforcers. The “humiliation” is the gain in citizen rights of the marginalized and the difficulty in sustaining a legitimate case for continuing the marginalization without such a case implicating its proponents.

  7. Some guy January 27, 2015 at 7:59 pm | #

    Brilliant comment, Mr. Pruden. Alas, “Humiliated fury” does seem to explain a lot about contemporary American conservatism.

  8. Some guy January 28, 2015 at 10:49 am | #

    Ok, I just went and read an article elaborating on this subject by Scheff himself

    Interesting and controversial, and begs the question: if “humiliated fury” is indeed promoted by feelings of shame, conscious or unconscious, what does this tell us about American conservatives and conservatism?

  9. gstally July 12, 2015 at 2:01 pm | #

    “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.”

    I was reading a blog by the notorious troll, Weev, and it touched on this theme, made me think of this. You have a fascist police state brutally cracking down on any form of online dissent. All in all I’m beginning to think these guys have pathological paranoia that would make Stalin look like Mr. Rodgers. Even that which is benign and altogether trivial isn’t spared their ham-fisted approach. Perhaps the fact that it’s trivial makes it all the worse.

    “Ever since coming out of prison helping inmates, particularly ones in solitary confinement, has consumed a large amount of my time. For weeks I have searched for Fidel Salinas’s inmate number, 52306-379, on the US Bureau of Prisons inmate locator. His facility never appears. I just found out he’s being shuffled around county facilities, kept exclusively in solitary confinement, and denied not only written correspondence and books but medical necessities.

    So-called “Special Housing Units” are one of the worst forms of torture. There are demagogues that would like to pretend it isn’t, but the empirical data is clear. Confinement in Special Housing Units causes neurological damage that is so profound you can see it on a CT scan. It atrophies your hippocampus. From the perspective of longterm effects on your life, solitary confinement is orders of magnitude worse for you than having blades shoved underneath your fingernails, or being shocked with a car battery.

    Fidel Salinas did not commit a crime. He filled out a web form 44 times. For this they brought an indictment that carried a potential sentence of over four centuries in prison. Knowing full well the personal cost of fighting a federal case, when the government offered him a misdemeanor plea he did what he thought was best for his wife and daughter and took it. Because the government feels he got off too easy for the absurd crime of making forty-four HTTP GETs, he is being tortured. His brain is being maliciously damaged by terrorist thugs in a way that for the rest of his life will reduce his ability to consolidate short term memory to longterm memory and his ability to navigate spatial environments. He will be at a drastically higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.

    Fidel Salinas is one of my luckier acquaintances.”

    • gstally July 12, 2015 at 2:08 pm | #

      If you’re a terrorist who happened to destroy the world’s economy, particularly the annihilation of the black communities’ wealth (don’t worry darkies, the left is on the case and they have a plan: trigger warnings, more minorities in prime time sitcoms, and taking down that racist bitch Amy Schumer), they don’t worry they’ll just bail you out.

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