On Violence

Let’s just start of with the base assumption that “violence is bad.” This is a truism, of course, but in embracing what is a self-evident truth, we often loose sight of what violence means when discussing violence within the wider scope of human expression and political framings.

Now, let’s turn towards other serious questions tangential to violence that are nonetheless part of the political choreographies that frame violence from one society to the next.  For instance, why does violence not “outbreak,” but rather is always enacted?  How might violence be created by other violences?  And how does the media often give violence a pass by offering oblique or politically charged explanations for violence? One example that comes to mind is the collusion between Western media and government which frames certain types of violence as more depraved than other types.  Another might be the way that our violence, inevitably labelled as “wars,” are always just (somehow devoid of  death), while what others do is inversely much more violent and deadly regardless of actual body count or political history.

For instance, the suicide bomber is typically framed by both the state and media as empty of all meaning.  The suicide bomber is portrayed as a subject who craves martyrdom, refuses all humanity because: madness, diabolical, hate-filled, etc. Such explanations elide the social obligation that we have to understand that these violences most often occur, in part, because of our deeply politically repressed notions of those subjects whom our politics has negatively effected.  Media responses to these specific acts of violence tend to cast sympathy to those in the engagement celebration or wedding party, never is the response to excavate or understand the economic, political, or physical situations that most often are the motives to such acts of violence.

Our response to such despair takes place through canned responses, largely media-informed which go something like this: “Muslims like to murder” or “They don’t value life as we do”.  Post 9/11 American media was inundated with such messages for months.  And such representations still continues today.  Not only do such representations result in silence, they inevitably inflict even deeper grievances because the colonial unconscious has a very familiar way of re-emerging in the object of one’s repression.  Freud demonstrates this through his work in psychoanalysis, Marx demonstrates this with his analysis of the process of commodity fetichism and labour alienation. And certainly Hannah Arendt demonstrates this repressed in her explanation as to how violence returns to the public sphere:

Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that is is effective in  reaching the end that must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, neither history nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction: but it can serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention. (79)

Arendt remarks upon the aspect of public attention in a era where media was far less pervasive and certainly less immediate and visceral.   This was an era where the printed or radiophonic word represented the eyes of the reporter.  The listener was made aware that much of the news was merely a jotting down of eye-witness accounts of battles and negotiations.

Yet, when we add to this formula the spectacle of televised violence, we can begin to understand how gaining “public attention” is directly related to the politics of war and the acceptance of state-sponsored terrorism which is often measured in terms of media-driven polls that query the public support for said “war” or “invasion”.  Where the media might play a role in questioning the similarities between these two terms, for instance, the media instead plays into their differences becoming the trumpet for political tendencies.  Or as an older piece from The Guardian in 2006 states: “But why are they prepared to kill themselves rather than conduct ‘normal’ military attacks?” The irony is noted by the writer, in part, by putting the word “normal” in quotes, but not at all entirely ironized since this term is left as just that: normal.  The assumption being that terrorists are engaging in violence in a far worse way than those of us with proper uniforms, military codes, and a slew of historical conquests and colonizations on our backs.

What needs to be analyzed therefore is how political discourse and media representation of violence confirm one another, whereby the voters of one element are informed by the readers/viewers of another. Media might not uniquely be the message, but it is certainly the grim reaper which establishes a relationship of power between the public and the state body, querying this public as it informs, or misinforms, to lend authenticity to the state which continues its aggressions in the name of this rationale.  Hence the role of how violence and rationality function is no longer in the realm of Arendt’s “short-term goals”, since today the media is directly responsible for representations which render certain crisis (i.e., 9/11 among other acts of “terrorism”) as more ghastly than others (i.e., the over fifty-year long colonization and repression of Palestinians by the state of Israel).

Certainly for Palestinians who grew up during the first Intifada, the thought of “short-term” goals is mute since there is a priori a sense of helplessness when it comes to dealing with an oppression that seems to never end and to go ignored.  When violence is normal, therefore, we must begin to examine how this violence is represented and brought to public attention which, in turn, consolidates certain critiques or legitimations of violence:  for the problem of Palestinian oppression is both conscious because the crimes of the state of Israel are well documented and clearly denounced in international measures and unconscious as the reaction by certain political structures internationally has led to a clear silencing in certain world forums (i.e., every resolution passed in the United Nations against the state of Israel has been vetoed by the United States save last year’s abstention which made room for the UN to vote against the end to Israeli settlements).  And it is within this paradox of conscious/unconscious renderings of violence that we might begin to unravel how violence is concomitantly justified and critiques, and how certain types of violence are accepted, while others repudiated.

Like Arendt, Walter Benjamin sees violence as a problem of political responsibility: both the institutions of politics and law.  Violence only becomes a problem when political because law and justice are at stake. However, for Benjamin, the problem of violence is the problem of means and ends, of what kinds of ends may be justified by violence, and what kinds means can be supported by political and legal ends—such as the defense of a state, etc. What is threatening about political violence is that it is both the use of force outside of the law, the use or deployment of force that is not legitimated by the legal and political authority, and what the law and political systems call upon in their “strategies of power”.

Here, Benjamin does not distinguish between “power” and “domination”. A Marxist critic, Benjamin sees his (and our) political task as concerned with overcoming power: where Benjamin concedes power as “good”, as subsequent to the revolution—ending domination, authority, inequality, exploitation, and so forth.  For Benjamin, violence is present at the origin of the law and the law therefore consecrates itself in violence. Here, Benjamin makes a terribly important distinction in two types of violences:  lawmaking violence and law-preserving violence. Lawmaking violence is such that may be found in the creation of a nation-state: the reign of terror in the French Revolution, the genocidal practices of colonialization, communist revolution, democratic revolution, are all exemplary. The movement from a state of ‘lawlessness’ to a state of law is not necessarily a movement from arbitrary violence to peace, but the gradual codification and retrospective legitimation of violence as a technique of political power. In essence, those who win get to define what is right and good, legal and just. This sets up the possibility of law-preserving violence, ongoing violence that maintains political power (an example here would be the state of Israel—but it is the law itself, with its capacity to pass sentence and punish, that preserves order and authority by being an institution able to exercise violence).

But violence remains unstable in any political system. Everything in modern politics (democratic politics in particular, but Fascist politics also follows this pattern) depends upon ‘legitimacy’, the rightness or the justice of our institutions. When their origin is found to be “violent”, this calls into question their legitimacy. What is the legitimacy, then, of modern Israel given the displacement, imprisonment, physical control, mental torture and murder of Palestinians? And those who reject this question, their rejection nonetheless signifies that they are troubled by the question. Likewise, law-preserving violence can go too far and the response of suicide bombers to the tortures of Israel really seem like the most rational, if not the most direct responses to Israel’s force of somatic control within the West Bank.  Indeed, the road blocks, the security checks, the verbal harassment while traveling, strip searches at checkpoints, the inability to access one’s land, the inconceivability of visiting one’s family, the likelihood of dying at a checkpoint if in an ambulance because the ambulance will likely not be allowed to pass on to the hospital.  And here is the most difficult question:  are all these oppressive acts not eerily—if not terribly obviously—ironic in their parallel to the suicide bomber’s response which (perhaps inadvertently) seeks out to limit the Israeli’s movement in her quotidian activities: blowing up public buses and provoking a similar, if not quite different and less intense, fear in the hearts of Israelis?

For Benjamin, “all violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving. If it lays claim to neither of these predicates, it forfeits all validity. It follows, however, that all violence as a means, even in the most favorable case, is implicated in the problematic nature of law itself.”  Benjamin goes on to say:

For the function of violence in lawmaking is twofold, in the sense that lawmaking pursues, as its end, with violence as the means, what is to be established as law, but at the very moment of instatement does not dismiss violence; rather, at this very moment of lawmaking, it specifically establishes as law not an end unalloyed by violence but one necessarily and intimately bound to it, under the title of power. Lawmaking is power making, assumption of power, and to that extent an immediate manifestation of violence. (281)

If we should we accept Benjamin’s argument, then, we must understand that lawmaking necessarily embodies its antithesis: lawbreaking enacted by those who are clearly oppressed by the law.

We cannot, as in Kafka’s Trial, sit outside of Law’s door and demand a response for which we must interminably await.  The Law never answers–neither in Kafka, nor in Israel.  Hence the law, in exercising its violence, foments the terrain for the creation of future violent agents (suicide bombers) about which it will perpetually claim utter shock.

Ultimately, some of the questions to which I constantly return are these: How does the law not adequately address these violences that its own violences have fomented and perpetuated over decades?   To what degree is eliding the necessary questions regarding the whys and hows of violence simply a violence in and of itself?  Is it possible that state violence gives birth to violence in a very real and conterminously symbolic way to which suicide bombing is often the only response?

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com.

Read other articles by Julian.