I have intentionally not tried to define violence in my investigations into the poetics of violence. Recently, some really smart and organized kids from The ENAP (the National School of Fine Arts) in Mexcio City organized a congress on violence and power. And there, academics and activists presented their work – and “violence” could be understood as everything. There were analyses of violence in school that looked at power relations and hierarchies and described them as the worst kind of violence; analyses of architecture that described walls as violent. A city's structure was violence. Essentialism was violence. Discourse was violence. Images were violence. Analysis was violence. A concept was violence.... And so on. Hyperbole was the norm.
It's difficult for me to take this seriously. I kept feeling like the hyperbole was there to sex-up their chat, to give their arguments the kind of gut turning reality that images of gore offer. To state the obvious, there is a world of difference between a baton on your back, or a forced penetration of your body, and a teacher making her students be quiet and learn by memorizing a text. But, drawing a fixed line of separation is complicated to say the least, perhaps impossible. As you begin to try and define violence the boundary keeps moving and getting blurry. When you talk about a city, or an economy, where there are real physical transformations of bodies as the result of some indirect or organizational practice or another, how do you then conceptualize violence? In many parts of the world a job most certainly meets any definition of violence; imagine working in a mine in the Niger Delta overseen by armed guards. Is that any less violent than being beaten or gassed by cops in a march? But where do we draw the line? Should we draw a line? If we think of violence as the non-consensual transformation of a body by an actor – then indeed walls, schools, hospitals, etc. all sometimes qualify. These institutions certainly change our bodies whether we are okay with it or not. Maybe we should speak of kinds of violence. Maybe we should find other terms that are more descriptive and less sexy… This discussion could go on and on. But what happens if we ask another question instead of “what is violence?”, or “is this or that exercise of power some kind of violence?” Let's ask why is it so confusing and difficult to decide?
The answer to this question presents a much more complicated world, one that resists classifications because of the structure of the way human violence is created.
Maybe it's best to start with Freud. Whatever you might think of him, it's important to remember his impact on our culture, and not just on psychology. The legacy of psychoanalysis is, to my mind, the narcissistic, self-involved postmodern capitalist self. It's a self constructed on purpose as a means of political control (for a good overview of this I highly recommend The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis) and maintained by a nexus of related institutions: the State, the hospital, the school, the university (even by us cultural critics)... This self is in crisis. And has always been in crisis... The point of its deployment has been to maintain (or exploit) that crisis. And as interesting as that story is, there really isn't enough time to go into it here and now. But, I think that understanding something of this self is essential to understanding violence. So the following sketch will have to do.
And to pick a convenient, if arbitrary, starting point into this “I”, I want to start with Freud because he retook a long tradition in philosophy, myth and literature, namely, the conflict between Apollo and Dionysus, between order and chaos, and sunk it deep into the individual. In each of us, theorized Freud, there were dark, hidden, violent forces over which we (or someone) had to have dominion. Psychoanalysis was the process of reaching that dominion when things ran amok. But the very possibility of keeping our dark desires under control was not at all obvious. After World War I Freud became exceedingly pessimistic about this possibility, when it became clear that the social corollary of the super-ego (the part of the self which resolved the conflict), the State, was responsible for the most atrocious deployment and mechanization of brutality imaginable. The project of the Enlightenment, the project to free ourselves from barbarity, had lead us to mustard gas and the machine gun. To put this in slightly different terms, we could say that our attempts to civilize ourselves had failed; we left home in order not to fuck our moms and kill our dads and ended up gouging out our eyes.
Why did this happen?
Because it was never our intention to not be mother-fuckers and father-killers. To understand the mechanisms of this no/yes we must take Bataille seriously.
For Bataille there are two realms we human subjects inhabit, that of the religious experience, of the erotic, and the world of work- of reason, of organization. The realm of the erotic is also the realm of violence. The rejection of this violence was the organizing principle of our humanity – that is our existence as linguistic, social creatures who generally observe certain taboos like not shitting and fucking in the street. In Bataille's story, “As taboos came into play, man became distinct from the animals.”1 Primeval man, confronting the dread and anxiety provoked by the image/ smell/ threat of death, sought “to set himself free from the excessive domination of death and reproductive activity (of violence that is) under whose sway animals are helpless.”2 The taboo was to function as our human domination of violence.
Bataille continues, “Life brings forth ceaselessly, but only in order to swallow up what she has produced. The first men were confusedly aware of this. They denied death and the cycle of reproduction by means of taboos. [But] They never contained themselves within this denial...”3 “... under the secondary influence of transgression man drew near to the animals once more.”4 So that, “Humanity became possible at the instant when, seized by an insurmountable dizziness [in front of violence], man tried to answer 'No'. / Man tried? In fact men have never definitively said no to violence (to the excessive urges in question).”5
We never intended to distance ourselves from barbarity because the structure of that distance reinstated the violence we claimed to abhor. The taboo (the mechanism of setting ourselves apart from violence), the opposition to violence, drew upon violence itself in some way. “... if some violent negative emotion did not make violence horrible for everyone, reason alone could not define those shifting limits authoritatively enough.” Bataille continues, “Only unreasoning dread and terror could survive in the teeth of the forces let loose.”6
The human world is then is a mix of the world of work and the world of excess. All human activity (as opposed to animal activity where the taboo does not exist) is a thorough blending of Apollo and Dionysus. To be human is to transgress. “Organized transgression [human violence] together with the taboo makes social life what it is.”7
This mixture is was what we realized as a culture in WWI, what made Freud so pessimistic and what prompted his nephew Edward Bernays to manufacture a means of social control through manipulation of our dark desire, to protect us from ourselves, from what “...in the end we resolutely desire [,] that which imperils our life”8 – (This means of social control, this way of construing / constructing the self is the foundation upon which the spectacle of violence is built).
We can take all of this to mean that we failed in our project of the Enlightenment, because the project itself was a sham. It was never what we wanted to begin with. Instead: We are tragedy. We are mother-fuckers and father-killers and eye-gougers, by our own design.
But the situation gets more complicated.
The primeval process of becoming human comes from anguish in the face of what Paglia calls the chthonian, the womb filled with rot and death. As Bataille puts it “Anguish is what makes human kind.”9 And even though all of life is excess unto death, the sun burning itself out, we as subjects in the world are characterized by a lack; we lack something very important in Bataille's edifice – continuity. And as discontinuous beings, “who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure,”10 (15) we “yearn for the sexual experience of death because it restores us to the continuity of all beings.”11 We carry a “nostalgia”12 for this continuity.
But Bataille is ambivalent about the possibility this sexual or spiritual union; love is not the answer.
First, continuity is not experienced in the act of consummation of sexual urges, or murderous ones, or whatever the desire might be, but in the desire for the beloved object, in the experience of lack(ing her). Says Bataille, “continuity is chiefly to be felt in the anguish of desire, when it is still inaccessible, still an impotent quivering yearning.”13 So the moment of transgression (from isolated mortal to something akin to Freud's oceanic) is anguish, the very same anguish which caused early humans to try and distance themselves from violence and death, which then leads us in return to violence and death. And worse, the promise of “a total blending of two beings, a continuity between two discontinuous creatures”14 is (or might be) a lie. Says Bataille,
Love reiterates: “If only you possessed the beloved one, your soul sick with loneliness would be one with the soul of the beloved.” Partially at least this promise is a fraud. But in love the idea of such a union takes shape with frantic intensity, though differently perhaps for each of the lovers. And in any case, beyond the image it projects, that precarious fusion, allowing as it does for the survival of the individual, may in fact come to pass. That is beside the point; this fusion, precarious yet profound, is kept in the forefront of consciousness by suffering as often as not, by the threat of separation. … Only in the violation, through death if need be, of the individuals solitariness can there appear that image of the beloved object which in the lover's eyes invests all being with significance. …15
Bataille goes on to say that this absurd confusion and suffering reveals a “miraculous truth. There is nothing really illusory in the truth of love. The beloved being is indeed equated for the lover, – and only for him no doubt, but what of that? – ”16
What are we to make of this situation? We desire a suffering in which (the illusion of) our continuity is maintained only in so far as we continue to desire some beloved object or action – a lover, a thing, a god, a murder, etc. This anguish of desire is the only rest we have from anguish. Consummation is a fraud in which we no longer experience continuity through the fear and trembling of want. Once we have that thing or action we so desired unto death, once we find the truth of love, then we are back in our isolation and discontinuity.
Perhaps you don't feel this way in your life. Perhaps you do. I think that it's beside the point anyway. What matters is that this vision of the discontinuous self, exaggerated by the all the spectacles of consumerist lust that make up postmodern capitalism, is both the source and effect of the spectacle of violence we are living with in Mexico.
1 Georges Bataille, Erotism, (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), 83.
2 Loc. Cit.
4 Ibid., 83.
7 Ibid., 65.
11 Jonathon Dollimore, Death, Desire, and Loss in Western Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1998), 255.
12 Georges Bataille, Erotism, (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), 15.