Words of suffering: Research, understanding and ventriloquism
This paper explores some of the inherent tensions between scholarship and ethics for researchers trying to understand stories of persons living in conditions of adversity. As someone who has long been interested in how people construct the historical moments in which they live, and how this contributes to the ways in which they participate in these upheavals, I have encountered numerous situations where I am listening to stories of pain and loss. We are often told that the most important skill an interviewer can have is that of listening, but little is said about the challenges that lie in such an endeavour. As academics, our ears are trained for critical analysis, highly sensitized towards ferreting out the inconsistencies in the stories offered us. ”. Rather than attending to the variability of human emotion, staying with our speakers as they weave in and out of the experiences of their lives, we are trained to keep focused on our research agenda. Rather than becoming developing into better listeners over time, the journey for successful academics is often in the opposite direction, as we become ever more skilled in identifying the inconsistencies – and often vulnerabilities – of others. How can we do our work responsibly, making ourselves vulnerable to hearing that which confronts our deepest sensibilities, and represent that to an outside world, all the while keeping in our hearts and minds those who have entrusted us with their stories?
Violence Particular, Violence Universal, Violence Absent, Violence Present: King Lear
How do you know violence when you see it? How do you distinguish between particular cases of violence and a general condition of violent behaviour, such as war? How do we make judgements about either kind of violence? I propose answers to these questions using King Lear as my model.
It is the model of a merely fictional phenomenal field, to be sure; but its fictionality can be used to advantage. Consider the two most upsetting acts of violence in the play: the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes and the hanging of Cordelia. The first happens on stage, the second off stage. Our interpretation of each event depends on whether we are eyewitnesses to it or not, and, surprisingly, our response to the off-stage hanging is more emotionally fraught than our response to the graphic brutality of an eye-gouging. That is because the character Lear interprets the hanging for us, translates it into a monody of inescapable grief and unsatisfiable indignation at the order of a universe in which someone like Cordelia would be killed. The gory gouging of Gloucester’s eyes is not interpreted. It simply shocks us, although it is also presented as an inevitable if lamentable expression of a state of universal war. These two examples stake out a terrain of extremes for stage violence so far it is encoded in terms of particulars and universals, and of absence and presence. Cordelia’s death is absent and universal; Gloucester’s blinding is present and particular.
Fictional texts of violence are inevitably engaged in making distinctions, beginning with a distinction between violence and non-violence, and going on to such poles of meaning as particulars and universals and presences and absences. The same might be said of any plausible discourse on violence. As a word, as a concept, violence engages us in a deciphering of degrees of absence and presence, particularity and universality, among other categories of expression.
Shakespearean tragedy puts its own conceptual frame and semiotic indicators around the phenomenon of violence. Some are quite foreign to us: dynastic government, primogeniture, armed knights. Some are quite familiar, still with us in our history of violence: cruelty, adultery, deception and grief. ‘I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death’, wrote Samuel Johnson, ‘that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor’.
Vincent van Bever Donker
Recognition and Violence in Literature: Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Phillips’s Crossing the River
In his book The Event of Postcolonial Shame, Timothy Bewes suggests that central to the ethics of literature is the question of the adequacy of its representation: an ethical task in which, he argues, postcolonial literature largely fails. When considering the representation of moments of violence and trauma, the question of adequacy – or, more usually, inadequacy – is a common preoccupation. Different approaches to the ethics of literature, however, answer differently the question of what precisely literature should be adequate to – whether the dynamic face-to-face relationship in the work of Levinas and Newton, “character” in that of Booth, or mimesis in Bewes. This paper will suggest an approach that is broader than a narrow focus on mimesis or the relation to the Other. Discussing Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River, it will argue for an approach to literature in which the concept of recognition is central. Both a structural feature of literature (formulated as anagnorisis by Aristotle) and a key concept in moral philosophy, recognition provides an entry point into literature for a range of ethical considerations; always the recognition of something, it is also flexible and able to accommodate the varied ethical concerns of different works. In reading violence in literature, a focus on recognition allows the registering of the numerous resonances that moments of violence can have throughout a novel, whether the atrocities of the Biafran war in Adichie’s work, or the violence of the slave trade in Phillips’s. In each case we can observe the importance of recognition for the work of representing violence adequately.
Interpreting Violence in Charlotte Salomon’s Leben? Oder Theater?: A Material/ Embodied Hermeneutics?
Between summer 1941 and August 1942, Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943) created Leben? Oder Theater?, a work of art defying strict classifications that spans the years from November 1913 to summer 1941, and which remains the single major work made by the German-Jewish artist. Central to the work, subtitled a Singspiel, is the trauma of a family history of female suicides; however, at the same time it also conflates the horrors of World War I, the escalation of Nazi persecution against Jews, and the traumatic history of the Holocaust (Salomon was killed in Auschwitz in 1943). It seems obvious, then, to state that violence is not only an underlining motif, but also the raison d’être of this work of art. Next to the violent repetition of suicide, which makes apparent the patriarchal violence endured by women, ‘the shadow of all the many, tiny but progressively destructive, stages of violence and atrocity of the years 1933–1940’ (Pollock 2012) are traced within Leben? Oder Theater?. The mapping of the legacy of suicides and of everyday violence in a work that is unabashedly about the vulnerable yet empowering search for ‘a name and a self’ through other subjectivities, is a testament to our relationality, i.e. our connectedness to other bodies, our exposure to them and hence the ‘risk of violence by virtue of that exposure’ (Butler 2004). Scholars have amply discussed the import of many of the above-mentioned traumas in Leben? Oder Theater?. However, in my paper I would like to go back to Salomon’s work and, in light of these previous readings, revisit her visual rhetoric of violence, which is both forensically accurate (Buerkle 2013) and, at the same time, absent/effaced yet none the less present. Salomon’s iconography of violence, or alternatively the silent gesturing towards it, create a tension that I situate in the resistance between embodiment and transcendence. Finally, I would like to suggest that Salomon’s Leben? Oder Theater? embodies a hermeneutic practice/process: it is a work of art (or ‘artworking’ [Ettinger]) that materializes (visually, musically, poetically) an interpretation of trans-subjective violence, as well as the philosophical reflections on the generative possibilities of such violence.
Reading Violence, Violent Reading
This paper discusses the limits of interpretation: what can we say, what can we not say, about a work of art, or a historical event, or a life? The work of Emmanuel Levinas is well known for championing the acceptance of otherness, with all the enrichment and risk that it involves. Yet he was at best ambivalent, at worst hostile, to art, as expressed in particular in his problematic essay ‘Reality and its Shadow’. Art appears to embody the wrong sort of otherness; and the role of critical interpretation is to neutralise its power to enchant and deceive rather than to explore its potential to create meaning. However, in the Talmudic commentaries to which Levinas devoted a significant part of his career, he develops a bolder, freer interpretive practice which may have broader relevance for hermeneutic theory and practice. The paper will look in particular at his commentary entitled ‘The Damage Caused by Fire’, in which a Talmudic text relating to responsibility for fire damage becomes a reflection on the Holocaust and responsibility for historical atrocity. The paper considers the steps by which Levinas turns the Talmudic text into a reflection on modern violence, and asks how far this practice of reading is itself an act of violence against the original text.
Style and the Violence of Passivity in Samuel Beckett’s How It Is.
Samuel Beckett’s 1961 novel, How It Is (first published in French as Comment C’est), has been thought to radically re-imagine subjectivity and community. The mud in which the novel is set has been compared to the detritus of learning in the humanist tradition, to physical environments and to language. How It Is has been read as exploring the complexity of its own signifying process, breaking down an old order so as to introduce new possibilities for meaning. More recently, such meta-textual readings have been supplemented by historical, political, genetic and inter-textual analyses that have registered the influences of colonization (Beckett’s reading of Roger Casement’s Black Diaries), the Algerian War of Independence, the influence of Dante, Sade and a wealth of other philosophical, literary and theological texts and traditions. My paper integrates these modes reading to question what relationship might exist between the novel’s refusal of traditional sentence structure and its unflinching descriptions of torture and physical and sexual violence.
It’s tempting to interpret the diminished capacities of the narrator’s body (reduced to crawling through mud) as testifying to a lack of agency. Beckett’s letter to Barbara Bray about “trying to find the rhythm and syntax of extreme weakness” in How It Is would seem to support this view. But the dissolution of the world into mud and the dis-articulation of language in the novel—its eschewal of punctuation and sentence structure—link the work of signification to the physical body’s complex rapport with its surroundings, revealing a process that the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty refers to as style. Traditionally, style signals humanist values; its link to artistry and form implies power over nature, and insistences like de Buffon’s— “le style, c’est l’homme même”—link it to individuality. Beckett subverts this ideal by portraying the human as joined in sadistic dependence, a move that suggests the violence underpinning desire for individuation (something Derrida also hints at in Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles). Style, in this sense, is not a flourish, nor is it intentional, but it describes the bodily process of making articulations within a system, carving it into perspectives, making cuts. I argue that in How It Is, where language and geographical space are dissolved into mud, we glimpse the workings of style, both necessary and violent, at the foundation of sociality, language and culture.
Do We Really Care? On the Violence Suffered by the Perpetrators in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2007)
Revisiting Jonathan Littell’s much commented upon and highly controversial novel, in this paper I wish to concentrate on the author’s descriptions of violence suffered by the central character and narrator of The Kindly Ones and by other German soldiers. Substantial passages of this novel, which is set between Germany’s invasion of Russia in June 1941 and the fall of Berlin in May 1945, and which focuses on the implementation of the Nazis’ plan to annihilate the Jews, are dedicated to the accounts of Maximilien Aue’s adverse reaction to the violence he is exposed to. Only occasionally feeling any sympathy for the victims, Aue concentrates on his own persistent digestive problems, nightmares and hallucinations. As well as being potentially vexed by Littell’s choice to adopt the perpetrator’s perspective in a Holocaust novel, the reader may feel disturbed by the graphic and lengthy passages narrating Aue’s discomfort, and this may be on two levels. While reading about Aue’s vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea can be a sickening experience, it can also pose ethical concerns regarding Littell’s attempt to provoke a sympathetic reaction to his central character in his readers. Sidelining such an interpretation, in this paper I will suggest that Aue’s response to the spectacle of Nazi brutality has another purpose. The latter must be understood in the context of the intended identification between the reader and the narrator, which is meant to force us to question our own position as, firstly, potential perpetrators and, secondly, voyeuristic consumers of the horrific spectacle of the Other’s death. The violence experienced by Aue, who mostly passively observes and reports, may be designed therefore, as I will ultimately argue, to reflect upon the distress experienced by readers and researchers of Holocaust representations, and the lasting trauma resulting from their work.
Violence in Twenty-First-Century Historical Fiction
In his Atlas of European Literature: 1800-1900, Franco Moretti denounces the nineteenth-century historical novel as a stultifying form out of which no new narrative form could emerge. He claims that it is inherently Europhilic, only “a planetary reproduction of a couple of national literatures” (187). As the genre spreads, “the plot remains constant (and British) – while its characters change (and become ‘local’)” (193). Globally, fiction writing turns to “third-person historical novels, and not much else” (190). My paper contrasts this portrayal of nineteenth-century historical fiction with an emerging twenty-first-century iteration of the genre, which is transnational, innovative and concerned with questions of how suffering, which is always experienced as local and particular, can call forth responsibilities that are universal.
Adam Kirsch has traced the emergence of what he calls the twenty-first-century “global novel,” which has the “ambition to speak for and about human nature” in spite of persistent “critical suspicion” that such a thing exists. The new works of historical fiction I will discuss fit in this category, but viewing them within the longer history of the historical novel highlights the perpetuation of their concern with violence and justice. Elizabeth Anker has characterized the emergence of the genre less positively as the “human rights bestseller.” She worries that “Within the bestseller, not only does human misery become sensationalized but human rights violations are what seem to inspire the refraction of those victimized lives through the prism of Otherness in the first place” (39). Viable though this concern is, I will argue that many authors of contemporary historical fiction avoid sensationalizing violence and other human rights abuses by innovating on precisely those features that Moretti claims ceased developing in the nineteenth century: plot and (especially) perspective. Several examples of contemporary historical fiction will be mentioned, but I will refer to specific scenes in Diop´s Murambi: The Book of Bones and Nguyen´s The Sympathizer: A Novel.
Linguistic and bodily violence in Sarah Kofman’s heterobiographical writing
In my paper I will discuss the French philosopher Sarah Kofman’s (1934-1994) autobiographical texts (”Ma vie et la psychanalyse”, ”Sacrée nourriture”, ”Tombeau pour un nom propre”, and Rue Ordener, rue Labat) from the bodily imagery that figures as a means of narrating violent experiences from her childhood as a hidden Jewish child in Occupied France.
Kofman belonged to the 1968 generation of French philosophers and was considered an expert on Nietzsche and Freud. Her work transgressed the boundaries between philosophy, art, literature and psychoanalysis as well as the ones between intellectual and biographical work. Text and body, life and work were characteristically intertwined in her philosophical writing.
Her last published book, Rue Ordener, rue Labat, tells the story of her father’s deportation and death in Auschwitz and her mother’s struggle the save the rest of the family from the same fate. It is also the inner drama of a young girl torn between two women, two worlds, two identities as her object of love and identification moves from mama to mémé; from her biological mother to the woman who saved her and her mother’s life by letting Sarah become Suzanne and pass as the woman’s own daughter.
I will focus on Kofman’s use of the body as a narrative tool in telling her childhood trauma; more precisely her telling about violent experiences through her body’s relation to food, to processes of ingestion and indigestion, oral assimilation and dissimilation. I will reflect upon the function of the mouth not primarily as an intermediator of words, but as a border station controlling the integrity of the body from the threat of violence.
Witnessing Kashmir: Narratives of Horrorism in a Necropolitical Postcoloniality
Kashmir is currently one of most militarized regions in the world. This conflicted space had its genesis with the catastrophic Partition of India in 1947 that also marked the ending of British colonialism. Caught between India and Pakistan, Kashmir eventually saw a gradual rise of armed militants in the late eighties calling for azaadi (independence) from the Indian state. The turbulent nineties also witnessed the mass exile of the Hindu community, with a section of people claiming Kashmir to be merged with Pakistan. Amidst this ongoing conflict for the past seventy-one years, there has been recently a plethora of writing from/on Kashmir, in English, that has recently emerged as a significant presence in literature. This paper turns to some of this new literature, mainly the short stories by Feroz Rather in Night of Broken Glass and Mirza Waheed’s novel The Collaborator and argues that they emerge a unique postcolonial space, perhaps one that highlights an impoverishment in our taxonomies to study a conflict zone within a postcolonial space like Kashmir. I study the texts to show how they move beyond the frames of biopolitical and necropolitical space. Using Adriana Caverero’s concept of “horrorism” this essay shows how postcolonial violence is reconfigured in the new literature that witnesses a continuous state of war within Kashmir.
Terrorism Against Asylum-Seekers in Finland: What Happened in the Fall of 2015?
In the fall of 2015, when the so-called refugee crisis reached Europe, Finland also received its share of immigrants, especially from Iraq. A politically debated phenomenon—and an ambivalent term in itself—“the crisis” had been preceded with the rightist populist party the Finns having risen to the government a few months earlier (May 2015), which affected the political landscape in the traditional as well as in the social media.
Simultaneously with strikes taking place in Europe, a wave of violence against the immigrants and reception centres came to Finland as well. Depending on the criteria used in counting the strikes, there were altogether 40–50 strikes or violent incidents against the asylum-seekers from August to December in 2015. Among these, 20 incidents may be considered somewhat serious, and nine of these strikes are listed as “terrorism” under The Global Terrorism Database maintained by the University of Maryland.
My paper looks into this streak of attacks, discussing both its precise nature and its background causes. To what extent was the wave of violence triggered (or retrospectively affirmed) through hate speech in pertinent social media groups? Why did the strikes increase in number near the end of the year? What kind of evidence might one find for arguing that there is a link between virtual, racist hate speech and the physical acts of violence?
To answer these questions, my paper draws from statistical observations, (social) media analysis as well as artistic methods used in my novel National Awakening (2018). My novel is an extended piece of artistic research touching upon the theme of political violence, seeking to grasp its causes via artistic work. To deepen the analysis of my paper, finally, I will draw a few supplementary readings from European philosophy, from Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, to mention a few examples.
Epistemological and physical violence in Judith Butler’s critique of violence
In her books Precarious Life (2004) and Frames of War (2009) Judith Butler asks how are the modes of representation and the epistemological violence that they may enact linked to various forms of physical violence. By engaging with Emmanuel Levinas’ work Butler explores how discursive norms and visual frames enable us to perceive other human being as precarious or prevent us from doing so thereby diminishing or increasing their physical precariousness respectively. Next to Levinas Butler also delves into Susan Sontag’s work to think about the difference between narrative and visual representations of violence and their relationship to epistemological violence. This presentation explores in detail Butler’s discussion of Levinas and Sontag to highlight the relationship between epistemological and physical violence in contemporary situations of war and conflict.
Variants and Consequences of Violence in Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
Taking its cue from Emmanuel Levinas’s claim that we are bound in networks of responsibility to known and unknown others whose vulnerability bids us not to commit violence, this paper will discuss how, and why, the main characters in Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974) variously engage in or become entangled in acts possessed of aspects of violence – aspects that are inseparable from, and constituent elements of, the ethics presented through the novel’s narrative discourse.
A basis and reference point for the discussion is provided by a summary of the novel’s plot: The psychotherapist Blaise Gavender lives with his wife Harriet and their sixteen-year-old son David in a comfortable home near London. Blaise has been having an affair with Emily McHugh, and they have an eight-year-old son named Luca. Even after he has been forced to tell Harriet about Emily, Blaise vacillates between the two women, hoping to continue relations with both. Forced by Emily to choose, he leaves Harriet, who, increasingly distressed, turns to the detective novelist Monty Small for support. Although it turns out that he was complicit in her death, Monty is grieving his wife Sophie, with whom his friend Edward Demarnay was also in love. Taking Luca with her on a trip to Germany, Harriet is killed fortuitously by a terrorist in Hanover airport, but she saves Luca’s life by covering him with her body. Rejected by Monty, Edward tries to help David to come to terms with the loss of his mother.
Although it excludes more than it includes, this summary indicates the centrality of two thematic concerns operative at different yet related levels in the novel: adultery and doubleness. Both of these have ethical implications, and these implications involve variants of violence. Murdoch develops the theme of male adultery by establishing, and then exploring, Blaise’s relationships with two women, who are also the mothers of his two sons. Moreover, ethical issues associated with adultery, revolving round Blaise, are connected with ethical questions prompted by Monty’s actions, choices and priorities. The novel’s two male main characters, Blaise and Monty, are complemented by the two female ones, Harriet and Emily. The motif of doubleness is extended to two types of love, sacred and profane; as described in the novel, both types are possessed of, or contaminated by, violence. As it is a premiss for the discussion that ethics in narrative fiction is shaped by aesthetic form, and by narrative form and technique in particular, the paper highlights Murdoch’s use of a third-person narrator as her main narrative instrument. After having commented on the function and effects of this narrator, it discusses the ways in which Murdoch presents ethical questions at different stages of the novel’s plot. The paper argues that Murdoch first introduces these questions by identifying them as issues that, though linked to the main characters’ ethos, are relatively general. As the plot develops, these issues are perceived by the characters to become not only more relevant but challenging in new and unpredictable ways. Variants of violence form an essential part of Murdoch’s fictional exploration of these ethical issues, which, assuming the form of questions rather than approximating to stable positions, encourage a dialogue between Murdoch as implied author and the reader. Constituting an ethical crisis in the novel, the characters’ dissimilar responses to the ethical challenges have ethical consequences that are linked to, and in no small part contribute to, the plot’s resolution at the end of the narrative.
The final part of the discussion will consider how ethical questions presented in the novel are linked to Murdoch’s philosophical writings and to facets of the philosophy of Levinas and Derrida. The discussion concentrates on the key functions that Murdoch’s third-person narrator and four of the characters – Harriet, Blaise, Emily and Luca – play in the author’s narrative exploration of ethical questions. A concluding point made in the paper is that the narrative subsequent to Harriet’s death in the terrorist attack in Hanover airport becomes an epilogue with a dual function: first, to bring the plot to conclusion, and, second, to highlight the novel’s ethical dimension by revealing the ethical consequences of earlier actions and decisions, as well as asking further ethical questions linked to, and prompted by, these consequences.
Forgiveness as a Violence Promoter in Approaches to Restorative Justice
With the study case of war-rape survivors from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the author discusses individual and collective projects of forgiveness in the environment where the processes of restorative justice are failing survivors and where the very crime of war rape is still continuously denied protecting the unprosecuted perpetrators. The author debates this distinction in terms of individual and person-related process of forgiveness that helps trauma survivors to move on and start the process of healing; and collective and crime-related forgiveness that is usually imposed within aggressive, insensitive (nationalistic) political agendas. Individual and person-related forgiveness is recognised and accepted by many who have come to perceive their perpetrators as ideologically manipulated individuals (rather than savages or essentially brutal) – which further allows them to move on with the healing and their post-war family lives. Nevertheless, with the help of their social circle, the act of forgiveness is an individual process and is usually also directly related to the perpetrator as a person. Conversely, collective and crime-related forgiveness is only possible with the constructive collaboration of the state and the legislative system and with the involvement of all parties, which is almost non-existent. While different levels and systems of intercultural coexistence after the war might happen with the help of individual and person-related forgiveness, true, long-term and stable reconciliation is only possible when state authorities work toward collective and crime-related forgiveness. Based on informal conversations and interviews with survivors, the paper argues that the question of just forgiveness is the matter of an effective legislative system rather than a morally justified action. The presentation draws some conclusions regarding how (un)successful processes of forgiveness are related to the formation of the collective memory of war rape survivors and how this affects the transmission of traumatic memories, which can also jeopardise reconciliation and peacebuilding practices.
KEY WORDS: Forgiveness, post-conflict, war-rape, restorative justice
The Hermeneutics of Darkness: Interpreting Perpetrators on their Crimes
In this chapter, I seek to contribute to our method and approach to understanding extreme forms of otherness—perpetrators of atrocity crimes. Their actions are so severe and devastating that they have an otherworldly, almost, ethereal quality. Perhaps, we should view them as abhorrent creatures–morally scarred or biologically susceptible to extreme violence. The question of understanding is central in grappling with the production of mass violence. But, is it really possible to understand and, if so, by what means? As a starting point into these questions, I give a close reading to Gitta Sereny’s (1974/1983) classic text Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience as a concrete object for analysis. Based on over 70 hours of interviews with Franz Stangl, former Commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, and interviews with many others, Sereny’s analysis of Stangl’s participation in the murder of the disabled and Jews is the center of her investigation. I analyze Sereny’s stance in the double hermeneutic and my own in the triple hermeneutic (Meretoja, 2014) and the complications of the position of the interpreter to what is to be interpreted. Following Sereny, I attempt to understand Stangl’s participation in the Shoah and his reflections on his actions. How does Stangl interpret himself? How does Stangl explain his choices and motivations? What is the influence of social actors and social forces? How does he understand his agency, free will, and guilt? Sereny practices a hermeneutics of suspicion (Ricoeur, 1970), seeking to get past the superficial to “penetrate the personality” (p. 13) in order to find the hidden meanings why Stangl really became a part of the murder process and his authentic conscience. But, is it really possible to get to the truth of Stangl’s motivations that lay behind his words without imposing, and contorting, Stangl’s testimony? I have some misgivings concerning the authority of such an approach to make objective judgments. Ultimately, I suggest an alternative reading to the text that is based upon hermeneutics of faithfulness (Ricoeur, 1970) and of self-doubt (Toulmin, 2001) that does not distort Stangl’s testimony but rather contextualizes them in the cultural models for moral agency and action of his time.
Brian Schiff is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology and Director of the George and Irina Schaffer Center for the Study of Genocide, Human Rights, and Conflict Prevention at the American University of Paris. He is the author of (2017) A New Narrative for Psychology, editor of (2018) Situating Qualitative Methods in Psychological Science and (2014) Rereading Personal Narrative and Life Course and co-editor of (2017) Life and Narrative: The Risks and Responsibilities for Storying Experience.
Violence and Palimpsestic Hermeneutics
How can we read the hidden violence – systemic, traumatic – in normal (normalised) everyday life? I will suggest that what I will call a palimpsestic hermeneutics – the reading of one text through another or others – can provide us with a poetics for apprehending the invisible in the visible and absence in presence. Palimpsestic hermeneutics involves the straddling of the times and spaces of violence, and of the voices that mediate the telling of violence, while its ethics is located in the otherness of all ‘singularities’. In my talk I will discuss how this mode of reading can provide us with fruitful ways to approach the figurations of violence in artistic works, and will illustrate my argument with reference to a number of films and novels.
Louise du Toit
Disgrace: coming to the terms with the meaning/s of sexual violation
My paper will center the central question, namely the tension between, as well as the simultaneous ‘complex entanglements’ of, respectively ‘philosophical violence’ or the violence of naming and narrating, and ‘embodied violence’, upon the phenomenon of sexual(ised) violence. Linda Martín Alcoff (2018 Rape and Resistance) proposes to replace the concept of ‘sexual violence’ with ‘sexual violation’, because much of the misconception around sexualized violence has to do with expectations of physical injury. Thereby, sexual violation understood as the severely injurious transgression of psychic rather than physical borders, is typically erased. Many commentators have in the past commented on the trivialization of ‘mere’ rape as opposed to ‘aggravated’ or ‘violent’ rape. In contrast with a long history in which ‘mere’ rape was discounted as a serious transgression, the Appeals Chamber of the ICTY found the following:
Severe pain or suffering, as required by the definition of the crime of torture, can thus be said to be established once rape has been proved, since the act of rape necessarily implies such pain or suffering.
[Prosecutor v. Kunarac, Kovac and Vukovic IT-96-23 &IT-96-23/1-A (12 June 2002), paragraph 151]
This statement forms an important aspect of the far-reaching work of the ICTY, viewing as it does the crime of ‘mere’ (war) rape as being on a par with the crime of torture, an established war crime. Alcoff’s suggestion of ‘violation’ in the same vein seems to place the emphasis less on physical force and injury and more on the exercise of some form of force or power against another person in such a way that something of value in that person is treated with outrage, dishonour and irreverence. In other words, something of value in the violated person (sexual integrity?) is lastingly injured by the event of sexual violation. In keeping with the broader ‘Interpreting Violence’ project, I want to place this phenomenological-conceptual investigation in conversation with the novel and the movie, Disgrace (JM Coetzee, 1999). This discussion will help me to further flesh out how sexual violence / violation lastingly injures the person’s most basic relations to herself, her others and her world, and aims to productively inscribe new meanings in their stead. Although the physical harms of sexual violence are by no means always negligible, it is to phenomenological analysis that we should look for a proper understanding of the harms of sexual violence, and their meanings.
Violent Silence: Censorship, Counter-Narrative and Cover-Ups
Contemporary campaigns have drawn our attention to the ways in which violence is routinely silenced in public – and often private – arenas. The slogan “silence=violence”, now attached to various different movements – particularly in the USA – reflects the ways in which staying silent denotes a passive complicity in acts of violence, and one does not have to think too hard to realize multiple ways in which narratives of violence – particularly against women and minorities – have been consistently silenced or countered by powerful and influential voices.
In this presentation I discuss the representation and role of violence in Didier Daeninckx’s short story “Corvée de bois” (2003), an unapologetic assault on the actions of the French army in the appalling violence committed during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). In the first part of this presentation, I consider Daeninckx’s unusual choice for such a visceral presentation of violence, tied to the construction of a collective national identity built upon dangerous ideals of masculinity and Euro-centric racism that exonerates individual agency. Daeninckx highlights how narrative plays a key role in the representation, recognition and reception of violence and that it is often the narrative of torture – rather than the act of torture itself – that appalls the reader or listener. As such, in the second part of this presentation I suggest that “Corvée de bois” does not aim simply at narrativizing violence but at demonstrating how narratives of violence are often manipulated and silenced. Revealing systematic abuses of public narratives, Daeninckx exposes the dangers of censorship, counter-narrative and widespread political and cultural cover-ups that ultimately facilitated the abuses of human rights in Algeria.
“Corvée de bois” is not only a narrative of violence but a narrative of silence. If narratives of violence risk an intersubjective encounter that will uncover the human within us all, Daeninckx suggests that narratives of silence pose even greater risks by nullifying all intersubjective human encounters. How can narrative – or rather a lack of narrative – be used to influence the interpretation of violence? Does a non-violent narrative always shield a violent narrative? What happens when narrative leads us to believe that violence is not simply done to an “other” but is not done at all?
Murders and Interpretations: On the (Im)possibility of Tasteful Representation of Violence
In the infamous 1827 essay “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts,” Thomas De Quincey sets out to develop the aesthetics of murder. While the essay is deeply ironic and primarily concerned with the most aesthetically pleasing way to commit actual murder, in the context of De Quincey’s other writings it outlines an aesthetic of represented violence as well. Importantly, De Quincey argues that the best way to narrativize murder and represent violence in general is through the point of view of a witness. This supplies us with a suitable distance from the shock of the violent act and conveniently stops us from empathizing with the murderer’s bloodlust or the suffering of the victim.
For all the winking irony of De Quincey’s writings, they illustrate a ubiquitous tendency in literature as well as in criticism to keep violence at an arm’s length. This distance between the audience and the violence has the benefit of making violence intelligible and interpretable, weakening its affective power to shock and benumb. It also permits readers to perceive violence as sublime. Thus, much of the criticism on the representation of violence agrees with De Quincey that representing violence from the point of view of the victim is in bad taste.
In this paper I argue that this sort of distancing we find in “tasteful” representation of violence is not without its own ethical difficulties. By overlooking the victim’s perspective, it ignores their suffering as well, turning away from the shock and horror of violence by turning it into a spectacle. Through a number of case studies of violent works of literature and their critical reception I demonstrate the need for a less distancing way of interpreting and responding to represented violence.