What is Violence? Part 2/2

As I said in my last post, I think the first task for defining ‘violence’ is psychological: what is the experience of violence, what is it to feel oneself to be ‘violated’ by a certain action?

That’s what I’ll discuss in this post: the basic conclusion is that this experience involves perceiving that something which ’embodies’ you is either physically damaged or is taken out of your control. Next post will consider, given this subjective psychology, what the prospects are for objective judgements of violence or non-violence.

Against my Will

The experience of violence becomes clearer when we observe that it is one variety of ‘things against my will’. Violence against me is against my will, but not everything against my will is automatically violence.

Even ‘will’ here is ambiguous, because it can mean both (‘objective’) ‘interest’ and (‘subjective’) ‘wishes’. What I’m claiming is that when both of these are in favour of something, that thing will not be seen as violent. Medical interventions are typically not seen as violent, even the cutting and breaking type ones, because they are both beneficial and consensual. The average shooting does seem violent because it’s both harmful and unconsensual.

When the two diverge – when I resist something beneficial, or when I consent to something harmful – we don’t really know whether the action is violent. Blood transfusions to a Jehovah’s witness, for instance, or hitting someone when they say ‘hit me’, could be seen as violent or not. I think this reflectis a broader difficulty with objective ‘interests’, so I’m going to set this particular problem aside and assume that people consent to whatever benefits them.

With this stipulation, as I said, it seems that violence is against someone’s will, but is more than this – I can harm people against their will in lots of ways (e.g. professionally) without my actions being violent. So what is the further requirement?

Wills Embodied and Disembodied

Here we need to consider the nature of a person’s will (purged of the ambiguities that come when wishes and interests diverge). The most obvious feature of a will is that it projects itself towards something, that it counterposes some not-yet-actual state of affairs to the world of real objects.

But to leave it at that would be to describe a disembodied will, as God might have. Our animal wills go not just towards something but from something: their projection occurs on the basis of some particular, actual, real objects. For instance, I may will a million different things, like the unification of the Korean peninsula or the utter destruction of Saturn. But I need my brain, heart, and lungs to do this. Any project that I project is projected from a very particular little blob of flesh.

And this is reflected in the content of what I will. The first objects of my will were that this body be fed, or be kept warm, or that the Maternal Presence be here. Even now, most of my goals involve me in some way – I want this body to get a good job or have a good relationship, much more than I care about any of those other bodies that might be reading this. To pursue goals that are entirely free of any reference to one’s own body may be possible, but as a difficult acheivement, not a natural state (whether such an acheivement is impressive or terrifying is another question).

Violence as the Vulnerability of Embodiment

Let us call this my ’embodiment’: those actual parts of the world which my will involves not as goals but as presuppositions, as preconditions for willing anything else.

Now, my embodiment is vulnerable, in at least two ways. Firstly, as a physical thing, it can be physically destroyed the same as anything else. My liver has a certain tensile strength, and if that is exceeded, it will break into parts and no longer be quite my liver.

Secondly, though, my embodiment is ‘broken’ if the relevant physical objects are disconnected from my will. My legs may be physically almost unchanged, but if I cannot move them, whether because of nerve damage, shackles, or someone’s hands, they no longer embody me.

This vulnerability is the possibility of violence. To experience an event as violence against me is to experience it as breaking my embodiment, either by physically breaking the objects that embody me or by impeding my control of them so that they no longer embody me – prime examples thus being either bodily injury or physical bondage.

Embodiment and the Body

But I have been talking about my embodiment, not my body, because the two need not be identical. This is important, because we need to explain why violence is both primarily about the body, but not exclusively about the body.

After all, the boundaries of the body itself are not objectively fixed. We tend to include hair and nails, even though they’re not living tissue, but to exclude clothes (even those woven from our hair, if we wore such things). That’s because clothes get removed very often, but what if they didn’t? Are surgical attachments, or prostheses, body parts? Is blood, or urine, a ‘part’ of my body when it’s inside me, and when it’s outside? Etc.

What matters is that, psychologically, we presuppose certain objects as the basis of our general activities, mainly based on our degree of control over them (both ability to move them and inability to remove them). We make them into the substrate of our will.

But this same mechanism applies to other things. For instance, my general activities presuppose that there’s empty space in front of my face for a foot or two. When there isn’t, it messes me up, and I try to remove whatever objects are there. If I can’t – if someone follows me, for instance, pressing their face or hands right up into my ‘personal space’, I’m likely to experience that as mildly ‘violent’ because I experience myself as embodied in my personal space as much as anything else.

By looking at the things that people describe as ‘violent’, we see that people’s experience of embodiment runs even more widely than this. The weekend’s events in Toronto were a very good example: breaking glass was enough to get the black bloc labelled ‘violent’.

Partly I think this is because the events were sudden and noisy. That helps encourage an experience of ‘violence’, just as being large helps one to be ‘intimidating’ – but being large is not intimidation, and not everything sudden and noisy is experienced as violence (e.g. soccer goals and the consequent cheering). Embodiment is crucial.

Do people really feel themselves embodied in Starbucks windows? But remember that nobody would be talking about violence if the windows had been broken legally, by those who owned them. What frightened people was not so much breaking windows but breaking the rules, and hence breaking the expectations that people had about how their environment would operate.

That is, people feel embodied in ‘the social contract‘ by means of which their expectations of other people are stabilised: this contract, this ’tissue’ of reciprocal expectations, makes them feel secure, and serves as a precondition for all their normal activities. In this sense it literally creates a ‘social body’ which rule-breakers ‘do violence to’.

Another example is that in the ‘Inferno’, Dante has a circle for ‘the violent’. With whatever degree of irony, he puts here not only people who damage people’s bodies, but also suicides, usurers, and sodomites. This suggests that people can potentially feel themselves embodied in the absence of a penis in other people’s anuses.

As this makes clear, people’s experiences of things as violent can be very varied and often contradictory. From this mess of contingent and conflicting perceptions, can universal rules be fashioned? That will be discussed next.

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2 Responses to What is Violence? Part 2/2

  1. Pingback: A Tale of Three Starbucks, and Objectivity | Majestic Equality

  2. Pingback: Playing across the river « The gaping silence

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