Amidst the flood of violent imageryevery day on TV,
on the newsstands and in the drugstores, everywherethis
academic prudery seems like combing your hair in a tornado.
Depicting violence may upset or offend people: it should,
I think. Violence, in fact, is revolting. An accurate depiction
must be that, too. If not, it depersonalizes both the perpetrators
and, especially, the victims of violence. Years ago George
Orwell pointed out how convenient denaturing academese is
for violent oppressors (1956). What is the difference between
talking about slaving, which makes women and children objects
of sexual and physical abuse, as "servility" (Cohen
1970:165-166) or "recruitment to relations of dependence"
(Sullivan 1982) and talking about "the liquidation of
the kulaks" or "the final solution to the Jewish
problem"? Phrases like these reflect, maintain, or hide
the oppressors' insensitivity to the plight of the people
they hurt. The "fiction of critical distance produces
further fictions of closure," as if the violence were
over (Hebard 1997:88). Now that's "coarsening people's
sensibilities and implicitly encouraging violence." In
this sense, the social scientific language metapornographers
favor is also pornography, feeding consumers' coldness.
And declaring violence off limits doesn't help the victims,
though it may let faculty and students feel good about ourselves
by obviating the need to assess our own complicated responses
to cruelty. One thing I've learned from twice teaching a course
on violence is that anyone who has ever suffered crueltyand
most people haveresponds ambivalently to its representation.
More positively, trying to recreate the experience of violence,
rather than describing it from a safe academic distance, mightjust
mightmobilize emotional responses with the same sort
of reformist political potential as the associated conceptual
responses (Nordstrom 1997:xvii-xviii).
A Personal Note
There is a powerful yet often unstated cultural perception
that hearing about violence is, in some curious existential
inversion, worse than enduring it. . . .
. . . [W]hen I describe a body tortured by fellow humans,
it becomes a field for cautionary tales of "pornography
of violence." . . .
One question I encounter from western audiences I find particularly
offensive. Phrased both delicately and not so delicately,
people want to know why I do this research. Do I get some
kind of thrill from it? (Nordstrom 1997:17-19)
Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love
These are the terms, take them or leave them...
Is my own interest in violence prurient? I came to study
violence by chance, by happening to do fieldwork with Semai,
a people so peaceable that a colleague suggested I subtitle
my report "A Nonviolent People" (Dentan 1979). Trying
to understand their nonviolence required studying violence.
Besides, I live in a violent society and I think it's important
to try to understand violence.
Since any and all events can be lifted by men of bad faith
out of their normal contexts and projected onto others and
thus consequently condemned, since one's thoughts can be interpreted
in terms of such extreme implications as to reduce them to
absurdity or subversion, obviously a mere declaration of good
faith is not enough. In an all-pervading climate of intellectual
evasion or dishonesty, everything becomes dishonest. . . .
To imagine straight communication is no longer possible is
to declare that the world we seek to defend is no longer worth
defending, that the battle for human freedom is already lost.
. . . Have you taken your passions, your illusions, your time,
and your circumstances into account? . . . More than that
no reasonable man of good will can demand. (Wright 1993:428-429)
You wouldn't ask the question if I were studying economic
"development." I'm not sure it's more relevant here
than there (cf. Nordstrom 1997:16-19). Still, because of my
personal background, cruelty is particularly upsetting to
me, while at the same time it holds my attention, stirring
up dark ambivalences of love and copycat cruelty. I don't
like it: cruelty to other people calls up old pain and despair,
which make me afraid, and I deal with the fear by becoming
angry, the way good American men should. "Unresolved
issues" goes the jargon. But who has resolved these issues?
What I would say, I guess, if you ask my reasons for teaching
about violence is what Dido said in welcoming Aeneas, who
later betrayed her: Haud ignara mali miseris succurrere disco,
which I read, loosely, as saying "Firsthand familiarity
with evil put me on the side of people in misery." But
no protestation of innocence is convincing, is it?
I am writing this in a time
when anything we write
can be used against those we love
where the context is never given
though we try to explain, over and over.
Some Class Notes
I'm not happy with how the two classes I taught went. The
infrastructure never got pulled together and the course structure
went haywire as a result. There was less class discussion,
and less discussion of issues the readings and movies raised,
than I initially envisaged. The modification in format made
it harder to teach the class as a set of questions and nudged
it towards a teacher-knows-best mode. That's always seductive
for a crypto-authoritarian like myself but not, I think, the
best way to teach this troubling topic.
The first class was for "untraditional" (old) students,
many of whom knew violence firsthand: pacifists, ex-cons,
social workers, etc. I learned a lot from them, most of it
disturbing. My initial course description was pretty intellectual:
"theory, representation and resolution of violence."
But I began to realize that the representation and conceptualization
of violence in the U.S. is so thoroughly mystified that the
phenomenon itself is obscured. Violence seems dramatic, colorful,
telegenic, intriguing, fun.
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