The Obscure Object That Is Violence

A recurrent trope in the abundant commentary of the recent London riots was the “senselessness” and the “meaninglessness” of the violence witnessed, with the apparent lack of any clear or systematic political demands from rioters and the arson or vandalism of property that did not even seem to carry the symbolic charge that such acts might otherwise be seen to hold had the targets been obvious governmental or corporate institutions. In that respect, looting was much less discomforting in that it at least appeared to obey a discernable intent and acquisitive rationale and could be readily interpreted as the actions of “defective and disqualified consumers.” Perhaps the most common response by commentators has been to recognise the senselessness of some of the violence while simultaneously viewing such meaninglessness as rich with meaning. Žižek thus identified the riots as “zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing” but which by its very nature had the effect of revealing to us that under our current predicament “the only form protest can take is meaningless violence.” Such a hermeneutics of the event has by no means been the preserve of any particular political persuasion, even if that which has been read into the violence varies wildly. In the days and weeks that followed the riots, moral collapsefamily breakdown,  materialism and rap music were, among other things, all blamed for the events, including by those who had initially refused to hear anything else than condemnation. What all seemed to be able to agree on however was the significance of the riots, that this unfocused outburst of violence had torn the veil behind which unpalatable truths about our society lay. One is left with the apparent paradox that a more orderly and articulate protest would likely have been endowed with much less meaning than the “senseless violence” of early August.

Now there is no doubt that the characterisation of the riots as “senseless” or “mindless” is quite inadequate when it serves to cover up what is political about them, as Joe and Meera have forcefully argued in a previous post. And yet the notion of senselessness does nonetheless touch onto something that speaks to us about violence qua violence which is precisely that at the most basic phenomenological level it ultimately appears to us as absurd and meaningless. Once we strip violence of its various rationales and suspend the symptomatology it so readily invites, we are left to confront it in its naked uncompromising expansion of force, devoid of inherent signification. This feature of violence is, I would argue, one that is much in excess of its particular instantiations in the London riots but perhaps it is not so surprising that it strikes us most directly in such an event rather than in the midst of wars or revolutions in which much more bloody and destructive acts of violence are regularly committed. The latter are indeed always liable to be reconciled with some political intentionality and where particular instances of violence strain such framings these can be treated as second-order phenomenon manifesting themselves under the cover of those occurrences that remain most intelligible to us. The riot, on the other hand, insofar as we can encounter it in the purity of the concept, confronts us with the indiscriminate and aimless projection of a mob’s aggression against its surroundings. As such, it brings to the fore the inherent meaninglessness of violence, its inscrutable muteness, the remainder which stubbornly resists all our attempts to rationally comprehend and tame it.

I do not of course mean to deny the intelligible purposes, discernable functions, or decipherable communicative practices that violence can be seen to serve in many instances. The analytical categories of instrumental violence (as a means to an end) or expressive violence (as a vehicle for meaning) undoubtedly remain insightful frames for understanding such acts. Nor do I mean to suggest that there are no structural or contingent reasons for violence; one can certainly always identify causal factors that at the very least influence the propensity of violence, whether its agents are aware of them or not. But for all the explanatory power of these various lenses, they only succeed in accounting for violence by reference to what is external to it. Violence qua violence still remains this obscure object that eludes any full definition or comprehension, a conceptual black hole that causes our analytical frameworks to buckle and warp as we approach its event horizon and that we only ever seem to be able to discern through the effects on that which it negates.

Willem Schinkel addresses this issue in an article entitled the “The Will to Violence” that is primarily concerned with small-scale interpersonal violence but which I think has relevance beyond it. In examining the ways in which the social sciences address the problem of violence, Schinkel concludes that all causal and explanatory accounts ultimately fail to fully grasp their object, namely

violence ‘itself’: that which remains when all causes are revealed, when external connections are uncovered, such as means–end relations, or meaning-facilitating constructions. What then remains is surely what one might consider as the most ‘disturbing’ of all: a violence for the sake of itself, without morality, extrinsic meaning, but purely destructive. Evil, we might call it. Perhaps that is why this aspect of violence has been carefully avoided in the social sciences. We are afraid of it. We desperately try to explain all there is to violence, to come to a maximum of explained variance, but we know it will not happen for a 100 percent, we know it will never be enough. And when it comes to violence, that residue scares the hell out of us.

If Schinkel here unnecessarily reintroduces morality with the notion of “evil” – if violence is without morality or meaning, then surely it is quite simply “beyond good and evil” – he nonetheless points to that which is ultimately most troubling about violence: its a-significance. Accordingly, deterministic accounts amount to a “semiotics of violence” whose main effect is to explain violence away since meaning can only be ascribed to it by reference to causal factors external to it. Violence is thereby reduced to a mere symptom of underlying causes that we can safely apprehend. What such accounts conceal is that the eruption of violence qua violence is properly the point at which social intercourse, discourse and communicative exchange all cease. Its brute materiality sweeps all before it, trumping any argument or appeal, indifferent to social status, convention or value. Violence is the supremely blasphemous act because it blasphemes against meaning itself.

And yet it is precisely for this reason that violence invites such a proliferation of meaning-production around it. Asignificance is its own violence and it is one which we cannot abide. The void it presents must be exorcised and nothing throws us into interpretative overdrive as forcefully as acts of violence whose sense threatens to elude us. This no doubt accounts for the particular (and arguably disproportionate) impact of terrorist attacks, all the more when they appear indiscriminate and uninhibited.

We have become so used to the established narratives and counter-narratives of the War on Terror that emerged from the rubble of the World Trade Center that it asks of us particular efforts of imagination to return to the sense of shock and disbelief that the events of September 11 engendered. As I tried to argue in an article a few years ago, only an aesthetic reading of these events can restore, however imperfectly, our dumbstruck encounter with its terrible images, the collective experience of which played no small role in the opening up of a discursive space in which a multitude of voices could briefly be heard but that also permitted the considerable shifts in domestic and foreign policies that followed as the space was occupied and shut down. Ten years on, we still live in the shadow of that day and all that followed in its wake, above all the myriad acts of violence sanctioned by it. The necessity of grappling with the obscure object that is violence and the singular relationship we have to it thus remains as urgent as ever.

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