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Simone Sessolo on "Aspects of Violence"

Cover of "Aspects of Violence": Blue background

Willem Schinkel

Aspects of Violence: A Critical Theory

Palgrave MacMillan, 2010
272 pages
$89.00

Reviewed by Simone Sessolo

In his recent book Aspects of Violence, Dutch sociologist Willem Schinkel, Associate Professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, focuses on the purportedly close ties between the concepts of power and violence, and on how they both gravitate around the concept of subjectivity. Various fields, however, define subjectivity quite differently. Rather than following the social science tradition in viewing the subject as “the identity of the source of action,” Schinkel points to “an alternative tradition which stresses the negation implied in every identity, and therefore the decentered place of the subject.” Such an allegedly anti-humanist stance is connected to a humanist tradition, in which “any study of violence, any questioning of the nature of violence, cannot avoid the claim that there exists, in some cases, a pre-reflexive apprehension of violence.” Power and violence are therefore strictly related to the concept of being, rather than of doing: instead of considering violence as a series of acts, he considers violence as a reduction of being, a term with its own philosophical resonance.

The idea of a reduction of being, Schinkel explains, takes origin from Johan Galtung’s critical essay “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” (1968), where Galtung defines violence as “the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is.” Therefore, violence is a process, rather than an act, in which the subjectivities involved are somehow altered. Schinkel stresses this aspect when he argues that violence “consists of actions that recursively follow each other and that cannot be wholly singled out without losing the identity (‘violence’) of the process as a whole.”

Schinkel expands Galtung’s definition by introducing the Heideggerian concept of Dasein (being-in-the-world) as a way to talk about the ontological aspect-horizon of an individual being, focusing on the difference between the ontic (what Heidegger describes as “thinghood,” or the mere physical presence of objects) and the ontological (how categories of being are related and situated in the world). He argues that acts by themselves are part of the ontic—they happen. On the other hand, how acts are perceived—how violence becomes a social issue—creates an ontological horizon because such a perception situates a particular act in the world and makes its meaning a part of world understanding. Violence, therefore, “is an aspect of the social that is always at work in a more or less highlighted sense.” The assumption of an ontological horizon of violence allows Schinkel to apply a sort of “sliding scale” to understand ontically violent acts—the violence of the system, not the individual. This “scale” refers to how severely the subject of a situation is affected by or implicated in the events in the situation.

In consequence, Schinkel concludes that “violence is precisely that aspect of human interaction which consists of a reduction of being, of selection of ontological aspects and simultaneous non-selection of others.” He also points out that such a reduction of being is common to all aspects of social life—people focus on different ontological horizons depending on the social relations in which they are engaged—and thus violence is, in one way or another, present in all human interactions. The constant presence of violence introduces the additional notion that violence is not disruptive of social life, but constructive: “only when the social is a priori seen as a harmonious and (these are not opposites) non-violent realm of human being-together, can violence be […] conceptualized as something which runs counter to that being-together.”

In order to defend violence as a social reduction of being into ontic acts that can be constructive or destructive, Schinkel revisits many philosophical positions held about violence and indicates how they portray biaphobia (sic, “fear of life”). Thus Kant’s notion of humanity, which is the totality of the ontological horizon, “does recognize that people are instrumentalized and that morality depends on the degree to which the other is always at the same time regarded as an end in itself.” Such humanity, however, must “necessarily be reduced in social practice, [so] violence is not a priori to be regarded as immoral.”

In contrast, Schinkel argues, Levinas distrusts the idealism of the ontological horizon and so attests instead that the other escapes that reduction of being that is encompassed in a social relation objectified as a state of “alterity.” Derrida counters Levinas’s assumption, implying that a necessary reduction of being must happen “in order to be in-relation-to the other.” Nonetheless, Schinkel sees even such a reaffirmation of a relationship between the subject and the object as biaphobic, because it reduces the complexity of social systems.

In Schinkel’s account, there is thus violence in the very definition of violence, since the ontological reduction of being implies the choice of a specific semantics, “a constellation of meanings that is historically contingent but intricately tied up with socio-structural developments pertaining to the nature of political organization and regimes of punishments.” Such a contingency, he argues, seems to be present in many writings about violence, precisely because violence is commonly seen as external to the status quo of social life, irrational in its happening, and morally wrong. A case in point is Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (1921). Schinkel argues that, although Benjamin in his study affirms the ability of individuals to speak of violence, he speaks only of justice. When Benjamin argues that the cause behind an act can be deemed violent only if it pertains to moral relations, he confines violence within the realm of the law. To escape such a restriction, Benjamin comes up with the idea of a divine, or pure, violence.

While for Benjamin mythical violence—violence as a means—is law-establishing and law-preserving, divine violence is law-destroying. Yet Schinkel asks: “[I]s there not always, even after […] a manifestation of divine violence, a fall back into the mythical categories of means and ends? What comes […] after divine violence?” In order to bypass such a temporal reduction of violence which, Schinkel believes, leads to biaphobia and to a fear of the constructive aspect of ontological violence, he comes up with the idea of an autotelic violence, “a violence that is its own goal, a violence in which means and ends are conflated.” Schinkel states, in Platonic terms, that “autotelic violence is the Form or the Idea of all phenomenal violence.” For Schinkel, Benjamin’s critique of violence, together with many other philosophical and social disquisitions about violence, “claims to be concerned with violence when in fact it is not; it claims to discuss the nature of violence when in fact it reduces and thereby violates it.” The only way not to reduce the ontological horizon of violence is to consider it immediate and autotelic, transforming it to violence that is seen as its own goal.

Schinkel compares and contrasts autotelic violence and symbolic violence (institutionalized violence): when autotelic acts of violence become naturalized (part of an epistemic violence), they lose their constructive aspect because the acts become aestheticized and thus can be grouped under what Schinkel calls “symbolic violence.” Schinkel argues that “popular culture is full of violence that serves no other purpose than to please,” and that “the autotelic aspect of violence can be said to be a recurring theme in contemporary art.” Finally, he summarizes that “the average violent film that is directed towards a large audience allows the viewer to enjoy autotelic violence, but in an acceptable and non-explicit way.” 

Aspects of Violence is particularly useful for people interested in recent events like the austerity and cost-of-living protests in Greece and Israel, the food protests in several North African countries, the democracy movements in the Middle East, and the spread of Occupy sites in several US cities, because it departs from the simplistic binary difference between a perpetrator and a sufferer. The book suggests, instead, that violence as a reduction of being is systemic.