Saturday, December 3, 2011

Violence and Unity

So, I thought I had completed my meditation on Hannah Arendt's "Reflections on Violence" with my last post, but it seems that I've come up with a bit of an epilogue to go with the three previous posts, which are in order:

Violence and Technology
Violence and Power
Violence and Identity 
So, here goes:

Violence is divisive.  Violence separates the hunters from the prey, the attacker from the target, the winner from the loser, the victor from the victim (as the saying goes, you're either one or the other, which represents a cynical worldview, of course).  Violence is a zero sum game.  Violence performed on one's self is internally divisive, but that's another story.

Technology is divisive. Technology separates the user from the used, the individual from the world, the actor from the acted upon, the subject from the object (technology objectifies the world, and the others who inhabit it).

Violence/technology is an I-It relationship, to use Martin Buber's terminology.

Power is unifying.  Power brings together the ruler and the ruled, government and citizen, in consent and cooperation.  Power binds us together (for good or for ill), in creating, maintaining, repairing, renewing, and revising the symbolic order.

Identity is unifying.  Identity is a shared sense of self, group membership, imagined community, a common ground, a common name, an interconnectedness.

Power/identity is an I-You relationship, an I-You becoming Us.

All too often, power/identity is established through some larger form of divisiveness, a shared identity among insiders in contrast to outsiders, the identification of the other against which we define ourselves.  Identity established through divisiveness is the same as power established through violence, it carries the seeds of its own disintegration, it is not sustainable.  Divisiveness corrupts because any insider group can sense that they might, at some point, become outsiders, and that the only way to prevent this is to single out some other insider group and treat them as outsiders.

The problem before us is one that we have faced throughout our long history:  How to overcome division and forge a truly unified identity.  The name for this identity is no mystery:  it is humanity.  To achieve a global human identity there must be a global human power, a symbolic order, a mutual empowerment based on consent and cooperation.

Does this sound utopian?  I am reminded of Buckminster Fuller's remark that we are in a race between utopia and oblivion.  And even if it's not possible to achieve absolute unity, we certainly have made some significant progress towards that goal, and it certainly seems to me that we have the potential to make a great deal more progress if we have the will to do so.  

And I think Hannah Arendt would agree that this positive sense of a will to power begins with thought, I believe she would agree with McLuhan that nothing is inevitable if we are willing to contemplate the possibilities and the consequences of our actions.  And I think Arendt would say that we have to start by thinking, that it's only when we stop thinking that solutions seem hopelessly utopian and problems become insurmountable.


Mike Plugh said...

I wonder about violence being divisive. On its face violence is divisive. It's hard to argue the point, but violence is also oddly unifying.

Without violence there is no war, but at the same time it s that same violence that acts as a magnetic attraction between combatants. It separates human beings into factions A and B, but A and B will stay locked in combat until an intervening force (C) or a breakdown in the cohesion of A or B forces an end.

Terrorism has been divisive in America (as was Bin Laden's plan) in that we suspect one another and have given up our trust in favor of increased security measures, surveillance, and so on. At the same time, we can't seem to stop engaging in violence with the "sponsors" of terror overseas. Our national discourse is about Sharia law and building mosques and burkas and the rest. Never before in our nation's history have we been more unified with the narrative of Islam than we are now. That didn't come about because we suddenly have an affinity for Mohammed, or a historical appreciation for the Islamic contributions in art and science, but rather because we're engaged in a long term violent stalemate with "radical Islam."

I suppose it's important to separate the actual act of violence from the dynamics brought about as a result (by effect), but the formal cause of violence is unity as much as division, perhaps. I could be wrong.

Lance Strate said...

Mike, I think in keeping with the Arendtian approach, it's correct to say that violence is not war, and I would say that there can in fact be war without violence. A state of war can exist without any battles actually taking place. In fact, that has been the case in the Middle East between Israel and various Arab states since Israel declared its independence. And of course that was the situation we referred to as the Cold War. War, as Kenneth Burke pointed out, requires a massive amount of cooperation within each society at war, and a certain amount of agreement on the ground rules for war (e.g., the Geneva Convention). Indeed, terrorism can be distinguished from war insofar as terrorists do not play by any rules, and do not seek any form of agreement on how to conduct hostilities. War is violence constrained by rules, therefore akin to a game, whereas violence itself knows no rules. And what you describe regarding America's encounter with Islam fits with McLuhan's observation that war is a very effective form of education. Violence, on the other hand, teaches us about nothing except itself. Violence only teaches us to be violent, or to avoid violence.

Mike Plugh said...

I see. I suppose there can be no war without the threat of violence, so the idea of violence...our collective memory of pain and suffering...might be described as unifying in the sense I described. The Soviets and the US were unified during the Cold War as a result of the threat of violence, where actual violence would certainly be divisive in that it would force a change in the unified system constituted in the standoff. (I think Luhmann actually writes about this point in 'Ecological Communication.')

Mike Plugh said...

Also, I should note that violence doesn't have to be defined in terms of physical destruction, but could also be psychic destruction as well.

Nowadays, psychologists have broadened their definitions of child abuse and domestic violence to include psychological cruelty as well. So, a war like the standoff between the US and the USSR, or Israel and Palestine, is psychically violent even when no missiles are being exchanged.

Lance Strate said...

On the point that violence can be unifying, Mike, yes, but that would go back to Arendt's point that violence can support power, but only in the short term, in a superficial way, because there's always the suspicion that that violence can be turned back on us, that the perpetrators can soon enough become the next victims.

david sobelman said...

Thanks, Lance. A most thought-provoking probe. Here comes comment, testing out process. Perhaps, to draw out the distinguishing qualities between various forms of violence, we would require a structural taxonomy: a) Violence in nature, b) political violence, c) the psychology of individual violence, d) the effect of technological violence, and e) the hybridization of a, b, c, d, as force-counter-force produced by their interface. Incidentally, the formal cause of human violence is at all times the retrieval of a quality that is perceived as obsolesced. Thanks again, thinking about violent and non-violent actions always keeps us on our toes.

Lance Strate said...

Thank you, David. It certainly would be a criticism of Arendt's essay, one offered in fact by Bernstein in his lecture, that her discussion of violence refers only to political violence, not to other kinds of violent action. In one sense of it, the formal cause of violence would be the victim, and that does relate to the discovery a few decades ago, that there is such a thing as victim behavior, as well as criminal behavior (which is not to blame the victim, but rather to help in avoiding to become one).