Recognizing Rage and Legitimate Acts of Violence12-20-2015
By Laurie E. Naranch
“The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”
--Hannah Arendt, On Violence
Violence circulates throughout our human experiences. Whether physical or psychological, exceptional or ordinary, at the hands of an authority figure or as a result of structural inequalities, violence surrounds us and pulses through our lives. But how do we capture or make sense of violence?
For Hannah Arendt, making sense of violence is one of her ongoing tasks as a political thinker. Arendt tackled the topic of violence in a number of ways: looking at revolutionary moments, organized totalitarianism, mass society, student protests, and the experience of the Holocaust.
[caption id="attachment_17137" align="alignleft" width="300"] Hannah Arendt's On Violence (Source: Goodreads)[/caption]
In particular, her extended essay On Violence is a hybrid and complex exploration of the term. Not surprisingly, Arendt forges her own conceptual path in the face of traditional political equations of violence as power. Typically in politics, we may see violence as the power that is exercised by state or police authorities (legitimately or illegitimately), or it may be utilized by people resisting abuses of power (productively or tragically). Yet for Arendt, violence and power are opposites. Or at least that’s the conceptual cut she seeks to make, even as the division frays and the categories necessarily bleed into each other. What we see in On Violence is an insightful, at times frustratingly obtuse, yet still eerily relevant exploration of violence. Today we do need a richer vocabulary of violence for us to be able to critique, understand, and preserve freedom as an inclusive collective good.
In terms of the insightful elements of the essay, take the distinction of power and violence. As Arendt suggests, power and violence “though they are distinct phenomena, usually appear together.” However, Arendt wants to hold power and violence apart. On the one hand, she sees power as the “essence of all government” and being about “the very existence of political communities.” Violence, on the other hand, is instrumental, a blunt force guided to particular ends. To substitute violence for power is disastrous for human freedom or politics property understood.
And yet, Arendt says that there are circumstances where the swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy for the downtrodden and oppressed. Violence of this sort can be born out of rage. Sometimes, Arendt says, “acting without argument or speech and without counting the consequences – is the only way to set the scales of justice right again.” This is a short and undeveloped section of the essay. The example she gives in parentheses is of Herman Melville’s character Billy Budd striking the dead man who bore false witness against him. A literary reference, it is nonetheless insightful as a moment where Arendt acknowledges a violence but against the dead.
In this section Arendt argues against explaining violence as simply beastly or irrational since this reduces violence to a “natural” or “organic” view that has little to do with the conditions under which people may feel rage. Rage here is coded as “when our sense of justice is offended.” It occurs when we think conditions might be changed and not primarily in the midst of dehumanization such as “concentration camps, torture, famine.” Rage doesn’t appear for Arendt in the wake of an “incurable disease” or “earthquake” or “social conditions that seem to be unchangeable.”
This is an intriguing acknowledgement that rage may authorize momentary violence as a legitimate, if for Arendt, antipolitical response to injustice. Moreover, it suggests that rage may be valuable for a more participatory democratic politics if channeled in a way by which violence is not the ongoing source of creative change. However, when it comes to Arendt’s attention to the student movements of the time--the late 1960s, Black Power, and the anti-colonial nationalism of Franz Fanon--she stumbles, particularly on understanding issues of race and violence. Arendt doesn’t have a notion of structural violence in the form of racism, and thus she fails to see black student agitation or anti-colonial politics as anything more than antipolitics or a celebration of death with negative consequences.
[caption id="attachment_17138" align="aligncenter" width="529"] Darcus Howe, far right, leading the demonstration on the Black People’s Day of Action, March 2, 1981. He is accompanied on the truck by two of his sons, Darcus Jr. and Rap. Credit: Private collection of Darcus Howe (Source: phys.org)[/caption]
With her concern about violence as an antipolitics, Arendt accuses the Black Power movement (although not exclusively) for bringing violence to the campus scene where she says the majority of blacks are “admitted without academic qualification” anyway. There’s a troubling echo of her lack of attention to structural racism along with racial obtuseness in Supreme Court Justice’s Antonin Scalia’s recent remarks in Fisher v. University of Texas. Scalia asked if more black students might be better off going to a “slower-track school” rather than being admitted to the more elite University of Texas, which includes some form of racial preference in their admissions process (NYT Dec. 10, 2015). Arendt’s inability to see racism as something other than an ideology--which she rightly condemns--means she can’t conceptualize racism as a persistent accretion of white privilege in cultural, social, and political institutions such as the educational system and as a form of violence itself. Today that “rage” around racism on college campuses isn’t taking the primary form of violence. Instead it is assuming more democratic forms of protest, such as the occupation of public spaces and the demanding of better campus climates/administrative accountability for past exclusions and harms.
No doubt Arendt is right to worry about a glorification of violence, which, without a politics of equal engagement and accountability, can indeed spin out of control. Yet in her concern about the violences of the Cold War era and her often fair criticisms of Marxist-inspired antipolitics, which themselves lack a practice of democracy, she overlooks violences that deserve recognition and rage. These violences go under different names in our networked, fast-paced, and diffuse world, recognizable names such as terrorism and, more novel, what Adriana Cavarero calls "horrorism" as our experience of being frozen or numb in the face of body shattering violence, to which we might add terrorism and mass shootings in the United States. (Horrorism 2011). But also there are other violences such as domestic terrorism, intimate partner violence, rape culture, racist violence, and neoliberal structural adjustment policies. Ultimately, we need to explain, see, and combat a myriad of body shattering violences. Arendt’s work on the value of human uniqueness--the “who” as opposed to the “what” of a person and the importance of preserving a common world where we might have the chance of a “right to have rights”--can be used to push back against her own blindness to forms of violence all too present in our ordinary lives and in extraordinary moments when we come face to face with sheer force.
Featured image: "grosse fuge - rage" by agnes-cecile (Source: Deviantart)