- Is a Genealogy of Violence Possible?
The attempt to study or explicate discourses on violence requires epistemological modes of questioning, the kind of abstraction that places a troubling topic at arm’s length. We have to quell the often sharp feelings that acts of violence provoke in all of us, in order to examine “coldly” the causes that have generated these facts, and not the effects, dramatic as they are.
Trying to understand and clarify how the media—which often assume the official point of view of states—-affect public opinion helps others to reflect on the true causes that have and may still produce such tragedies. These are causes for which political systems are in part responsible through their lack of foresight and lucidity. The intellectual’s first concern consists, then, not only in denouncing extreme situations—for which the act of killing in spectacular fashion becomes the solution—but also in anticipating their emergence. In the case of Algeria, this work of global analysis and critique (in the sense of a distancing) of the system and all the effects it induces (at different levels: economic, cultural, demographic, religious, etc.) has not been undertaken.
This is undoubtedly the first difficulty. The second consists in resituating violence in a predetermined framework of study, coming back, that is, to different contexts (historical, political, economic, cultural), susceptible of being at the origin of acts of violence, as the only form of protest in the face of the powers that oppress and repress. The forces of domination (the systems in place) are often responsible for the fate reserved for the dominated majority, forcing the latter into extreme attitudes (poverty, unemployment, absence of political debate, a muzzled press, illiteracy, electoral tampering), and reaping, in return, exactly what they have sowed.
Without justifying in any instance the barbarous acts that are committed here or there (all over the world), it is important to move outside of the strictly cultural framework (in other words, the very quick and convenient recourse to anthropologism) in order to integrate this phenomenon within the often complex conditions that have favored its emergence. As we know, it is often easy to take as a point of departure the kind of ritualized violence that has to do with the historical, even prehistoric, past of humankind, associated with primitivism—in a word, with savagery. One thus forgets that the different kinds of violence inflicted by modern technology are more serious because they are more insidious, and above all more murderous. The use of chemical weapons is more effective for killing than sabers, knives, and axes, yet these latter weapons arouse indignation in public opinion. 1 This point merits reflection: in other words, we should question the effects of these practices on public opinion (that is, the means utilized and not the expected end results).
The practice of violence by those under domination is linked to their nature: it is presented as a cultural characteristic intrinsic to their identity. One is granted humanity according to the way in which one kills and not [End Page 23] on the principle of the refusal of death. What is significant here is not so much the quantity but the “quality”: the suffering of the victims (by a slow, bloody death) disgusts the public. 2
Distancing anthropology from history, for example, leads immediately to an impasse. A comparative approach allows the observation that violence is a universally known fact, one that has punctuated the entire history of humanity. Today’s so-called developed civilizations have nothing to teach, so long as they fail to recognize the sanguinary logic that founded their own civilization. The acts of Europeans in America (the Spanish in the South and the British in the North) are by no means masterpieces of humanitarianism. It is thus difficult not to call upon other disciplines (philosophy, social psychology, and psychiatry) in order to understand this phenomenon. But let us say that the choice of this essay’s title, “Genealogy of Violence,” is, perhaps, not demonstrative but in any case is indicative. The genealogy of violence refers us from the outset to relations (that is, to anthropology), to filiation and...