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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 695-708

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Some Hesitant Observations Concerning "Political Violence"

Michael Geyer

Violence has a lot in common with dirt. Much as the latter is misplaced matter, the former is misdirected energy or, as the Greeks would have it, DESCRIPTION or DESCRIPTION an enabling as much as disturbing but always deadly force. 1 Both are basic facts of human life. They seem random and arbitrary, yet they are by-products of ingenuity and end results of great ambition. Much effort is expended to clean them up. Indeed, such efforts are considered essential to the well-being of individuals and communities. Pollution, to use the technical term for dirt, is just as intolerable as violence. Both threaten the very existence of society or community. Nevertheless, violence--much like pollution--comes back time and again, because society and community, in generating bonds of belonging and the security of social conditions that maintains them, are unimaginable without them. Like dirt, violence may not be what you want, but it is what you get.

This kind of thought experiment has led Mary Douglas to accept dirt/pollution as a fact of life even as she extols the virtues of and explains in great detail the complex tasks involved in cleaning up dirt/pollution in a search for purity. 2 Likewise, we might want to think of violence as a recurrent human condition, as an inevitable and paradoxical effect of the search for security and its prerequisite, social harmony. 3 Still, we would want to direct our efforts equally to understanding the reining in of violence. For it is only in this harnessing of violence - in terms of conduct as well as outcomes--that we gain an appreciation of what violence is and what it does. It is because of its "political" harness that we can discern and trace this peculiar and foundational energy as social and cultural [End Page 695] scientists. To be sure, there are impressive efforts to understand violence as pure, unleashed energy directed at causing harm, pain, or death, but this entails either anthropology or theology, and neither seems capable of making sense of violence in its historical circumstance. 4

There are better and worse ways of studying violence in its historical context. Thus, it pays to look for acts of violence, as opposed to conditions of violence, although the former may well reveal the latter. Of course, it makes sense to think of conditions of famine or poverty or, for that matter, production relations as forms of "structural violence" (Johann Galtung). 5 But these often lethal and always harmful regimes of coercion - some would speak of "power relations," although I would stick to the Weberian distinction between Macht (power) and Herrschaft (dominion)--are devoid of the energy to hurt and harm people and things. It is people in their various circumstances who hurt and harm others, not machines or symptoms. 6

Furthermore, while it is possible to think of the course of violent action and of violent situations in the abstract, it is altogether more useful to look at actors and agents--all actors and agents and not simply the victors. This is so not only because as historians we have no brain for abstraction, but also because the energy to harm is always socially conditioned and, as a collective process, organized. The pursuit of violence, even at its most "savage," follows rules of conduct. There is no "natural" act of killing. Instead we find a variety of ways to kill and even more reasons to justify it. Since Cain killed Abel (and Noah sacrificed some of his saved animals to appease a violent god), the pursuit of violence has been premeditated and orchestrated--and hence, in a basic way, political.

Last but not least, violence involves both physical acts of (threatening) harm and the emotions that attend the act or its threat. It is a highly charged process in which fear of death and enjoyment of inflicting pain are inseparable. Above all, we can observe a peculiar enthusiasm for survival that gets...


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