Hypatia 18.2 (2003) 205-208
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The Subject of Violence: Arendtean Exercises in Understanding. By Bat-Ami Bar On. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.
Now more than ever we need a philosophical understanding of violence. In the wake of the attacks of September 11 and in the midst of increasing violent conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, those of us living in the United States have been challenged to think about violence in new ways. What is the morally and politically appropriate response to terrorism? What effects does violence have on individuals? In what cases is violence justifiable? For example, when and how can nation-states use violence to promote their political goals? For many of us, these questions have taken on a new salience and urgency. Feminist philosopher Bat-Ami Bar On has been thinking about these questions for a long time. Her essay, "Why Terrorism is Morally Problematic" (1991) argues that terrorism is morally unjustified because it psychologically damages the terrorized and it undermines the capacity to care of both the terrorized and the terrorizers. Bar On's new book, The Subject of Violence: Arendtean Exercises in Understanding (2002), covers a range of issues including terrorism, technology, torture, genocide, trauma, nationalism, and the construction of violent bodies. She explores these issues through a discussion of Hannah Arendt's work (see, for example, Arendt 1961, 1963a, 1968) and a wide range of contemporary sources. She also draws on her own experiences, although she expresses ambivalence about the use of autobiography. Each chapter begins with a quote from Walter Benjamin and a quote from Emmanuel Lévinas, thus framing her discussion of an Arendtean understanding of the issues within a broader philosophical and historical context.
In chapter 1, Bar On takes up the issue of how best to approach the subject of violence—through theory or autobiography or both. She discusses the importance of autobiography for feminists who view experience as an important source of knowledge (4). Feminists hold that sharing one's experiences publicly can foster political empowerment because it enables women to see the patterns of sexism and oppression that shape our lives. While acknowledging the significance of autobiography for the feminist movement, particularly in her public speaking out against rape and other forms of violence against women, Bar On expresses a certain ambivalence about approaching the subject of violence autobiographically (x-xii; 5). She distinguishes the autobiographical from the [End Page 205] personal, which she says is unavoidable; theoretical inquiries emerge out of personal concerns (7). Striking a balance among the personal, the biographical, and the autobiographical, Bar On weaves biographical vignettes about Arendt as well as some of her own experiences, into her theoretical explorations of violence.
Part I of the book, "Sign of Trauma," deals with the issue of the effect of violence on individuals in terms of their self-understanding and the construction of subjectivity and identity. Bar On asks if there are limits to understanding violence; for instance, linguistic or conceptual limits. She turns to psychoanalytic sources to illuminate the ways in which the experience of extreme violence, such as the torture endured by survivors of the holocaust, eludes traditional notions of understanding. She argues, along with Arendt, that totalitarian violence subverts standard categories of political thought and moral judgment; thus, an "ethico-political" understanding of violence requires a historically contextualized methodology (see chap. 2, esp. 39-42). Bar On claims that, in spite of the failures of modernism, a Marxist framework may hold political promise because it exposes the gap between what is and what could be (50). In order to undermine totalitarianism, antimodern theoretical tools are necessary. In addition to the Marxist notion of critique, Bar On believes that Arendt provides a useful way to think about understanding as a concrete historical need.
For feminists, one of the most interesting issues raised in the book may be the issue of identity. Bar On foregrounds her own Jewish Israeli identity, and Arendt's Jewish identity, resulting in a complex and multilayered exploration of the subject of violence, including the violence against...