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  • Violence, Brutality, CrueltyOn Differentiation (and Its Refusal)
  • Rodolphe Gasché (bio)

In response to Gianni Vattimo's claim, in "A Taste for the Secret," that "[at] bottom, violence means slicing through a knot that, with patience, could have been untied," thus contrasting argumentation and discursivity with violence, Derrida not only expresses his hesitation to oppose both—holding even that "the deployment of argumentative power is ten times closer to the greatest possible violence"—but also makes a statement that, at first glance, is rather surprising if not also somewhat disquieting (Derrida and Ferraris 2001, 87, 90). He says, and one should keep in mind that the remark occurs in the casual setting of an interview, rather than in a philosophical text, that he is "not sure that violence is an evil [un mal]," and adds that he "would prefer to oppose various sorts of violence to one another rather than opposing violence to nonviolence" (Derrida and Ferraris 2001, 90). Violence is not only not an evil but something that is not even necessarily bad. Still, the assertion that violence is not the evil itself [End Page 1] and is, perhaps, not an evil at all, remains somewhat troubling. Indeed, is the assertion in question an expression of insensibility, of complete detachment, or aloofness with respect to what violence is commonly associated with? A tolerance, perhaps, of the intolerable? But apart from the caution with which the statement is made, by resisting to oppose violence (to nonviolence, e.g.), Derrida extracts violence from the logic of binary opposition, detaching it from possible opposites that would contain and determine it—freeing it, as it were, into a "reality" with its own inner differentiations, into the distinct forms of violence among one another. Let me note from the start that if there are multiple violences, and that violence is thus differentiated within "itself," the distinctions that Derrida draws between them, rather than being merely a Derridean concern, are an intervention into a venerable and still ongoing debate (see, e.g., Gewalt. Texte von der Antike bis in die Gegenwart 2018). But by conceiving of violence as intrinsically differentiated from within, Derrida also insinuates that its forms are contaminated, and that, hence, it is structurally impossible to rigorously distinguish between them (Derrida 2002, 272).1 If this observation is crucial, it is because hereafter, I will not only be concerned with different sorts of violence but will, in particular, seek to distinguish violence from such phenomena as brutality and cruelty, that is, from phenomena that, unmistakably, are violent in distinct ways. Now, if Derrida hesitates to condemn violence as an all-out evil, it is because he defers his judgment of the moral nature of violence until an elaboration of the different forms it assumes. But by refusing to oppose violence to an other of it, such as nonviolence, and highlighting the forms it takes, Derrida also resists identifying violence as something as such, something in itself. It is not, therefore, a first principle, something absolutely first. Undoubtedly, the gesture of subtracting violence from the binary oppositional grid is strategic, and in resistance to the metaphysical dream of an originary peace as a result of which violence becomes identified and is thus dominated. "Violence and Metaphysics," in which Derrida makes the point that "discourse is essentially violent," and that the dream of nonviolence, or absolute peace, would be of the order of pure violence, is a case in point (Derrida 1978, 116). By contrast, in the various forms it takes, and which stand opposed to one another, a differentiation of [End Page 2] violence, or an "economy of violence," takes place that does not allow such substantiating identification (Derrida 1978, 313 n. 21, 117). No doubt, to speak of different forms or kinds of violence would presuppose a knowledge of what violence is in itself, but these different forms are not simply forms of one and the same thing, a thing that would be one, for the one reason that they already are forms of something like violence. Yet for reasons of convenience, I will continue to speak of "forms" of violence, until further ado.

Before I pursue the question...


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