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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, January 13, 2014


Although the definition of "violence" is my titular purpose, I've been obliged to discuss the topic of "might" first.  The formula "might makes right" is practically the unacknowledged motto of those practicing the politics of ressentiment, as I pointed out here  with respect to Noah Berlatsky's rewording of that motto:

"For the superhero genre, the best person in the world is the one with the greatest power; beating evil is a matter of hitting it harder."

Parts 1 and 2 of the long definition have thus situated "might" as every kind of conceivable activity.  Though the person who conceived the aphorism almost surely was thinking of "might" as a superior capacity for violence, "greater might" does not really make right in all circumstances, either in fiction (WATCHMEN) or in the real world (the struggles of Nelson Mandela).  It is demonstrable that "lesser might" can make right even as "greater might" does.  Admittedly one sees "lesser might" in ascendance, both in fiction and real life, far less often than the converse.

So violence cannot be equated with might. In fact, many forms of might in modern society depend on money rather than guns.  An easy example would be the current battle regarding state-sanctioned abortion, in which some organizations attempt to "freeze out" the government by refusing to let their tax dollars be utilized for that purpose.

It is sensible, then, to see violent activity-- as well as sexual activity, to which the former is inextricably linked, if only in a cultural sense-- as a subset of a larger set comprising "all forms of activity/might." I propose this arrangement even though I realize that most ressentiment-critics will fail to make such distinctions, and fall back on the equivalence of might and violent expressions of power.

The next question is, what if anything distinguishes violence and sex-- which I see as violence's "mismatched partner in a buddy-cop film"-- from all other forms of activity?  In literary analysis I've usually referred to them as "kinetic elements" or "kinetic effects," but these determinations are not sufficient for a definition taking in both fiction and the real world.   This essay approached the question by negotiating the intellectual insights of Francis Fukuyama and Georges Bataille.

First Fukuyama:

Fukuyama's re-defines Plato's *thymos* as a spectrum of esteem ranging from how an individual seeks his own esteem from others to the way whole societies seek such validation. He then provides a dualistic schema as to how differing versions of thymotic action manifest in society. One version is "megalothymia," whose prefix means "great or exaggerated," and the other is "isothymia," with a prefix meaning "equal

Then Bataille:

There is certainly a somatic sense in which sex resembles violence, which is the principle reason why Freudians in particular have associated the two. But Bataille concentrates too much on the somatic similarity, the arena of an eros that may include the "sensuous frenzy" to destroy an enemy as much as the frenzy to consummate the sex-act.

This is where Fukuyama's formulations about thymos provide a theoretical guide to steer one clear of the rocks of Freudianism.

While there are ways in which sexual partners can attempt to "assault" one another-- ways which include, but are not confined to, rape-- sex is dominantly isothymic, in that sex usually requires some modicum of cooperation. Violence, then, dominantly conforms to Fukuyma's megalothymic mode insofar as it usually involves a struggle of at least two opponents in which one will prove superior to the other, though in rare cases fighters may simply spar with no intent of proving thymotic superiority

 So of all forms of human might/activity, violence and sex are the perfect exemplars of competition and cooperation, and therefore of the thymotic tensions that pervade all human societies and cultures.  Further, violence and sex are also the primary sources of what Bataille calls "sensuous frenzy," which may be termed the perception that one's thymos has become so expanded as to escape the confines of one's body.  People may love their money-- or, if they give it up, love dictating what it should or should be used for, as with the Little Sisters of the Poor-- but few real people get a feeling of ecstasy from it, a la Uncle Scrooge.

Assuming that the ressentiment-critic is even aware of the arguments that posit violence as a fundamental aspect of human nature, said critic will almost certainly reject the argument out of hand.  Attempts to conflate superheroes-- or violent heroes generally-- with fascism are always built upon the supposition that violence is not intrinsic; that it is a demon that can banished by invoking comparisons to anti-liberal forces like the KKK and proponents of eugenic control, as Berlatsky does in the cited essay.  Though Berlatsky knows that American superheroes were not produced in a literally fascist society, the spectre of fascism-- supposedly the worship of force-- is an ever-present danger, if one happens to swear by that great insight: "monkey see monkey do." Here's Berlatsky in the comments-section:

...fascism in particular tends to equate violence and goodness, and power as itself righteous. That’s not the case for left ideologies, which are about equality, and so don’t tend to elevate individual power as the apotheosis of goodness.

Berlatsky's "violence=goodness" equation misrepresents the appeal of fictional violence as being one of crypto-fascism.  It's also significant that where he's willing to invoke "the hermeneutics of deceit" to find fascism in violent conflict irrespective of the circumstances, he doesn't apply the same hermeneutics to those supposedly more "equal" societies:

Fascism is particularly inclined to promote might as right; it’s a worship of power. Like I said upthread, liberal and communist philosophies don’t do that; they tend to be interested in promoting equality (though of course they’re perfectly capable of supporting state violence.)

By framing his observations on "liberal and communist philosophies" in this manner, Berlatsky contrives to make it sound as if the exercise of force is not a central aspect of those philosophies, as it is with fascism.  A true hermeneutics of deceit would assume, with Machiavelli, that states built on those philosophies would simply have more roundabout ways of expressing their might, even when they are not "supporting state violence."  Certainly, though I support Obamacare in its overall intention, I would never deny that it is a manifestation of might, even if its purpose is to promote a particular form of "equality."

To keep the more liberal philosophies from being temporarily affected by fictional displays of violence-- that is, to keep the monkey from seeing, and perhaps imitating what he sees-- the ressentiment-critic must constantly harp on the supposed similarities between Superman and storm troopers. 

This is the last of the essays under this heading, though some of the following essays will also investigate issues of violence in fiction.  So the really long definition is hardly concluded.

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