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Posts Tagged ‘somatic vs. conceptual’

“…The thing to bear in mind is: the fact that physical violence is simpler to represent visually than other kinds of violence doesn’t make physical violence the truth of violence as such, especially in the 21st-century world. I’m not of course denying that actual physical violence happens in the world: not denying that men beat women, that people injure and kill people. But I am suggesting that, outside actual warzones, other forms of violence are more pervasive and intrusive. A punch to the gut hurts for a while; growing up female, or gay, or Black in a sexist, homophobic and racist society presses violently upon your very soul the whole time. Some rape involves the sort of additional physical violence that leaves bruises on the skin or bones broken. Most rape does not do this. But only a fool would suggest that a rape victim who emerges from the trauma without bruises and broken bones has not suffered. On the contrary, such a person is likely as badly, or even more severely, traumatised by the experience because the violence of rape is not essentially the violence of broken bones but of broken spirits: domination, violation of personal space, invasion of personal integrity, degradation and breaking of peace of mind.

To the extent visible, somatic modes of violence come to stand-in, as a representational convention, for the larger and more malign trauma of internalised, systemic and invisible violence, they run the risk of actually supplanting violence as such in the popular imagination—so as it might be, people end up making the (false) distinction between ‘rape’ and ‘real rape’, reserving the latter category for instances where physical violence has been added to the fundamental violence of the traumatising invasiveness of the act as such. Sometime post-facto justifications are added to this prejudice, such that bruises show a victim ‘fought back’ or ‘resisted’, a datum treated as justifying our compassion as the expensive of implying that a victim who does not garner such addition, visible markers of violence somehow doesn’t deserve our pity. Germaine Greer’s recently comments about the need to reform our rape laws were vehemently criticized by many. It seems to me, for what it’s worth, that her actual proposals have something to recommend them (‘rape trials are foundering and not ending in convictions as lawyers argue over the issue of consent; why not believe the woman and lower the penalty?’) but I wonder if there is a one-dimensionality in the way she uses the term violence: so that when she says ‘most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever’ she is consicously or unconciously conflating externally-evident physical injury (where her statement is probably true) with internal less-evident injury (where her statement is, clearly, simply wrong).

It all speaks to what is, I think, a widespread belief that physical violence is more ‘real’ (more important, more terrible, more worthy of representation) than psychological or conceptual violence. This, though, is the wrong way about. Physical violence is horrible, but psychological violence tends to be both more profoundly traumatising and longer-lasting. A gunshot wound may heal in weeks, where PTSDs last years, even decades. The domestic goods stolen by a burglar can be replaced on the insurance, but the sense that a malign stranger has been in your house lingers, and makes you feel unsafe and unhappy for a long time. That’s a psychological reaction (though no less devastating for that), but I wonder if it is conceptual violence—by which I mean, whatever does violence to the principles, assumptions and mental models by which we navigate this complicating and alarming universe—that is the most radically destabilising.

In either case, there is a bias against the invisible. It’s not true that bodily illness is more real than psychological illness, or that conceptual violence is a mere chimera.  It’s just that people’s responses are more easily recruited by the somatic. Trans activists I know tend to stress the physical dangers trans men and women often face: the risks of being actually beaten-up and murdered. Those risks are real, and undeniably higher for trans people than the general population, and that is not something to brush under the carpet. But might it not be that the conceptual violence people endure when their sense of self is denied by the communities to which they belong is, because it is continual, vastly more pervasive, and internalised in ways that are psychologically violating, more significant? I’ve always thought ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is exactly the wrong way around. It is terrible to be beaten-up for being gay, but being beaten up will send you to the hospital for a poultice, where decades of verbal taunts, societal invalidation, disdain and rejection can send you to suicide. It’s not that sticks and stones won’t break your bones; it’s that it’s the stuff that gets inside your head that kills you.

Nor is this state of affairs ideologically neutral. Indeed, I’d suggest it is on the contrary precisely how ideology as such works. There may be a temptation to think of ideology as a sort of add-on, in some sense less importat than the brute existential facts of living, finding food and shelter and all that. But, again, I think this gets things the wrong way about. ‘Ideology’ is a shorthand term for those structures of belief, those attitudes to mind and habits of living, by which we orient ourselves in our social world. These beliefs can sustain us, and motivate us to acts of great kindness or courage; but they can also prompt us to atrocity, and can even overwhelm such basic biological drives as self-preservation, as the anorexic starves herself to death or the suicide-bomber blows himself up. Given this, something we see all the time around us in small as well as large ways, it strikes me as foolish to treat ‘ideology’ as a kind of afterthought, or as somehow secondary to the biological, somatic fundamentals of life.

I’m not, of course, the first to say so. A lot of Žižek’s oeuvre is more-or-less disposable Extruded Lacanian Product, but I quite like his 2008 book Violence.

Žižek argues that we fixate on ‘subjective violence’ (assault, murder, terror and war) at the expense of other, more important modes of violence: Z. is particularly interested in what he calls ‘objective’ violence (‘the symbolic violence embodied in language and its forms’) and ‘systemic violence’ (the ‘often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems’). This isn’t quite the distinction I’m trying to make in this post, actually, but Z and I are at least in the same ball-park. So, for instance, despite the professed conviction that it’s actual violence that is the traumatic and destructive kind, Žižek is surely right to note that Western society remains absolutely unruffled by the actual violence of its armies and police forces (in reality and as reflected in our hyper-violent popular culture-texts) whilst at the same time being highly agitated by the merely conceptual violence offered to hetrosexual norms by (say) gays in the military. The people unfazed by the 270 million firearms sloshing around the civilian population of the USA and 30,000+ deaths annually these weapons facilitate—actual violence, by any measure—are often the same people genuinely rattled by the purely conceptual violence offered to the dominant social (ideological) logics of heteronormativity, gender fixity and racial homogeneity by the mere existence of gay, trans and non-white segments of the population.

Now: it ought, I think, to be possible to think and talk about the pervasiveness and damage of conceptual violence without in effect crowding-out the concrete horribleness of actual violence. Women are beaten and murdered around the world in horrifying numbers every day. The thing is: some women are victimised by this kind of crime, but all women live under the conceptual coercion of fear of it—all women have to curtail their freedom of movement and hobble their peace of mind, live existences constrained within the procustean bed of this conceptual space.

That said there is, I think, a correlative here. If we take conceptual violence seriously, then we need to take it seriously across the board. There is, of course, an asymmetry to the way marginalised groups suffer, and the inertia of history and privilege determine a steep gradiant of oppression from privilege downward. But being born into a privileged group is not the same thing as being born wicked. We can certainly say that the pervasive social and cultural pressure telling gay or trans people that they are disgusting, unnatural, shameful and so on enacts a violence upon those people worse, because it is both ubiquitous and liable to be internalised by the victim, than bruised skin and broken bones. But we might also want to ask ourselves: is there anything to learn from people whose atttudes are shaped by conscious or unconscious homophobic or transphobic views? Maybe your answer to this question is: no, these are bad people, worth only our contempt. Most people aren’t bad, though; and cleaving to a different set of life-values is not in itself an index of moral turpitude.

Imagine somebody for whom fixity of gender was one of the conceptual props that helps them navigate the various shoals and whirlpools of everyday life, perhaps as a function of a larger religious faith supporting and maintaining the stability of their life. Lets’s say the performance of gender fluidity by others enacts a degree of conceptual violence upon these assumptions, and makes the person unhappy and upset and unnerved. You may think: good, they deserve it. You may go further (fuck their feelings, this is right-and-wrong and they’re wrong. It’s possible they think the same of you). Maybe that’s justified. But it’s hardly an approach calculated to end hostilities. How might negotiation look, in this particular situation? How to defuse a stand-off in which both sides’ strategies boil down to loud declarations of fuck your feelings? To say ‘their feelings don’t matter, only mine do’ is self-evidently unsatisfactory, even given the asymmetry of the social status quo. My point is, retreating to ‘what I’m doing is not really violence, it’s not as though I’m literally punching them in the face’ also isn’t a load-bearing position in this context. Which backs us, rather, into the situation of believing something along the lines of: ‘though it would be bad if it happened to me, it’s good for them to have their values challenged’. I find this really difficult to process, I’ll be honest. It seems to me ‘it’s good for them, but not me, to be on the receiving end of violence’ both ethically untenable and not a probable position from which a mutually satisfactory compromise could be negotiated. Of course, it may be that neither side is interested in compromise. “

– Adam Roberts,

Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Violence.” A Mechanical Art. June 21, 2018.

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