Domestic Violence : Barbara N. Nagel

Ran Ortner

Ran Ortner / Rusty Spoons

Domestic Violence : Barbara N. Nagel

To call “domestic violence” a “political concept” presents a provocation inasmuch as the domos is generally understood to stand apart from the political (or not to really be part of the polis): “domestic violence” suggests a small, domesticated form of violence.1 And yet, the domos has existed historically at different scales—one thinks of the paternalism of plantations, of the kind of “monstrous intimacy” produced by slavery where, to quote Saidiya Hartman, “the domestic offers no refuge”; one thinks of colonies and, ultimately, of the state-form itself.2 Among the moments in U.S. history when the link between state-terror and the family has become especially palpable were the forced removal of more than a third of Native American children from their families, the so-called “Crack Wars” during which children were pushed into a totally overwhelmed foster care system, and the ongoing separation of migrant families, which led, in turn, to a renewed idealization of the family, encapsulated in the slogan: “Families belong together.” I remember a Marxist friend asking by way of rejoinder: “Can’t we simply agree that nobody belongs in a cage?”

The seemingly limited scope of domestic violence is a result of the miniaturization of the concept. “Domestic violence” almost sounds cute: the kind of “mini” brand kids can put in their dollhouses and the handiness that adults covet for their portable electronic devices. Consigning violence in this way to the domos suggests that the minimal violence that happens in the house stays in the house rather than spinning out of control in public. One way to resist this miniaturization of violence and to make it visible is by way of amplification; to this end, there has been a push in recent years among North American feminists to expand the concept and to speak of “public terror” instead of “domestic violence” given that mass killings in the U.S. are almost exclusively perpetrated by men with histories of domestic violence.3 With her distinctive sarcasm, the political theorist Shatema Threadcraft praised “(t)his move [as] strategically brilliant, as terror is a problem toward which we are completely comfortable devoting considerable resources.”4 Threadcraft’s demand to turn domestic violence “public” draws its polemical power from an implicit awareness that the function of domestic violence for politics is in essence hidden. Thus, I will argue that domestic violence serves as a political concept and, precisely, as a crypto-political concept.

Recent publications on domestic violence attest to the massive effort it takes to drag domestic violence into the field of visibility. In her notable study No Visible Bruises, Rachel Louise Snyder asserts: “Domestic violence is hard to talk about . . . . It is vast and unwieldy, but it’s also utterly hidden.”5 Likewise, the sociologist Gloria González-López’s trenchant study of incest and sexual violence in Mexican families bears the similarly fitting title Family Secrets.6 And the writer Carmen Maria Machado concludes, in the afterword to her autobiographical novel In the Dream House, that queer domestic abuse presents an “archival silence” as proven by the difficulty of “finding texts that talked about queer people and domestic abuse; two topics that have, historically, been hidden away, or rarely talked about”.7 As a consequence, the sociologist María Pía López emphasizes the importance of the women’s strikes in Argentina, which succeeded in drawing attention to the habitual violence against women, including in their home: “Breaking silence and isolation is a militant practice and a means of self-defense. . . . The assemblies held by the Not One Less collective to organize the women’s strikes were an extraordinary process of mutual recognition.”8 The two questions that I am going to tackle in this essay are, first, how this concept of family violence or intimate partner violence functions epistemologically and aesthetically, and, second, whether the obscurity of domestic violence is an essential feature of the phenomenon itself or if it is dependent on the larger political context. In this essay, I am going to consider “domestic violence” as both gender-based domestic abuse and domestic abuse of children. This is because, in my opinion, treating domestic violence as an umbrella concept embracing different phenomena is precisely what allows us to clarify its political nature.

Now, you certainly do not have to be a feminist to recognize the link between the domestic and politics. According to Hegel, the family is an executive function of the state, representing and mirroring it.9 Hence, whenever we talk about family violence, we must also talk about state violence. Domestic violence functions as a hinge between structural violence (the institution of the family, the state, religion, i.e., norms and normalization) and more spectacular and tangible forms of violence. It is the ones who are unprotected, under attack by the state, who are most aware of this hinge; to this extent, Angela Davis warns that feminists who “call for the criminalization and incarceration of those who engage in gender violence . . . do the work of the state”10 —a state which criminalizes communities of color. Similarly, domestic violence and intimate partner violence in queer relationships are often not reported out of solidarity with the queer community and out of fear of an aggressively heteronormative police system and juridical system.11

Domestic violence seems to stand outside “the political,” even in the sense of le politique. This is to say that excluding domestic violence from politicality appears to be a common trait of different constituted political forms (i.e., the stuff of “politics,” la politique), though they may do so on different grounds or in different “styles.” In this sense, the contestation of domestic violence requires expanding the very concept of the political, to embrace more than either contestation within one kind of political regime or a simple change of regime. As suggested above, the conceptualization (and institution) of a political regime that would acknowledge domestic violence as a political issue remains an open question.

Classically, domestic violence is excluded from the political on the basis of its belonging to the sphere of “nature.” Aristotle proposed a theory of natural hierarchy between the sexes as well as between the members of the family, and interpreted them as analogous to political relations:

Household management has proved to have three parts: [1] one is mastership . . ., [2] another that of a father, and [3] a third, marital. For a man rules his wife and children both as free people, but not in the same way: instead, he rules his wife the way a statesman does, and his children the way a king does. For a male, unless he is somehow constituted contrary to nature, is naturally more fitted to lead than a female, and someone older and completely developed is naturally more fitted to lead than someone younger and incompletely developed.12

Hierarchy appears as an implicit form of family violence on account of its legitimizing power. Aristotle’s naturalization of domestic violence applies exclusively to the violence the father exercises over his family. Other violent constellations are regarded as exceptional, which is why they offer themselves as the material for tragedy; to turn from the Politics to the Poetics:

Now if an enemy does it to an enemy, there is nothing pitiable either in the deed or the intention, except so far as the actual calamity goes. Nor would there be if they were neither friends nor enemies. But when these calamities happen among friends, when for instance brother kills brother, or son father, or mother son, or son mother—either kills or intends to kill, or does something of the kind, that is what we must look for.13

“Death by father”—the defining structure of domestic abuse—does not fit into any of the categories Aristotle names. It is unthought because it is taken to be natural: sovereignty is nothing other than sublated father-violence and the government or the state are simply the writ-large, law-engorged guises of domestic abuse. From this point of view—which starts with Aristotle but certainly does not end with him—it cannot be tragic when a father kills his children or his wife, because it is the limit-expression of the (allegedly) natural hierarchy. The passage from the Poetics brings out the unlimited authority (unto death) implied by the hierarchy, inasmuch as it pointedly omits violence carried out by fathers.

Family violence is ubiquitous in tragedy—think of the extended family-sagas such as the Oedipus-myth or the Oresteia, but also of more contained tragedies like Heracles or Medea. Domestic violence regularly shapes the catastrophe, though this frequently occurs as the belated realization that there has been domestic violence, which gives rise, in turn, to the key moments of recognition and reversal. The most famous instance is Oedipus’s realization that he has killed his father and slept with his mother. According to scholars of classical poetics such as Terence Cave and Gerald Else, recognition is always recognition of philia, a bond of love between friends or family members.14 Yet, what is odd about the example of Oedipus is that there is actually not one big moment of recognition but rather a series of small, fruitless recognitions that are denied again and again until the final blinding. The relation between recognition and family violence is therefore puzzling, to say the least. One would assume that recognition brings about an insight that has the power to produce a reversal of some sort. Instead, in the case of family violence recognition is, for the longest time, caught in a loop: Just take the striking sameness of news articles on domestic violence, each following the formula of combining a scene of grim abuse (using the technique of hypotyposis) with some sobering statistics proving that home is the most dangerous place for women. The rhetorical exertion, which aspires to evidentia, is striking given that this should be no news.

The lack (or lag) of recognition is particularly troublesome when it comes to the phenomenon of child abuse. In the 1975 study The Battered Child Syndrome—a book that gave pediatricians the tools to diagnose child abuse—its author, the pediatrician Selwyn Smith, asserts that an “important feature of the [battered child] syndrome is the reluctance of observers to enquire into how the trauma happened.”15 Smith is left to wonder what might cause this delay in recognition. Three years later, the pediatricians Ruth and Henry Kempe again raised the question of why there exists such a stubborn denialism around the topic; searching through old sources, the couple detecteds that child abuse was often taken for an “ailment” and relate the story of how the pediatrician Athol Johnson, at the Hospital for Sick Children of London in 1860, came up with “the rickets theory” to somehow make sense of all the fractured bones in children:

He attributed [the frequency of repeated fractures] to the condition of the bones, since rickets at that time was almost universal among London children. We now know that almost every case he described was, in fact, an abused child. Official London records reveal that among 3926 children under five years of age who died by accident or violence in 1870, 202 were listed as manslaughter; 95, neglect; 18, exposure to cold—all obviously dead of child abuse. However, the rickets theory persisted well into the twentieth century.16 

If we delve into the history of psychoanalysis, we face the scandalous debate around the aetiology of hysteria and the series of recognitions, misrecognitions, and re-recognitions it unleashed, starting with Freud’s talk “On the Aetiology of Hysteria” (1897), whose careful dramaturgy leads up to the theatrical recognition “that our children are far more often exposed to sexual assaults than the few precautions taken by parents in this connection would lead us to expect.”17 Freud later rescinded his recognition and replaced the seduction theory with the concept of psychic reality (i.e., the sexual abuse was only imagined and desired). Some 37 years later, shortly before his death, Sandór Ferenczi returns to Freud’s earlier insights and caused a scandal by declaring at the Psycho-Analytic Congress: “Even children of respected, high-minded puritanical families fall victim to real rape much more frequently than one had dared to suspect.”18 The belated publication of Freud’s censored letters to his confidant Wilhelm Fliess gave rise to new recognitions insofar as we learned from these letters that it was not just Freud’s patients who lead him to believe that hysteria was caused by sexual abuse but rather that his own father “was one of those perverts” and had caused Freud’s brother and younger sisters great suffering.19 Finally, there was the stomach-turning, belated recognition provided by the psychoanalyst Robert Fliess—the son of Wilhelm Fliess—that his “forbidding father” had sexually abused him during the time Freud was discussing his seduction theory with Fliess, of all people.

Whether we are dealing with pediatric studies or psychoanalytical accounts, we repeatedly encounter some variation of the outcry “It is so much worse than we thought!” followed by oblivion. But how can something be perpetually worse than one thought? Why is our conception of the family never catching up with its reality? What prompts our denialism? Apparently, when it comes to the family, no matter how low expectations are, they are still thwarted.

In a footnote of their last book, Lauren Berlant called out our belief that “a woman walking alone at night” would become the victim of rape as a “screen trope.” Berlant borrowed the Freudian concept of repressive displacement in order to explain attempts to protect the intimacy of the family from further scrutiny:

[S]exual violence to women and girls happens mainly in a situation with an intimate partner or at home, which means the image of the abandoned street is itself what we might call, after Freud’s ‘screen memory,’ a ‘screen trope,’ a fantasia that blocks out how predictably the threat of violence in the lure of intimacy escalates from the intimacy drive to unbearable, and sometimes unliveable, situations.20

To stay with Freud, when the latter gave his talk on “The Aetiology of Hysteria” in 1896, he likewise seems well aware, that he would have to break down immense resistance if he intended to persuade the audience that sexual abuse is frequent in bourgeois families. Freud therefore employs a method of reiterative imagery, progressively familiarizing his audience with the idea that the family could be on the side of (sexualized) violence, which in this case bears resemblance to a screen memory. Freud keeps on sowing tree-metaphors: while trying to find the root of the problem why people might suffer from hysteria, Freud talks of a “bad apple” (faulende Apfel); he calls the reasons for hysteria “ramif[ied] and . . . interconnected like genealogical trees” (verzweigte, stammbaumartige Zusammenhänge); finally, he compares the situation to a “family tree” (Stammbaum).21

Given that domestic violence yields denial, shifts accountability, and plays tricks with our perception, it involves a representational or better an aesthetic problem: a problem of what appears to us, what becomes visible, readable, or audible. One peculiar thing about Freud’s family tree is that it both hides and exposes family violence. The same is true for an ash-tree in D.H. Lawrence’s 1913 novel Sons and Lovers:

And the children went to bed, miserably. . . . Often Paul would wake up, after he had been asleep a long time, aware of thuds downstairs. Instantly he was wide awake. Then he heard the booming shouts of his father, come home nearly drunk, then the sharp replies of his mother, then the bang, bang of his father’s fist on the table, and the nasty snarling shout as the man’s voice got higher. And then the whole was drowned in a piercing medley of shrieks and cries from the great, wind-swept ash-tree. The children lay silent in suspense, waiting for a lull in the wind to hear what their father was doing. He might hit their mother again. There was a feeling of horror, a kind of bristling in the darkness, and a sense of blood. They lay with their ears in the grip of an intense anguish. The wind came through the tree fiercer and fiercer. All the cords of the great harp hummed, whistled, and shrieked. And then came the horror of the sudden silence, silence everywhere, outside and downstairs. What was it? Was it a silence of blood? What had he done?.22

Just like in Freud’s Stammbaum, the ash-tree functions at once as the site of memoria or remembrance (silvae as a synecdoche for “literature”), of mediation, translation and, at the same time, the obfuscation of violence. As if, in the case of family violence, one was not to be had without the other. The fact that in all these renditions of domestic violence recognition is staged and put into question suggests that it is treated as a secret or a fetish. There are two ways of making sense of this: We can accept the fetishization of domestic violence and think of it either as a singular event or as an archaic form of violence—a punctual occurrence or an immemorial structure. Consequently, if we read in the news that a mass-shooter, before killing a number of strangers, committed acts of domestic violence then domestic violence becomes an index for evil. However, if we hear the next day in the news that a police officer committed domestic violence and went uncharged, then the polarities between lawful and unlawful seem false; domestic violence is perceived in some way as beyond the distinction between “lawful” and “unlawful.” A conservative would read this strange coincidence of “lawful” and “unlawful” as domestic violence being “beyond politics,” that is, a negative universal. Read in this way, domestic violence indicates a structural excess beyond ideology: it presents itself as if it were nature—archaic and immemorial rather than a result of historical decisions and contingencies.

What do we not see because we treat domestic violence in this way as a secret or a fetish? Of course, we do not really see the violence itself because it has been turned into something other than itself – namely, an index. The next question would be: What does domestic violence help us to see that we would not see otherwise? For what could it function as an index? Here, the political context comes to the fore: domestic violence functions as an index of the political system from which it arises. In this sense, family violence bears a contradictory function for politics: it serves as a political concept in that it trains the individual to develop a certain comportment toward the state, thereby duplicating and intensifying the political order. At the same time, domestic violence does not appear as a political concept because its function for the state remains for the most part unacknowledged.

If a particular instance of domestic violence is embedded in a liberal political system, then the public-private divide will intensify the structural obscurity innate to family violence. The distinction between public and private is the direct outcome of the differentiation of the bourgeois class in the nineteenth century. In literature, this is the time of the great realist authors like Flaubert, who, in L’Éducation sentimentale (1869), describes the protagonist’s best friend Deslauriers with merely two laconic sentences about his violent father: “Not many children were beaten more than his son. But in spite of the blows, the boy didn’t weaken.”23 Or, take another self-proclaimed “realist” author from the early twentieth century: the Swiss Robert Walser. In his early twenties, Walser depicts, in an ambiguous manner that grammatically veils the violence, how a pater familias abuses his wife at the dinner table after she criticized him: “He, however, turned on her so savagely that she was struck down head first upon the table; she immediately rose up to her full height and walked away with a delicate stride.”24

In both examples, a father’s fits of rage are framed as moments of ordinary suffering too negligible to matter in the grand scheme of things. Realism almost turns here into “magical realism,” insofar as the violence does not leave traces on the maltreated bodies, which instead remain perplexingly mute and stoic. In psychoanalytic terms, the literary examples split physical violence from suffering—splitting itself presenting, according to Ferenczi and Wilfred Bion, a typical symptom of abuse.25

But, again, the discreteness of the literary representations also mirrors liberalism’s foundational public-private divide, introduced by a rising bourgeoisie that tried to safeguard itself against absolutist encroachments on individual rights. If the distinction between “public” and “private” increasingly serves as an excuse to respectfully look the other way, Flaubert and Walser’s examples imagine this distancing extended to the battered individual’s interiority.

There are moments, however, when even in liberal democracies domestic violence is thematized—namely, when the problem can be turned into a stigma of poverty or class, when it can be racialized or sexualized. Against the first prejudice that domestic violence mostly affects the poor, the political scientist Mariel Barnes has held that the wealthiest countries in Europe have “astronomical rates of violence against women, particularly by intimate partners;” it is less poverty that prompts violence against women here but rather “policies [that] help increase female economic independence [thereby] also precipitat[ing] the unraveling of traditional gender roles, which then provokes a violent male backlash against their partners.”26

Then there is the sexualization of intimate partner violence, which allows for the latter to be ultimately disavowed. A recent example is the series Big Little Lies, which has been generally acclaimed for its progressive modeling of “sisterhood.”27 The depiction of domestic violence, however, conceives of intimate partner violence as an erotic, sadomasochistic contract. These scenes seem to be expressions of the belief that sexuality, desire, and the unconscious are explanatory—keys to modern subjectivity that supersede all other forms of explanation. This is, of course, not to say that violence cannot be erotic or that consensual sex cannot be violent. Still, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan recently complicated the old feminist postulate that we must “take women at their word. If a woman says she enjoys working in porn, or being paid to have sex with men, or engaging in rape fantasies, or wearing stilettos . . . then we are required, many feminists think, to trust her.”28 Instead, Srinivasan asked us to reflect on why people desire what they desire and thus to fathom the difficult relation between the question of the unconscious and the question of consent. 

Never is domestic violence more visible in the U.S. news than when a football player of color can be held accountable for it. The racialization of domestic violence equally becomes evident in the fact that the one canonical theatrical text on the topic features a black protagonist/perpetrator. In his essay on Othello, Fred Moten muses: “[L]ook how good and how horrific it is to be addressed at all”; Moten makes Othello readable as “a semiotic vector, a semantic event, a perfect flaw or fault through which the ethical pressure that accrues to a metaphysical mistake is released as the already-given sexual and racial content of a murderous home.”29 Moten makes clear that using intimate partner violence as a “release” for intensifying racializing politics does not by any means constitute a form of anti-domestic violence activism. According to Threadcraft, the only way for a black woman to enter racial politics is, along the lines of Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics, to be murdered in her home—and that in frightening numbers:

[A] black woman is killed by her intimate partner every nineteen hours . . . . The reader might reasonably ask: Is not the above a black-on-black crime deflection? No, it is not. . . . Intimate partner murder is the most predictable form of murder, and the perpetrator often escalates his abuse in ways that go unpunished until the final lethal act of violence. . . . These deaths, then, are the result of police (and prosecutorial and judicial) inaction in response to violence against black women. As the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted, often black female victims of domestic violence are punished themselves, either by being arrested or by having their children taken away, decreasing the likelihood that they will ask for help when they experience violence.30

In addition to the distinction between public and private, liberalism takes pride in its adherence to the law. Said liberal paradigm of “freedom and equality before the law” has been debunked as a myth insofar as it fails to account for structural violence. More specifically, Angela Davis reminded us of the historically deep gender-bias when it comes to legal, political, and economic rights. Davis alerts to the fact that women, and especially married ones, were long denied public status as rights-bearing subjects so that women could also not be punished by deprivation of these rights: “Consequently, [the wife] tended to be punished for revolting against her domestic duties rather than for failure in her meager public responsibilities. . . . The persistence of domestic violence painfully attests to these historical modes of gendered punishment.”31 To put it differently, liberalism has always already installed the husband as the one who has to “protect” the law by battering his wife.

Then there are the laws allegedly designed to accommodate victims of domestic violence. It was such a defensive-force law—i.e., one thanks to which the person defending herself does not bear the burden of proof for self-defense—which then allowed the white supremacist Kyle Rittenhouse to be acquitted after having shot two BLM-protestors.32 Actual victims of domestic violence are rarely as lucky in making their case for self-defense: Marissa Alexander, Nicole Addimando, Chrystul Kizer, to name but a few examples. The Cornell law professor Sherry Kolb argues that men like Rittenhouse profit from the defense laws instead of women: domestic violence is different because the woman is stuck at home—and though one is allowed to defend one’s home, one is also supposed to run away if one can. This, however, is a gendered requirement according to Kolb insofar as it is not considered “masculine” to run away whereas women are supposed to, in spite of statistics showing that the most dangerous time for a victim of intimate partner violence is right after they have left.33

In addition, the few progressive, legal innovations of recent years, such as the NY State Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act from 2019, which was co-drafted by incarcerated women, are not applied by judges who still prefer to strictly adhere to sentencing guidelines. Thus, victims are dismissed as non-credible because it is not taken into account that PTSD will likely cause variations in recollection or lead to self-blame or even the idealization the abuser. In short, we have a case of the differend here, to borrow Jean-François Lyotard’s concept: the plaintiff is deprived of their means of communication because the symptoms that would qualify for them to have been subjected to domestic violence simultaneously disqualify them before the law.34

Finally, liberal democracy does not condone emancipatory violence, such as the 17-year old Chrystul Kizer having shot Randall P. Volar III in the head, stolen his car, and set his house on fire.35 Volar had previously been arrested on child sexual assault charges. Frantz Fanon stresses the importance of emancipatory violence (a re-interpretation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic) in the context of the colonial experience. He writes: “At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence.”36 Fanon’s advocacy of emancipatory violence shows that under this veil of the rights-discourse lies unacknowledged violence demanding to be countered.

We currently have a liberal president in the United States who is also an advocate for women’s rights, a vocal opponent of domestic violence, and who worked on the “Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act”, which, in 2019, no less than 157 Republicans had opposed. On the website of the White House, President Biden writes that he supports the Act, even as he “was told time and time again that domestic violence was a ‘family issue’ that should be left to families to address in private.”37 In 2019, when Biden was still preparing for the Democratic Presidential Primary, he talked in an interview about strategies for the debates: “One of the problems I’m finding, I’ve got to be more aggressive,” he said at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles. He then used a roundabout example to explain that debate time restraints don’t allow time for lengthy answers. “When someone says, you know, you know, ‘Are you still beating your wife?’ And, and I go, ‘I have a long explanation,’ and they say, ‘You got 30 seconds to answer.’ And you say, ‘No. And then, wait a minute, what’d I just say? No, I’m not still beating my wife.’ But so, I’ve had, I’ve had some difficulties,” he said.38 “Are you still beating your wife?” is the “jokey” example of negative political questions meant to trap politicians (several sources online present it as the textbook-example of a “loaded question.”) In logical terms, the question involves “presuppositions projected under negation.” The pertinent article from the seventies by D. Terrence Langendoen and Harris B. Savin circles around the example of “John accused Mary of beating her husband. John stopped doing it.”39 Analytic philosophy tends to disregard the connotation and signification of its examples, beyond the logical or semantic points these examples are meant to prove. Though I, as a literary scholar, would ordinarily object to this tendency, the particular blindness seems to the point here, in that it doubles Biden’s own blindness. For what is staggering about the example “Are you still beating your wife?” is its unthematized content: domestic violence is presented as “the old question”—again, a form of archaic violence that “still” may trap you (with the “you” ironically being the self-victimizing, cis-male, white democrat or analytic philosopher). Read in this way, “Are you still beating your wife?” presents a form of parapraxis, a symptom of the unresolved relation that exists between domestic violence and the political, as well as, more narrowly, liberal democracy.

The lockdowns, especially at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, have forced domestic violence into the field of visibility: at the end of March 2020, the city of Paris recorded a 36 percent of increase in cases of conjugal violence; around the same time, the sexual assault hotline reported that for the first time, minors made up half of their visitors.”40 The most shocking thing, however, might have been the change in awareness: suddenly, The New York Times proclaimed domestic violence as a “health crisis” and “intimate terrorism.”41 The same article quoted the British sociologist Marianne Hester, who stated in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way: “There was every reason to believe that the restrictions imposed to keep the virus from spreading would have such an effect . . . . Domestic violence goes up whenever families spend more time together.”42

But the lockdown also coincided in the United States and elsewhere with the renewed momentum of fascist political movements. And unlike liberalism’s taciturn acquiescence to domestic violence, the new fascism brags about it. Thus, in 2018, Turkey proposed a “Marry-Your-Rapist” law, Putin signed off on the “Slapping Law,” and one of the first moves of the Trump administration was to abolish domestic violence as a ground for asylum. With Trump, the United States had a president, who was accused of rape in the divorce-proceedings of his ex-wife and who picked Andrew Puzder for labor secretary, not despite but perhaps because Puzder had been accused of abuse by his ex-wife on Oprah (his wife then recanted the abuse).43 Under Trump, the Department of Justice’s “Office on Violence Against Women” silently restricted its treatment of domestic violence on its website to the criminal definition (the same was done to the notion of sexual assault).

Fascism puts the leader in the position of the duce and asks for absolute devotion to him—true to Wilhelm Reich’s claim that “the authoritarian gains an enormous interest in the authoritarian family. It becomes the factory in which the state’s structure and ideology are molded.44 In the fascist context, domestic violence fulfills the function of terrorizing women and children into submission as well as of indicating their degree of subjection to the father-figure. In this sense, Klaus Theweleit opens his Male Fantasies—the study of the paramilitary Freikorps, a precursor movement to Nazism—with a reflection about his father:

[My father] was a good man . . . , and a pretty good fascist. The blows he brutally lavished as a matter of course, and for my own good, were the first lessons I would one day come to recognize as lessons in fascism. The instances of ambivalence in my mother—she considered the beatings necessary but tempered them—were the second.45 

But Reich and Theweleit’s observations also blaze the trail for an abysmal irony: namely that, compared to liberalism, one must be grateful for the awareness that fascism creates around the issue of domestic violence by actively condoning it. Thus, when Bonnie Honig and Kendra Lubalin likened the United States public to a victim of domestic violence, with Trump as the abuser who uses the typical techniques of gaslighting, manipulating, isolating the partner, and victim blaming,46 this might have been an apt description of Trump but it is counter-productive in terms of a portrayal of the party of “the abused.” This is because shaming the “victim who stays” will not help the situation; after all, shame is a mimetic affect, in that it produces both more shame and more shaming.47 One could also say: shame is regressive, whereas one would actually wish for an emancipatory and empowered political relation. The shaming question that is regularly directed at victims of domestic violence goes: “Well, but why then didn’t you leave?” Why did so many stick with Trump although he treated them badly as women or did not represent their class interests? When reading Honig, I remembered a statement from an anonymous woman working for Transition House, which in the seventies was one of the first two shelters for battered women in the United States:

“Why didn’t she leave” became a constant irritant to activists in the battered women’s movement. As if it were that simple! As if you might not be pursued; as if he might not kidnap your children; as if you would not likely be beaten ten times as viciously if you were caught. . . . Someone in the movement said, “It’s not about learned helplessness, it’s about learned hopefulness.”48

Again, “learned hopefulness” presents what is far from being a merely personal affect but is rather a robustly political affect, with the American Dream only presenting an especially blatant and powerful form of denial vis-à-vis the kind of violence that is made at home.49

Published on February 1, 2024


Barbara N. Nagel is Associate Professor of German at Princeton University


1. I would like to thank Ann Stoler and Jacques Lezra for the invitation to contribute to Political Concepts. My gratitude extends further to Nancy Hoffman, Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz, Jan Mieszkowski, and to the organizers of the Colloquium for Literature and Cultural Theory at the University of Siegen: Nacim Ghanbari, Nadine Hartmann, and Cornelia Wild. Finally, thank you to the anonymous readers for their exceptionally constructive criticism.

2. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p. 51.

3. Lisa Geller, “Two-Thirds of Mass Shootings Linked to Domestic Violence,” Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence; available at (last accessed January 31, 2024)

4. Shatema Threadcraft, “North American Necropolitics and Gender: On #BlackLivesMatter and Black Femicide,” in South Atlantic Quarterly 116:3 (2017): 553–579, here p. 575.

5. Rachel Louise Snyder, No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know about Domestic Violence Can Kill Us (New York: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 8.

6. Gloria González-López, Family Secrets: Stories of Incest and Sexual Violence in Mexico (New York: New York University Press, 2019).

7. Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House: A Memoir (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2019), p. 5. 

8. María Pía López, Not One Less: Mourning, Disobedience, and Desire (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020), pp. 100–101.

9. G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. Allen W. Wood, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), §160.

10. Angela Y. Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), p. 138. 

11. (last accessed January 23, 2024).

12. Aristotle, Politics, trans. and ed. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), I.12.

13. Aristotle, Poetics, vol. 23 of Aristotle in 23 Volumes, trans. W.H. Fyfe (London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1932), 1453b.

14. Gerald F. Else, Aristotle’s Poetics: The Argument (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 96–8; Terence Cave, Recognitions: A Study in Poetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 252.

15. Selwyn M. Smith, The Battered Child Syndrome (London: Butterworths, 1975), p. xi.

16. Ruth S. Kempe and C. Henry Kempe, Child Abuse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 5.

17. Sigmund Freud, “On the Aetiology of Hysteria (1896),” in Early Psycho-Analytic Publications (1893-1899), vol. 3 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1962), pp. 187–221, here p. 206.

18. Sándor Ferenczi, “Confusion of Tongues Between the Adults and the Child: The Language of Tenderness and the Language of Passion (1933),” trans. Michael Balint, International Journal of Psychoanalysis 30 (1949): 225–230, here pp. 288–289.

19. “Unfortunately, my own father has been one of the perverts and caused the hysteria of my brother (whose states are all identification) and some younger sisters. The frequency of this relationship often makes me worry” (Sigmund Freud, “Brief 120, 8.2.97,” in Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904, ed. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1986), pp. 243–245, here p. 245.

20. Lauren Berlant, On the Inconvenience of Other People (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), p. 178n. 7. We can equally think of Freud’s “A Child is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions,” in Studies on Hysteria, vol. 2 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey and Alix Strachey (London: Vintage, 1999), pp. 179–204 along these lines—that a phantasy (of a child being beaten) can still function as a form of concealment; that something is a phantasy, moreover, does not necessitate its non-reality.

21. Sigmund Freud, “Zur Ätiologie der Hysterie [1897],” Gesammelte Werke, vol. 1, ed. Anna Freud et al. (London: Imago Publishing, 1952), pp. 431–433; my translation.

22. D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (New York: Bantam, 1985), pp. 60–61.

23. Gustave Flaubert, L’Éducation sentimentale, Œuvres Complètes, vol. 3 (Paris: A. Quantin, 1885), p. 19; my translation (“Peu d’enfants furent plus battus que son fils. Le gamin ne cédait pas, malgré les coups”).

24. Robert Walser, The Assistant, trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions, 2007); mod. trans. For a longer commentary, see Barbara N. Nagel, “Home in Hiding: Scenes of Domestic Violence,” from: Ambiguous Aggressions in German Realism and Beyond: Flirtation, Passive Aggression, Domestic Violence (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), pp. 71–102, here p. 97, as well as Barbara N. Nagel, “The Child in the Dark: On Child Abuse in Robert Walser,” in New German Critique 146 (2022): 107–132.

25. Wilfred R. Bion, “Attacks on Linking,” in Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis (London: Maresfield Library, 1993), pp. 93–109; Raluca Soreanu, “The Psychic Life of Fragments: Splitting from Ferenczi to Klein,” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 78:4 (2018): 421–444.

26. Mariel J. Barnes, Book Project, available at (last accessed on January 25, 2024).

27. Jean-Marc Vallée and Andrea Arnold, dir., Big Little Lies, HBO Home Entertainment, New York, NY, 2017,

28. Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), p. 82.

29. Fred Moten, “Letting Go of Othello,” The Paris Review (2019), available at (last accessed on April 9, 2023).

30. Shatema Threadcraft, “North American Necropolitics and Gender,” p. 574.

31. Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), p. 45.

32. See Sherry F. Colb, “What the Kyle Rittenhouse Verdict Tells Us About Domestic Violence,” Verdict: Legal Analysis and Commentary from Justia, available at (last accessed January 25, 2024). 

33. Ibid. See, e.g., Jerry Mitchell, “Most Dangerous Time for Battered Women? When they Leave,” The Clarion-Ledger, available at (last accessed January 25, 2024).

34. Jean François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

35. Jessica Contrera, “He was Sexually Abusing Underage Girls. Then, Police said, One of them Killed Him,” The Washington Post, December 17, 2019, available at

36. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004 [1961]), p. 51.

37. Statement by President Biden on the Introduction of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021 (March 8, 2021); available at (last accessed on January 14, 2024).

38. Joe Biden in conversation with Alexander Burns, “Why Populist Democrats Have Gained the Upper Hand in the 2020 Race,” The New York Times, October 11, 2019, available at (last accessed on January 25, 2024).

39. D. Terrence Langendoen and Harris B. Savin, “The Projection Problem for Presuppositions,” Studies in Linguistic Semantics, ed. Charles J. Fillmore and D. Terrence Langendoen (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971): 55–62.

40. “As Domestic Abuse Rises in Lockdown, France to Fund Hotel Rooms,” Al Jazeera, March 31, 2020; available at (last accessed on January 15, 2024); “For the First Time Ever, Minors Make Up Half of Visitors to National Sexual Assault Hotline,” RAINN, April 16, 2020; available at (last accessed on January 15, 2024).

41. Amanda Taub, “New Covid-19-Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide,” The New York Times, April 2, 2020, (last accessed on December 15, 2023).

42. Ibid.

43. See Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (New York/London: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 9.

44. Wilhelm Reich, Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p. 53.

45. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 1, trans. Stephen Conway et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003 [1977]), p. xx. On the ambiguous place of the erotic and the family in fascism, see Albert Toscano, Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism, and the Politics of Crisis (London: Verso, 2023), who cites Theweleit (and Heinrich Himmler), on p. 133.

46. Bonnie Honig, “The Trump Doctrine and the Gender Politics of Power,” Boston Review, July 17, 2018; available at (last accessed on December 21, 2023).

47. Sina Najafi, David Serlin, and Lauren Berlant, “The Broken Circuit: An Interview with Lauren Berlant,” in Shame, Cabinet 31 (2008); available at (last accessed January 23, 2024). 

48. Larissa MacFarquhar, “A House of Their Own: The Transformations of a Battered Women’s Shelter, from Radical Feminism to the #WhyIStayed Era,” The New Yorker, August 12, 2019: 36–49, here pp. 39–40. 

49. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), pp. 29–32, here pp. 37–38.