Violence : Uday S. Mehta
Violence challenges analytical focus because of its ubiquity and multifarious forms. We are longer embedded within an extant framework of meaning in which violence can claim virtuosity as an act to be identified and judged by itself—in the manner of the Homeric world. Violence today is embedded in a world of reasons. It must have or be given a rationale, even—often especially—when it is deemed to be senseless.
In our contemporary framework, violence designates a condition of being out of measure. The opprobrium attached to violence stems almost entirely from a claim of disproportionateness: since such a claim can apply to most actions, hence the potential ubiquity of violence; and hence also, its multifarious forms. The temptation to think of violence phenomenologically—by reference, for example, to an unwarranted physical act—misses too many aspects in which violence is implicated. It misses the violence involved in the simple use of words, often characterized as hate speech; or the violence of abstaining from physical action, where violence resides in a kind of indifference; it misses the violence of a gesture that disrupts an established code of conviviality—the Indian government recently designated a public fast by an anti-corruption crusader as an incitement of popular violence; and then there is the violence in which there is an absence of any direct engagement with living creatures. One might think of the clear-cutting of forests by mechanized means as an example of this form of violence. Our everyday language captures this potential ubiquity of violence. It is difficult to imagine any human endeavor that is not potentially violent, because violence no longer refers to a specific set of actions, but rather to any action that transgresses an implicit (or sometimes explicit) measure.
By referring to something as violent we signal a kind of disproportionateness (or what amounts to the same thing, inappropriateness), within an associated framework of significance. It is in this sense that what constitutes violence, or rather the judgment of something as violent, is always tied to a set of background assumptions, to a framework of legitimacy, or a rationale, that gives it its normative and contextual gravity and meaning. This is true of a great many things, where context is at least partially determinative of the meaning of an action and hence the judgment we express regarding it. But, with regard to violence, it is important to make this otherwise commonplace stipulation explicit, because the phenomenological aspects of violence tend to obscure our evaluative reliance on a context—on the basis of which violence is identified and judged.
In some broad sense most contemporary modern subjects are deeply invested in viewing themselves as placing limits on violence as a legitimate means, and even more emphatically, as a legitimate end. This self-understanding gives to violence a presumptive stigma or a negative valuation, as though we know what it is in its singularity. It encourages us to think that the act of violence could be judged simply on the basis of the mark it leaves, or the blood it draws, or the life it disfigures or kills. Our identity as people who abjure violence obscures the ways in which our form of life—that is to say our civilizational and creedal commitments and our very way of thinking—also sanctions and celebrates violence.
In thinking about violence one has to begin with setting to the side its phenomenological aspects, which overdetermine our response to it and give us a reflexive comfort in our opposition to it. My invocation of context, or what I have called a set of measures by reference to which violence should be understood, is a way of depriving us of this easy reliance on our preferred identities, as individuals and members of societies that firmly abjure violence. Precisely because the term ‘violence’ refers to actions that defy easy or obvious clarity, one must be attentive to the constantly evolving grammar through which its meaning can be made somewhat clearer.