This week we are featuring titles from our New Directions in Critical Theory series. Today, we have a guest post from Mathias Thaler, author of Naming Violence: A Critical Theory of Genocide, Torture, and Terrorism. In this book, Thaler articulates a novel perspective on the study of violence that demonstrates why the imagination matters for political theory. He explores how narrative art, thought experiments, and historical events can challenge and enlarge our existing ways of thinking about violence.
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When we call someone or something violent, what are we doing, exactly? We make an observation, by seeing someone or something in a particular light; simultaneously, we issue a judgment that commits us to some sort of redress: to stop the violence, reprimand the perpetrator, support the victim, etc. Often, this is an uncontroversial process, for some acts are so obviously violent that (almost) nobody would describe them otherwise. If you watch someone slapping a child on the street and ask yourself whether this was violence, then there is (almost) certainly something wrong with you. If you realize that the person slapping the child is in fact behaving violently, yet do nothing about it, then, again, you seem to have failed in a morally relevant way.
We do not require a critical theory for such indisputable cases of violence. But we do need one for cases that raise deeper questions. Does it make sense to label climate change genocidal? Do some types of extreme coercion, such as water-boarding, deserve to be termed “torture”? Can states act like terrorists? Questions like these are so perplexing because they compel us not only to accurately appraise specific events, but also to act upon our judgments. Answering any of these questions with a “yes” or a “no” will commit us to a particular stance vis-à-vis a number of real-world issues. In responding, we make explicit how we envisage an agent (the state), a phenomenon (climate change) or a practice (water-boarding) and thereby pick a side in controversies that have dominated global politics in the recent past. Naming violence, in other words, is inherently political.
“Naming violence, in other words, is inherently political.”
Some of these controversies transpire in academia, on the pages of peer-reviewed journals and in class rooms around the world; others spill over into the wider public sphere, mesmerizing movie and TV audiences; yet others occur in national parliaments and cabinet meetings, deciding over the fate of vast populations. Irrespective of where these controversies unfold, taking a stance comes with significant consequences. It matters, both on the individual and the collective level, whether climate change is perceived as genocidal; it matters, for domestic as well as international affairs, whether water-boarding is recognized as torture; and it matters whether states should, in specific situations, be denounced as terroristic. Since the process of naming violence poses both a theoretical and a practical challenge, it needs to be critically analysed. Only then will we be in a position to deal with the politics of naming in a responsible manner, holding those to account who misuse labels of violence.
My book tries to do offer such a critical analysis, by focusing on a specific human faculty that is usually not considered central to the study of violence: the imagination. If properly engaged, the imagination provides us with an important resource for naming violence.
Here is why. When drawing on the imagination, we revisit what we habitually take for granted. This can be done in many different ways, from day-dreaming to world-building. What is distinctive about this faculty, however, is that it lets us gain distance from the concepts and categories we employ to capture violence.
“Even 100 years ago, only a few observers would probably have come to the same conclusion that is today (almost) universally shared: that slapping a child should, without exception, be considered violent.”
This distanciation effect is vital because what counts as violence is not naturally given: our judgments of violence change over time, as my example of a child being slapped illustrates. Even 100 years ago, only a few observers would probably have come to the same conclusion that is today (almost) universally shared: that slapping a child should, without exception, be considered violent. If it is true that attempts to call someone or something violent are liable to change, what needs to be done to ensure that our current concepts and categories are open to revision as well? How can we hone practices of naming such that they remain flexible enough to accommodate new forms of violence? Think, again, of climate change: Could it be that, in the near future, climate change deniers will be viewed just as we regard Holocaust deniers today – as retrograde fanatics who have lost touch with reality, but whose ideas still harbour great dangers?
In the book, I grapple with these complex issues by concentrating on three contexts for engaging the imagination: through art, thought experiments and history. The stories told in art works can help us to perceive violence from a new perspective, allowing us to experience “aspect change”, in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s terminology. Films are especially apt for prompting this experience. I explore the power of aspect change via an interpretation of two movies that deal with violence in completely different ways, the feature film Grbavica (2006) and the documentary Climate Refugees (2010).
“Engaging the imagination in various ways can, in sum, assist us in grappling with the theoretical as well as practical challenge of naming violence.”
Thought experiments perform a different function: they estrange us from the status quo so that we can better examine the appropriateness of our concepts and categories. A thought experiment invites us to imagine a hypothetical situation where some elements look very different from the real world, while others stay the same. Reflecting on such imaginary cases can be helpful for naming violence because they force us to interrogate deeply held beliefs. Yet, thought experiments can also go awry, mainly when the distance between the imaginary case and reality becomes too vast. In the book, I develop a normative framework for investigating thought experiments about torture, such as the infamous Ticking Bomb Scenario.
Finally, attending to history is vital for processes of naming insofar as it reveals how our concepts and categories have emerged. We have already observed that what counts as violence is liable to change. In the book, I suggest that we need to push this thought further and interrogate the actual origins of the labels we employ to describe violence. Such an interrogation is called “genealogy”, a sustained attempt to uncover the contingent sources from which norms arise. Drawing on feminist scholarship, I show that “terrorism” is a label with surprising origins in gendered debates about innocence.
Engaging the imagination in various ways can, in sum, assist us in grappling with the theoretical as well as practical challenge of naming violence. My book hence argues for a political theory that takes art, thought experiments and history seriously, and delineates how we can best exercise our faculty of judgment when we deal with some of the most pressing issues in contemporary politics.
Read an excerpt from chapter 2 of Naming Violence: A Critical Theory of Genocide, Torture, and Terrorism.