Pre-texts/Contexts – the places and frameworks in which we do this work:
1. We’re meeting in Georgia, a state where (according to the Death Penalty Information Center) there are currently 84 people on death row, awaiting execution by lethal injection. Troy Davis, who was almost certainly innocent of the crime of which he was convicted, was executed in Georgia in September 2011. Georgia has the strictest standard for finding that a person has an intellectual disability—“beyond a reasonable doubt,”— making it almost impossible for such disability to be an obstacle to execution. In January 2015, the state of Georgia executed Warren Hill, who had been determined to have an IQ of 70. Kelly Gissendaner, the first woman to be executed in the state since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1973, received a lethal injection on September 30 of this year. Next year, the annual meeting of the AAR/SBL takes place in the state of Texas, which ranks first in the nation for number of executions.
2. 2005, the first year of this group within SBL, was the year of the publication of The Torture Papers by Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel, a devastating collection of the paper trail documenting the US torture program. Torture has fallen off the radar since, purportedly, torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as they are euphemistically called) were taken off the table by an executive order in 2009. Yet, torture has lodged itself in the popular imaginary as a terrible but necessary weapon in our national security arsenal. Moreover, it took a massive, coordinated hunger strike by hundreds of prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay prison and a recently settled lawsuit on their behalf to begin to cut away at the practice of long-term solitary confinement in the California prison system. Solitary confinement for as little as 15 days can constitute torture under international law. Hundreds of Pelican Bay inmates had been held in solitary confinement for 10 years or more. One other salient detail: until the settlement of this lawsuit a month ago, California was the only state in the US where one could be confined for an extended period in the Security Housing Unit (the “SHU”) for alleged affiliation with a prison gang, whether or not one has ever participated in any gang-related activities in the prison.
3. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, since 2005, there have been 711 confirmed drone strikes by the United States in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The Bureau’s data aggregation project sets the number of deaths from these confirmed drone strikes at between 3706 and 5,868.
4. The US leads in the world in deaths from gun violence and, in particular, mass shootings in the US. The Stanford Mass Shootings in America database emerged in 2012 (post-Sandy Hook). It is also a data aggregation project, based on FBI data, and publishes the harrowing statistics of everyday life in America. Go to any search engine and type in “mass shootings,” and you will be offered a whole taxonomy of options: school shootings, church shootings, college shootings, shopping mall shootings, movie theater shootings, and so on. Gun violence is an epidemic in our society, and not just metaphorically; the CDC wanted to track statistics on injuries and deaths caused by guns, but NRA-backed congressional action blocked it from doing so. Next year’s annual meeting of the AAR/SBL will take place in Texas, where the legislature recently passed a law permitting open carry of weapons on public college and university campuses.
5. Police violence and use of deadly force, overwhelmingly against African American citizens, is so ubiquitous in the US that we almost lose count. In response, activist movements have emerged to protest the deaths and seek to focus our attention by making the radical assertion that #blacklives matter and demanding that we memorialize the dead through the exhortation, #sayhername.
My point in listing all these examples is to keep foremost in our minds the fact that we live in a painfully violent culture, much of the violence state-sponsored (military, prison, police) and some of it grounded in disaffection, alienation, and too often anxious white masculinity. We know about it, we take it for granted, it might occasionally shock or dismay us, but it is also part of the fabric of our social life. Some bodies are marked for violence, others marked as violent, others still marked for victimhood.
I have been involved in the violence & representations of violence among Jews and Christians group since its inception in 2005. One of its sessions in 2005 was devoted to a discussion of my then just-published Martyrdom and Memory. I gave a paper on spectacular violence, in a 2008 session called “Fatal Charades,” which was a response to the work of Kathleen Coleman. This paper focused in particular on Lactantius’s On the Deaths of the Persecutors, which mobilizes the logic of divinely justified violence and spectacular displays of suffering to rewrite at least one thread of Roman imperial history. That paper became the basis of further work I did a little later in the Torture and Christianity Exploratory Workshop, organized by Karen King and Sarah Sentilles, at the Radcliffe Institute in 2010, and it has been the springboard for a still-nascent project on torture and its routinization in the Theodosian Code. In addition, I was a respondent to a session organized around the theme of “Embodiments of Violence” in 2012.
I have learned a tremendous amount from the many sessions the group has sponsored over the years, and I appreciate the care and effort exercised by the steering committee to put together a strong program, year after year. Of course, we have a lot of material to work with: if our own society is caught up in a danse macabre with violence, our sources are filled with scenes of irrational and rationalized violence, physical (and sometimes fatal) force as a mechanism for enforcing the will of another, resolving social/political/theological conflict, punishing or coercing bodies, or regenerating social order through the shedding of blood.
Over the years, the themes or concerns of this group have ranged widely—bodies (violent bodies, violated bodies), discipline/constraint, martyrdom (lots of martyrdom), rationalizations/justifications for violence, condemnations of violence, memory/memorialization, retribution/revenge, rhetorics of violence, negotiations over visibility and invisibility. Violence in the household. Violence as a mechanism for community formation. Violence inflicted upon the self.
Interestingly, there has only been one session over the whole decade devoted to violence as an analytic category. We have tended to take the term for granted, in a sense: we know it when we see it. When we use it in this context, we tend to mean physical violence—wounding bodies, torturing bodies, killing bodies. We notice how the threat of violence and the carrying out of the threat drives the narrative or operates as metaphor or sign. We consider questions of genre, perspective, insider/outsider narratives, theological or political rationales. We rarely take stories of violence at face value, especially when they are formulaic or tap into a recognizable pattern. I remember in particular a difficult discussion in this group one year when, during the Q&A, a young African American student stood up and challenged the panel. “You all keep saying these stories aren’t historically true. We are always being told our stories about violence aren’t true. How is what you are saying any different?” What we were not prepared to articulate successfully in that moment was the way in which some stories about violence become the inspiration for other acts of violence, so storytelling is not only documentary or commemorative but at times instigatory and provoking.
In 2004, Janet Jakobsen and I coedited an anthology, Interventions: Activists and Academics Respond to Violence, which grew out of a series of conferences we organized under the auspices of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, seeking to explore the question of what apertures feminist theory and activism might open up for thinking about and finding alternatives to violence in a post-9/11 world. Some of the issues I raised in the introduction to that volume may be useful here for thinking in broader terms about the theorization of the category itself:
Violence is less a thing than a characteristic of relationality, a coercive mode by which one (individual or collective) body acts upon another (individual or collective)...Charles Tilly [in his 2003 monograph The Politics of Collective Violence] defines violence in a relatively focused fashion, as immediate physical injury. Violence, he writes, ‘immediately inflicts physical damage on persons and/or objects…includ[ing] forcible seizure of persons or objects over restraint or resistance.” In this definition, he rejects more capacious portraits of violence that emphasize the corrosive (and sometimes fatal) impacts of social, political, and economic exploitation and oppression [e.g., structural violence].
The introduction goes on to reflect on the other questions that the question of violence raises:
- What arguments, stories (whether narratives or histories), and emotions are mobilized in situations where coercive force is put in the service of competing ideologies and regimes of truth?
- How do different acts or programs of violence map bodies and spaces?
- What are the technologies of violence?
- By what physical, institutional, cognitive, ideological, and affective instruments is violence staged and enacted?
- Since the metaphors that frame this last question imply both the performative and the specular/spectacular, how is violence constituted through the practice of looking? What, in other words, are the optics of violence?
- How do we account for violence’s visibilities and invisibilities, and how do we answer the ethical demand that these in/visibilities articulate and entail? (I think here of the recent responses on social media to the recent terrorist attack in Paris, where expressions of grief over the 149 dead were often answered by invocations of other terrorist atrocities—in Beirut, in Baghdad, in Nigeria, and so on: leaving aside the penchant of social media to encourage a kind of moral one-upsmanship, what interests me is the underlying logic of the challenge: some victims of violence are more visible and legible as victims than others.)
Some other questions, not explicitly from the book:
- What sort of work do representations of violence perform? Are they documentary? Are they occasions for incitement? What are the ethics of looking? (I think here of the omnipresence of video records of police violence in our contemporary situation—the controversy about whether one should post such representations on social media, for example, or whether such viral circulation of these images performs yet more violence or transform the documentary into the pornographic.)
- When is violence not violence?
- What is the role of euphemism in representations of violence? (I think of the locution that political leaders use to talk about targeted killings of suspected terrorists: these people are not killed, they are “brought to justice.”)
My point is that we have tended not to begin with broader theoretical framings, negotiations over fine-grained definitions of violence, but rather worked from particular examples outward. I don’t say this as a criticism but rather simply as an observation. Violence as an analytical category seems to evade historicization: the ubiquity and perennial nature of violence leads us to the tendency to extract it from its temporalities, to attribute to it an essential quality (e.g., “human nature”), most recently increasingly accounted for with neuroscientific or evolutionary explanations.
Violence is less a thing than (as Iranian-American feminist theorist Minoo Moallem puts it) “a signifier, an act, or an event” that “cannot be separated from the representational practices” that operate around it. She makes her argument specifically in the context of thinking through modern and postmodern discourses of justified violence (in the service of protection), but I think it is possible extrapolate her more narrowly construed claim to think about it for other historical periods and archives. If violence is a signifier, its meanings are not inherent but produced through chains of signification, through relationships, and through representational systems that render it productive. Hence, this group’s focus not only on violence enacted upon (and by) bodies marked by different religious identities but also on the representations of such violence keys into the fact that violence signifies only because it is enacted within a network of relationships and significations that render it intelligible—and also open to critique.
As for future prospects for this group:
I have been thinking about how some modes of analysis that emerge out of explorations of contemporary violence (or, indeed, occasions of contemporary violence) work or don’t work for our sources. Scholarship growing out of the humanities and qualitative social sciences on violence in the contemporary world more easily invokes critical approaches from, say, psychoanalysis and cultural studies—I think especially of the analytic framework of trauma, for example: “trauma” is a term we frequently use to talk about victims of violence in our own time, but rarely do we use it to talk about the past. I am not really advocating here, but just wondering: What would an analytics of trauma—a historicized analytics of trauma—look like for our historical period and our sources?
In a related way, I wonder about how more careful attention to the affective impulses that are activated by the experience of violence—whether as victim, witness, or bystander. Journalist Jim Naureckas recently wrote, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, of “the weaponization of grief,” a term he uses to talk about the ways that affect has been too facilely channelled into the justification for violence that the French president himself has promised will be “pitiless.” This term—“the weaponization of grief”—emerges out of a particular contemporary political moment, but it makes we wonder about the intersections of violence and feeling—how feeling becomes the justification for violence. Which makes me think about some of the narratives we have read together in this group over the years, when excesses of emotion—weeping, outsized expressions of anger, etc.—have tended to be read primarily as rhetorical or narrative tropes, part of the melodrama of some of our sources. What if one sought to chart the relationship between feeling and violence, not only tropologically but also to consider the moral force of feeling in representations of violence?
Thank you very much for the opportunity to participate variously over the years in this group. It’s been a salutary learning community for me as I continue to grapple with the problem of violence in antiquity—and in the contemporary world. I have learned a great deal from people in this group, and I look forward to continuing to do so.
Elizabeth A. Castelli, Barnard College