| |

John Monroe. An Anthropology of Violence. . Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society. 2004

An Anthropology of Violence
John Monroe
Professor Goltz
GEOG 495
   

   Modern social sciences have reacted to the spread of violence through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by attempting to analyze it as a social or cultural phenomenon. Not satisfied with claims that human society is necessarily riddled with violent people and conflicts, these researchers have been trying to find the ways in which violence originates, spreads and dissolves. However, the attempts to position violent acts within their contexts and to explain the processes of violence have run up against many theoretical hurdles. In order to better analyze the occurrences of social violence, Valery Tishkov makes some important suggestions as to how we should approach this dangerous phenomenon.
   The difficulty of placing violence within a theoretical framework for the social sciences lies in its intimate connection to our lives. Violence, as Tishkov correctly points out, is not relegated only to the sphere of physical action, but is also manifest in symbolic violence. An anthropological study of violence cannot reduce the phenomena to a series of acts, in an attempt to isolate instances of violence that could then be graphed according to frequency and locale. The economy of violence, though spatially distributed, i  operates against the backdrop of violence itself, as the always possible threat of violence.
   Tishkov addresses the problem by freeing violence as a concept from the purely theoretical realm of a cognitive category ii  and addressing it as a phenomenon, which can be studied empirically. iii  This permits him to engage the problem in Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society as a concrete empirical phenomenon, which has two stages:

First, the cultural input into the definition of violencedifferent societies under different sets of circumstances will define this phenomenon differently. Second, violence manifests itself in two different spheres: one dealing with bodily harm and even death, the other defined as symbolic violence. iv

The domain of symbolic violence is again broken up into two categories: political violence and verbal violence. Though Tishkov doesnt address the political aspect in this theoretical treatment of violence, he approached the question elsewhere, in Ethnicity, Nationality and Conflict in and after the Soviet Union, at least implicitly: his historical breakdown of the political machinations that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrate the non-physical violence of politics that can (though not of necessity) lead to physical violence.v  His critique of the Russian anthropologists Bromley and Gumilev is as much consequentialist as theoretical: their attempts to create a historically continuous ethnos would only be a matter of conceptual and empirical clean-up were it not for the pathos that such a concept engenders.  This is a fortiori in the case of Shishkin, whose notion of the chimera as an invasive and corrosive group within a naturally healthy ethnos is virtually a call to xenophobia and racist oppression. Tishkov argues that a constructive notion of ethnicity, as a set of concepts that are conditioned by society and often used for political ends, is not only more theoretically sound, but is in fact a necessity for stemming the flow of violent outbreaks incited by ethnic propaganda. vi
   Displacing violence as a purely theoretical category is not merely an academic operation either. Chechen propaganda attempts to identify the Russian state with a whole history of violence, but excuses its own peoples violence as the struggle for freedom. And even if they cannot claim to escape being violent, then they can move to normatively qualify their violence in some a priori fashion. These procedures are essentially political in nature, and are in fact a major component of the phenomenon of violence that Tishkov addresses by way of an anthropological empiricism. They are not violent because they are antecedent to some violent act; they themselves participate in the culture of violence that permeates Chechen society. Propaganda that attempts to identify violence with the opposition provides the psychological background conditions to actually engage in acts of physical violence. This is the importance of the cultural input.
   Tishkov then goes a step further in Chechnya. He further emphasizes the importance of symbolic violence in the spoken word: The speech act precedes, produces and puts an end to violence.vii  Its intimate tie to violence, not only as a background condition but as a catalyst, makes the speech act (and presumably the writing act) complicit with violence. Compare this notion with the definition of order-words proposed by philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari:

We call order-words, not a particular category of explicit statements (for example, in the imperative), but the relation of every word or every statement to implicit presuppositions, in other words, to speech acts that are, and can only be, accomplished in the statement. Order-words do not  concern commands only, but every act that is linked to statements by a social obligation. Every statement displays this link, directly or indirectly. Questions, promises, are order-words. The only possible definition of language is the set of all order-words, implicit presuppositions, or speech acts current in a language at a given moment. viii

Deleuze and Guattari attempt to connect linguistic analysis to political pragmatics, that is, they argue that language cannot be conceived without considering the socio-political framework within which speech acts take on their force and meaning. The notion of the order-word as a type of action with real consequences fits into Tishkovs theory and raises an important question: In a society such as Chechnya in which violence is a constant and immediate phenomenon, how permeated is their language by violence?
   This question seems simple enough, and a simple answer immediately jumps to mind: the language itself is not violent. Rather, the current social conditions are violent, and so language is used to articulate that fact, and to practically maneuver through a horribly violent society. Certainly this is the implicit presupposition of those political analysts who see in the Kadyrov administration the road to a new peace. However, this answer misses the point. After all, the promises of peace from the new administration can be decoded as violent speech acts directed towards those who would threaten that stability. A hopeful public speech and a violent private militia are inseparable. 
   Studying a language within its sociopolitical context requires some hesitation; we cannot apply typical linguistic analyses and expect to find the roots of violence. Certainly, we could isolate certain words and phrases, particularly ethnic slurs and political jargon, which frequently co-emerge with physically violent acts. This is only an initial and superficial step. More important would be to analyze the topics discussed, the use of rhetoric rather than rational argument, the appeals to tradition versus State doctrine. Though not typically admitted into the domain of linguistic analysis, which doesnt concern itself with semantic content, this is the substance of symbolic violence that Tishkov is studying. Language as a social phenomenon is not primarily composed of phonemes and morphemes. It is made up of the fragments of social interactions between people, and the thoughts in an individuals head, that are used to clarify and engage their world. Language-use is a dominant layer of human social life. Tishkov is very sensitive to this, as he is to the various modes of dissemination that inject certain themes into social discourse:

[]the key to understanding violence and conflict is recognition of the primary role of the specific social situation in the interpretation of the human behavior and institutions. The key point is an examination of human responses to common existential problems under different social conditions. ix

The second sentence is particularly interesting. Assuming that we all face similar problems in the human condition, Tishkov wants to analyze the interactions between these fundamental conditions and overarching social structures. Language, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, is a dynamic and important part of that social structure. Violent speech acts are not only issued from political figures or intellectual circles; the common man makes such claims in his everyday discourse. 
   The recognized importance of language and social interpretations of violence does a lot to critique this phenomenon as a cognitive category. Violence is not merely a state of mind.  It is not limited to the emotional states and personal intentions of the various actors involved. When a socio-political context becomes increasingly violent, it does so at the strange intersection between individual and collective. This isnt a limit easily articulated, and as Tishkov indicates, boundaries are constantly shifting:

Involving large numbers of people, both perpetrators and victims, violence gains its own momentum, and the various arguments made by its participants and co-participants (including the scientists) acquire a different perspective from that of the victims or those on whose behalf the actions were committed. It is this cultural dynamic that appears to be the most important. x

If violence were merely a psychological state, the vast majority of people in Chechnya and Russia who did not want war should have won out. Their numbers should have calmed the coming storm. Yet not only were they swept up into a tide of violence, which may be explained by forces beyond their control, but they themselves were defined by violence. Victims define themselves within a violent framework. Leaders justify violence according to certain ends. Scientists place violence within a theoretical framework, often skewed to serve certain interests. Violence is not just in peoples heads nor is it a characteristic among others of human behavior. Violence is a unique part of that human condition that must always be dealt with. Anthropology is concerned with the different ways violence is addressed. 
   It will not be sufficient to merely end political and physical violence. The ever-present danger of incendiary words plays a role, too often overlooked by political analysts and cultural theoreticians. While the latter commit the cognitive fallacy, the former commit a separation fallacy:

A concrete wall with barbed wire was erected in Belfast to separate the militant factions. A mud wall with barbed wire was installed at the border between Chechnya and the neighboring Stravropol krai. My observations of these physical dividers led me to the conclusion that violence cannot be stopped this way. xi

The attempt to create segmented regions of society to isolate mutually violent parties does not reduce violence, but merely contains it. This isnt simply because, in the manner of psychoanalysis, violent drives are contained within these zones and ferment to dangerous levelsthough this dimension of analysis certainly contributes a component to the interpretation. Violence is still enunciated; in daily conversations, in political and religious rhetoric, and in the studies of scholars, the culture continues to manufacture those aforementioned background conditions that make the threat of violence imminent: Violence can be suppressed, but it is never completely removed from discourse, and it therefore remains ready to resurface. xii
   We shouldnt rush to discard the value of psychology in an anthropology of violence. If violence isnt a cognitive category, it is likely because violence itself is seldom thought. It may be used to enforce a specific program that conditions our thoughts. It is certainly in our thoughts, in so far as it is both a threat and a social contagion we are loathe spreading. But we shouldnt curtail our analysis of violence to the district of language and social institutions at the loss of the existential problem of violence. Men and women in a violent society dont merely talk about violence, nor do they interpret their lives according to an abstract concept of violence. They feel it in their everyday lives. This feeling, whether of anger, fear, hate, or some amalgam of each, cannot be traced to solely to social and linguistic structures. It exists in the person, and is communicated better by the looks on their faces and hunch in their backs than by the words they use. The traces of physical violence are found side by side with the doctrines of symbolic violence. In order to address a violent context in a particular society, both sides of this phenomenon must be addressed. I do not want to say that Tishkov overlooks this. However, it is important bear in mind that if violence cannot be contained by walls, neither can politically correct speech and reconciliation programs adequately deal with the problem on their own either. Physical acts of violence are at a different level of theory than symbolic violence, and when approaching these two aspects this must be born in mind.
   Tishkovs analysis of violence offers a pragmatic approach to the analysis. His work on Chechnya bears witness to how this approach can successfully be used. He removes violence from the high strata of pure theory and places it firmly in reality. This cannot be applauded enough. However, as he himself indicates, no holistic theory is able to explain the phenomenon in its entirety, possibly because too many different societal events have been erroneously put in the general category of violence. xiii Violence cannot be dealt with from a single approach; many studies in many contexts are required. The work of making sense of violence, towards the ultimate end of minimizing it, is far from complete.

 


 

 i Valery Tishkov, Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 146
 ii ibid., 149
 iii ibid.
 iv ibid., 148
 v Valery Tishkov, Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in and after the Soviet Union, (London: SAGE Publications, 1997), 44-60
 vi ibid., 3-11
 vii Chechnya, 150
 viii Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 79
 ix Chechnya, 149
 x ibid., 148
 xi  ibid., 149-150
 xii ibid., 150
 xiii ibid., 147