A Short Post about Violence

Killing in the name of... well... Killing...

Killing in the name of... well... not much...

I’m currently re-reading that classic of anti-colonial rage, The Wretched of the Earth. For those of you who haven’t come across it, it was published in 1961 as Les Damnés de la Terre by Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a young man from Martinique who worked as Psychiatrist in Algiera during their rising against France. His experiences there radicalized him and he became a spokesman for the FLN’s violent anti-colonial rebellion. The Wretched of the Earth was the most articulate expression of the logic of their campaign, drawing on socialist and pan-African rhetoric as well as Fanon’s own experiences as a doctor, drawing a direct link between colonialism and a range of psychiatric conditions. Perhaps even more famous was the Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, addressed to European readers. He painted a grim picture of their moral complicity in the worst outrages of colonialism, and asserted the inevitability of their own revolution.

The book is a curious mix of the naïve and the insightful. The naïve I will deal with another time. I’m concerned now with the insight, specifically those into the nature of violence in the liberation struggle.

Violence in Africa is one of the central issues exercising academics concerned with development these days. Texas in Africa has done a great job in educating us about some of the issues in the Congo, and one of the things that emerge starkly from her writing is the complexity of motivation that drives violence. Single-issue causality simplicity or an analysis that denies the personal or direct motivation of violence is insufficient for her:

Many Congolese join armed groups … in order to defend their homes, villages, or co-ethnics. They are not necessarily fighting for control of gold mines or to take territory

For a layman in this issue like myself, this immediately has me thinking about the role of violence as an ends in itself and the importance of the form and practice of violence as an internally logical consequence of circumstance. Though I can’t claim an intimate knowledge of the academic writing on conflict, this seems to be a strand of analysis that gets relatively little attention.

In the Wretched of the Earth, Fanon and Sartre excel in is representing how in circumstances of oppression or intense dissatisfaction, violence is itself an ends. Sartre first:

To shoot down a European is to … destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man and a free man…

Now Fanon, for whom the process of decolonization was necessarily violent:

The ‘thing’ which has been colonized becomes a man during the same process by which it frees itself…

What both of these quotes imply is that there is a self-expression and actualisation that occurs through the process of engaging in violence, which will in turn need consideration when addressing the causes, consequences and solutions to conflict. In other words, if the act of violence plays a direct role in the remaking of the individual or groups conducting the violence, transforming them from victim to positive agent, solutions to conflict which remove violence altogether need to conceive an alternative solution to the remaking of the self-image of individuals and groups engaged in conflict.

Are there academics out there who examine this issue? It seems to me that most analysis of violence (particularly structured violence) tend to take a functionalist or instrumental view of the violence itself. It’s conceived as a means to an end, and a symptom of a relationship. This seems to me a major aspect of it, but perhaps also insufficient insofar as we wish to understand how violence is used to create new identities and outcomes and thus also how it can be averted.

There are plenty of bloggers out there who know much more about this than me. Anyone care to point me to some useful reading or present counter-arguments?

8 thoughts on “A Short Post about Violence

  1. Sheena

    December 11, 2009 at 6:18pm

    David Keen’s work (1994, 1997, 2002, 2008) encompasses the complex matrix of economic, political and psychological functions served by violence. Even though he takes a functional view, his discussion of psychological aspects of violence (in his book Complex Emergencies, 2008), inculcates the use of violence for ‘self-expression and actualization’.

    It may be argued that even when ‘violence is used to create new identities and outcomes’, it is serving a function for the perpetrator.

    I agree, however, that a nuanced understanding of violence is required before advocating quick-fix solutions for violence in conflicts.

    Many academics have studied violence in this perspective. Riches discussed the creation of new identities through violence, as early as 1986. Kalyvas’s work (2003, 2006) also offers detailed studies and interesting insights in this regard.

  2. Andy

    December 11, 2009 at 11:36pm

    I actually just finished the Complex Emergencies MSc course by David Keen at the LSE – Complex Emergencies (2008) is indeed a very good place to start, and summarises the current discourse well.

    As Sheena says, this field is well populated and expanding rapidly. Some other good authors:

    James Gilligan (2003, “Shame, Guilt and Violence”)

    Mark Duffield (2008, “Global Civil War: The Non-Insured, International Containment and Post-Interventionary Society”)

    Alex de Waal (2005, ‘Who are the Darfurians? Arab and African Identities, Violence and External Engagement”)

    Hugo Slim (2007, Anti-Civilian Ideologies esp. “Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality”)

    Maria Baaz and Maria Stern (2008, “Making sense of violence: voices of soldiers in the Congo (DRC)”)

    Hope that’s of interest!

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    December 12, 2009 at 7:44am

    Thanks, Sheena and Andy. Will pick up some of these the next time I’m in the UK or HK. The Keen book in particular looks interesting.

    Sheena – you’re right, you can examine the use of violence for self-expression from a functionalist prism. But one of my problems with functionalism as an approach is that you can examine *anything* through its approach, if you’re willing to look hard enough. It’s like economic rationality in that sense. Working backwards economists can come up with a theoretical way to make any kind of action rational, but it’s often the case that they use their own ingenuity to construct a rationality-based explanation when it’s not actually the best or most likely one.

  4. Andy

    December 12, 2009 at 9:45am

    I’m not sure if I would lump functionality and rationality into the same category. The process of self-expression / identity construction you describe is a *function* of violence: by identifying, defining and attacking a perceived “enemy” (i.e. the process), the perpetrator may shed feelings of victimhood, inadequacy, marginalisation etc (i.e. the function). The process is not what would be typically defined as “rational” (in that it is often driven by feelings of humiliation or rage) but is “functional” nonetheless.

    However, I do agree that there has been an unhelpful tendency to reduce such processes into simple quantifiable proxies – the work of the authors above (which is primarily qualitative) has emerged as a response to the like of econometrists like Hoeffler and Collier.

  5. Ranil Dissanayake

    December 12, 2009 at 2:45pm

    Sure, I completely agree. the concepts themselves are not analagous, but the application of them can be. I was not making a comment about the similarity of rationality and functionality as ideas, but in the way they can be applied. Basically, you can find a function for anything, just as you can find away to justify any action as rational.

  6. Sheena

    December 12, 2009 at 9:04pm

    You are welcome, Ranil.

    Surely there are problems with the functional approach, and they are only amplified by a reductionist approach. There are no strict boundaries between say, an economic, political or psychological function. And any analysis, which tries to simplify these complex interactions/processes, is self-defeating.

    These functional arguments were a response to the arguments that labelled violence in certain conflicts as ‘irrational’, ‘primordial’ or ‘barbaric’. Today, more emphasis (especially by the academics mentioned above) is laid on the study of processes and systems rather than functions by themselves.

  7. MzunguMrefu

    December 13, 2009 at 3:10pm

    Just to add one more brilliant reading, and probably you know it already:

    Chris Cramer (2006), Civil war is not a stupid thing.

    Maybe it doesn’t go far enough for your purposes, though. And I’m certainly no expert on the topic to begin with, but I thought I mention it nevertheless.


  8. Hobsbawm on Violence « Aid Thoughts

    January 4, 2010 at 11:33am

    […] few weeks ago I posted some speculations on the nature of violence in conflict situations, and wondered why popular discourse on conflict so rarely examines the role […]

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