Penn Humanities Forum on Violence

Topic Director: Karen Redrobe
Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor of the History of Art

What distinguishes human violence from the violent acts of a god, or from other forms of aggression in the natural world? An especially cruel and brutal act can lead us to label its human perpetrator a “beast,” but are there true parallels in the animal kingdom for the bizarre and jarringly imaginative forms of human violence? Is it “natural” for children to act violently? To what extent should they, or any of us, be held accountable for violent acts? Can we condemn such acts as always wrong, or are there sound ethical frameworks for distinguishing between just and unjust uses of physical force? Do education and learning make us less inclined to violence, or do they instead provide alibis for our violent acts, helping us to construct more elaborate criteria of justification? If, ultimately, violence is inextricable from life itself, how have we tried to accommodate or creatively direct it—through religion, culture, ritual, or play? 

While some recent studies claim to document a dramatic decline of human violence over the centuries, others argue that violence has escalated to the point where war is now the primary organizing principle of society and the rule of law has been indefinitely suspended. Everyone seems to agree that less violence is better than more, but we lack consensus regarding its reasonable limits in a democratic society. Citizens should possess the right to critique those in power and to resist illegitimate forms of state violence, but the extent of such rights is itself constantly shifting and evolving through violent clashes and struggles. Democratic states distinguish, for example, between violent and non-violent protesters, and between terrorists and freedom fighters. Yet such distinctions often seem to be inconsistently applied, having more to do with political ideology than with dependable rules and standards.

How can scholars in fields such as political science, history, philosophy, and war studies help us grapple with these conundrums? Do moments of the law’s failure or suspension signal the need for a fundamental restructuring of society, or are they simply features of democracy as usual? Are we even capable of imagining better ways to deal with violence than the seemingly ineffective responses of our contemporary societies, from therapy to the death penalty?

Overt physical conflict is of course only one facet of violence, which often takes more obscure and elusive forms. Scholars studying risk, for example, attend to those vulnerable to natural and environmental disasters, the victims of water or air pollution, radiation, “violent” storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis: “eco-refugees” and “climactic asylum seekers.” Are more of us at increasingly greater risk from environmental catastrophe? If so, what is a proper response to violence in this potential or statistical form? Economic violence can be similarly difficult to pin down or even to recognize as violence. It is hard to dispute Karl Marx’s contention that capitalism depends for its very existence on “explosions, cataclysms, and crises,” but the crises of capitalism can often present themselves in the maddeningly opaque form of rising rates, falling values, widening ratios. How can we penetrate such abstractions to understand the violence they represent to actual people and places – not least, those designated as “prone to violence”?

Although racism, like other forms of stigmatization, can take the form of physically harmful acts, it also operates via symbolic violence, through the circulation of racially charged language and images whose effect is often more elusive and harder to measure, as scholars of literature, art history, sociology, and philosophy have shown. Too, as legally sanctioned racism begins to be dismantled, racist violence adopts different guises. How do we begin to assess these transformations in the way racist violence operates within fields like anthropology, political history, and africana studies? What new modes of analysis and resistance do these alterations require us to develop?

Discussions of violence and gender often focus on the gross asymmetry of violence between men and women. UN Women confirms that “women bear the brunt of modern conflicts,” that rape is often used as “weapon of war,” and that even in the US, away from the scene of military conflict, nearly one in four women are beaten or raped by a partner in adulthood. Scholars working within the realm of Gender and Sexuality Studies must foreground these startlingly gendered statistics, even as we guard against regressive notions of masculine and feminine essences, and even as we admit the powerful and productive role violence can play in sexual fantasies and experiences of pleasure.

Violence, after all, has a profound place in our literature, music, and visual arts: in Assyrian reliefs, Greek tragedies, slapstick comedy, war requiems, video games. Is art complicitous in the transmission of violence from one age to the next? How do we measure the force of iconoclastic acts of violence against images that represent particular people or belief-systems? Does the spectacle of violence provide a catharsis that enables us, collectively, to accept the unacceptable, even to welcome it? In 1949, Theodor Adorno famously claimed that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric, but this statement calls less for the end of artistic production than for a deeper understanding of the complex entanglement between violence and culture.

We invite scholars, students, and members of the public to join us for the 2013–2014 Penn Humanities Forum on Violence!

May, 2012
Karen Redrobe, Topic Director
James English, Director, Penn Humanities Forum