Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy


Todd May reviews Étienne Balibar's Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy, in Notre Dame Philosophical Review:

Étienne Balibar is one of the most rigorous thinkers of contemporary politics, especially European politics, that his generation in France has produced. A student of Louis Althusser, Balibar has consistently rejected shoehorning politics into a pre-given theoretical grid but has instead sought to understand political phenomena on their own terms. The current work is no exception. Violence and Civility, consisting of three re-worked chapters that were originally the 1996 Welleck lectures at Columbia bookended by a 1992 lecture on themes from Jacques Derrida's thought and a 2003 lecture from a conference in Paris, is an original and sustained attempt to consider the role violence and what Balibar calls “anti-violence” play in the formation of political relationships.

The book is dedicated to Derrida's memory. It is not hard to see why. Balibar sees a necessary haunting by violence of all political movements that seek to eliminate it — that is, all political movements. Thus there is an economy of violence and the attempt to suppress it with which political reflection must come to terms. Among the implications of this is that, contrary to many utopian political movements of the twentieth century, “we must renounce eschatological perspectives, even in their secularized forms, which, as we know, were always insistent in the revolutionary discourse about politics, especially in its communist variants.” (xiv)

What is violence, then? Balibar does not say. He notes that there are many forms of violence, and his examples include not only physical violence but also exploitation in the Marxist sense, domination, marginalization, and degradation. Much of the latter phenomena have been gathered under the rubric of structural violence, a term to which Balibar occasionally has recourse. However, what is of interest to him specifically are two forms of extreme violence, of what he calls cruelty, that are often intertwined but that, he insists, must be recognized in their distinct specificity. These he calls ultraobjective and ultrasubjective violence.

He contrasts these two forms of violence in this way:

the first [ultraobjective] kind of cruelty calls for treating masses of human beings as things or useless remnants, while the second requires that individuals and groups be represented as incarnations of evil, diabolical powers that threaten the subject from within and have to be eliminated at all costs, up to and including self-destruction. (52)

Or again:

one of which [ultraobjective] proceeds by way of an inversion of the utility principle and the transformation of human beings into not useful commodities but disposable waste, while the other proceeds by installing in place of the subject's will the fetishized figure of an 'us' reduced to absolute homogeneity. (61)

More here.