22.04.2016. - 21.05.2016.

Each standing in other's light

Raymond Carver, Milan Božić, Tomislav Gotovac, Sven Klobučar, Primo Levi, Ana Opalić, Terence Malick, Iris Mihatov Miočić, Ana Mušćet, Ana Opalić, Berislav Šimičić, Roberta Vilić, Sandra Vitaljić and Center Meleta for integrative body-oriented therapy (Zagreb)

There is an interesting paradox within the discourse on the phenomenon of violence pointed out by Richard Bessel in his book “Violence: A Modern Obsession”: the best analyses of violence conducted, the most successful measures implemented to prevent its spread and ameliorate its consequences, occur in societies that are the least violent. Bessel primarily refers to the countries of Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, etc., that is, the democratic countries with developed legal, social, educational and health systems. In these societies, the sensitivity to violence has become almost an obsession, while being kind and compassionate is more desirable than ever.

How did this happen, Bessel wonders? There is no simple answer, but the origins of this obsession unarguably lie in the first half of the 20th century and the Two World Wars that took place in a time span of less than 40 years. Wars have been waged before, but the extent and the scope of destruction brought by the First and Second World War exceeded even the most pessimistic projections. The society of the developed West has undoubtedly suffered a collective trauma inflicted by these Wars. 

Today, violence does not only imply war or a physical assault on another person, but also verbal aggression and any other form of behaviour that aims to undermine the mental or physical integrity of another human being. Moreover, the Oxford Dictionary even defines violence in terms of the strength of expressed emotions, while Anić's Dictionary of Croatian language features a similar definition, stating that violence is “any act against nature or spirit carried out by force.” The earlier definitions of violence were provided from the perspective of the perpetrators of violence, but sometime between the Two World Wars the public sensibility shifted to the victims of violence. For instance, the monuments commemorating the First World War were the monuments dedicated to the victims and not to the victors. One of the most famous monuments to those who died in the First World War was a monument erected in 1922 in Gentioux, a small village in central France. The monument consists of a column with the names of the 58 dead soldiers from Gentioux, in front of which stands a bronze statue of a boy – a war orphan – with an outstretched fist. There is an inscription at the base of the statue: “Cursed be war!”

The developed Western countries owe their contemporary sensitivity to violence to a series of events that haveoccurred from end of the 18th century onwards in the field of politics, military, religion, culture and the media. After World War II, a number of public declarations further underscored this empathetic shift in approach to violence, for instance: The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); The US Congress’ Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) and The World Medical Association's Declaration (2002) which emphasized that violence constitutes not only physical violence, but rather any threat to the individual, family or community.

Religious communities followed suite in their condemnation of violence. In that regard, Bessel mentions several encyclicals of highly ranked Catholic Church officials. The Archbishop of Ireland declared in 1972 that non-violence is not the coward’s way, but the way of Christ. Pope John Paul II asserted in 1979 that violence is evil, while his successor, Pope Benedict XVI would do the same in 2011 (Pope Paul’s II condemnation of war violence in the former Yugoslavia is well-known to Croatian public)

Notwithstanding the exceptions – American Evangelicals who supported the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Israeli religious extremists who support the war in Palestine – Bessel considers this zealous pacifism of religious communities in the West as primarily stemming from the separation of church and state. According to Bessel, the moment when religious beliefs became a part of a free-market economy was the moment when believers had to learn how to be tolerant. Be that as it may, today, the religious communities in the West openly work to combat violence in cooperation with various civic organizations: feminists, members of socially disadvantaged and minority communities (LGBT communities, former prisoners, refugees, etc.).

It seems that the cooperation between the Church and the State, within the framework of a secular society, has been the most successful in the area of the prevention of violence. The Christian dogma on the inviolability or sanctity of human life might not have enticed the promulgation of human or civil rights, but it fits well into the modern understanding of a civilized citizen who can and must control his/her violent impulses, both in the public and in the private sphere.

Although the Soviet Union criminalized marital rape in 1922, it seems that the prohibition of domestic violence was hampered by the idea of impunity of the private civil sphere. However, domestic violence is considered today as a criminal offense, even in countries that do not belong to the Western cultural circle.

Without a doubt, in today’s society, there is a public consensus on violence. Violence is considered as deviant behaviour that can be suppressed or modified in various ways: via economic measures that reduce social inequalities; social measures that reduce exposure to violence; health programmes that shed light on the psychology of violent behaviour, etc. However, despite preventive measures, we often witness various outbreaks of violence – from mass murders and street riots to terrorist attacks – happening during peacetime in the societies of the developed West. Does this mean that the repression is still here, just more subtle, as Slavoj Žižek suggests? Or that empathy is a luxury, as violence is mainly carried out amongst the members of lower social classes? Is the state permitted to do things that individuals aren’t – the legitimate implementation of violence through the institutions of law, police, etc. – as Walter Benjamin notes in “Critique of Violence,” making each individual act of violence seem more pronounced within the social background? How does an ordinary man become a killer or a violent perpetrator? Does it happen suddenly or is it a result of an evolutionary process? Is violence pleasurable and how can that be? Why are mass murderers mostly men? Etc.

More than analysing various approaches to the origins of violence, what interests us here are the models of overcoming, rather than preventing, violent impulses and situations provided for us by various schools of theory. What is important to note is that every relevant research on this issue has no reservations regarding the notion that violence can be eliminated or, at least, contained, be it via measures implemented on a wider social (economy, politics, diplomacy, demilitarization, etc.) or on a smaller individual level (psychotherapy).

In the aforementioned essay, after making the distinction between the natural law of an individual and the positive law of the state in relation to violence, Walter Benjamin wonders whether conflicting interests can be resolved by non-violent means. In a world where even the most peaceful of treaties entail the use of violence if breached, are there ways to resolve a conflict that do not imply its escalation?

In public life, Benjamin regarded political diplomacy, for example, conferences, as a road to peaceful resolution, while in private life – far from any virtue – he regarded fear of joint loss, a moment in which violence confronts sympathy, trust and peacefulness, as the moment of that resolution.

In turn, Hannah Arendt did not consider anger and violence as an expression of a dark human death drive but, quite on the contrary, as a man's natural reaction to a particular situation and as a confirmation that politics have not yet found a way to reach an agreement between the conflicting parties without “the power of the sword.” Arendt begins her discussion on the possibility of overcoming violence by also making a distinction between the roles which violence plays in the private and the public social sphere. In the private sphere, violence is the manifestation of will that one man imposes over the other since all men possess the tendency to be submissive or dominant. However, as Arendt notes, this is not a black-and-white issue: the strong desire to avoid subjugation goes hand in hand with the strongly expressed reluctancy to dominate. If the drives to be subordinated or to dominate were so unambiguous, neither the master nor his victim would ever leave their home.

In the public sphere, it is no longer about the issue of one man’s will over the other, but the will of the people. Of course, what we have here is also subservience, but not to another man, but the subservience to law, given legitimacy by the people. The rule of law is never absolute and it generates far less subservience than a gun pointed to a man’s head.

In connection to the above mentioned and with regard to the victims of violence, we can ask ourselves: is confronting the consequences of violence a private or a public matter? If violence and power are not exclusively natural phenomena but belong to the political sphere of human relations which are based on a human capacity to act freely, “to start something new,” aren’t the consequences of violence – trauma, anxiety, depression, etc. – a public issue, a social problem? It is all the more so because violence is not some evolutionary vestige, some remnant of animal irrationality, as Arendt correctly points out. A man, in fact, reacts violently when he loses power – power and violence stand in opposition – that is, when he feels that his sense of justice has been violated.

Psychology, neurobiology and the so-called affect theory share the same views on the importance of the environment in which we live. Drawing on research that confirms the ability of the brain to change and adapt to experience, several natural and social sciences came to the same conclusion that not all subjects are equally exposed to traumatic events. In other words, traumatic events do not have the same effect on everybody. This claim is, among other things, supported by numerous successful forms of treatment for depression or anxiety, where the environment in which we live or where we are raised, plays the key role. Therefore, it is our social life, the way in which we interact with others, the way we maintain these social interactions, which determine how we cope with the consequences of violence – be it war violence, political violence, sexual violence, etc. – as well as our ability to avoid violence.

Even contemporary psychoanalysis, although primarily focused on the psychological aspects of human life, emphasizes the importance of our relationship to the world when it addresses the causes and consequences of violence. The anger and frustration that accompany violence arise from the ego torn between the fear of the future – of the external world dominated by the figure of the Other as an absolute stranger – and the impossibility of returning to the familiar and secure embrace of the mother or caregiver. It is a paradox, an extortion of sorts: in order for the subject to develop normally, the ego has to separate itself from the body of the mother/caregiver, from the surrounding that secured its survival and initial development. However, this process of separation lays down preconditions of violence. Faced with the separation anxiety and left to its own devices, the ego sees the world which surrounds it as a foreign object – as an obstacle to its own interests – and initiates self-defence mechanisms. Thereby, it often goes overboard, with narcissism as its outcome, which is only another word for a hyperbolised ego. The narcissistic ego perceives the world not only as a foreign object but often as a threat to its own existence. In that moment – the moment in which one feels threatened – one’s self dissolves in an illusion that this world can be controlled via some form of exclusion, i.e. through violence in which it finds self-destructive pleasure (satisfying one’s aggression simultaneously shatters the hyperbolised ego, threatening its very existence). Contemporary psychoanalytic theory offers several strategies to reduce the preconditions for violence down to a minimum which does not pose a threat either to the subject or its surroundings. First of all, it is necessary to learn how to cope with frustration in order to prevent the self-destructive resolution of pain caused by denied pleasure; secondly, the narcissistic ego must be corrected into the so-called impersonal narcissism which achieves self-validation through exposing oneself (to the world, the Other) and self-preservation through the dissolution of the rigid boundaries of the self. Impersonal narcissism entails remembering that initial bond between the subject and the mother / caregiver – evoking the connection to the world around us – through the mixed experiences of frustration and pleasure.

The exhibition “Each Standing in the Other's Light” aims to represent violence from the position of the victim. The art works or exhibits dedicated to traumatic experiences approach the issue in two ways: either they speak of individual experiences or attempt to address violence and its consequences within a wider – historical or even metaphysical – context. In numerous attempts to define the nature and function of art in the modern world, the one that stands out is the one which evaluates the distinctiveness of an art work based on the artist’s ability to empathize with others, the ability to immerse oneself into what is being displayed. Although this lucid definition refers primarily to literature, i.e. the role that fictional characters play, it seems to us that it can also be applied in the case of this exhibition, even when it comes to autobiographical works because it is as though the authors had to undergo the process of self-duplication in order to gain access to their traumatic kernel. This exhibition wants to shift the attention from the causes to the consequences of violence, from violent moments to the indefinite time of suffering, to the “day after.” It wants to evoke empathy, being aware that sympathy is not enough. The trauma, as deep as it might be, is always social; it occurs within a community and it can be re-accessed only through community; only amongst the Others can it, perhaps, be resolved. (Klaudio Štefančić)