A Response to Violence

Revolutionary Subordination:

The Possibility of Sacrifice as a Response to Violence

This essay is about revolutionary subordination. It is about turning the other cheek and taking notions of unqualified forgiveness seriously. It is about the possibilities of sacrifice—self-sacrifice. At first the concept might strike us as foolish, maybe dangerous, or perhaps even strangely beautiful. I concede to all of these descriptions. And I would also add another: impossible. But before we discuss the foolishness of revolutionary subordination, before we talk about its potential beauty or danger, before we wrangle with its impossibility, before we seriously wonder whether such a radical response could ever produce results corresponding to its high price, we should, I think, address the phenomenon of violence itself.

So, beginning again, I would like to make it clear that we are here talking about violence—and not interpretive, abstract, or emotional violence, rather the physical infliction of pain and injury. Yet, even making such a clarification, a further distinction is required: on the one hand there is a philosophical understanding of such violence, and on the other an everyday experience of violence. In the first sense, there seems to be a long philosophical tradition of approaching and reading violence and conflict as necessary ingredients in the makeup of the world, as some inescapable principle of the cosmos. Along these lines, violence appears before and otherwise than ethical or socio-political enquiry altogether. The Pre-Socratic Philosopher Heraclitus wrote:

One must realize that war (polemos) is shared and conflict (eris) is justice (dike), and that all things come to pass in accordance with conflict.[1]

This ancient observation—which, in variegated forms, we find echoed in Sophocles, Thucydides, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others—informs us that between killing and dying there stirs something more fundamental than the end, however tragic, of any particular human life. And that is that the very meaning of life will always somehow be found in relation to conflict.

Does this mean that it is good? That it is bad? That, not unlike most existential problems, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so?”[2] Does this mean that violence itself ought to be left out of human valuations entirely? Hardly. Rather, that instead of rushing to reduce all phenomena and events and things into simple positive or negative categories, we should take our time to understand them in their complexity—that is, to philosophically think through them.[3] In this case, violence rarely seems to arise unprovoked or without a semblance of a cause or by someone truly anonymous or inhuman. It is always a human doing violence to another human or humans doing violence to one another.

Of course it would be careless to say that random, senseless violence never happens—it does. The emphasis here, however, is upon going in for a closer inspection of, and deeper reflection upon, the violent nature of existence. Most violent acts have precursors, have their genesis in some want or need, some desire for redress, and all have people situated on both sides of the equation.

Surely such factors do not mitigate all deeds or dull down how we might view the most deplorable and vulgar acts of violence. Instead, perhaps keeping Heraclitus’s fragment in mind, we might accept that violence has always been with us, that it might always remain with us, that phenomenologically it is neither good nor bad. Still, such philosophical honesty and such elemental truth only carry us so far. Philosophers and poets for some time now have been working through our overly aware sense of being, our transcendent and simultaneously down-going conscious existence, our essentially ironic lives. We should, therefore, also keep in mind that—any philosophical understanding of violence aside—when it comes to our own decision to enact violence or respond to it, to praise conflict or condemn it, to take up arms or lay them down, that the most authentic and true and responsible choice is never simple or easy or without consequence.

And it is thinking of flesh and blood consequences that turn us towards that other sense of violence—the everyday sense. For clarification, let me add that neither accidental nor natural events of violence, nor consensual acts of erotic or playful violence, fall under this rubric. The everyday violence we desire to address here comes as perpetrated, as claiming a victim, and as something that has the possibility of being witnessed and attested to by either party or some other party.

Now, taking on everyday violence strikes us quite differently than our inspection of philosophical or abstract violence. It becomes difficult to reference books or poems or wise words when actually confronted with violence. What happens in those moments is nothing rational, is nothing to be better understood through case studies, policy reviews, nor long-winded expositions. Yet, for the most part, we are here to do just that: We are here thinking through and discussing violence as a topic to better understand it, to better deal with it, to perhaps stem its historic tide and sway.

Let us be most direct: Our history of violence haunts us, the proximity and face of it ever threatens us. This very active and everyday violence manifests not as an academic project, rather as a grim reality, a reality often lurking behind any number of possible events in our day-to-day lives, from brutal robberies and revengings to violent protests and revolutions. It is one thing to understand violence intellectually, and quite another thing to grapple with its reality, its everyday truth—especially when it comes upon us, upon those we know, those we love, those for whom we are responsible. We should admit that to think and speak from the perspective of a victim or a witness or a participant is altogether different than to speak as one who merely looks in and attempts fair readings and just pronouncements—we, in that sense, can attest to nothing.

Accordingly, it seems to me, we would need to be quite optimistic—really—to hope for an actual end of violence. The give and take and lure and cast of it all seem too visceral and historical and destining to be overcome. Of course, peace arrives from time to time, but such moments have ever signaled only temporary cessation of conflict: never true and enduring ages of peace. Still, with all of history against us, I wish to ask, is it possible? Could everyday violence somehow be overcome? More specifically, could philosophical or intellectual or artistic projects and discourses ever uncover or construct an understanding or portrait of violence that was so powerful and provocative that they actually worked to change the way people feel about violence? Could the tide of our brutality towards one another ever be substantially stemmed? Could we discover or create a view of violence that might somehow free us of it? Could the minds and imaginations of people be so reframed by some teaching or some portrait, by some Gleichnis—some image-parable—that the very notion of committing violence upon others would provoke distaste and disgust? That it would become virtually impossible?

Perhaps we are asking too much. Maybe an adjusted response to violence—and not an utterly new understanding of violence—is the best we can muster. Possibly one has already been put forward and only awaits actualization? Something like non-violent resistance? That is, a form of non-violent activity seeking to affect social change, often times employed against forms of injustice or armed conflicts. Some of its modes or manifestations include protest, non-cooperation, and intervention.

One of the earliest accounts of non-violent resistance can be found in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, wherein the Greek women withhold sex from their husbands in order to hasten the end of the Peloponnesian war. And we could of course also recall the work of Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr., or the narratives associated with the Velvet Revolution or the more recent Youth Revolution in Egypt. Figures such as Jesus, Kant, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Einstein have also been associated in some way with non-violence. We might best encapsulate the spirit of this view with the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.”

So does it work? It appears as though in certain places at certain times it has. But, can it still work? Or has non-violent resistance become a distraction to other more realistic means of conflict resolution? Has it become something of a deflowered footnote no longer able to affect the sort of change for which its practitioners long? Here I would like to backtrack just a bit and say that we might do well to wonder if such a goal as was put forward earlier—that is, the end of violence—does not belie some lingering utopic dream? I am somewhat suspicious that we have never fundamentally left behind the Enlightenment era’s hope of a perfect society, a perfect world, a world blooming with justice and equality. I think most of us who wish for things to improve might need to revisit the myths that taught us that our civilization was founded upon agreements made for the common good, that we are by nature both rational and political creatures—those ideas and pictures of human life that lead us to believe that on some subterranean level we all actually desire social harmony. While for the most part we have certainly disabused ourselves of such simplistic notions, something does seem to linger, some prelapsarian promise or nostalgia for not merely a better world, but a just world. We might need to revisit Thucydides or Nietzsche or some such writer and recall how the beginnings of societies are found in piracy, in plunder, and in wills to power—never in handshakes and altruistic associations.[4]

Still, even those of us well read in our violent histories and familiar with our philosophies and poetries of tragedy want things to be different, desire to see our communities improve, to become more just. Yet those very decent and humane desires are quickly rounded and countered by something other than mere informedness—Nietzsche discussing Hamlet speaks to what this might be.

In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have at one time cast a true glance into the essence of things, they have perceived, and action disgusts them; for their action can change nothing in the eternal essence of things, they feel that it is laughable or shameful that they are expected to set aright a world out of joint. Knowledge kills action, to action belongs the veil of illusion—that is the lesson of Hamlet, not the cheap wisdom of John-a-Dreams, who fails to act because he reflects too much, as a result of an excess of possibilities as it were; not reflection, no! —True knowledge, insight into the horrific truth, outweighs any motive leading to action, in Hamlet as well as in the Dionysian man.[5]

We can, it seems, get over our sense of historicity and surplus of philosophizing, yet something even greater—that is, dangerous—than dogged cynicism or spiritual apathy appears to be waiting for us: a Dionysian insight that the essence of things is disjointed and that all our acts and responses—even in-actions—garner no lasting influence and win no conclusive victories over injustices personal or universal. Whatever we do or do not do, we suffer tyranny, oppression, and dispossession. Such I take to be Nietzsche’s “horrific truth.” I also take it to be the ultimate revelation of any philosophizing of violence: there is no overcoming it.

Still—ever still—we have choices to make. We have judgments and criteria and aims and methods to consider. So if ending violence, or even merely stemming it, is our aim—however foolish and impossible and beautiful that hope is—what would be the best way to go about it? How do we go towards the foolish and the impossible?

Let me first dispense with the greatest enemy of such pursuits: pragmatism. Now, by “pragmatism” I mean that manner of thinking which subsumes all ideas, theories, convictions, fears, hopes, beliefs, and practices under the shadow of practicality—that is, the byproduct of prudence, efficiency, and logic. It is a mode and goal of thought by which life’s vivaciousness and twisting and turning become projects to be straightened-out for languid comprehension. But, such hyperbolic critiques aside, by shear appearances practicality is in fact our society’s sovereign philosophy. We quickly shed all dimension of thought and diversity of taste in order to yield to it. For example, how quickly in a difficult or nuanced conversation or debate do we hear people—perhaps even ourselves—rush to say something like, “well, at the end of the day,” or “the bottom line is…”? And we do this, it seems to me, because complexity and the acceptance of complexity bother us. We would rather be wrong or plain and pretend we were right or complex than lug around a genuine blind spot, especially one that might come back to wholly confuse us, slow us down, or make us rework already worked material. Jumping to “the bottom line” or “the end of the day” will always remain much easier methods than struggling through labyrinthine issues that require much unpacking and consideration. And such utilitarian bypasses will ever seem especially alluring when there is no promise of a good or clear reward for opting to go down the longer, more arduous road.

What I am trying to say here is that we should care little about the bottom line. The bottom line can take care of itself and our days will find their end soon enough without us hurrying towards it. I would rather have a conversation that goes somewhere unexpected or authentically nowhere than jump to the most boring, least transformative, utterly uninspiring, and ultimately most unhelpful understanding.[6] That is, the pragmatic understanding.[7] To bring limits and conclusions upon ourselves any earlier than we need to should strike us as intellectual and emotional weakness and as social cowardice. Let us allow things to stay complex and unreduced. Let us do so and still act.

And that is what I would really like to offer to you—some strong wine unmixed, undiluted. In presenting the problem and reality of violence the way I have, and in voicing my concerns for naïve activism, for nihilistic apathy, and for cowardly pragmatism, I have tried to sour you to the seduction of easy answers. And I have done this because what I wish to offer is certainly not easy. It is difficult, and it may be impossible.

At the very beginning I told you that this essay was about revolutionary subordination, about turning the other cheek, taking notions of unqualified forgiveness seriously, and about the possibilities of self-sacrifice. Yet I could not do revolutionary subordination and its various modes of expression justice without first painting a picture of that which it seeks to redress: violence and all those narratives and players that keep it in play. Having done so, as curt as it has been, let me now bring the concept forward.

The ethicist John Howard Yoder talks about subordinate people in the social order—that is, people subject to those of higher social standing—becoming moral agents.[8] To achieve this, he defies conventional thinking and calls on the powerless to accept and take responsibility for their position in society—whatever it is—as something meaningful.[9] He argues that this ethical posture allows those with little or no legal or social standing in their culture—those usually most at risk to everyday violence—to become more than pawns of fate or political powers by becoming witnesses against injustice.[10] Only by becoming sacrificial witnesses—witnesses that give up something of value, of the most value—can true ethical agency be assumed by victims—regardless of their socio-political status. The unjust and unfair and inauthentic molds of the world are rejected, especially the ones that align ethical responses with power instead of against or without regard for power. It is only through such a radically re-imaged and re-thought sense of agency that the possibility of genuinely transforming the historic landscape of domination and violence might occur.  He writes,

[The] motto of revolutionary subordination, of willing servanthood in the place of domination, enables the person in a subordinate position in society to accept and live within that status without resentment, at the same time that it calls upon the person in the subordinate position to forsake or renounce all domineering use of their status.[11]

By that last comment I take him to mean that instead of oppressed peoples—again, those most often threatened by everyday violence—using their status as victims as if it were a power to be wielded, that they ought to renounce such notions of moral agency since they merely invert the very mirror of power they are trying to shatter. Revolutionary subordination, as Yoder sees it, converts subordination into sacrificial testimony through lives lived despite subordination, lives lived without ambition to take away or assume position and power. It is a resituating of the victim as a person whose life has meaning and purpose because he or she has chosen to make it their own. And the cost of doing so was giving—or being willing to give—one’s life away, to offer it as sacrifice. But not as a sacrifice to God or an ideal or a cause, rather as a sacrifice to other people on behalf of oneself.

To better orient ourselves towards this notion of revolutionary subordination we can think of it as a further radicalization of the already radical ethics put forward by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who spoke about our being always already subject to the other, obliged to the other.[12] That is, being a subject, an “I,” is being sub-ject to… or for… the other. Put another way, what actually constitutes one’s capacity to be a subject—to be engaged in a relational understanding with the world—is other people. They allow for you as a reality. It is not because I think that I am, rather others exist and see my face therefore I am: I am because of them, therefore for them.

From this vantage, violence towards others becomes quite difficult—it becomes a form of self-annihilation. Further, this view helps us to see how revolutionary subordination goes beyond, or perhaps behind, non-violent protest by making non-protest the form of protest. This reading of subjectivity and view of subordination essentially changes how we understand ourselves and how we understand others—whether those others are the victims or the propagators or the mediators of the very violence in question.

Perhaps this is going too far? Perhaps every sense of injustice and moral certitude and self-preserving bent will rise to tell us that this is too unjust, too immoral, too impractical. And perhaps it is too foolish. But how have things fared thus far with our well-developed senses of fairness, ethics, and utilitarianism? Is violence on the decline and peace on the mend? If we could for a moment merge small and large scales: Is not peace now merely an occasional armistice—a pause—in an otherwise de facto state of violence and war? It seems we are ever working towards resolutions that will ever be themselves resolved by the next event warranting resolution. It seems that the only feasible or possible end to otherwise endless violent revolutions—be they personal, political, religious, whatever—is to go another way, a way not yet vigorously and dedicatedly pursued.

Were we even willing to entertain the premise, I am sure that the practical implications would come too far afield from our normal spectrum of responses. We would not be wagering our lives, we would be offering them. But could this form of sacrifice as witness—this being subject to…—move past mere hyperbole and fantasy towards an authentic ethical option? It seems to me that we would need to rethink those problematic notions of liberation, progress, freedom, and the pursuits of rights and privileges, to even begin to seriously contemplate this possibility. We would have to do something truly ambitious and dangerous. We would need to see it, quite honestly, as the anti-revolutionary idea that it can be in its aesthetic appeal to a sense of justice that is far off and unlikely, perhaps even imaginary. We would be rewriting Oedipus and Hamlet; not in a way that denies their tragedy, but in a way that offers promise and possibility in the face of tragedy. What would have become of either of those tragic figures had they not only embraced their fate, but accepted responsibility for it as well?

Can our moral imaginations even be so reoriented as to cause us to see danger, foolishness, and impossibility—the antitheses of safety, seriousness, and probability—as the most essential constituents of the most ethical response to violence? That is, sacrifice through radical subordination. Or are we too caught up in the sheer reality of reality, too had by the dream of gaining and enhancing an agency bound to power? Such is the crux of it all.

Early on I said it becomes difficult to turn to poems when dealing with everyday violence. And yet to help end this essay I would like to do just that—and perhaps such a way of concluding simply goes along with the spirit of turning against conventional wisdom. In any case, I would like to recall a poem by Paul Celan.

In rivers north of the future
I cast the net you
haltingly weight
with stonewritten
shadows.[13]

As with the majority of Celan’s work, we could read this many ways. Yet the way I would like to read it here is in accepting our fundamental orientation towards the future. Here the “rivers north of the future” signal pure possibilities up ahead and out of view—what could be as what could be. But then we cast into that realm of possibility our very life and work. Being like a net, our lives gather what can be gathered, pulling essential possibilities for us into the present, thus converting what was only possible into something actual. Such is the human phenomenon, the strange and turning key called consciousness. Yet this net is weighed down with “stonewritten shadows”—that is, the work of life is weighed down with history, culture, values, ethics, and all those other near irresistible powers of influence which work to unsteady and off-put the pure cast of becoming. On this point, Celan does indicts a “you,” a someone seemingly—however “haltingly”—responsible for weighing down the net. And the reason he does so, I think, rests upon realizing that our true problems and hurdles and setbacks should never be understood abstractly, but instead relationally with respect to others and ourselves. Some “they” can never really be responsible for what happens to me, rather always and only a “you,” and that “you” can be another person, it can even be me. Either way, our game with the future only occurs imperfectly.

Still we must cast. And perhaps, if this short study has found any sympathetic footing, we might begin to take seriously the possibility of responding to everyday violence in a manner that steps past abstract notions and ready-at-hand responses, and that desires to seriously re-imagine not only moral agency, but also what is truly at stake. That is, would we actually want to live in a world formed by our own visions of equality and justice and peace? Would we really wish to subsume all difference and venture in the name of peace or fairness? If there is anything worthy of being resisted, it should be that which we have some right to resist: our own violent fantasies to refashion the world into our own creation. If a world with less violence and oppression and more freedom and fairness is possible, then it is only possible through our allowing it space and time to arrive, to welcome it with an ethics and a vision drawn from its inspiration.[14]

(This essay was originally presented at the Radical Philosophy Conference in Eugene, Oregon in 2010)


[1] Heraclitus, fragment LXXXII, 82, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, ed., trans. Charles H. Kahn (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2001), 82.

[2] William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” II.2.249–251, William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, eds. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller (New York: Penguin Books, 2002). This is a folio-only passage.

[3] Cf. διάνοια in Plato, Republic 510d–511a, and Aristotle, Posterior Analytics I.89b, II.100b. Here we are highlighting “thinking through” as the primary or initial activity of “working through” that draws or takes us through that which we are considering or purposefully experiencing. The result of διάνοια is not comprehension as such, rather a relational and prepositional knowledge from which we can begin (and ever begin).

[4] Cf. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book V, “The Melian Dialogue.”

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Die Geburt der Tragödie,” Werke in Drei Bänden (München: Carl Hanser, 1954), 48. The translation is my own.

[6] Cf. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Second, Revised Edition, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshal (New York: Continuum, 2004).

[7] It should be noted that I am not necessarily contending with any formal philosophy of pragmatism or utilitarianism as such, rather an apathetic attitude towards, or odd denial of, any particular issue’s given complexities and difficulties.

[8] Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 171.

[9] Ibid., 185.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 186.

[12] Cf. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969).

[13] Paul Celan, “In rivers north of the future,” Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, trans. John Felstiner (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 226-227.

[14] Cf. Plato, The Republic, IX, 592b, trans. Richard W. Sterling and William C. Scott (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985), 284: “It makes no difference whether such a city now exists or ever will. But perhaps its prototype can be found somewhere in heaven for him who wants to see. Seeing it, he will declare himself its citizen. The politics of this city would be his politics and none other.”

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