On violence and aggression

Text in pdf : Clémence Ortega Douville – On violence and aggression

While reading Jacques Lacan’s conference on The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, I happened to think back of this article I wanted to write – to explain a bit more our use of the concept of violence, its connection to the morals and its distinction from the concept of aggression. Because one objection that could be made over these concepts as being central to the comprehension of anthropogenesis, is that they might be perceived as negative and pessimistic.

How can’t more positive features be central to the birth of human consciousness, such as empathy, cooperation, the culture and the arts, and all the positive interactions between the human beings to become ? There would be here a misunderstanding.

Of course, positivity is to be a motor of human elaborations into the world they come to create. Yet to create a world is filling a gap. As philosopher Hannah Arendt stated in her Crisis of culture, modernity is all about standing over the breach. Negativity is here introduced as something that needs to be fixed, and the individuals seek for ways to fix this distressful breakdown of stability.

To quote Lacan : ‘Ce qui en effet s’est montré d’abord à Freud, aux découvreurs, à ceux qui ont fait les premiers pas, ce qui se montre encore à quiconque dans l’analyse accommode un temps son regard à ce qui est proprement de l’ordre de l’inconscient, – c’est que ce n’est ni être, ni non-être, c’est du non-réalisé.’1 What is from the unconscious is what comes present without coming to be – forever non-realised.

We express this order of the unconscious by the term of violence because, as again Lacan put it so precisely, ‘an act, a true act, always has a part of structure’.2 And the structure of violence is the morals. Violence exists because morals forbids it. Yet, violence has a body reality, it is concrete. It is contained aggression, and that’s why violence is so different from the latter. Aggression is everywhere in nature, as soon as a living being steps into one another’s safe vital space.

Violence is then the self-consciousness of being forbidden to impinge someone else’s safe area. ‘You won’t do onto others what you would hate to be done onto you.’ Such is the Golden Rule of morals, as stated by philosopher Paul Ricœur during a conference on hermeneutics.3

Hence, the morals is mapping space as referenced to the individual’s rights, according to the laws and organisation of the society they belong and pertain to. These moral laws make societies a livable place for those the law protects. It maintains a certain order of these societies, whether the law is explicitly or implicitly underlining their structure.

In most animal societies, the individuals’ behaviour tends to be self-regulated. As we saw it with neurobiologist Francisco Varela, the biological constitution of the species constantly evolves while reacting to and creating at the same time their environment in the way they perceive it. Action is induced by their enaction of the particular way they have to interact with their environment. The body has a firm grip on reality, no hands are mediating in between. Most animals have their mouth and nose directly guiding their interactions with their surroundings.

That’s why we put forward the idea that the hands changed everything, not on the surface, but on our relation to action. Not an episodic feature either, because it became systemic while we rose and kept standing on our two legs. Then the hands became something else than just a motor support. It became something else entirely. Something that is seen. With no pun, something that is a scene too.

The violence in the paradox we are exploring in our work is located in the impossibility we have to be focusing our attention on our hands – most specificly on one hand – and attentive to our surroundings at the same time. On the contrary, if they were still to be monopolised in their motor functions, they would still mainly be related to this primary use and to the relation with their direct environment.

But to stare at my own hand(s) creates hesitation. Because for a moment, I don’t know what to do and what I am doing anymore. I stopped myself from being a doing thing and started to be conscious of being something else. And again, there is a motor paradox because I can’t tell my hand to go for itself and grasp it, so I can only imagine that I’ll do it. It is only non-realised action.

This is violence. And this is the birth of consciousness the way we mean it in the human experience. But that is only dramatic because it creates a scene. And it is violent because aggression is contained and directed toward its source : I can’t impinge my own safe area. I can’t direct my intention toward an outside object – my hand – and to the inside object it stresses the existence of – myself.

I’m blocked. I’m stuck in my own skin. I can only create an imaginary space where I continue to exist in spite of my not being able to resolve this as it is. I have to create solutions, such as : this object – a rock for example – that is not my hand and outside my relationship to my hand that is odd, maybe it can be of some help, maybe it can be an escape from this situation I don’t understand. Or maybe, now that I’m feeling weird, I am going to be feeling weird about the rock too. And maybe the world itself is a weird world. Alterity becomes possible.

I am not only eating and mating and picking a fight because it happens to be my reaction to others and to my environment. There is a new thing, a new thing that is me, and that questions me about everything around that is not me. I become really isolated in fact, because no one is going to resolve that unsolvable problem : the power of the impossible action to resolve my own self through my hands.

And still, there are the others, who might not understand. And yet somehow, we come to find some accord, some transmission, some way to show examples of what it could be like to use this power to do impossible things. I won’t pursue this narrative, but I’ll stress that morals is born because violence is born. And violence is born because aggression becomes vain. And it becomes vain because I can’t lead a manic assault on my own hands without hurting myself.

So I take it on myself to find another solution. And the solution to this problem can only be imaginary. Hence the response to a negative perspective can also be a positive and a creative one.

We are not condemned by a ‘violent nature’ of the human kind. But we are responsible for the solutions we find and choose to develop, knowing that our impossibilities to manoeuvre delusional options would only increase the problem.

I am particularily thinking here of the ecological, political and social issues we are facing today and that we will have to decide for in the closest future.

Autodestruction is not an inevitable option.

1In Jacques Lacan, Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, Ed. Seuil, coll. Points essais, 1973, p. 38

2Ibid., p.60

3In Paul Ricœur, Écrits et conférences 2. Herméneutique, texts gathered and annotated by Daniel Frey and Nicola Stricker, p.74, Éditions du Seuil, coll. La couleur des idées, 2010 (french edition).

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