VIOLENCE: The Hiatus of the Word

Lic. Psych. Ana Paula Terra Machado

Violence is intrinsic to the human being. Throughout ages and cultures, in its multiple facets, it has been and will always be present.


Violence is intrinsic to the human being. Throughout ages and cultures, in its multiple facets, it has been and will always be present. But how to define the extension of violence, the damage caused by a violent action, whether legitimate or not, or even if it is necessary and inevitable? Violence is not an absolute and definite concept; it is defined in relation to certain criteria and a specific historical context, and must be understood within the discourse of a given time.

Today we are witness to an outbreak of violence around the world, generating a state of perplexity and concern, demanding a deep reconsideration of the references and categories that outline human thinking and action. The values, ideals, standards and codes that once regulated Western society’s political thought are threatened in their validity and pertinence today.

It is difficult to discern whether what we are experiencing is part of the cycle of history or, conversely, the result of a transformation of such magnitude that it represents “new world configurations”, as proposed by Adauto Novaes (2008). He discusses the revolution brought about by techno-science, biotechnology, and digitalization of social and political life, as well that of contemporary human subjectivity.

The repercussions of these changes – which happen at dazzling speed – still generate more questions than answers, as we are all immersed in this culture. What we do know is that violence keeps haunting us, creating a state of uncertainty and fear that has been putting the world on alert, bringing to light the idea of helplessness. We are now confronted with limits: the limit of the word, the limit of psychological representation, the limit of norms that regulate the social field and the relationship with the other.

Efforts to understand this situation should involve diverse fields of knowledge, so as to measure the extent of these events.

Although Freud did not develop this notion as a concept, violence is at the core of his theory. Trauma, aggression and destructiveness not only originate from, but also constitute the individual psyche and social psychology. Psychoanalysis emerged from the comprehension of an excess of social oppression revealed through hysterical symptoms. Since then, it has interpellated culture and welcomed human suffering by way of words. Its very purpose is to conjure violence.

The ego is constructed through a trauma, through the recognition of incompleteness and lack. Society is founded at the cost of the murder of the herd’s father, as described mythologically in Totem and Taboo (Freud, 1913). Therefore, civilization and the ego itself were constructed atop a foundation of violence. Perhaps this is why violence gives us an unheimlich sensation- a feeling of a familiar unknown.

From this perspective, the relinquishment of narcissism – or rather, its regulation – is fundamental to the constitution of subjectivity and the enabling of a shared life. Living together imposes limits to passions and desire. What remains after the relinquishing are the identifications that will feed the ideals and impose prohibitions.

If the current times are called narcissistic, if frustration is not tolerated and if contemporary human aspiration is self-sufficiency, does this make people more prone to violence compared to other times? The ontological helplessness puts us irrevocably in need of the other. This helplessness is at the root of all moral reasoning; it is what impels us towards relationships and towards the world.

The fundamental principle of ethics is alterity (it is the defining aspect of human relationships), a non-indifference to the other’s difference. The lack of openness to the face of the other, as Lévinas puts it (2009), is not only impoverishing; it is brutalizing. It takes away the experience of living together, which is the bedrock of human existence. The narcissistic closure incites violence, whose thinking then tightens into a vicious circle, fed by the idea of elimination of what is different. The permanent work of recognizing alterity must be the contemporary Kulturarbeit.

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud offered a most striking description of violence. It is where he proposes that the relationship of a man with his neighbor can be such that the latter is “not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts him to satisfy his aggression on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him” (pg 58).

This radical form of contempt for the other – the cruelty and destruction that can exist between human beings – reveals the death drive and attests to the unavoidable antagonism between subject and civilization. The impossibility of Eros appeasing Thanatos leads to the outbreak of the primitive that dwells within us, always lurking, ready to show the strength of its claws. The effects of every violent act – both on one who performs it and the one who suffers it – reveal a failure of culture.

The violent act is a mark with no words or symbolization. Therefore, violence is related to the unrepresented, outside the symbolic field but present in the real. It operates as de-structuring trauma, a rupture in the psychological fabric and social weave. This impossibility of representation prevents from making sense of what is experienced.

In Brazil, endemic poverty and social exclusion are blatant and odious forms of violence. The increase in criminality and delinquency is superficially and inconsistently attributed to a lack of punishment, disregarding the chasm of social inequality that splits society. It is at this point that the face of the other vanishes. We have a population of invisibles who are excluded from society, who are not subjects. Such is an example of Agamben’s ‘bare life’ (2002).

Those relegated to invisibility are often seen only when they become agents of violence, while ignoring the violence that has been historically inflicted upon them. This form of dealing with inequality may be a remainder from colonialism, an atavistic inheritance within the Brazilian socio-political context.

Since the time of Brazil’s origins, there has been a blending of public and private, of social and individual. Perhaps first described in 1936 by Sérgio Buarque de Holanda in his book, Roots of Brazil, his account remains current. Politicians’ attitudes are filled with examples of transgression between public and private. To act above the law, to appropriate public goods and to abuse power are the germ cells of potential future violence. We have a historical debt that must be faced and thus our efforts must go beyond public policies of inclusion. It is not only a state matter; it is the responsibility of society as a whole, of all citizens.

We live a moment in which uncertainties cause instability and a paralyzing anguish that cripples reflexive thinking, leaving the subject at the mercy of passions. This vulnerability increases the potential of violent acts. When citizenship is attacked and institutions are corroded, the emptiness of authority is revealed. Disappointment and the crumbling of ideals bring back the feeling of helplessness.

In this context, the great danger is the banalization of violence. It is fundamental that we not lose our capacity of being surprised and outraged. To disregard the pain of the other is inhumane. This is the most archetypal psychological state: indifference.

Violence, however, also carries paradoxes, since it can be thought of equally as the intensity present in the dialectic of creation-destruction. For the new to emerge, it is necessary to destroy what previously existed. In this sense, violence is present in the drive movement. Violence is a break, a disturbance of an established order that allows the emergence of the new. Seen like this, violence is part of a different context, a perhaps necessary condition for innovation and appearance of diversity; it is the positivity of negativity.

Therefore, it is necessary to mourn the ideals and ideas that have gone by and weather these turbulent times. Or else, we risk remaining in a melancholic paralysis, without even knowing what we lost in what we lost. New forms of politics, new rules to regulate human interactions, new representations, and new words must emerge to occupy the emptiness of our time. Otherwise, we will be gradually more exposed to the demands of direct and immediate satisfaction, to the unbridled joy.

To quote a verse of poetry: “You march, José! José, where to?” (Drummond de Andrade, 1942).

Words are a privileged human resource to achieve understanding. They are the gesture that humanizes us. This investment in words demands the recognition of the ambiguities and contradictions inherent to human relations. Listening to diversity is what allows us to problematize facts. Without this, we remain in an imaginary territory of certainties and beliefs, which belongs to the field of narcissism. It is essential that a minimum number of parameters are established in order to achieve understanding, and this presupposes some kind of detachment.

This is the main condition for living in society. Nevertheless, one could object that, today, everyone can speak freely and express one’s opinion, which presupposes both larger understanding and efficiency of words. However, the possibility of freely expressing one’s opinions seems to be restricted to the group to which one feels affiliated, which reveals a lack of freedom to express ideas that could potentially be attacked. Each particular group sees the other as an enemy to be fought. Everyone feels certain in their own position.

The narcissism of little differences presents itself in all its intensity. Manifestations of hate and aggression are shamelessly present in our quotidian. Blind intolerance to the other’s opinion exposes passionate discourses and is enough to win an argument. There is no shared correspondence of concepts anymore. Justice, law and ethics: everyone invokes the same terms and each person makes use of them for their own benefit, but these words’ characteristic polysemy has reached levels of distortion that prevent a rational and impartial dialogue. When language is suspended, what directs thinking is violence, and what is lost is the words’ intrinsic value. When words degenerate into insults, they become an act of discharge.

Nevertheless, for dialogue to be established an openness to the other is necessary. What we witness today is that the tension of our times assumes many forms, including verbal violence, although this could seem contradictory, as the word is, by definition, an element of peace; it is what intervenes between two people fighting.

We are currently hit by an avalanche of stimuli, without the needed time for internalization, so that the processing of what has been experienced does not become psychological capital. These are “infarcts of the soul” (Han, 2015). The excess of communication, information and images ends up bringing disorganization, invasion and thought-paralysis – similarly to trauma the ego is incapable of assimilating.

The construction of a narrative is a form of facing traumatically coagulated time; it is a form of making it symbolized, named, and incorporated to the subject’s historical time.

Nonetheless, Mia Couto (2011) warns us: “words today are increasingly shorn of any poetic dimension, they do not convey to us any utopian vision of a different world” (pg. 130). He continues, “those who live in a maze are hungry for paths” (pg. 130). Rescuing the poetic dimension of words may indicate a direction. In this rescuing, we have poetry, art, democracy and psychoanalysis to keep us thinking.
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