When the burnt offering is replaced by the work of charity and when blood-stained hands give way to a ritual made up of symbols, of a sacrifice described in words, then still the work of cleansing identity of violence will not be done. Yet such a progression and such a separation are key steps in the civilising of the twin processes of identification and recognition. Such moves are necessary steps in the taming of the excesses we have too often seen in the making of community. Yet after this first peeling away of the skin of old ceremonies in favour of the skin of the symbolic, palimpsest of the sign, flickering screen of word and image, after this letting-go of the letting of blood, there still remains the insistence of violence in the symbol, the letting of blood in effigy. If not actual violence itself the symbolic nevertheless retains its options on intimidation and insult, and still holds open its path of incitement to the old ways of the sacrificial pogrom. There is still a place, in other words, where the performative, appropriative and pragmatic elements inherent in language leak the event back into the world of the symbol.
In the world of narrative we find that we can not easily dispense with the salt of symbolic violence (not least as a key source of entertainment, albeit legitimated behind a wall of justification, be it justice or revenge; the oldest plot, the oldest justification). Yet here the emotions are titillated, set a-tremble for the duration of the chase, earthed in the victory of the good guy (or even gal) then released back into everyday life without showing any desire to burn anybody (it is perhaps ironic that critical forms are those which by and large do also incite - but here the justification of the lesser violence may be brought into play). We expect, after all, that before the screen of whatever size (before even the infinite screen of the human imagination) all -with the possible exception of children and the mentally disturbed- understand and observe the difference between thing and representation, between event and sign (even if, in the world of the word as weapon, the word/event of the performative, there is ample room for play and ambiguity).
What of the presence of violence in the symbol? What of symbolic violence? Even if we wanted (which it seems we do not) to dispense with such a thing, could we? And should we? What would we lose (apart from our literature, our cinema, our culture)?
The difficulties of such a work of separation: the call to a thinking in parallel; like striping paper from an old wall, page from page in a book long-submerged, skin from flesh. Positing opposite and parallel sides to the same invisible wall, materialising only when axiologised, when given contrasting and contradictory values, one layer good, one bad (or even evil). Image peeling-of from its opposite or mirror-image. In parallel, as if in the mirror: right from wrong. Yet here we are again: contemplating symbolic violence. In attempting to rid ourselves of the curse of symbolic violence have we not merely found another way of perpetuating that which we sought to avoid. The calling of names to excuse the violence of judgement and condemnation. Whence this symbolic differentiation, this casting-out and casting-down? The negative side of damnation by sign; the history of the word behind the knife, of every badge of shame: the positive side of damnation by symbol; the civilising process, urge to distinction, differentiation from lower (infantile) drives and distractions. Here are presented all the opposites inherent in betterment, improvement, amelioration (progress, even, its dialectic) as well as the laughter of parody as a power for the powerless. Good from bad; right from wrong. (But in what situations do these positions become reversed, in what place, in what numbers, by whose writ, in whose words: and once reversed, does not the inverse in turn apply?) If damnation and blessing are but different notes in the same chord, different riders on the same horse, a wholly unholy pair eternally re-enacted, fore-ever recast according to every new point of view, every new situation, when then is it possible to dispense with damnation? Is it not possible to ascend to a level where we no longer need to stand upon the unwilling shoulders of the damned? Is there a place, or a way, in which one can deny the need for such a negative foundation?
Yet what if this new negation were then to become a denial of the role of such a foundation as it once existed (a denial of a parent, a cause, an origin) and become an on-going work of denial? A negation of all that was negative in our formation. A denial of all that now would seem to us to be, not quite in keeping with our new found self-image, squeaky-clean. Hands free from taint because newly washed. A denial which would quickly include all the previously excluded minorities of the nation state, the once subjugated majorities of colonisation, the exploited proletariats of industrialisation... Forgetting then, only adds insult to injury, and washes white the screen of the soul, which should be burdened, at least, with the remembered image of those who made possible the present (situation). With those whom we ought rather to thank than to abject or annihilate, in return for their gift to us. To remember, however, is to remain impure, hence the easy fall into forgetting, the attraction and illusion of purity. The lure of the tabula rasa (of modernism, of every promise of fundamental rebirth). Civilisation, if not a barbarism of the conveniently absent-minded, must be minded to remember the absent barbarism that made its civil comforts possible. That has helped make our lives... convenient. A place in memory might be found that helps and does not hinder (or hinders what must be hindered and helps learn that which must be learnt, the lesson of memory). A form of memory might be sought that does not conceal, but is reformed both for the sake of its own survival and for our guidance. A memory that has a job to do - to create a memory of the damned such that we do not ourselves damn. Which reminds us of our guilt (our complicity in the horrors of the past) and which forgives us (while not permitting to us a repetition excused by others' tragedies). A ritualised memory holds-out axioms for our future - whilst holding-on to our bridge with our past.
Only by such a remembering do we avoid the repetition of the next time. Avoiding the violence that is the evasion of violence. (So making of the next time only a repetition of this...)
Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk