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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

The Violence Mythos
Barbara Whitmer

(Albany, SUNY Press, 1997)

How do we understand the societal and cultural meanings of violence? Why is violence so endemic and so routinely accepted? Whitmer's book traces these questions in order to ask what is at stake in our pervasive understandings and practices of violence. This book is useful for those interested in theoretical explanations of why violence is embedded in society, and how it continues to be repeated, justified and accepted.

Whitaker explains how violence is usually understood as innate and thus biologically based, which is why we require an array of societal controls to restrain our 'natural' urges to violence (eg: law, police). This book is an attempt to shift that understanding and suggest that violence is not innate, rather, violence is learned through and within a society that promotes and maintains it. Whitmer explains the ever presence of violence in society as a mythos, or a 'collection of beliefs' that 'implies understanding' (readers might find it helpful to think of discourse here).

The three sections of the book serve very different purposes, and don't necessarily have to be read in conjunction. In the first section, Whitaker explains how an 'innate' understanding of violence serves to structure both individuals (through a mind/body split) and cultures (through strategies of legitimation like the 'hero myth'). Of concern here are the processes by which individual anger gets expressed in violent ways (from wife battery to the Vietnam war), and how those expressions are normalized in society. For Whitmer, this process of normalization is crucial because it prevents us from addressing the trauma that violence engenders.

In the second section, Whitaker traces our understandings of violence through the insights of Freud, Girard and Derrida. Psychoanalytic readings situate violence as an expression of the unconscious 'death drive' that is repressed by our conscious urges for life, love and sexuality. Because a 'drive' is still too innate, Freud is supplanted with Ricoeur's 'interpretive hermeneutics'. In this way, violence is historically embedded in language so that our desires get 'transformed into meaning'. Thus, violence is not innate, but rationalized through language. Whitmer then analyses the work of Girard in which violence is the result of threatened or disrupted desire. One does not simply desire an object, rather, one competes with others who also desire the same object. Violence emerges in that competition, and in the ensuing process of identifying and prosecuting a victim (the loser of the competition). Whitmer traces this 'mimetic triangle' and 'victim traumatology' through the therapeutic treatment of trauma (especially PTSD) to illustrate how our simultaneous desires for perpetrators, victims and heroes require a cycle of mistrust, domination and submission. Whitmer then moves on to a more deconstructive paradigm by using Derrida to explain the always already inscribed position of the expressing 'subject' in a system of linguistic signs. In effect, deconstruction establishes the violence of language itself, and thus of our 'ongoing trauma'. For Whitaker, deconstructive work is important because it gives us a space of transition where the authority of aggression and violence can finally be dismantled.

In the third section, Whitaker asserts that the problem of endemic and innate violence must be solved by effective recovery from trauma. We can do this by restoring trust in 'healthy relationships of the self, other and community' (p. 183), and as Gadamer instructs, losing ourselves in the 'play' of those relationships in order to re-gain trust. This process begins by refusing the usual dichotomies of victim/perpetrator, vanquished/hero and dominance/submission, and discovering other ways to 'attach' ourselves to one another in more 'interdependent' ways. Here, violence is discussed in terms of already deconstructed bodies and communities (eg: cyberbodies). For Whitaker, we recover from trauma by revaluing 'the body, trust and technology'(p.235 - beware: although impassioned and innovative, this section is also the most worrying in its claims to universalism, holism and healing).

In conclusion, this is an incredibly rich book, but it requires patience. At times, the breadth of the argument threatens its focus and the question of violence drops out altogether, but Whitaker's enviable ability to synthesize very complex theoretical arguments mitigates these scattered moments. Although her 'emotional' and slightly 'flakey' language will be new to some readers (especially those in positivist inspired social sciences), rest assured that it in no way detracts from the rigour of her argument. For those asking difficult and theoretical questions about our understandings of violence, The Violence Mythos is a must.

Debbie Lisle
Keele University

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