Wednesday, 25 July 2007

A Short Paper on Violence & Contingency

Continuing my own mania for "archive fever", I'm putting up here Hans Joas's unpublished manuscript, which he sent to me to cite in my thesis. It cannot be cited by anyone else, unless they reference its appearance in my thesis (hyperlink to my thesis appears on Acheron's sidebar), as this was the condition on which I was able to reproduce it.

Hans Joas
Violence and Contingency

"Hamlet or The Long Night Comes to an End" - this is the title of Alfred Döblin's last novel. Written shortly before and after the end of World War II, this book like Döblin's earlier magisterial 4-volume work on the November Revolution of 1918/19 focuses on a homecoming soldier, this time though not on a German, but a British soldier of the Second World War. Seriously wounded in the attack of Japanese kamikaze planes on his transport ship, he loses a leg and sinks into - as the title says - "the long night" of utter alienation from his previous world. Since the attempts to restore his health with psychotherapeutic means remain fruitless, his mother decides to take him into her own care and thus to relax his "rigor mortis". But it soon becomes clear that the son, Edward Allison, is not only in need of medical attendance or maternal love, but is driven by a "passion of questioning" as soon as he is ready to take part in conversation at all. He must find out who is to blame for his mutilation and for all the other victims who perhaps are no longer able to pose questions; he must know who and what is responsible for this war and the whole historic disaster since 1914. An answer to this question his mother cannot give - nor can he find the answer with his father who as a great and successful writer should be predisposed to answer such questions, but who has always used his art not as a means to illuminate questions of guilt and meaning, but as a means to escape them. For him "wars, seen in the light of world history, just happen among men from time to time like influenza, typhoid or scarlet fever, against which one hasn't found a remedy either". But his father has an ingenious idea that gets Edward's healing process and simultaneously the novel fully started. He is well aware that discussions are not the appropriate medium if questions of meaning are concerned, but stories; and this is why he proposes "to tell stories and to leave it to everybody to draw his or her own conclusions from them". Therefore evening parties are organized during which members and friends of the Allison family tell all sorts of stories, old ones and new ones, familiar and unfamiliar ones - and Edward, the son takes part. In the beginning he remains quiet and taciturn, extremely reserved like most of the time since his traumatic experience, gloomy and dangerous for his relatives, a "bomb delayed"; but certain passages in the stories attract his interest, and he slowly shows reactions and becomes a participant. Döblin masterfully designs these stories so that they contain points of contact for Edward's experiences and his probing quest for meaning. But there is no linear path to full recovery, because the evening parties offer to the storytellers ample opportunity to reinterpret and redefine their own relationships to other participants in the medium of these stories. This is particularly true for Edward's parents. The more Edward finds back into normal life, the more fragile the marriage of his parents becomes. The way to the truth which Edward has to go for the sake of healing is a dangerous enterprise for a couple whose relationship had been transformed into covert hostility and mutual dissimulation a long time before. It was the cold and unloving atmosphere of the family from which the son once fled into the war. The novel is called "Hamlet" because as in Shakespeare's play a son uncovers old guilt in a family's history and in the state (of Denmark) and thus can bring the long night of falsehood with its specters to an end. But at this end we don't encounter healing, but a new collapse: at first of the family, then of the father, who - tried to the limit by insinuations of his wife - attacks her violently and flees from the house, followed by his wife, and then the collapse of the son who now recognizes that his insistence and clear-sightedness had to have destructive consequences on a world that tried to protect its feeling of meaningfulness by the refusal to accept any responsibility for the history of violence.
I will not describe the further way of his parents who after many adventures find each other again when they look death in the face. Edward is finally set free for a new life - but the author vacillated between a world-affirming solution in the sense of reformist activities and a world-denying end, the entry into a monastery. This novel contains in enormous vividness everything to which my title "Violence and Contingency" points to: the shock of the experience of violence itself which penetrates into the sacred sphere of corporeality; traumatization by the shattering of fundamental certainties in one's relationship to the world; the impossibility to get beyond traumatization except through narration; the connection between narration and the constitution of new meaning and new values; the unsettling consequences of such new values and new meaning for existing social contexts; the inevitability of expanding political questions of meaning into an existential and religious dimension. Behind all these concepts lie complex social-scientific problems, both in empirical and theoretical research about violence in general and in our understanding of the history of the 20th century, a century shaped by war and state-organized violence like few others before. A philosophy or social science that has the ambition to articulate the experience of the 20th century has to come to terms with the relationship between the experience of violence and the awareness of contingency. In the following I will demonstrate this in two fragments from my work. At first I will summarize what we know about long-term consequences of the experience of violence for the victims and for the perpetrators by using some results of social-scientific research about the Vietnam war which like no other war before had been the object of sociological studies. And then I will demonstrate how an awareness of contingency originating in the decade before the First World War became a mass phenomenon in the experience of the war and why we cannot understand our age without this awareness of contingency.

'If you start a man killing, you can't turn him off again like an engine.' This statement applies initially to war itself, where violence against civilians or prisoners of war and atrocities against the enemy go beyond what is strategically necessary. In the case of the Vietnam war, alongside spectacular war-crimes, like the massacre of the inhabitants of My Lai, it was above all the acts of violence committed by returning soldiers that aroused the interest of the public. In the media veterans were portrayed as ticking time bombs that could explode at any moment. The fear of reimporting violence from Vietnam reached a climax in May 1971 when Dwight Johnson was shot dead by police during a robbery in Detroit. Johnson had been decorated with the highest military honors for his heroism in Vietnam; he had even been used by the army in their recruiting campaign. Admittedly, the hysterical accounts in the media were contradicted by the soothing official figures that showed that the tendency to violence was not greater among war veterans than among other young men of the same age who had stayed at home. Initially, it was hard to resolve this contradiction. Had the media overreacted or were the official figures a fabrication? Further research was needed to shed light on this darkness. Three findings, in particular, have turned out to be illuminating. First, it is necessary to overcome the fundamental fallacy that figures about all the troops stationed in Vietnam enable us to draw inferences about the behaviour of the combat veterans. Since only a minority actually had experience of fighting, what was specific to them was lost in global statements. Second, it is necessary to include the consequences of being involved in maltreatment alongside the consequences of combat experience. In doing so, it is necessary to distinguish between active participation in acts of mistreatment and mere presence, even though this distinction my be difficult to sustain, since interviewees may be disinclined to confess their active involvement in the presence of the interviewer. But it is precisely cases of maltreatment that turn out to have consequences for the personality of the perpetrators. Lastly, a certain distance in time is needed in order to be able clearly to recognize the consequences of the experience of violence in war. From this distance, various indicators show that the experience of violence does leave lasting marks. The incidence of suicide is significantly higher and even that of fatal car accidents, poisoning and drug overdoses, as well as arrests and acts of violence, all distinguish the combat veterans from comparable groups. The supposition that there are causal connections here is therefore no longer in dispute today.
What continues to be unclear, however, is where exactly we should look for the explanation of these effects. The question of the connection between war and acts of criminal violence has a long sociological pedigree. From among the conclusions of the various studies, one emerges strongly. This is that the increase of violence on the aftermath of war cannot simply be reduced to such acts performed by war veterans, but, going far beyond this, it has to be explained by a general lowering of taboos against violence and a greater tolerance towards the use of force among the public as a whole. But this finding does not constitute a denial that the tendency towards violence of war veterans is higher than in comparable persons. In fact this conclusion is confirmed not only by individual case studies but also by quantitative analyses. An explanation could conceivably be found in the possibility that combat veterans had shown a predisposition to violence even before their military service or had acquired it during their training. Studies that include these alternative explanations do indeed arrive at the conclusion that previously existing tendencies to violence are maintained; they can also show that the increasing tendency to violence that arises from military training does decline with the passage of time. However, one finding towers above all others, namely that of the people who did not originally possess violent tendencies, it was those who were deployed in combat who subsequently often become violent. That is to say, they acquired violent tendencies in war irrespective of whether they had any predisposition to violence or not. Thus combat is not simply a field of action for a pre-existing readiness in men to behave in an aggressive and violent manner. Rather, it transforms the soldiers' personality so that their relation to violence is changed over the long term.
Furthermore, the greatest tendency to violence is to be found in those combat veterans who display several of the symptoms of the so-called PTSD syndrome (post-traumatic stress disorder). According to the diagnostic manual of the 'American Psychiatric Association', this concept brings together the effects of a traumatization in which a) the trauma recurs in nightmares, obsessions or sudden, irresistible feelings or being transported back into the traumatic events; b) tendencies to emotional rigidity and to retreat from the external world become evident; in addition, c) permanent restlessness, severe insomnia, inability to concentrate, impatience and guilt feelings torment the traumatized subject. Interestingly, the construction of this syndrome and its catalogue of symptoms is itself the product of the Vietnam war. PTSD was only admitted to the official vocabulary of psychiatry and from there to the consciousness of the public in the wake of the observations of Vietnam war veterans. As late as the First World War, the symptoms of trauma were interpreted by all the participating armies in terms of guilt and intention. Soldiers shot for cowardice included instances of clear nervous breakdown. But with the introduction of concepts like 'bomb neurosis' (Bombenneurose) and 'shell shock' we can see the first attempts to label these phenomena as psychiatric pathologies. The fact that psychopathological concepts were used so readily on the American side in the Vietnam war tells us clearly how far the penetration of psychology had advanced in the USA. The distance between war and the normative expectation of warlike attributes, on the one hand, and the progressive dissemination of psychological knowledge and the civilizing of civilian life, on the other hand, had perceptibly increased. An important role was played also by the war veterans' rap groups. Mistrust towards the armed forces' psychiatrists and the Veterans' Administration led to the formation of numerous self-help groups in which participants in the war looked for dialogue about their experiences. The self-confidence of these groups made it possible for critical psychiatrists to elaborate the stories told by the veterans and to bring the 'hidden wounds" in their souls to the attention of the public.
In these studies we are able to perceive the contexts of meaning out of which the experience of combat can so often lead to new acts of violence. Even in conversational situations rage and violence are more or less continuously present. Many veterans report how even minor disagreements or unintentional jostlings release violent reflexes in them. Here it is the simple habit of violent action that makes the veterans dangerous and even leads to genuine criminal violence. In many cases, however, we find not just an almost routinized tendency to violent action, but a fundamentally altered self-image. Coming to terms with one's own capacity for violence, and even for killing another human being, changes a man's idea of his own identity. To define oneself as a violent 'monster' allows one to commit acts and even to feel that it is natural to commit acts that would have been incompatible with one's earlier image of oneself. Questioning this new self-image is painful, since it once again reminds a man of the moral dimension of his own acts of violence. Such a questioning process can also be violently repressed. Excessive demands going beyond the slow work on one's own self-image, or the rejection of an offered self-criticism, are felt by many veterans to be typical of the situations that produce violence.
The most frequent motive mentioned by veterans as triggering rage and violence is their feeling of betrayal. There are evidently many rational justifications for this. Many soldiers felt that they had been betrayed by the armed forces and by their superior officers. This began with the injustices of the call-up. Moreover, military service and war were portrayed so unrealistically that this subsequently led to desperate complaints against the people whose misleading accounts were now held responsible for the present traumatization. But behind the armed forces stands the entire political leadership, the political system and the cultural values of the United States whose aims, conduct of the war and propaganda were all felt to be integral parts of the betrayal. The feeling of having been betrayed was also directed at the entire American population. The disappointment felt on return to the USA encapsulates this feeling symbolically. As is well known, there were no victory parades for the soldiers returning from Vietnam. Even worse, for sections of the American population they became the scapegoats for their own feelings of guilt. There are numerous reports of returning soldiers preferring to remain silent about their tour of duty in Vietnam in order not to expose themselves to criticism. Many report having been spat at and attacked. The extreme individualization of service in Vietnam because of the rotation system was repeated in their return. You secretly take off your uniform in the airport toilet and put on your civilian clothes - and then no one wants to hear about your incredible experience in the war!
The veterans' sense of betrayal is summed up in the social discourse about the effects of 'Agent Orange'. In order to combat guerilla bases in the jungle, and also presumably to destroy the enemy's food supplies, chemicals were sprayed in Vietnam until 1970/71 with the official aim of defoliating the jungle. Initially, the military were probably unaware of the catastrophic side effects of the substance which contained dioxin and which became known as Agent Orange from the color of the containers. The substance had been previously used in American agriculture. This meant that the chemical was spread indiscriminately over large areas. Since the spraying operations took place without regard to the direction of the wind and since the empty drums were then used for other purposes, the effects extended to the spraying personnel: American soldiers. The relatively unspecific medical symptoms that then appeared after a considerable lapse of time made it difficult to make a credible case for a causal connection. All the claims put forward by Vietnam veterans for compensation for damage to their health were rejected by the extremely influential Veterans' Administration, as products of their imagination. From 1977 on, the year in which the first claims were made, there was a struggle lasting several years about the legitimacy of these demands. This struggle reflected the mutual alienation of American society and the Vietnam war veterans. Only after a number of journalists had taken up the matter and the interest of the media had gradually spread, did the campaign finally culminate, after a delay lasting years, in hearings in the US Congress. Because of the apathy of the quasi-official veterans' organizations, independent organizations of Vietnam war veterans sprang into being, and under pressure from them the quasi-official organizations were finally dragged along in their wake in 1982/83. Hampered by administrative and political delays of all sorts, the veterans' groups finally succeeded, in 1985, in agreeing a settlement that gave them at least a part of their claims. The experience of the war veterans was encapsulated symbolically in the bumper sticker "Sprayed and Betrayed".
But alongside the sense of being betrayed by others that we have described, there is also the feeling of having betrayed oneself. We have already spoken of the transformation of one's self-image under the pressure of committed acts of violence. The feeling of self-betrayal makes its appearance in guilt-feelings of two kinds. In the first place, many a soldier in a combat situation comes to realizes that he can derive pleasure from committing acts of violence, and from torturing and killing other people. If it is not taken as a reason for a negative redefinition of his own identity, this experience persists as a frightening insight into the dark side of one's own character. It is a feeling of guilt that refers not just to an evil action, but to an unacceptable side of one's own character. In the second place, even the experience of combat leaves behind the feeling of 'survival guilt', which has been recorded in survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. What we must understand by this is not the feeling that one has been guilty of the death of one's own people, as is the case with officers who have made wrong decisions, for example. Instead, it is a matter of the much deeper guilt feeling that arises when you feel that your own life has been preserved for radically contingent reasons. Precisely because you do not remain alive through your own merits, your survival is felt to be accidental and meaningless compared to the infinite sufferings of those who were not similarly fortunate. The feeling of betrayal here is not blamed on others but is related to the loss of the meaning of one's own life. Simply to have survived is the betrayal. The horror arising from the enjoyment of violence and the pain resulting from the guilt at surviving means that the experience of violence in war leads a man to the feeling that he has missed the meaning of his own life. A man loses the confidence that he is, or can ever be, the person he wanted to be or to become. In this way violence makes victims even of the perpetrators.

So much on empirical social research. In the repercussions of violence we can clearly detect an awareness of contingency on the side of the individuals. But we can also observe on the more abstract level of philosophy and social theory how a serious study of the history of violence in the 20th century gives rise and has to give rise to an awareness of contingency. This can be recognized in all those thinkers who have gotten rid of the false historical certainties of modernization theory and of Marxism, but also avoid concepts like "postmodernity", "reflexive" or "second modernity" and the assumption of a historical shift into a new age. Barbarism is then not seen as either the anti-principle to modernity or as its secret underlying principle. Modernity instead can become conscious of its own potential for barbarism and strive to overcome it through a civilizing process (Miller/ Soeffner). This third possibility then does not mark a new epoch of reflexivity, but a multiply refracted consciousness that makes no attempt to proclaim optimistically the modern possibility of controlling the danger that arises from a new barbarism, but strives to remain constantly alert to the permanence of that danger.
So what is contingency? Niklas Luhmann offers a handy definition: He call s fact contingent if it is neither necessary nor impossible. I think this definition is useful because it makes clear at the outset that the best way to understand the meaning of contingency is to see it as a counter-notion to another notion, namely necessity. Thus the precise meaning of the term depends on the precise meaning of "necessity" that it presupposes. In the early history of the concept – which Ernst Troeltsch once told in a masterful way – "contingency" was opposed to the idea of the well-ordered cosmos. Hence it could refer to the incompleteness and imperfection of the merely sensual and material world on one hand, but also to the liberty and creativity of God's undetermined will on the other. A dramatic semantic change took place when the modern scientific revolution replaced the image of the well-ordered cosmos with the image of a causally determined universe, ruled by the laws of nature in the sense of a clockwork-like mechanism. This change destroyed the idea of finding metaphysical certainty in the contemplation of a well-ordered cosmos or in the faith in an order of nature designed by the unfathomable will of the divine Creator. Now contingency became associated either with chance or with free will. The longing for complete certainty moved from the ontological to the epistemological level – the Cartesian belief in the possibility of a methodical procedure in human cognition is the clearest expression of that move. It does not make sense, of course, to offer here a quick overview of the tensions between such attempts at epistemological certainty and the critiques of them in the later history of ideas. What I am aiming at is that, along a wide front, we can identify attacks on this quest for certainty in late 19th century and early 20th century thinking. Whereas Darwinism gave rise to a determinist evolutionism in the wider public, among what has been called "science watchers" (Paul Croce), in biology itself it opened the space for the insight into irreducible contingency. Henri Bergson developed out of this new biology a metaphysics of novelty, of the emergence of the new in natural processes. Nietzsche's moral philosophy takes the contingency of the genesis of values seriously for the first time in intellectual history (see chapter 2 of my "Genesis of Values"). But above all it is American pragmatism which is permeated by this discovery of contingency. Peirce called himself an anti-necessitarian thinker. William James's late metaphysical book "A Pluralist Universe" is an attempt to offer an alternative to the assumption of a "block universe", a deterministic order which precludes creative human action. John Dewey's book "Quest for Certainty" traces this quest in Western intellectual history and bids farewell to it; he wants to replace certainty with increased practical security based on science, technology, and democratic politics, i. e. on a utilization of contingency. The book could as well have been titled "Accepting Contingency". In doing so, Dewey underestimated what Peter Wagner has called "self-incurred contingency", i. e. the contingency - increasing effects of mechanisms coping with contingency. In Luhmann's work these paradoxical effects are emphasized, but now in a similarly one-sided pessimistic perspective. All this cannot really be elaborated here. My main point is that a change in the understanding of temporality can already be discovered around 1900 in avantgarde thinkers like James, Nietzsche, and Bergson - but that it did not become a mass phenomenon until the traumatic experience of the First World War.
Let me take a literary example again. In his book "The World of Yesterday" Stefan Zweig described the world prior to the war as a world obsessed with security. It was not only a world under the spell of the myth of progress, but of a deep aversion against contingency. Economic behavior, last wills, the attitude toward the state were formed by this aversion as was the mistrust against large cities, youth, and sexuality: Large cities because they led to a multiplication of encounters and impression; youth - because it is not fully aware yet of the rules of security; sexuality, because it undermines all social order. Even the philosophical discovery of contingency in the pre-war era was combined with these motives of youth, city, and sexuality. But it was the First World War which produced an awareness of historical contingency on a grand scale. Though there can be no doubt that the way in which the experience of the war was interpreted had been prepared by the increasing importance of contingency in everyday life and by the changes in the philosophical understanding of history and temporality I have mentioned, it was the extra-ordinary experience of the war which constituted the deep-reaching and widespread effect the war had on the self-understanding of "modernity" in Europe. This refers both to its outbreak and its course. Exactly because it was an event of such enormous character everybody who experienced it was in desperate need of interpretation. Until today, many different explanations are in circulation, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to identify one social factor or actor as being guilty. Listen how Michael Mann summarizes his perceptive analysis of the causes of World War I: "The events of 1914 did not result primarily from the logic of either domestic structure or realist Power interests. Nor did they result quite from human irrationality or accident. World War I was principally caused by the unintended consequences of the interactions of four of the five overlapping power networks we saw impacting on foreign policy (...) class, "statesmen", militaries, and nationalist parties (the fifth, particularistic pressure groups, though important in colonial policy, barely figured in the slide toward World War I). Because these entwined in different ways in different regimes, the Powers also had difficulty understanding one another, adding miscalculations and unintended consequences. In 1914, their "non-dialectical entwinings provided a cataclysmic climax to the power processes ..." of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most actors at the time tended to ascribe the catastrophe of the war to a clearly identifiable adversary, or they ascribed it to the whole of pre-war culture so that, in many aesthetic areas for example, it was clear after the war that there had to be a complete break with the ways of expression current prior to the war. But it was also the course of the war which falsified all expectations. This is true for the particular character of this war into which armies and populations entered with a vision nourished by pre-industrial images of heroism, but also for all wars indeed, since a battle is in most contexts a highly contingent situation which can only marginally be brought under control by strategy and military discipline or bonding. Some traits of the First World War stand out, but others are not different from other wars. I say that because I think we have to see the interplay between the experience of contingency brought about by the war –and the foil of interpretation used when the war experience was articulated. The important point is that there was such an interplay. There certainly was a widespread experience of contingency in, say, the Napoleonic wars, but the interpretation of this experience was nevertheless different since that foil was different. The years after 1914 in Europe or, at least, in those nations who had played a crucial role in the war, has to be characterized by this experience of contingency. Let me add that this took on a different character in Russia because the revolution there offered a pattern of interpretation for the origins of the war and the need for a complete rupture within the framework of a teleological philosophy of history; and a different character again in the United States, where the war experience was not as deep-reaching as in Germany or France, so that it was the Great Depression which caused a comparable disruption of epochal self-consciousness. Thus it is the first half of the 20th century which can already be called an age of contingency.
The decades of long and seemingly ever-increasing prosperity after 1945 bring to the fore, however, a new suppression of this experience of contingency and a veritable renaissance of types of thought which Bergson and Mead would have excluded from their "philosophy of the present". One could consider modernization theory a new version of an evolutionist understanding of history, and Marxism a continuation or revitalization of a teleological philosophy of history. In both cases there are also immanent attempts to liberate oneself from the conceptual narrowness of the original models and to take contingency into account. This is true, in my eyes, for Parsons' evolutionary, not evolutionist, theory or for Maurice Merleau-Ponty's version of Western Marxism. But one could say that in this perspective major intellectual controversies of the time around 1970 nowadays look like a mere reenactment of historical struggles. It is only on this backdrop that one can understand why Jean-François Lyotard's loosely argued booklet "The Postmodern Condition" could exert such an enormous influence and become the founding document of "postmodernity". Lyotard sublimated his own disappointment with Marxism and leftist radicalism into the declaration of the end of all meta-narratives. This declaration was a joyful one; the end of the different metahistorical ideologies of progress was seen as a liberation for a consciously heterogeneous and present-orientated model of culture and of personality. It has often been remarked that there is a certain self-contradiction in Lyotard's declaration: that to announce the definitive end of all meta-narratives is itself also a typical meta-narrative. Though this is true, it should not make us forget that Lyotard indeed marks a point: that at the end of the post-war interlude cultural consciousness has returned to the insight into contingency reached in the first half of the century. Since I believe in historical contingency and want to avoid a similar self-contradiction, I do not assume that there cannot be new ideologies for the suppression of this insight in the future or simple continuations of earlier myths of progress. Perhaps we presently experience such an upsurge in the context of a reaffirmation of "modernism" through the revolution in information technology and market-induced economic growth. But it is more difficult to suppress an insight that has already become widely available. We get rid of Lyotard's self-contradiction when we learn to see that breaking with teleological and evolutionist interpretations of history does not take from our shoulders the effort of placing ourselves in an historically reflective relationship to the origin of our ideals and the fate of their realization. A limited justification for teleological or evolutionistic ways of thinking then becomes perfectly possible again. Having broken with the idea of a unitary process of modernization, we still hold on to the notion of one history which is not being dissolved into a mere concatenation of episodes. In the third volume of his wonderful work "Time and Narrative" Paul Ricœur protests against the assumption that the future is completely open and contingent whereas the past is definitely closed and necessary. Against this assumption, he says, we have to make our expectations more definite, but also to leave our experiences more open for constant rearticulation: Such a "deconstruction" of modernization theory in the sense of an increasing awareness of contingency seems to me to be the necessary conclusion from the experiences of the history of violence in the 20th century.

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