Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Violence, Cruelty, Power: Reflections on Heteronomy

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Violence, Cruelty, Power: Reflections on Heteronomy

Article excerpt

HETERONOMY AND CRUELTY

There is an opening in Castoriadis' work for a notion of cruelty, and it emerges in the way in which he develops his idea of heteronomy. Castoriadis formulates heteronomy as a human world that is blind or deaf to, or deflected away from an acknowledgement of the ontological dimension of human self-creation and the condition of self-responsibility and self-limitation that comes with this acknowledgement. (1) In Castoriadis' terms, the category of heteronomy works in two ways. The first is that the human world is objectified in terms of the gods, and, although he does not say as much, within this, the world is split between good and evil. On the other side, when the gods 'fall to earth' so to speak, goodness and evil become recognized for what they are--human self-creations. It is here that cruelty can enter as a category for a reflection concerning the nature of heteronomous creations, irrespective of whether they are attributed to the gods or are acknowledged as self-creations. In both cases, it is suggested here that as a dimension of heteronomy, the specificity of cruelty is that it is a mode of one-sidedness, of an interaction without regard for and recognition of, the other. It is thus a created 'interaction' with neither the possibilities of power or autonomy. (2) Both power and autonomy imply the recognized co-existence of others, even though like power and autonomy, cruelty is a second order imaginary creation and has the possibility of being instituted.

In conventional sociology and social theory it is more usual to talk about violence rather than cruelty. There is often also the assumption of an internal connection between power, force and violence. When one speaks of violence, the commonsensical understanding is to link it to physical aggression and brute force that often becomes synonymous with the pursuit and exercise of power. (3) Moreover, and even when power is not necessarily at stake, violence is assumed to occur on a scale from erratic outbursts of anger, to calculated strategies and manoeuvres, to the development of specialised techniques and tools, including war, weaponry and torture. In this context too, and especially when it moves from the erratic to the calculative, violent acts occur in the context of cultural points of reference that may ensure that particular forms of violence can be understood by participants and observers on both sides--injury and death on the battlefield, torture, capital punishments, rape, malicious talk, vilification or slander, and cruel jokes, if one includes verbalised forms of violence.

However, I wish to change tack away from conceptualising the way violence might be expressed in its assumed relation with power, to conceptualising what it might be in its own terms--in other words to considering what violence might be as a form of human action amongst the myriad number of other human actions. In other words, I want to suggest that violence, or more specifically cruelty--as it is more than physical violence--is not only a form of social action that has its referent external to itself as a form of mutually understood social action portrayed as force, but that it is also a human act that both carries its creation internal to itself, and is singular and heteronomous. This essay, then, works, not on 'the wild side', but on the side of the negative or the misanthropic and explores, even momentarily an aspect that is available to all of us. This exploration is not necessarily an attempt, as Judith Shklar would say, 'of putting cruelty first' but of acknowledging it and inquiring how it might be mobilised out of an 'economy' of imaginings--of exploring what we are often capable of. (4) In other words, this exploration begins from the complexity of the human soul, and a dimension of it that may prompt and even foster forms of reflexive singularity and closure, which not so much resists but works against an acknowledgement of an other. …

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