Violence, Values and the Violation of Boundaries: Maxwell Kennel on his new book

December 5, 2023 by Siri Hansen & Maxwell Kennel

Recent DSR SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow Maxwell Kennel joined us for a conversation about his new book, Ontologies of Violence: Deconstruction, Pacifism, and Displacement (Brill, 2023) which provides a critical theory of violence by treating it as a diagnostic concept that implies the violation of value-laden boundaries. He is the author of Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) and is working on his next book, Critique of Conspiracism (forthcoming with Routledge). Dr. Kennel is Senior Research Associate at the Dr. Gilles Arcand Centre for Health Equity, at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine University in Thunder Bay.

DSR: The first question is, of course, what is violence? And why does trying to define it matter? 

MAXWELL KENNEL: Violence is something that's both possible to define in specific instances but is also impossible to define in a way that encloses it in a singular definition that applies to all people for all time. 

In my book Ontologies of Violence I'm pushing back against two opposing ways of defining violence. On one hand, there are people who think that violence is only physical, or only something we can see: murder, war, some of the worst things one could imagine. These are obviously examples of violence, but they are not the only ones. On the other hand, violence is often done through words, speech, and even our most basic concepts of what it means to be in the world. 

At the same time, I’m challenging two other opposing tendencies in how we talk about violence. Firstly, there are people who argue that violence is whatever anyone thinks it is, which leaves the term open to those who would use it as a weapon (by using the term to condemn whatever they do not like). Secondly, there are those who defend a singular definition of the term at the expense of all others, which makes the term so closed that it cannot respond to other, differing uses. 

I'm trying to chart paths between reducing violence to physicality and dissociating the term into abstraction; and between abandoning violence to subjectivity or consigning it to an objective approach that wants to define violence as a single thing.

After we hear the word "violence," the most important question we can ask is: what are the specific boundaries that are being violated?

Why is it important to define it? Why select violence in particular to examine?

Violence is unique because it is a word that we use to name the transgression of the things that are most important to us. It is a severe and serious term that we use to reject those things that are counter to the values that we encircle with boundaries.

After we hear the word "violence," the most important question we can ask is: what are the specific boundaries that are being violated? And what do those boundaries encircle? What valued thing is being offended against in every case that one would use or hear the word? That's what I mean when I claim that violence is the violation of value-laden boundaries. This doesn't mean we can't define violence or argue for or against certain uses of the term, but it shows something of the work the word is doing and how it is always a reflection of the values of its users and critics.

This implies that the phenomenon of violence is peculiarly human.

I do think that violence uniquely reflects human values. For example, in his Theory of Religion the French philosopher Georges Bataille argued that without humans, there would be no violence: an animal would eat another animal and no violation would occur. That said, it’s clear that animals also have norms and can experience something akin to violation, as in the case of animals who deliberate and retaliate. I’m also thinking of scholars of posthumanism who argue that the human-animal division itself is violent because it violates the dignity of animal life. 

Behind these questions is the question of whether violence is or is not natural, and to what degree can it be resisted, and to what degree it's just part of the world.

My argument is that the violence we see in thinking, knowing, and speaking is at the root of how all violence is done.

Do people agree about whether human beings are naturally violent?

That’s another interesting thing about the term violence. It's a contested concept. We can't agree on what counts as violence. We see this politically all the time, in that there are people who are quite invested in violence being a word that should only name physical things, and others who use the term without giving an account of what valued thing is being transgressed. But I'm interested in why someone would be focused on the visible character of violence at the expense of violence done by words, thoughts, and ideas. My argument is that the violence we see in thinking, knowing, and speaking is at the root of how all violence is done.

You were a postdoctoral fellow in the Department for the Study of Religion while refining your dissertation for publication. How does religion factor into this examination of violence?

The study of religion is wonderfully interdisciplinary. In my book I study the philosopher Jacques Derrida, Mennonite pacifist theologians in the Christian tradition, and the feminist philosopher of religion Grace Jantzen. So, in a sense, my work on violence is about religion because these sources do not think simply about the division between religion and secularity. One of the key ways I think about religion is that it is composed of social bonds. Religion is a way of binding, and those bonds are often the same ones that are violated when we say violence is done. So the terms ‘religion’ and ‘violence’ are always intimately related because religion, like other social formations, gives a set of boundaries to those who follow it and violence is a word we used to name the transgression of those bonds and what they bound off.

If violence itself signifies the violation of a boundary, what about the messy situation where it seems like the only solution is to bring your own violence to bear in order to stop the original transgression?

The moment where one interprets one's surroundings as necessitating a violent response is a fascinating one. In the Mennonite pacifist tradition, for example, there is a near-total prohibition on retaliation, and often a posture of non-defence. For the pacifists I study, to defend oneself against violence by using violence enters into a self-defeating cycle. That, however, stands in stark contrast with how one thinks about the way oppressed groups would be justified in responding to violence being done to them.

There are ways to disrupt the cycle of violence that are not passive and that are also not simply repeating the same problem in reverse.

I think that there is a complex in-between space between being defenceless and accepting abuse and oppression, and the opposite wherein you retaliate in anticipation of further violence and repeat the sort of violence that you’re retaliating against, thereby becoming complicit in a cycle of violence that cannot end without disinvestment and de-escalation.

Some people like to say that there's a point where you must return force for force and power for power. But I worry that some defenders of the right to retaliate lack creative thinking about where the lines could be, alongside, in the interest of stopping violence cycles, the possibility of sacrificing what they perceive to be the right to retaliate.

There are ways to disrupt the cycle of violence that are not passive and that are also not simply repeating the same problem in reverse. Those delicate spaces are the most important to conceptualize. I hope my book does some of that or at least helps people think about more creative ways to engage in, for example, civil disobedience and protest.

The most violent way of thinking that I identify is the assumption that differences are always forms of displacement, wherein saying one thing necessarily displaces the saying of another thing..

You write in your introduction, “Violence names something that spans the distance between thinking and action and stands between words and their meanings.” Can you elaborate on that?

Violence is a word that people often use to name violations that are physical and visible. But the term is also used in the case of hate speech or harassment wherein it is words that are the vehicle by which violation is done. This shows how violations are never done without a lot of violent thinking upstream of them. The term ‘violence’ is used in ways that span the distinction between thinking and action. There are ways of thinking about words and language that are violent, and other ways that are not. The most violent way of thinking that I identify in the book is the assumption that differences are always forms of displacement, wherein saying one thing necessarily displaces the saying of another thing. I think there is a violent version of language in which one thinks ‘I possess the true meaning of this or that word that I'm using and my use of that term is the right way and anything that deviates from it is illegitimate.’ I think that's a violent way of conceiving of language because it violates the hard fact that language is socially constituted and always transforming.

This is deeply relevant to my current work with the Dr. Gilles Arcand Centre for Health Equity on socially accountable research. I'm interested in socially accountable ways of thinking about language (and by extension, research, writing, and institutions). Any time we use particular terms or words, we are accountable for the wide variation in their uses and the ways that our terms have transformed over time. This intersects with religion a great deal. There are plenty of religious terms that, for religious insiders, are good words. They mean only an ideal-type and a good thing. And then there are others for whom those words represent great violence, and forms of abuse. 

That violence can span words and their meanings calls us to account – both to give an account of what we mean when we use terms like “violence” and to be prepared to be held to account for how we think and speak within the bonds of our social worlds.

→ More on Maxwell Kennel's Ontologies of Violence: Deconstruction, Pacifism, and Displacement


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