I’ve had a pretty demanding series of weeks where I couldn’t afford my usual distractedness, so the backlog of things I’ve been meaning to comment on is considerable.
To start, I had bookmarked a thread at Crooked Timber on Steven Pinker’s newest book that claims that violence is on the decline in human history. Chris Bertram and most of the CT commentariat is scornful of this argument, in no small measure because it’s Pinker making the argument. For the same reason, I’m also inclined to jump on the dogpile. Pinker usually assembles an army of straw men that could outnumber the terracotta soldiers in the biggest Chinese tomb, and makes them so flatteringly attired for the confidently preformed common sense of a certain kind of enthusiastic but unwary generalist reader that it takes either a withering dose of disproportionate snark or a patient long march of skeptical questioning about details and complexities to get people to look underneath the attractive exterior.
I haven’t read Pinker’s new book yet, but I can see from the CT thread and elsewhere that there are likely to be many assertions big and small in it that I’d challenge or question. Most of the CT commenters rightly zero in on the big epistemological and definitional problem that would haunt any book by any author that was intended to characterize the general arc of global history in terms of violence: what is violence, anyway? There are some very precise philosophical and empirical hairs to be split if you’re going to say that any number of state or official acts of violence are not ‘violence’, that the paucity of quantitative data about most areas of the world besides Western Europe and the United States justifies using the West as a metric of ‘universal’ trends, and on and on. Does every time a Belgian colonial official or plantation manager used the chicotte on an African worker or peasant count as one incidence of ‘violence’? It ought to. I am not going to put good odds on Pinker counting it as such. Does it count every time a parent slaps a child? A fistfight breaks out in a bar? A militia member loots at gunpoint? A Gitmo detainee gets waterboarded? An enforcer sticks a hockey forward? A bully menaces his victims without touching them?
And yet, there’s probably a version of Pinker’s argument that I would be perfectly ok with. As the commenter Soru says at CT, “Anyone who seriously thinks modern Norway is comparably violent than the land of the Vikings literally belongs in an institution, or at least under police watch so they donâ€™t act on their belief.” The problem is that charting or counting or ennumerating violence is simply the wrong way to go about making that point.
I often struggle with how to think about premodern violence (whether we’re talking about 16th Century France or the Luba Empire or the expansion of Mongol rule). Something like the patented Foucauldian storyline of epistemic transformation seems to be in order: violence gets named and imagined and tracked and lived in and on the body in modern states in ways that almost can’t be compared to a variety of premodern ways of experiencing and understanding ‘violence’. And yet I don’t want to be a silly nominalist about this or any other point. There’s some continuity and relationship between getting killed by an iron spear hurled from a Hittite chariot and an incendiary dropped on Dresden, between a woman beaten by a spouse in a premodern household and a modern one, between murders in the night across time and space. People in any given premodern society may not have imagined violence categorically as we do, or connected to a particular belief in individual rights, or felt that moral progress was linked to the reduction or elimination of violent action. But just about no one ever has welcomed being beaten, tortured or murdered themselves, even if they were enthusiastic practictioners of beating, torture or murder.
The thing that seems right in some way to me is that modernity’s understanding and mapping of violence names it as a new kind of problem and connects it to new structures of power as well as to new kinds of self-fashioning and aspiration. Somewhere in there ‘progress’ beats yet, both as something which has happened and something which has yet to happen. It does seem to me to be important to not bury that lede in an avalanche of skepticism about the details–or the author.