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The Peculiar Temporality of Violence: a Source of Perplexity about Social Power

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Most national myths of origin begin with some transcendent or sacrificial story of violent revolution, warfare or liberation. This is also true of many origin myths of ethnic, tribal or other forms of social identity. This makes it appear that some act of violence is the cause of their coming into being. This paper argues that this is an artefact of the temporal 'peculiarity' of violence. Violent events, it is argued, are essentially unpredictable even when statistically probable. This means that violence is only 'visible' after the fact, and rarely before and that plausible causal models can rarely be constructed in advance. Violence is always seen in retrospect, then, and where it has caused significant death and destruction, it requires that we begin to make sense of what caused it. Unlike other planned or and emotionally charged social interactions (such as eating, sexuality, ritual) acts of violence interrupt (disrupt, breach, rupture, break, etc.) and terminate parts or all of previous social relations. Since the cause of violence can only be assigned retrospectively, this means that we must (re-)construct the past in a way that allows us to make sense of it. Where some violent event is followed by the eventual emergence of a new identity, the new identity is often explained as having 'originated' in violence. This implies that violence caused the new social identity in some way, and that it functions as a political instrument. But violence can only create a void, and is chaotic. After violence, we require the (re-)telling of the past in a new way. This makes violence appear at the beginning of narratives of origin, but does not imply that violence caused these identities. Since large scale violence leads cultural loss and to large scale social (re)construction, narratives of identity tend to begin at these moments in time. This account of violence seeks, therefore, to undermine the notion that violence is an efficient or final cause of social forms.


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