What does it mean to think at the extremes and to think about violence in its extremes? Étienne Balibar adopts this practice from his teacher, Louis Althusser, who also taught the lesson that guilt is an inescapable condition of philosophical reflection.1 All concepts—and not just the concept of violence—are guilty concepts. And they are guilty for their violence, for how they produce their objects and render the world legible in their own terms. How the concept gets defined and mobilized will determine what we see and what we say about reality. Like all concepts, the concept of violence contains its own silences. Thinking at the extremes also means listening for these silences.
Just as violence cannot be thought of as the other of politics, “unless we want to imagine a politics without powers, power relations, inequalities, conflicts, or interests,” violence cannot be thought of as the other of thinking, unless we want to imagine thinking without power, power relations, inequalities, conflicts, or interests.2 Althusser makes this point in his theory of ideology, where ideas are inscribed in material practices and embedded in existing relations of force. Even Althusser's approach to philosophy as “a certain continuation of politics” is based on a recognition that concepts are weapons of political struggle and prisms of political conflict.3 Every philosophy represents a way of relating to the world and its material forces. Every philosophy is a specific kind of practice and takes up a particular position in relation to the real struggles of its time. For Althusser, Marxism furnished not a new philosophy (a philosophy of praxis or, even worse, a philosophy of “man”), but rather a new philosophical practice, a new way of doing philosophy, a method of thinking at the extremes. Althusser discerned this same practice in Machiavelli and in Marx and Lenin after him.4 It is striking that the principal sources for this Althusserian method are not professional philosophers, as he confessed himself to be, but political theorists, themselves guilty (in Althusser's sense) of reading philosophy as politics.
Thinking at the extremes is a practice Althusser shared with Theodor Adorno, despite their lack of interest in one another’s work. Both treated concepts as the embattled terrain on which philosophy establishes its connection to science and politics. For Adorno, to think at the extremes is to think like a radical Hegelian. It is the theoretical practice implied in mediation. “Hence for Hegel mediation [Vermittlung] is never a middle element between extremes,” Adorno remarks; “instead, mediation takes place in and through the extremes, in the extremes themselves [ereignet sich durch die Extreme hindurch in ihnen selber]. This is the radical aspect of Hegel, which is incompatible with any advocacy of moderation.”5 For Althusser, thinking at the extremes is the rejection of the Hegelian dialectic, not for its moderation but for its myopia, for the flat uniformity of the simple dialectic that sees only mutations but never ruptures in history. Althusser trades the concept of mediation for the borrowed idea of overdetermination. This term insists upon the multiple levels and aspects of a social formation that determine each and any of its contradictions. But Adorno, too, sees a social formation in terms of its different levels, and his concept of nonidentity might be usefully considered in relation to the Althusserian idea of overdetermination. The adage from Minima Moralia that “in psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations” gets echoed in Althusser's own elaborations on method and the interaction of science, philosophy, and politics.6 Without space here to consider all of the ways that Adorno and Althusser might be made to speak to one another and to the present tasks of critical theory, I am suggesting that both embrace thinking at the extremes as a crooked path to knowledge about politics.
Balibar retains the idea of overdetermination in his own reflections on violence, arguing that the thought of violence will not “replace every other question of economy or culture, law or justice; but it must ‘overdetermine’ all of these matters.”7 Elsewhere Balibar reminds us that Althusser's concept of overdetermination is inseparable from the idea of underdetermination.8 If the former is addressed to the multiple “levels” of social reality (economic, political, ideological) and the uneven development of complex contradictions in a social formation, the latter attends to what is unanticipated and unforeseen in encounters, the surprises that somehow take hold. This is the “aleatory” dimension of politics, to which both Althusser and Balibar refer.
A critical concept of violence must take account of its overdeterminations and its underdeterminations, of how violence saturates questions of economy, politics, and culture and how violence “falls into the extreme, most of the time unexpectedly and unpredictably, from within a state of apparent normality.” It is not a question of the state of exception (Schmitt) but of the tendencies present in each and every case. It is not a question of finding the accurate measure of suffering or magnitude of destruction, discovering a principle powerful enough to maintain balance between politics and violence. Extreme violence is not a quantitative but a qualitative determination. Thinking at the extremes, “shifting from one extreme to the other, in order to engage politics from the inside of its contradictions and determinations,” demands a set of concepts flexible enough to include their opposites and rigid enough to preclude everything in between.9 “This is not just a methodological choice,” Balibar notes, but a “necessity imposed by the thing itself.”10
Violence, says Balibar, imposes its method. It demands thinking at the extremes. I would say that it also demands a feminist method. Feminism is uniquely equipped to listen for the silences in what is said about violence and discern a complex whole stitched together by gendered and gendering violence. It is impossible to think violence in its extremes without thinking gender in its most ordinary and everyday expressions. For example, the spectacular display of police violence in the streets of US cities is intimately connected to the construction and assertion of masculinity in the household. At issue is not simply the “impersonal” power of the state, but the personal authority of men in uniform. A feminist practice of thinking at the extremes asks: What world is known and knowable through a specific concept of violence? What world is opened up in the idea of civility, defined not as nonviolence, but as anti-violence? What is rendered speakable through the concept of extreme violence? What remains mute? What can be said of those patterns of violence that depend upon a deafening silence?
It is with these observations and questions in mind that I pause on a passing reference in Balibar's essay to “domestic violence” and the historical-political horizon that renders it unspeakable. Addressing the “micropolitical” effects of extreme violence and its uneven distributions of perception, Balibar notes:
some of its forms are clearly hyper-represented in the media, but we have reason to believe strongly that whatever is hyper-represented is also dissimulated and distorted, whereas other forms of violence which are more secret or less “exceptional” are essentially left invisible, are unsayable, even for their victims. For a very long time, this was (and perhaps remains) the case for “domestic violence,” which can be extreme.11
The layers of ambiguity here are instructive. “Domestic violence” is placed in scare quotes, presumably to signal a problem with the term and not to cast doubt on the reality it represents. But as there is no subsequent effort to examine it, especially as it relates to Balibar's other designations of violence, “domestic violence” becomes a case apart, not quite exceptional but still unspeakable. It is the residue of a regime of violence that endured “for a long time,” but without determinations specific to it. Domestic violence is part of a past that has no obvious bearing on the present, except as legacy. And this legacy “perhaps” remains, as if a bit of equivocation must be introduced into every effort to say the unsayable. It can be extreme, which is also to say it needn't be. Despite criteria of extreme violence—the impossibility of resistance, the annihilation of the instinct of self-presentation, and the divorce from utility—that seem almost tailor-made to analyze the privatized patterns of violence that occur in the family, Balibar leaves the institution of the family mostly unmentioned.
The exceptions are the passage already cited and another reference to Foucault's treatment of the “micro-powers” of everyday life, which Balibar says that he will leave aside: “the cruelty of prisons, tribunals, even hospitals, schools, not to mention families.”12 For Balibar, these micro-powers are secondary to the macro-powers of the state and the patterns of violence specific to it. “Everyday cruelty” may indicate or intensify the violence that is proper to (and property of) the state, but this is the result of a tendency in the state to reproduce its own violence. The reproduction of violence can occur when the state is powerful, but it becomes extreme when the state is “impotent” and unable to command control of its citizens or the market. Cruelty, whether extraordinary or ordinary, is a compensatory mechanism. Ordinary violence, in this case, would seem to increase in inverse proportion to the potency of the state. If this is the case, then why should we conclude that “domestic violence” is a residue of the past, as opposed to the ordinary expression of the present impotency of the state? If the micro-powers of the family “reveal and multiply” the macro-powers of the state and its limitations, then why would we leave these powers and their precise relations and determinations unaddressed? Wouldn't the questions of everyday cruelty “to which Foucault particularly attached himself” become central to the account of the disproportions between state power and extreme violence? And is the family not singular in its relationship to the state? Is it yet another apparatus for the refinement of the micro-powers of society, or is it instead elemental to the accumulation of the macro-powers of the state? To invoke Althusser again, could we say that the family has a special role in the reproduction of the state, its dominant ideology but also and crucially its relations of force, and that this role changes but does not exactly diminish over time? The critical purchase of the concept of “extreme violence” might be measured by how it responds to these questions.
Speaking of Foucault, Balibar also references the “inverted Clausewitzian” formula, that politics is “the continuation of violence [war] by other means,” which risks reducing politics to violence but also indicates the impossibility of their complete separation.13 Balibar's argument, by contrast with Foucault's, is that the “intrinsic relationship” between violence and politics is a matter of both a boundary and an intrusion. Politics cannot wholly escape the empire of violence or its effects. But there is a practice of politics, says Balibar, which goes by the name of civility, that preserves the possibility of conflict without total annihilation. Returning to Foucault's formula, though, is this a simple inversion of Clausewitz? Or, like Marx's inversion of Hegel, is it a case of a complex inversion in which the terms themselves are redefined in the process? In Discipline and Punish, Foucault offers a more elaborate and precise set of arguments. Inverting Clausewitz also means rethinking war, not as an application of a strategy of violence, but as a tactic of militarization. To say that politics is war by other means is to suggest that the military model becomes the template for the management of civil conflict. “Politics, as a technique of internal peace and order,” Foucault writes, “sought to implement the mechanism of the perfect army, of the disciplined mass, of the docile troop, of the regiment in camp and in the field, on maneuvers and on exercises.”14 Politics as the continuation of war refers to the militarization of society as a tactic for securing the absence of violence. My point is that there is no question here of Foucault conflating politics with violence. On the contrary, politics adopts the well-ordered army as its civilian model, which is to say it develops a set of tactics for the elimination of the possibility of violence. This model eliminates the possibility of conflict, while civility in Balibar's sense aims to preserve it. But might this Foucauldian image of an ordered civilian population capture a politics of civility in its extremes? Might it be worthwhile to distinguish the critical concept of anti-violence from the politics of civility?
The family undoes the distinction between the macro-powers of the state and the micro-powers of society, which reproduces, at different pitch, the bourgeois liberal separation between the public and private spheres. This separation has served to privatize family violence and generalize its effects. Likewise “domestic violence” does not exactly fit anywhere in the distinction between ultraobjective and ultrasubjective violence, between the “anonymous” violence of finance capitalism and the “communitarian” violence that substitutes a fantasy of purity for belonging. Indeed, this distinction has the unintended effect of privatizing family violence, despite the fact that the family serves as both an anchor of financialization and as a site for the reproduction of a mythical community. That said, Balibar does offer terms essential to account for family violence and its intrinsic relationship to politics, even if he does not pursue this lead. The idea of “quasi-sovereign” violence is one important example, which refers to the regime of violence located not in a single ruler (a monarch, a president, a patriarch, or a parent), but in an “economic and administrative network” that colonizes “basic needs and desires” so as to eliminate them altogether. Quasi-sovereign violence is the form of utilitarian violence that paradoxically reduces millions to de-utility, to absolute disposability. Feminist activists in Mexico, for example, responding to the epidemic of missing girls and women and the general climate of impunity and political neglect, remark on this exercise of quasi-sovereign violence: “You kill a woman here and nothing happens.”15
Another idea emerges from Balibar, one that he directly connects to “the extreme violence suffered by women and children employed in Bangladesh and Pakistan” (and elsewhere): the “protracted primitive accumulation” of globalized capitalism.16 Without fully engaging the rich set of debates that have emerged around the concept primitive accumulation in Marx or its analytic uses in the critique of contemporary capitalism, I want to insist upon the importance of this term for mapping the relation of the family to capitalism and the state.17 Indeed, I think family violence serves as a kind of primitive political accumulation that is ongoing and integral to the sovereignty of the state.18 Family violence compensates for the impotence of the state, but also habituates human beings to forms of cruelty that reflect that impotence. The use of violence in the home is preparation for its uses outside the home. Thinking at the extremes, as I see it, requires a confrontation not with the exceptional case of sovereign decision, but with the quotidian expressions of order and authority. For so many women and children, the tendency of violence to fall to the extremes is a basic lesson of everyday life. And an ordinary violence rationalizes and stabilizes a given order of things. Family violence is treated as exceptional by liberals and conservatives alike. Or as spectacular by a sensationalist profit-driven media. A critique of violence must also make sense of the tendency of the extreme to become everyday.
Extreme violence does have a quantitative dimension, I suspect. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in four women experiences severe physical violence from an intimate partner at some point in her life.19 Over three thousand women are murdered in the United States every year, almost always by men and often by husbands and boyfriends, ex-husbands, and ex-boyfriends. Intimate partner violence is the second leading cause of death for pregnant women. Poor women, Black women, queer women, elderly women, working women, and trans women face the threat of violence in different contexts and with different intensities, but violence is something that affects women as women. Statistics are no substitute for concepts. The concept of violence must be able to say something about the open secrets of this civilization. Anti-violence, as opposed to both violence and nonviolence, might then appear as a patently feminist practice.
Adorno, Minima Moralia, 49. Compare this with the practice that Althusser attributes to Lenin, “bending the stick” in the opposite direction so as to set things right, a way of “speaking the truth” which is opposed to any rationalist or empiricist idea of truth. Truth is measured in part by its effects, how it succeeds (or fails) at setting things right. This may be what Adorno was getting at as well. See Althusser, “Is It Simple,” 171.
Balibar, “From Violence as Anti-Politics,” 394; emphasis added.
Balibar, “From Violence as Anti-Politics,” 385; brackets in original.
This term features in the works of thinkers like David Harvey (in his theory of neoliberalism) and Sylvia Federici (in her history of witch hunts), and in the ongoing debates about the relationship between capitalism and colonialism. For a helpful overview of and contribution to these debates, see Roberts, “What Was Primitive Accumulation?”
I borrow this idea, too, from Althusser; it is developed in his reading of Machiavelli. See Althusser, Machiavelli and Us. Machiavelli himself saw gendered and family violence at the beginnings of the founding of the state. The rape of Lucretia is restaged in Machiavelli's Mandragola. The theme of sexual conquest is implicit in the imagery of The Prince, and sometimes explicit in its rhetoric, for instance in chapter 25, where Machiavelli compares fortuna to a woman who must be subdued by masculine virtù.