A Theory of Violence

1— Introduction

If we wanted to successfully advance practices that serve the means of reducing violence, it would be prudent to first understand what violence is and, a fortiori, what causes it to be.  And, any theory that must adequately explicate a concept must be inclusive of multiple modes of it’s existence, in addition to multiple variances of how it manifests.  As, for example, the concept of governance includes a continuum of modes of existence and from that extends various manifestations therein.  The concept of socialism would be a modality as pertaining to governance and the country of England would be a particular manifestation of governance.  The only concept that would be exempt from such an analysis would be the concept of ideology— being that ideology is the grounding concept to which all other concepts take root; hence it has only one modality, or as Althusser reasons: “ideology has no history” (Althusser, 175).  The formulation of  ideology is key in understanding how violence manifests, henceforth I will unpack the formulation of ideology as a means towards advancing a theory of violence.

2 — Modalities of Violence

Analogous to governance, the modalities of violence also function on a continuum and the poles of this continuum are represented as explicit to one side and implicit to the other.  The modalities of violence utilized to advance this theory of violence will be the three modalities posited by Slavoj Žižek, which are (starting with the most explicit): subjective, objective and symbolic (Žižek, 9-30).

The most explicit modality of violence is subjective violence; which is the modality of violence used in common parlance.  It is brute physical violence—  as actualized in self-mutilation, suicide, battery, homicide, rape and war.   This modality may seem like the form that renders the greatest adverse impact to an individual and/or the collective, but I would argue the contrary is the case.  The modality of violence that is the most explicit and most apparent in society will attract more attention and, subsequently, more effort towards minimizing it will be enacted.  Additionally, one could argue that even if subjective violence receives more attention, the actualization of suicide, homicide and war—  or simply: murder in the broadest sense carries an unmeasurable and insurmountable impact that cannot be negated by any positive action in the spirit of violence prevention.   Notwithstanding that judgement, I will posit that the modalities of violence are interrelated and hierarchical and any method of violence-prevention that does not comprehensively work towards negating all modalities of violence is wholly insufficient and, panoptically speaking, it will only serve as a means of amplifying all manifestations of violence.  In other words, subjective violence is dependent on the existence of objective and symbolic violence and, with that said, subjective violence is mere effect of the violent hierarchy and therefore has, when viewed in whole, the least adverse impact on society.

The second modality of violence is objective violence, which is the modality of violence that is commonly understood as oppression.  This is actualized as economic oppression from the product of global capitalism; the disproportionate amount of people of color that are incarcerated from the product of institutional racism in the justice system and the gender income gap from the product of institutional sexism— to name a few examples.  I would define objective violence as:

Any time an organization of any type implicitly functions by the means of the objectification of a demographic category as instrumentally necessary to actualizing their ends and justifying their means.

This can be exhibited from an obvious example, such as how the Ku Klux Klan objectified African Americans as a means to actualize their ideological ends; to the less obvious example of how the War on Drugs advanced under the Reagan administration objectified inner-city African Americans as a means to actualize their ideological ends (Alexander, 5).   Subjective violence, as mentioned earlier, is dependent on objective violence and it is the apparatus that creates the social framework that facilitates the objectification of a demographic category and henceforth enables the actualization of physical violence.   As Levinas argues, we can never have an authentic thought of the other, but we can have recognition of thyself within the other as a subject gazing into the eyes of another subject that is like me and the same, or “being-before-the-Same” (Badiou, 18-19)  — echoed further in the notion that the “…empathic cognition of others, and the other’s empathic cognition of oneself” are neurologically correlated (McGilchrist, 145).  If ethical action comes from recognition of the other as sameness, it is therefore reasonable to assert that the unethical action is the failure to recognize the other as sameness; or in other words, perceive the other as an object, as a mere means to an end— as otherwise less.   This process of objectification—or what Zimbardo calls dehumanization (Zimbardo, 352)— applied to demographic categories in whole is the second modality of violence. In short: objective violence.

The third and final modality of violence is symbolic violence, which is the the most implicit, most socially damaging and, unfortunately, the most elusive— and is otherwise known as violence of language.  Symbolic violence has two forms which, for simplicity sake, I will inscribe as shallow and deep.  Shallow will be used to illustrate violent uses of language and deep will be used to illustrate the violent structure of language itself.  As mentioned earlier, the modalities of violence are, in addition to being interrelated, hierarchal; and, just as subjective violence is dependent upon objective violence, so is the case that objective violence is dependent upon symbolic violence.  I would define symbolic violence as:

Any and all symbolic expressions (broadly construed) that implicitly or explicitly reinforce and/or enable the manifestation of objective violence through either the outwardly expressed use of language (shallow) and/or the exploitation of the structure of language itself (deep) as a means to justify and actualize ideology.

Shallow symbolic violence is illustrated, for example, in sexist language used in advertisement and media in whole as a means to justify a patriarchal ideology.  Deep symbolic violence is, on the other hand, illustrated as “the Lancian master-signifier, the ‘signifier without a signified’”(Žižek, SOI, 103).  Master-signifiers are words that do not have a concrete definition that can be explicitly and concisely denoted and because of their ambiguous nature they have the ability to absorb the character and quality of the ideological system(s) they have been inscribed to.   An example of a master-signifier would be the word freedom— the libertarian political party in the United States argues that removing minimum wage is an act towards the promotion of freedom and, conversely, the anarcho-syndicalism political party argues that removing the concept of wage labor altogether is an act towards the promotion of freedom.  Or, how the difference between a freedom-fighter and a terrorist are only discernible by the ideology they promote/reject.  These two examples illustrate how the elusive master-signifier of freedom can be used to represent the justification of completely opposing actions and henceforth become the fuel in the fire that leads to systemic and institutional oppression and subsequently a causal force in contributing to brute physical violence in society.

As mentioned earlier, for a theory of a concept to be adequate it must contain all modes of existence in addition to all its various manifestations.  Regarding the concept of violence, it manifests in three ways: 

  1. violence towards the self
  2. violence towards a non-self
  3. violence towards a collective

All three modalities of violence will manifest in all three manifestations, to name a few examples:  the individual (the self) could use social media as a means of objectifying themselves (objective violence towards the self); the collective culture of consumer America using exploited labor in developing nations to manufacture their consumer products (objective violence towards a collective); racist language in military propaganda used to gain support for a war effort (symbolic violence towards a collective); and lastly the three manifestations of subjective violence: suicide, homicide and war.  When all combined, this argues that the totality of violence as a concept is actualized in nine different variations of violence and now that we have sufficiently addressed what violence is, we shall address the question of what causes violence to be.  Violence is, metaphorically speaking, akin to a pot on a stove: symbolic violence is the heat, objective violence is the water in the pot and subjective violence is the boil-over that occurs when there is too much heat and water.  So the question becomes what causes too much heat, too much water and, subsequently, too much boil-over?  But, as mentioned earlier, before we can sufficiently unpack the question of what causes violence to be, we must adequately unpack the formulation of ideology itself.

3 — Ideological formulations

Ideology as a concept, as stated in the introduction, has only a single mode of existence and that existence has no history.  This is to say that the form of ideology and the qualities it holds as a concept have no history— they are unchangeable.  Conversely, the content of any ideological manifestation does have a history that evolves with culture and society.  I will define ideology as:  

Ideology is an unconscious notion that is composed of ideas, actions, motivations, goals and expectations of society that implicitly reinforces a social order and it permeates into the conscious mind as an internally perceived idea of Truth that manifests externally as a norm.

That is to say any and all action represents an ideological web of beliefs that could be perceived as a system of values.  For example, if one were to shop online and purchase organic food, the e-commerce site you purchased from could apply an algorithm that analyzes your shopping habits and then takes like-minded consumers and makes suggestions of things you may want to buy— such as, biodegradable trash bags.  The shopping algorithm is implicitly assigning you to a pro-green ideology.  That is not to say that an e-commerce site creates ideology, but rather that the marketing industry is cognizant that if you can convert a commodity-for-sale into a lifestyle-for-sale you can then increase sales to any and all commodities that you can rationalize in some way as being subordinated within any particular lifestyle (ideology).   This example illustrates why ideology can become very elusive, as how does anybody know if their actions are freely willed if the options to choose from are pervasively dictated by the ideology that resides within the unconscious mind?  From the mattress I sleep on, to my shampoo, to my toothpaste, to my coffee, to the car I drive, to the friends I keep, to the values I hold, to the dreams I pursue— all are influenced by the ideology that I persistently validate in every choice I make, every day of my life.

I will begin deconstructing ideology by making the following proposition:

Fast food is good. 

If, I as a subject, state this proposition as mere opinion it has only subjective value.  However, if I state this proposition to a like-minded other, that other could validate this proposition as being true.  Additionally, I may or may not be aware of my own subjectivity but, nonetheless, I could delude myself into perceiving my ability to render the proposition Fast Food is good as a completely objective opinion that is not influenced by my subjectivity.   Next, I may have been raised by parental figures that I perceive as authority, who implicitly validated the proposition Fast Food is good by feeding this to me as a child.  As an adult I no longer rely upon the validating authority of my actual parents, but instead that role has been replaced by a metaphorical parental figure, viz. the state.  The state, as illustrated by the FDA, may validate this proposition by allowing fast-food to exist.  Lastly, there is the ideology itself—  the ideology of the western diet.  In other words, ideology is a set of values and beliefs that, for lack of a better word, when put together form a social order and this social order is constructed by a social web of agents validating their ideological values with like-minded people, their perceived objective self, their perceived objective authority and lastly this value—  by the process of being abstracted into the empty container of ideology (and master-signifiers)—  will be reflected back to the self as a representation of an objective reality—  an objective truth.  This process is like speaking into a canyon and hearing your words echo back at you, but then perceiving the echo as confirmation that your words are objectively true and validated.  When ideology colludes with the elusive master-signifier you enter a realm where any social order can be perceived and accepted as a virtuous pursuit.  The master-signifiers can absorb the values and beliefs of any ideological system and help validate it as a belief system worthy of belief — as an ideology that is more True than its opposition.

Any words I speak as a subject to another subject are symbolic expressions exchanged in what Lacan refers to as the symbolic register.  The thoughts and opinions of the other belong to the imaginary register.  This is to say that I can speak as one subject to another subject about my life, but I could never truly explain my subjectivity to another subject; my subjectivity to all other people can only be what is imagined and never what is known in the same way I know it.  Lastly, in what Lacan referred to as the real register is the place where Truth or objective reality resides, as we are eternally handcuffed by our own subjectivity and although we can imagine the subjectivity of the other, we can never know objective Truth in any true way (Johnston, 2013).  I would posit that ideology by a cyclical process of perpetual validation creates the illusion that we have access to this real reality, to objective reality, to truth— which henceforth justifies the means and ends of the ideology at hand.

4 — A theory of Violence 

As expressed earlier in the boiling pot metaphor, subjective violence is the boil-over as the product of too much objective and symbolic violence.  That metaphor may give rise to the notion that when violence erupts in society it erupts in huge amounts at a time, but that is not the case.  The metaphor is only a representation of the hierarchal relationship of the three modalities of violence and any boil-over from that metaphor is not actualized violence, but only potential violence.   Violence does not immediately erupt when the conditions are satisfied because actualized violence is ultimately dependent on subjective perception.  Violence erupts when the power balance between any layer of ideological validation are disrupted out of homeostasis.  This could be how a subject relates with their perceived objective self, how a subject relates with the big Other or how a collective relates with another collective.  A subject could perceive their objective self as inadequate, powerless and weak and become disillusioned into perceiving that their objective notion of self is a flawless reflection of their subjective self and therefore be thrown into depression and grow suicidal tendencies.  Others could feel that their big Other, or the police department, is overtly rigid to their specific demographic and as reasoned by an interpretation of Durkheim: social norms and laws that are too “rigid” or in a state that is “too rule-governed” and when there is a “mismatch” between the needs of the individual and the collective a state of anomie can erupt (Star, Bowker, Neumann, 1997).  And lastly a group could feel completely abandoned by their big Other and lash out against the social system itself— otherwise known as a social revolution, or what Žižek calls divine violence (Žižek 200-201).  In all these examples the cause of violence is from the perceived perception of the subject, who feels that the power balance has been disrupted out of homeostasis— and although what homeostasis is for any given person or collective is completely subjective.   This disruption in power is, I argue, what causes violence to be. 

5 — Conclusion

As stated earlier, if we wanted to advance practices to reduce violence it would be prudent to adequately advance a clear definition of the concept itself.  As argued earlier, violence is a perceived disruption in the power anywhere in the complex web of ideology.  If this structure in society has no history and is omnipresent, then it stands to reason that the only way to reduce violence in society is to utilize violence-prevention methods that focus on the totality of violence and not just the subjective violence that sits on the surface.   Moreover, any violence-prevention method that does not address the totality of violence is, in addition to being insufficient, could be conceived as a violent act in of itself— as failing to negate objective violence in the process of attempting to reduce violence is an act towards reinforcing the validity of objective violence by action through inaction.  In other words, the only means of reducing violence is by focusing violence-prevention on the totality of violence itself.  If I was to speculate on how this would be done, I would begin by promoting educational practices that enable a deeper understanding of humanity, culture and society.

Alas, I would promote philosophy.  


Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised ed.  Audio Book.

Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Print.

Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. London: Verso, 2001. Print.

McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

Johnston, Adrian. “Jacques Lacan.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

Star, Susan, Geoffrey Bowker, and Laura Neumann. “Transparency At Different Levels of Scale: Convergence between Information Artifacts and Social Worlds.” Library and Information Science (1997). Print.

Zimbardo, Philip G. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology (SOI). London: Verso, 1989. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.



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