Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Towards a political ontology of violence: reality, image and perception

The aim of this project is to study what makes an act or form of violence a specifically political reality, and how political violence intersects with the aesthetic problem of the image, given our thoroughly mediatized access to such acts.

2016 - 2019
Herman Siemens
NWO Internationalisation Grant NWO Internationalisation Grant
  • Prof. Howard Caygill , Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP), Kingston University, London. 
  • Assoc. Prof. Vasti Roodt and Assoc. Prof. Louise du Toit, Social and Political Philosophy Research Group, Department of Philosophy, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
  • Dr. Katia and Hay and Prof. Carlos Correira, Center of Philosophy, University of Lisbon (CFUL - Centro de Filosofia da Universidade de Lisboa), Portugal.
  • Prof. Susana de Oliveira,  Centre for Research in Architecture, Urbanism and Design (CIAUD - Centro de Investigação em Arquitectura, Urbanismo e Design), Faculty of Arts, University of Lisbon.
  • Prof. Volker Welter, History of Art and Architecture Department, University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • Assoc. Prof.  Patrick Roney and Asst. Prof. Megan McDonald, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Koç University, Turkey.

Project description

Without question, violence has become a fact of political life, a political reality both within the long-established democracies of Europe, and in emerging or transitional democracies beyond our borders. We need only think of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in France and their consequence in the call for a better understanding of Islamic cultures within and outside Europe; or the act of self-immolation that sparked off the Arab revolts and spread claims for democratic self-rule. The aim of this proposal is to study the ways in which acts of violence are impacting on democratic politics within and outside Europe. Our central question is whether the making public of grievances through acts of violence and the images of violence circulated in the media can be understood in political terms as part of a new res publica or public sphere that spans the globe.

A great deal of historical and empirical work has been done on violent conflict and warfare by historians, psychologists, social and political scientists. But their main concern has not been with political violence as such. Within political philosophy, the idea that certain forms of conflict, disagreement and civil disobedience have an important constructive role to play in democracy has by now been well established, especially by so-called ‘agonistic’ democratic theorists studied in the main applicant’s recent NWO OC subsidy: Between Deliberation and Agonism. These forms of conflict are, however, circumscribed by democratic norms and specifically exclude violence. Yet, as recent developments make clear, there is an urgent need to confront acts of violence and violent conflict as a political reality in democratic life, in order to understand these developments better and the directions they might take. What is it that makes a given act or form of violence a specifically political reality? How can violence be conceptualised as part of political life, and especially: democratic political life? What, in short, is violence as a political concept and what roles does it play in advancing or exploding democratic ideals?

These are questions of political philosophy, yet there is a lack of clarity on the concept of violence and its relation to democracy in the literature. This point was already made by Hannah Arendt in her 1969 book On Violence, and as she points out, there are two main challenges. 1. To demarcate the concept of violence from other closely related political concepts: power, force, strength, authority; but also revolution, insurrection, civil disobedience etc. 2. To disentangle violence from complex empirical constellations in which it occurs.

To these two challenges, a third must be added. It concerns our access to political violence, which today is thoroughly mediatized. In our view, the ontological question of violence as a political reality is inseparable from aesthetic questions concerning the images or representations of violence to which we are exposed, especially in social and public media, and their political consequences. It was not just the act of self-immolation, but the circulation of that act in social media, which sparked off the Arab revolt; and it is the videos of the shootings in Paris and their impact on the public perception of this act of violence that has had political consequences. But what is it that makes a particular image an image of violence? Is it simply a matter of what is represented – an act of violence – or is it more a matter of how the image or representation is constructed, and the perceptions that inform its composition? If it is simply a matter of what is represented, how can we explain the images of violence that proliferate today with no consequences – in video games, art galleries, horror movies, but also documentaries and news bulletins? If, as these suggest, we are immune to images in our fully mediatized environments (Baudrillard), the question arises: What is it that makes certain images violent, so violent that they provoke acts of political violence, or acts of censorship on the part of public media or state security organs? How, in short, are we to conceptualise images of violence and the violence of (certain) images? These are questions of philosophical aesthetics.

In order to meet these three challenges, the plan is to develop a typology of political violence and to study how it intersects with the aesthetic problem of the image. The intersections between these two sets of questions will be explored in a series of 3 workshops that bring together participating experts in the fields of political philosophy and aesthetics. The researchers in political philosophy will focus on the concept of political violence in relation to: power, resistance, fanaticism and sexual violence in (transitional) democracies. The experts in aesthetics will focus on two lines of research: the impact of violent conflict on perception and how this translates into the creation of aesthetic form; and the violence of certain images – from the satirical images of Charlie Hebdo to the images of Abu Ghraib prison first released on Australian television – and their consequences in acts of violence, or acts of censorship in public and social media.

This project builds upon the NWO OC Programme: Rethinking Conflict and its Relation To Law In Political Philosophy (2011-2016). It consists of several sub-projects in the fields of political philosophy, aesthetics, gender studies and art history.

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