I've been invited to speak as one of the panelists in a colloquium entitled "Violence: The American Tradition?" coming up in a little more than a week. I am still working out what it is that I want to say. My co-panelists are a historian and an artist, and we are each expected to address the question in a discipline-specific manner. Of course, I should be very good at this, since the stereotype of the deconstructionist is one who does nothing but "violence" to texts, to ideas, to culture, to all that is sacred and holy and pure...
[This is me chuckling.]
I think I'm going to use the fable by 17th C. poet and fabulist Jean de La Fontaine called "The Wolf and the Lamb." (It's a short poem, so you should click on the link and read it yourself. If you're familiar with Jacques Derrida's Rogues, you will remember that he also uses this fable to talk about democratic power/sovereignty.) The fable begins: "The strong are always best at proving they're right." La Fontaine goes on to recount the "trial and judgment" of a prey before its predator. In any other context, the arguments of Fontaine’s wolf concerning why he must devour the lamb would be, no doubt, humorous. We all assume, after all, that “power” and "violence" in the animal kingdom do not require justification. However, Derrida employs the fable to demonstrate a particularly democratic concept of power or sovereignty, in which the “law of giving reason(s)” and giving them in a universal medium (like language or law) works to mask the brute force of the strongest. To provide reasons or justifications for power/violence is always already to compromise it by subjecting it to rules of discourse, to a code of law, to concepts. But, Derrida suggests, democracy requires these compromises, despite the fact that in the end-- that is, to the lamb--they make no more justificatory sense for (politically) sovereign powers than they do for Fontaine’s (natural) brute. They are just as much disingenuousness and dissimulation. Hence, the aporia of democratic sovereignty.
At least since the introduction of liberal-democratic theory during the Enlightenment, the concept of political sovereignty has existed as a kind of specter of pure power, which is to say it has never existed or fully presented itself at all. This is a well-rehearsed theme among postcolonial theorists: those states that purport to represent liberal political ideals still resort to violence and brute force, in the name of those same ideals, to sustain themselves and (more often) to prosper. (The paramount case may be the French colonial program mission civilisatrice, or “civilizing mission,” which the ostensibly liberal French Republic used to justify the violent “repression”—in both the psychoanalytical and political sense—of its colonial dependencies.) The fact that they do so under the auspices of modernity’s most enlightened and “reasonable” political form—and we should hear in this all of the deliberative resonances that democracy entails—does not exempt them from opting in favor of the violent power that is constitutive of that political form.
The “reason of the strongest,” then, turns out not to be the “strongest reason” but, as in Fontaine’s fable, the reason that the strong deploy to safeguard their strength. That is, “the strong are best at proving their right” not because the strong are always the most right, but because in the realm of trial and judgment, where rights are measured, the strong are best at wielding their powers of proof. “Pure sovereignty” does not exist, Derrida claims in Rogues, because “it is always in the process if autoimmunizing itself, of betraying itself by betraying the democracy that nonetheless can never do without it.” The moment one speaks in favor of democracy—which is required above all of the democrat—when one gives reasons to or for democratic power or violence, “democracy” is compromised and its internally-motivated destabilization and self-destruction is activated by this unavoidable aporia.
Derrida’s point is not simply to illustrate a "bad" form of democracy. In order for actual democracies to be effective, to generate, sustain and enforce a system of law that can secure "democracy," they need power--and often violent power-- within their ranks. They need what Derrida calls the cracy of the demos, which is most often manifest in the same kind of justificatory narrative that Fonataine's wolf provides, that is, in giving reasons for the right to one's might. In every democracy, this requires the emergence of a kind of preeminent sovereign force--a spokesperson, a statesman, a President-- that can represent and protect "democracy” as such. Such a force, necessary but indispensable, will inevitably betray and threaten the democratic order at every turn, but s/he will also keep it secure.
There's a lot more to say here, obviously, but my intuition is to answer the implied question of the colloquium ("Is violence the American tradition?") affirmatively. Only with this caveat: it is an "American" tradition because it is a constitutive part of the "democratic" tradition. It may be most pronounced in America because we are no longer bothered by (if we ever were) the tensions and auto-deconstructive tendencies inherent in our political form. We're like Fontaine's wolf.
And we're living in a world of lambs.