Narrative and Violence

Expanding its traditional definition as “behaviour that is intended to injure or kill people,” we conceive of violence as harmful conduct directed at other people, oneself, other species and the environment. This Study Circle takes as its twofold objective the exploration of 1) the cultural pervasiveness of such broadly understood violence and 2) contemporary culture’s capacity for taming/diffusing violence.

Although storytelling and violence have been inextricably bound up since time immemorial, representational violence has manifestly intensified in 20th- and 21st-century culture. It may be in response to the terrible wars, genocides and colonial pursuits marking the modern era, as well as to the growing mediatisation of these violences that artists and members of the governing élites have dispensed with the classical rule of decorum that once prevented them from shocking their audiences with portrayals of excessive brutality.

Even if non-violence is generally regarded as preferable to violence, we are incessantly surrounded by images of polymorphic aggression and cruelty: TV screens, newspapers and social media feeds feature military conflicts, genocides, acts of religious and political terrorism, individual killings, racial and sexual abuse, austerity measures, and homelessness. And yet, because our daily lives are so frequently punctuated by episodes of everyday violence, or micro-aggressions (e.g. cat-calling, aggressive language used among certain peer- groups), our understanding of the essence of and mechanisms behind violence can be lost under a screen of anaesthetising overabundance. Next to spectacular and explosive violence, there lies the so-called “slow violence”: “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space” (Nixon 2011: 2).

All these acts of brutality find reflection in cultural productions, which, while responding to the violent world, in turn challenge our own reactions to these violent figurations. The heterogeneity of the afore–enumerated brutalities calls into question their problematic assemblage under the label of “violence”; however, in order to engage theoretically with the what-how-why of violence, it is important to approach it in a non-hierarchical manner. It is only by adopting such an approach that we can attempt to (re)define violence, trace its origins and trajectories, and, finally and most importantly, explore the ways in which narratives sustain, fuel or diffuse it.

Understanding the theory and practice of narrative violence is crucial and instrumental when questioning intersectional inequalities, unsustainable practices, coloniality (cf. Malconado-Torres 2007 and 2008), and the weakening of democracies in favour of unfair and divided societies. Concrete and rigorous exchanges among the humanities and social and natural sciences are essential for an understanding of how violence arises, how it is experienced, and how it is narrated. Our guiding questions and thematic concerns are the following:

  • Why are we attracted to violent narratives and how do we make sense of them? Does representational violence make us reflect upon our own violent reactions?
  • How do we represent violence against vulnerable groups, such as women, LGBTQ+, the elderly, ethnic and religious minorities, or the disabled?
  • How is the paradox of the violent activism of animal rights movements portrayed and received? That is, can the portrayal of violence justify social progress?
  • What are the narrative strategies of governments and terrorist groups that support and lead to physical violence?
  • How is the development of sophisticated training technologies and weaponry in the military distancing individuals from their experience of violence?
  • Does violence in AR/VR/video-games provide us with an opportunity to experience what is otherwise outside the bounds of our experience? And if so, are they able to purge/tame our own predisposition to violence?
  • Is trauma still a relevant concept, or does it need reconceptualising in the face of “new forms” of violence? Meanwhile, how are movements like #metoo, Black Lives Matter or Ellos Deatnu refashioning our narratives of violence against women and ethnic minorities?
  • How have spaces of violence changed and transformed from lands and nomad communities to the body and the Internet?
  • Finally, what insights and contradictions arise from the narrativisations and study of these violences?

All these questions will be addressed in a global perspective, as well as in relation to the unique environment and culture, and specific concerns of the Nordic and Baltic region.