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The signs that hurt


CAN SYMBOLIC ACTION do literal violence? Can speech cause bodily pain? Are we physically safe from hate speech and cruelty of lovers behind Cartesian firewalls separating mind from body, meaning from matter? Or do emotions breach those barriers and make us as vulnerable to words as to fists? If hypnotic suggestion can produce burn reactions, amputees feel phantom pains in long-missing limbs, and stress impairs the immune system, why should we doubt that pain is as much our response to the meaning of events as to their physical force?

In my own work,(1) these questions have emerged from an attempt to reunify our views of the symbolic and material dimensions of social processes. At Columbia, scholars interested in such diverse subjects as the sex industry, ethnic violence in South Africa, and the law of "hate speech" also find themselves trying to make sense of the effects of symbolic violence.

Violence is not simply material force: It is the use of force as a tool for some human purpose, individual or social. We are social actors and we are bodies vulnerable to pain. Every society exploits the possibility that our actions can be controlled by the fact, memory, and anticipation of pain inflicted by others. We hurt children to make them behave--sometimes with blows and sometimes with words, but equally with pain. Theories of child development make it easy to forget how often parents make children cry and how basic this violence is to the socializing process. Theories of economic and ideological domination, likewise, can obscure how the powerful exploit the powerless through pain. Violence exerts its social effects as much through what it means as through what it physically does.

Anne McClintock of Columbia's English and Comparative Literature Department has explored the transformative re-enactment in sexual relations of many basic power relationships (between parents and children, teachers and students, police and citizens, men and women).(2) In each case, the pain of social control is transmuted into sexual pleasure, and one's internalization of that control is suspended by giving another person extraordinary power over one's body in sadomasochistic rituals. Well-socialized men of high status and substantial social power reverse their roles, wearing diapers, being beaten for trivial offenses, putting themselves in the power of mothers, teachers, judges, and dominant women. In these scenes, the sight and sound of the whip is as important as its touch. McClintock vividly displays what historian Michel Foucault wrote of in Discipline and Punish: the social regulation of bodies as the foundation of the modern social order.

We demonize the extremes of violence: spousal and child abuse, gay-bashing, police brutality, prison rape, hate crimes, "ethnic cleansing." But each of these exaggerates an endemic process of violence that maintains the social order. Most violence is not idiosyncratic: The same kinds of people do the same kinds of violence to the same kinds of people. A little violence goes a long way when it takes on a meaning, when people begin to predict what will be punished. That meaning enables violence to function as a means of control. No social order could maintain itself solely by the physical effects of violence. Violence is always also a warning, a threat of the possibility of more violence. Violence itself is a language we all learn to interpret.

Rob Nixon, also of the English department, describes the symbolic language of ethnic and class violence, particularly in the struggle between the Inkatha party and the African National Congress.(3) The axes and spears of "traditional Zulu manhood" were carried in marches and demonstrations by Inkatha, but they were more than merely symbolic in clashes with the disarmed ANC.

How can words and symbolic actions cause pain? Pain is an active response to its causes, not simply a passive effect. The meanings of words and deeds always include the feelings produced when one makes sense of a situation. The tasteless sexual or racial joke is no joke to a woman who has been raped, a man who was a victim of a hate crime, or to any person who feels less safe from pain than someone who can afford to make these kinds of jokes. We defend our freedom of speech and action, but we cannot exercise these freedoms responsibly, or judge whether others do so, if we cannot feel what hurts whom and how much.

Legal scholars like Columbia Law School's Kent Greenawalt are trying to find workable legal principles to apply to hate-speech cases. In Fighting Words: Individuals, Communities, and Liberties of Speech,(4) Greenawalt tries to balance the social interest in protecting free speech with the social and personal harms speech can do. The civil law of torts recognizes the emotional distress of harassment victims, but courts have been reluctant to accept the criminalization of speech on the basis of the damage it can do to its victims. Greenawalt cites the arguments of Mari Matsuda that "victims of vicious hate propaganda have experienced physiological symptoms and emotional distress ranging from fear in the gut, rapid pulse rate and difficulty in breathing, nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder, hypertension, psychosis, and suicide."(5) The law of hate speech, however, is still based more on the violence it may provoke than on the equally real bodily harm it can produce.

The violence of blows and the violence of symbolic acts are not so easily separated. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues in Language and Symbolic Power, people's dispositions, from the accents of their dialects to their reactions to symbolic forms, reflect the physical embodiment of their experiences. If we are what we feel, research on symbolic violence takes on special importance for the individuals and the society that this violence shapes.

  1. Lemke, J.L. Textual Politics: Discourse and Social Dynamics. Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Francis, 1995.

  2. McClintock, Anne. "Maid to Order: Commercial Fetishism and Gender Power." Social Text, Winter 1993.

  3. Nixon, Rob. Homelands, Harlem, and Hollywood: South African Culture and the World Beyond. New York: Routledge, 1994.

  4. Greenawalt, Kent. Fighting Words: Individuals, Communities, and Liberties of Speech. Princeton University Press, 1995.

  5. Matsuda, M. "Public Response to Racist Speech: Considering the Victim's Story." 87 Michigan Law Review 2320-2336, 1989.

J. L. LEMKE teaches sociology at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College School of Education. His writings, including Talking Science: Language, Learning, and Values (1990) and Textual Politics: Discourse and Social Dynamics (1995), deal with natural science, communication, and discourse and social processes. He also holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. His Internet address is jllbc@cunyvm.cuny.edu.


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