Comments on the cruelty posts have been great at probing the boundaries, the scope, the terrain of the concept. Although some find it useful to expand or explode a concept, its field of application (say, the cruelty of nature, the violence of representation), I prefer to work with a more limited or delineated term. So, having a sense of what it doesn't apply to, of its boundaries, becomes important. (In this vein, Chris Robinson rightly asks about non-cruel cultures--how might one make this distinction? And, if one can't, does the notion of a culture of cruelty provide anything more than an alliterative catch phrase potential appealing to opponents of Bush, dominionism, and global capital?) It might be that critical reflection on Judith Shklar's thinking about cruelty can help.
Shklar defines cruelty as 'the willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anquish and fear. It is a wrong done entirely to another creature.' I reject every aspect of this definition. Willful: this relies on a notion of an agent that I reject. In so doing, it lets people off the hook for their involvement in larger systems, structures, ideologies and institutions which provide them with enjoyment. And, perhaps more importantly, it cannot account for the way that something like a will is structured or produced through cruelty (Nietzsche's point). Physical pain: why limit it to physical rather than mental or emotional pain? What about deprivation? And, again, what about the structuring of subjectivities through cruelty? "In order to cause": too intentional; let's folks off the hook who say that they don't intend for attacks on the 'illegal' making of prescription drugs at lower prices to lead to the spread of disease; it absolves those who say that the bankrupty bill was necessary to protect consumers and credit card agencies for cruelty to those suffering under medical bills and exploited by banks and credit card companies. "Entirely to another creature"--I think that one can be cruel to oneself and this is one of the strengths of Nietzsche's account of guilt and bad conscience as well as the Freudian notion of the superego.
So, how else might we think of cruelty? I think of an effect that
results from attempts to avoid vulnerability by displacing it so as to
eliminate it and produce the sense of a bounded, whole, invulnerable
sovereignity. This effect, moreover, is accompanied by enjoyment, an
enjoyment which produces for the subject the fantasy of strength and
invulnerability, of power and righteousness.
Chris Robinson raises the question as to whether those at the boundaries--refugees, migrants, exiles, displaced persons--expose a cruely, potentially a cruelty part of any culture or even of culture. To the extent that a people (like a nation) install and police territorial boundaries, construing their own strength as a people, their ability to exist as a people, as resulting from the boundaries, then they are cruel. To be invulnerable, they produce a vulnerability that they install elsewhere. Perhaps their national celebrations, they celebration of themselves as a nation, as citizens, as belonging, marks in a certain way their enjoyment--particularly insofar as they celebrate their military triumphs, their victories, their conquests, their riches. The enjoyment of this cruel nationa may also appear more obscenely, as special ops by those brave and willing enough to get their hands duty, perhaps to torture for the sake of the rest of us or to take 'financial risk' (I have never understood why people seem to accept the idea that correlative with 'financial risk' is the bonus of making billions and billions of dollars).
Lately, in the context of another project that is linking into this one, I've been reading Judith Butler's Precarious Life. I find the following helpful in thinking about cruelty and vulnerability. Butler writes:
Most Americans have probably experiences something like the loss of their First Worldism as a result of the events of September 11 and its aftermath. What kind of loss is this? It is the loss of the prerogative, only and always, to be the one who transgressives the sovereign boundaries of other states, but never to be in the position of having one's own boundaries transgressed. ...
In recent months, a subject has been instated at the national level, a sovereign and extra-legal subject, a violent and self-centered subject; its actions constitute the building of a subject that seeks to restore and maintain its mastery through the systematic destruction of its multilateral relations, its ties to international community. It shores itself up, seeks to reconstitute its imagined wholeness, but only at the price of denying its own vulnerability, its dependence, its exposure, where it exploits those very features in others, thereby making those features 'other to' itself.