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May 13, 2005


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Great Stuff! Your discussion has had me thinking of so many things. Chris' comments about refugees and those at the margin remind me of something from Homo Sacer. Somewhere in the in the second half of the book, Agamban references Hannah Arendt's discussion of the "Right to Have Rights" in The Origins of Totalitarianism. He sees her critique of the Universal Rights of Man as parallel to the distinction between bio-politics and bare life. Arendt points out that those who are excluded from the political sphere, such as the refugee and the Jew in Europe, have no rights. That the claims made on behalf of our universal humanity were meaningless in the face of those who were declared "outside" the law.

Of course what is immediately striking is how uncanny the analysis appears in light of what the United States is doing right now. But what also seems relavent to your discussion is the distinction between those who are treated as merely "bare life" and those subject to the rule of law. It seems as if those that are excluded are the most immediate object of cruelty. One can do unspeakable things to these people with impunity. This does not mean cruelty doesn't take place across society, but that those "beyond" the rule of law are the proper target of cruelty. Not only the potential terrorist, but all of those that do not belong: foreigners, homosexuals, minorities. Cruelty, however it is defined, is the proper treatment for those "who are not one of us."


Mark Crispin Miller (The Bush Dyslexicon, New World Order) analyzes the current right-wing movement in just this way, though he uses a Jungian vocabulary of projection. He cites a number of examples of figures on the right who castigate and license cruelty against others whom they accuse of doing things that they themselves do--Limbaugh with drugs, Savage with homosexuality, any number of Clinton impeachment-leaders and adultery.

More interestingly, his contention is that there is a class of Bush's verbal gaffes that reveal this projection; sometimes Bush inadvertently admits that he himself and the movement he represents ought to be the target of his rage. For instance (this isn't in Miller's book), Bush was talking about the terrorists and how we would respond to them one day and he said something like: They never stop thinking of ways to harm Americans and neither do we. Both of Miller's books are full of examples like this, most interestingly one where Bush says something to the effect that we know we hit us on 9/11.

Anyway, this is all to say that I agree with your emphasis on the displaced or projective nature of cruelty, how it relies on a externalization on something in the self--vulnerability the case of your argument, or some verision of evil in Miller's analysis.

Patrick J. Mullins

Nations with excessive power always have cultures of cruelty. I'm not sure whether there is any such thing as a culture without it, though. 'Noble savages' were always also cruel. What is happening today is a different form of it just as all the preceding were different forms of it. The U.S. is now the one with control of the technology needed for increasing its power if all continues as has been mapped out. This is all obvious enough. I just remember something in Deleuze that I read a few years ago (can't remember which book) in which I got a very strong image of the all-powerful modern state, I think he says something about the 'state as God.' This is all still familiar stuff. What I am saying is not necessarily very important, as I cannot sort out what is personal perception from what is definitely new about this 'absolute-power state apparatus' we see getting fatter every day; I am only saying that that image I started seeing when I first read it in Deleuze about 5 years ago increases in my own thnking now in a very specific way with all the new developments that are put in place almost daily. It never seemed to me, for example, that there really was, as of the last several months, any possibility of blocking John Bolton from the UN. I think the filibuster will be gone and that even Tom Delay will probably get away with it. There is a sense of inevitability about this sort of thing that was not there a few months ago, but I have no way of knowing how close my perception is to reality.

I don't think there are any primitive cultures without scapegoating, although I've read some psychology that suggests that those somehow 'made sense within the society' more than the kind of scapegoating we find in modern cultures. I don't think I can really see much difference, and that is the one part of the Jungian Sylvia Brinton Perera's extraordinary book 'The Scapegoat Complex' that has never been clear to me.

Another way of looking at the sense of attack that a world power feels when it is directed toward it rather than away from it is precisely that of the very rich individual or family for whom the breakage of a piece of crystal is far more troubling than the suffering of someone on the street. This exists at all levels of society, even while each level thinks its own versions are somehow less lethal; and seems to have changed very little since the beginning of civilization.

I think what is most thought-provoking about your series here is how you are able to manage the material so that it comes out coherently at all, since cruelty has never not been for any length of time, if at all.


I've been wrestling with a component of cruelty that seems necessary in certain instances. For example, I speak a "hard truth" to someone that inflicts psychic/emotional pain, but I do it in the spirit of helping someone move forward. Certainly in a popular sense I have been "cruel". I don't mean to argue that this is cruelty, but that the popular sense may help our understanding.

To take my example further, I could say the exact same thing to the exact same person, but without any intention of helping the individual through the resultant pain/crisis. This, we would have to agree, is cruelty.

Where I was going with this - I was starting to conceive of cruelty as a deliberate move to force the subject into an encounter with the Real. But this isn't enough.

As an aside, I think we can see where the enjoyment comes from - in confronting someone with the Real, we achieve a satisfaction in closing a gap. However, this should be a separate discussion.

But this confrontation is not sufficient to create cruelty. There must be some lack of consideration to outcome. This is the "cruel indifference" - not indifferent to the pain inflicted by cruelty, but indifferent to the consequences of bringing the subject and Real together. Not even bringing them together for my own pathological / instrumental needs is the cruelty.

Cruelty needs two things: 1) a willful confrontation that brings together subject and Real; and 2) a lack of compassion which is a responsibility of the instrument. The cruelty results not during the pain of the encounter of the Real, but when the required compassion required by the act is absent.


These are such insightful and amazing comments, really helpful and provocative. I'll make a couple of initial remarks and then mull over matters some more.

Cruelty and the law, bare life, boundaries: I like your point, Alain, that 'cruelty' is proper treatment for those who are not one of us. I wonder, then, if increases in cruelty are linked to increases in anxiety over what it means to be one of us. It gets complicated when one takes into account, as you suggested before, changes in penal laws. In the US there were significant changes in severity between the 70s and the 90s (I think the economic arguments here are important and will post something about it later--just read some really great stuff by a scholar named Jonathan Simon). These changes emphasize victims rights of closure and 'compensation'. They are less linked to ideas of rehabilitation or even delinquency part are part of different economy of punishment. Might the us, then, be construed in class terms as well as racial/national? This seems to make sense insofar as immigrants are often called 'poor' or trying to come here for economic reasons.

On the other hand, there seems to be a kind of cruelty 'for their own good' , as if one were trying to strengthen the 'we' of which one is a part through helpful cruelty, I think pebird's comment goes in this direction to an extent.

John--I must get the Miller book; don't know why I haven't already.

Patrick--I think you are right; it's important to get clear about the specific function of cruelty or discourse of cruelty or economy of cruelty in play. The difficulty for me comes in insofar as I want to make a psychoanalytic argument that will be persuasive in accounting for the present; so it will be necessary to specify the social and economic conditions in which a particular subject comes into being and explain how this is different. Very, very superficially, one might say that societies that value human rights, that emphasize the dignity of the individual, that locate civility in relations between individuals that express a kind of solidarity, that value, say, the exchange of reasons, equality, reciprocity, etc, societies that claim these values would tend to make cruel and unusual punishments outside the bounds of civilized behavior and would emphasize non brutal forms of interaction. When one finds brutality, then, one could say that all those nice norms are not the ones in play, not the dominant ones, but that other fantasies or drives are at work. What do you think?

Pebird: I don't get why you are emphasizing willfulness. Could you explain that more? Also, I'm not sure about the confrontation with the Real because that can also be ecstatic. So, I think the enjoyment comes from seeing another suffer, from the sense of invulnerability and power that this seeing produces. I think any gap that is momentarily closed is closed within us--not the victim. And, weirdly, I think it is even possible to have compassionate cruelty--I have in mind early Church fathers (Augustine, John of Salisbury), shoot, lets even say the God of some versions of the Scriptures--compassion and cruelty can go together. What do you think?


I emphasize intention/willfulness because I believe the act of cruelty has an intent. It's kind of a "let the shit hit the fan" and walk away attitude. Without wilfulness, the subject's pain and abandonment is due to stupidity, error, or a better word, contingency. I do not view cruelty as contingent.

The confrontation with the Real is important to my thinking here - while certaintly that can result in ecstacy - the intention of the cruel instrument is to produce a lack of compassion.

I think (another discussion at some point) you can distinguish Sadism from cruelty. The true sadist is compassionate - there is the attempt to bring the subject through a deliberately organized trauma in order to reach sexual ecstacy. I need more time to develop this in detail, but I raise it here to distinguish my view of cruelty.

That enjoyment comes from seeing another suffer and the sense of power resultant in another way of saying "closing the gap". In other words, the cruel desires this enjoyment and the way to achieve it is to bring the subject and trauma together (e.g., close the subject's gap).

I cannot agree that compassion and cruelty go together. I believe this is a political headfake. Of course the church can be seen as both - but in separate actions. The political argument in religion revolves around this, and I am not as well-versed as I should be, but basically the struggle for who "owns" or speaks for Christ can be viewed in this cruel/compassionate dialectic.

It is absolutely necessary that for humans to move closer to god that they go through trials - they must confront the Real and be changed as a result of the trauma. We need help to do this - we cannot accomplish it alone, although the actual encounter with the Real is a lonely one. The key to this encounter is compassion, someone who helps the traumatized subject rearrange her life and make something of the experience. The cruel inverts/perverts this relation and only provides the encounter with the Real - then retreats to wash his hands of it.

However, the very wily cruel will demonstrate a form of "compassion" - perhaps helping someone injured by a different instrument of cruelty. But the intention is not compassionate at all, but an attempt to gain trust that can be abused in the future. This, I believe is the conservative church, while the revolutionary church embraces true compassion.

Patrick J. Mullins

pebird--Deleuze's book 'Masochism' defines the two perversions as actually being separate, not the familiar sado-masochistic games that allow the 'masochist' to find his own dose of contorted pleasure. By his definition, sadism is unquestionably cruelty, and, as often with Deleuze, I am very convinced. I think the true sadist is a form of serious criminal, and that 'S & M' are just grown-up children's games--quite tedious and unattractive to me.

Jodi--I am trying to follow what you are saying. The main thing that pops into my mind from your latest remarks is that it is much more power, than just wealth, that causes a national, cultural cruelty. Because extremely wealthy nations with very high standards of living, like Norway, Switzerland, Holland or New Zealand, are infinitely more humane than is the U.S. It actually seems that the most benevolent cultures are not the most powerful, but are the wealthiest in terms of what they'll spend on human beings. Of course, the U.S. is in another sense wealthier, but it has always got wonderful new irons in the fire like cutting $10 billion from Medicaid, which comparable thing would never occur in the above nations, plus a few others. So that I now tend to think that it is either the giant military powers and the starving ones where obvious forms of cruelty will occur more frequently.

But I'm still listening.


Patrick - thank you for the correction. It may be more accurate to say that the Sadist promises a transformation to the subject then perverts the relation into a purely instrumental object for the sadist's pleasure. Cruelty, of course.


Patrick, I think it is a matter of combinations so that wealth alone or religion alone won't tell us much about the cruelty of a nation. Rather we would need to consider more specific mechanisms, practices, ideologies and how they fit together. So, individualism will rely on specific sorts of cruelties, authoritarianism perhaps another set.

Marcela Perelman

Hi, I ve just read this post while trying to write about violence and cruelty in discourse. I am analysing several narratives of violence facts in which a part of the description, a certain action, is valorated as cruel. I wonder what is the argumental function in doing so, in disociate some actions as violence and some as cruelty. My intuition at this moment is that the there is an implicit definition of violence as instrumental (such as in Arendt's definition) and what exceeds instrumentality, what can not be pointed out as "in order to..." is marginalized as cruelty.
But then I think that there is another thing trough all this, something related to what is considered a "human" action and what is stigmatized as unhuman. And I, for these moment at least, think that instrumental violence if its not justified per se, it is at least recognized as a human possible action, while saying that something is cruel, is like saying that is unhuman, animal, evil, not a possible action of "one of us".
I think of these things from Argentina, so the scope of terms such us violence or cruelty in discourse might variate from English uses. Sorry if my expression is not accurate.
I will really appreciate feedback. Regards.


Marcela, your remarks are very interesting. One thing that occurs to me: would we call a robot an earthquake or a tiger cruel? they might cause pain, suffering, and violence, and they are non-human. But I don't think we would call them cruel. When we use the term cruel, I think we are saying something about a subject. Most generally, we are saying something about the subject who is the source of pain or suffering in another. Yet, we might also be, secondarily, remarking on the suffering of a subject as well, and saying something about the excess of this suffering, the excess that the subject endures.

Marcela Perelman

Thanks for your feedback, I've read the dates of the last post after posting and I thought that I was completely out of time, but happily I was not :)

I should have said "inhumane" and not "inhuman" (we do not have this distinction in Spanish), do you think this difference might tell us something about cruelty?

Excess and bestiality, I think both things are present in cruelty.

My idea is that there are certain , so called, "excesses" (hypothetically: violence actions referred to as non instrumental)that "labels" a person either as inhumane or as cruel.

Marcela Perelman


I finally published the article!

Cruelty and Other Dimensions of Exceptionality in Discourses about Violent Acts
Abstract: This study analyzes concepts related to violence in discourses in circulation. It is based on an analysis of discourses about the
homicide of a pregnant young woman committed by the staff member of a police department in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires,
Argentina. The textual marks that allow accessing the meanings exposed and supported around the concept of violence are analyzed.
Special attention is given to the factors that appear as indications of a violent act of greater degree. Revealing that which is considered
excessive, with exception, can help in the understand of that which is normally considered as violence.
Key words: violence, cruelty, discourse, exception, police.

You can read it (in Spanish) at http://www.periodicos.ufsc.br/index.php/katalysis/article/viewPDFInterstitial/8837/8178


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