Political theory is obsessed with violence. Though its meanings and functions vary, sometimes wildly, from one thinker to another, the ugly fact of violence strongly informs the assumptions, premises, and conclusions of figures throughout the canon. Despite this ubiquity, there is curiously little theoretical engagement with violence qua violence. There is still less of an attempt to reflect upon atrocity, a subset of violence that transgresses all norms. From the Latin atrox, meaning heinous, cruel, or severe, the word atrocity implies excess by definition. “Violence,” Arendt writes, “can be justifiable, but it will never be legitimate.” My research explores that which is neither justifiable nor legitimate. This unspoken counterpart to Arendt’s maxim lies beyond what I call a threshold of atrocity. In the tradition of “epic theory,” my work on atrocity has both a descriptive and a normative component driven by real concerns and problems. By elaborating upon a concept that has been overlooked, I hope to demonstrate that a great deal of the political violence we currently tolerate should be more properly understood as atrocity.

My current book project, Atrocity: Transgressive Violence and the Politics of Vision, develops a theory of atrocity grounded in moral vision. The first chapter traces the genealogy of transgressive violence by teasing out distinctions between related ideas in the literature, notably cruelty and evil—between juridical and metaphysical judgements respectively. Where something recognizable as atrocity does crop up in canonical texts, I argue, it tends to be characterized either as cruelty to no purpose or as an inexplicable episode of madness. Both approaches treat atrocity as a fundamentally extra-political phenomenon, an interpretation I question. In the second chapter, I draw upon Norbert Elias’s notion of “thresholds of repugnance and shame” to outline the concept of a threshold of atrocity, which signifies the point at which formerly “acceptable” modes of violence are rejected as “unacceptable.” In many cases, this apparent shift is merely superficial and involves no qualitative change to the phenomenon. For example, while technologies of modern warfare often render violence less spectacular, we may still question whether this makes violence less morally objectionable in its effects. The third chapter considers the possibility of deriving ethical norms from phenomenological experience—moral vision—through an engagement with Iris Murdoch, Adam Smith, and Buddhist moral philosophy. In the fourth chapter, I explore the Nazi holocaust’s status as a paradigm of atrocity against which subsequent episodes of extreme violence are commonly interpreted. Though understandable, reliance on such a paradigm is no substitute for thinking clearly about atrocity and may actually obscure episodes of violence that do not resemble the specific horrors of Auschwitz. The fifth chapter turns to the primary vehicle by which most us are made aware of atrocity: the mass media. The depiction of violence as atrocity in the mass media is inconsistent and often incoherent, yet highly determinative of our ideas about atrocity. The sixth and final chapter argues that a primary obstacle to moral vision in liberal democratic states is the ideological fusion of nationalism and liberalism. Nationalism tends to reduce liberal ideals to empty slogans, which displace a meaningful sense of responsibility for bad states of affairs. The outcome is not necessarily less state violence, but rather violence of a kind that passes undetected.


Thresholds of Atrocity: Liberal Violence and the Politics of Moral Vision

Abstract: All political communities set normative limits to the acceptable use of force. A threshold of atrocity indicates the point at which acceptable violence meets the boundaries of the unconscionable. In liberal democratic states such norms are ostensibly set higher. Hence, there is a theoretical threshold to the modern state’s ability to act in ways that violate norms it claims to uphold. Paradoxically, thresholds of atrocity are almost never breached and unconscionable violence occurs regularly. This study seeks to explain the persistence of atrocity by developing the a theory grounded in moral vision. Liberal democratic nation-states are able to commit atrocities because they obscure these acts literally and metaphorically. Disguising violence in liberal democratic nation-states is further facilitated by the bureaucratic dispersion of responsibility characteristic of liberal nationalism in particular, the conversion of liberal ideals into national myths, the mediating of moral information via a compliant news media system, and the adoption of technological means of violence that are inherently difficult to “see.” This raises an inescapable conclusion with radical normative implications: a great deal of the violence we presently tolerate as acceptable ought to instead be challenged as atrocious.

Dissertation Committee: Carol Gould, Rosalind Petchesky, Uday Mehta

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