The Anatomy of Violence

The problem of human violence is clearly a problem that begins within each of us. But I believe we can state it and describe it in a way stronger than this. As Subjects, we are constituted in a violence that is definitive of us. Violence is a necessity for us in an outward sense because our very nature is one that is fostered in a root antagonism that is necessary to our subjectivity.

There are several threads that could be followed to make this case. Two of the key thinkers in what is vaguely known as postmodern thought, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, both make this case. Derrida’s philosophical project of “deconstruction” was aimed at understanding how self-consciousness is divided or already conceived in difference so as to arrive at the root problem of violence. Identity through difference is inherently violent and yet, since we are conceived in a system of difference, this violence is inescapable. He saw his entire project as aimed at a justice that is not itself already rendered unjust due to its working through the dynamic of difference. Derrida hit upon an understanding, which he and many others noted, is parallel to that of a biblical understanding and which in particular coincides with the Apostle Paul. The key difference is that Derrida concluded that we must be in a relentless pursuit of a justice which it is impossible to achieve.

Jacques Lacan saw in Derrida’s thought a parallel to his own thinking. Derrida, much like Martin Heidegger, who Lacan also saw as undergirding his own thought was suspicious of Lacan for obvious reasons. He was one of the oddest characters to emerge in France during a period in which there was a great deal of competition in this regard. As Heidegger concluded in personal correspondence regarding Lacan, “I believe the psychoanalyst is in need of a psychoanalyst.” Continental thought in these key characters is converging on a set of ideas so far ranging and disruptive of the western philosophical tradition and of modern thought that each of these key characters is working in an idiom that makes them profoundly odd and seemingly impenetrable – sometimes even to one another.

What I want to claim (following Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shifts) is that much as Einstein returns us to a pre-Newtonian world, these key thinkers return us to an idiom and world of thought more akin to the thought of the New Testament than that of modernity. This is an understanding which has been thoroughly worked out with both Heidegger and Derrida but which I believe is even more profoundly true of Lacan. This may appear as an unfortunate conclusion, as Lacan is usually given the prize for being the most obscure thinker in the continental tradition. There are several contributing factors as to why this may be the case: Lacan is primarily known through transcriptions of his public seminars; these seminars are discussions based primarily on the texts of Sigmund Freud and everyone was to have done their homework by reading and knowing Freud; the realm which is being explored deals largely with categories that cannot directly be described, such as the unconscious, the “real,” and the death instinct; and, perhaps, key is the fact that what is being described has to do with one of the most profound mysteries we face – the human psyche.

The passage into the dynamics of subjectivity or human interiority is precisely where we enter the realm addressed in the New Testament and which is lost to theology. Even broaching the subject in this manner lends itself to all sorts of confusion as it is commonly presumed in modernity that such things as the unconscious, human sexuality, neurosis, personality and its various disorders, and most pertinent to our topic – the human disease of violence, are not addressed by the New Testament. In other words, the realm which Lacan shares with the Bible is precisely that which modernity assumes is a realm apart from proper theological engagement. I believe, what Freud, Lacan, and Slavoj Žižek, have taken up is the proper realm of theology (which Lacan and Žižek are aware of) which has been passed over due to the peculiar features of the western theological and philosophical tradition. (The explanation for this could be of book length but, in short, it is the passage into dualism and nominalism as the foundation of modern thought, identified by each of these thinkers, which has sealed off the realm of human interiority.)

All of this to say that to begin to address the topic at hand, the anatomy of violence as constitutive of failed humanity, requires that we take up an idiom and enter a realm for which modern theology and modern thought have left us unprepared. The shared ground of the New Testament may provide small comfort. Lacan and Žižek both find their theory in the New Testament and specifically in Ro. 7. I will suggest, however, that we must not only understand what they are describing but need to radicalize their thought to begin to attain to a proper understanding of the main point of Paul in Romans.

Both Lacan and Žižek see Romans 7 as outlining the origins and dynamic of an inherent masochistic violence. Žižek finds here a description, not only of the make-up, but of the formation of human personality and all of its possibilities. The sense in which the thought of Žižek, Lacan, and Derrida must be grasped and overturned is the same as that in which Ro. 7:7ff must be seen as the realm of human possibility prior to its being overturned by Christ. Žižek thinks Rom. 7 describes the extent of human potential, and violence is a necessary part of this potential. But this is not a problem unique to Žižek. We could divide various churches, theologies, or experiences of Christianity according to how Romans 7 is read. For some Ro. 7 is a portrayal of what our life in Christ is to look like and violent struggle is a continuing necessity.

On the surface, it may look like there is no real difference between Ro. 7 & 8 and no essential difference between a peaceable Christianity and a Christianity grounded in violent struggle (from its theory of atonement to notions of the necessity of Christian participation in violence). Doesn’t Ro. 7 simply acknowledge the necessity of an inherent antagonism before laying out the benefits of salvation? The problem in this reading is to miss that Ro. 7 is describing the condemnation which Ro. 8 depicts as salvation delivering us from. Deception, the punishing orientation to the law, the loss of human agency due to an agonistic struggle within, evil and one’s participation in evil, the fact that nothing good dwells in this dynamic, are all part of the condemnation which Paul sees Christ as rescuing us from.

There are two different Subjects portrayed in these chapters which Paul is contrasting. There are a multitude of contrasting differences between the two chapters but Žižek is himself illustrative of the fact that one can be a Christian of the Romans 7 variety and continue to be an atheistic, Marxist, materialist. One can be a Christian of this type and continue to embrace most everything which Paul sees salvation as delivering us from. On the other hand, to take Ro. 8 as a departure from Ro. 7 is to arrive at the concrete distinction in human personality that Paul finds between the Christian and non-Christian Subject. The implications which Ro. 8 has for Žižek’s theory is that it would displace what he presumes is the substance and ground of the Subject.

The Formation of the “I” is in Antagonism

The first thing to notice about Ro. 7:7 is a stylistic shift in which Paul uses the word “I” some 20 times. The question is who is this “I”, how did it get here, and why is Paul focused on it. The scholarly consensus is that Paul is recounting the experience of fallen humanity in the first person ‘I’ or ἐγὼ. Paul is describing Adam, himself, and every “I”. He is pointing back to Gen. 3 and the fall of man and in doing so he is describing the formation of the “I.” Remember that for Paul the Christian is going to have to crucify this “I” – so the “I” is not the pre-fallen Subject nor is it the saved Subject. Rather, this “I” is formed with the fall.

His description corresponds throughout with Genesis 3. Adam, in confrontation with God, after the Fall, first speaks the ‘I’ and repeats it in four consecutive bursts; “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself” (Gen. 3.10, NASB). Prior to Genesis 3:10 Adam and Eve never utter the word “I.” In Romans 8 the “I” does not appear as it has been definitively displaced by a corporate identity “in Christ.”

If Paul in Romans 7.7ff is giving voice to Adam, then the “I” is necessary to his presentation as the introduction of the ἐγὼ reflects the loss and death of the self. In this passage, we have the picture of the inherent self-antagonism of the “I,” the zeal for the law that this produces, and Paul’s anatomy of how we are oriented to death. In Paul’s description two things bring about the “I” – the prohibition (as in the Garden) or law and deception (either by the serpent or sin).

The Law – and Transgression of the Law is necessary for an “I”

“I would not have come to know sin except through the Law” (7:7). With the advent of the “I” death has come upon the scene: “when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died” (7:9). In turn, Paul speaks of the death of this dead “I” and his escape from the law as his salvation: “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2.19-20). To crucify the “I” – “I”’s relationship to the law must be undone. Not that the law is the problem – “I” is the problem and specifically the orientation of the ego to the law.

Paul’s picture of the ἐγὼ as the peculiar Subject which arises with subjection to the law fits Freud’ s original formulation in which he “discovers” the ego/superego split at the same time as the death drive. The superego fits Paul’s law taken up into the self (law as perceived by the transgressor) and the death drive accords with Paul’s depiction of the punishing self-relation between the “I” and the law. We might call this “I” the Subject of the Law. Remember that in Paul’s argument the law pertains only to those who break it so that what Paul means in Romans 7 by the law is the law which is utilized by sin to kill me. Both Paul and Freud converge on the notion that the law within us does not stop us from doing evil but is the point of provocation for sin. “But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died” (7:8-9). This explains how Paul can be blameless in regard to the law and yet simultaneously declare himself the chief of sinners.

Paul’s description gets at the emergence of the ἐγὼ in its alienation from the law and the split within the self. As Lacan describes, in concord with Paul, the ego or “I” is a being for death (Seminar XI, 257). Death defines the being and substance of the ego. According to Paul, with the advent of death, control, agency or the capacity for law-keeping, does not exist in the “I.” “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (7:15). There is an inherent incapacity built into the structure of the ego, the incapacity of death and evil: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (18-19).

Deception is necessary for the “I” to Emerge

Sin is consistently connected with sin or deception throughout Scripture as in this key passage: “. . . sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:10-11). Christ provides us with a history of violence and murder by tracing it to the native language of lying fostered by Satan (Luke 11:44-51). Isaiah 28 refers to sin as a lying covenant with death. In Ro. 3 Paul sums up universal human failure in conjunction with a death dealing lying language.

What Lacan and Žižek note in Ro. 7 is that the entire theory, which can be described as the inner working of a lie, is described – up to and including the work of the death drive which deals out death and violence.

The ego is the object the lie posits which Lacan locates as arising with the mirror stage. John calls this problem of the ego, “The lust of the eyes and the pride of life.” The ego is the focus of the lie and the potential dissolution of the ego explains the root of human fear. As Freud describes it, the ego is the ‘seat of anxiety’ as it faces possible annihilation from the superego (The Ego and the Id, 59-60). The fear arises with the split between the superego and the ego. Paul describes life in the flesh as a life of slavery to fear (8.15). Lacan describes it as a drive towards unity or oneness with the self through the Other. “Love is impotent, though mutual, because it is not aware that it is but the desire to be One, which leads us to the impossibility of establishing the relationship between ‘them two’” (Seminar XX , 6). Think here of Paul’s two conflicting laws connected with two parts of the “I” which cannot be reconciled.

The medium of the lie is the law, language, authority, or the medium we would use to save ourselves. “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Rom. 7.10-11). Paul is continuing to describe how sin distorts the law in its relation to the sinful self. The “command which promised life” (v. 10) serves as an explanation for the content of the deception connected with sin.

As in any lie the main thing about it is what it denies. The power of death is one that we continually take up within ourselves in masochism. This Subject of the lie, which would establish its being through knowing and which exchanges life for death is, in Paul’s explanation, the universal Subject (the ‘I’ or ‘ἐγὼ’) outside of, and addressed by, the Truth of Christ.

In this understanding, the Subject is not simply prone to violence; rather the very constitution of the ego is in a deception which deals in death. In Paul’s picture of a universal unrighteousness with which all of humankind is infected and which for him sums up the Hebrew Scriptures this lie explains both death and violence. The poison of a lie arises from human language in which the throat is an open grave and each part of the body connected to speech leads to a full-bodied engagement in bloodshed.

“There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,”

“The poison of asps is under their lips”;

“Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;

“Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace they have not known.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” ~Romans 3:10-18, NASB

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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