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Claire Potter (Université Denis Diderot Paris IV)

In the Looking Glass : The Mythical Foundations of Domestic Violence


The focus of this paper considers the ways in which domestic violence is articulated within academic scholarship and entails a critical exploration into how violence is translated into discourse. The definition that constitutes discourse for this work builds upon Jacques Derrida’s proposal that discourse is the present, living, conscious representation of a text within the experience of the person who writes or reads it (1974b:101). Important to the argument of this paper is the way in which style or experience is attached to discourse, that is how discourse is particularised stylistically by the experience of the person who reads or writes it: experience being something I argue to be not gender neutral but if you will, sexuate[1]. Accordingly, this focus is applied to two texts (D. Cornell (1997); R. P. Dobash & R. E. Dobash (1992)) considering domestic violence from a feminist judicial and social science tradition, wherein the systematic analysis of domestic violence exists as a sub-genre and a micro-index of cultural and social violence. Chief to the discourse of such inquiry is how the phenomenon of domestic violence has come to represent, and function within, a socio-historic pocket of ‘invisibility’ – in other words how within society and manifestly the law, domestic violence exists as a concealed phenomenon. The position of this paper will be to question on the one hand the surety of this ‘concealment’ whilst on the other, propose that built into the supposition of ‘concealment’ is a further pocket of invisibility, one in which the absence (disavowed presence) of the writer confers a gender neutral discourse by means of a gender specific object of inquiry: woman. The research of a third text (Stark, Flitcraft & Frazier (1979)) will assist me in concretising the position of this paper. It is the absence of a sexuate author from certain domestic violence texts, one which I argue can never be fully realised, that is of interest to this paper.  



Despite the important transmittal of discourse via speech, this paper must limit itself to how the phenomenon of domestic violence is translated into written discourse[2] and I would like to expand upon the question Derrida sets up in the opening lines of his essay ‘The Violence of the Letter’: What links violence to writing? (1974b:101) by interpolating, already violently: What produces violence in writing? Therein the questioning of the foundations upon which discourse relies, indeed how the term discourse itself comes into effectivity thanks to the ground from which it draws reference, must be considered in terms of discourse as gendered.


My inspiration for this method of inquiry comes, in ways perhaps contrary to the work of Derrida, from the philosophical corpus of Luce Irigaray whose rigorous trawling of western metaphysical discourse has analysed how such discourse, based firmly in the phallogos of presence and oculocentrism, silently structures itself on and around the body/matter (la matière) of the (m)other in order to launch its phallogocentric project. In her commentary upon René Girard’s essay: La Violence et le sacré [Violence and the Sacred], Irigaray locates the point of primordial violence beyond that of the rite of the totemic meal. She writes that beyond the figure of the scapegoat there lies the body of the mother – a totem before any designated, identified or represented totem (1986c:13). In light of Irigaray’s project, I am interested in maintaining an awareness of my own vicarious tendencies to build argument both of as well as on the absence of the other, the other in this case being the female subject whose expereince is that of domestic violence.

Therein, the case in point for this work is not that of domestic violence per se but rather the representation/s of domestic violence as it exists within feminist social inquiry. Through the exploration into the foundations of this discourse I will examine how violence can be written of as well as how writing can be founded upon the very violence it seeks to explore – for this seemingly incongruous position forms what I will posit as the ‘mythical’ component of domestic violence writing, or that which seemingly defies its own internal logic whilst generating momentum from that very (il)logic. Thus in examing the foundations of such discourse qua writing, I would like to assess the reliability and sturdiness of certain theoretical positions which interpret, and thus stylistically construct ways in which significant domestic violence issues are comprehended.

One such critical approach, seen most strongly in feminist debates on pornography but also in debates on domestic violence and following a more or less rigorous liberal line, attaches importance to the distinctiveness of the categories public and private inasmuch as what occurs in public is subject to state regulation whereas what occurs in private belongs, in the words of Hegel, to eclecticness of the Netherworld. As such what occurs within the sphere of the domestic remains, almost continuously since Hegel, that which is forever declared as concealed from the public eye since it must be seen as neither of concern of the state nor of the individual. Hence the catch cry: ‘It’s a domestic dispute’. That is until it is demasked by certain treatises.



Important to the theoretical approach of this paper is the interplay evidenced by the title of this conference: Discourses of Violence – Violence of Discourses. Following the unavoidable sliding and mirroring of these words which evokes a certain notion of reversibility – a stepping back and forth through the looking glass, if I may say so – I would like to assert from the outset that inherent to the writing of domestic violence is also this notion of sliding and reversibility, meaning that to write of domestic violence is itself a balancing act of reconciling the presence (technē) of the writer with rhetorical aspects of writing which seemingly defy this presence. Therein the difficulty and distress inherent to writing domestic violence is partially assuaged through and by the act of representing domestic violence as written discourse, but it remains an act nonetheless tied up with the practice of a different sort of violence: the violence of discourse.


The ‘vicinities with no real boundary line[s] between them’ that Charles Peirce described in his Collected Papers (1931-1958:272) – vicinities such as the ‘external universe’ of social reality and the ‘inner world’ of thought – signify well one’s experience of the world as purposefully but fruitlessly demarcated. Freud’s and Nietzsche’s whittling of the Cartesian ego was testimony to the futility of firm boundaries between inner and outer, consciousness and unconsciousness, public and private. In this way, the title of this conference captures well Peirce’s notion of ‘vicinities with no real boundaries’ (that is boundaries as well as non-boundaries), and I would like to propose that it is the mark of the hyphen that permits this fluid movement between the two categoricals without destroying them.

This hyphen (Bindestrich) or link, existing if I might say so metaphorically in the ‘gutter’ between the terms occupies a place upon which the reversibility of the two terms pivots, where each slides, but not completely, into the other. It is also the place where certain texts concerned with domestic violence and the women who live its incident, become unstuck. For writing domestic violence traverses and embodies both what it means to write of violence (a discourse of violence) and what it means to write with violence (a violence of discourse).


Apropos arguments put forward by certain critical writings in which the most typical method of decrying domestic violence is by writing against the violence, it follows that if complicity were evidenced in such writing – that is in the documenting, the interpreting and the organising of facts – then the argument against the practice of domestic violence would fall apart. A writer could not be seen to be writing a work, call it Violence Against Wives for example[3], if there was any inkling that the writer, via writing, participated in the violence, itself the subject of their critical debunking. It is for this reason that I would argue that the seemingly impossible task of such writing of/on bodies and lived experiences of women who either have lived or are living domestic violence relationships, cannot help getting caught in some kind of guttural space: a space well represented by the mark of the hyphen; the mark of the in-between; the place of the unspeakable.

This space, which a moment ago I called guttural, can be defined as metaphorically existing behind or beyond the mouth, ‘in or of the throat’ as the Oxford Dictionary has it, or as that which is left half or indistinctly said; something Jacques Lacan might have called l’énonciation or the unconscious dimension of speech. The writing of domestic violence – a task seemingly impossible – possesses some of this gutturalness, and therein one can hear different devices at work, ones which upon closer inspection, unravel and dissolve the mechanics of detachment and objectivity upheld fiercely at times through empiricist and quantitative methodologies. Whereas certain levels of knowledge (connaissance) are essential for any project of writing, what is inherently disavowed in the writing of domestic violence and vigilantly written out of the text (but never completely) are the instances, as well as the potentiality, of misinterpretation and misunderstanding (méconnaissance). Accordingly, it is the ‘hyphen’ found in our conference title that partially fulfils amongst other things its purpose as index of the absent, but also, and more symbolically, I would like to read the hyphen, in this instance, as the ‘I’ of the resolute ego lain on its side; off-duty so to speak, and thus permitting instances of ambiguity to creep in. On the hyphen the Oxford Dictionary writes: it is a ‘punctuation mark used to connect two words together, to indicate the division of a word between two successive lines, and to indicate a missing or implied element’.[4]



I will supplement my paper with Jacques Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ which I argue can be seen as the primary context in which the child encounters ‘violence’ and ‘discourse’. It is at this juncture that, as French theorist Alain Vanier describes it, ‘the backdrop of… [a] narcissistic relationship founded on exclusion’ occurs, one in which, despite language, ‘the subject disappears under the Other’s naming’ (2003b:9). Maturing from this preliminary violence, the subject as adult – as writer for example like myself – takes as her subject of inquiry the incident and the (female) bodies of domestic violence[5], and she writes on/of this subject to, amongst other things, abase the difficulty native to both the task of writing and the task of remembering. Might she be writing on Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad where each written word is simultaneously erased as it is recorded? What might be the ramifications of such double movement?


Derrida writes in La Double Séance, apropos the Mystic Writing Pad (Printator), of Freud’s desire for a surface both marked and virginal, something he finds in the workings of the Printator. I would like to speculate on this desire and perhaps imagine that at work is also the desire to account for the absent through the erasure of the present – in other words, Freud’s desire for a marked surface, for what is stored in our unconscious, can only be obtained if the current surface, that is the ‘surface’ of consciousness, is displaced. It is this precise action that occurs in the machinations of the Printator: in order to account for what the Printator has retained one must lift and look underneath the two sheets of paper covering the memory block. Hence whatever was written upon the writing pad is erased. And so this dual movement seems somewhat at odds with itself: in order to account for the absent we must erase the present…

Hence I would like to argue that the machinations of this paradoxical desire are also at work in many critical accounts which write on women living domestic violence relationships, and we can find two such conflicting ideas repeatedly reinforced: 1. that domestic violence is a phenomenon hidden from public eye (an absent presence), and 2. that via the writing of/on domestic violence (a present absence), the ‘mythicality’ of domestic harmony is debunked. As it is claimed by one such text which I will be exploring in greater detail: ‘The myth of family unity and bliss has been exploded as the [domestic violence] movement made public the unacceptable face of the private by exposing to scrutiny the world of conflict, power and violence which can never again be denied’. (Dobash & Dobash 1992b: 285).



I will conclude with the notion that if domestic violence exists as a concealed phenomenon, as it is argued by certain authors, then at an earlier time it must have existed also as a revealed phenomenon, since a thing cannot exist as concealed without having once been revealed. Following Freud, an idea cannot be repressed without it having being thought; the erasure effected by the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’ cannot take place without something having been written. Consequently, the concealment qua mythicality of domestic harmony can only take place when writing is attached to what is described as the absence of domestic violence from the ideological screen called the ‘public eye’ – and here interestingly, writing can be seen to function as suture. At the same time the presence of domestic violence from the public’s eye is negated (Verneinung) and erased. The writing of domestic violence on the mystic writing-pad might be thus called, in the terms of foreclosure (Verwerfung): something that was never written.

My purpose, if I might have one, is not to add further layers to this already difficult debate, but rather explore, perhaps idealistically, how the process of writing both on and of the other might come to be warily approached and, in certain cases, approached without shame for the workings of its own sexuate desire.




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Benjamin, Walter. (1920) ‘Critique de la violence’ in Œuvres, t. I, trans. M. de Gandillac, R. Rochlitz & P. Rusch, Paris: Gallimard, coll. Folio Essais, 2000.

Cornell, Drucilla. (1997) ‘Civil Disobedience and Deconstruction’ in Nancy J. Holland (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Jacques Derrida. USA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, pp.149-156.

Derrida, Jacques. (1972a) ‘La Double Séance’ in La Dissemination. Paris: Seuil, pp.201-317.

Derrida, J. (1974b) ‘The Violence of the letter’ in Of Grammatology. trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press, 1976, pp. 101-140.

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Dobash, R.P. & R. E. Dobash. (1992b) Women, Violence and Social Change. London & New York: Routledge.

Freud, S. (1924a) “A Note Upon The ‘Mystic Writing Pad’” in The Standard Edition Vol. XIX James Strachey (ed.) Great Britain: The Hogarth Press, 2001, pp. 225-232.

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Irigaray, Luce. (1974a) Speculum. De l’autre femme. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.  

Irigaray, L. (1985b) ‘The Rape of the Letter’ in To Speak is Never Neutral. trans. Gail Schwab, New York: Continuum, 2002.

Irigaray, L. (1986c) ‘Women, the sacred and money’ in Paragraph (Oct. Vol.8) trans. Diana Knight & Margaret Whitford.

Lacan, Jacques. (1949) ‘Le Stade du miroir comme formateur de la function du Je’ in Jacques Lacan, Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1996, pp.93-100.

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Stark, Evan, Flitcraft, Anne, and Frazier, William (1979) ‘Medicine and Patriarchal Violence: The social Construction of a ‘Private’ Event’ in International Journal of Health Services 9(3):461-93.

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Vanier, A. (2003b) ‘Droit et Violence: Freud et Benjamin’ in Le Bloc-Notes de la Psychanalyse, n°18, Georg Editeur, Genève.


[1] The use of this term here belongs contextually to the œuvre of Luce Irigaray.

[2] This choice is not intended to set writing in opposition to speech.

[3] The title belongs to R. P. Dobash & R. E. Dobash’s 1992 work: Violence Against Wives.

[4] The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 

[5] Although this paper has chosen texts in which a white adult female subject figures as object of inquiry, by no means would I like to put forward this choice as representative of domestic violence inquiry in general. The work of the Dobash’s is a case in point, but one not without its own problematic representations.