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J. Carter Wood (Universität Bayreuth)

The Process of Civilization (and its Discontents): Violence, Discourse and History


The field of history has much to offer to a cross-disciplinary exchange on discourses of violence. This is particularly so as difficulties with reliably quantifying historical violence have caused an increasing number of historians (mainly from the field of crime history) to turn their attention to ‘cultures,’ ‘mentalities’ or ‘discourses’ of violence. These efforts, however, have faced a number of challenges. One involves more general arguments about culture and violence. However, even those who argue that culture plays an important (or even dominant) role in violence find it difficult to describe precisely how violence’s ‘social meaning’ is constructed. It is clear that attitudes toward violence have changed over time: but how have they changed? Why have they changed? How is it possible to reconstruct these changes? In answering these questions, some have suggested that the theories of Norbert Elias are particularly useful in studying violence. I agree, and, moreover, I think that they provide a promising framework for cultural approaches based on narrative and discourse. Nevertheless, such a combined approach raises certain conceptual issues and requires more precise interrogation of the theory itself. 

Although violence was not Elias’s only concern, his analysis is clearly applicable to physical aggression. The ‘civilising process’ consists of a general increase in the control of ‘affects’ – emotional urges – and more finely regulated social interaction. Elias’s appeal to historians is clear: although classed as a sociologist, his evidence and the process he describes are inherently historical. Furthermore, by historicising Freud, Elias presents a picture of a human being with an in-built tendency toward affect-oriented behaviour (such as violence) who is tamed by increasingly complex matrices of social refinement. Moreover, it fits well with an important shift in violence history: rather than explaining increasing violence, an apparent centuries-long decline in interpersonal violence in western Europe has taken centre stage.

The civilising process played an important role in a recently published study (Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-Century England: The Shadow of Our Refinement, Routledge, 2004) in which I explored the development of attitudes toward violence. Previous work had already suggested that English violence had declined between 1800 and 1900. How and why this occurred remained unclear. Conceptually, I borrowed from Elias and Foucault, as well as incorporating elements from social geography, anthropology and traditional British social history. My goals were to see what had happened to violence in nineteenth-century England, consider the utility of the civilising process and develop conceptual approaches to the history of violence. I found Elias’s theory to be a vital, but nonetheless incomplete, guide to the evolution of violence mentalities. 

Reconstructing the mentalities that shape physically aggressive acts requires close attention to narratives of violence. Such narratives, of course, include ‘speaking about violence’: commentary on physically aggressive acts. However, while things have can be said about violence, they can also be said with violence. Violence often has a linguistic content: rather than being ‘unspeakable’ and ‘anti-social’, it appears that violence has tended to be eminently ‘speakable’ and connected to particular arrangements of the social structure. Its linguistic structure resulted from (while maintaining) the coherence of particular mentalities of violence. The contours of historically defined attitudes toward violence can be recovered through close attention to both aspects of violence’s ‘speakability’. 

The language of violence is most visible in cultures in which it is relatively accepted. In nineteenth-century England, a ‘customary’ mentality – based on principles of retribution, autonomy and discipline – shaped violence into controlled forms. These forms of scripted violence were not hidden: it was essential that they were open to community observation, judgement and control. However, custom’s broad social dominance began to be challenged by an emergent middle- and upper-class culture of ‘refinement’ in the early nineteenth century. Behaviour that had once been widely accepted as normal was increasingly seen as abhorrent, and there were new controversies as to where, when and by whom physical force could legitimately be employed. Conflict is thus important in shaping violence mentalities. First, there are constant internal tensions regarding the boundaries of legitimate force. Second, mentalities may exist in a dialectical relationship, each being defined in relation to the other. Nonetheless, conflict can coexist with certain areas of agreement.

            The value of the civilising process in explaining historical changes in violence has been repeatedly demonstrated. Across a variety of national contexts, the main processes referred to by Elias have contributed to the reshaping of violence mentalities. Although the civilising process seems to have worked, it remains unclear just how it worked. What influence did increasing interdependence have on human relationships? How were forms of external discipline translated into internal, psychological forms of self-control? How was the state’s increasing claim to a monopoly of force received by the people governed by it? Elias’s theory provides suggestions in these directions, but rather like Freud, he tends to conceive of the civilising aspects of culture as repressive: culture tames violent tendencies produced somewhere deep in our psyches. However, this assumption overlooks the ways in which many motivations (and justifications) for violence are cultural rather than, strictly speaking, biological. A significant part of culture is related to power relationships. Narratives of violence help to organise violence in the interests of maintaining particular power configurations, and beliefs regarding marriage, ideals of masculinity, specific forms of sport, attitudes toward outsiders, imaginations of national identity can all play their role.

Furthermore, the impact of social organisation, technology, material space and individual psychology was often complex. Physical alteration of the environment, the deployment of state police forces as well as psychological changes related to a form of built-in ‘instinct’ or ‘drive’ raise the issue of the material, rather than narrative, basis for civilising changes. When considering Elias, however, it would be incorrect to see a need for competition between cultural or physical explanations: it is clear that they coexist, and Elias put culture at the centre of his theory. Nonetheless, violence, in his theory, tends to be the outward manifestation of an interior urge rather than having in itself any particularly kind of communicative/linguistic functions. 

            Civilising behaviour became a means by which the emergent bourgeoisie was able to prove its equality to the classes above it and its superiority over those below it. Furthermore, in order to expand the reach of their civilising ideology, disciplinary means – in Elias’s words ‘external compulsions’ – are required. As he notes, ‘in the hands of the rising middle class . . . the idea of what is needed to make a society civilized is extended,’ taking in much broader aspects of society as well as wider sections of the population in order to liberate them from ‘all that was still barbaric or irrational in existing conditions’. These motivations set the scene for a great deal of social conflict, for what is considered ‘barbaric’ or ‘irrational’ is also in part driven by the inherent dynamic of civilisation. What is ‘civilised’ remains a moving target.

I remain convinced that Elias’s theory provides the most useful framework for historical violence studies, and I think that it is amenable to cultural and narrative approaches. The civilising process itself, developed mainly to describe medieval and early-modern society, has proven itself to be a resilient and flexible contribution to the study of behaviour. Furthermore, those interested in discourse and violence will benefit from historical perspectives and the incorporation of approaches – such as Elias’s – which emphasise the force of psychology and social structure.