Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part I

Lately I have been rather indolent with this blog. So, as a cheeky means to feign productivity I am going to post a previously composed essay in three parts. It adheres to the general theme of this blog but is certainly more abstract and theoretical than previous posts. The following is part I of  DEFINE AND CONQUER: AN INVESTIGATION INTO FRAMING AS A VIOLENT ACT


In framing an individual, institution or incident as X presupposes the existence of an objective meaning and distinct social phenomenon X. Otherwise the agent doing the framing is able to construct any possible meaning for X, thus creating a drastic power disparity between the agent doing the framing and the object of the framing. This power disparity can easily lead to excessive violence because if the X is only given meaning by the agent doing the framing, X can mean anything expedient to the framing agent, allowing for any legitimization of the use of violence against it. In this sense framing can itself be a violent act.

This paper will begin with a brief discussion of the concept of violence, from the traditional conception of physical hurt to the more inclusive forms of structural and symbolic violence. I will briefly address the literature concerning identity and boundary construction because it is important to position the discussion of framing within the constructivist school in order to demonstrate the enduring capability of violence qua framing. Furthermore, I will draw upon discourse theory to synthesis the constructivist approach with particular attention to the power of language. Finally, I will demonstrate how in certain circumstances framing is an act of violence against the object of framing.

Violence: Challenging Physical Hurt

Brass writes, “Inter-personal violence is an aspect of everyday life in virtually all societies… (Brass, 1996: 39).” In order to fully understand this statement we should first examine what conditions qualify  as violence.

The traditional conception of violence has been rightly criticized for being too parochial. This traditional notion of violence was fixated solely on the subjective violence of physical hurt. It was the reigning conception of violence for much of the last century as a convenient and simplifying worldview for policy makers in the age of conventional wars and a world system framed by bi-polarity. It wouldn’t be until scholars such as Galtung, Foucault or Bourdieu began to challenge this narrow view that a broader definition would position itself as a counter discourse for a changing modernity.

It should be understood as a triumvirate of not only physical but also structural and symbolic violence, a interactive spiral of violence as described by Helder Camara. Structural violence pinpoints certain systemic forms of violence such as poverty, exploitation or racism that have been produced by the social, political or economic structure of a given time and place. For most who speak in structural and post-structural terms, the current global economic and political system is inherently responsible for producing severe structural violence.

Symbolic violence is also a manifestation of cultural and social interactions marked by a distinct power asymmetry. This notion of violence goes beyond the obvious case of harassment or incitement. Zizek notes, “there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning (Zizek, 2008: 1).” Symbolic violence is important to discourse theory and particularly the critical analysis of framing.

The imposition of meaning through framing a discussion of violence is covered by Brass. He notes that what makes the transformation of everyday acts of violence into specialized forms is the process of framing, “developing categories defined as more serious or threatening to civil order and state authority, and fitting particular incidents or events into these categories (Brass, 1996: 39).”  As will be expressed below, this categorization is far more than simple phenomenological interpretation, it can have serious consequences.

It could be argued that immaterial violence, manifest in structural and symbolic forms, is more invasive because it is spread through communicative action and imagination, allowing for the justification of extremes to take hold at the subconscious level before they are brought into the physical realm. It is as Fearon and Laiton have pointed out that, “discursive or cultural systems at best create a disposition for large-scale violence, since they are relatively enduring structures… (Fearon and Laiton, 2000: 863).”

This point about the lasting impact of discourse is quite important. It demonstrates the enduring force of language and framing. This means, if the framing has a violent action potential then the violence is likely to be all the more insidious and enduring. The ‘just war’ discourse is but one example of this process: if belligerence is successfully labeled as morally just then the protraction of extremes is some how justified. Of course not all processes of labeling are violent. Below I will illustrate how and when framing is a violent act.

In order to fully grasp the violent potential of framing we must first turn our attention to the formative process of identities and boundaries. It is the position of this paper that communicative interaction is part of the constructive force of individual and collective identities and boundaries, from which are born perceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ that make violence toward the Other somehow morally palatable.

Brass, Paul R., (1996), “Introduction: Discourses of Ethnicity, Communalism, and Violence” in Paul R. Brass (ed), Riots and Pogroms, New York, New York University Press, pp. 1-55

Zizek, Slavoj. (2008) Violence. London, Profile Books.

Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin, (2000), “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity” International Organization 54, 4, Autumn 2000, pp 845-877.


Deconstructing ‘Minzu’

In a number of posts to follow I will identify three places where symbolic power operates, that is, how the Chinese State has exerted its monopoly of symbolic power to instill a signification of Uyghurs as an undeveloped singing, dancing subaltern subject. Indeed, this colonialist objectification: the predominant representation of Uyghurs, and other minzu (ethnic groups), as rural and quaint in contrast to the developed majority Han, is an ethnic representation, generally a canvas stretched over all of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups and is a crucial discourse within the reproduction of China’s national mythology (Gladney 1994, 2004). While the group under discussion and the specific symbols of representation are directly related to Uyghurs, the underlying principles are germane to an understanding of Tibetan, Mongolian, or other subalterns. Admittedly, most of what follows has been discussed elsewhere, and in more detail, by a number of China scholars, particularly Dru Gladney, but it deserves reexamination, particular concerning its application to the exigent conditions within the so-called Xinjiang and Tibetan Autonomous Regions because the logic of symbolic power and the methods by which it is wielded by the Chinese state are generally replicated from place to place.

In the first post I will begin with a brief analysis of Chinese cultural capital in the form of controlling the taxonomy of ethnic and national designations and inscribing a national origin myth, based on the superiority of Han domination and Party control. The second post in this series will examine the role of museums in reproducing these significations and draw more heavily on Benedict Anderson and his discussion of an imagined community. The final post in this series will be comprised of a more thorough analysis of the unity posters briefly mentioned in an earlier post, as these public inscriptions and visual elements are clear manifestations of symbolic power in the everyday social space and require a more serious engagement. For a brief social, historical discussion of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Please revisit The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

Nationality Designation

In the struggle inherent in the politics of representation, where agents are employed in imposing a vision of the social world, they wield the symbolic and cultural capital acquired in previous struggles, in particular the power they possess over instituted taxonomies (Bourdieu, 1991: 239). The Communist victory over the Guomingdang in October of 1949 ushered in ‘New China’ and guaranteed the monopoly of the Communist Party of China (CCP) over naming their victory and defining the ethnic composition of the new nation.

In the early 1950s the regime invited representatives of its disparate ethnic and national groups to Beijing. Gladney explains, although more than 400 separate groups applied to be recognized as distinct ethnic and national groups, there were only forty-one nationalities listed on the first census of 1953. The 1964 census included fifty-three nationalities, and the 1982 and 1990 censuses finally settled on the current fifty-six nationalities (2004: 9). In a Kafkaesque exertion of the power to define, according to the 1990 census there were still 749,341 ethnically ‘unidentified’ individuals awaiting recognition by the regime (2004: 9). This is arguably not only an example of power constructing its subjects but even leaving them ‘officially’ unconstructed.

This exertion of power over the taxonomy of existing as part of a category, group identity, and the corresponding externalities, both positive and negative, is a powerful example of biopower and sovereignty, most associated with Michel Foucault but extensively dealt with by Giorgo Agamben. For Agamben, understanding the sovereign is understanding the individual or entity with the power to decide the exceptions. In 3/4 of a million people living undefined, outside of legally defined and accepted categories of existence, we are greeted by the Chinese state with a significant case of deciding the state of exception.

The state not only set to the task of defining the nation in terms of ethnic demographics it also began to define the core characteristics of individual ethnic groups. Early propaganda films for example served this purpose as did the erection of many memorials to the ‘peaceful liberation’ of minority lands. An excellent example is Cui Wei, Chen Huaiai, and Liu Baode‘s 1964 film Tianshan de Hong Hua [The Red Flowers of Tianshan]. It is a typical propaganda piece depicting the unity and benefit of ethnic minorities working with the party for mutual development.

In the People’s Square of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi there is a large obelisk which reads Zhongguo Renmin Jiefangjun Jinjun Xinjiang Jinian [A memorial of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army marching into Xinjiang]. Such inscriptions were a vital component in the early representation of minorities within official discourse. The signified is that the people living in the region were in need of liberation. It instills the discourse of the party as peaceful liberator and benefactor. The signifier is the text, memorializing this liberation. One signification, arguably, is that those minorities rely on the Party for their livelihood. But the politics of representation go deeper. In addition, and much as other nations have done in their own nation building ventures, the state museumizes national representations (Anderson, 1983) to further enshrine the official discourse. The following post in this series will deal with this final point in greater detail.

Anderson, Benedict (1983/2006). Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Gladney, Dru. (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

Gladney, Dru. (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Visualizing an Imagined Community

Following the three year anniversary of the Urumqi protests and the recent supposed Hotan plane hijacking attempt, which the Uyghur Human Rights Project warns should be viewed with extreme caution, it seems pertinent to introduce a little of the visuals behind China’s rhetoric of ethnic harmony. It is the same rhetoric of ethnic harmony, also called Han Chauvinism (大汉主义), that provides the foundation for constructing not only the imagined community (see Benedict Anderson) of China’s 56 ethnic groups, but is at the core of party discourse on the separatist threat, the terrorists and Dalai clique of Tibetan or Uyghur conflict. The party works hard to indoctrinate the population into believing that China’s ethnic minorities have benefited greatly from the largess, the affirmative action, the development of periphery, and that any grumbling is out of kilter with reality, a slap in the face to the Party and the PLA who freed these backward minority people from the abusive Khans ruling over them, in the case of the Northwest, or the authoritarianism of a few centuries of Dalai Lama exploitation, as the CCP’s official narrative was recently parroted by a French Communist in the online publication Dissident Voice. The problem with the narrative on ethnic unity is that it is rife with chauvinism. In the sense of colonialism introduced my Michael Hechter, it represents a kind of Internal Colonialism. However, this is certainly not a transgression that the UK or the US is free from, but theirs is not the topic of inquiry here today. I merely want to recognize the atrocities committed against the native populations of the United States, and how they have been white washed by mainstream education and media; the myth of the Old West and the founding of America has been carefully crafted discursively to create an alternate history and identity for the native populations of the United States, in much the same way, according to a number of experts, as is taking place in China concerning their more contentious ethnic groups today.

As I mentioned above, the narrative presented by the central government is one of a unified nation, where all 56 ethnic groups are living together in harmony. This is the message one gets from New Year Eve Gala presentations, anniversaries or special celebrations, when the Chinese nation tunes in to CCTV and other channels that simulcast programing featuring the country’s myriad ethnic groups represented in traditional dress, singing, dancing, and entertaining. But what about when, as James Fallows and others have written about, the 56 minorities in traditional dress are actually 56 Han in costume? What about these representations, those performed or inscribed, museumized or broadcast, how are they understood by the represented individuals? What is the logic behind official representations of minority populations? What is the political and social expediency, for the institution monopolizing the symbolic power to give name and reality, and what is the result, for those thus categorized?

The concern rests particularly when the representation creates a distinct hierarchy, whereby the designated group or individual is stripped of the agency to participate in the realm of creating labels and categories, the very labels and categories designed to define and corral them. This is linguistic persecution, what Zizek, and others, calls symbolic violence. But what force allows for the designation to gain resonance with the population? If it does not represent a material phenomenon, which presumably it does not if it needs to be frequently broadcast or imprinted in public-as it is-what allows for it to gain resonance then? It is this very reproduction in public which produces a kind of forced reality, and one that after generations of reproduced symbols begins to form a power of its own, according to Bourdieu.

Deconstructing the narratives, performances, and inscribed images of representation, those that results in symbolic violence, is complicated. It requires a careful reading of the material and symbolic, the social and historical, it is a semiotic and phenomenological process. Below I will not delve into a conversation with the images. I will save that for a future post. Below are a series of posters, pictures taken in several cities in Xinjiang in 2011. They tell a story, an official story, part of the way China chooses to define itself; according to the anthropologist and China expert Dru Gladney, this is “a point that is critical to China’s representation of itself to itself, and to the international sphere (Gladney, 1994: 96).” Therefore, in order to unpack the material ramifications of these representations qua claims of ethnic abuse, human rights violations, and the like or to analyze China’s discussion of its status within broader transnational conflicts qua the ‘war on terror’ or cross border disputes between Tajikistan or Pakistan, or finally in order to simply understand how a regime relies on images to promote a certain narrative, I present the following images for consideration. This post will be followed with a deeper discussion in the future.

“Recognition of Chinese Nationalities”
“All Ethnic Groups Create China”

“Recognition of an Ancestral Homeland”
“Our Common Home”
“China’s long history is a shared history for all the peoples of this ancestral land, living and developing together in one homeland”

“Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment.”

“The military loves the people. The people embraces the military. The military and the people united are one family.”

Gladney, Dru (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

Post Gaddafi Artistic Re-Articulation of Power

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

In late September with Gaddafi removed from power and on the run, with major NTC achievements toward situating a transitional government, the insurgence of democratic participation in Libya was augmented by an outpouring of artistic expression toward re-articulating the previous total domination of social space under Gaddafi’s 42 year regime. Ellen Knickmeyer, former AP bureau chief for West Africa and Washington Post bureau chief for Baghdad and Cairo, writes about the transformation in a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting article. Discussing the totalizing control of social space through domination of symbolic autonomy under Gaddafi she writes:

For 42 years, Muammar Qaddafi did it all for the aspiring young artists of Libya. Did they want to study literature? Qaddafi’s Green Book had it all. Were they hoping to explore their creative side? Maybe take an art class at school? Great, and for their final exam, they could draw a composition of their choosing, on any one of the glories of Qaddafi’s revolution.

“If we wanted to sing, we had to sing about him,” said Karim Namssi, an unemployed 25 year old in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, who is trying to change all that. “We got used to him being a one-man show.”

Examining this facet of control is relevant to building a more exhaustive picture of domination. Outside of state-centric notions of security, repressive regimes maintain their domination through a combination of coercive physical force, state violence, and a monopoly over myriad forms of capital. It is through this monopoly that they frame and maintain control over the social space. Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist and philosopher, writes:

The social world is accumulated history, and if it is not to be reduced to a discontinuous series of instantaneous mechanical equilibria between agents who are treated as interchangeable particles, one must reintroduce into it the notion of capital and with it, accumulation and all its effects. Capital is accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor.

Bourdieu outlines two forms of capital that are most relevant to Knickmeyer’s article. Domination is a matter of monopolizing cultural and symbolic capital, says Bourdieu (1977, 1991). Cultural capital is understood as the partial or total monopoly of a society’s symbolic resources in religion, education, science, and art, by monopolizing the mechanisms for appropriating these resources (1977: 187). Symbolic capital is the accumulated prestige or honor of a given individual or group (1991: 14), and the recognition they receive from another individual or group (1991: 72).

Exerting a monopoly over cultural capital and the colonization of Libyan life space through Gaddafi’s omnipresent image –as was the case with Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, indeed all such totalitarian regimes exhibit this feature– and manipulation of public discourse toward deification of Gaddafi, as illustrated above, reified the regime’s, namely Gaddafi’s, monopoly over symbolic capital. This domination is the exertion of symbolic power, that very power that seeks to dominate symbolic: discursive, inscriptive, performative, interactions in social space and thereby assert domination over social space. A monopoly of symbolic power provides the repressive agent with not only its dominant force that presses on the subjugated from above, in the form of coercive physical violence, but also forms the subject (Butler 1997). It is a colonization of the psychic realm of agency and a push toward manipulating the agents relationship to power, Gaddafi, and the social space in which the agent finds him or herself.

With the removal of this suppression on symbolic interactions the individual is freed to renegotiate her relationship to the social space in which she was previously dominated. The outpouring of artistic expression is part of this process of re-articulating power away from the forced reality under Gaddafi toward a more untrammelled notion of agency and autonomy. Knickmeyer continues, quoting Anouar Swed, a Libyan who returned from London to launch a line of fashionable clothing modeled on traditional Libyan dress, “When he [Gaddafi] left, the art came out.’’

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

Since the political revolution there has been an artistic revolution:

The neighborhood children break-dancing, the car radios burbling ballads and blasting rap recorded at people’s homes in just days, the elaborate graffiti splattering almost every patch of whitewashed bare wall in Tripoli, where Qaddafi had banned even spray paint… After a life of forced silence under Qaddafi, Libyans and Libyan artists have a lot to say.

Reaffirming this, in a recent CNN article Catriona Davies explains that before the Libyan revolution there were fewer than ten newspapers in the whole country. Now there are 120 independent newspapers in Benghazi alone.

The eruption of free expression by previously subjugated individuals is not only an indicator of individuals taking advantage of the lifting of total domination under the previous regime, it is also part of the democratization process. Artistic engagement as a referent object should not be overlooked as a constituent process of non-state, non-military, regime change and creation. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere where popular mobilizations have lead to the removal of dictatorial regime structures the transitional political organizations, and the international community, should ensure that engagement in social space creation and participation is freely open and access to cultural and symbolic capital remains public.

These observations are transferable to all regime spaces and should serve as empirical data that elite manipulation and the appropriation of monopolized capital serves to entrench domination and exploitation.

Source: Written on the Wall

Bourdieu, Pierre (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. London: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Bulter, Judith (1997). The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Image 1, 2 source: Knickmeyer, Ellen (6 October 2011) “Showing It Off: Libya’s Artists Display Work After Qaddafi”

Image 3 source: Gastman, Roger (November 2011) “Written on the Wall”