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.


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.