I don't think this gives the lie to those who would substitute discourse for violence (that's just a facile relativism), but I do think it means that those devoted to nonviolence have to attend to a kind of traffic between modes of violence.
In testifying to the violence in one register, testimony and even attention to violence of another is comparatively foreclosed. Consider that to open up to debate the "question" of the humanity of a person of color or a queer person is already to dehumanize the person of color or queer person by treating their humanity debatable as a "topic" -- and yet the violence inhering in the closure of that debate is not rendered thereby non-real nor irrelevant, and exacts its own dehumanizing toll. Or consider how many good moral people collaborate every day in propping up evil ethical norms and political institutions just through their under-critical acceptance of some customary attitudes or through their patterns of consumption. To declare such people simply morally "bad" is to refuse the definitive demand of the ethical that it be excessive and the ineradicable price of the political that it remain contingent, it is to fail to grasp the enabling paradox of nonviolent practice that it is at once impossible and necessary.
Slavoj Zizek genuflects at this notion of a traffic between registers of violence in his book on Violence, especially when he points to Brecht's famous quip, "What is the crime of robbing a bank compared with the crime of founding one?"
To digress a moment, I disapprove of the tripartite "objective-subjective-symbolic" schema of violence Zizek then uses to elaborate his helpful hunch into a mousetrap with his usual iconic laconic Lacanic mechanic morsel of cheese. It is only because violences are stabilized into legibility, and hence become obligating, at the cost of destabilizations of other possibilities and importances (violences themselves) that render illegible and ineligible other experiences of and testimonies to violence that Zizek proposes his demarcations at all. But it seems to me he would domesticate the force of this insight and our grasp of its demand by assigning to moments in the costly and heartbreaking (also promising, in a sense that takes us back, as always, to Arendt) dynamic of stabilizations and destabilizations the status of "objective" and "subjective," or to the traffic itself a mechanistic construal of the "symbolic." If you ask me, to fancy that we can definitively or even usefully declare of a testimonial to violence (not only of violation, but of violence) that it is "subjective" or "objective" is to attempt to circumvent the costly, deranging force of obligation for the pleasurable or consoling distractions of philosophy.
It pays to remember that rhetoric, together with the poetry of which it seems to me essentially to be a subgenre, is the classic, indeed inaugural, antagonist of the Western philosophical imaginary. Rhetoric has also, and I believe rightly, seemed especially attuned to the aspiration toward nonviolence. As it happens, this is the connection which drew me to the study and teaching of rhetoric in the first place.
The special relevance of rhetoric to the aspiration of nonviolence does not only derive from the way rhetoric concerns itself with the techniques, occasions, and benefits of persuasion (which have their own troubled affinities with coercion, after all, something that becomes clear enough the moment you meditate on the multiple senses in which we use the word "conviction"). More crucial by far to rhetoric's nonviolent ethos, in my view, is that it has always concerned itself definitively with the relation of literal and figurative language. Indeed, I would insist that it is the prior fixation on the figural that drives rhetoric's concern with persuasion and not vice versa.
Forgive the furious concentration of especially the next six paragraphs -- I am used to devoting hours and even weeks to the elaboration of these ideas in teaching settings:
Figurative language denotes deviations from (or violations of) customary usage that nonetheless make meaning, make sense. These deviations are the "turns" to which the term trope, from tropos, refers. Notice that these turns need not always be exactly spastic, anarchic, however:
The distance between the literal and the figurative is nothing like the ineradicable gulf that separates world and word (true whether the words are taken literally or figurally, and true despite the fact that all words are as worldly as billiard balls, marks and noises making their play in the environment). The distance between the literal comparison of the simile (love is like a rose) and the figural substitution of the metaphor (love is a rose) is a difference of degree that functions, for a time, as a difference of kind. Everything is at once infinitely similar and infinitely different from everything else, and it could be the work of a lifetime to testify to the similarities or differences obtaining between any two events. It is the work of language to organize the interminable play of differences (all always also susceptible to description as similitudes) provisionally into salience, according to whatever quandary in that play of differences they would answer to and answer for: confidence, science; belonging, morals; equity, ethics; reconciliation, politics, and so on.
All the Four Master Tropes of which Burke wrote most provocatively and of which metaphor is the first -- the others are metonymy, synecdoche, irony -- propose associations that are not (yet) literal but are nonetheless governed by relations of contiguity, containment, reversal that have logical and topical as well as these tropological variations (not to mention correlates in the classic Freudian account of the creative unconscious).
If one wants to take the figure of catachresis instead of metaphor as the point of departure through which to grasp the relation of the literal and figural, this presumably provides for a more radical account, since catachresis refers to coinages or outright commandeerings of terminology in the face of novelty, rather than, as with metaphor, substitutions of the figural where literal language is nonetheless available. But we know from Saussure that the circuit of the sign is abstract through and through, the material form of the signifier which becomes the placeholder for the conceptual content of the signified corrals indefinitely many instances of materially distinguishable marks and noises as instead sufficiently similar signifiers no less than the indefinitely many also distinguishable-but-sufficiently-similar referents corralled together conceptually by the signified.
Catachresis re-enacts the arbitrary proposal of a material event as sign, but all figurative language -- and not just the schemic figures like alliteration, chiasmus, onomatopoeia -- foregrounds the materiality that typically must be disavowed for the sign to do its literal work (a material disavowal on which Barthes depends when he proposes in Mythologies that ideology is likewise structured like a language, but disavowing the materiality of history as social struggle in order to naturalize the status quo to the benefit of incumbents). Metaphor, for its part, re-enacts the arbitrary association through which language organizes the play of differences into provisional salience.
Donald Davidson famously observed: "Once upon a time, I suppose, rivers and bottles did not, as they do now, literally have mouths." What it is crucial to understand -- and especially crucial in connection with my specific question here of the special relevance of rhetoric, via its concern with the figurative, to the aspiration to nonviolence, is that these "dead metaphors" can be read as the dying into literality of a once-vital figure, or just as well as the coming into lively literality of a once idiosyncratic figure. If one happens to be paying special attention to the vitality of the poet who calls forth a meaning equal to the novelty and dynamism of material reality through the assertion of the special force of some material event (mark, noise, gesture, image) and manages to make the assertion stick, then one will tend to speak of a dying into literality of vital figurality. But if one happens to be paying special attention instead to the vitality of the scientist or ethician who manages through the public ritual of testing and publication to translate idiosyncratic hunches or parochial intuitions into reasonable and warranted expectations of prediction and control or the equitable and accountable government of "laws and not men," then one will tend to speak of coming into a lively literality of a shaggy figure. What matters to me most of all is the insistence that neither of these perspectives is rightly to be preferred over the other in every instance, that each captures a no-less primordial, indispensable, vital dimension of the agentic work of language.
Nietzsche famously said of truth that it is
A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
Richard Rorty once chided this statement as apparently self-refuting. Does Nietzsche mean for his own utterance to be taken as a truth or as an illusion, after all? Of course, every good pragmatist knows (and I'm one who defends Rorty as one of the best pragmatists we've had), after James, that truths are only "the good in the way of belief" and I daresay it isn't exactly a stretch to propose that some illusions, certain perspectival effects, are good enough in the way of belief that we might be warranted at once in assigning them the status of the illusory and the true. And hence the worrisome whiff of self-refutation is resolved, no muss no fuss (the concern was always mostly a parlor trick distraction for undergraduate theory-head pricks anyway). While I do think Nietzsche is rather over-dramatic and Romantic in denouncing, apparently, literal truths as "worn out" metaphors here, what has always seemed to me most promising in his formulation is his insistence that this is in army in motion. An mobilized army is one the movements of which are usefully tracked, armies often move messily and unpredictably, they lag sometimes and then launch into a quick-march, they find their way to critical encounters they scarcely planned for as often as they arrive at their imagined destinations, and as often as not they back-peddle, they get stuck, they retreat, they go home, about which more in a moment. To insist too much on Nietzsche's self-referential incoherence is to risk the embarrassment of mistaking a rhetorician for a philosopher and making something of a fool of oneself, not to mention simply making too much methodologically of Nietzsche's temperamental annoyance -- shared with his truest contemporary Oscar Wilde -- with the statisticians and sticks-in-the-mud of the world.
It would be a characteristic gesture of philosophy to valorize one side of literal-figural distinction and then seek to subsume meaning-making under the terms of whichever pole happens to be the preferred one for whatever philosopher is making her separate case. After all, the quintessential gesture of all philosophy is its designation of a First Philosophy, whatever it may be, against which or in terms of which philosophizing will measure all endeavor, including its own philosophizing: Hence while it is customary to point out that philosophy names the "love of wisdom," from philo-, love, and sophia, wisdom, it is important to remember that Plato's inaugural repudiation of rhetoric, sophistry, which constituted the Western philosophical imaginary, was an inaugural repudiation that first re-figured wisdom as "The Way," the One True Knowledge, philosophy as the super-science, the queen of the disciplines, the meta-physics. But the characteristic gesture of rhetoric, to the contrary, would be to attend to the traffic between the literal and the figural, to document the historical vicissitudes through which the figure is literalized, the literal figured, the moribund figural within the literal re-activated, yielding what different vitalities and problems along the way, providing what tools to which we might avail ourselves under what occasions, and so on.
The traffic between modes of violence to which those who would be nonviolent should properly attend -- lest they become uncritical or complacent collaborators in this or that systemic violence playing out elsewhere, whatever the keenness of their efforts to ameliorate this or that violation or injustice here and now, or vice versa -- is of a piece with the traffic between the literal and figurative. Let me be clear about this: my point is not to assign to violence of some particular type the moniker "figurative" and to others "literal" and then offer up an account of mechanisms through which the one is predictably frustrated by attention to the other. As I said in connection to Zizek before, it seems to me these terminological assignments are far less clarifying than they may seem, and indeed function to circumvent or domesticate the excessively costly derangements that often attend actual ethical obligation for the pleasures and consolations of philosophy. The rhetorician knows that there is no final assignment to be made to the word of the status of the literal or the figural -- that army is mobile, recall -- the rhetorician knows the at once enabling and subversive possibility of the other always resonates in the most secure stabilization of the word at one pole or the other for the moment. It is the rhetorician's attunement to the traffic between the different vitalities and demands of the literal and the figurative that affords her the sensitivity to the violence through which other violence becomes susceptible to its necessary redress and that makes rhetoric the space for a hope for nonviolence that it has traditionally and rightly been taken to be, and not, of all thing, its supposed mastery of some one rhetorical method -- Aristotelian, Toulminian, Kingian, Rogerian -- that "masters" violence.
Pragmatism works to dispense with the philosophical fantasy that the universe has a language the terms of which it prefers to be spoken in and the authoritative speakers of which it anoints its worldly Priests (naturally, the philosophers themselves, or scientists, politicians, religious leaders indulging in philosophical salesmanship peddled as science, policy-making, or religion when it is not and always in a quest for control), and pragmatism defends the reasonable confidence inspired by warranted beliefs and the capacitation and capaciousness that follows from reasonable belief. But pragmatism denies certainty or finality to warranted belief and denies supremacy to one mode of reasonable belief over all others whatever their occasion (scientific belief, say, over moral, ethical, political belief), and pragmatism repudiates the philosophical fancy that to deny the first is somehow to call into question the existence of reality or that to deny the second is somehow to embrace relativism or that either denial demands a descent into madness or anarchy. Still profoundly unfinished in my view is the work of pragmatism to grasp that obligation is like any other fact -- a thing made, or done -- and exerts its worldly force, its truth, on us no less tangibly and indispensably, but also no more finally, certainly, or supremely. Until it makes more headway in this effort, until it shrugs off its philosophical vestiges and embraces its rhetorical heritage more fully, it cannot properly contribute as it should to the address of the deepest paradox of nonviolence of all: Namely, that human beings themselves are incarnated poems, and our freedom depends for its intelligibility and force at once both on our legibility within the terms of vocabularies, norms, customs, laws on offer (to be illegible or partially legible to the eye of the law is so often to suffer abjection, humiliation, exploitation, violation, death) as well as on our confounding excessiveness in those terms (to be reduced to the terms of the already-legible is to be rendered an object and not a peer). Like any words making their play in the world, wordy-worldly we must resonate both with literality and figurality if we would be forceful, and if we would be free.
The aspiration to nonviolence must be attentive then not only to the ways in which we risk violence in the necessary work of rendering violence capable of address, but also to the ways in which every address of one who might be the subject or object of violence obligates us to embrace an encounter in which we might be violated in our own selfhood (confounded in our deepest prejudices, beliefs, or desires as we potentially are by any good poem) as the condition of a nonviolence that takes freedom seriously. For me the resources available for this work, and for thinking our way through it, are mostly to be found in the archive of rhetoric, as well as in those works of philosophy and critical theory that come closest to repudiating philosophy for rhetoric (Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, and the American Pragmatists).