The process of civilization (and its discontents): violence, narrative and history

Wood, J.Carter (2005). The process of civilization (and its discontents): violence, narrative and history. In: Wiemann, Dirk; Stopinska, Agata; Bartels, Anke and Angermüller, Johannes eds. Discourses of Violence - Violence of Discourses: Critical Interventions, Transgressive Readings, and Post-National Negotiations. Transpects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives of the Social Sciences and Humanities (1). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.



Historical violence studies are being increasingly influenced by theoretical approaches which focus on the development of ‘cultures of violence’. However, this growing interest in the interconnections between violence and culture faces a number of significant challenges posed by the influence of disciplines other than history as well as by internal difficulties in (and disagreements over) identifying the precise role of discourse in shaping (and changing) cultures of violence. In dealing with these issues, historians are becoming increasingly interested in Norbert Elias’s theory of the ‘civilising process’. This perspective has proven to be very fruitful; nonetheless, there are problematic issues raised by Elias’s approach. In particular, the relationship between 'culture' (and thus 'discourse') and the social forces which, according to Elias, have driven a historical decline in violent behaviour – interdependence, class differentiation and the state monopolisation of legitimate physical force – remains unsettled. In this essay, I contribute to the theoretical discussion of discourses of violence from a historical perspective marked by a critical engagement with the notion of a ‘civilising process’ and incorporating conceptual tools from the fields of discourse analysis, social geography and anthropology. My conclusions, though focused on the past, are nevertheless relevant to current issues in violence and the ways that it is understood.

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