Engaging Violence
Civility and the Reach of Literature
David Simpson



Violence, civility and literature are all difficult words, or words of complicated conceptual scope: setting the terms involves upsetting the terms. Despite various absolutist determinations of what is and is not literature, it is a noun that commonly requires a limiting adjective of some sort: high or low, bad or good, harmful or improving. Civility can describe a near-moral virtue, a hypocritical pretense, a habit of good manners or a disciplinary regime, and everything in between; and violence covers a spectrum stretching from the atomic bomb to deep psychological formations that may not even be visible to a third party. While it is a truth widely (though not universally) acknowledged that civility works against violence and that literature generates or accompanies civility and engenders tolerance, civility has been understood as violence in disguise, and literature, which has only rarely sought to claim the power of violence, has often been accused of inciting or approving it. This book sets out to describe the ways in which these English words and the concepts they evoke are mutually entangled and the uses to which these entanglements have been put.

Each word and concept invokes the others in ways that are both implicit and explicit but are not subject to definitive specification. The claim to assure a secure and peaceable life has become a major component of the political rhetoric of statehood through the Euro-American modern period, one that has been accompanied by a projection of violence as the attribute of others and civility as the birthright of the West. But civility has also been conceived as a disciplinary agent for disorderly domestic populations. It is thus under strain both for what it is in itself—a potentially coercive practice that never quite comes naturally—and for what it conjures up as other to itself, a violence consigned exclusively to those outside the group that deems itself to be behaving properly. Ambivalence is constitutive of our ideas of civility. It evolves historically from being a courtly-aristocratic protocol exercised by elite men to a behavioral model for an emergent middle class and thence for many more; as such it seems almost bound to generate confusion and paradox about who possesses it and who does not. Literature has also functioned variably, both as a means of nation-state confirmation and interpellation (‘the English novel,’ ‘the national poet’) and as a critique or testing out of habitual practices and assumptions. It moves in and out of acknowledging the violences of history and of the individual psyche and across a range of options explaining, justifying or opposing them. The spilling of brains and intestines has never been better described than in the Iliad. But between then and now more and more forms of violence have been specified as demanding attention, both descriptively and conceptually: global war, mass destruction, ecological crisis, slavery, colonization and its aftermaths, violence against women, racialized violence, violence in the name of religion, psychological violence and so forth. Western nations have needed violence even as they purport to diminish it, whether to discipline their own populations or to impose their rule over others. Meanwhile, civility continues to be invoked by both scholars and ordinary citizens as a necessary restraint, and literature continues to be written and disseminated, both as a market event and as a component of the educational apparatus. This study builds upon the work of historians, political scientists, literary scholars and philosophers but ventures a new argument about the complex and often mystified entanglements between literature, civility and violence in the anglophone Atlantic sphere. It does not lay claim to being a comprehensive historical philology, and for literature and violence it attempts no philological analysis at all. Civility is treated in more detail because its senses are limited enough to be describable and because it is, I argue, a key connector between the other two terms, in ways that have yet to be understood. The details I explore are mostly but not entirely anglophone, and they suggest that literature, civility and violence have been in play in mutually constitutive ways that delineate the ambitions and the limits of the project of culture in its broadest sense: the furtherance of social behavior that has the support and models the behavior of a critical mass of a population, though not necessarily (indeed probably not) of a majority. There are of course far more coercive forces at play in the management of populations: Marx describes some of them in Capital. Work regimes, wage policies, antistrike legislation and outright violence in policing were and are all deployed in maintaining the peace that allows the few to continue to profit from the life and labor of the many. But other kinds of persuasion also matter, those embodied in notions of good manners, attention to others and responsiveness to art and literature. These are less definitive and less obvious in their operations and incur certain ambiguities and perhaps uncontainable effects. They can work against habits of obedience in approved behavior, but also encourage it by distracting us or, in their pedagogical forms, enacting the performance of a freedom and independence, including freedom and independence from violence, that cannot surely be known categorically as either real or illusory.

Circulating literature and performing civility developed together as ways of calling out violence and displacing its threats. They originated in small-group, elite subcultures and came to be imagined as key to the wellbeing of many more, while being never quite open to all. At first privileged young men and a few women mastered good manners along with a proficiency in reading and writing and in acquiring foreign languages (Greek, Latin, French, Italian) and the literatures produced in them. This became the attribute of a professional and bureaucratic class able to administer a nation and then an empire. Competence in classical languages remained relatively restricted, leading to the construction of a national literary tradition built upon Shakespeare and later upon novels that could be made to embody and publicize the values and benefits of civil exchange. But what would happen if we were to suggest a canon founded on Oroonoko rather than Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa rather than Pamela, Evelina rather than Pride and Prejudice? The radical and often incorrigible violences against black people and women that are frontal in these novels could never have sustained the model of interiority and proper conduct that has allowed the (predominantly English) novel to flourish as the centerpiece of a British national literary education. They offer a benchmark of recognition for what the favored narratives often seem to ignore or push to the margins. But even the more acceptably canonized novels can be read against the grain to reveal an encounter with forms of violence that cannot easily be assimilated by representations of an established peace upon earth. The American novel, meanwhile, is almost always too cognizant of the power of an intransigent violence to offer itself as the bearer of any patriotic idealism about manifest destiny. Both literature and civility project their own inadequacies in this respect. But they also generate utopian aspirations that are not completely undercut by their own limitations. In relation to violence and nonviolence, they inhabit the world of both/and. The ethical complexities of literary reading are like those associated with civility: each can be seen either as a creative virtual experience fostering the exercise of sympathetic instincts or as an evasive indulgence substituting for consequential decisions about real-life events.

We live at a time in which the value of a humanities education is regularly called into question, not least by the very institutions of higher learning that have sustained it for more than two centuries. They vote with their wallets: funding for arts and literature has been under great pressure and in some places has entirely disappeared. These same institutions, like other sectors of society, publish civility codes designed, sometimes quite coercively, to foster the values of community and respect. It mostly goes unrecognized that arts-based pedagogies themselves developed as both agents and apostles of this same civility, seeking to rehearse conflict in the classroom by way of imagined rather than immediate situations and thereby teaching people how to disagree without calling forth actual violence. The study of literature in particular has also been committed to cherishing the aesthetic pleasure deriving from imaginary forms while hanging on to a mediated reference to a real world in which moral judgment and witnessing historical events remain urgent imperatives. That means engaging with the violence that literature’s own formal protocols, devised as representations rather than enactments, discourage. There is a risk involved: that the representation of violence will be taken as its endorsement. The long-standing debates about the messages of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness reflect the persistence of the problem and the difficulty of resolving it. So too the perplexities that arise from the apparent ignoring or finessing of violence, which inform (for example) discussions of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For all that has been written about them, these books (and others like them) continue to provide provocations rather than definite answers.

The disposition toward engaging violence is common to both literature and civility and invites at least two readings. First, literature and civility face up to violence, address and contest it, in ways that are both direct and indirect: engaging with violence. Second, they can make violence itself seem engaging and even entertaining, whether as an imagined life in a book or as polite manners performed to rebuke those who do not share them. Friend-enemy narratives often function by subjecting the other to some sort of violence, often enthusiastically. Here it can be hard to hold on to the representational identity of literature as not the thing itself. But hold on we must. Political philosopher Étienne Balibar, whose Violence and Civility has been pivotal in my thinking, not least in its honest admission of a besetting confusion and obscurity around the whole concept of civility, has invoked the idea of “inconvertible violence.” By this he signals a component of contemporary life that cannot be avoided or sublimated as conducive to some greater good: a violence that must be avowed and engaged (for example, as cruelty and racism) in its very intransigence, and one that requires a more stringent and perhaps as yet unthinkable civility to contest it. By insisting on the inevitability of a recurrent violence, he interferes with the narrative that makes its subsumption a feature of ‘civilization,’ a civilization that has indeed arguably regressed toward more pervasive violences even as it has developed greater technological accomplishments. No incarnation of civility devised to engage with this situation is going to subsist as intact and unmixed. The difficulty of imagining a kind of civility that subsists despite its own incompletion presents challenges for the practices of both civility and literature. Civility already bears within it an exclusionary and punitive legacy, the result of its limiting itself to some and denying it to others. It has figured in this way as a tool for separating so-called civilization from so-called barbarism, as well as in the more local social distinctions between classes and occupations, all this while also claiming to bring about a peaceful world. Literature, insofar as it relies upon a subsidiary notion of the nonliterary, can also be made to appear exclusionary, and familiarity with fine writing has certainly been employed as a mechanism for social distinction. Matthew Arnold’s contempt for those he called philistines is a famous case in point, and those who can quote Hamlet often do sense themselves as a cut above those who cannot. But when it comes to discussing the play, outcomes are less predictable and conclusions often indecisive, as some find the Danish prince himself to be. Literature in its modern sense declares its identity as a virtual medium, existing by a commitment to representation, which preempts its own capacity for direct violence. Its role in the educational system has often been one of encouraging the suspension of belief and the habit of conducting inquiry without a guarantee of clear outcomes. In this it invites and models civility and a mode of argument that tolerates uncertainty and diversity of opinion. At the same time, while still remaining within the parameters of representation, an always-mediated rhetoric, literature can claim the power of historical witnessing, including the witnessing of violence. This can have the effect of inviting or inciting others to act in a way that literature alone and in itself never does. Pedagogy can thereby also incorporate an activist incentive along with its inclination to detachment: we tend not to teach Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a tribute to the virtues of irony and disinterest. Some readers may find themselves resisting its deployment of sentiment, but few if any doubt its call for judgment and response.

Both literature and civility work toward holding violence in abeyance, but only to some degree and never to the point of its disappearance. Invoking civility may perform minor violence as it discredits or represses those deemed to be ignoring its protocols, while literature can never be fully settled beneath the protective shell promised by the claim to be always and only mere representation or fiction. Each articulation of literature or civility, or of the relation between them, thus always renegotiates anew, and renders always to be decided, an attitude to or implication in kinds and degrees of violence. Nothing is given in advance or in principle. Some have said that literature can save the world, but there is nothing in the record to suggest that it will or that it can guarantee an immunity to enacting or suffering significant violence. Only a universal and hegemonic community of enlightened readers—readers in the literary mode—could even begin to lay the ground for posing the question of how much good literature can do: this we have never had and are far from having now. And yet intelligent thinkers like Matthew Arnold and I. A. Richards have come close to suggesting just this, because literature may indeed be among our best resources for diminishing the acceptability or inevitability of violence. Meditative solitary reading, or face-to-face discussion of complex language proceeding as an un-co-opted event, habits that do not give up on incentivizing us toward real-world agency while still insisting on a procedural commitment to the sphere of representation alone, are capacious mediums for exploring a wide range of attitudes and projections. They require an extended commitment of time devoted to noninstrumental outcomes and are thus physiologically nonviolent at the same time as they tend to produce ‘meanings’ that go in more than one direction and take yet more time to evaluate. The importance of these activities does not depend on a conviction that violence is not innate, or indeed that it is. The evidence of extreme violence enacted by humans upon one another goes all the way back; the historical record is pretty clear about this, whether one prefers to attribute it to hardwired biological or psychological traits, to socially contingent circumstances or to some measure of each. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that we can promise a world where violence is a thing of the past. But every instance of violence is in itself open to investigation and to the projection of alternatives. And violence is not the only human trait that goes all the way back. So too does sociability, the habit of association in groups that raises so many of the issues that a concept of civility is designed to address. The play between the two means that the expression of violence has always raised the question of violence: Is it justified, beneficial to some, avoidable? Is there an available recourse to sociability that might offset the onset of violence?

And then there is a third human activity that seems never to be absent from the archaeological and historical record: the apparent compulsion to make things, to alter in some way the world as it is given. This making of things has commonly gone well beyond the point at which something is merely rendered useful for survival; a flint ax, for example, can take on a sculptural form that elicits judgments that it is a thing of beauty, and who is to say that its makers were not of the same mind? What the Greeks called poesis included both utilitarian and ‘artistic’ activities. And objects that we consider purely decorative are there from the start, or very close to the start, of human evolution. Aesthetic culture is up there with violence and sociability as a primary human imperative. To some, like Shelley, it is the first among all human drives, the one without which no social or historical development of any kind can be imagined as possible. And it has one trait that the others do not share: it takes on fixed form and endures through time in more or less the form in which it was invented. Passing through historical time, it can be celebrated, analyzed, imitated or simply ignored; it can be rediscovered or reimagined in contexts and for purposes that could not have existed in the world in which it first took form. This is obviously true of the neolithic ax that ends up in a museum, but it is true also of the biblical or Homeric text that can never be thought of as finished or seen as whole because it comes to us in too many bits and pieces. In all such cases, attention in the aesthetic mode takes up time that is not being directed at irreversible outcomes. Thus it is that the Iliad, so full of descriptions of violence, is a story that holds violence to account. And yet it can never offer a guarantee against the arrival of readers for whom it will stand as an endorsement or glorification of that same violence. Those are the readers who decide not to abide by the conventions of the aesthetic mode, which must depend upon some form of continual enactment (like teaching) to stake its claim.

My argument follows a broadly historical trajectory through the long modern period to the present day, but it is not exhaustive or seamlessly continuous. It does not aspire to a comprehensive historical account; it is an inquiry into some exemplary formations. Most obviously it hardly touches on the long war period of 1914–45, when violence was inescapable and at the front of so many people’s minds. I may be wrong in thinking that civility was not then much of an issue, or at least an interesting issue, though it would be surprising if no examples could be found of civility protocols being disputed or defended in discussions of, for example, appeasement, pacifism or the allocation of rations, let alone whether or not to obliterate German and Japanese cities in firestorms or atomic explosions. My hunch is that that these instances and others like them are somewhat straightforward to articulate, although not of course to resolve. My focus here is on the less widely recognized articulations that govern the long modern formations of violence, literature and civility. I do take it as an operational assumption that literary aesthetics and civility are to be taken seriously, not simply dismissed as liberal ideology or bad faith, and thus my argument does take the risk of being deemed by some to be already co-opted. I accept the risk, and I have attempted not to underplay the need for critique. Decisions about inescapable violence cannot be made in advance and anyway cannot expect to hold good for all persons at all times. Even when they seem to attract a working consensus, there is always another side to be heard. All violence generates a holding to account, and to that end the coarticulation of literature and civility offers an enduring resource.

Chapter 1 introduces the varieties of literature’s relation to violence and the questions it generates, with some famous examples from Auden, Yeats and Austen. What happens when a literary work seems to endorse or excuse violence? Is violence perhaps always in the picture, if we look hard enough, but always open to the productive uncertainties of aesthetic representation? Like civility, literature seems constitutively ambiguous or paradoxical. I go on to ask why the historically persistent commitment to civility seems not to have produced any settled decision about exactly what it is. Civility falls short of philosophical or legal specificity (for instance, as a moral law) but is habitually imagined as something more than just being nice to others. Its apparent well-disposedness has been interpreted as a crucial social bond or as nothing more than a front for hypocrisy. It has moved well beyond its original Latin sense denoting mere membership of the body politic (civilis), itself never a neutral qualifier as long as citizenship remains restrictive. While apparently pitched against violence—as in Norbert Elias’s thesis about civility’s work in controlling aristocratic (male) aggression—it has been accused of imposing its own violent norms and exclusions. Insofar as it makes men’s treatment of women a yardstick for civil behavior, it both elevates and degrades the figure of the female. Under the heading of courtesy, it was embroiled not only in domestically violent social relations but also in the project of early modern colonization, as is vividly represented in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. It shares with literature a constitutive ambiguity or obscurity (what ‘is’ literature?), as well as a commitment to what Elias called reflective detachment. Literature stages its own relations to violence: even representation itself and alone has, ever since Plato, been accused of dangerous incitements. As teaching literature is absorbed into institutions of education, and eventually mass education, these questions become of more concern to more people. So too does the nature and extent of violence, with some (like Steven Pinker) suggesting that it is decreasing in our own time, while others are convinced of its increasing incidence and new penetration of every facet of life, from the global to the interpersonal, a case made in Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the decolonization process. Meanwhile, the conditions set by Kant and Schiller for the identification of the aesthetic—nonutilitarian, disinterested, strictly representational—continue to dominate the modern discussion, even as they have come under critical inspection for being dependent upon racialized categories that perpetuate the very violence they purport to displace.

Chapter 2 addresses the constitutive and foundational relations between literature and civility in the eighteenth century. It opens with a bizarre moment of spectacular politeness in Daniel Defoe’s depiction of Crusoe’s island, where the performance of civility and the power of violence are staged together by a lapsed gentleman who seems not to have forgotten his manners even after decades of solitude followed by more years of companionate authority over another man. Crusoe missed much of the violence of the English Civil War period, a violence the Earl of Clarendon (Edward Hyde) attributed in considerable part to a failure of civility. Following an extended investigation of public manners by the early eighteenth-century essayists, the publication of Richardson’s Pamela provoked a vigorous debate about the place of ordinary people in polite culture and about the potential of small, private reading groups for displacing violence, notably male sexual violence. Another major controversy over civility came in the 1770s with the posthumous appearance of Chesterfield’s Letters, an informal conduct manual that reenacts the sixteenth-century debates about courtesy and civility for a later generation. Here a cosmopolitan, aristocratic affect (antithetical to Pamela’s national-patriotic localism) aligns with a visibly middle-class language register in what was widely received as a cynical exposure of the hypocrisies implicit in the performance of deference to others and of a purely apparitional displacement of violence.

Chapter 3 explores the literary basis of eighteenth-century British philosophical writing, which indeed projects civility and literature as each the natural expression of the other. Philosophy, novels and journals are all pursuing the same ends in the same ways. Shaftesbury, Hume, Smith, Ferguson and Kames all theorize a role for civility and civil society, one whose goal is the diminishing of violence. At the same time they signal the limits of small-group formations as suitable models for managing larger social aggressions. The project of political economy takes on the task of balancing the necessary instability and conflict that drives an entrepreneurial culture with the needs of a manageably peaceful state: civility keeping violence to a minimum. Meanwhile, philosophy, fiction, history writing, criticism and belles lettres evolve together to constitute a general mode of communication that is visibly literary: self-reflective, unassertive and dialogic. Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is an important example of the synthesis. But after Chesterfield, and in the light of concerns about an imminent mass reading public, civility is under stress as a viable solution to social conflict, and literature begins to look elsewhere for alliances against the threat of violence that becomes more identified with urgently apparent class divisions and with the experiences of global war and militant empire building. Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist critique further calls into question the long-standing convention imaging the treatment of women as the measure of courtesy, civility and the progress of civil society.

Chapter 4 traces the near extinction, in Britain and America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of any deep investment in the concept of civility (though it is partly subsumed into anthropological ideas of civilization). Manners, often still an attribute of women, remain an important topic of debate, but it is above all an invocation of personal culture (in the spirit of the German Bildung) that is dramatized in literature and literary criticism and given the task of managing violence and keeping it below the level that requires physical policing. Matthew Arnold adapts Schiller toward a literature-based education that makes an explicit place for criticism as central to a culture that depends upon disinterestedness and a free play of the mind, while the novelists move away from civility as a sufficient or trustworthy term for managing conflict. The turn to culture fits better with the inward-looking habits of British literature, which keeps the violence of empire at a distance while trying to manage that of class relations, than with those of American literature, which is much more direct in representing the conditions of slavery and of the destruction of Native America. Perhaps because of this frankness about the omnipresence of violence, literature in the United States is mostly not presented as a medium for civilizing the new nation. Tocqueville deflects attention away from both literature and civility as essential ingredients of public life, but the natural democracy he finds viable in America is premised on excluding black slaves, Native Americans and women from the possibility of citizenship. Assertions of masculine power and violence also reappear as antidotes to a perceived feminization and degeneration of the national culture. In Britain, the synthesis of literature and culture leads up to an influential twentieth-century pedagogy, devised in the wake of World War I, by I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis and others, which incorporates civility protocols into the classroom and once again seeks to combine the small-group experience with a widely distributable public paradigm.

Chapter 5 addresses the explosion of civility and civil society theory in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Empire, as civility becomes the go-to concept in social and political science, most notably in the United States and in Tony Blair’s Britain. The celebration of round tables, the British ‘Third Way’ and the renovated American fascination with town meetings all affirm the potential of nonstate mechanisms for the creation of a healthy public life that can avoid the recourse to any critical violence. When a political scientist like Geoff Mulgan announces that “the defining questions are all about relationships,” we can sense the degree to which the model of literary engagement (dialogical, conversational, nonhierarchical) has become the prototype for theorizing political conduct. The expansion of the European Union inspires another dramatic rethinking of whether civility and civil society theory are adequate to the task of adjusting to an increasingly diversifying transnational entity, one bringing with it seemingly unnegotiable forms and degrees of violence: the breakup of Yugoslavia, increasing immigration, new inequalities of wealth and health. Europe has always been a shifting and contested idea, one imagined as a concept to include some and exclude others. Literary theory in the 1990s plays a role in the projection of an ideal of Europe as an alternative to the Washington consensus: Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas and Étienne Balibar, among others, propose the estrangement of Europe from itself in another version of civility-as-literature transforming violence. Anglo-phone philosophers like Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum also project the literary mode as exemplary for the cultivation of a nondestructive citizenry. The novel of migration is attuned to representing the besetting violences of neoliberal culture, undercutting its pretensions to civility, but it also stages a commitment to the imagining of a better world.

Chapter 6 brings us to the current moment when aesthetic theory and literature itself respond to what Balibar calls the inconvertible presence of violence, no longer imaginable as an alternative to civility but as part of its immanent fabric. Among those who pay attention to the humanities at all, conservatives, liberals and leftists alike continue to share some kind of faith in the value of the literary imagination, and the literary mode (art, theory, pedagogy) continues to work for deployment against violence, even as no language, creative or quotidian, is immune to a possible capture by violent interests. One notable response to this predicament is, following Roland Barthes, a reinvention of John Keats’s idea of negative capability: a recourse to the neutral, to gestures of minimalist intervention that seek to keep potential violence at arm’s length. Literature also remains implicated in a project of witnessing, of registering conditions that an author may feel unable to change but can prevent being forgotten. And witnessing, taken up by others, can become incentivizing, a passage to the kinds of doing that Schiller’s aesthetic mode conventionally disavows: putting right what is wrong with the world. Meanwhile, the model of imaginative disinterest and free play devised by Kant and Schiller remains central to the discussion of why aesthetic and literary response matters, even though it has been identified, most coherently by David Lloyd, as proffering a fake universality. At the present time the task of assessing the balance of civility and violence in and through literature falls principally to the novel, and increasingly to what we recognize as the global novel. For this genre (hardly any longer a subgenre) Lloyd’s articulation of the category of subalternity, evolving as theorizing both the colonial encounter and the mechanics of decolonization (and thus the icon of a violence that so often targets both gender and race), functions as an important figuration of both the brute conditions of history as it happens and the imaginary realm of the uncanny that marks it as memorable and thinkable in new ways, for example, in Mohsin Hamid’s echoing (in The Reluctant Fundamentalist) of Robinson Crusoe playing the gentleman (as discussed in Chapter 2). In representing the predicaments of subalternity, from Conrad and Forster to Hamid and Kamila Shamsie, civility’s residual indeterminacy is well suited to the articulation of an always unstable subjectivity that does damage only by claiming to have fully consolidated itself as an identity. Civility can here acknowledge its affiliation with and function within an aesthetics of radical discomfort, unable to keep a clear distance from the violence that it must still hold up to an ongoing critique, while committed also to keeping open an incentive to social bonding, like the romance plot to which the novel can still resort as the bearer of some measure of hope for the future.