Thoughts on Violence and Modernity
in Latin America
neil larsen
I
A history without violence would, for us at least, be unrecognizable as
history. Yet violence as phenomenon appears, paradoxically, to exist apart
from the history in which it is omnipresent. Violence seems, almost un-
consciously, to found the historical imagination itself and at the same
time to exist apart from it, as a moral or metaphysical absolute. In the final
analysis this no doubt has to do with the impossibility of disassociating
the idea of violence from that of death as physical annihilation. Taken to
its extreme, violence could end history by destroying virtually all historical
agents. Indeed, it must rank as one of the great historical feats of modernity
that it has actualized what was before this merely theoretical possibility and
even learned to make us accommodate ourselves to it in our daily lives.
Alongside the abstract repugnance it universally merits in the language
of official “values,” violence as means and as sheer adaptation advances at
a sure and accelerating pace. Whatever they may convey on the level of
official historical sanctions, the stories and images of catastrophic violence—
whether of Auschwitz or Hiroshima, of the Escuela de Mecánica1 or El
Mozote,2 or for that matter of Columbine High, 9/11, Guantánamo, or Abu
Ghraib—inform us just as predictably of the adaptive cost that lived history
can be relied upon to exact from its subjects: it is this bad, it will continue,
and it will get worse. The real likelihood of violent annihilation becomes
for many something to be factored into the equations of contemporary
life, as one would a marriage or a retirement, while for the rest its specter
becomes a permanent part of the domestic landscape.
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