Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

C The Cultural Modeling of Hierarchy and Violence

Where the field of postcolonial studies general tends to credit transculturality with a loosening or overcoming of ossified power structures, the main accent of research area C in its original form was placed, in line with its title, on “transcultural hierarchies.” The focus was thus on the difficulties arising when cognitive and communicative barriers, mutual incoherence, problems of translation, and forms of speechlessness have to be overcome in a hierarchal relationship that is in any case always tense.

This approach will be expanded and analytically sharpened in the second research period. Where previously the interaction between structural asymmetries of power and its controversial symbolization in different locations within the transcultural hierarchy stood at the forefront, we are now adding a third thematic level to this conceptual picture, in order to address the phenomenon of violence. This will allow an even stronger focus on the precarious side of hierarchies and closer examination of the ambivalence of hierarchal relations—establishing order, on the one hand, defined by violence, on the other hand.

Whether or not the exercise of rule is experienced as violent is not only decided according to objectively measurable sociostructural data but is also a question of perspective and strategy. Revolutionary situations are prepared semantically by specific groups denouncing a given form of rule as violent, hence illegitimate: say by a regent receiving the tyrant’s stigma, as a result acting in a zone outside law and morality, which itself serves to justify use of counter-violence outside the extant laws. Whenever the exercise of rule and, in borderline cases, the use of violence fail to gain a basic collective legitimation effectively countering the hermeneutics of suspicion vis-à-vis hierarchical superiors, institutional orders can neither stabilize themselves nor render themselves independent of the actors occupying offices and positions. The great problem emerges here of trust in power.

In this respect it is important to note that especially in transcultural contexts, there is a permanent debate about what qualifies as violence in the first place, what as order (or restored justice). Often political circumstances are confused, with protagonists having conflicting opinions about whether a violent measure is legitimized on a state or international-legal level or, to the contrary, simply the action of a warring party operating on its own account. For the most part, asymmetries of structural power are accompanied by an asymmetric definitional sovereignty—which is capable of being usurped by weaker actors, its function reversed.

This planned new analytic dimension of research area C will itself contribute to the focus, starting in the 1990s, on situative and performative questions tied to the phenomenon of violence, but at the same time it will subject this research-turn to reservations of a relational nature. A basic premise informing future work in this area will be that even in its most extreme forms, manifestations of violence have a crucial cultural framework. Where analyses of expressions of violence will underscore the situative context, hierarchies are structural realities only changing at a relatively slow pace. The aspect of hierarchy will be resuscitated in view of prevailing “horizontal” categories such as networks, complexity, diversity, and governance. There will, however, be a far stronger emphasis on process, in line with the Center’s own heuristics.

Research Questions

To summarize, with its new accent on the “Cultural Modeling of Hierarchy and Violence,” the work in research area C will concern itself with questions such as the following:

  • In a given scenario, how do we define the relationship between power-political and cultural dominance? Do specific typologies consistently develop depending on whether political hegemony is accompanied by strong cultural influence, on the one hand (the USA after 1945) or, on the other hand, the hegemonic power is itself a cultural “importing country” (ancient Rome in relation to Greece)? In the long term is cultural superiority a precondition for power-political supremacy?
  • How does political opposition shape itself against a hegemonic political power under conditions of dominant foreign cultural influence? How are hegemonic semantics usurped and recoded? How do subservient groups engage themselves actively in the narratives of those holding power?
  • What kind of interaction is at work between hegemonic self-perception (e.g. the sense of either imperial or world-policing mission, of an imperative of juridical codification, of championing universal values) and the hegemon’s perception by its subalterns (e.g. a sense of inconsequence, particularism on one’s own behalf, a double morality)? How can the two perceptions coexist?
  • How do institutional hierarchies succeed in rendering structural violence invisible? Inversely, which thematizing and scandalizing strategies are successful for showing hierarchies to be violent, hence lacking legitimacy?
  • Where do we draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate violence? Under what conditions do changes in sensibility when it comes to violence take place leading to either a greater or lesser cultural acceptance of violent action?
  • When and how do self-constituted communities emerge from violence, what organizational models do they develop, and how stable are they? How does a culture’s semantics approach this foundational function of violence?
  • What are the social conditions for the emergence of unlimited, autotelic violence? What is the pre-history of eruptions of violence?
  • How is the fascination with virtual and fictional forms of violence regulated—what procedures of neutralization, tolerance, scandalization, and agreed on non-knowledge are available to that end?
  • How can the paradox of a violent termination of violence be avoided?
  • What mechanisms of de-escalation and what forms of intervention have proven successful in lowering the level of violence in conflict regions over the long term?