Violence and Language


If you work on Latin America then you know that there is a field of study there called “violentology,” and there are specialists whom you call violentólogos, particularly in Colombia, where the question of violence has become a kind of constructing principle of social theorization.

I find violence very unsatisfying as an object of study. We intellectuals use the term all the time as if we knew and agreed on what it is, what the term refers to. But in fact I think the concept of violence doesn’t have contours for us — perhaps that is something we can discuss. Violence has scenarios, like the ones we have been discussing, it has nodes, but I’m not sure what its contours are. It is an abstraction. And at the same time, it is unsatisfying when we analyze violence in the concrete, as a thing that is either present or absent. Doing this also almost always feels inadequate, in part because violence is always potentially present.

Another discomfort I have with the concept of violence as an object of study is that in intellectual discourse it is an inherently pathologized object, which limits us in how we approach it. I’m not a specialist in the study of violence, so I hope my colleagues in the panel can correct this concern. But there is some way in which as long as violence is an inherently pathologized idea, we don’t necessarily want to understand it, at least to the extent that understanding would mean de-pathologizing it. We intellectuals don’t necessarily want to become somebody who fully understands a field of massacred, dismembered bodies. Do we want to be that subject, a subject with that level of knowing? Do we want to think by means of our own capacities for violence in order to reach that point of understanding?

It’s interesting that when intellectuals study violence we don’t turn to specialists who are trained in the exercise of violence; we don’t see experts in violence as a source of knowledge for us, yet we ourselves are not usually trained in the use of violence, and in fact, our job is to be the police of civility. So is some ways our academic discussions of violence get permeated by fear, our own fear, fear that freezes our intellect, our horror, our terror, and our imaginations.

Another doubt I have about the study of violence is that very often, talk about the abstraction of violence displaces discussion from more grounded, specific things like weaponry, or cruelty. There are ways in which it is possible to ground a discussion of violence in more particularized things like the commodification and distribution of weaponry, the promotion of weaponized conflict for profit.

The main topic I’d like to talk about today, however, is language and violence. In our common sense, we often speak as if violence and language were mutually exclusive. We think one begins where the other ends: when people stop talking, they start fighting, when they stop fighting they start talking. We see violence and words, violence and language, in complementary distribution. We also think of violence as often that which is beyond language. People often describe war as being beyond words. But violence actually is almost always accompanied by language. One of the reasons why language cannot grasp violence, I think, is that it is usually embedded in it. When violence occurs, it seems to rely much of the time on a discursive accompaniment that assigns the violence its meaning. Such verbal framing marks the social character of violence. Anthropologists say that aggression is biological, violence is social. It seems to me that very often the accompanying language gives violence its social meaning, gives it its social character. So even though violence might erupt when dialogue stops, language is usually there as an accompaniment to violence. This is also true in the case of torture. Elaine Scarry’s famous book, The Body in Pain, describes torture as the thing beyond language, that which breaks past the possibility of language. But in fact, as testimonial texts reveal, torture is almost always accompanied by a verbal commentary that assigns it a social or interpersonal meaning. For example, torture may be accompanied by interrogation, and the relation between them works both ways. Torture can be an instrument for interrogation, but it’s just as common I believe that interrogation is the alibi or the pretext for cruelty.

In warfare these contextualizing, meaning-assigning powers of language get weaponized. I’m speaking here from an article that appeared recently in the PMLA called “Harm’s Way: Language and the Contemporary Arts of War.”[1]Mary Louise Pratt, “Harm’s Way: Language and the Contemporary Arts of War,” PMLA, (124:5, October 2009, 1515-1531).It’s something I have been thinking about for the last couple of years. The weaponization of language in contemporary warfare in the United States resides especially in what are called “Psychological Operations,” a sector of warfare that has expanded and refined itself immeasurably in the last few decades. Every unit now in Iraq and Afghanistan is accompanied by a Psychological Operations Specialist. The military defines this form of weaponry as follows:

Psychological Operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences, to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups and individuals. The purpose of Psychological Operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objective.

This is the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s definition of Psychological Operations and it can include anything from dropping leaflets from a plane to waterboarding. I discuss this topic at some length in the article.

Apart from language as accompaniment to violence, we can ask, how does language itself commit violence, how does it inflict harm, or inflict injury? It is interesting that in the United States the power of language to inflict injury was actually encoded in a legal decision that some of you may have heard about, that was made in 1944. In all our debates about hate speech in the United States, the New Hampshire versus Chaplinsky decision is cited, and it is called the Fighting Words Doctrine. In this decision, which was made amidst a scenario saturated with the effects of WWII, the Fighting Words Doctrine claims that there are kinds of language “the prevention and punishment of which, have never been thought to raise any constitutional problems.” One of these kinds of languages is “fighting words,” that is to say, “words that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” Such speech is defined as “fighting words” in the Chaplinsky decision.

What is the capacity of language to inflict injury, how does an utterance do that, cause harm, cause pain? The Chaplinsky decision does not address this. When people describe linguistically inflicted suffering, they describe it through metaphors with physical violence. So racial epithets are “a slap in the face,” or “a punch in the gut,” causing emotional “scarring.” This is the kind of terminology we have to describe the ability of language to inflict harm. Among linguistic scholars and legal scholars then, the debate swirls around the status of malicious interpellations and of what their power is. One conspicuous problem here is that language is thought of from the point of view of the speaker. So the question keeps coming up, do words when they are intended to wound actually have an inalienable power to do so? Or does the person addressed by fighting words, by words intended to wound, have the power to simply deflect them, to refuse to be wounded? How do you decide?

The linguistic philosopher and poet Denise Riley tries to resolve this issue by saying, “the power of words to subjugate and to injure resides in the world and not in the particular addressee or addressors.”[2]Denise Riley and Jean-Jaques Lecercle, The Force of Language, (New York: Palgrave, 2004), p.62.At the same time, she argues, “the ability of an utterance to harm an individual, depends on the degree to which that individual interprets acts of subjugation (or injury) as personal to them.”[3]Ibid.In her work she concludes “that grasping the impersonality of language, diminishes its ability to harm.” If you talk to trained practitioners of verbal abuse, people in the penal system, for example, they have no doubt about the effectiveness of verbal aggression — intimidation, vilification and derision — these are all routine tools of subjection and control in institutional sites like the penal system. Threatening and demeaning interpellations are indispensable for example for producing the state of abjection that is sought in interrogees. You can see this in interrogation manuals. Interrogators are taught to use these tools purposefully and strategically.

When trying to grasp the ability of language to wound, to destroy, and to harm, Riley specifies and emphasizes the absolute importance of something that linguists have never figured out what to do with, which is the reality of inner speech; the reality of language that goes on in the head. Inner speech, Riley argues, is the carrier of linguistic injury. She states, “Injurious speech echoes relentlessly, years after the occasion of its utterance, in the mind of the one at whom it was aimed… The curse does work.”[4]Ibid, p. 47.She reflects eloquently in her work on the effects of what she calls “this sonorous and indwelling aspect of vindictive words.” “Repeated over time those words can in-grow” she says, “embedding themselves in the hearer until the message is no longer felt to come from the outside.”[5]Ibid, p. 48.

This for her is the crucial way that words can wound. Riley notes that words of love and beauty can also indwell and have the same capacity to repeat themselves in the mind but she says “Love’s work pales in comparison with Hate’s work because hate injures and injury requires healing.” Language, on the other hand, is indifferent to that distinction. Language operates, as she says, “with a deep indifference as to where the side of the good may lie.”[6]Ibid, p. 61.So there is no function within the linguistic system that distinguishes between the word of love and the word of hate. The need for and the possibility of linguistic healing then, is probably the clearest evidence of the reality of linguistic harm. And that is what I have to say.


Mary Louise Pratt is Silver Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures at NYU. Mary Louise Pratt has received numerous honors and awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship, Pew Fellowship, and NEH Grants. In 2003, she served as president of the Modern Language Association. Mary Louise Pratt’s expertise extends through Latin American literatures and Latin American studies into comparative literature, linguistics, postcolonial studies, feminist and gender studies, etc. Her seminal publications within these disciplines include Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, an explanation of the discursive formation of Latin America and Africa. It has been called one of the most widely influential works of the last decade. Her other publications include the article “Humanities for the Future: Reflection of the Stanford Western Culture Debate,” and “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Her single-authored text, Towards a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse, established Mary Louise Pratt as a leader in the field of cultural criticism.


1 Mary Louise Pratt, “Harm’s Way: Language and the Contemporary Arts of War,” PMLA, (124:5, October 2009, 1515-1531).
2 Denise Riley and Jean-Jaques Lecercle, The Force of Language, (New York: Palgrave, 2004), p.62.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid, p. 47.
5 Ibid, p. 48.
6 Ibid, p. 61.

mary louise pratt