Book Review: John Docker, ‘The Origins of Violence’

March 20, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

While many writers focus on a relatively brief period of time in their search for an explanation for violence and atrocity, John Docker, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Australian National University, sets out in ‘The Origins of Violence’ to consider the totality of human history. In truth, ‘The Origins of Violence’ are not what this book is about. Rather, this is an analysis of various historical and literary texts in the context of Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide, a term he coined in 1944.

This may seem like pedantry, but genocide is just one type of violence, so any reader who expects from the title a wider analysis of the subject will be disappointed. The book contains an illuminating early section on primatology, referring to writers such as Fossey and their theories on the development of out-group violence in primates; however this is probably the only part of the book that accords with its title. Docker holds a colourful selection of texts up to the microscope of Lemkin’s definition: the ancient Greek works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus and Euripedes; Plato and Cicero’s Republics; the Bible’s Exodus; Virgil’s Aeneid; Tacitus’ histories of Roman imperialism in Britain; key histories of European colonisation, including Shakespeare’s The Tempest; and finally, various enlightenment thinkers, including Spinoza, Hume, and Deleuze.

At the outset, the book claims to be “a work of literary, cultural and intellectual history,” but despite the author’s obvious dedication to the topic at hand, Docker’s book strikes a somewhat uneven tone. Passages analysing definitively scientific topics, such as the development of out-group hostility in apes, sit uneasily alongside those that analyse the genocidal implications of ancient Greek stories of gods and monsters.

A study of human violence that extends beyond the relatively recent (such as Jonathan Glover’s excellent ‘Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century’) is certainly overdue, but with the entirety of human history and literature to choose from, Docker’s selections for in-depth coverage can’t help but feel a little arbitrary at times. Indeed one could be forgiven for wondering what Docker’s reading of genocide in Shakespeare’s The Tempest – the displacement and subjugation of the island’s sole inhabitant, Caliban, supposedly representing genocide – is doing in a book that sets out to draw historical conclusions. Such scrutiny would seem more at home amid the explicitly cultural musings of figures like Slavoj Zizek in his ‘Violence’.

An inevitable criticism, too, is the unavoidable selectivity employed when trying to draw conclusions from the entirety of human literature and culture. Docker persuasively reveals an undercurrent of almost constant violence in the works of literature he chooses to analyse, and themes such as ‘supersessionism’, ‘victimology’ ‘chosen people’, ‘promised land’, ‘culture bringers’, and ‘honorouble colonization’ do crop up with alarming regularity.

However, given that Docker has the whole of human literature to choose from, it is hardly surprising that he finds examples to support his thesis. One could be reminded, perhaps unfairly, of the cherry-picking of Biblical scripture to support or undermine a particular moral stance. At times, this leaves the reader wondering whether a different historical reading list (non-Christian religious texts, the Declaration of Independence, etc) could support entirely different conclusions.

One of the finest sections of the book is Docker’s careful unpicking of the popular notion that the Holocaust during WWII may have its origin in the Enlightenment. Here Docker, via Spinoza, offers a rich reading of the period’s historical and political context with many prudent conclusions. However, one would expect a book like this to look forward as well as backward – by explaining the origins of violence, perhaps we can draw conclusions that are illustrative in light of the perpetual conflicts raging around the world. The book does indeed offer conclusions in this respect but they tend to be unusually focused toward the criticism of Zionists in the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Some of the best passages in the book expand upon the importance of the Melian dialogue, Thucydides’ classic expression of the tension existing between what would come to be known as liberalism and realism in international relations. Docker deftly links the principles of the dialogue to the necessary development of international humanitarian law, but it seems strange not to raise the spectres of Iraq and Afghanistan when discussing the type of realist foreign policy that has come to define today’s USA. The Melian dialogue spoke of unilateral war, which prioritised the perceived strength of the aggressor above the wellbeing of the target state’s population, a principle that is starkly relevant today.

These criticisms shouldn’t detract from Docker’s forensic exposure of genocide as a pervasive theme in our literary history, and any reader with a passing interest in modern man’s relentless dedication to mass-slaughter will find observations here that both inform and inflame. Indeed, at times it becomes extremely uncomfortable to see how easily Lemkin’s template of genocide matches the descriptions of key moments in human history. However, its arbitrariness can sometimes feel like indulgence, which threatens to raise more questions than it answers.

The Origins of Violence (Pluto Books, £17.99) is out now.

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This post was written by Tom Bangay

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