Alexandra Myshalov

Some Light Reading on the History of Violence


“While a constituent power destroys law only to recreate it in a new form, destituent power, in so far as it deposes once for all the law, can open a really new historical epoch.” –– Giorgio Agamben, For a Theory of Destituent Power.

“The modern illness is the engulfing of the new in the duplicata, the engulfing of intelligence in the pleasure [jouissance] of the homogeneous. Real production is undoubtedly rare, for it attracts parasites that immediately make it something common and banal. Real production is unexpected and improbable; it overflows with information and is always immediately parasited.” –– Michel Serres, The Parasite.

It is a general rule that over time, formations in the cultural realm tend to become unmoored from their actualities. The tendency of formations to become more abstract over time is what is meant when we say that we encounter history for the first time as tragedy, then again as farce. A cultural entity that maintains its appearance but has lost its substance may be called a pseudomorph.

The abolition of dueling with deadly weapons in Wilhelmine Germany is a pretty arcane topic. It is linked, however, to a number of non-arcane and even pressing themes that flow through the debates going on currently about political violence and systemic societal pathologies. It is only one episode from the history of violence and its monopolization by the state, and is by no means the only suitable example; the history of the state is global and troubled.

Max Weber’s definition is simple and conceptually powerful: “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” What is meant is not that government entities alone have the right to use violence but that the state is the only legitimate source of that right regardless of who is permitted to exercise it. That the territorial aspect is vital is made plain if one considers the scenario of a citizen of one country committing a crime in another: the crime falls in the jurisdiction of the state on whose soil the crime is committed. The most extreme version of this is an extradition treaty like that which the United States made with Colombia in 1982, which permitted extradition for crimes not committed on US soil in an effort to rein in the drug trade. It could be otherwise, but it is not.

It was my interest in the origins of the modern state that originally led me to research dueling for a class on “medievalisms,” modern (post-medieval) invocations of motifs thought to be medieval. The duel, whatever it actually came from, has historically been thought of as having medieval roots. Thus it is charged with all kinds of ideas about history, chivalry, and masculinity. Although today we know it mostly through its fictions, especially literature of a certain era––Pushkin, Lermontov, Laclos, Mann––it also survives, in etiolated form, in Austria and Germany as Mensur.

Mensur is a kind of academic fencing. It is neither ritual nor sport, but mixes their characteristics. The term is derived from the Latin for dimension or measure, referring to the distance maintained between two fencers. It has a long and complex history, evolving out of and in opposition to both dueling and sport as wider practices, and embedded in the highly specific context of a modern German academic caste. As practiced today it is a relic of a relic, persisting into the contemporary period with its customary setting, the German or Austrian student organization, the first of which was founded in Jena in 1815. They exist uneasily today, caught in the skittish dance typical of far-right groups in a political and discursive climate that publicly condemns them whilst allowing the watered-down versions of their ideologies to flourish. It is worth noting that they were outlawed in the Third Reich.

In The Magic Mountain, Mann wrote that fraternity members “stuck together throughout life and knew how to take care of their people, so that only with difficulty was it possible to bring someone to something good in the hierarchy of officialdom, who had not been a ‘Corpsbruder.'” Now, as then, members of fencing fraternities are disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of society and government, although this tends to be more true in Austria, ever the straggler, than in Germany. They are regarded with suspicion and contempt for this reason as well as for their alleged and real far-right politics, and their gatherings generally draw protestors. They may be identified by the Schmiss, a scar generally delivered to the left side of the face by a right-handed opponent. At the turn of the century a Schmiss was considered attractive, compelling some to request the surgeon attending the duel to sew in a horsehair, and others to fake it with razorblades. Today they are generally so subtle as to escape notice, as advances in medical technique have coincided with a need for discretion. The maturation of the practice brought the understanding that the Schmiss need not be grotesque in order to signify.

Fencing fraternities once existed alongside dueling with pistols and sabres and were considered staging grounds for future duelists. Today they are all that remain. Their triumph, in a way, was their undoing. When the framework of Ehre (honor) and Satisfaktionsfähigkeit (roughly, eligibility to give satisfaction by combat corresponding to caste and social standing as well as to individual character) is removed, the Mensur is stripped of much of its meaning, made into a pseudomorph, a gesture. It is this contradiction that helped to create the conditions for the extinction of Mensur’s deadlier cousins.

Kevin McAleer writes in Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany that “collateral to the phenomenology of the emerging pistol duel, the best defense in the student Mensur became a good offense; although, paradoxically (and like the pistol duel) the emphasis was on sustaining, not delivering hits. An opponent’s blade was now literally parried with the face.” At the same time, the student duel ceased to be held in response to some insult, becoming an arranged rite of passage required of every member of a dueling student association. “The Mensur now became Bestimmungsmensur, or Mensur by agreement. The result of all these changes in the middle years of the [19th] century was to create a contest as sanguinary and brutal as it was dispassionate and robotic.”

Fought at groggy dawn after some real or imagined slight in the drunkenness of some night prior, duels can also be understood as participating in a regime of intoxication and sobriety. This says something about the lack of decent mind-altering substances available to turn-of-the-century Germans, but it also indicates the libidinal and affective aspects of dueling practices, which are what make it so difficult to apply a functionalist analysis to the whole matter, in its obstinacy and its frivolousness.

Only a small segment of Wilhelmine society was considered satisfaktionsfähig: about five percent, corresponding directly to the estimated percentage of the population, included in the first voting bracket of the Prussian three-class system of suffrage. This five percent was composed mostly of the upper-middle class in its narrowest social sense. In some ways the only way to give a positive definition of the middle-class was in reference to Satisfaktionfähigkeit.

So the question of the duel was not of the entire population, but of a privileged kind of extrajudicial killing permitted only to certain classes of society. It was categorically opposed by the Social Democrats, otherwise lukewarm reformists, for this reason. In 1895 a Berlin court saw a case where a man was charged with promoting a brawl after an insult to his wife. He attempted to argue that this constituted the application of a double standard, that his fight was no less a matter of honor than those fought by members of the upper classes. He was unsuccessful. In fact, the duel was technically illegal for much of the period being discussed. It was tolerated variously by sympathetic ex-duelists in the legislature, police willing to turn a blind eye, and courts that would not convict.

If this condition of implicit permission feels familiar, it is because there is a long history of states deputizing non-state entities to carry out their ends. This is more frequently seen in the realm of international relations, where one state will fund and arm another’s militants, drug cartels, or separatists. This violence by proxy is most characteristic of the Cold War era, but it was common earlier too; Lenin in his sealed train car comes immediately to mind. Various semi-sovereign criminal organizations are tolerated by governments because they form the lowest layer in global supply chains:

Precisely because it is not counted in official economic data, the black market is capable of subsidizing the visible economy with invisible inputs. In California’s emerald triangle, for example, weed money trickles down to expand employment in services, raise rents and boost tax revenue, with many residents’ disposable income seemingly appearing from nowhere in official census data. In rural China, local officials hire gangsters to clear villagers from land, which is then sold to real estate companies, used for industrial development or aggregated into new, mechanized farms owned by massive agricultural conglomerates, their on-the-book expenses cut to nearly nothing by the shady nature of the acquisition. –– “Swoosh,” Phil A. Neel.

On the domestic level, there are armed patriot groups patrolling the border between the United States and Mexico with everything short of the official blessing of the Department of Homeland Security, the American Protective League in the early years of the twentieth century, the Ku Klux Klan during Jim Crow, brownshirts in Nazi Germany, and so on. The question is not really whether the state often benefits from the activities of non-state actors, or whether it allows them to exist, but under what conditions they flourish and why. For much of the modern period the logic of plausible deniability allowed states to benefit from the activities of mercantile companies, privateers, and mercenaries without needing to take public responsibility for those activities. Although there does seem to have been something of a golden age of the state monopoly on violence, many point to its erosion in recent decades. The idea that there ever was an international relations whose base unit was really the state is probably a fiction; private, non-state, and transnational actors are neither pre- nor postmodern, borders have always been permeable, sovereignties always contested.

The question of the Wilhelmine duel was brought to a point of urgency by frictions between students and officers. Contemporary attitudes to Mensur tended to compare it to dueling with sabres and pistols as practiced by the military, generally finding it lacking, a childish mimicry of army modes. As military officers were often stationed for years at a time in university cities, this difference in dueling practices became a problem. In 1902, after a series of student deaths in frivolous pistol duels, a student-led movement against them swept a number of German universities.

The stakes were high. In the balance was the ability of a member of any one of the many groups involved in the debate to make claims regarding their masculinity, honor, and loyalty to the nation, as the debate had at its heart groups (students, officer class, nobility) considered to be the current or future leaders of Germany. Students made use of ideas about chivalry and manliness to advocate for dueling with swords, arguing that it was more honorable and respectable to fight a duel at close range than to shoot from a distance. The pistol was also figured as less German, belonging more to American “revolver-heroes” or bandits, while the sword was noble and authentically German. This medievalizing tendency may be understood as participating in a broader context, which Konrad Jarausch identifies as a “craving for ‘instant tradition,’” for historical legitimation of forms and goals of behavior.

More interesting, however, was the argument that was taken up by the resolution passed at the Munich assembly, which “emphasized the joint sacrifice of students and officers, and argued ‘The lives of officers and students belong to the Fatherland and may not be gambled away over a petty dispute’” (Konrad Jarausch, Students, Society, and Politics in Imperial Germany: The Rise of Academic Illiberalism). When viewed alongside periodic efforts to elevate the student duel to legality from various de facto tolerated statuses, a concern for the rule of law emerges, identifying this medievalism, if it is one, as something more than the simple romantic nationalism, a longing for history. Layered beneath the anxieties about masculinity and honor were preoccupations with legitimacy in the public sphere; contending with the academic virtue of cultivation (Bildung) and its implicit anti-industrial bias there was a sense of the inevitability of modernization on an international scale. As McAleer wrote, “Every time he dueled, the privileged and elitist German man of honor would figuratively close his visor, fix his lance, and tilt—at the spirit of the modern age.”

All writing on culture is necessarily a dirty affair. To write about a world so irreparably flawed is to sift through waste: this is what the functionalist does not understand. It is unclear how one can look at the human world and see anything other than tragedy; the perversity of the shapes that culture twists itself into, the stuntedness of most lives.

An anecdote from Solzhenitsyn. Attendants at a Party conference at the height of the Stalinist purges begin to clap when a tribute to the leader is called for. They clap and clap, riotously, mechanically. They look at one another nervously, each afraid to be the first to stop clapping and take his seat. They clap for five minutes, six, seven. “Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going on and on until they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers…”

So the German duelists were prisoners of a structure of obligation, a double bind that they could not opt out of without damaging their honor and their social position. The discourse had to be reconfigured in order to make the bloodshed dishonorable; before that happened, it could not end. This reconfiguration literally interpolated blood:

“Since most all officer duels used pistols, it would make apparent sense that students should eventually have also adopted these implements so as to preserve that longed-for equal status with their role models. This, however, seems not to have been the case—college life could be rather idyllic, and pistols were notorious killjoys. But for whatever reason, pistol duels among students did flare briefly around the turn of the century—with officers as frequent opponents; and, it appears, students as not infrequent fatalities. Dismayed by this trend, in November of 1902 2,318 incorporated and nonaffiliated students from Berlin filed a grouch with the Prussian Ministry of War. They exhorted the army to make the saber the priority weapon in such affairs as those in which students had played recent sad roles. The petition invoked the saber's "chivalrous" quality (the ubiquitous legitimator) and urged that ‘the similar views of officers and satisfaction-giving students" not reach an impasse on the issue of sidearms. It granted the necessity of pistol duels, but only in cases of shameless insult to one's family; in cases of physical inability to handle the demands of saber fencing; or, as plasma tended to spray quite freely at these functions, if one of the combatants was afflicted with a "contagious disease communicable through the blood.’ After 1902 the pistol challenge was held to be adverse to the student code and unworthy of members of a student fraternity” (McAleer).

There is an overwhelming sense of uselessness. The fundamental opposition to modernity inherent in the practice was what permitted the rhetorical maneuvers that brought about its end. The Wilhelmine duel was too deadly, had too high a human cost, to be understood as anything other than a destructive anti-modernism, its flowering the expression of a drive toward death. Thus the apparent medievalism of Mensur, with its chivalric trappings, is only a husk. The core of the practice is modern, totally conventional. Persisting as the hollowed-out pseudomorph of the duel, academic fencing memorializes this episode on the annals of the prohibition of extrajudicial killing and the ebb and flow of the state’s exclusive right to take life.

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