My response is to his e-mail, below.
I think that Denise's defense of nonviolence for immediate, physical reasons is
good. It is a reminder that there is a Real out there. Yet I must analyze this
a bit deeper. It seems to me that our understanding of the Real (the actual
physical world, like how stepping in dog poop knocks quick sense into the
solipsist) is understood primarily in linguistic terms. One can get punched in
the face, but it's a "punch" "in" "the" "face." Thus, language is in a way the
expression of the impossible--language's covering-up of the Real.
As you rightly point out, our word "evil" describes what you call
incomprehensible. The Real is incomprehensible, and language is this extant
impossibility. The word is not the thing, the letter not the sound, and "Adam"
not the body.
Camus says that the world constantly evades the labels that we put on it. True
enough--words change all the time, the earth doesn't. The argument I think of
here is Baudrillard's: we have become so dependent on our *representation* of
the world that it has become more real, for us, than the Real itself. Human
beings can only be defined by their separation from this Real. Truth never
existed, but we're moving farther away from it. Human absurdity is that we have
made our self-righteous imaginations *real*, and the Real. The problem is no
longer existence but representation.
In the use of the word "evil," it may not be that it is absurd to assume that
there can be an agreed upon definition. What may be absurd is the belief that
this was ever the aim. Language has always been used for a reason, not for pure
description. Naming something "evil" is a reiteration that always seems *new*.
The meaning is created right then and there. This is discursive violence. We
may think it racist to couch a couple characteristics on one group of people
with similar pigmentation and features, but do we consider that to force a
characteristic on all animals is the same philosophical movement? "I know evil
when I see it," someone may say. But there never was evil until it was named,
and such a thing can't be "seen." Thoughts and speech have a moral dimension.
Violence is both a physical and discursive act and the two are not separable.
Words and thoughts do remove us from the moment. But they are the moment. The
moment that *was*. Life, one could say, is the misunderstanding of our
misunderstanding, the impossibility of understanding itself, the constant
forgetting of stepping in the river of the Real that cannot be stepped in
twice, or even *once* if not *ever*.
As for a pedagogy, to hope to teach relativism, that good and evil is what we
name so, is no answer to the problems of the day. I only hope to prevent the
slouching of the collective's monstrous head by bringing about a little
consciousness, conscience, and awareness. Yes, the ability to be critical. But
answers are the impossible, for they are necessarily a start.
Love that ontologically-existent-so-it-can't-ever-be-eradicated evil! Or "live,"
if one wants to put it in that blank.
Quoting Stephen Schenck <email@example.com>:
> I would be interested in hearing a definition of evil. The concept of evil
> befuddles me. What is it? Is it death, war, abuse, all the "bad" in the
> world? I have trouble understanding it I think because the word "evil" is
> used to describe people or events as being inherently bad. Like the devil,
> evil supposedly exists in the world, lurking in the shadows of our hearts
> and minds that we must resist and fight--or something like that? Or is it
> I find language so interesting not only because of the infinite number of
> ways people use it--writers put words together in so many wonderful ways,
> but also because of its limitations. Evil seems to be such a simplistic way
> of describing something. We attach the word to events and actions that seem
> incomprehensible--the devastation caused by an earthquake, a bomb, or a
> We don't relate to those kinds of events or actions so we call it evil,
> without having any clear idea what it means. One of the reasons I like those
> passages from Myth of Sisyphus, is the way Camus explains his understanding
> of language. He says the world constantly evades the labels we put on it.
> Man wants desperately to name his surroundings, to create concrete labels,
> reasons and meanings. But these answers avoid the real questions. Camus sees
> man's experience as absurd because he is the only creature or thing that
> cannot merely exist. A rock is a rock. A dog is a dog. A tree is tree. For
> them, there is no question of why. Roquentin in Nausea, is so disturbed,
> overcome with such despair after picking up a stone, that he must
> immediately drop it. The stone, and the world, has become foreign to him
> because it evades his understanding. He realizes that none of his knowledge
> or experience has brought him any closer to truth.
> It irritates me when people use words like evil, good and god as if we all
> understand them in the same way--as if there is some agreed upon meaning.
> But they are such intangible concepts, open to so many interpretations. We
> spend so much time aligning ourselves against each other, holding our values
> and beliefs above others (ego), that we delude ourselves. I will bomb you
> for your evilness and you will bomb me for mine. It is ridiculous.
> Every opinion is just that. One cannot be better than another, just as one
> person, one life cannot be better than another. Evil and good are the
> same--they are life. Mom mentioned an experience she had in her Peacies
> group. Everyone was describing non-violence as a belief or philosophy. She
> said non-violence does not need to have anything to do with religion or
> philosophy. It is physical. Moment to moment, you either act or you do not.
> Someone acts violently or we experience violence and we call that violence
> evil. We turn something actual into something mystical. It is easier to
> believe in a vague evil that to understand a specific violent act.
> Words, ideas, thoughts, concepts and beliefs remove us from the moment, from
> reality, from understanding. In this sense, life is misunderstanding.
> Therefore it seems silly to be bothered by it and even sillier to attribute
> concepts like good and evil to it.