I study a phenomenon that, according to the prevailing paradigm in scholarship on violence, really shouldn’t exist. The huge volume of work that seeks to identify logics underpinning seemingly random or inexplicably brutal acts of violence very often explain these excesses in terms of their communicative value. Perpetrating violence is a costly signal; perpetrating grotesquely brutal violence is a costlier signal; perpetrating self-destructive violence is the costliest signal of all. Underlying all of this is the idea that the more extreme the violence, the clearer the message that it sends.
Reading De Leon’s fantastic book, The Land of Open Graves, I stumbled upon a particularly striking formulation of this paradigm…
You don’t have to speak Spanish to understand the message intended when someone rolls a bag of severed heads onto the dance floor in a Michoacán nightclub: “Do not test us, because our violence knows no bounds.”
There is a common formula within this passage: violence speaks louder than words. You don’t need to speak Spanish, because the meaning of brutal violence is common sense. Violence is unambiguous, it speaks for itself.
The striking thing about this quote is that, in the event that De Leon mentions, the violence was accompanied by a written message (one that you would have to speak at least some Spanish to understand). The message carries a similarly threatening tone to the one that De Leon assumes, but the content of the written message is very different…
The family doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocents. Only those that deserve to die will. All the people should know: this is divine justice.
Contrary to De Leon’s interpretation, the people that rolled five severed heads onto a dance floor wanted to send a message that their violence actually does know some clearly-specified bounds.
This phenomenon – displaying written messages in addition to violence, sometimes displaying written messages instead of violence – suggests that there is a limit to the prevailing scholarly paradigm. If violence usually speaks for itself, under some conditions it ceases to do so. These conditions began to obtain in Mexico in 2004, as narco-messages first appeared in the northeast of the country.
It could also be that violence just doesn’t speak for itself. Arendt thought violence was a sort of antithesis to language and meaning. Thinking along this line, perhaps scholars of violence have mistaken the fact that violence almost always has an effect, for the assumption that violence sends a clear message. The former possibility emphasises that people almost inevitably react to and try to understand violence. The latter possibility assumes that violence accurately transmits some intention on the part of the perpetrator.
Whether violence has some basic meaning and sometimes loses it, or whether violence always degrades meaning, as scholars we need to be careful not to speak on behalf of perpetrators or victims, when we claim that violence speaks for itself. We should probably always be suspicious of claims that anything is self-evident, even if that makes it harder for us to find the logic or instrumentality in brutal violence. In the case of narco-messages in Mexico, the authors of these messages seem to be reminding us that violence is no easy thing to comprehend.