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Vengeance in Reverse: The Tangled Loops of Violence, Myth, and Madness

Vengeance in Reverse: The Tangled Loops of Violence, Myth, and Madness

by Mark R. Anspach


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How do humans stop fighting? Where do the gods of myth come from? What does it mean to go mad? Mark R. Anspach tackles these and other conundrums as he draws on ethnography, literature, psychotherapy, and the theory of René Girard to explore some of the fundamental mechanisms of human interaction. Likening gift exchange to vengeance in reverse, the first part of the book outlines a fresh approach to reciprocity, while the second part traces the emergence of transcendence in collective myths and individual delusions. From the peacemaking rituals of prestate societies to the paradoxical structure of consciousness, Anspach takes the reader on an intellectual journey that begins with the problem of how to deceive violence and ends with the riddle of how one can deceive oneself.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611862386
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2017
Series: Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 136
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Mark R. Anspach is an American anthropologist and social theorist whose writings have appeared in nine languages. He is affiliated with the LIAS research team at the Institut Marcel Mauss, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

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Vengeance in Reverse

The Tangled Loops of Violence, Myth, and Madness

By Mark R. Anspach

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2017 Mark R. Anspach
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62895-290-2


Beginning with the Return, or Vengeance in Reverse

Even when the avenger kills his victim he is doing no more than obeying a clause of unwritten law. And so these time-honored and unspoken rules go on twisting themselves around these people's legs throughout their lives, until the day comes when they inevitably trip them up.

— Ismail Kadare, The General of the Dead Army

I would like to start out by reflecting a little on what it means to think of vengeance as an exchange of violence. And the first thing I would like to do is to suggest that vengeance is not an exchange of violence.

What is exchange? An exchange takes place when something is passed back and forth between people, or when something is passed in one direction and something else in the other. And I say advisedly: some thing. There is some thing moving between the exchange partners. There is an object. Now, it is obvious that the expression "exchange of violence" can only be metaphorical from this point of view. There may be an exchange of blows, but there is no object transferred back and forth.

The metaphor of an exchange of violence is seductive because it is easy to see a resemblance or parallel between an exchange of blows or an exchange of hostilities and other forms of exchange. Not only is there a parallel in structure, there often seems to be a real continuity, as Claude Lévi-Strauss asserts in a frequently cited passage of The Elementary Structures of Kinship: "There is a link, a continuity, between hostile relations and the provision of reciprocal prestations. Exchanges are peacefully resolved wars, and wars are the result of unsuccessful transactions." A French anthropologist, Alfred Adler, has commented on this passage as follows:

That there is an oscillation between peaceful exchange and war, that groups periodically face the choice of either dealing with the other or of taking by force at the risk of losing everything — the facts are there that bear witness to this. The error is to suppose that the terms of the choice are in a relation of analogy and that this analogy can serve as an explanation, by privileging either one term (everything is exchange and war is an exchange gone wrong) or the other (everything is war and peaceful exchange is but a modality of it).

My premise is that neither war nor exchange is primary, but rather reciprocity. The latter is ambivalent — alternately good or bad. I want to distinguish the abstract form of reciprocity from the phenomenon of exchange. Exchange is one type of reciprocity, violent reciprocity another. The difference is that in exchange there is an object that acts as a mediator. Anthropologists and sociologists often look at exchange as a kind of web that weaves society together. But while exchange does draw people together, it also separates them, at least in the minimal sense that it places an object between them.

Such a minimal separation may hardly seem worth mentioning. The best way to realize its importance is to see what happens when it does not exist. In fact, a dispute between two people turns violent at the precise moment that a literal absence of separation occurs — for example, an absence of separation between one person's nose and the other person's fist. At that moment there is nothing left between the antagonists. An object may have come between them in the sense that it was an object of contention. But, and this is something that René Girard has described well, once a conflict escalates to the point of violence, the antagonists tend to lose sight of the ostensible object of contention. The violence takes on its own momentum, and the original object drops from view. No thing is exchanged. All that remains is the pure form of reciprocity. That is why in the case of violence I prefer to speak of reciprocity rather than exchange.

One may place the various types of reciprocity along a continuum running from the pure reciprocity of violence to the peaceful exchange of gifts. To employ a common terminology, reciprocity is negative at one pole and positive at the other. In fact, the move from negative to positive reciprocity means something more than just a change from bad to good, from the infelicitous act of fighting to the happier gesture of giving. The terms "negative" and "positive" are even more apt than they might seem. An actual reversal in orientation occurs between the two poles. But before homing in on the shift from the vendetta to gift exchange, we need to recognize that a transition must first be made between the pure reciprocity of violence and the vendetta taken as an empirical ethnographic phenomenon.

The extreme form of immediate, unalloyed reciprocity is what society must avoid at all cost. No community can long tolerate an outbreak of spontaneous, uncontrolled violence. Yet the anthropologist Raymond Verdier holds that while there is always a danger of vengeance rampaging out of control, real-world vengeance in the cultures that practice it often proves to be a smoothly functioning system, which he has dubbed the "vindicatory system." Here he makes a distinction between the vindicatif and the vindicatoire, the spontaneous vindictive impulse that prompts an individual to lash back, and the vindicatory system as a social institution with rules and regulations enshrined in tradition. From this point of view, Verdier maintains, vengeance is not at all the dangerously uncontrolled phenomenon that René Girard's discussion of it in Violence and the Sacred could lead one to believe.

"There is the risk that the act of vengeance will initiate a chain reaction whose consequences will quickly prove fatal to any society of modest size," writes Girard. "The multiplication of reprisals instantaneously puts the very existence of a society in jeopardy, and that is why it is universally proscribed." Verdier would no doubt retort that in many cultures revenge is a sacred duty incumbent on a member of the tribe, a social imperative for the man of honor — in short, an obligation. Far from proscribing vengeance, the society prescribes it.

Lucien Scubla has shown how socially prescribed vengeance follows ritual forms that are part of a larger sacrificial system, so that the vindicatory system can be said to control vengeance by virtue of the fact that it is itself sacrificial. I would like to make another point by drawing attention to the basic paradox at issue here. We have a phenomenon that in its spontaneous form must be avoided, and instead of proscribing it, it is prescribed. What kind of crazy prescription is that? An analogy can be found in the psychotherapeutic technique known as "prescribing the symptom." This technique is used precisely when the symptom to be cured is a self-destructive spontaneous behavior that the patient cannot control. The psychologists of the Palo Alto school explain that prescribing the symptom works because it creates a therapeutic double bind.

Gregory Bateson employed the expression "double bind" to describe paradoxical imperatives with which one cannot comply without falling headlong into noncompliance. The classic case of the double bind consists in commanding someone to do something that can only be spontaneous, such as manifesting true love — "Love me for myself and not because I ask you" — or showing independence: "Don't be so submissive — stop doing everything I tell you." The very fact of demanding spontaneity creates a situation in which spontaneous behavior is impossible. That is a bad thing when the behavior in question is desirable. But the Palo Alto psychologists reason that it can be a good thing if one is treating a spontaneous behavior that is undesirable or pathological. A therapeutic double bind puts the patient "into an untenable situation with regard to his pathology. If he complies, he no longer 'can't help it'; he does 'it,' and this ... makes 'it' impossible, which is the purpose of therapy. If he resists the injunction, he can do so only by not behaving symptomatically, which is the purpose of therapy."

Let me give an example that does not involve vengeance, but conflict within a family. Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson describe a family in therapy where one daughter in particular continually argues with everyone else and does everything she can to sidetrack discussion. Finally, she announces that she will no longer cooperate with the therapy at all. The therapist's response is to tell her that this is a good thing because he wants her to be as uncooperative as possible. This puts her in a double bind because if she continues to be disruptive, she is cooperating with the therapy, while her only alternative is to stop being disruptive and uncooperative.

It would be a mistake to push the analogy too far. I am obviously not suggesting that there is some great therapist in the sky guiding human culture. Still, the example is interesting inasmuch as it demonstrates that commanding conflict may suffice to get a measure of cooperation going. That accords well with Raymond Verdier's observation that a vindicatory system functions as a kind of "game with rules" where rival groups vie for superiority without trying to destroy each other. Such a game entails not only an effort to outdo the other party but also an unspoken agreement to keep the rivalry within mutually acceptable bounds. This notion of a game with rules is not so far from Girard's idea that enemy tribes may operate under an "agreement for the sake of hostility," making a tacit deal to cooperate in providing each other with victims through continuing, ritualized reciprocal violence.

Let me give one more example of prescribing the symptom that is likewise suggestive in the context of vengeance. If a patient complains of chronic pain with no physiological basis and the therapist is sure the pain is psychogenic, the therapist may tell the patient that it is not possible to eliminate the pain, but that the patient should be able to "shift the pain in time" and to "telescope its intensity." For example, the patient may be told to pick a two-hour period of the day in which it would be least inconvenient to feel more pain, and to increase the pain during those two hours. "The extraordinary thing about this," the Palo Alto psychologists observe, "is that patients usually manage to feel worse at the time selected, as suggested, and by going through this experience they cannot fail to realize that somehow they have control over their pain." I have been arguing that rendering vengeance nonspontaneous makes it susceptible to control. One of the ways this control manifests itself is precisely by circumscribing the phenomenon in time and space. I propose to call this the "telescoping" of vengeance.

Here we may take as an example the highly codified practice of revenge in the northern Albanian highlands, which Ismail Kadare describes memorably in a novel cited by Verdier, Broken April. The Albanian vendetta telescopes the most intense vengeance into the hours immediately following the murder, when members of the victim's family, blinded by the blood that has just been spilled, have the right to avenge themselves on any member of the killer's family. However, the killer's family has the right to ask the victim's family for a truce of twenty-four hours, which is usually granted, provided that the killer has comported himself in accordance with custom. This initial truce is usually followed by a longer truce of thirty days, giving the killer time to seek shelter in one of the refuge towers that dot the landscape. These towers are considered inviolable sanctuaries. Once inside their walls, a killer cannot be touched. In short, after telescoping the passionate vindictive impulse into a very brief interval, the rules impose a number of limits in time and space by which vengeance is strictly controlled. As a result, Albania's centuries-old vindicatory system has not proved fatal to the society.

Yet it is hardly without drawbacks. If too many men are embroiled in feuds and lock themselves up in refuge towers, the fields will go untended. Often, according to Kadare, a quarter of the fields in a given area would lie fallow for that reason — sometimes a third or even half — and food would run short. Such is the price of leaving the regulation of violence to a vindicatory system. It is no wonder that Albania's twentieth-century rulers sought to change things. This was no easy task, as a modernizing monarch learned in the interwar years. "While campaigning against hereditary blood feuds," recalls Balkans expert Elizabeth Pond, "the suspicious King Zog also killed so many putative rivals that he greatly increased the number of vendettas; he alone was personally involved in an estimated 600 feuds and survived some fifty-five assassination attempts."

After World War II, the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, though no less intolerant of rivals, proved more successful at establishing a state monopoly on violent retribution. At the time Kadare wrote Broken April, the practices depicted in the novel had been ruthlessly suppressed and were largely a thing of the past. Those who dared violate the ban on taking revenge were sometimes buried alive in the coffins of their victims. However grotesque, this method of punishment was doubtless not as arbitrary as it sounds. In a ritual context where blood must be paid with blood, burying a killer alive would have been a way to take his life without spilling new blood — an expedient designed to cut short the cycle of reprisals and bury the feud along with the feuders.

Unfortunately, with the loosening of the state's iron grip on society after the fall of communism, the blood feud returned with a vengeance. By 1996, some sixty thousand people were estimated to be caught up in feuds. Thousands died before the phenomenon could be brought under control. Although the number of victims has declined in recent years, the blood feud remains, in the words of a University of Tirana researcher, "a serious social plague." Any of a killer's male relatives become fair game as soon as they venture outside their house. In one case cited by an American reporter, "a dozen men had been forced indoors after a male family member killed a shopkeeper who refused to sell his child an ice cream cone." Another feud that claimed half a dozen lives began when a man shot a drinking companion for tactlessly reminding him that his family had backed down in a previous feud half a century before. Asked what that earlier feud was about, the man's sister-in-law could only shake her head. "It all happened so long ago," she said.

A vendetta can easily last for generations, long after anyone remembers what original offense started it. The problem is that, in a sense, no one ever starts such a conflict — it always seems to be the other side that is responsible for provoking you, while your retaliation is liable to appear unwarranted or excessive to them. Alfred Adler speaks in this regard of a lack of "common measure": "The legitimate murder perpetrated by the avenger or avengers runs the risk of bringing on counter-reprisals, insofar as the adverse party may deem the loss it has suffered to be disproportionate." There is in general what Jean-Pierre Dupuy, borrowing another expression from Gregory Bateson, calls a problem of "punctuation," with each side identifying differently which terms in the sequence of reprisals are offensive provocations and which constitute just retribution. Since the parties cannot agree on the beginning, they have trouble agreeing on the end. New individuals are perpetually drawn in as avengers and victims-to-be for the simple reason that the murder victim is not usually able to avenge himself. I say "usually" because an exception does exist that I will describe at the end of this chapter.

How, then, is it possible to escape this endless chain of negative reciprocity? Here is where we encounter the reversal in orientation of which I spoke earlier. So far, I have argued that the way out of spontaneous violent reciprocity is to prescribe violent reciprocity. I now want to suggest that the way out of non-spontaneous violent reciprocity is to prescribe reciprocity pure and simple. The great French Sanskrit scholar Charles Malamoud once remarked to me that the difference between vengeance and gift exchange is that in vengeance one does not seek reciprocity. One does not do something to someone else so that they will do something to you. The return is not wanted like a return gift, yet each action does provoke a return, so that everyone hurtles endlessly onward in the wrong direction. The way to overcome this process is once again to foresee it and to prescribe it, which I submit means to seize the initiative by beginning with the return. In gift exchange, there is a sense in which the initial gift is already the return gift. If you receive a gift from someone to whom you have given a gift, it is, quite simply, because that person has already received their return gift from you.


Excerpted from Vengeance in Reverse by Mark R. Anspach. Copyright © 2017 Mark R. Anspach. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Part 1 Changing Reciprocities

Chapter 1 Beginning with the Return, or Vengeance in Reverse 3

Chapter 2 Violence Deceived 13

Chapter 3 Trying to Stop the Trojan War 27

Part 2 Self-Transcendence

Chapter 4 Return to the Beginning, or the Making of a Metagod 43

Chapter 5 Madness in the Making 57

Chapter 6 No Exit? Madness and the Divided Self 73

Notes 101

Bibliography 113

Index 117

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