Archive for March 1st, 2018

“Vengeance in Reverse”: exchanging pleasantries instead of punches

Thursday, March 1st, 2018
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I met anthropologist Mark Anspach on the internet a few years ago, when I was looking for someone to offer some online insight into the mind and motives of Anders Behring Breivik, the man who murdered nearly eighty young people in Norway in 2011. I posted about it in “Anders Behring Breivik: The Victim of Nobody” here

Mark and I have been penpals ever since, and have even met on a few occasions, for he has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, and still retains connections here – one of them our mutual regard for René Girard, who has been influential on Mark’s  thinking. He is now affiliated with the Institut Marcel Mauss at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. 

His new book intrigued me: Vengeance in Reverse plays on René’s theories about the inevitability of reciprocity. Although violent mimetic behavior (e.g., I hit you, you hit me) gets a bad name, René points out it is still essentially rooted in an impulse that is positive, because it pulls us out of ourselves and towards others: “It is everything. It can be rivalrous; but it is also the basis of heroism, others, and everything,” he has said, in a quote I include in my imminent Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard“But whether you exchange compliments, niceties, greetings, or insinuations, indifference, meanness, bullets, atom bombs, it’s always an exchange. You always give to the other guy what he’s giving to you, or you try to do so.”

Mark is considered “one of today’s most important figures in French social theory and cultural anthropology,” according to Mark Cladis of Brown University. So, a few questions to Mark about his new book:

Vengeance in reverse.” Provocative title – can you tell us what it means?

The urge to strike back is very basic, but vengeance is only the negative form of a more general phenomenon: reciprocity. In a blood feud, one side takes a life, then the other side takes a life in return. In positive reciprocity, one side gives something of value, then the other side gives in return. Reciprocal giving is the cornerstone of human interaction.

Mark in action.

As Marcel Mauss showed in The Gift, social life in premodern cultures revolves around gift exchange. I argue that gift exchange is like vengeance in reverse. It’s not just that one is the opposite of the other. There is an actual reversal in orientation. When people trade blows, each looks back to a previous event: you hit me because I hit you before that. With giving, each can look forward to what comes next.

That is, if I give you a gift, I can look forward to receiving a return gift. Right?

Right, whereas nobody looks forward to receiving a return blow! In vengeance, people are not looking to get a return – each side views its action as final, conclusive. Yet each action does provoke a return, so that everyone hurtles on in the wrong direction. Making a gift is a way to reverse course. This is a case where seeing into the future is not so difficult. It doesn’t take a crystal ball.

We know there is a tendency for any act, good or bad, to be reciprocated, so why not take advantage of that? Initiating a sequence of positive reciprocity gives everyone something to look forward to.

Revenge: it didn’t do much for Romeo and Juliet.

Who goes first, though? Someone is sending you anthrax — you reply with chocolates? Isn’t it dangerous to go first?

Whoever struck the last blow has to go first. In a blood feud, the murderer must make an offering to the victim’s group. The same principle holds in everyday life. If someone offends you, they’re the ones who need to send chocolates! People can get caught up in petty feuds over trifles. Often a small gesture will turn things around, and there is usually little to lose by showing oneself to be generous. But you are absolutely right that in a violent conflict, taking the initiative to seek peace can be dangerous. Let me tell you a true story from contemporary Albania.

A young man tried to rape a girl. Her brothers saved her just in time, but the family wanted to take revenge — and I don’t mean by shaming the offender with a nasty tweet! They were going to come after him. But he let a friend tie him up and stand him in a field in front of the girl’s assembled relatives. The friend said, “If you want to kill him, kill him. But then his family will come and kill one of you.” The man whose life was on the line had to be nervous, but in this instance going first worked. Both sides knew that once blood is spilled, the ensuing feud can last indefinitely. Post-communist Albania has seen a resurgence of the kind of vendetta described by Ismail Kadare in his historical novel Broken April.

He figured it out.

I’ve just written a review in the New York Times Book Review about Kadare, so naturally I’m pleased that you use Gjorg from Broken April in your first chapter.

Kadare’s novel was a key source of inspiration for me. Gjorg is a tragic figure. He has no taste for killing, but when his brother is murdered, he must avenge the family honor and become a killer himself. The ancient code of the Albanian blood feud leaves him no choice. Yet killing the killer does not bring closure; it merely triggers a new cycle of revenge. Gjorg’s fate is to be killed by his victim’s kin. When, as custom demands, he attends the funeral meal for the man he killed, he cannot stop looking ahead to the next funeral meal — the one that will be held for him. Gjorg knows very well what will happen next, but he is helpless to change course. Kadare’s protagonists cannot escape the framework of negative reciprocity. Moving from violence to peaceful exchange is extremely tricky.

Like Kadare, you also find precedents in the ancient Greeks, for example, in Homer’s Iliad.

Don’t forget!

Homer offers an example where the framework of the interaction changes. Two enemy warriors, Diomedes and Glaukos, meet in the thick of battle to engage in single combat. When they discover that their forebears had exchanged gifts long ago, a new context is born. Not only do the two warriors decide not to fight, they seal their own friendship by trading coats of armor right there on the battlefield!

The role of gift exchange in peacemaking could not be clearer. The speech Diomedes makes is just as interesting. He doesn’t merely invoke the past; he conjures up a peaceful vision of the future by announcing that he and Glaukos will take turns extending hospitality to each other in years to come. In effect, he says they’re going to be exchange partners tomorrow, so they can’t kill each other today! It’s a gambit that works through impeccably circular reasoning.

It’s a tangled loop, then.

Exactly! Negative and positive reciprocity are equally loopy phenomena. Violence is a vicious circle; peaceful exchange is a virtuous one. There’s no getting away from circularity, but we can do our best to shape the circles in which we find ourselves.

Postscript: On the other hand, given human nature, sometimes even positive reciprocity can backfire.