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Violence and Violent Children’s Texts

July 17, 2011

What constitutes violence in texts?

In what sense can a text be considered violent?

With these questions, Mavis Reimer opened a CLAQ special issue on violence and children’s literature 15 years ago.  “various meanings circulate around the word ‘violence,'” she writes; “Raymond Williams, in fact, has designated ‘violence’ one of the ‘keywords’ of Anglo-American culture, a word whose problems of meanings are ‘inextricably bound up with the problems it [is] used to discuss.'” (p102)  However, “The primary meaning of ‘violence’ is the exercise of physical force in order to cause injury,” she asserts, continuing: “Violent texts, then, are often assumed by critics of media and literature to be those texts that depict acts of injurious physical force; many commentators further see such depictions as causally connected to the violence of actual readers.” (p102) Reimer points out that “the link between particular representations of violence and the response of actual readers” is neither ‘obvious’ nor ‘uniform’ and leads us to consider Steinberg and Kincheloe, who distinguish “violent texts in general from those violent texts that privilege violent solutions to conflict or that distance violent acts from the consequences of violence.” (p102)

Reimer continues to offer definitions of violence:

“According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘violence’ can also indicate the force or power of a natural agent and, in another, contradictory sense, can designate undue constraint applied to some natural process or habit ‘so as to prevent its free development or exercise.‘” (p102)

“According to Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, the attribution of violence to events should be seen, more specifically, as a partisan response to cultural contestation: ‘violent events are not simply so but are called violent because they bring together different concepts of social order.  To regard certain practices as violent is never to see them just as they are.  It is always to take up a position for or against them’.  Indeed the history of English literature, they maintain, is the history of ‘the process which made violence the provenance of the Other.‘” (p103)

Interestingly, this point brings Reimer to challenge: “If cultural texts are one of the means by which violence is aligned with particular groups and, indeed, assigned to particular groups, then the reiteration in current public discourse of children as victims of violence – real and represented – and as perpetrators of violence is itself cause for concern.  What unjust or unwarranted power structures are being hidden from view by such discourse?” (p103)

“The question of unwarranted power and its relation to public discourse,” Reimer adds, “leads to yet another set of questions, about whether there can be legitimate uses of force and about how such authority is conferred. In Language and Symbolic Power, Pierre Bourdieu argues that authority is constituted through language, so that the notion of the power of words is bound up with ‘the social position of the speaker, which governs the access he can have to the language of the institution, that is, to the official, orthodox and legitimate speech’.  In this context, the definition of ‘violence’ as the ‘improper treatment or use of a word; wresting or perversion of meaning or application’ comes to seem, not a ‘weakened sense’ of the word as the OED would have it, but the sense grounding the others.  Who gets to define the proper and improper use of ‘violence’ might be at the crux of the problem of the meaning of violence.” (p103)

“Violence,” Reimer asserts, “is always about power and force in some sense.  Is it possible that the difference in the representation of violence in different kinds of texts has to do with the production and reproduction of a society in which most children are meant to be inducted into a system in which they are targets and perpetrators of violence, while a few children are inducted into a system in which they can negotiate, at least to some extent, the conditions of their subjectivity?” (p103)

“But,” she concludes,” as Zornado’s description of swaddling practices and McGillis’s reference to the fairy tales of Perrault and the Grimms remind us, what we now commonly understand as violence has been a fact of childhood and children’s literature in many times and places.  The questions of how those activities were constructed, what they were understood to mean in their cultural contexts, what the relationship is between our preoccupations and those understandings, and why we tend to silence the connections remain to be asked.” (p104)

Ref: Mavis Reimer ‘Introduction: Violence and Violent Children’s Texts’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. Fall 1997, 22(3), pp102-104 (bold colour emphasis mine)

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