Rhetorical Violence and Actual Violence (trigger warning)

I’m reading a lot about rape at the moment, which makes me an exceptionally cheerful person to be around. Specifically, I’m reading about rape in medieval romance, but it’s hard to separate that from contemporary debates about violence, and rhetoric, which seem to be everywhere at the moment. So, I’m writing this to try to set out some of my thoughts. I’m going to start by talking about an academic article and a medieval text, but I think what I’m saying isn’t just relevant to academia or medievalists.

The article that’s been nagging away at me is in many ways a great read. It’s amazingly detailed in its close reading; it’s full of insight about the influence of Biblical hermeneutics on medieval romance.* It’s also fifteen years old, so I am sure there are things that might have been written differently now. But, it bothered me.

The author, Monica Brzezinski Potkay, is talking about the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a romance in which a married lady exerts some considerable pressure on a man to sleep with her. She surprises him as he’s naked in bed, and – as Potkay points out – she draws on the romance convention of treating rape as a normal form of interaction between men and women to imply, archly, that he could force her to have sex if he wanted.

This is quite disturbing for modern readers. But Potkay’s point is not about the suggested rape – which doesn’t happen – but about the rhetoric of the romance in general. She makes reference to Saint Jerome’s predictably misogynistic comparison of a person interpreting Scriptural text to a man forcibly ripping off a woman’s clothing in order to sleep with her. This, she explains, is also offered as a mode of interpretation in the romance text, with the hero, Gawain, attempting to ‘interpret’ the women he meets through this form of figurative rape. Yet, the text performs a ‘critique’ of this mode of interpretation, empowering its female characters with the capacity to interpret for themselves. Thus:

Sir Gawain can teach that men should acknowledge and beware the violence concealed in their own behavior, for that violence can be turned against them. The rapist can easily become raped.”

There are two things going on here. The first is the structure of the text, and the kind of interpretation it invites: this, as Potkay argues and as many people would agree, shows the women of the romance to be rather more skilled than the hero in controlling the twists and turns of narrative. The second, however, is that metaphor of rape. As a metaphor for textual interpretation, it has plenty of interest, and Potkay is, of course, doing nothing so crude as to think literally about raped women raping men.

Yet, still, that claim bothered me. The rapist can easily become raped. Easily? Raped? Well, no. In the space of that romance, in medieval culture, in modern culture, women do not ‘easily’ rape their rapists. Nor do I find it easy to imagine anyone would want to. There is a gendered structure to sexual violence, which is not easily flipped around, as if both men and women were equal. At this point, then the metaphor fails: if interpretation of a text is something that can be gender-flipped without unsettling the underlying gender hierarchy, then no, it is not like rape.

This is a point which, I suspect, plenty of queer theorists would find deeply crude and unsubtle. You don’t understand. She doesn’t mean it literally. She’s just opening up the transgressive possibilities of the text. The term ‘rape’ isn’t meant that way. It’s only rhetorically violent.

Yes: this is all true. But, it is also true that, in this article, the word rape has ceased to mean what it means. It has ceased to be a useful term for describing that act, and has instead become just one more way to imply that gender hierarchies can be playfully flipped over.

My title for this post might seem a problem to some. Rhetorical violence is, after all, difficult to separate from ‘actual’ violence: should we even make a distinction? After all, most people will know what it’s like to read something and feel a very real physical response to it: pulse leaping, hands shaking, the works. And it’s not just about personal responses: the very fact that a debate exists about whether there are ‘grey areas’ in rape, itself contributes to keeping alive the view that there are grey areas, and perpetuates rape. A conversation about whether or not women lie about rape gives rapists crucial cover to do what they do. And so on. These are not ‘performative acts’ of speech, speeches that enact what they describe, such as saying ‘I do’ at a wedding. But their consequences can be measured quite directly in the real world. And what is at stake, in some rhetoric, is not the fictional power structure in a medieval romance, but the real relationships between living people.

So, why distinguish between rhetorical violence and actual violence? My difficulty with Potkay’s article (and with this debate more widely) is that I know who is allowed to interpret text. If I say, this article is rhetorically violent, that it is using the concept of rape in a way that contributes to rape culture and makes it harder for us to talk about the gendered power structure behind the act, then I will be held to be ‘misinterpreting’. I will be told I do not understand the subtle nuances of Potkay’s use of the term ‘rape’ in this context. And yet, that’s not a criticism everyone is expected to take.

Something I have found difficult, recently, has been the response to the letter in the Observer about debate in universities, which I signed. It’s a tiny, tiny issue if you’re not in certain circles, and a rather bigger one if you are (as Mary Beard found out). I haven’t kept up with all of the responses, partly because there were many signatories (many of whom I don’t know personally, and some I’m proud to say I do know). But I have noticed that a common response has been to characterise this letter, and the debates it discusses, as literally violent. Not rhetorically violent, but violent in the way a performative speech act might be violent, or even violent in a direct physical sense. Discussing the Nordic model (the context here is sex work, if you’re not familiar), for example, is characterised as a form of violence that ‘endangers lives’ (I’m quoting Marika Rose, who spoke to me about this on twitter, but similar phrases were flying about everywhere). In this context, there is no ‘interpretation’ to be done: the gap between rhetorical and actual violence has closed up fast, for there’s no comeback to people repeatedly telling you there mere fact you have spoken, is violence.

Patently, these two attitudes towards ‘rhetorical’ violence should not be able to coexist. The one presumes the speaker’s perfect right to define the terms of debate, and to describe any violence in language as merely rhetorical, and therefore beyond the reach of critique. Thus, I am misinterpreting Potkay: violence is only rhetorical. The other presumes that the mere act of speaking is, in itself, actual violence, and no amount of interpretation can change this. In my experience, an awful lot of people seem to hold both positions simultaneously, and so the position from which we can speak becomes wafer-thin.

The result is the more general application of the specific problem Potkay’s article gives rise to. Just as, there, rape becomes something we can no longer properly name, something divorced from its social context, so too here, violence becomes impossible to pin down, impossible to name. And that means it’s impossible to fight.


* Monica Brzezinski Potkay, ‘The Violence of Courtly Exegesis in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, inRepresenting Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, eds. Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 97-124.

To be clear: I don’t believe (honestly) that discussion of the Nordic model does do violence to women. Nor do I even believe supporting it does violence to women. I’m not sure I’m right here, and I wouldn’t set myself up as such. But, I think my views here are less important than the shape of this wider issue of how we communicate about rhetorical and actual violence.

22 thoughts on “Rhetorical Violence and Actual Violence (trigger warning)

  1. A very thought-provoking article. What pops into my mind is Chaucer’s Wife of Bath Tale. I can’t remember the details as A levels were too long ago, but the images I have been left with are 1) the powerful crone in the face of whom brave men falter, and 2) some notion of the predatory/manipulative female getting what she wants by playing on men’s failings. Also coming to mind are some African traditional wedding practices wherein the ‘marriage’ which has been agreed beforehand, is carried out in the likeness of kidnap and ravishment, the groom and his age-mates seizing the bride and carrying her off. So what is this rhetorical/play-acting violence all about, and why, in certain circumstances do both sexes go along with it – excitement, but within certain bounds? We humans are tricksy creatures.

    • Yes, it’s really disturbing to get into, isn’t it? I find Chaucer hard to read, even though I know it well. There examples in medieval England of something like what you describe – women being abducted though they clearly wanted to go – which makes it hard to research rape, because the same word (raptus) is used both for that, and for what we’d call rape in the modern day. So I think there’s a long history of it being difficult to think about.

      • Thinking of ‘courtly love’ – perhaps in the subtext, not quite spelled out, because otherwise it would not work if it were not kept ‘subversive’, risqué – is an idea of courtly rape? Just thinking ‘aloud’ here.

  2. A banquet of food for thought here. What I will comment on is the idea that ‘men can be easily raped too’ which, when you think about it, is usually followed by a whole list of circumstances and variables as to what needs to be in place to ‘allow’ the possibility (I am not talking about male on male rape here- but female on male). However when a man rapes a woman there needs to be no variables other than the fact that she is female and that in itself is sufficient.

    • Yes. 😦

      I think, at that point in her argument, she’s just lost track of the fact the word really means something, and she’s excited by the way her argument about interpretation is coming together. But surely, at some point, you stop and read what you’ve written and think, shit, that’s got appalling implications really.

  3. A very fine essay, thoughtful and thought-provoking. I suspect I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. I do want to make what I hope will be a useful suggestion regarding your “reading a lot about rape at the moment.” Years ago when I was a grad student, I did a paper on rape in American plays. It turned out I could have done the on gang rape in American musicals, which was unsettling in a very big way.Rapes were so common I did not even remember they were in some of the plays I had previously read. Anyway, after I turned in the paper, I walked home, went into my study, picked up Little Women and read it cover to cover. Now I know there are problems with Little Women, but no one is raped in Little WOmen. I recommend it highly as a safe place when your reading gets you down.

    Again, I thank you very much for your thoughtful eloquence.

    • Thank you, Deborah.

      That is a very good thought – and one I’ll take up. I think you’re right, sometimes we need some insulation from thinking about these things.

      That is unsettling about your paper, though – not being all that familiar with the genre I wouldn’t know, but can believe.

      Thanks for such a kind comment.

      • I love your website and blogs. Do you have an email address, as I would like to ask your permission to copy your blog on Tutivillus into a commentary on one of Chaucer’s tales (for undergraduates / A level students) that I’m going to put on the Times Ed Supp website. With acknowledgements, OF COURSE!

  4. What a great article. I have been thinking a lot about this kind of thing lately, as clearly have many other people. For what my opinion is worth, I find the rhetorical violence debate to be similar to the position on rape that you critique. Is rhetorical violence violence? Well, no, it’s quite different. And treating it like it is the same does terrible things to our ability to have intelligent conversations about difficult topics. I’m also made really uncomfortable by the widening definition of rape and the existence of “rape culture.” Someone should tell me why I’m wrong about this, but I find the scorn heaped on the concept of “actual rape” to also be confusing and disturbing. I know that the point is to disallow doubt about a woman/person’s claim that they have been raped. But when everything is bundled together and we aren’t allowed to make distinctions, that’s ridiculous. I feel it’s important that the term “rape” does mean something….actual. And this makes me the enemy? Blech. It’s very confusing.

    • I’m a little bit confused by your comment – sorry! Very likely that is my fault.

      What widening definition of rape do you mean? I’ve not heard of any. I do find the concept of ‘rape culture’ useful – it’s not about widening the concept of rape, in my view, but about identifying those larger cultural structures that make rape less visible, less easy to talk about, and therefore easier to commit. So, for example, today I read about a woman whose boyfriend raped her by ejaculating inside her when she had specifically refused consent to that. There has been at least one court case (some time ago) where this was established to be rape (not that there’s any doubt – it’s a simple matter of consent, and she didn’t give consent, but it’s worth knowing). And yet, what I found disturbing is that many people didn’t realize this was ‘real’ rape – because they thought it wasn’t enough that she’d explicitly refused to consent – they thought she had to *keep* saying ‘no, I don’t consent’ all through the process, and once wasn’t enough. I would say that their interpretation has to do with ‘rape culture’ – that is, the culture in which people are misinformed about the nature of rape. And that’s why, for me, that’s a useful concept. We can identify the attitudes around rape, as well as talking about the act itself. Those attitudes are separable from rape, but they contribute to the way we understand it, and the extent to which we can try to eradicate it.

      I’m also not quite clear what you mean by ‘scorn heaped on the concept of “actual rape”‘? All I can think of in that context, is when people (I’m thinking of certain US politicians …!) seem to believe there’s such a thing as ‘real’ rape and they describe that in such a way that it becomes clear they don’t believe most rape is ‘real’. Eg., people who think that rape isn’t really rape if you’re married, or if you consented last Sunday but not this Sunday, or whatever nonsense. That’s not, in my view, at all related to the concept of ‘rhetorical rape’ that Potkay is talking about here. Granted, I don’t like her argument at all, but I don’t think she in any way confuses the rhetoric through which women subdue Gawain with the actual act of rape. So it’s not the same thing at all.

      I hope that makes sense, and that I have been clear – I’ve been slightly unsure what you meant, so this is my best effort at a response.

      • Why should the flipping of the discourse be an issue unless your projecting psychologically onto a stereotype rather than sticking to facts? Check out my blog My Coign of Vantage and search for the post on Narcissism and recovery groups. If your operating within a text with set parameters or discussing a given or clearly defined ontology rather than aesthetics or politics keep in mind which branch of philosophy you bring to bear with the questions you ask. Gothic is as does and one woman or mans subjective ontological aesthetic is anothers history, science, legalism or sexuality. Gendered assumptions about discourse are an art form and not all ontologies include a theology of aesthetics. Which is why this subject and the gothic matter jointly. The only formal blessing I ever received was from an orthodox priest who was shot twice and left for dead in the glasnost era by the kgb. It is a blessing and a curse if it’s read into.

  5. I too have begun to worry about the broadening rhetorical use of “violence.” My initial response to statements using this rhetoric (“X is violence”) tends to be positive: yes, I see that, that’s a good analysis. But stepping back to look at the bigger picture, I’m worried about the societal consequences of drawing out the word “violence” to cover so much.

    We have a very clear example in the US as to what can go wrong with this kind of broadening, in the “war on terror”. “War” is a potent word, not only emotionally but legally and procedurally. The usual principles and procedures of civil society may be abridged or suspended during war. Thus, in the past 15 years (if not longer), US civil liberties have been increasingly eroded, and police forces militarized, to the point where observers from Amnesty International were sent to the US this fall after tear gas and sonic weapons had been deployed against crowds of protestors by police forces that were nearly indistinguishable from military forces. Measures that are arguably appropriate in actual wartime are being used in rhetorical wartime.

    Similarly, we as a society hold that certain measures are legitimate when performed as acts of self-defense against “violence.” Do we really want those measures to be legitimated as responses to rhetorical violence, too?

    I’ve wondered if we could replace the rhetorical use of “violence” with the term “coercion”, or whether there is an additional sense of “violation” that also needs to be conveyed (which is leading to the use of “violence” which has that connotation).

    • I’m so sorry, I have just realized I never replied to this very thoughtful comment.

      I hadn’t thought of the US rhetoric of war, but I agree with you. I think ‘war on drugs’ carries some of the same problematic connotations (and tends to imply that there’s an ‘enemy’ out there, which I think does change people’s views of drug users and makes it more difficult to look at the reasons *why* someone might get into the situation where they start using). And I think you are right about the domino effect.

      I think even terms like ‘coercion’ have taken on connotations that can be difficult, too.

  6. Given “the amazing spam value” of any personal gestal your work reminded me of despite the topic, which I believe prompted your response, heres yet another crumb that will no doubt lack value or currency in an asymmetric context: positive and negative views in law, theology and aesthetics. Semiotics and rape do go hand in hand and are substitutions philosophically. I suppose such differences between whores who are paid and those who marry will remain indefinitely as long as gestalts are rendered occult by logical positivists operating as patriots defending the western cannon?

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