Aalborg Universitet The Dialectics of Civility Or how a dialectical understanding of civility might provide new responses to ultraobjective violence Gregersen, Andreas Beyer

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Aalborg Universitet

The Dialectics of Civility

Or how a dialectical understanding of civility might provide new responses to ultraobjective violence

Gregersen, Andreas Beyer

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Gregersen, A. B. (2017). The Dialectics of Civility: Or how a dialectical understanding of civility might provide new responses to ultraobjective violence. 2. Abstract fra Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.

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The dialectics of civility

Or how a dialectical understanding of civility might provide new responses to ultraobjective violence

Abstract submitted to the 30th annual conference of Concerned Philosophers for Peace

Written and submitted by:

Andreas Beyer Gregersen

Master’s Student in Applied Philosophy Aalborg University (AAU), Denmark



In a series of lectures, selected and published in Violence and Civility: At the Limits of Political Philosophy (2015), the French philosopher Étienne Balibar suggests that we reintroduce and redefine the concept civility (civilité) to grasp an antiviolent engagement which according to Balibar is necessary for politics to develop. But even though Balibar characterizes civility as an engagement opposed to violence in different forms, he also emphasizes that civility cannot be fixated with a specific content but rather concerns a dynamic “movement of identification and disidentification”1 in society. Such a rather abstract description contrasts with the many definitions of civility employed in Anglosaxon discussions of the concept’s relevance or lack thereof. As Derek Edyvane has shown, these varied characterizations revolve around – and sometimes oscillate between - two basic components, namely a ‘pattern of conduct’ and a ‘particular attitude towards others’ which the conduct is meant to express.2 But while intellectuals such as John Kekes, Stephen Carter and Ferdinand Mount3 describes civility as an alignment between the ‘outer’ (manners, gestures, practices etc.) and the ‘inner’ (benevolence, respect, tolerance etc.), the perspective of Balibar suggests a different interpretation; civility only exists because societal conduct and attitudes never fit perfectly together but also create tensions, ruptures and different (dis)identifications. My preliminary thesis is therefore that civility can be understood anew as an unstable dialectics between conducts and attitudes, practices and values or in a more formal sense ‘form’ and

‘content’. This perspective is especially relevant in a more globalized world where violence seems to transgress not only borders but also the immediate and direct attribution of responsibility which we normally associate with violence as causing harm to others. Balibar designates as ‘ultraobjective’

those forms of violence which are not directly recognized as such in the sense that their complexity - often caused by a mediation of institutions, natural phenomena and great distances - obscures the act of doing harm and the concomitant responsibility.4 That strict discourses on civility codes might mask or even contribute to ultraobjective violence such as oppression of minorities is a recurrent argument ‘against civility’, as an article by Linda Zerrilli is succinctly titled.5 But as I will argue with use of examples such as climate change and exploitation of labor in ‘export-processing zones’ (EPZ), the challenge of ultraobjective violence might also call for a different kind of civility that involves experimenting with social norms and practices to figure out not just what to do but also how to

1 Balibar 2015, p. 144

2 Edyvane 2016, p. 4

3 Ibid., pp. 5-7

4 Balibar 2015, p. 141

5 Zerilli 2014


relate individually and collectively to such ‘impure’ manifestations of violence. Engaging openly and creatively in the ‘outer forms’ of civility can give shape to new ‘inner contents’ by e.g. giving us a sense of solidarity with or responsibility towards so-called ‘climate refugees’ which did not exist before. By understanding and analyzing civility anew as an unstable dialectics we might also create more awareness about how we can contribute to its further course in history.


Balibar, Étienne (2002): Politics and the Other Scene. London & New York: Verso

Balibar, Étienne (2015): Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy. New York, NY:

Columbia University Press.

Carter, Stephen L. (1998): Civility: manners, morals and the etiquette of democracy. New York, NY:

Basic Books

Edyvane, Derek (2016): The Passion for Civility. Political Studies Review.

Elias, Norbert (2012): On the Process of Civilisation. Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations.

Dublin: University College Dublin Press.

Zerilli, Linda (2014): Against Civility: A Feminist Perspective. In Civility, Legality and Justice in America (pp. 107-131). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press




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