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Eight Violence in the French Revolution: Forms of Ingestion/Forms of Expulsion
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Forms of Violence

I shall try to give some idea of what I mean by "forms" by briefly describing the crowd violence that accompanied the previous journées révolutionnaires, as compared with the violence of the September Massacres.[23]

Popular violence prior to the September Massacres made a spectacle of the victim and his mutilation. Examine the typical course of events: the sansculottes are in a state of insurrection. Crowds form on the street. Someone who, by position or reputation, excites popular hatred, usually a priest or aristocrat, is seized and threatened with being lanterné , that is, hung from the nearest lamppost. At this point someone tries to intervene, usually an agent of the government, displaying the symbols of his office and of the government's revolutionary legitimacy. This person (or persons) attempts to reason with the crowd and remove the potential victim from the clutches of his or her tormentors. While admitting the possible culpability of the object of the crowd's wrath, he speaks the language of the Law, claiming that the forms of due process must be followed and a proper trial held. This discourse is often shouted down, in any case ignored, and the person who gave it is forced to withdraw. If it was an agent of the government, a report will be written up, relating the efforts of the authorities and the failure of these same efforts—a report that can then be presented in the case of a judicial enquiry. Once the law, and those who speak in its name, have been explicitly rejected, the crowd makes good its threat. The poor wretch is indeed strung up from the nearest lamppost and, once dead, the head is separated from the body and placed at the end of a pike. An evisceration then takes place, with various organs also finding themselves at the end of pikes. These will then form the front of a somewhat macabre procession. A rope will be tied to the foot of the body, which will be dragged behind. This procession will tour the major


streets of the city, visiting key public places, as well as, on occasion, places of particular significance to the victim. The procession will be accompanied with much rejoicing, gallows humor, and threats to do similar things to similar people. Witnesses to the procession will join in, shout words of encouragement, turn away, vomit in doorways, and some women will faint. Once the procession is over, the various pieces of the corpse will go on semipermanent display, usually near the gates to the city or section, or some other public place.

At this point, one might remember that George Rudé had spoken, relative to the violence of the revolutionary crowds, of their moderation. And he is right, if one speaks of the violence in purely quantitative terms. However, what little violence there was, was maximized as spectacle. Indeed, one suspects that it was because the choreography was so violent, that its quantity was, relatively speaking, restrained.

Consider now the character of the September Massacres. Again, one speaks of the "typical" case. The massacres did not occur in the street, they were not public, in the above sense. The objects of the crowds' wrath were the inmates of the prisons and other "total institutions" of the period; and the violence was restricted to the confines of these institutions, their courtyards, and immediate vicinities. It was not simply a general slaughter, conducted in complete anarchy, or at least not as the slaughter proceeded. Again the authorities, municipal and national, sent deputations to calm the crowds and to either stop or moderate the butchery.[24] And again they failed and were forced to retreat, sometimes under the threat of physical violence. At about the same time, however, persons who are described as strangers to the sans-culotte milieu,[25] but who were not agents of governmental authority, and without any mandate, stopped the executions, installed themselves behind a table, and organized "popular tribunals." In effect, justice was improvised. Juries were formed, judges named, a prosecutor established, the prison records obtained. The prisoners were then brought before this tribunal one by one, their identities and the reasons for their institutional confinement verified. A short interrogation followed, after which the prisoner would be declared either innocent or guilty. If declared guilty, there was but one penalty: the prisoner would be pushed beyond the threshold of a doorway, whereupon he or she would be bludgeoned or hacked to death with whatever instruments were available. The bodies of the victims were left to accumulate in a pile. A short while after the butchery had ended, the authorities carted the bodies to the outskirts of Paris, where they were buried in pits covered with chalk.

The contrast between the September Massacres and the outbreaks of popular violence that preceded it are striking. Two points stand out: the absence or presence of the mutilation and display of the corpses, and the role of the law. Let us consider the second of these points first.


We saw that during the acts of popular violence someone, usually someone official, would seek to have the crowd respect the due process of law, and that his demands would, inevitably, be rejected. Indeed, so often does the discourse of those who speak of the law get repeated and with always so few results, that one suspects that its real purpose lay elsewhere. Rather than being an attempt to save the victim, or to have justice served (in its forms at least), one suspects that this discourse served as a ritual of exclusion whereby the authorities separated themselves from the crowd and washed themselves of all responsibility for its actions.[26] Such a course of action, or more precisely, nonaction, is not without its uses, but the result is an explicit demonstration of the law's impotence and an implicit admission of the government's unofficial tolerance for the ensuing events. And neither could be tolerated by many of the revolutionary leaders, particularly those of a more radical persuasion. They sought—and indeed, they believed one of the Revolution's central aims to be—to reduce the distance between the law and the people; and this meant not only making the law an expression of the sovereign will of the people, but bringing the people under the sovereign authority of the law. And not the least of the implications of this conjoining of law and people was the placing of all violence committed by the people in the name of the Revolution under the authority of the Law. An imperative made all the more necessary in their minds by the increasing demands on the part of sansculotte spokesmen for the execution of the Revolution's enemies, and by the increasing likelihood of more and more extensive outbreaks of popular violence.[27] Now, as noted, during the September Massacres the "people" would deny the law as represented by the duly constituted authority of both the National Assembly and the Commune. And yet, they would not reject the authority of the law per se, as witnessed by the establishment of improvised tribunals with their makeshift justice. One might say that they rejected the official representatives of the law but not the law itself. In effect, what one is witnessing with the September Massacres is the transformation of popular violence into "popular justice."[28] And as an act of justice, the massacres would not differ all that much, as regards their form, from the acts of an official justice, which would also have its tribunals, juries, prosecutors, and its examination of written documents, and so on. It is in this sense that the September Massacres, rather than marking the culmination of popular violence, introduced a rupture that anticipated the official Terror to come. And as the anticipation (and reflection) of a new, more regularized form of violence, the September Massacres can be said to mark the end of popular violence. Not the least of the Jacobins' claims to legitimacy was their promise to end the outbreaks of crowd violence. And in fact, the Jacobin insurrection of 31 May 1793 was the first journée révolutionnaire not accompanied by popular executions.[29] The cadavers would mount under Jacobin rule, but what were called the scènes de horreur , "the scenes of horror," had ended.[30]


This brings us to the second point of comparison: the mutilation and display of corpses. During the September Massacres, although the dismemberment of corpses was not entirely absent, nor was it the rule. Nor was there the parade of dismembered and mutilated bodies which had accompanied the earlier journées révolutionnaires. In short, the spectacle of violence was absent.[31] In fact, the Parisian populace only became fully aware of the extent of the executions once the carts, carrying the bodies of the victims to the city's outskirts, threaded their way through the city streets—and it was at that point that popular opinion began turning against the massacres.[32] In truth, one suspects that had the violence of September taken the earlier form, there might have been fewer victims. Violence as spectacle is public, and the public, it seems, while not adverse to a certain frisson , would have balked at too many corpses. Besides, the execution of large numbers of people requires a more efficient use of time than allowed for by the dismemberment and display of body parts. In this regard too, the official Terror follows the pattern set by the September Massacres, where spectacle was abandoned for efficiency.[33]

Now this, admittedly, might appear contrary to general impressions. One often thinks of the public executions of the Terror as a spectacle. Books like The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Tale of Two Cities have filled our minds with images like those of the tricoteuses , those old hags who knitted beside the guillotine, cackling with glee as the heads rolled. But although the manifestly gruesome aspects of these executions are not to be denied, this is to miss something of their historical significance. The guillotine was invented by the good doctor Guillotin as an efficient and painless method of execution and, compared to the earlier practices of the Ancien Régime, it was.[34] Moreover, though the guillotine first operated in the central square of Paris, as the state Terror proceeded, it was moved to the outer suburbs, and finally, during the last days of what has come to be known as the "Grand Terror," most of the executions took place, like those of the September Massacres, within the prisons or their courtyards.

There is more to this change in forms, however, than merely the introduction of a more efficient, instrumentally rational mode of public execution. These two forms involve not just a relation to collective violence but a relation of "society" to that violence—a relation that reflects back on that society and can tell us something about it. For such violence is of a given society, and is thus expressive of that society, of its order, and of the modalities by which that order is affirmed. In order, then, to express something of this relation, and of the difference in this relation between the two forms, I am going to resort to two contrasting metaphors: a metaphor of ingestion and a metaphor of expulsion. In the one case, the anterior form, it is as though the social body seeks to devour its victims; whereas in the other, it is as if the victims are to be expelled from the social body.


In the first case, the violence is visible to all and thus engages the entire social body, at least vicariously. Again, the victims are cut up and cut open, the pieces mounted on the ends of metal implements and made to circulate through the major arteries of the city, with the entire populace being made to partake, if not necessarily savor, the repast. Moreover, whenever such violence is described, whether by the Revolution's sympathizers or detractors (though almost always by the literate and respectable classes, who were appalled at the "savagery" of the popular classes), the descriptions are couched in the terms of a vocabulary of digestion: those participating in such acts are inevitably called "cannibals," "anthropophagi," or buveurs du sang (blood-drinkers); and they are described as threatening to "bite off the head of an aristocrat" (or sometimes of a "bourgeois"), or to "eat their liver," "open up their stomach and eat the intestines," and so on; and, to be sure, particularly nasty sans-culottes are rumored to have actually carried out these threats (though such rumors are probably all apocryphal).[35]

The second form of violence, by contrast, employs a vocabulary of expulsion (but note: not of excretion, the polar opposite of ingestion). Here one finds a language of exclusion, with reference to either the ancient practices of ostracism or the newer language of the contract: one is pushed "outside the city," or "outside the protection of the law," or one is "returned to the state of nature"). Or alternatively, one hears the language of the purge, often supplemented by a whole panoply of medical metaphors that speak of the need to cut off gangrenous members or surgically remove diseased tissue.

Now, this second, more sanitized vocabulary has to be related to the language of Enlightenment, by which I understand something different from but not entirely unrelated to the Enlightenment as philosophical movement. Although there is still much argument about the Revolution's relation to the philosophical Enlightenment, there can be no doubt about the Revolution's constant, and constantly reiterated, use of the language of Enlightenment.[36] In a million and one speeches, texts, and theatrical representations the same message is repeated: society is to be enlightened; light is to shine on all society, and thereby eliminate all the areas of darkness; the entire topography of caves and crags, mountains and valleys, where shadows are cast, dark deeds committed, and diabolical plots hatched, is to be leveled. Accordingly society will form a single, smooth surface, where everyone will be visible to everyone else and where conformity to the law will result from continuous, mutual surveillance.[37]

And beyond the language of Enlightenment, there lies the horizon of an institutional project. For this was the period, broadly speaking, of what, since the work of Michel Foucault, has been termed the "Great Enclosure," when what had come to be perceived as "deviances" were removed from society and placed within an increasingly differentiated series of enclosed institutional spaces. A point not without relevance to the September Massacres and


their tendency to confuse political with social deviancy. For not only, as noted earlier, were the victims common-law prisoners, as well as political prisoners, but with the invasion of the Bicêtre and the Saltpetrière (which were hospices as well as prisons), unemployed beggars and vagabonds, abandoned and delinquent young adolescents, as well as the insane, also found themselves before the bar of the revolutionary tribunals. In effect, the massacres tended to encompass almost all the newly emergent institutions of individual sequestration. It is as though a mechanism was being constructed which pushed the logic of social exclusion ever deeper. As though everwidening circles of those who had been excluded from the visible realms of social intercourse were to be expelled from even the invisible realms of social separation; while the violence that purged those who had been excluded was itself to be expelled from the realms of general social visibility. As if the snake could swallow its own tail.[38]

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Eight Violence in the French Revolution: Forms of Ingestion/Forms of Expulsion
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