Kieran Aarons and Cédrine Michel are the translators of Self-Defense: A Philosophy of Violence, on sale September 27 and a selection in our Book Club. See all our late summer and early fall book club selections.
It’s been five years since the publication in France of Elsa Dorlin’s Self-Defense: A Philosophy of Violence. In that time, the USA has witnessed an upsurge of popular antifascism, a mass contestation of sexual violence against women, and an historic nationwide uprising against racist policing. In short, not only has Dorlin’s book lost nothing of its relevance, but its appeal has likely only grown, as those who participated in these manifold currents of rebellion now seek to situate their experience within a wider genealogical perspective.
To this end, Self-Defense traces the complex relation between social domination and self-defense across five centuries and three continents. However, Dorlin’s contribution is not exclusively historical but also philosophical, since she calls into question the apparent innocence of “defense” itself. When defense becomes a practice of those in power, it serves to entrench dynamics of privilege and oppression, as when krav maga’s origin among anti-Jewish pogroms becomes an emblem of the Israeli state. On the other hand, even where it remains the prerogative of oppressed people, the impulse toward self-protection can still wind up being leveraged by ruling powers to further brutalize them, a fact made painfully clear in the case of Trayvon Martin. In other words, not only does power dominate marginalized people by “producing their bodies as defenseless,” it also anticipates and sculpts our protective impulses so as to better disempower and destroy us.
Across a series of eight thematic studies, Dorlin traces the overlap between domination and defense from slavery and colonialism to the history of white vigilantism, from the Warsaw Ghetto to Krav Maga, from suffragettes to Black Power and queer neighborhood patrols. Here we’d like to offer a quick overview of one chapter in particular (“Reprisals”), which engages with feminist debates over the place of care in responses to sexual violence.
Why have efforts to interrupt patterns of misogynist violence through a moral spectacle of harm and victimization so persistently failed? How many campaigns have we seen that depend on the mistaken belief that simply representing gendered power dynamics suffices to provoke reflection, disrupt stereotypes, and contribute to “politicizing” the issue, encouraging women to “react and speak up before it’s too late”?
As Dorlin shows, such media campaigns not only don’t actually challenge common sense beliefs or assumptions about misogyny, they merely reiterate what people already take to be true, deepening their indifference on the matter while projecting onto women the grim fate of an “inevitable violence,” as if what has happened will invariably happen again. In this way, instead of preventing violence, the spectacle of liberal victimization ends up reprising it, while tacitly taking the side of the abusers.
Dorlin’s response to this failure is twofold. First, against the portrayal of violence by the state and mainstream media, we should ask what such violence actually looks like from the inside. In other words, what is needed is a phenomenology of male predation. However, the real political intervention belongs not here, with the moment of critique, but in the vital and practical response through which the victim begins to recover the sense of reality that has been stolen from her, initiating a shift in defensive strategy.
Here Dorlin challenges an entrenched ethical and political position in much contemporary feminism, much of which continues to understand violence only “as an expression of the power of action of the dominant, and therefore not (or no longer) as a political possibility for feminism.” By contrast, she argues, a feminist strategy of self-defense cannot depart from a neutral, supposedly nonviolent standpoint, but must attempt to retrain bodies already traversed by violence. By studying forms of feminized consciousness made “prey” to sexual violence, Self-Defense invites us to push beyond its disempowering effects, by asking what its victims become capable of in turn. It is a question, in other words, of “what we do with violence, within violence, what we make out of it.”
Dorlin’s phenomenology of sexual predation also allows her to intervene in the sphere of what has come to be known as “care ethics.” While philosophers like Annette Baier and Virginia Held are right to insist on the ethical and political importance of positive forms of relational care such as love, concern, compassion, and the investment in the well-being of others, there is also a mode of concern for others that arises from within the experience of being dominated, when this experience leaves people always on the lookout, anxious and attentive to others because one is worried about what they will do to us. This is a form of care developed “under duress,” when we are concerned for others “in order to anticipate what they want, will, or can do to us.”
The paradox here is that, out of self-defense, out of a concern for oneself, women and other minorities become hyper-attuned to what the powerful want or need, think and feel, to the point of de-realizing their own experience. For Dorlin, this is one among many examples of how self-defense strategies can terminate (whether accidentally or by design) in powerlessness, because they lead us to ignore our own power of action and instead focus entirely on pleasing the dominant.
What might it look like for survivors of sexual violence to recover the lived reality that has been stripped from their bodies, to once again take their own words and thoughts seriously? As Dorlin suggests, perhaps it is less a matter of learning to fight than of unlearning not to fight, which is precisely the effect that liberal awareness-raising campaigns fail to produce. Although acts that may appear like “feminine cowardice” (denial, deception, silence, smiles, fleeing, or avoidance) might actually be unrecognized forms of self-defense, in order to really take care of themselves, women need to treat their own reality as important. This entails a new relation to violence: “violence suffered must become violence done.”
—Kieran Aarons and Cédrine Michel, August 2022
 Elsa Dorlin, Self-Defense: A Philosophy of Violence, Translated by Kieran Aarons and Cédrine Michel (New York: Verso Books, 2022).