Wolfgang Sofsky - Violence



1. On Killing

Story of the deluge and Noah’s Ark.

Devine grace is bought with another act of violence.

The shedding of blood is a sacred act, a tribute to the lord of life.

Culture and society are founded on a licence to kill.

The taboo on cannibalism and murder is the first law imposed on mankind by God. Only He is the creator and destroyer. This monopoly is protected by the most stringent of all punishments, the death penalty.

Anyone can become an enemy. Therefore, everyone must be prevented from committing murder. Man must fear for his own life if he is to spare others. Civilization is therefore founded on the despotism of the fear of death.

 Immortality was promised only to the species, not the individual.

Culture begins with the invention of funeral rites and burial customs to regulate the passing of the dead.

Death is not life’s goal but its radical opposite.

Fear and violence do not spring from our animal nature. On the contrary: violence is the result of our specific humanity.

The mortal body is too powerful an enemy. It will have the last word.

The fascination of violence is ultimately physical in nature. The sight of it can become an obsession. The confrontation with and the temporary fending off death make one feel sublime.

The dead hero and the martyr embody the conquest of death in its purest form.

He hero sacrifices his life for the community. In return he gets a resplendent tomb close to a state, national or revolutionary memorial, a permanent monument in his honour.

At the moment of his death the lightning of eternal life strikes.

Eternal life begins with death.

Survival means leaving other dead behind one.

“Fear at the sight of death is resolved in the satisfaction of not being dad oneself”. Elias Canetti.

Inherent in the craving for survival is the potency of violence.



2. The Paradise of Cruelty

In the face of the worst that can be done, the arts lag behind reality.


“My painting is not violent; it’s life that is violent.” Francis Bacon. From The Last Francis Bacon Interview. 

The means will often alter the end, steering an act in an unexpected direction.


In sculpting, when the act is carried out b the artist himself, the tools used to carve will direct and affect the aesthetic of the sculpture. 

Many observers assume that there are pathological forces at work in acts of violence. If the blame of violence is unloaded on psychological and social inadequacy, no one can ultimately be held responsible for a violent act and its consequences.

Violence is not bound up with any particular cause or case history.

The freedom to act with violence or to refrain from it remains an unpredictable factor.

Although ultimately it is individuals who carry out atrocities, violence is usually a social process. It takes time, it alters situations and it changes human beings.


The artistic process, usually carried out in a private space such as the artists studio, is usually an individual one. While the processing of the artwork is a social endeavour, supported by critics and the art community, which are at the same time influenced and changed by it. 


One source of violence is the power of imagination. The imagination can always invent new forms of violence.

One source of art is the power of imagination, and this can be fuelled by violent imagination.

There are no borders that mankind cannot imagine crossing. But imagined violence is free, it is safe to think about it, and so it invites the act. 

Once the temptation of crossing that border has entered the mind, it is often not long before the first step is taken. Perhaps the experiment is a tentative at first, but that initial action clears the field for other ideas and other acts. There are no limits to the imagination: it devises new atrocities, tests new weapons, designs utopias, creates gods to justify any sacrifice. The power of the imagination usually does not even stop at killing, the final point of all violence. It thinks up new deadly torments, new ways of killing for a second time by desecrating the dead. That characteristically human quality, the imagination, ensures that the history of violence will go on. To abolish violence, one would have to deprive mankind of its ingenuity.

The above is almost an exact description of my personal creative thinking related to this study and the practice of sculpture. Within the artistic realm, imagined violence is not only free and safe to think about, but actually even possible to carry out on a block of stone. The temptation has entered the mind and first steps have already been taken (see the “shot stones”). The first experiments are tests to fine tune the actual act/performance which will inspire other ideas and actions (see the “acid” works and latest performances). This is exactly what happens to the sculptor during the act of sculpting. The rhythm of the hammer and chisel blows resonates within the body and the mind transcends the physicality of the action entering into a euphoric state. 

A man who transforms himself is no longer the man he was. This transformation’s most effective aid is the mask. Masks, either of animal or ancestors, are the medium of magical mutation.

On the importance of masks during performances. 

Rituals facilitate transgression. They are instances of transformation.
The oldest form of violence – hunting, sacrifice and war – were often prepared for or performed in rituals: physical punishment, death penalty in the form of auto-da-fé, stoning, etc.
Rituals unleash violence.
Life is nourished by death.
Hierarchical social systems prefer another method of transgression: the giving of orders.
Provocation has served to elicit the outburst of violence.
Violence attains durability through force of habit and by being institutionalized.
Habitual violence is regular and indifferent. Excess is eruptive and expansive.
Excess is not self-presentation but an orgy of self-exaggeration, an act of liberation of the ego.

The perpetrator merges with the acts of violence themselves. The body falls into a mechanical rhythm that is transferred to the nerves and muscles and takes over the body. The stormy movement drives one further and further into a different frame of mind. One is all physicality in the intoxication of violence. The impetus of violence carries him away.

This is exactly what happens to the sculptor during the act of sculpting. The rhythm of the hammer and chisel blows resonates within the body and the mind transcends the physicality of the action entering into a euphoric state. 

The festival of violence is a leap into a utopian state.

Both of body and mind. The sculpting act is the festival. 

3. Actions

The craving to inflict pain calls for rooms screened from the outside world where the torturer can be alone with his victim.



The manifestation of collective and individual crossing of the border (see On Borders), of excess behaviour happens on public stage: the street, the restaurant, the church, the marketplace, the open air.


Excess is not a spectacle for a silent audience watching the show from a safe distance. It does not tolerate neutral witnesses. It does not show or represent anything, it is pure action.






Analysis of the term “Amok”.

However suddenly the attack comes, many of those who run amok are not acting on the spur of the moment. Careful as his preparations may be, the amok killer’s state of mind develops only during the act itself, after means and ends have been methodically thought out. The act completes the murderer’s transformation.

The mental scenario follows a well-established path.






The attack is preceded by a phase of gloomy ‘brooding’, a period of self-initiation.

The perpetrator withdraws from the world in silence, shuts himself up in a room, goes for a long walk in the country, sits under a tree, walks through a park lost in though. 




Fantasies of destruction take hold of the murderer’s mind, ideas that are now familiar and have long since lost their horror. 



The images will not go away; obsessive thoughts make way into the brain, a throbbing excitement that seeks an outlet. Inhibition die down.

Passionate imagination has always helped people to leap over the wall, but only the wild storm of physical action impels the perpetrator of such violence into that other state. He is swept away, free of the bonds of morality, free of shame and guilt.

What may appear to an outsides blind destructive frenzy, is in fact a state of existing entirely in the present.


A man who has become entirely his true self on the other side of the border feels neither guilt nor the fear of death. It is hardly surprising that many such people prefer that state of freedom to normality.




The mob.



Hand to hand fighting promises the intoxication of violence, the sensuous rage of the moment. The man wielding the cudgel wants to feel it striking bone, see blood streaming from noses, hear ribs cracking.


Masks and fire.


Human cruelty does not exclude the possibility of rational planning. Cool calculation heightens the effect of even the strongest desire for retribution.


It is the human capacity for thought that makes acts of violence so effective. Rage alone merely liberates blind energy. Combined with the human mind, it creates the destructive power that breaks through the barriers against excess and seeks to destroy everything.

 They resemble an execution, an ostentatious ritual of destruction.



The victim is killed “like a dog”, thrashed by the murderers with wooden clubs and iron bars in an act of chastisement and humiliation expelling him from the human circle.


It is not true that human beings can kill each other only from a safe distance. Far from it: they seek close contact.




Iron bars and knives are not the only instruments suitable for mutilation. The modern automatic rifle…


Since time immemorial executioners, torturers and death squads have worn masks or hoods so that the victim cannot see who is torturing or killing him.

Death is already present in the mask.

The mask is an instrument of the work of annihilation.


The murderer fulfils his task with calm concentration. Execution is not a battle, it is an anonymous action, but it involves close physical contact. The faceless executioner destroys the victim’s face.


Fire is the preferred weapon of the mob everywhere, whether it is used in revolution, repression or persecution. The ritual burning of heretics, witches and demons is part of our dark history.



The artist’s studio takes over this function of a space secluded from the public real where anything immoral can take place between the artist and his artwork (the victim). 


The museum, the art gallery, the biennials, the sculpture park.

The studio as a private space vs the art institutions as public spaces. 


The public performance is not a mere spectacle but a rite of transformation that aims to involve the whole community (the public) to participate. To take part in the violent act as an initiation practice and to become as guilty as the artist in committing to the (creative/destructive) violence. 


Resemble the carrying out of a previously meticulously prepared performance. The artist’s transformation happens during the performative act itself. 


In the following description of the state of mind of the murderer moments before the violent act, the figure of the murderer can be substituted by that of the artist before a performance. 


The artist often isolates himself before a mentally or physically demanding performance to enter the right state of mind that will enable him to finally commit the action previously thought out. 


The acts that will be committed during the performance lose their horrific character as thy have been toon long into the artist’s head and now just need to be carried out. 

The performance must start. 


Ideas of crazy performances always occupy the mind of the artist, but they will find their liberatory value only by carrying them out. 





Therefore, artists are often referred to as “weird”. They have found a state of mind, and their artistic practice happens in this realm, of freedom for which they are not ashamed and do not fear to be stigmatized as different. 





The sculptor wielding hammer and chisel want to feel them strike on marble, see and feel bits of stone chipping off from the main block, hear their sound. 



Performances are usually rationally well planned and calculated before they take place. 


Performances are effective because are thoughtfully attached to a stream of conceptual ideas and a legacy of previous practices.


Typical of so many artistic performances. 


Apply the use of wooden bars and iron clubs to “sculpt” a marble block. 



As the sculptor does with his marble block. As opposed to the outsourcing artist that outsources the making of a sculpture to others. 


See the “Shot Stones”. 



On the importance of using masks (and uniforms for another reason) during performances. 


Maybe make a series of stone masks? 


In video recorded performances, either crop out the artist’s face or wear a mask. 


Set a marble block on fire. 



4. The Modern World and Barbarism

To continue putting our faith in traditional schemes we would need a short memory and a determination to ignore facts.





Civilization, barbarism and the modern world are interlinked. How far do war and terrorism affect the idea of civilization?

Four views:


1.       The terrors of war and persecution are temporary setbacks within an otherwise unbroken development toward state monopoly of violence.

2.       Violence results from the overwhelming success of the development of the modern world. Civilization itself is a condition which explains its own collapse.

3.       Modernity is a necessary but not sufficient condition of terror. Civilization exaggerates both our creative and our destructive tendencies. There can be no barbarism without bureaucracy.

4.       There is no connection between civilization and barbarism. Human behaviour has never evolved at all. Belief in civilization is a Eurocentric myth in which the modern world worships itself. Violence and cruelty are invariables of cultural history. Society must restrain them by imposing norms and controls.

The intelligence of the modern age, its discipline and its rationality have increased human’s faculty for destructive inventiveness. The idea of civilization has itself served to justify violent excess.


In concentration camps the guard beat, tortured and killed the inmate not because they were expected to, but because they could.


Sovereignty, community, nationhood


Three societies that carry the potential for persecution:


1.      Sovereignty:

The roots of terrorism are deep. Violence is built into the basic forms of social life. Persecution draws a demarcation line between friend and foe, insider/outsider, natives/foreigners. When people re marked out as intruders, criminals or traitors, it is only a small step to violence. The victims are not recognized as full members of society but as superfluous and dispensable.

 The institutional maintenance of peace is part of a vicious circle: order is necessary to restrain violence, but persecution and violence are necessary to preserve order.


The world state would abolish all borders across which anyone might flee to safe exile. Anyone wanting to leave the world state would have no refugee but the moon.


If death is no longer part of the social contract, the military power to impose and maintain peace will be lacking.


2.       Community:

It is the community that invents enemies and rivals. It needs the contrasting image of the outsider, and consequently tries to divide the world into two halves, excluding all who are different.

Inside the community = good, civilized, noble, right-minded.

Outside= savage, barbarians heathens, dirty, intruders, superfluous.


The borders of morality are the borders of the community. The community opens the door to persecution. The laws of hospitality apply to strangers only until they unpack their bags.


3.       Nationhood:

The national culture is the foundation of the community and legitimizes the state, and the power of the state must protect the community while exposing, observing or ejecting strangers.

The idea of the nation carries weight only in so fare as the true diversity of its origin is forgotten. The nation stands for homogeneity of culture, membership of the community and the unity of the state.




Humans have always fought, persecuted and killed each other. In his capacity for hatred Homo Sapiens is independent of the membership of any ethnic group, nation or social class.


Relatable to the development of new technologies and the artist’s reaction to them. Either ignoring them or accepting their presence and dealing with the reality. I.e. Question one’s own new position. 























As artists are free to do whatever they want within the artistic realm (on the condition that they don’t harm others?). 






The idea of the scapegoat, foreigners, banished people as explained by René Girard. 






On how violence is both maintenance and challenge of the status quo. 



On the necessity of borders to safeguard against the loss of differences or degrees. 






Again, the idea of the foreigner and being outside one’s own border.The selection of believes is aimed at finding/creating one’s own identity. This can be efficiently countered by applying the principle of small identity. 


Or until it is agreed that they will leave at a specific point. 




Strangers as a menace to the well being of the community. Bio-Politics. 



Therefore, ambiguous un/national identities are feared and cast away even more then the foreigner whose origin is known. The real threat comes from the ‘virus’ that cannot be filed into a specific category. 


According to R. Girard, only to free itself from a crisis and reach once again a previously broken peaceful state. 
















5. Aushwitz, Kolyma, Hiroshima

We do not seem to perceive and empathize with mass murder in Asia or Africa in the same way we do with a massacre of white European or American citizens. Indignation has local limits of attention.


Terrorism in War

Lust, loot and retaliation are among the most ancient driving forces of warfare.

Triumphalist celebrations of violence, disguised as they may be by military uniforms, have nothing to do with acts of war in itself.


Wars of annihilation take the fighting to its ultimate conclusion and are waged mercilessly by all available means. Violence becomes and end in itself.  A war of annihilation is an antisocial phenomenon sui generis. Its concern is with the occupation of territories now empty of other human beings.





Terrorist persecution


Persecution draws nourishment from the idea of social homogeneity. Deviations are to be erased, society must be converted to a state of permanent conformity. The laws of terrorism demand the suppression of all differences. The unpredictability inherent in every social relationship is to be eradicated. Human conduct can always differ from our expectations, human beings can change at any time, and can exercise their freedom under coercion. Therefore, terror will not end until every human life has been extinguished. Terrorism in the name of order must not simply perpetuate terrors but do away with all differences and deviations. Consequently, it will turn against its own executioners sooner or later. Taken into its logical conclusion, the implosion of terrorism means the destruction of the whole of society.


Raids of the razzia type call for a certain amount of preparation, coordination and division of labour.

Like the preparations necessary to carry out a (violent) performance, where most details are thought of in advance the process is often rehearsed before the actual act takes place.


The concentration camp is the experimental laboratory of terrorist persecution.











Mass annihilation did not just set out to kill. Even death was to be obliterated.






To take into account for a performance wherein a block of marble is carved to its total annihilation.

On another note, the occupation of empty territories is to be related to my idea of sculpture as an annoying occupier of a potentially empty space, an obstacle in one’s way. 






















Is the artist’s studio not the experimental laboratory, the torture chamber, where the artist can give free space to his destructive capacity? On an even further reflection, the marble block itself can be perceived as the intruder who needs to be annihilated or shaped to one’s own resemblance in order to be integrated as part of the community? It’s the scapegoat or the original victim who is substituted by another. 


On the complete annihilation of a stone without documenting its existence. 


To be reflected in the contemporary global market of stone. Marble is exported/imported (deported). 









































6. Time and Terror

Description of assassination, razzia and the death march and their relation to time.


While each form of violence has its own form of time, the violence itself takes place in time.


7. Societies of War

Nations, communities and institutions are imaginary societies without material substance. They exist only in the mind and yet guide human conduct.


To think of war means to think of society in the aspect of its potential destruction, its point of nullity, the death of society itself.


Military engagement and sieges.

Fight and occupation.




8. The Violence of War

War has been one of the most popular activities ever known in the history of Homo Sapiens. Obviously, the human species likes war.


Violence becomes an end in itself, generating the will to kill of its own accord.


War is the organized exercise of collective violence between large social groups.


Attack on the senses


The assault



Description of the types of wounds and how they are generated.



9. Unuthorized Warfare

The distinction between war and peace, soldiers and civilians, war and crime is no longer valid.


The practice of violence helps the marauder to acquire a new identity. For violence breaks old links and draws a line that cannot be crossed between former friends or colleagues.


Adolescent “sergeants” or “lieutenants” of local militias dress code: sunglasses, top-brand trainers, baseball caps, parachutist’s red beret or old steel helmets. A tin eagle, a chain of Coca-Cola cans or plastic death’s head.

Ideas for a performance costume.


The massacre

Description of massacres.


Murderers often seek the proximity of their victims. Fratricide, civil war. Proximity incites people to their worst deeds.


Every perpetrators of violence uses the weapons that are familiar to it and ready to hand.

The aim of the massacre is not to eliminate victims without trace but to mutilate the body.


In so far as there is any religious feeling behind practice of massacre it is not some fundamentalist the idea of God, but reversion to the bloody and archaic ritual of human sacrifice, a sacrifice made by the murderous group to its idol, which is itself.


Passive spectators encourage murderers, whether out of cowardice, impotence, tolerant complicity, political calculation, or indifference disguised as cultural relativism.


The cruelty is promoted by the group’s cohesion. Massacres are always collective excess of violence.


Violence is regarded as evidence of belonging. The bloodbath creates a new social community.


The weapon of desecration


The destruction of the enemy’s emblem is meant to extinguish his history. The point of such acts is their memorial and not their material value. They do not leave a space behind; they aim to disfigure and defile what is sacred to their opponents. Since desecration can be recognized only by what it leaves behind, destruction must never be complete. There is no desecration unless something of what was once sacred is left. Only then does the violation achieve its aim, exhibiting what it destroys.


Although technologically primitive, desecration is extremely effective. It does not stop at material damage, it reverses the meaning that attaches to the sacred objects. Something laden with significance – the origin of a tradition, a faith, a nation – is trodden underfoot. The sublime is brought low, perfection of form is ruined, what was whole is hacked to pieces, purity is pelted with filth.


Kosovo: the double war


Terrorist warfare


Most criminal act of symbolic violence were destructive operations with significance behind them.




Great crimes can be committed without any great ideas about God and the world behind them.


Once violence is emancipated from any sense of the purpose, nothing but destruction and cruelty is left.







Terrorist warfare purely aims at death and devastation. Such a war is not the continuation of the political power struggle by other means. The weapons of mass terrorism cancel out any kind of politics.



Again, the concept of the loss of differences as the cause for a crisis. 

















The sculptor has until now used hammer and chisel as his main tool, his “weapon”. 








The public in a live performance can take over this function of encouraging, or even motivating, the performer. 



Idea for a performance carried out in group. 










The reason why iconoclastic practitioners usually do not destroy an artefact but leave it bearing the sign of their violence. 












As is the creative sculptural act, which can be interpreted as performative as well: a violent, destructive operation to which a significance is attached. 





Thus, if a purpose and a significance is attached to the violent action, this becomes accepted by the specific community that can follow the theoretic discourse behind the action. This is how contemporary art is accepted by the art world but often perceived as scandalous or useless by outsiders. 










10. Retaliation

The spirit of revenge is implacable. It rages with the lust for retaliation as it leaves the body of the dead victim and seeks out accomplices.


The universal principle of reciprocity that applies to barter and gifts also applies to revenge.


All the possessions of the community and its warlord are tainted with blood.


People with nothing to pride themselves personally will end up as fervent adherents of the nation to which they happen to belong.


Peace is only an interruption to the regime of the gods of war and vengeance.


Since the war begins not with attack but defence, with resistance to aggression, it follows that the defender is responsible for the fighting. If the party attacked had not put up any defence, the there would have been no war.


Description of war crimes.


On retaliation for terrorism.



Addressing the need for a surrogate victim and its sacrifice. 





On blood. 


On the problem of nationalism. 


















11. Forgetting

Some injuries cannot be forgotten. The physically injured do not shake off their history.

Description of crippled and mutilated people, disfigured faces. Injury is far more than a handicap. It is a visible stigma. The disaster is lodged within the body.


Rituals call upon the dead and reminds human beings of their origins. Irrespective of the object of veneration, the form of ritual is a kind of remembering in practice.


The first written records were reminders. Government and the barter economy do not tolerate forgetfulness. The tool of writing is a defence against oblivion. Power has made use of the written word.


The dream of power is an all-embracing archive recording all inclinations and actions.



Power seeks to prevent offences against the norm by means of threats and punishments.

Shame vs guilt.


The same applies to injured bodies of sculptures. Their scars testify to the violence of men and time. 


On rituals. 



On the function of stone inscriptions. Indeed, usually meant a s a reminder of a historic fact or as a reiteration of site-specific laws. 


Nowadays fulfilled by the intelligence provided by social media, cookies and search engines.


The reason why the challenge of the status quo is perceived as violent by the reigning force.

12. The fading of the horror

Description of various concentration camps and what’s left over today.

Kuhberg, Wewelsburg etc.




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