To Live Like Prey: On Elsa Dorlin’s “Self-Defense”

By Sarah DowlingJuly 3, 2023

To Live Like Prey: On Elsa Dorlin’s “Self-Defense”

Self Defense: A Philosophy of Violence by Elsa Dorlin

ESSAYS LIKE THIS usually begin by reciting the familiar facts of a recent outrage. Perhaps some teenagers drove onto the wrong rural property. Whatever brought them there—a flat tire, poor reception, a weird dare from the friend in the front seat—there’s suddenly an angry owner, somehow a scuffle. Someone is shot point-blank, in the neck, in the head, behind the ear. Details like these lead in lockstep to questions for our consideration: Was the owner’s action legal? Legitimate? We’re asked to examine who has the right to turn to violence, and under what conditions we’re allowed to use force to protect ourselves, our property, or other people.

In her book Self-Defense: A Philosophy of Violence (2022), Elsa Dorlin tells us that these are the wrong questions. Within the first few pages, Dorlin—a philosopher who teaches at the University of Toulouse–Jean Jaurès and focuses on Black feminism, Michel Foucault, and Frantz Fanon—dispenses with considerations of morality, and of the law. Discussions of self-defense, she argues, should not focus on abstract rules or principles. Instead, they ought to “begin from muscle” by focusing on our bodies. They should describe how violence enables and constrains our movement, forcing us to strike out and to shrink down. Dorlin details the “unhappy subjectivation” of those who are “[k]ept in check through violence,” surviving “only to the extent that they manage to equip themselves with defensive tactics.” Self-Defense is about how people are disarmed and made defenseless, how we are taught and forced to live like prey, what we do to endure, and how we fight back.

The phrase “self-defense” points in all kinds of directions: It evokes the “TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT” signs that hang on farm gates. It gestures toward so-called “make my day” laws, the outward-facing, aggressive posture sanctioned by stand-your-ground, and the castle doctrine that allows the use of force against home intruders. But “self-defense” also conjures the nervous, nerdy choreography of community-center courses aimed at women. It evokes revolutionary mobilizations like the Black Panthers. It even recalls the gay libertarian gun group the Pink Pistols, whose spokesperson once told Fox News, “We don’t want people to hurt us, we want people to run away from us.” Dorlin draws on the full range of these significations, attending equally to the way the racial state issues its license to kill nonwhite people, and to isolating, seemingly private threats like sexual and domestic violence. As she points out, these apparently different kinds of self-protective force—on the one hand, vigilantism, and on the other, minor and often unrecognized survival tactics—are not opposites. Instead, Dorlin suggests, both call attention to the way that lives are “lived on the defensive.”

Self-Defense begins with a legal history of the curtailment and restriction of the right to bear arms, focusing primarily on the colonization of the Americas. Across the first few chapters, Dorlin examines who is made defenseless, and how. In crushing detail, she shows how French, Spanish, and US legal regimes forbade enslaved and Indigenous people from arming themselves: the French colonial Black Code prevented enslaved people even from carrying a big stick, while the Spanish Caroline Code reserved the use of machetes for those with at least some white ancestry. Dorlin argues that colonial laws produced a “class of persons always presumed guilty—meaning the only agency they were ascribed was the product of phantasmic aggression.” In other words, such laws constructed populations whose key characteristics were violence and aggressivity, therefore justifying their systematic dispossession. These same laws also produced a separate “class of persons always entitled to demand justice”: white colonial subjects. This self-possessed and propertied class, made up of the subjects entitled to defend their castles, to stand their grounds, to have their days made, is the group to whom the right to self-defense belongs.

So, one of the paradoxes of self-defense that Dorlin exposes is its status as a right. Pursuing a line of argumentation similar to much scholarship in critical race theory, she shows how the right to self-defense—while appearing broad and open to everyone—is strictly delimited along racial and gendered lines. In a chapter on Thomas Hobbes’s and John Locke’s theories of self-defense, she explains that in social contract theory’s imaginary state of nature, everyone uses “their body to defend their body,” creating a kind of “equality before the risk of death.” Within this hypothetical realm, anything we might do to preserve our lives is okay—as Hobbes writes in Leviathan, “the notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice,” have no place in the state of nature. Everyone seeks to defend themselves against challenges real and imagined.

But everything changes once we enter society and become subjects of law. In Locke’s philosophy, the subject of self-defense is an “I” who owns their own body—to defend oneself is to defend one’s property, and to defend one’s property is also to defend oneself. “The status of property owner […] is the condition of legitimacy (and also of efficacy) of self-defense,” Dorlin explains. Obviously, this poses an immediate problem for anyone who isn’t understood as an owner, whether of themselves or of entities beyond their body. Enslaved people, children, wives, servants, Indigenous people, criminals, disabled people, and so many others have historically been denied the right of self-possession and the right to exercise violence in their own defense. Legally and often practically powerless, such subjects “become indefensible, exposed to violence, and always already guilty,” Dorlin tells us.

But the indefensible do defend themselves, often collectively. Dorlin maps a “constellational history” of turning to violence that challenges the status of Locke’s propertied “I” as the avatar of self-preservation. She discusses the rebellions and uprisings of the enslaved in the Americas; the Jewish militias formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to defend against pogroms in Eastern Europe; the suffragettes’ embrace of martial arts; anti-lynching campaigns that called for “a Winchester rifle […] in every Black home”; and queer practices of community patrol in the 1970s and ’80s. In addition to parsing law and philosophy, she studies these groups’ poems, pamphlets, and newspapers; she analyzes video games and novels. Dorlin insists that violence is not just an expression of the power of the dominant, not just a bad thing done by bad people. These historical movements show us that violence is a “political possibility” that we cede too easily if we think of it only as a tool wielded by someone else, as a sword that hangs over our heads.

But Dorlin isn’t just arguing that violence can be ours if we’d only seize it back. Self-defense, she says, is more than just the moment when one finally bashes back. The soft animal of your body sometimes bares its teeth, but its habits of curling up, shrinking down, and hiding out are defensive tactics too. For Dorlin, this protective combination of hypervigilance and self-denial demonstrates the importance of “a continuous experience, a phenomenology of violence.” “From one day to the next,” she asks, “what does violence do to our lives, to our bodies, to our muscles? And what can our bodies both do and not do, in and through this violence?”

One of Dorlin’s most important claims is that more attention should be paid to the apparently minor defensive techniques that people are forced to use when violence is all around. Alongside the figure of the upright militant engaged in obvious, overt combat in defense of their person and property, Dorlin examines the “lived experiences of domination that occur in the intimacy of bedrooms, in subway station corridors, beneath the surface of family reunions, and so on.” In everyday life, she argues, many of us are continually practicing self-defense without recognizing it as such—we’re taking the receipt, smiling deferentially, pretending to talk on the phone, staying in a group, avoiding that relative, sticking near our student when campus security comes around, driving through whatever state only with a very full tank of gas, creating a “safe folder” in case some neighbor forces us to prove that we’re not “groomers.” All these little things we’re doing constantly should prompt us to ask what violence actually does to our lives and to our bodies, how it shapes our experiences of ourselves and of the world. For Dorlin, this failure to recognize the full range of defensive techniques has led us to exaggerate and misunderstand the differences between violence and nonviolence. What distinguishes them is less tactic than temporality—the difference between “striking” and “grinding,” as she writes in a fascinating account of mid-20th-century Black politics in the United States. Her attention to the full spectrum of self-defense shows that no one is opting out of violence—what we need to consider, as proponents of nonviolence did, is what can be done within violence, how we might shape or control our relationships to it.

Self-Defense has won several major awards, including for its translator, Kieran Aarons, who received the French-American Association’s 2023 Translation Prize. Looking at the two versions together, I was interested in how Aarons would approach the translation of “care,” which forms an important part of Dorlin’s polemic, and which at least one prominent philosopher, Catherine Audard, argues is “untranslatable” when French is involved. In French, there are a few different terms that cover the range of ideas captured by the word “care” in English. One is soigner, which mainly refers to things like healing, treating, and looking after. Another is souci, which refers to caution, anxiety, and responsibility—to worrying or being concerned about someone or something. In the context of feminist philosophy, there is also the word “care,” borrowed directly from English. As one of my graduate students pointed out (thank you, Sophie), it is not uncommon to encounter phrases like “éthique du care” in scholarship written in French. Dorlin often joins other feminist philosophers in borrowing the English term; in the French-language version of Self-Defense, Se défendre, she refers to “un dirty care—un care négatif.

Dorlin’s concept of dirty or negative care is an important provocation to the Anglophone feminist left, where discussions of care tend to focus primarily on the analysis of reproductive tasks and their uneven distribution—we talk about who takes care of whom, under what conditions, and with what consequences. Dorlin points out that while feminist theory tends to characterize care as an ethical position distinguished by proximity, love, and compassionate attention (which also generates resentment, exhaustion, and burnout), another kind of care emerges from the condition of enduring violence. Concern for others—in that more anxious, worried sense of souci—doesn’t just come from an impulse to help, nurture, or comfort. If we want to survive, we need to care, negatively, about what others can, will, or want to do to us. As Aarons writes in a short essay with Cédrine Michel, who consulted on the translation, Dorlin’s challenge to feminist theory is that it must reformulate its understanding of violence. We cannot designate violence as the special property or purview of those in power. We cannot make it someone else’s thing that we just worry about from the safety of our “neutral, supposedly nonviolent standpoint.” What Self-Defense tells us is that we have to begin from material reality: our bodies are, in their words, already “traversed by violence.” Sometimes this looks like dramatic and frightening situations of attack; other times, it might mean the subtle threats that put us on high alert and promote avoidance. Either way, violence does the work of shaping life, of making our experience tenser, smaller.

Most of us were taught as children that violence is not the answer. But as Dorlin argues over and over, violence is certainly the question. We have to care about violence, because what’s at stake in violence is life itself. A true reckoning with the constant work of defending ourselves will probably lead to dissatisfaction and disappointment—don’t we deserve more than to live like prey, tensing our muscles in anticipation of the next blow? Maybe violence can be more to us than a thing we flinch away from, more than a force that we try to avoid or absorb. Our practices of self-defense, personal and collective, can be viewed as a kind of martial history, a kind of preparation that might make violence a possibility not just against us, but also for us. When the moment of confrontation passes, we ought to ask: Who is training us? What are we training for?

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Sarah Dowling is the author of Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism (2018), as well as three poetry collections, Entering Sappho (2020), DOWN (2014), and Security Posture (2009). Sarah teaches literature and critical theory at the University of Toronto.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Dowling is the author of Here Is a Figure: Grounding Literary Form (2024), Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism (2018), and three poetry collections, Entering Sappho (2020), DOWN (2014), and Security Posture (2009). Sarah teaches literature and critical theory at the University of Toronto.

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