Understanding the Protester’s Opposition: From Bodily Presence to the Linguistic Dimension—Violence and Non-violence


This paper aims to address the manner in which the protester’s opposition, or what I consider as the protester’s being-there-against, “profiles” itself in the no-man’s-land between non-violence and violence. My focus is therefore to unfold some of its constitutive layers, relying on the conceptual tools prominently provided by Ricoeur’s hermeneutical phenomenology. The first constitutive layer concerns the protester’s bodily presence, seized first of all as a specific “here” and “there,” and then as an expressive body that is communicating through gestures. Within the interpretation of one of these gestures—the fist raised in the air—I highlight the anamnestic nature of the protester’s being-there-against as it appears in the relationship with a state whose legitimacy comes from taking over the monopoly on violence. The second constitutive layer is related to the linguistic dimension of the protester’s presence: here special attention is paid to the way language and violence connect, having as background an analysis devoted to the surplus and the deficit of meaning attached to the slogans chanted by the protesters.

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  1. 1.

    Ricoeur (1986b: 4): “How can we determine the point of departure in a philosophical anthropology placed under the guiding idea of fallibility? […] Thus it is necessary to start from the whole of man, by which I mean from the global view of his non-coincidence with himself, his disproportion, and the mediation he brings about in existing”.

  2. 2.

    Staudigl (2014: 1): “There is no violence per se. Rather there is violence only to the extent that there are historically and culturally constituted—and thus irreducibly contingent—orders, within which the ‘meaning violence’ is ascribed to a given social event”.

  3. 3.

    The guiding question here can be framed as follows: what distinguishes the protester’s presence in the no-man’s-land between non-violence and violence from other forms of presence-against, such as those of the bully, the soldier, or the dissident? Regarding the soldiers’ presence, one may refer to what Patočka asserted about the World War I soldiers who went through “an experience of the night” as an “unsurpassable possibility” where the sacrifice becomes a “genuine super-individuality” (Patočka 1999: 206).

  4. 4.

    For a clear account of Husserl’s phenomenology of embodiment, see, among other studies, Ciocan (2013: 13–119).

  5. 5.

    In order to establish these relations of distance or proximity don’t we first need an inner adherence of the protester to certain values (organic or acquired) and afterwards a distance from the others sharing different or opposite values? An indication in this regard—albeit one that owes nothing to the phenomenological approach—could be Camus’s observation that “in every revolt there is a total and instantaneous adhesion of a man to a certain part of himself” (quoted in Ricoeur 2001: 399).

  6. 6.

    It would be interesting to build on the reflection about direct touch or physical contact between the protester and the police officer starting from Heidegger’s consideration of In-Sein: “If the chair could touch the wall, this would presuppose that the wall is the sort of thing ‘for’ which a chair would be encounterable” (Heidegger 1962: 81); “Circumspective concern decides as to the closeness and farness of what is proximally ready-to-hand environmentally” (Heidegger 1962: 141f.).

  7. 7.

    Here we might refer to Ricoeur 1966 (especially Part I, Ch. 2, and Part II), 1967 (especially Ch. 3), 1992 and 2001.

  8. 8.

    Kriegel (2015: 79): “In the normal go of things, we do not experience ourselves as trying to act, but as acting. When I clench my fist, I normally do not experience myself as trying to clench but as clenching. This is a point Ricoeur (1966: 308) emphasizes, arguing that in our actual experience, it is action that manifests itself to us first and foremost, while trying is relatively obscured and requires careful and somewhat tutored attention”. See also Joshua Shepherd’s extensive analysis (2016) and Kriegel’s article acknowledging his debt to Ricoeur (Kriegel 2013).

  9. 9.

    The following remark of Ricoeur on indignation anticipates in a certain way the analysis devoted to the relationship between violence and language: “[D]o we not discern in such indignation a precise expectation, that of a word that will create a just distance between the antagonists that will bring an end to their head-to-head confrontation? The moral intention of indignation lies in this confused expectation of a victory of the word over violence” (Ricoeur 2000b: xi).

  10. 10.

    Ricoeur (2001: 269): “What a physiology of violence cannot neglect is that the state is the center of a concentration and a transmutation of violence”; “In its most basic and at the same time the most irreducible form, state violence is violence of a penal nature” (Ricoeur 2001: 278, my translation).

  11. 11.

    Ricoeur (2001: 278): “The state punishes; in the last analysis, it is the state that has the monopoly on physical coercion; it has deprived individuals of the right to do justice by themselves; it has taken upon itself all the violence inherited from the primitive struggle of human being against human being” (my translation).

  12. 12.

    Here we could very well also discuss the transition from chant to text, from oral to written language, to the “fixation of the discourse in some outer bearer, a fixation that comes along with the detachment of meaning from the event” (Ricoeur 1976: 25f.), insisting on the hermeneutical function of distanciation (Ricoeur 2016: 93–106).

  13. 13.

    It is not only conceptualizing different phenomena of violence that raises a big problem. Applying a methodological approach to violence also both widens the gap between “those who theorize violence and those who suffer it most intensely” and runs the risk of “aestheticizing” (Nowotny 2014: 163) this relation.

  14. 14.

    For studies on this issue, see Foessel (2004) and Dewitte (2004).

  15. 15.

    Romanians took to the streets to protest against the government and its plans to curb anti-corruption efforts. To put it in numbers, the general image would be the following: more than 100,000 people filled the streets in Bucharest to protest; after the brutal intervention of the police using acoustic grenades, tear gas, and water cannons to disperse the protesters, more than 400 people needed medical care (including children, press reporters, and even several innocent foreign tourists), out of which 70 were hospitalized. In the following days, more than 700 criminal complaints were filed against the police. This peculiar transition from being a protester to being a victim and finally a witness raises extremely interesting issues in phenomenological terms; however, they require an analysis that would go far beyond the space afforded to this study.

  16. 16.

    Ricoeur (2016: 98): “I therefore give the word ‘meaning’ a very broad connotation that covers all the aspects and levels of the intentional exteriorisation which, in turn, renders possible the exteriorisation of discourse in writing and in the work”.

  17. 17.

    On the force and violence that word repetition can place on the real in a ritual, see Girard (1979: 89–118).

  18. 18.

    Ionesco (1976: 228): “The Professor: Say it again, say it: Knife…knife…knife […] Pupil [in a weak voice]: Yes, yes… The knife can kill? [The Professor kills the Pupil with a spectacular thrust of the knife.]”.

  19. 19.

    Is it not the case that an (inauthentic) form of repetition, one that is therefore different from Wiederholung, is also present in the heart of the existential structure of “the they” [das Man], and, more manifestly, in the phenomena correlated to this structure, such as the idle talk, curiosity and ambiguity, which develop “an average intelligibility”? Heidegger (1962: 212f.) clearly states that idle talk “is constituted by just such gossiping and passing the word along [Weiter- und Nachredens]—a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on becomes aggravated to complete groundlessness. […] The groundlessness of idle talk is no obstacle to its becoming public; instead it encourages this”.


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This article is part of the project The Structures of Conflict: A Phenomenological Approach to Violence (PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2016-0273), funded by UEFISCDI.


This study was financially supported by UEFISCDI (PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2016-0273).

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Correspondence to Paul Marinescu.

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Marinescu, P. Understanding the Protester’s Opposition: From Bodily Presence to the Linguistic Dimension—Violence and Non-violence. Hum Stud 43, 219–236 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-019-09532-4

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  • Protester
  • Non-violence
  • Violence
  • Body
  • Language
  • Meaning
  • Repetition
  • Ricoeur