Lebensraum and Violence

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Lebensraum is a concept that comes from the German language whose idiosyncratic habit of fusing together multiple themes in one word is at times humorous and at times effective. In this case, we are given leben = (n) life / (v) to live and raum = geographic space / room, and we get, the commonly translated concept of ‘space required for life, growth or activity’.

Lebensraum is a most useful of words, as I will show. But first, where did it come from?

According to BBC History, “the term Lebensraum was coined by the German geographer, Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) … [who] developed a theory according to which the development of all species, including humans, is primarily determined by their adaptation to geographic circumstances”. Ratzel’s theorizing was a dark, cold theorizing in that it provided him and future generations of politicians with a useful word to rationalize a violent expansion and conquest by restless, growing and hungry ‘Volk’ = People.

Starting in the 1920’s, Adolf Hitler would make full use of the term. His belief that the German Volk required more living space in order to grow into its greatest of destinies led him to send thousands of men and women to wreak havoc and do violence upon neighbouring countries.

Lebensraum, once gained, had to be controlled, dominated and most important of all, colonized so that resources could be extracted and a new population comfortably settled. Indigenous populations had, of course, to be cleared or made to be useful in some way; in the process, they became and were rationalized as a form of disposable life, a lesser life, a ‘bare life’; a politicized form of natural life, a “life exposed to death”, a life which had stripped from it any and all basic human and civil rights and freedoms, a life reduced to the material body / flesh.

“The worst, the cruellest, the most human violence has been unleashed against living beings, beasts or humans, and humans in particular who precisely were not accorded the dignity of being fellows”, writes Jacques Derrida.

The expansion of Lebensraum for one Volk, as is painfully clear, becomes the collapse of the Lebensraum of that of another. It truly seems to be a Zero-Sum Game; a most violent, inhumane game of deadly and precise rationalizations; a strategic un-writing and un-making of that which is human in ‘the Other’; a game which makes invisible and which normalizes violence; a violence which, directed against flesh and bone ‘bare life’, is seen as a no-issues extension of the slaughtering of a pig for dinner.

Why then, is Lebensraum a useful, yes, even a beautiful concept? Lebensraum, as a concept, has been violated and debased and given a dark, malicious hue in its strategic uses in history. How can it be reclaimed and be otherwise useful? Precisely by going back to its root meaning and thinking about how it applies to human flourishing.

Lebensraum means much more than the geographic space that is needed for life, growth and activity. This is where it starts, yes, but not where it ends. True, we all need space to live, rest and be in this world. Some of us are sedentary and others wander the earth; home may be one place or many but in all cases, it is a space, somewhere. We also all need resources – food, water, air – to nourish ourselves, and materials to shelter our life from the indiscriminating forces of nature are invaluable.

In space furthermore arises all that is dear to us and that which colors our lives with meaning. The particular features of our space – mountain, river, forest, wildlife – allow us to place and ground ourselves; we feel safe in and understand our space; we relate with and to it; we sing and tell stories about it and all that we encounter therein; we are taught by it and through it. We identify landmarks and know where we are, how we are and why we are; a labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over (Chatwin, 1988) keep us from being and feeling lost; I am placed and therefore I am speaks to identity and belonging; it speaks to having an origin, a center point and a meaning structure through which and from which our agency can freely, purposefully flow.

We can also speak about our inner space. Our inner life-world. The Lebensraum invisible to all but the experiencing self. Walt Whitman has presented this ‘self’ as a sort of lung that inhales and exhales the world; a filtering of the world through the body from whose residue we weave the songs of ourselves. Lewis Hyde in The Gift writes how Whitman speaks of his inhalation as “accepting” the bounty of the world, his exhalation as “bequeathing” or “bestowing” himself, his work. Parker Palmer in his Healing the Heart of Democracy also speaks of an inner world and uses ‘heart-talk’. Heart is derived from the Latin cor, and “points not only to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge – intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where knowledge can become more fully human.”

This invisible world requires its space and care; the freedom to unfold and to flourish. We need to be able to breathe, feel and think freely; to not be boxed in, caged in or circumscribed. A delicate balance exists between our outer and inner Lebensraum. They are undoubtedly inseparable. Some extreme forms of punishment apply solitary confinement and sense deprivation and in this dark, empty non-space, the self withers and slowly falls apart.

In her fabulous book The Law is a White Dog, Colin Dayan writes for example how “in conditions of radical isolation, only the external shape remains, while personal identity – what makes you recognize yourself as yourself – is annihilated. You are then something other, watching over the death of what you once knew, the gradual decay of all that made you part of the world.” You personality shrinks and the self slowly experiences a conversion into nothingness; “no longer able to think of oneself as thinking – or to recast this dilemma slightly, no longer to be thought of as all – is to… [be] as if dead.” It is a kind of ‘soul-death’ that leaves behind the trembling, needy, helpless bare body.

As social beings our relationships to the people around us are tremendously important. This starts from very early on and whatever experiences we have as children are formative to how our lifes unfold. At the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, researchers find that the key component to why some children are resilient to trauma, are able to adapt and overcome rather than falling and stumbling along for the rest of their lives, is having at least one stable and committed rela­tionship with a supportive adult. The world is experienced and made meaningful in and through relationship.

The absence of such a relationship, so it is believed, is perceived by the body as a threat which “activates a stress response that — when prolonged — leads to physiological changes that affect the brain and overall systems of physical and mental health. The stress becomes toxic, making it more difficult for children to adapt or rebound.”

What a relationship gives each child is a sort of inner scaffolding or core support structure upon which key capacities such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate be­havior, and adapt to changing circumstance are able to be build. The place where all of our ways of knowing converge – intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily – requires a support base.

It is from this base that we are able to continuously launch our daily lives, do things, and be self-determining agents; to have agency. Perhaps more importantly, it is from here that we are even able to imagine ourselves capable of doing things in the first place. Our internal ‘I can’ rests here. It is such a precious, fragile essence, this ‘I can’.

In school, bullying in its various guises violates this ‘I can’.

“…bullying is not about anger or conflict; it is about contempt — a powerful feeling of dislike toward someone considered to be worthless, inferior, or undeserving of respect” ~ Barbara Coloroso

It is a psychological warfare that isolates the young child and entangles them in yarns of being ‘lesser’ and ‘meaningless’. Bullying destroys the way children make sense of their world; it disrupts sense and meaning making and viciously strips identity; one loses track of who one is and why one is. It renders life and what we do with it / in it meaningless and we become ashamed. In this state, what ‘can I do’?! Self-esteem – the way we see and value ourselves – is being decimated; a feeling of helpless impotence sets in.

Practically, such violence is often divided into the related concepts of Bullying and Harassment: “bullying has been defined as behaviors that repeatedly and over time intentionally inflict injury on another, while harassment refers to biased behaviors, intentional or unintentional, that can, but need not be, targeted at a specific individual. These behaviors overlap and can involve verbal, psychological or physical abuse and be perpetrated through direct face-to-face contact, through third parties and by cyberbullying”

Research shows that “children and youth who face bullying or harassment are at risk for a range of emotional, behavior and relationship problems, including low self-concept, school absenteeism, anxiety and loneliness, depression and suicidal thoughts, stress-related health problems, and aggressive behavior.”

And bullying is such a common occurrence these days. The inner Lebensraum – what one needs to flourish – recedes until all that is left is the tiniest of box within which a residual – stubborn – agency paces and seeks a way out; no wonder suicide rates are so high among youth.

Body and mind are not separate entities in this process. They are intimately fused in experiencing life. One can say that our self is an ‘embodied‘ self; it is through our body that we experience the world and are placed / positioned within it. Our self is articulated / spoken / expressed through the body and our body more than anything determines our identity, our ‘I’, our self. Bullying knows this all too well and targets the self where it is most vulnerable, through the body.

Body shaming is a common strategy; any body that strays too far from an ideal of beauty and or perfection gets ‘put down.’ “Am I ugly?”, one asks … Common are also acts of sex, race, gender, ability and age based discrimination / hate speech and doings. The body is the place where all of these features come together and become read as an identity; is it a socially desirable identity or is it ‘less than’ and thus disposable? violateable?

Not only does the inner Lebensraum suffer but the outer space shrinks as well. One simply may not be welcome in spaces; may be physically excluded or ghettoized.

In her The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, for example, details how, although Jim Crow laws have been formally removed and dismantled, today “an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.” This is further explored in the excellent article What if Black America were a Country?

Another example pertains to disability. According to the traditional, bio-medical approach, disability, has and often continues to be viewed as a medical or health problem that prevents or reduces a person’s ability to participate fully in society. In contrast, the social approach views disability as a natural part of society, where attitudes, stigma and prejudices present barriers to people with disabilities, and prevent or hinder their participation in mainstream society; when barriers are removed and the space made more accessible or inclusive, the impairment to participate often recedes; think of wheelchair access to buildings, for example.

The Violence of Disablism expose processes of disablism that are produced in the relationships between people, which sometimes involve violence. The authors focus on the the role of social relationships, institutions and culture in the constitution of violence that people with disabilities face.

And this then, is where Lebensraum can take us. It stands at the intersection between what we require to flourish and unfold as relating human beings with heart, mind and soul – it is beautiful when bountiful and carefree – and how we are or can be violated and experience violence done to our inner and outer world; an abrasive, eroding violence that may leave naught but an outline of a former self; a scattered, inhibited, anxious and dislocated self.

And this then is where our most difficult of tasks lies: To make space, give space, hold space, share space and love space.

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