Getting Even: Loss, Revenge and the Refusal of Mourning

Stream: Panel 58 - Political Theory: Politics of Memory, Mourning and Repair 
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 4.00 pm – 5.30 pm


Revenge is the oldest, and still the most seductive, response to injustice, but it is also the most morally abhorrent and politically destructive. In contrast to justice, whose governing symbol is measure, revenge falls under the figure of excess. And yet, if revenge can be said to have a guiding principle it is nothing other than measure understood as “perfect exchange”. Behind every act of revenge is the desire to exact the precise equivalent of suffering, to “discharge” the debt of pain by returning it in full, and by that means to bring the two parties back to the position they were in before the first offence occurred. Despite the opprobrium it generally carries, therefore, revenge bears within it the ideal towards which all forms of retributive and restorative justice strive – namely the restoration of the status quo ante. My aim in this paper is to use revenge as a means of exposing the temporal logic (and temporal flaw) at work in all our attempts at righting the wrongs of the past. To the extent that it never succeeds in restoring the status quo ante, revenge puts a lie to Nietzsche’s famous claim that “that everything has its price; all things can be paid for”. The more victims seek to recover the precise equivalent of what they have lost, the more that loss asserts itself as unrecoverable. Among other things, therefore, the study of revenge provides an insight into the disastrous consequences that arise from the refusal of mourning.


Paul Muldoon (Presenter), Monash University
Paul Muldoon teaches political theory in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Australia. He is a member of a multi-disciplinary research team funded by the Australian Research Council investigating resistance to reconciliation in South Africa, Northern Ireland and Australia. He is currently working on two large research projects. The first concerns the way societies come to terms with the past and the significance of practices of public mourning. The second concerns the ‘event of colonisation’ and, more specifically, the events in the colonial history of Australia that are forever revealing new potentialities within the colonial encounter.