Code Duello

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Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Oh That was right lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending,
'Twas best to take it to the grave.
-A.E. Housmand, A Shorpshire Lad, XLIII (1896)

"Duel of chivalry" defined by Baldwick as "a meeting in single combat between two knights, always with great public ceremonial, to settle a difference of law, possession or honour" (22).

From the courthouse to the battlefield man has violently clashed together in any number of ways, including the oddity of the duel, "a judicial combat between two persons or trail by wager of battle" (OED). Necessarily, the duel is ordered by a pre-arrange set of rules manifest in the Code Duello of the time. Although the particulars of which have fluctuated in formality and prominence in relation to the ever changing socio-political atmosphere throughout history, the Code Duello in its various incarnations consistently reflects a tense marriage between the encoded order of systemic rules and the inherent disorder of the violent encounter.

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Point d'Honneur - Dual Authority of Self + State

Dueling arrises out of aristocratic traditions of chivalry and honor, which, although they may not persist as such in modern times, serve to shape the nature of the duel throughout it's practice. Knightly chivalry and honor are closely tied to the monarchical authority, in such circumstance the Code Duello is embedded in the knightly order of the state itself, producing duels as an extension of the throne. With the decline of monarchical authority the duel's authentication shifts from the throne to the standardized code itself, a body often in conflict and competition with both church and state. As a codified system of ethics itself, the existence of Code Duello challenges other sources of authority designated to impose order onto violence. The French concept of the point d'honneur illustrates this tension as existing between the authority of the self and the authority of the king or the state inherent in the act of the duel, "The sense of honour of the aristocracy retained a residue of habitual freedom and self-determination, to which they lent expression by engaging in duelling. At the same time, they introduced their concepts of aristocratic honour into the new areas of competence and functions with which they had been entrusted during the course of their incorporation into the state. Loyalty to the absolute monarch and opposition to this jurisdictional monopoly were two sides of the same coin" (Fervert, 15) This duality of authority, inherent in the point d'honneur, in which the Code Duello finds its roots, is remediated throughout the evolution of the code until it's demise in the 19th century. Embedded in a tradition of supposed civility hides unbridled hostility, out from under strict adherence to codified ritual leeks disorder and subversion. Through the early modern era forms of Codes Duello were specific to kingdom and country but in 1977 the Irish Code Duello became the more or less universally recognized code for dueling throughout the western world.

The Mediatic Encounter - Encoding the Self + the Other

The mediatic nature of the duel lies not in its particular coded incarnations but in how it addresses a larger issue of encoding the human encounter, most especially the violent encounter with the other. The nature of the duel presupposes a persisting state of conflict, and indeed, Goethe see's the point d'honneur as "a certain safeguard against brutal acts of violence" in as much as, "if dueling did not exist, conflicts would take place under far more violent and disorganized conditions, which would exercise a much more detrimental effect upon the cultural tenor of a society." (Fervent, 23). Viewing the duel in this way reveals the Code Duello as a method of imposing rules and order upon the deeper realm of violence and disorder lurking beneath all encounters. Its existence suggests that if left without the Code Duello to reign the conflict in, tethering it to ordered ritual, disordered violence would simply run amuck. The Code Duello precedes the subject, walking ahead and providing a code of action, a protocol for the inevitable encounter of conflict with the other. Evaluating the Code Duello through the technique of 'mediatic encouter' reveals the degree of encoding in place to mediate an encounter with the unknown. The duel is certainly a highly encoded mediatic encounter, enabled through the body of the Code Duello, which by codifying and ritualizing each step of the duel, provides the subject with protocol for confronting the other through violence, while transforming that violence into a mediation of justice and a restoration of honor, transforming the other into friend, or at the very least lowering the risk of fatalities.


The Threat of the Other - Always Already Confronting Each Other

The very need for a highly standardized Code Duello suggests a persisting condition of conflict in the nature of human interaction, a conflict which, although not always violent, can be seen as rooted in the constant tension between the known-self and unknown-other. In the same way that the duel imposes rules of order on a disordered interaction between self and other, all interactions hold a degree of threat, inherent in the unknown, and a degree of order in the coded protocols of interaction, be it dancing or buying a sofa. The other is inherently mysterious to us, his or her inner workings and rational are black boxed from the subjective experience of self, in that mystery lies disorder and the threat of violence. Hegel illustrates the threat found in the encounter with the other, "Just as each stakes his own life, so each must must seek the other's death. . .its essential being is present to it in the form of an 'other', it is outside of itself and must rid itself of its self-externality. . .it must regard its otherness as pure being-for-self or as an absolute negation. (Hegel, 113-114) Hegel's perspective of the threat of the self-as-other illuminates the natural inclination to view the other as threatening and the subsequent need to order the interaction, whether through duel or conversation the other is always being confronted as a mystery, as separate.

Duel 2.jpg

Eva Horn's exploration of boundaries in terms of the Wall can be applied to the subjective human experience, "The space behind the Wall is a black box whose signals and symptoms are to be decoded" (76). Unable to cross the wall into the experience of others, we can only 'decode' them through mediated interaction. Confrontation with the unknown other does not, however, need to remain colored by threat and suspicion. In his work concerning international political theory, Carl Schmitt explores the fundamental importance of determining friend from enemy, a distinction which is formative to the self. Revealing the political nature of encounters with the other, in one's potential to classify the other as friend or foe, Schmitt's friend/enemy distinction reveals itself as being constantly negotiated, the duel exhibiting an extreme form of violent negotiation but one that is not all together different from the workings of a discussion. The confrontation of the other through Code Duello also acts to classify the other, because one can only duel someone of the same social status, the opponent is at once an enemy and a potential friend. The act of accepting a duel is in itself an act of respecting the opponent, deeming him worthy of undertaking a mutual risk. By exposing onesself at once to the symbolic order of the Code Duello and to the violent reality swords and guns, the enemy can be transformed into a friend by passing through the medium of the duel. "The proximity of death subjects both deullists to a sort of ritual purgation during which all feelings of hate, deliberate abuse and enmity are cast aside" (Fervert, 24).

Encoding Order onto Disorder - Civility Through Violence

A Cybernetic Network of Justice

"The gate to the law refers to a law that resides behind it. Behind the first gate there is a further fate and then another one. . . nothing but a chain of references" (Vismann, 21). The Code Duello is certainly a form of law, functioning to set the conditions of operation for the mediation of honor, to assign meaning to symbolic actions which will refer to a higher order of justice. Since the duel is fought in response to an offense, the gestures comprising the duel, as set forth by the Code Duello, are symolically referring to a constructed ethics of justice. Whether the assailants sword fight to the death or fire pistols purposely off mark, the duel acts to restore honor symbolically, either through blood or in many cases "merely the willingness to risk ones life" (Fervert, 19).

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Dueling Pistol

Motor of Fury - The Irrational Core of the Duelist Black Box

The Code Duello can be seen as the governing principles over a network of agents, the code that creates limits for the activities of the duelists, who are connected through a cybernetic network; each acting as 'function' black box agents themselves but also subject to the universal rules of Code Duello. The space for particular agency is only within the black box of the agent, powered by Deluezian "furor" (Horn, 63) but simultaneously constrained by the ethics of the duel. Honor is transfered throughout the network, dependent upon the opinion of others for legitimation the network of duelists forms a complex ecology of encoded information, each "node" or duelist active on his own. The violent and disordered 'furor' is only accessible through the interface of the Code Duello, that is, through the ordered gestures of the duel which at times betray their disordered core beneath but never succumb to it entirely. The duelists are driven by an inner disorder, the raison d'être of the duel itself, but expressed through an ordered interface of coded actions, reflecting varying degrees of proximity to violent core, ranging from a passionate sword duel, to a mechanical and sanitized pistol duel.

The encoding of honor entails imposing an ordered system of gesture on top of the disordered state of the violent psyche, at once restricting and promoting violence, creating approved bursts of disorder throughout the ordered system of Code Duello. Irrational acts of violence are encoded into rational acts of justice, calling into question the proclaimed civility of the duel. By this method of encoding, a Faustian bargain is struck, the universalizing and standardizing the terms of conflict, therefore sacrifices the autonomy of the duelist. The paradox is that, the very violent impulse that the Code Duello seeks to squash through ritual is the motor of the entire process, without violent malice there would be no duel, without danger there would be no transformation from dishonor to honor, from foe to friend.

Empty Gesture - The Gutting of the Code Duello

The gestural manifestations of the Code Duello illustrate the tension between order and disorder, civility and chaos. The pistol duel especially demonstrates these paradoxes, setting a scene in which the gestures performed become seriously detached from their roots in battle. The mutually pointed guns tied together the duelists in their embrace of the threat of the other, but also pointing to each other as equals, gesturing toward a potential friend. The field between them acts as a stage on which the code will be played out. Aside from the fact that pistol dueling is ludicrously inaccurate, rarely coming even close to one's mark, practices such as "Deloping" or throwing one's shot to miss the opponent on purpose (Fleming, 8) served to further distort the connection between ernest violence and coded tradition. "The deloper had to let the other man fire at him first, giving no hind of what he was planning to do. Often the duelists seconds would declare that honor had been satisfied and ban another shot" (Fleming, 8). This gesture empties the duel of the risk valued as transformational and encoded with justice, leaving only the coded gesture, referring to nothing.


It is understandable that early duels, fought hand to hand with swords, demonstrating skill and strength, could encode an ethics of power, along Nietzschean lines perhaps. However, with the further standardization of the Code Duello, decreased risk and skill required, the encoding of honor into the gesture of the duel buries deeper and deeper the violent disorder at its base. The farther removed the gesture becomes from the violent core, the more secret the law seems" (Vismann, 21). By the late 19th Century the duel itself becomes a black box, the gesture as merely a line of referential codes, back and back, to what it was ever referring becomes indistinguishable. "Bloodless scholars and fat businessmen waving pistols were would-be warriors, and the confrontation between frail flabby flesh and death was ludicrously inappropriate. . .By the late nineteenth century, disciplined cooperation had replaced heroism in the duel. It was more proper than glorious, more dutiful than beautiful" (McAleer, 53). In a historical devolution, the duel with pistols had reemerged as its medieval antecedent, the ordeal, a trial mediated by mystical chance rather than any distinguishable form of ethics. The modern pistol duel had functionally become a skeuomorph of the earlier dueling which referenced to an encoding of honor rather than empty gesture, the encoded honor that had once been transfered through the medium of the duel was becomes decoded as the 'furor' ceases to inhabit the gesture of the duel.

Works Cited

Baldick, Robert. The Duel; a History of Duelling. London, New York: Spring, 1970. Print

"Duel." Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Online. <>.

Fleming, Thomas. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America. New York, NY: Basic, 2002. Print.

Frevert, Ute. Men of Honour: a Social and Cultural History of the Duel. Cambridge: Polity, 1995. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and J. B. Baillie. The Phenomenology of Spirit: (the Phenomenology of Mind). [Lawrence, Kan.]:, 2009. Print.

Horn, Eva. "Knowing the Enemy: The Epistemology of Secret Intelligence." Boston: MIT Press Journal Grey Room, 2003

McAleer, Kevin. Dueling: the Cult of Honor in Fin-de-siècle Germany. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1997. Print.

Schmitt, Carl, and Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007. Print

Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.