Thinking Against Violence


Brad Evans interviewed by Natasha Lennard for the NewYork Times, The Stone, December 2015. 


NL: The premise of your recent text, "Disposable Futures," is that "violence is ubiquitous" in the media today. There's no lack of material to support this claim on at face value: to think of one 24-hour cycle undrenched by violent spectacles seems absurd. But this doesn't seem like a phenomenon specific to right now. The grim dictum, "if it bleeds it leads" was not recently coined. The suggestion that the world is just more violent than ever seems untenable, and the suggestion that media interest in violence is new also rings false. So what do you think is specific about the ubiquity of violence today, and the way it is mediated?


BE: It is certainly right to suggest the connections between violence and media communications have been a recurring feature of human relations. We only need to open the first pages of Aeschylus Oresteia to witness tales of victory in battle and its communicative strategies – on this occasion the medium of communication was the burning beacon. But there are a number of ways in which violence is different today, in terms of its logics, forced witnessing and ubiquitous nature.


One of the key arguments I make throughout my work is that violence has now become the defining organizational principle for contemporary societies. It mediates all social relations. It matters less if we are actual victims of violence. It is the possibility that we could face some form of violent encounter, which shapes the logics of power in liberal societies today. Our political imagination as such has become dominated by multiple potential catastrophes that appear on the horizon. From terror to weather and everything in-between, insecurity has become the new normal. We see this played out at global and local levels, as the effective blurring between older notions of homeland/battlefields, friends/enemies and times of peace/times of war have led to the widespread militarization of many everyday behaviors – especially in communities of color.


None of this can be divorced from the age of new media technologies, which quite literally puts a catastrophic world in our hands. Indeed, not only have we become forced witness to many tragic events that seem to be beyond our control (the source of our shared anxieties), accessible smart technologies are now redefining the producer and audience relationships in ways that challenge the dominance of older medias. A notable outcome of this has been the shift towards humanized violence. I am not only talking about the ways in which wars have been aligned with humanitarian principles. If forms of dehumanization hallmarked the previous Century of Violence, in which the victim was often removed from the scene of the crime, groups such as Daesh foreground the human as a disposable category. Whether it is the progressive liberal, the journalist, the aid worker or the homosexual, Daesh put the human qualities of the victims on full broadcast.


NL: I now want to tease out a little more on your previous point about how violence has become the organizing principle, but the spectacle of that violence is one of human vulnerability and disposability. One could argue that by focusing on 'humanity' when considering acts of violence — the human face of victims —we assert that the human is in fact indispensable (we might think of, say, newspaper paeans to victims after massacres). But you argue that this does the reverse, though, and that violence-as-humanized and human disposability go together. Can you explain this a little further?


BE: What we are engaging with here are two distinct types of violence, which although appearing separate, often link and connect in subtle and yet complex ways. On the one hand, we can point to the widespread disposability of human populations, those countless, nameless and faceless victims, whose violence is often hidden or at least removed from any genuine systemic critique in regards to their plight. Such populations on a daily basis live out a wide range of human insecurities, indignities, oppressions and hardships, demanding a fundamental rethink on the nature of violence itself. And yet every now and then, such disposable populations, which are often contained, overspill their confinement to reveal the violence of the hidden order of politics. This is true whether we are talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been galvanized by the spectacle of police brutality, or the bodies of refugee children such as the Alyan Kurdi, whose body tragically washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean.  


On the other hand, we have more orchestrated spectacles of violence, from real events to cultural and entertainment productions, which, though harvesting our attentions, prove to be deeply significant in the normalization of violence and producing the conditions for violence to come. We can explain this in terms of the interplay between disposable lives and sacrificial violence, onto claims for militaristic forms of justice. A number of philosophers have attended to the relationship between violence and the sacred. What concerns me is the ways in which sacrificial victims become loaded with symbolic meaning to sanction further violence and destruction. That is to say, how the spectacle of a truly intolerable moment is politically appropriated to sanction further violence in the name of the victims.


We have seen a terrifying example following the recent attacks in Paris. As Daesh continues to push the spectacle of violence to the nth degree, they bring together the sacrificial and the disposable in challenging ways. Daesh has a clear strategy that seeks to maximize its exposure through the most intimate forms of sacrificial violence. There is however a further tragedy to their violence, which attempts to create the very conditions such that a violent response becomes inevitable. There is a futurity as such to their violence that seeks to create disposable futures. By focusing precisely on populations, which are actually most likely to resist the calls for further war and violence, what is effectively witnessed is an assault on the imagination and the ability to steer history in a different direction.


Faced with such spectacles, which as you say are sometimes (depending on the victims) presented to us as forms of violence against humanity, our complex range of emotions from sadness, horror, fear, onto understandable anger and concerns for the safety of families, friends and loved ones, are consistently mobilized to justify a violent and militaristic response. Or as President Hollande recently remarked– what’s now needed is the purest form of justice - a ‘pitiless war’ - as if the previous age of violence was somehow marked by compassion? This raises serious questions about how we might even think about breaking the cycle of violence, as the future already appears to be violently fated?


NL: “Violently fated” is an interested way to think of our current state. What more, after all, could prove the tragic disposability of populations than the fact that only through spectacles of violence do we — we media consumers — pay attention to these people’s humanity? I think of the example, as you cite, of tiny Aylan Kurdi dead on the Turkish beach, or unarmed teen Mike Brown’s body seen laying in the Ferguson street for three and a half hours. The corpses of privileged, white people are often not used as western media spectacle (indeed, publications and social media platforms scramble to ban Daesh execution videos). This is, in and of itself: that the media only accesses the humanity and struggle of oppressed populations once we have had (literal, visual) exposure to spectacular violence enacted on their bodies. Part of our world being “violently fated,” as you say, relates to the fact that we often only find empathy and solidarity after we’ve seen people as victims of violence.


BE: We certainly seem to be entering into a new moment, where the encounter with violence (real or imagined) is becoming more ubiquitous and its presence ever felt. The very idea of security now seems to belong to a bygone age. This is what I have termed the Age of Dystopian Realism as the future now appears as an endemic terrain and catastrophe and crises, some of which offer no meaningful escape. Certainly this has something to do with our awareness of global tragedies as technologies redefine our exposure to such catastrophic events. But it also has to do with the raw realities of violence and people’s genuine sense of insecurity, which, even if it is manufactured or illusionary, feels no less real.  


There is also a need to be mindful here of the power relationships invested in what we might term the mediation of suffering. How we encounter and narrate the spectacle of violence today is subjected to overt politicization, which prioritize certain forms of suffering, and in doing so, concentrate our attentions on those deaths that appear to matter more than others. Politics in fact continues to be fraught with claims over the true victims of historical forces. Part of our task then remains to reveal those persecuted figures subjected to history’s erasure. But we need to go further. Indeed, while much has already been written about the recurring motif of the victim in terms of developing forms of solidarity and togetherness, there is also a need to be mindful today of the appropriation of the humanitarian victim – who is now a well-established political figure - for the furtherance of violence and destruction in the name of global justice.


NL: With this politics in mind, lets return to the suggestion is that, given this epoch of networked technology, the spectacle of violence reins ubiquitous. Steven Pinker argues that there is objectively less violence in the world, but it is not clear to me how we could, or whether we should quantify the history violence in this way. It makes no sense, to me, to say there is more or less violence now than ever. Or at least I would challenge any attempt to do so as problematically historicist. But we can talk about a spreading spectacle, and its qualities. How do you respond to efforts and findings of Pinker, which are being popularly accepted?


BE: There are a number of issues to address here. We shouldn't loose sight of the fact that many dedicated organizations and individuals are doing tremendously important work documenting the casualties of war and conflict. Whether we are talking about the meticulous research involved in revealing the forgotten testimonies of victims or efforts to record and detail the “collateral damages” of more recent campaigns, these measures are crucial in holding power to account. No life should be collateral. This requires recording and continued vigilance.


And yet, as you intimate, there is a need to avoid falling into the methodological trap set by the likes of Pinker. Not only does his work lead to the most remiss historicism as violence can be judged in terms of various scales of annihilation, it is ethically and politically compromised in the extreme. These attempts to offer quantitative reflections on violence, in fact, lead precisely to the forms of utilitarian calculations, through which some forms of violence are continually justified or presented as the “least worse”. As a result, the human dimensions to the violence i.e. the qualitative are often written out of the script.


Such approaches are in fact incapable of answering the ethical question: when is too much killing enough? Just as there is no clear line to be drawn concerning levels of tolerable casualties, i.e. it is valid to accept a thousand deaths but a thousand and one is too many, each form of violence needs to critiqued and condemned on its own terms. Only then can we think of breaking the cycle of violence by moving beyond overtly politicized dichotomizes as good and bad, just and unjust, tolerable and intolerable, which rely upon such quantifiable derivatives.


Pikers specific claims are historically dubious in respect to the relationship between liberalism and violence. What is more, the classifications he uses conveniently fit his preexisting normative positions and worldviews. And yet, as we know, what actually constitutes an act of political violence is intellectually fraught and deeply contested. The recent mass shootings in the United States, for example, illustrates how both the naming and quantification of violence remains loaded with political determinism. While some incidents, like the massacre in Colorado Springs, continue to be narrated by focusing on the mental health of the individual perpetrators - hence avoiding any broader systemic critique of gun laws, political allegiances, and religious beliefs, etc., others such as the recent attacks in San Bernardino immediately connect individuals to broader historic forces.


NL: I still want to be cautious about how we use the term “violence” as I think we often see it bandied about carelessly in the media. I have written before about the problems I see in reporters, for example, saying something like “the situation turned violent in Ferguson” during the riotous protests. Firstly, this largely posits that property — smashed windows and looted goods — can be the victims of violence. That should at least be questioned by editors; it is not. Secondly, to say a situation “turned” violent suggests it was not already. But clearly there is no background state of peace or non-violence when young black teens are being gunned down by police with impunity. Do you think we need a better conception of what actually constitutes violence? Do you agree that the word itself is used irresponsibly? How might we conceive of a better way to apply to the term?


BE: Violence remains a complex problem that defies neat description. That is not however to suggest refraining from its naming, diagnosis and sustained critique. Echoing Walter Benjamin, it remains the case that one of the most significant intellectual challenges faced is to develop a critique of violence adequate to our times. And by this I mean how we can critically engage the problem, remaining ethically sensitive to the subject, while trying to do justice to its victims. Too often, violence is studied in an objective and neutral way, forgetting that human lives are being violated and its experience is horrific and devastating.


Violence does however remain poorly understood if we simply attend to mere bodily attacks. Not only is psychological abuse clearly a form of violence, often we forget how some of the most pernicious and lasting casualties of war are intellectual. There is also a compelling case to be made for arguing that extreme social neglect, unnecessary suffering caused by preventable disease and environmental degradation could also be written as forms of violence given their effects on lives. Key here is to recognize both the systematic and all too human dimensions to violence, which requires us to look more attentively to the multiple forms violence can take, teasing out both its logical consistencies and novelties.  


You do, however, raise an important point, which needs to be considered here. Once we start to objectify violence i.e. argue what its main referent objects should be, it is easy to retreat back into established moral and normative positions which neatly map out justifiable versus unjustifiable forms of violence. The justifiable being the violence we are willing to tolerate, the unjustifiable the intolerable. With this in mind, it’s much better to ask how violence operates within a social order. By this I mean to question regimes of power, less by their ideas and more by the types of violence(s) they tolerate, while asking how such violence serves to authenticate and disqualify the real meaning of lives.


So where does this leave us intellectually? Rather than encouraging a debate about the true meaning of violence, I’d like to deal with your final question by proposing the urgent need to think against violence in the contemporary moment. As Simon Critchley intimated in a very powerful piece in the Stone some time ago, breaking the cycle of violence and revenge requires entirely new political and philosophical co-ordinates and resources to point us in alternative directions.  

I’d like to add to this discussion by drawing attention to Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker”, which is still arguably one of the most famous human embodiments of philosophical and critical enquiry. The symbolic form given to Rodin’s isolated and contemplative sculpture alone should raise a number of critical concerns for us. Not least the ways in which its ethnic, masculine and all too athletic form, speaks to evident racial, gendered and survivalist grammars.


But let’s consider for a moment what The Thinker is actually contemplating? Sat alone on his plinth, The Thinker could in fact be thinking about anything in particular. We just hope it is something serious. Such ambiguity was not however as Rodin intended. In the original 1880 sculpture, the thinker actually appears kneeling before the Gates of Hell. We might read this as significant for a whole number of reasons. Firstly, it is the “scene of violence”, which gives specific context to Rodin’s thinker. Thought begins for the thinker in the presence of the raw realities of violence and suffering. The thinker in fact is being forced to suffer into truth.  


Secondly, there is an interesting tension in terms of the thinker’s relationship to violence. Sat before the gates, the thinker appears to be turning away from the intolerable scene behind. This we could argue is a tendency unfortunately all too common when thinking about violence today. Turning away into abstraction or some scientifically neutralizing position of “objectivity”. And yet, according to one purposeful reading, the figure in this commission is actually Dante – the poet – who is contemplating the circles of hell as narrated in the Divine Comedy. This is significant. Rather than looking away, might it be that the figure is now actually staring directing into the abyss below? Hence raising the fundamental ethical question of what it means to be forced witness to violence?


And thirdly, not in anyway incidental, in the original commission the thinker is actually called “the poet”. This I want to argue is deeply significant for rethinking the future of the political. The Thinker was initially conceived as a tortured body, yet as a freethinking human, determined to transcend his suffering through poetry. We continue to be taught that politics is a social science and that its true command is located in the power of analytical reason. Such has been the hallmark of centuries of reasoned, rationalized and calculated violence, which has made the intolerable appear arbitrary and normal. Countering this demands a rethinking of the political itself in more poetic terms, which is tasked with imagining better futures and styles for living amongst the world of peoples.