SEPTEMBER 3, 2018
“THERE’S NO WAR on race, there’s a war on poverty!” yelled a drunken man as he violently clanked his silverware inside Top of the Notch restaurant, nestled near the summit of Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains. Though his rhetoric pulsated unnervingly through the mountains, I didn’t say anything back; I didn’t want my mini-vacation ruined by a pointless fight. But the new anthology Violence: Humans in Dark Times reminds readers the power of confronting political disparities, and the necessity of speaking out — it reads like a poignant, if imperfect, reply to this man’s belief.
In a series of conversations originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times, Brad Evans and Natasha Lennard question professors, writers, artists, filmmakers, and philosophers to paint a global picture of how violence manifests itself in today’s climate. Each chapter is a separate interview with an expert that discusses a relevant social issue relating to violence — anything from Trump’s brand of leadership, to propaganda in American war movies, to the nuances of being an erotic performer.
Evans and Lennard don’t claim to know definitively why violence exists — at least not yet. They do, however, offer a series of possible explanations: regarding violence as theoretical, rather than real; normalization of violence in everyday life; mass-marketed violence in popular culture; the inundation of violence that moves humanity to turn the TV off, rather than to face the reality of violence across the globe. If we can’t name it, we can’t combat it. The purpose of the work is to challenge humanity to create more meaningful solutions when it comes to these kinds of violence — or at least to name violence without inadvertently inciting even more anger.
But Violence doesn’t attempt to “solve all violence.” Violence strives to offer critique, and in turn, to inspire understanding. The hope is that understanding — through dialogue, art, or thought — will lead to change, however subtle. Whether that’s rejecting capitalism for the environmental good, as Adrian Parr suggests, or unfollowing the angering persona of @realdonaldtrump in favor of organizing a march, as Nicholas Mirzoeff offers, is up to the reader.
Each chapter yields snapshot vignettes of information that average 10 pages each. These snapshots dive deep into focused fields of thinking — so deep the reader might feel they need to come up for air between each chapter in order to process the complex ideas that the contributors present. Having been originally published in a series, the interviews have lost a bit of their zing in the transition — when every issue is The Issue, when the refugee crisis must rival the Black Lives Matter movement — it can become emotionally exhausting to muster the same levels of empathy chapter-to-chapter.
Alternatively, the views into such specific fields allow for a strong collective work. The works of each contributor create a laundry list too extensive for the average reader to tackle. But by providing a consolidated work, it exposes the reader to a variety of shaded and well-researched arguments that they might simply not get to. While the reading is unapologetically jargon-laced, its pop culture references to recent relevant work, such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, help to soften the blow.
Brad Evans writes, “Music like Lamar’s doesn’t give us answers, but it allows us to ask the right questions, and it does this with a historical and political sensibility suffused with intelligence, wit, and verve.” Lamar’s album attempts to offer an intelligent critique of violence within his community, while still maintaining a strong, global audience. True to Evans’s point, Lamar has succeeded in starting conversations about violence around the world with his art, inciting change, and winning a Pulitzer for his efforts.
The diversity of contributors to the collection helps to give a broad-yet-specific view of violence. By taking the views of experts in their respective fields — renowned visual artists mixed with top professors, accomplished musicians, and visionary directors — the reader immerses themselves into a complex and worthy world of thought. There is dissension within the contributors’ respective chapters, and that is part of what makes the work so stimulating.
But while Violence offers a carefully articulated examination of violence by analyzing the historical, global, and systemic factors of today, oftentimes the goal of the message is lost in the work’s intensely academic jargon. Its message is tailored to the educated, the woke, and the high-brow, to the detriment of those of us who prefer plain English.
When speaking of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a professor in the humanities at Columbia University, offers compete mush.
At best, they are ad hoc workers picking up the slack for a neo-liberal state whose managerial ethos cannot be strong on redistribution, and where structural constitutional resistance by citizens cannot be effective in the face of an unconstituted “rule of law” operating, again, to protect the efficiency of global capital growth.
What Spivak means is that when entrepreneurs swoop in to participate in global humanitarianism, it’s ultimately to protect capitalism in their own self-interest. A point certainly worth making, but her excruciating language gate-keeps a broad audience from understanding her point. Many other contributors in the collection, especially the professors, struggle with a similar problem.
That’s not to say that every interview is written as if paid by the word. Cary Wolfe, a professor of English and the director of the 3CT Center for Critical and Cultural Theory at Rice University, targets jargon in a passage about animal rights when he says, “If you’re talking to a state legislature about strengthening laws for animal abuse cases […] you better be able to use a different vocabulary and different rhetorical tools if you want to make good on your ethical commitments.” Wolfe points out that necessary arguments can be negated when the audience is unable or unwilling to understand. Many of the Violence writers should be kept far from the campaign trail.
Certainly, this is not a feel-good read. Evans makes it clear in the introduction that we must tackle intolerances to overtake them. There is a sense of fatigue in some of the contributors’ candid thoughts, as well as a lack of belief in institutional change in its current incarnation. However, passion roars through every chapter, and while it can be difficult to trudge through such disconcerting subject matter so consistently, there is an overall tone of reluctant but relentless hope. Perhaps Alfredo Jaar, a Chilean-born visual artist, architect, writer, curator, and filmmaker based in New York, captures it best when he says, “I remain pessimistic, but retain the slightest of hopes.”
This book delivers on what it promises, which is an achievement. Art has the capacity to change the world, and as artists, all we can do is try. Though we have different goals, we’re all just shouting to an unknown audience, much like a drunk prophet on a mountain, hoping to hear a comforting voice on the other side.