Histories of Violence: The Violence of Absent Emergencies

By Adrian ParrAugust 26, 2019

Histories of Violence: The Violence of Absent Emergencies
THIS IS THE 32nd in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Santiago Zabala, who is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Santiago is the author of many books, including, most recently, Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency (2017). He has written for the Guardian, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera. His forthcoming book is Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts (2020).


ADRIAN PARR: In your work on emergency, you formulate an important distinction between emergencies and the absence of emergency. Can you explain what you mean by this and how some “emergencies” function as a displacement activity away from addressing the most pressing emergencies of our time?

SANTIAGO ZABALA: First of all, Adrian, thank you for inviting me to participate in this great series of interviews that Brad Evans began years ago. Speaking of violence is, as I will try to explain, also an absent emergency, itself considering how framed our world has become, how predetermined by the politics of control. The distinction you point out is vital to understand both the daily, now almost commonplace emergencies as well as the greatest emergency, which literally concerns our existence. In order to illustrate the difference, it is useful to recall how states of “exception” or “emergency” become a central concept in contemporary culture, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In State of Exception, Giorgio Agamben, using the previous investigations of Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, manages to elucidate a central concept for understanding and interpreting global politics after President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The declaration of a state of exception, according to Agamben, not only discloses the performative expression of state power but also forecloses any possibility of meaningful democratic politics. Almost 20 years later, another American president embodies the political predicament of our epoch. Donald Trump will not be remembered, as Bush is, for exercising extralegal powers to transform the “state of emergency” into routine political measures but rather for denying pressing emergencies altogether. Trump incarnates a condition where “the greatest emergency has become the absence of emergencies.” Among the numerous emergencies that Trump conceals, climate change is certainly the most shocking, as your own work illustrates, but his indifference toward civil and human rights has also created outrage. But how are we to interpret this shift, from “states of emergency” to “absence of emergency”?

The problem is that the ongoing and repeated invocation of a state of emergency “blocks the representation of what is unintelligible or resistant to political theorization,” as Emily Apter recently suggested. But it also creates an inability to respond to an ongoing global call to order and a return to “realism,” which is promoted by right-wing populist politicians (Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini), and “new realist” intellectuals (Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Sommers). The difference between Agamben’s and my theory is that I find that the absence of emergencies is not simply the result of particular sovereign decisions but rather of our framed global order, which is a system of control over the emergence of emergencies into the sphere of popular and political action. This does not imply that the world is not full of emergencies that we hear of and watch government responses to every day. Rather, the greatest emergency today is that despite being the focus of mainstream news and popular alarm, many of these are still ignored, overlooked, or rejected from the arena of action. The “absence of emergency” does not refer to the “sovereign who decides on the exceptional case” (as Agamben would have it) but rather to the abandonment of Being or existence in favor of beings and calculation (though this does include the decisions of a sovereign). If a sovereign can declare a state of exception or emergency, then the epoch’s metaphysical condition — the abandonment of Being — is its greatest emergency. For too long we have been “rescued from emergencies,” told that we are saved by temporary fixes that ignore the greatest emergency, when in fact we ought to be “rescued into emergencies.” This should be our intellectual responsibility in the 21st century.

The ongoing refugee crisis is a good example as it is intrinsically related to climate change. We are told in Europe that mass migration is a result of political instability in the Middle East, but its increase in the 21st century is caused by climate change, which has become the leading cause of migration. The greatest emergency is not the refugees approaching Europe now — though this humanitarian crisis must certainly be addressed, contrary to the policies of many right-wing European governments — but rather the absence of a plan to address its causes, which ultimately lie in the global capitalist system that has caused and refuses to address climate change. As you can see, there is a substantial difference between the stated “emergency” (the arrival of refugees) and the absent emergency (the causes: the environmental crisis and global capitalism).

How might the Gianni Vattimo’s idea of pensiero debole, or weak thought, equip us with the theoretical resources needed to critically address the myriad forms of violence taking place in the world today — violence against immigrants, women, nonhuman species, the natural world, the economic violence global capitalism inflicts, and the multiple wars being waged between both state and nonstate actors? Can the concept of pensiero debole, provide us with new ways of imagining and living life, a life that is more inclusive and caring?

The concept of violence is central to understanding weak thought, which emerged as a response to the Italian Red Brigades’ violence of the 1970s. Actually, 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of Gianni Vattimo’s idea, which he first presented in a conference in 1979 and later developed with other thinkers, such as Pier Aldo Rovatti, Umberto Eco, and Richard Rorty. As Vattimo explains in his autobiography, at the end of ’70s — when the Red Brigades were “killing people at the rate of one per day” and also threatened to kill him — some of his arrested students wrote letters from prison that were, in his view, full of a “metaphysical and violent rhetorical subjectivity” that he could accept neither morally nor philosophically. This is when he noticed that the “Nietzschean superman revolutionary subject,” who was central for many French and Italian philosophers at the time, had been misinterpreted and could not be identified with the students’ “Leninist revolutionary subject.” Weak thought came to life not out of fear of terrorism but as a response to the terrorist interpretation of the emerging Italian democratic left, in other words, as a recognition of the unacceptability of the Red Brigades’ violence.

If weak thought can equip us with theoretical resources to critically address the myriad forms of violence taking place in the world today, it’s because — unlike other philosophical positions, such as analytic philosophy or new realism — it has not developed into an organized system. Systematization always entails and expresses violence through metaphysical impositions, aiming to submit all phenomena to the measures, standards, and agendas of the thought system. The duty of the philosopher, according to weak thought, no longer participates in the metaphysical agenda of guiding humanity to understanding the Eternal. Rather, it is to follow a logic of resistance meant to promote a progressive weakening of the strong and violent structures of metaphysics. Thus, weakening, like deconstruction, does not search for correct solutions wherein thought may finally come to a halt but rather seeks theoretical emancipation from absolute truth and other concepts that frame and restrict the possibilities of new existential horizons.

The “more inclusive and caring life” you refer to is manifest in weak thought’s attention to the weak, that is, everything that is discharged from and exists at the margins of our framed democracies. These democracies have been building walls — not just the ones on borders (of the United States, Israel, India) but also, as Mike Davis explains, “epistemological walls” — in order to increase indifference toward the weak. This indifference is simply a symptom of fear, fear of the possibility of emancipation that the weak imply. I’m certain this is the reason why George W. Bush honored John Searle — a thinker who calls for philosophy’s submission to science. The “thought of the weak” is always striving for interpretation, that is, to resist the annihilation of existence.

Why do you turn to hermeneutics, a philosophy of interpretation, and in particular the combination of a hermeneutic communism, as one way to effectively challenge the many emergencies taking place around the world?

Hermeneutics is the philosophy of weak thought. It is through interpretation that we weaken the forces that promulgate the violence I mention earlier. In order to explain this, it is necessary to understand that hermeneutics in the 21st century cannot be reduced to a philosophical discipline, such as aesthetics, nor to a philosophical school, such as phenomenology. There is more at stake in the process of interpretation, which transcends Hans-Georg Gadamer’s disciplinary parameters and school ambitions. The world of hermeneutics is not an “object” that can be observed from different points of view and that offers various interpretations. It is a thought-world in continuous movement. If this world does not reveal itself to the perceptions of human beings as a continuous narrative, it’s not simply because this is an age of alternative facts. Rather, this reticence emerges because we are not passive describers. As engaged performers, we must always strive — through interpretation — for freedom. We have inherited from Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur a philosophical stance that is continuously overcoming itself, whose applications and consequences these thinkers could not have foreseen. While some philosophers consider the recent feminist, political, and environmental developments in hermeneutics to be foreign to their philosophical projects, others find connections to their thought. I believe the revolutionary role that interpretation had in major social and political events (Luther’s translation of the Bible, Freud’s psychoanalytic approach, or Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions) did not emerge from its dialogical ambitions but rather from its anarchic vein, which is present throughout its history. Interpretation is like a virus, a spreading and self-replicating antagonistic resistance to those who would impose universal “methods” or “ideals.” This is why we came up with the idea of “hermeneutic communism.”

Unlike other contemporary Marxists, we sought (in Hermeneutic Communism and Making Communism Hermeneutical) to outline a “weakened communism,” one free of the violent connotations of historical communism in its Russian-Soviet realization. With the global triumph of capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism lost both its effective power and any ability to justify those metaphysical claims that characterized its original Marxist formulation as the ideal of development, which inevitably also draws toward a logic of war. Today, these same ideals and a logic based on eternal growth characterize and guide our framed democracies. The weakened communism we are left with in the 21st century does not aspire to construct a perfect state — another Soviet Union — but instead proposes democratic models of social resistance outside the intellectual paradigms that dominated classical Marxism. Unlike other contemporary Marxist theorists, we do not believe that the 21st century calls for revolution because the forces of the politics of descriptions (as opposed to interpretation) are too powerful, violent, and oppressive to be overcome through a parallel insurrection: only a weak and weakening thought like hermeneutics can avoid violent ideological revolts and therefore protect the weak from violent suppression.

Hermeneutic communism can challenge the global emergency because it refers to an emergency, the idea of communism, that should not have returned. Slavoj Žižek is right when he suggests that communism “today is not the name of a solution but the name of a problem.” When social movements in South America elected their own representatives (Morales, Chávez, and many others) in order to defend the weak and apply much-needed social reforms, it became clear that an alteration of classical Marxism was possible. Although the progressive Latin American leaders never called themselves “communists,” much less “hermeneutic communists,” they put in place communist initiatives that proved much better at defending their economies, as Oliver Stone, Tariq Ali, and many others reported. And they supported hermeneutic pluralities, such as the recognition of indigenous and environmental rights. What is extraordinary today is that this inception of radical hermeneutic democracy and social communist initiatives has a chance to reach Europe and the United States. I do not mean the Indignados or Occupy movements but rather the possible instantiations of these movements into political parties, such as Podemos in Spain and what Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are trying to do with the Democratic Party in the United States.

You have developed a powerful argument for why only art can save us, in a book by the same name. In what way do you think art practices are well positioned to expose the very absence of emergency that you speak of?

If, as Friedrich Hölderlin said, “[W]here the danger is, also grows the saving power,” we must find ways to experience this danger, that is, the greatest emergency. Art, like communism, can thrust us into absent emergencies. I consider art and communism attempts to disclose what I like to call the remains of Being. This does not mean that visual art and communism have lost their traditional semantic meaning as aesthetic and political concepts, but they are vital for the emergence of Being, which is philosophy’s goal. While I think the idea of communism has much to offer, art practices today are closer to our emergencies, in particular the greatest emergencies. This is evident in the ongoing turn from “relational” to “emergency” works of art or aesthetic theories and in artists’ inevitable participation in global matters. Although the art world, like religious and political establishments, is also a system with hierarchies and frames, it has been affected by globalization in a different way, one that through actual exchange lets works emerge for different purposes and in unusual settings.

This is evident in the different experiences of art in art fairs and in biennials: in the rigid art fairs, the viewer contemplates valuable objects, but in the biennials the members of the audience all take responsibility for an experience that concerns everyone. As Caroline Jones recently explained, it “is the emphasis on events and experiences, rather than objects, that constitute[s] the surprising legacy of biennial culture.” The fact that the latest trend in biennials, which have increased markedly in these past decades, is to offer these experiences in such remote places as Antarctica and the Californian desert is an indication that globalized art demands global interventions from artists and audiences. The “globalization of the art world,” as Arthur Danto once said, “means that art addresses us in our humanity,as men and women who seek in art for meanings that neither of art’s peers — philosophy and religion — in what Hegel spoke of as the realm of Absolute Spirit, are able to provide.”

The artists who seek to expose these meanings today are the ones whose works demand our intervention in masked and hidden global emergencies, emergencies that are concealed in the idea of their absence. This is evident in Pekka Niittyvirta and Timo Aho’s installation of rising sea levels, Josh Kline’s Unemployment exhibition, or Eva and Franco Mattes’s “dark web” installations. These artists demand we intervene in environmental, social, and technological emergencies that we have not been able to confront because of the commonplace emergencies cited by the political return to order and realism I mentioned earlier. The same work of thrusting us into emergency is present in such aesthetic theories as Malcolm Miles’s “eco-aesthetics,” Jill Bennett’s “practical aesthetics,” and Veronica Tello’s “counter-memorial aesthetics,” where environmental, terrorism, and refugee emergencies play central roles. The goal of these works is not to rescue us from emergencies but rather to rescue us into absent emergencies, an absence that is at the origin of violence today.


Adrian Parr is an Australian-born philosopher and cultural critic, a professor, and the dean of the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Arlington, in the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex, and serves a UNESCO water chair. She is the author of a trilogy that is composed of Birth of a New Earth: The Radical Politics of Environmentalism (Columbia University Press, 2017); The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics (Columbia University Press 2014); and Hijacking Sustainability (MIT Press, 2009). Her webpage can be found here.

LARB Contributor

Adrian Parr is the dean of the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Arlington in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and she has served as a UNESCO water chair. She has published several books, the most recent being Birth of a New Earth (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics (Columbia University Press, 2013).


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