Histories of Violence: Visual Violence

January 3, 2022   •   By Brad Evans

THIS IS THE 55th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Roland Bleiker, professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland. His latest book is Visual Global Politics (Routledge, 2018).

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BRAD EVANS: Much of your pioneering work has been to really impress the importance of imagery and aesthetics when thinking about global politics. What is it about this sense of image consciousness that commands your attention?

ROLAND BLEIKER: Thanks so much for the opportunity to discuss the politics of aesthetics with you. I have for long been reading — and enjoying — your interviews here with some of the most insightful thinkers, from Elaine Scarry to Saskia Sassen. Perhaps I can start by flagging two broad aspects that explain why I have for so long been preoccupied with visuals and with aesthetics more generally.

The first is the use of visuals as an inspiration to rethink entrenched political problems. I work in a discipline — international relations — that has been very narrowly conceived. This is at least how I experienced it when I started over three decades ago: disciplinary conventions largely limited the study of international phenomena to the interaction of states and to the use of social scientific methods. I wanted to look at other phenomena — practices of transnational dissent, for instance — and use a wider set of methods to understand them.

Aesthetic sources — from art to literature and music — offered me a way to re-view, re-hear, re-feel, and rethink entrenched political dilemmas: from war, development, and diplomacy, to resistance and reconciliation. This is something I explored in my book Aesthetics and World Politics, and I know you have done so too in your work, most recently in Ecce Humanitas. 

But art can, of course, also be political itself. I collaborated with some of my former PhD students and colleagues — Nilanjana Premaratna and Mark Chou, for instance — to explore how art is used in peacebuilding processes to open up dialogues and develop empathy among former enemies.

My second form of aesthetic engagement has been more specific and explored how the visual has come to play an increasingly important role in our lives and in international relations in general. We often hear that we live in a visual age: that our world revolves more and more around images. I’m not entirely sure if this is the case, in part because visuality is not new, of course. But there are, for sure, significant recent changes in how the visual functions politically. For one, images circulate with ever greater speed, which leads to what Paul Virilio and David Harvey once called time-space compression: situations in which the “here-and-now” matters as much — if not more — than the “where.” Images can go viral and become instantaneous global phenomena. Then there is, of course, the now-widespread ability of people to take photographs and circulate them. As recently as two decades ago, when the so-called CNN effect preoccupied scholarly commentators, only major media networks had the power to circulate images. Today almost everyone can take a photograph of a video clip on a mobile phone and circulate it via social media.

The result is a complete transformation of how images are created and circulated and, as a result, how they become politically meaningful and important. The issues at stake are, in my view, far too complex to be investigated by one person alone. This is why I spent a considerable amount of time and effort to bring together over 50 scholars from different disciplines to explore how images as well as visual artifacts and performances shape international politics.

The result was my book on Visual Global Politics, which covers a wide range of visual sources — from photography, film, cartoons, and video games, to maps, monuments, fashion, and drone/satellite images — to explore several dozen specific political phenomena, such as violence, colonialism, borders, human rights, famine, finance, religion, security, and refugees.

To my estimation at least, one of the defining characteristics of political violence is the need for an effective audience. By this I mean there is a need to acknowledge how the witnessing of its occurrence is integral to how the violence is able to communicate something that is even greater than the violence itself. As a critical theorist, what concerns you the most when it comes to how we perceive violence?

Absolutely, yes: the issue of communication — and the audience — is key when trying to understand how visuality and violence are linked.

What comes to mind immediately is the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. As I flagged recently when contributing to your Los Angeles Review of Books forum on “When the Towers Fell,” visuality was at the core of the attack. To be effective, terrorism has to do more than just kill people: it has to inflict fear in those who experience the event and, perhaps more importantly, in those who witness it from a distance. This is why 9/11 was designed as a visual event and as a media spectacle: so that images could capture, circulate, and multiply the intended political message.

Perhaps we can speak of violent visuals here: of a form of visual violence that insinuates itself into our collective consciousness and continues to shape — sometimes for years or even decades — how we feel and think about the world and, by extension, how our politics takes shape.

What concerns me in particular about how we perceive visual violence, like 9/11, are the political attitudes and policies that emerge in response. In the immediate aftermath of the terror attack, a strong discourse of “us” versus “them” emerged, particularly in the US. Emotive images — and the narratives that accompanied them — framed political discussions such that a military response came to be seen as the most logical and perhaps even only legitimate response to the attack. Today we know that the ensuing policies were highly problematic and only led to more violence, but at the time the public discourse — framed by ever-present emotive images — was such that critique could be dismissed as unpatriotic and even as unethical.

This is why it is crucial to keep alive a critical engagement with the process of visual representation: an ongoing endeavor to question how we — as collectives — depict an event like 9/11 and what political consequences follow from these depictions. We need to be conscious of what we see and what we don’t: how certain visual and verbal narratives have come to dominate our collective memory and how these narratives have shaped both our political practices and the possibilities we have to transform these practices and create a better future.

This is where scholars, and critical scholars in particular, can provide policy relevant work. They can show us a way out of the vicious cycle of visual violence. My colleague and long-term collaborator, Emma Hutchison, has explored how emotionally charged visual representations of traumatic events can generate very different political responses. In some instances, as in the case of 9/11, trauma precipitated the emergence of insular political communities that pitch a safe inside against a threatening outside. Such political responses are often accompanied by new forms of conflict and violence, as illustrated by the wave of terrorist attacks that accompanied the War on Terror.

But Hutchison, in her book Affective Communities in World Politics, shows that there are other options too: that traumatic events can lead to collective dynamics that are more transformative and less likely to spiral into more violence. Here too visual representations play a key role because they shape how individuals and collectives perceive of and respond to traumatic events. Hutchison illustrates this potential to break cycles of violence in two cases: the sense of solidarity that emerged in the wake of the Southeast Asian tsunami disaster of 2004 and the work conducted by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Understanding and breaking through these cycles of visual violence inevitably compels us to theorize questions of agency — something that is not easy if one embraces, as I do, a post-structural appreciation of the power of discourses to frame and shape how we view and act in the world. This is a dilemma that I have grappled with from the beginning of my scholarly journey, starting with my first book on Popular Dissent, Human Agency and Global Politics. I still believe we can do both: accept that discursive forces, including visual ones, subconsciously condition our perceptions of the world and, at the same time, recognize that we are not helplessly dominated by them; that we have the ability to make some choices and shape our individual and collective responses to political events.

Grappling with representations of violence is a key part of this challenge to reinsert agency into philosophical and political discussions and into shaping particular policy responses. But the notion of agency we need here is different from prevailing ways of understanding the issues at stake. We would certainly need to go beyond causal ways of understanding agency and explore, with Jacques Rancière, how alterations in the distribution of the sensible can open up new ways of seeing and feeling the world around us. With this also emerge new possibilities for conceptualizing and engaging the political challenges we face. This is one of many reasons why I have for so long tried to understand how visuals and emotions shape our perception of and involvement in politics.

I’d like to push you further on these relationships between the visual and the emotional. Artists, of course, have long since understood the connections here, which invariably took theorists some time to catch up with! Yet while the emotional field has promised to liberate us from the doldrums of reason and rationality, there are inevitable dangers that occur when politics collapses fully into the emotional field. How might we better learn from history here in terms of thinking about these connections?

Yes, indeed, it took theorists a while to catch up with artists in recognizing the extensive links between visuality and emotions. And it took international relations scholars even longer to catch up with what other fields — from sociology to psychology and philosophy — have long recognized: that emotions are far more than the individual and irrational phenomena that they were stereotypically held to be. For far too long we have dismissed the power of emotions in politics. But there are meanwhile countless studies that show how emotions as diverse as fear, anger, and empathy shape all dimensions of politics, from diplomatic negotiations to financial crises. There are, equally, numerous studies that explore how pre- and subconscious affective forces influence our views of the world before and beyond our ability to recognize and articulate the exact entanglement of emotions and politics. I have sought to make sense of these challenges over the past decade or so through several collaborative projects with Emma Hutchison. And you have, of course, explored the topic in several of your fascinating interviews here, as for instance with Brian Massumi, whose work has been influential in our understanding of how affect works.

I am, however, less worried about a collapse into some kind of emotional abyss. I think it is important to recognize what neuroscientists have pointed out for quite some time: that emotions and reason are inevitably intertwined. Our brains do not have a capacity to reason that is somehow separate from how we feel. All of our cognitive and seemingly rational judgments always already contain emotional elements. We cannot strip our politics from the traces of affect that underlie our perceptions and social interactions.

I think the more important issue is how emotions, visuality, and power are intertwined. Take, as an example, the much-discussed and problematized recent turn toward a so-called post-truth world. Yes, the entire Trump presidency cannot be understood without paying close attention to how emotions were manipulated and shaped political discussions. And, yes, the ensuing public debates often produced certain truth claims that had no bases in facts and could not be empirically validated. The ensuing political clashes might have been dramatic, but they were not fundamentally new: politicians in all parts of the world have for so long — consciously or subconsciously — sought to manipulate collective emotions in an effort to gain popular support. The ability to do so effectively has been the source of success for many political campaigns, not just those that rely on a populist rhetoric.

This is why I think the more pertinent issue is about who has the power to articulate and gain support for certain truth claims, no matter how far-fetched and distorted these claims are. Simply refuting such claims is not enough to understand and address the political challenges at stake. Here too, visuality plays a key role, particularly in an age of social media that revolves around the circulation of still and moving images, from film and photographs to cartoons and memes. Much has been made, of course, of Trump’s emotionally charged use of Twitter and his ability to capture an audience beyond those covered by conventional media. Paying attention to the ensuing dynamics — and the emotional dimensions involved — is crucial when trying to understand why certain truth claims gain recognition even when not based on factual evidence.

Along the same lines, we need to pay closer attention to representations of violence and how they, too, imbue certain actions with power and, in doing so, foreclose a range of alternative options to address political challenges. The issues at stake have been nicely outlined in your interview with Richard Jackson, whose work is part of a larger effort to make us understand that pacifism — and nonviolence in general — is far more powerful that commonly understood. This is why it is crucial to problematize widespread representations of violence and not just those that are obvious, such as media obsessions with depictions of war, terrorism, and crime, but also those aspects of our visual culture that entrench, in a concealed but powerful manner, manifestations of structural violence. I think here, in particular, of gender- and race-based systems of exclusion and the violence entailed in maintaining them.

It is of course tempting to argue that the more our societies are inundated by representations of violence, the more sensitized we become to its forced witnessing. And yet we also know that what is seen is highly mediated through aesthetic regimes for truth and denial. Indeed, I often find myself in agreement with Jacques Rancière when he claims we don’t actually witness enough of the raw realities of violence. How would you respond to these claims of oversaturation when it comes to human suffering?

Yes, I very much agree with your portrayal here. It is very tempting, as Susan Sontag, Susan Moeller, and others have argued, that we are so saturated with images of violence and suffering that we have no choice but to either turn our gaze away or become so desensitized that we are no longer able to feel empathy. I think it might be more accurate to speak of media fatigue, as my long-term collaborator David Campbell has done: to recognize that most people do, indeed, have the ability to witness violence and feel for victims, but that the logic of the media shifts the gaze from one crisis to the next. This shift has far more to do with commercial interests of the media than the attention span of viewers and their ability to feel compassion for those less fortunate. This media-driven dynamic poses serious challenges to our moral and political obligation to grapple with the problem of political violence.

Perhaps I can illustrate the issues at stake with reference to the main research project I am involved in at the moment, one that deals with the political and ethical challenge of Visualizing Humanitarian Crises. We address the following dilemma.

We know that prevailing visualizations of humanitarian crises are highly problematic. This is the case as much with media representations as with the kind of visuals that humanitarian organizations tend to employ. We know that news coverage tends to focus on violent events, rather than on more positive ones. This so-called negativity bias warps out collective perceptions and might prevent us from pursuing innovative solution to political problems.

We also know that many prevailing images of crises depict victims in the Global South in stereotypically gendered and racialized ways: as passive victims, void of agency and dependent on the generosity of and the assistance from the developed world. These neocolonial depictions entrench stereotypical perceptions and make it difficult to offer genuine humanitarian collaboration that is based on respect and on optimizing local capacities and solutions.

Here too we might speak of visual violence — although the violence here is of a more structural nature.

While humanitarian organizations are acutely aware of the problems associated with such visual violence, they are often reluctant to radically depart form prevailing visualizations of crises. This is the case because they know that stereotypical images — depictions of a starving mother and child, for instance — evoke compassion in Western viewers and are thus ideal tools for the kind of fundraising campaigns that are central to the success of humanitarian engagements. Abandoning the use of stereotypical visuals — problematic as they are — would come with great risks and potentially undermined humanitarian work.

This is where our project comes in: we are attempting to explore how alternative visual representations of crises can offer less violent and more respectful and ethical depictions of crises — depictions that can nevertheless generate compassion in Western viewers and motivate them to support humanitarian campaigns.

We collaborate with four institutions that are committed to improving humanitarian communication and addressing, head-on, the above problem of visual violence: World Press Photo Foundation, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Australian Red Cross, and Médecins Sans Frontières.

The project brings together eight scholars and practitioners with expertise that ranges from international relations, photojournalism, and social psychology, to Indigenous and decolonial politics.

Collaborating with a fairly large number of scholars is something that is not traditionally done in the realm of politics, where single-authored work remains the hallmark of scholarly contributions. But I find that some of the key challenges of our day — including that of visual violence — are simply too complex for one person to engage comprehensively.

I learn far more by collaborating with colleagues who come from different backgrounds and who constantly challenge the kind of certainties I have taken for granted. This is why, for instance, we work with scholars who explicitly embrace decolonial and Indigenous approaches. And this is why we bring together academics and practitioners as well as scholars who employ both qualitative and quantitative methods.

I have for a long time tried to make a case for the use of such pluralist methods in the study of visual politics. Doing so inevitably poses a range of challenges, in part because it would entail giving up on a unitary standard of evidence, which violates social scientific conventions; in part because it almost invariably involves working in teams. Few of us have the methodological skills to competently employ methods that range from semiotics and discourse analysis to survey experiments.

It is precisely the combination of different visual methods, incompatible as they may seem, that offers the best chance to understand — and transform — the complex links between visuality, violence, and politics. Combining different methods also makes us constantly aware of our own contingent standpoint and, with that, cultivates a certain level of self-reflectiveness that is key to a critical understanding of the political.

I hope that in a couple of years I can report back to you and offer more concrete results from this project. For now, I very much appreciate the chance to flag some of the key challenges we face and hope that doing so contributes to finding new ways of understanding and breaking cycles of visual violence.

To conclude, I would like to ask your thoughts on the visuality of peace. It has been repeated to the point of monotony that politics today suffers from a crisis of the imagination. How can we overcome this by mobilizing better the power of aesthetics, and do you remain optimistic about such possibilities?

Despite the recent and worrying return to authoritarian politics around the world, I remain an optimist and I remain particularly optimistic about the power of aesthetics to offer glimpses of — and ways toward — alternative political possibilities. I am often reminded here of my colleague and friend, the late Alex Danchev, who passionately believed that “contrary to popular belief, it is given to artists, not politicians, to create a new world order.” I think Danchev was right when urging us to recognize and explore how works of the imagination can help us address some of the most pressing political themes of our times. Art — in all of its various manifestations — can help us see the world anew, help us notice things that were not there before, and, in doing so, challenge problematic assumptions we had taken for granted.

All this has me return to themes we discussed at the beginning of this interview: those related to aesthetics, politics, and of human agency. For me, aesthetic politics is all about finding new ways of seeing and understanding the world. It is about re-viewing, re-feeling, and re-hearing the world in a way that opens up possibilities for a better world. This is, ultimately, why I am a teacher and a writer: I see these activities as a form of activism. It is not the kind of activism that revolves around battles in the street, nor does it aim to achieve immediate change. Rather, it is a kind of activism aimed at incremental change: an everyday form of resistance that gradually contributes to how we — as collectives — view and internalize the world around us.

From such an artist-writer-activist perspective, peace is not an end-state. There will always be conflict and there will always be violence, no matter what we do. But this does not mean we need to accept all of the injustices that happen around us, nor does it mean that we are powerless in opposing them. The world never stands still. We know we can influence our surroundings, even if it is only one small step at a time, and whether this is about making a difference in our mundane daily lives or about contributing to the gradual transformation of the larger sociopolitical structures in which we are embedded.

An important part of this ongoing struggle is to recognize that we not only need to understand and transform societal norms but also to reflect critically on our own values and prejudices. Much of the scholarly movement on aesthetic politics, for instance, remains embedded in Western practices and the assumptions embedded in them. We are a long way from decolonizing the respective scholarly and practical engagements. Numerous non-Western traditions contain aesthetic insights that could provide us with new ways of understanding and engaging the world. In my own work, I have primarily tried to do this over the past 35 years by engaging and learning from scholars and sources in Korea and the Asia-Pacific region in general. But I am aware of how inadequate these efforts are and that decolonizing my own mind is an ongoing process. This is why, as you point out, the key challenge is to fight the crises of imagination that surround us and to collectively search for innovative ways to draw on the creative power of aesthetics to construct a better world.

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Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.