Histories of Violence: Unlearning History

THIS IS THE 37th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, a theorist of photography and visual culture. She is a professor of Modern Culture and Media and the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University. Her most recent book is Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019).


BRAD EVANS: I’d like to begin by congratulating you on the publication of your latest book, which I understand took over 10 years to bring together. It offers a remarkably rich and evocative history on the problem of violence and the importance of engaging aesthetics. With this in mind, can you explain what exactly you are implying with the title “Potential History” and how it allows us to have a more considered appreciation of the history of European colonization, especially the concerning forces of plunder and what you specifically identify to be the global scope of imperial violence?

ARIELLA AÏSHA AZOULAY: Thank you, Brad, indeed 10 years. Let me start by saying that the book doesn’t offer a history but rather a potential history of this violence. The imperial project that started in the late 15th century invented history as we know it today. History became one of imperialism’s most powerful reproductive mechanisms, since we all — scholars and non-scholars alike — work within its timelines and knowledge formations.

History is premised on three principles. First, linear temporality — concretized by the historical timeline — that makes the past into the sealed province of the archive. With the assistance of documents testifying to people’s categorizations as “slaves,” “refugees,” “citizens,” or the “undocumented,” people are made captives of the past. Imperial violence is said to be over, held only in the past, preventing those whose worlds have been destroyed from seeking reparations and insisting that imperial violence is still occurring. When these people do refuse to comply with the technologies that maintain this worldview, they are punished for their unruliness. Even more, history’s temporality makes scholars believe that anti-imperial struggles are part of this past and can only be their objects of research, and that the people who led them belong to the past, even though many of them surround us. Sealing anticolonial formations and imaginations in the past is a constitutive thread of imperial violence that prevents people from acting in common with others across generations and places, and from seeing the existence of refusal wherever and whenever imperialism imposes its technologies.

Second is the invention of the document as a distinct ontological entity. Scholars are trained to read documents through which numerous worlds and cosmologies have been destroyed and declared gone. This is called “reading history” and finding “historical facts.” Scholars look after documents like after precious gold, because imperialism impaired their capacity to challenge its mechanisms without being assisted by documents. Historians cannot lodge proof without the proof of an archive, and thus they rely on the primary imperial object to challenge imperialism itself. Being allowed the liberty to interpret documents differently — to offer a new interpretation, to “read against the grain,” doesn’t change the documents’ role as ammunition to keep racial capitalism and imperialism as unstoppable.

Third is the invention of the “new” as a catalyzer of history itself. Imperial history is the endless pursuit of the “new” — new world, new order, new man, new humanism, new markets, new resources, new styles, new technologies, new resources, new timeline entry, new everything. Seeking the “new,” of course, involves clearing away people who stand in the way of imperial progress. The “new” is harmful also because it has the power to fragment families and communities by installing a generational “gap” that had not before existed, manifested in the capacity or incapacity of different members to handle “new” technologies and to catch up with their time.

I am particularly struck by this fascination with the new, which seems to be the author of so much brutality in the name of enlightened progress. How does your understanding of potential history offer something different to this imperial search to claim what’s newly formed (which in itself seems to be essential to preventing a meaningful critique of historical processes)? 

Given these three principles on which history is premised, potential history is an attempt to relate differently to what was made past, and to act in common — as if we shared the same time-space unit — with those who refused the initial dispossession forced on the world in 1492. Potential history is an attempt to disable the power of political concepts, institutions, and practices that relegate people’s lived experience to the past, and to engage with these concepts not as given categories but as subject to people’s actions, aspirations, promises. Potential history is the insistence that though people failed to stop imperialism’s imposition in various places and moments, it doesn’t mean that their rights — or ours — to still oppose it are gone forever.

Potential history is about recovering these rights, from each and every moment of imperial violence. Not only the right to oppose it, but also to renew and resume the opportunities and options that imperial history sought to foreclose in the past and that have been denied to the next generations. In other words, potential history is about saying that the violent world imperialism imposed is still reversible.

An example: The destruction of Palestine in 1948 and the imposition of the state apparatus of Jewish supremacy as a fait accompli. The fact that scholars collaborated with this violence and determined that Palestine had been destroyed forever should not keep us from claiming the opposite. Palestine is not the name of an enemy; Palestine is the name of a life-world that was impaired, and its inhabitants and expelled inhabitants have the right to reclaim the promise of their ancestors to protect the shared life in this place against nationalists of both sides. This is discussed in the book in the section on civil alliances in Palestine.

I have been following your work for some considerable time, notably your critique of photography as a medium for understanding the contestable truths of war. In your latest study, you identify the camera as being an imperial tool, which was integral to the colonial imaginary. Can you explain what you mean by this? And how should we think about photography today?

Unlearning imperialism, as the subtitle of the book indicates, is a very long process, and maybe not unsurprisingly, the more you unlearn, the more there is to unlearn. It requires the unlearning of almost every word that stands for a set of procedures and institutional norms that were imperially shaped. So rather than jumping to discuss “war” and “photography,” I have to start by refusing the term “war” as something that delineates imperial violence as between two equal sides in a discrete period of time, and of photography as a device-based technology whose origins are associated with the invention of a certain modern device. The imperial violence exercised under the umbrella of “war” in 1945 and the violence of photography have not yet been redressed, and the survivors of massacres in Algeria or in Senegal perpetrated by the French, or the rape of German women by the Allied forces in 1945, are not over. So it is important to question the role “war” and “photography” played in the long run of imperial violence, confirmed with the help of international legal documents and treaties.

Thus, rather than studying images of war, or thinking of photographs as images contained within frames, I engage with photography on the one hand as an event, and on the other, as a global imperial technology of which those discrete events are part. This transforms the mode of engaging with the archive. No longer a depository that recruits us to explain what is and it not there (as in the academic discussion of “absences” or “traces”), the archive is an imperial technology that I refuse to operate. To think about photography as an event allows me to build unruly archives, intervene in documents and create placeholders where I know that photographs should have been taken. Either they were taken and made inaccessible (and in my archive they become inaccessible photographs) or they are untaken (and in my archive become untaken photographs). The book offers a different account of the ontology of the archive, of the photograph — and more broadly of the document — and of the scholar. With this ontology we are already practicing potential history.

For example: In April and May 1945, thousands of cameras were operating in Berlin where the mass rape of German women by the Allied soldiers took place. In the dozens of books published in the last decade on the year 1945, one can read only a few pages on this rape, and none of the thousands of photos printed in them seem to evoke this mass rape. Given the omnipresence of cameras, and the ubiquity of rape, the “absence” of images of rape is another symptom of the imperial ontology of photography that invites us to recognize violence as residing in the bodies of imperial victims. When we are trained to see photographs taken in Berlin, for example in 1945, and see in them only destroyed structures and buildings, we are made to believe that the violence of mass rape is absent from the archive. In asking myself how to reinscribe this mass rape in the photographic archive, I worked in three registers against the imperial discipline of the document: (a) locating cameras in space, and using them as placeholders of untaken photographs; (b) using textual descriptions retrieved from books that dedicate a few pages to the topic, and using them as captions that I print underneath blank squares I insert into those books; (c) using a diary account by an anonymous women, A Woman in Berlin, written during the rape as an index of the goings-on we can now infer in existing photographs. The diary was extremely helpful in reviewing the hundreds of available photographs of rubble in the streets, the porosity of the buildings, and the accessibility of sidewalks, as arenas of rape. When we understand that mass rape occurred in imperially destroyed urban spaces, spaces then used to impose “free market” democracy as the only possible political regime, we can now understand that in other environments destroyed in order for the export of democracy, the mass rape of women also took place.

One of the most evocative aspects of the book concerns what exactly is meant by “art” and how the term itself has distinct colonial connotations. What is it about “art” that troubles you, and how does it connect to your understanding of sovereignty as a form of engineering?

I explore the concept of “art” in the book alongside other terms such as “human rights,” “archives,” “museums,” and “sovereignty.” Though it is no secret that these terms are constitutive of the imperial project, they are still being used as transcendental categories. The status that these categories acquired facilitated the dissemination of their corresponding institutions: museum, archive, and academic disciplines. Let me illustrate this by looking at the museum, with its stated purpose as a treasury of precious objects from all times and places. These objects, many of which were actually plundered from different cultures, are assumed to be examples of art, even though they had different functions among the original communities that fabricated them. Yet when they are cleansed of the imprint of their use in their communities and posed on pedestals or behind glass vitrines, these objects that formed life-worlds now become “art.” It is this particular spatiality and temporality of the museum that invites the visitor to believe that by going to the museum she can study art in different places and times, as if art is art is art. The designation of “art” is one type of imperial violence.

Thus, even when the plunder of Egypt by Napoleon, for example, is discussed, the museum is assumed to have already been there — the site par excellence for art — waiting to receive the plundered objects. What my book shows is that museums did not preexist plundered objects; rather, their availability after being plundered enabled the creation of museums. These objects are subject to a double temporal violence: on the one hand they are described as newcomers to the space of the museum, and on the other they are relegated to a past that allow their description as “old” or “primitive,” part of “antiquity,” unfit for the modern category of art. Not only were they often contemporaneous to Western artists, but the latter were endowed with imperial rights to access them once they were placed in museums, and to take inspiration from their craft and art.

I was drawn to art museums during my high school years through the school curriculum. I became friend with objects. I loved them and the craft behind their fabrication, but this, I was taught, was not what “art” was. To identify modern art, one had to look for the non-handicraft sophistication, the critical stance, the hand of the social critic whose allegedly radical history and stance the art expresses. A certain social distinction is promised to those who get it right. This was appealing for me as a young person raised by parents who barely finished eight years of school. I could not know at that time that “getting it right” was an imperial bargain whose unlearning I would one day make the topic of my book. My fascination with modern art turned out to be a fascination with the bargain by which people are conscripted to the ideology of progress through art, as it moves from premodern to modern, modern to postmodern. The transition affirms the sameness of the category of art, cleansing what was plundered from the violence that made it initially available to be subsumed under the category of art. This bargain is one of many bargains implicating citizen-scholars, asking us to bracket the violence required to see art as an object of study and the scholar as an expert interpreter. This position of the scholar, or of the connoisseur of art, is inseparable from that of the imperial citizen.

To address museums’ looted wealth, people now speak of restitution. It is worth noting that unlearning art, museum, and sovereignty, as my book practices and advocates, involves also unlearning the categories that are used to right imperial wrongs. Imperial wrongs are not just about the restitution of property, to give objects back still as art to responsible museal experts in their native countries. This notion reproduces the imperial differentiation between people and objects that facilitated the plunder and its naturalization, as well as the imperial category of art. While I’m in favor of restitution claims coming from people whose artifacts were plundered, I argue that other initiatives, predicated on the abolition of the imperial rights that enable the plunder, are also necessary. But in tandem with such claims, as experts and scholars with privileged access to such plundered wealth, we should call on museums to disown the objects they hold and invite those separated from them to engage with them differently than under museums’ protocols.

There are a number of powerful quotes that you draw upon in the book that relate to what we might refer to as the “killing of the will.” This points to something that takes us beyond single acts of slaughter, with annihilation being the denial of even the will to die in the face of extreme oppression. How do you understand this, especially the willingness to die for the freedom of others?

The book insists on a correlation between massacres, genocide, enslavement, and the forced migration of people, and the plunder of objects, their forced migrations and the concomitant attempt to murder their meanings. These two patterns of violence against people and objects enable each other. In a pre-imperial world, objects did not exist only as exchangeable commodities that could constantly migrate and be replaced by others. Objects were part of a world in which people recognized themselves, and in which their rights were inscribed through the fabrication of objects and the various types of relationships they had among and with them, rather than in official documents. Expropriating people from the artifacts in which their rights were inscribed and among which they were protected made people more vulnerable to recurring and lasting violence.

What you refer to as the “killing of the will,” and I describe in the book as this moment when the cry “kill me if you wish” is emitted and a person can actually be killed, is the peak of imperial violence when people feel that everything else has been exhausted and there is nothing left but to challenge the perpetrators with their presence. This cry “kill me if you wish” is sometimes solely presence with no words to articulate it — that is, the cry, like photography, is an event that does not require an actual cry, an actual photograph. It can be perceived in the presence of people approaching imperial borders where they know that they may be killed. The Great March of Return in Palestine, that has lasted from 1948 until today, consists of such moments. When the objects of people who emit this cry are in the hands of their perpetrators, naturalized in museums and archives, the challenge, as I show in the book, is to reinscribe their rights in these objects as part of the discourse of rights. Often times, these precious objects in museums, can be the “missing documents” of people who are assumed “stateless” or “undocumented.” They are not missing. They are there. We just have to unlearn imperialism’s rights discourse and recognize their rights in these objects.

In conclusion, I’d like to turn our attention to younger children who have perhaps yet to learn the types of history that you compellingly show to be shrouded in the blood of imperial rule. Alongside our attempts to unlearn the past, how might educators rethink what is taught moving forward, especially when it comes to pedagogies of violence and peace for the young?

We have to be clear about it — it is not history that is shrouded in the blood of imperial rule, that is an abstraction. We are talking about people, many of them children, who are targeted and murdered by imperial regimes. Let me first unpack this leap from children to students. Imperial rule devours children and pits them against their ancestors, to make them even less protected in this world; this is part of the invention of the past. Under imperial rule, children’s bodies and minds are kidnapped en masse, and many of them are prevented from becoming students, kept from studying and reading and writing. Kidnapping is a constitutive part of witch-hunting, slavery, racial capitalism, adoption, orphanage, forced migration, border control, human trafficking, pedophilia, and overseas markets. Compared to all these operations, education provides a more protective environment. However, most of the curriculum in most education systems, is meant to produce good citizens — meaning docile in regard to oppressive states and markets. So children’s minds are kidnapped from learning to rebel. Their minds are also kidnapped into imperial ways of thinking. For children who have access to education in capitalist regimes known as democracies, concepts of history and progress are central to the curriculum. They learn that their ancestors belong to the past, and that they themselves are the future, meaning they have license to continue to destroy the world in the name of progress.

As educators, we must admit that education was shaped as an imperial project, and we have to ask ourselves where our commitments lie. Commitment to an anti- and non-imperial mode of teaching requires offering our students the opportunity to unlearn not the past per se, but the past as a container in which many things — crimes, unruliness, refusal, repair, or other transmissions of knowledge — are being tamed. We need to unlearn the separation of the past, present, future tenses, and unlearn the future as a separate tense and site of progress. We have to help our students generate potential histories of violence, to engage with different objects, people, and events, not as static moments with a “proper place” in imperial timelines but as still occurring over the half millennia of imperial rule. This unlearning is necessary in order to regain confidence in one’s own right to question the naturalization of institutional violence. In the spirit of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s idea of the undercommons, we have to generate undereducation, withdraw from imperial histories, and insist on what is wrong and what is right. We have to insist on our right to redress wrongs along with our ancestors who were harmed, even if these injuries were inflicted years, decades, or centuries ago, if the violence was not brought to an end. Undereducation, conduct by many within and outside of academic institutions, is an attempt to renew the common sense of wrong and right against its institutional rival.


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.



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