Histories of Violence: Violence and the Art of the Political

By Brad EvansApril 2, 2018

Histories of Violence: Violence and the Art of the Political
THIS IS THE 19th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Michael J. Shapiro, professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Among his many books are, more recently, The Political Sublime (2018), Politics and Time (2016), and War Crimes, Atrocity, and Justice (2014).


BRAD EVANS: You have continuously pushed the boundaries of trans-disciplinary engagements. Indeed, moving beyond more cultural appropriation in order to make a theoretical point, you have consistently argued that the arts should be seen as a viable form of political intervention in their own right. What do you think the arts bring in terms of developing a critique of violence?

MICHAEL J. SHAPIRO: On that question I share a lot with the Czech writer Milan Kundera, a position that is well captured by the title of one of his novels, Slowness. Near the beginning of the narrative he stages a media moment for a couple watching world news on television. The husband, recalling events of brutality and suffering he’d seen covered in recent television news broadcasts, says that violent events don’t remain news for their whole duration and adds the ironic question, “The dying children of Somalia whom millions of spectators used to watch avidly, aren’t they dying anymore?”

Similarly, in a review essay in which I analyzed a photographic exhibition entitled Beautiful Suffering, I was struck by a commentary in the exhibition brochure by the art historian Mieke Bal in which she extolled the value of “slow looking.” Noting her observation about the alternative durations offered by visual media, I suggested that in contrast with mass media, especially television news for which events are commodities oriented toward quick sales (their visuals are aimed at capturing one’s momentary attention as they compete for viewers with other news services) artistic genres summon a more critically detailed and yet all-too-human reaction, not only because of their subject matter but also because of their form.

Exhibitions (and their catalogs) have longer durations so that what has disappeared from mass media is resurrected and made available for us to renegotiate continually an event’s significance. As I have argued in my recent book on “politics and time” (which focuses mainly on documentaries), what artistic genres offer political thinking is best captured grammatically by the future anterior, the will-have-been. So, for example, as we witness the effects of contemporary episodes of slaughter, depicted in a documentary that familiarizes us with the innocence of specific victims of drone attacks in Pakistan — Robert Greenwald’s Unmanned: America’s Drone War — we are sent back to prior violent events with innocent victims involved. Among the past events we’re encouraged to rethink is the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Thanks to the alerts delivered by artistic media, Hiroshima as an event always “will-have-been.” Moreover, unlike the mass media, whose discursive currency reinforces structures of power by rehearsing what is always already intelligible, i.e., immediately spendable as interpretive capital, when artistic genres intervene in events (here I am paraphrasing Krzysztof Ziarek, who has concerned himself with the “force of art”) they alter their significance and thus liberate them from the hold of power. This precisely affirms the liberating, hence political, importance of the arts.

Can you elaborate on the importance of temporality in terms of developing viable critiques?

In addition to working with the slowness as a critical aspect of artistic genres, I have evoked the concepts of mediation to assess the way the arts contest the mass media’s way of narrativizing violent events. After working on two mediations of the 9/11 event that included Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man and Art Spiegelman’s comic In the Shadow of No Towers, I discovered Johan Grimonprez’s film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a video that pre-mediates the 9/11 event by assembling the history of airplane hijackings as portrayed by television media. Given that before the 9/11 event, televisual and other mass media had prepared the public for interpreting it, in Grimonprez we observe what is effectively a challenge to the way such media will have narrativized the catastrophe in its more linear and predictable fashion.

As Grimonprez argues, “every technology invents its own catastrophe.” He singles out television news, which he says has reinvented a way to look at the world and think about death. His response is to challenge television journalism’s commanding position by bringing the journalists into his videos, showing how they turn an event into a commodity for consumption. He then goes on to decenter their role by juxtaposing a mixed-media narrative that confounds receptive comprehension. His film opposes the way mainstream television media has imposed the interpretation of events by substituting productive ambiguities that encourage critical thinking rather than passive reception.

I want to point out that the artistic strategy at work here is one of creative repetition. When artistic repetition mimics an event within an altered moment and with different angles of vision, it encourages political reflection by revealing the contingencies of experience. It provokes critical thinking that interrupts the more passive stance of recognition and thereby imperils what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze identifies as “opinion […] a thought that is closely molded on the form of recognition [a form of thought mired in] orthodoxy.”

A notable feature of your work has been to stress the importance of cinema as a critical medium for interrogating pressing issues in world politics. What does cinema offer us in the rather troubling contemporary moment? And which films or feature productions stand out for you in this regard?

I’ll put it simply first. Cinema has the capacity to restore what perception tends to evacuate. Rather than working with a singular and centered viewing subject, it provides a multiplicity of viewing positions (Robert Altman’s camera work is especially notable in this regard). Moreover, it often displaces perceiving subjects by making its field of production, e.g., the land or cityscape, its protagonist. The more critically oriented films, which Deleuze has famously referred to as a “cinema of seeing,” grab our attention in a critical way because unlike a “cinema of action” (in which we are asking ourselves what will happen next), we are asking ourselves what are we seeing.

That said, there are many films that have helped me with my inquiries into issues of violence. I’ll rehearse here aspects of my analysis of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). Mainstream entertainment reviews emphasized the film’s dramatic action, which begins when two violent visitors to Tom Stall’s (Viggo Mortensen) diner in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana. After Tom, with surprising agility, disarms one of them and shoots them both, the media coverage alerts his mobster brother, Richie (William Hurt), in Philadelphia, who sends three thugs to bring “Tom” back because in a former life, as Joey Cusack, his violent antics had comprised his brother’s mafia career. Tom/Joey’s long-suppressed capacity for sudden effective violence surfaces again as he kills two of the thugs, while his son shoots their leader. The Joey persona surfaces again near the end of the film when, after driving to Philadelphia to try and reconcile with his brother, he extricates himself from Richie’s attempt to have an associate garrote him and summons his violent self again to kill Richie and his mobster associates in the household before he returns home as Tom to join a family dinner underway.

As we witness the transformations of Tom into Joey and back again — managed with Mortensen’s amazing ability to display different personalities with different facial expressions — and see as well moments of suppressed otherness in his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), a major dimension of the film title becomes apparent. Beneath the surface personalities of three of the protagonists is another, violent self (which in Tom’s case involves a hidden history).

Now if we heed the film’s transformations in personality, we can see it as a lesson in the divided subjectivities of individuals, all of them embodying suppressed capacities for violence. However that reading neglects what I regard as the film’s more significant political pedagogy, which is about collective rather than individual identity, managed with the film’s images as well as its spatial narrative. To access that dimension of the film we have to summon the figure of the allegory and ask, “Why Philadelphia?” The answer emerges when we recognize first of all that “Philadelphia” (from the Greek) means brotherly love. Importantly, we are alerted to a strange “Philadelphia” when instead of visiting the iconic Independence Hall, we are invited into Richie’s home, which resembles a Gothic mansion. Thus, finally and crucially, the film’s politics of (a Gothic) aesthetic emerges if we see Richie’s Gothic mansion as an allegory of the history of Philadelphia’s violent otherness.

Thinking allegorically, we can discern a similar ambiguous legacy in the history of Philadelphia, a city that has never lived up to its name. Without going into elaborate detail, one can point to the unseen infrastructure of slavery (the unfreedom hidden within the freedom-seeking moment) in Independence Hall’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That unfreedom is highlighted in a commentary on the painting by the writer, Jamaica Kincaid (whose angle of vision is doubtless affected by the fact that she entered the United States as a bonded servant). Discerning what I have called a “racial Gothic,” she wonders who exerted the labor involved in preparing the signer’s clothes and managing their wigs so that they could enjoy their thinking, “the luxury of it,” and “have time to examine that thing they called their conscience and act on it.”

The legacy of the paradoxical unfreedom within the freedom-making moment remains in a contemporary Philadelphia that is a “mosaic of paradoxes” (as its put in a critical reading of John Edgar Wideman’s novel Philadelphia Fire, inspired by a policing moment that took many African-American lives). The paradoxes that characterize the city are the juxtapositions between “extraordinary wealth and grinding Third World poverty, racial tolerance and black ghettoes, urban renewal and urban decay, social mobility and social stasis,” i.e., Philadelphia is as paradoxical as the simultaneous brotherly love and brotherly hatred between Richie and Joey, acted out in a Gothic mansion that is suffused in bright lights and dark shadows.

More recently you have turned your attention to the importance of music. Can you explain what interests you here and how it relates to the problem of violence?

That turn has a long and humbling intellectual trajectory from which I will offer brief excerpts. Once I became interested in the philosophy of language and the politics of discourse (a radical shift from my early quantitative work on decision making), I began to recognize that intelligibility is an ambiguous achievement and that my inquiries should be aimed less at clarifying issues than at uncovering their ambiguities. That epiphany was inspired in part by my reading of Jean-Paul Sartre’s biography of Gustave Flaubert (entitled in English The Idiot of the Family) in which he attributes Flaubert’s literary creativity to a childhood during which he was slow learning language and as a result was not “robbed early on of his native poetry.”

Committed to the position that the reigning structures of intelligibility have the effect of imposing passive acceptance of dominant realities and as a result of continually legitimating structures of power and authority, I moved on from the philosophy of language to analyses of genres that challenge entrenched forms of intelligibility, reinvent the rules for textual formation within their genres, and create the conditions of possibility for critical thinking. In the process of turning toward cultural and artistic texts as my field of analysis, I was edified by studies that compared challenges to literary and musical intelligibility — for example, one that compared the parallel challenges to traditional forms of intelligibility of Richard Wagner and Stéphane Mallarmé, who (re)punctuated music and poetry respectively. Wagner’s challenge is issued through a “fracturing of the musical period” (by departing from symphonic music’s traditional quadratic form), while Mallarmé’s challenge operates through obfuscation of “the syntactic hierarchy of the poetic line.”

Looking for contemporary musical examples, I turned to the compositional strategies of the jazz musician/composers John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Both of their innovations can be understood within a linguistic frame, one of which is what Houston A. Baker Jr. has called the “Deformation of Mastery,” which is the approach through which some African-American writers have enacted what he calls a “go(ue)rilla action in the face of acknowledged adversaries,” i.e., a mode of writing that reinflects language to challenge the discourses that have aided and abetted white dominance and violence.

I want to refer to some recent work in which I return to Coltrane’s and Monk’s music to treat the way jazz thinks the political. In one case, a jazz composition has responded to violence by fusing form and content to deliver explicit political meaning — John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” a piece with musical resonances that capture the rhythms of Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy at the funeral of the young African-American girls who died when “dynamite Bob” blew up a black church in Alabama. In contrast, Thelonious Monk’s music makes no direct political statements that can be discerned in, for example, his riffs on such popular songs as George Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Lulu’s Back in Town.” However, one can recognize the political sensibility inherent in his musical compositions, which like African-American language (mis)use, “Black talk,” offers a counter-intelligibility (or what George Lipsitz famously calls a “strategic anti-essentialism”), which emerged among a people who faced attitudinal and structural inhibitions that stood in the way of freedom of civic expression.

Finally, I want to conclude my riff on the jazz-violence connection by referring to the observations of Christopher Small, who has concerned himself with the resistant, oppositional impetus of African-American jazz. As jazz performers compose as they play, they are involved in what he calls a “struggle between freedom and order,” for their performances constitute “a movement back and forth between the spaces of black vernacular orality and the values and assumptions of the white social order.”

In a similar vein to the position consciously taken by Hannah Arendt, I have always seen your work as being on the “outside” of the narrow confines of academic disciplines. What advice would you offer to junior scholars in this regard as the pressure to conform to positivist standards is more pernicious than ever?

As a senior scholar with job security I have had the luxury of operating outside of the confines of disciplinary protocols, i.e., a freedom to practice what Jacques Rancière calls indisciplinarity, a trans-disciplinary approach that breaks disciplines instead of merging them into one or another inter-disciplinary mode of thinking. However, as I have been aware that junior scholars are in a more precarious situation and have accordingly wanted to articulate the rationales for trans-disciplinary methods for myself as well as those who are more vulnerable, I wrote a text on the subject. In that monograph I develop and illustrate, in a series of studies, a method that foregrounds “aesthetic subjects” who are protagonists in artistic texts. Their movements in the spaces those texts articulate map and at times alter politically relevant terrains.

In contrast with psychological subjects, who as objects of investigation are treated in social science investigations as people whose attitudes, beliefs, and values can be measured and correlated with actions or decisions, artistic texts are focused on the implications of events rather than on their causes. They contain staged encounters that help us interpret the multiple ways that events are experienced (for example there is no better analysis of the continuing effects of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center than Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man, whose diverse characters experience incommensurate aftereffects). Similarly, more interesting than what it is that causes a minister to lose her/his faith are its consequences, which are powerfully addressed in Ingmar Bergman’s film Winter Light (1963). In an telling encounter with a fearful parishioner who has learned from the print media that China, once it develops a nuclear weapon, will blow up the world, Bergman’s protagonist, Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), obsessed with his own anxieties, cannot provide solace for his parishioner, Jonas (Max von Sydow), who in despair commits suicide after leaving the church.

Among what we learn from the film is the importance of paternal authority. The pastor, who is no longer able to take his role seriously, cannot function as an adequate father because he has experienced an inadequate father. He has faced (what Michel Foucault refers to as) “the father’s no”; “God-the-father” does not function as father for him because of “his” silence. A relay for that virtual father, the pastor-as-father is undone and is no match for the print media’s fear-mongering. However one might warrant my reading of the film (it’s merely an illustration), I have intended my “method” of turning to artistic texts and focusing on aesthetic subjects as a source of solace for those who want to stray from mainstream social science explanatory methods.

Stylistically, I prefer to let my approach (which is akin the way Walter Benjamin identified his method — “literary montage” — with which one shows rather than tells) speak for itself. However, I don’t recommend that avoidance to junior scholars in the social sciences. In light of the institutionalized method-obsessed expectation that scholars must justify knowledge claims with resort to a methods commentary, I recommend capitulation and thus explication within the text. At the same time, I also recommend that the junior scholars, faced with social science disciplines that remain in a pre-Kantian philosophical slumber, seek to edify their readers by articulating the philosophical frames (which are largely delivered by post-Kantian philosophers) that help direct the methods through which the artistic and cultural texts with which they work can serve as the objects of investigation.

Thus my methodological advice is to heed texts rather than standalone objects. A text can be seen (in the words of John Mowitt) as “an antidiscipinary field” rather than as an intra-disciplinary object. As such, a text can open the spaces that the discursive practices of disciplinary orthodoxies have closed. As the semiotician Roland Barthes (whose perspective has inspired Mowitt) pointed out decades ago, a “text” (as opposed to a mere “work”) is a “methodological field” worthy of elaborate analysis. Moreover, in addition to semiology, there is an abundance of critically oriented, politically relevant modes of analysis that uncover the way texts (literary, architectural, musical, visual, et cetera) think in politically perspicuous ways.


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.


Banner image by Chantal Meza. Segment from Postcards from the Void series (2018).

LARB Contributor

Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is author of over 17 books and edited volumes, including most recently Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (2021) and Conversations on Violence: An Anthology (with Adrian Parr, 2021). He leads the Los Angeles Review of Books “Histories of Violence” section.


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