THIS IS 34th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Roy Scranton, an American writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His essays, journalism, short fiction, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Nation, Dissent, LIT, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Boston Review. His latest books are the study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2019) and the novel I Heart Oklahoma! (Soho Press, 2019).
BRAD EVANS: A recurring theme throughout all your writings is the problem of violence. This has included meditations on war, which no doubt was influenced by your personal experiences in armed conflict, along with wider issues concerning ecological devastation and extinction. What is it about violence that commands your attention as a writer?
ROY SCRANTON: Violence is, in itself, quite stimulating: it activates our most visceral engagement, imbues the world with portent, and freights every choice with existential signification. And it’s not so much even the case that violence commands my attention, but rather that violence is endemic to the fantasy life of American culture. It’s impossible to escape. So there is one sense in which my work, in its fascination with violence, is simply participating in American culture, exploring canonical tropes and themes, as it were, playing tunes from the great American songbook: “Stagger Lee” and “The Ballad of Jesse James” and “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Fuck tha Police” and “’97 Bonnie and Clyde.”
But it’s also true that writing is for me an esoteric process of objectification and purgation, even betrayal, in which sense my work isn’t merely playing with violence, but is rather a series of attempts to exorcise from my own consciousness the violence that has shaped it and continues to affect it today. At this level of understanding, which sometimes takes shape as intellectualization and other times as aesthetic shaping, what interests me about violence is first of all how violence is a way that humans make meaning. Something happens when blood is spilled, when physical force comes into the realm of ideas, which is neither a silencing nor the irruption of irrationality, but rather a merging of concepts and substance. This is the power of sacrifice, of course, the power of trauma, the power of originary violence, the power to lay down the law. We might even say that it is the law: logos backed by violence.
Can you elaborate more on why you think writing about violence is an act of betrayal? Do you feel there is something dishonest about the process or at least that violence forces us to confront something our words cannot fully grasp when it relates back to its experience?
It is axiomatic to modern civilization that violence is the exception, rather than the rule, and the amount of ideological work dedicated to preserving this fiction is massive. This is, in effect, the whole point of the discourse of trauma, which insists that violence is so alien to civilized life that it cannot even be discussed, that violence warps and destroys language itself. As I show in Total Mobilization, though, this is actually a two-step process: first the violence is disavowed as unspeakable trauma, then it is brought back under “rational” control through the techno-medical discourses of therapeutic and psychiatric treatment. It’s difficult to say, in the end, which fantastic aspect of this fort-da game is more precious: the conceit that violence is alien to modern civilization, or the delusion that we can control it through narrative.
I’m certainly not the first to expose this secret, but it seems to be the kind of thing we’d all rather not think about. More specifically and personally, I suppose, I see Total Mobilization as a betrayal of the sacred role afforded veterans in American culture. There’s an unexamined belief that combat veterans have, through their close encounter with violence, been witness to unspeakable revelatory truths about existence. Yuval Harari called this “flesh-witnessing,” and James Campbell called it “combat gnosis.” It’s sheer nonsense, of course, in strictly objective terms, but it’s a powerful belief. As a veteran myself, I have enjoyed and profited from this kind of auratic power. I have also, for better or worse, spent several years trying to publicly dismantle it.
In general, I think writing as such — at least with any honesty — is necessarily an act of betrayal. Joan Didion said “writers are always selling somebody out,” and I also often think of something Deleuze once said or wrote, that I must have picked up from Maggie Nelson: “What other reason is there for writing than to be a traitor to one’s own reign, traitor to one’s sex, to one’s class, to one’s majority? And to be traitor to writing.”
In your two most recent books, I Heart Oklahoma! and Total Mobilization, you focus more specifically on the relationship between violence and freedom. There is often a very reductive claim made on these connections, where the greater freedoms we enjoy the less violence we experience. How do you understand the relationship, and what message do you wish to convey about the violence of freedom in these new projects?
Absolute freedom would of course include the freedom to inflict violence on others, including sexual violence. Consider the fundamental antithesis against which the concept of freedom emerges in the modern world, which is slavery. The slave is subject to violence, the master is free to dispense violence. Thus, freedom isn’t simply a freedom from violence, as in the liberal understanding, but is, at its heart, a way of giving meaning to the question of violence itself: what it means to be subject to violence versus what it means to wield violence.
I make this claim first to point out that suffering violence and causing violence are both kinds of experience, and second to underline the fact that the relationship between freedom and violence is not simply negative, in which more freedom equals less violence, but rather more complicated. Freedom as we understand it emerges from violence: revolutionary violence, originary violence, the absolute violence of the tyrant.
Total Mobilization and I Heart Oklahoma! approach this question from different perspectives and with different methods. Total Mobilization is interested in how the postwar liberal state narrativizes its relationship to the monstrous violence upon which it is founded — mass civilian bombing, racialized murder, the atomic bomb — and how trauma emerges as a way of managing that narrative, and the conflicting metaphoric frameworks it seeks to rationalize, namely nationalism and liberal capitalism, whose contradictions were exposed by the violence of World War II.
I Heart Oklahoma!, while still thinking about the role of violence in the postwar liberal state, is fixated on another conflict, that between the mythic freedom of “the West” and the modern state’s apparatus of capture, both historically and in the modern carbon-fueled form of automobile culture. Violence in this case is on the one hand a method for achieving escape, individuation, freedom, as in the archetypal case of Charlie Starkweather — “The stranger asks no greater glory till life is through than to spend one last minute in wilderness” — and on the other hand the necessary force that captures individual violence for the sake of the social order. It’s a question of who controls the violence, of how to claim violence for the individual in an increasingly totalitarian society. I Heart Oklahoma! is concerned with a mythic America, with the myth of America, with the idea Richard Slotkin calls regeneration through violence, an atavistic cultural narrative which is easy to dismiss intellectually but which, as we’ve seen, has an astonishing vitality.
I am taken here by the issue of mythmaking, which many authors see as integral to the formation of political communities and to justify violence for some higher or greater purpose. Do you think there is anything particularly unique about this American myth? Or to put it another way, is there something unique in terms of what we might recognize as a distinctly American way of violence, which connects to its historical processes?
I don’t know that I would want to claim that there’s anything particularly unique about this American myth, except insofar as any culturally and historically specific formation is contingent on its particular determinants, which is to say unique. This is surely a trivial observation but one that’s often forgotten in the drive to abstract more general principles. America was built on slavery, conquest, and genocide, and achieved its emergence as a world power in tandem with and largely through carbon-fueled industrialization. That’s pretty singular.
Returning back to the relationship between violence and mobilization, I am reminded by the following two quotes. The first by Paul Virilio (whose work on speed is also seminal in terms of any critique of both technology and traversal) stated, “All wars are wars of movement.” And the second by Gilles Deleuze, noted that “if a people are so oppressed, it’s not that their rights are being denied,” rather their movements are being restricted. How do you make sense of these claims, and do they resonate in your work?
What does it mean for movement to be a preeminent mode of human expression? Carbon-fueled, industrialized mobilization forces the human lifeworld to undergo a new level of abstraction, the unification of space and time in an expanding grid, even if that grid ostensibly covers a globe, the globe, the rock we live on in space. Thus the ascendance of liberalism: freedom is the freedom of movement, as it were, constrained only by the same freedom expressed by others. But the truth of movement is more complicated, not only in the sense of it being merely another form of bourgeois self-indulgence, as suggested by Godard’s Le Week-End, but in the sense of always already acting in relation to forms and history. All wars may be wars of movement, but that movement necessarily occurs in relation to geology, ecology, climate: the Ploesti oil fields, Russian winter, the beaches of Normandy, the mountains of Guadalcanal. And while movement may be a deciding factor in contests of violent force, it is not what gives the war meaning, which devolves into questions of territory and substance. Take the example of the American war in Vietnam, or Iraq for that matter: thanks to massive technological superiority, American forces never gave up freedom of movement. But it didn’t matter. Because war isn’t simply the clashing of tanks on a battlefield, but rather a complex mode of human meaning-making. The question in the one case is who is an Iraqi? What does it mean to be Iraqi? What is Iraq? And then who is an American? What does it mean to be American? How do these two meanings connect? How does the one group decide what the other group means, how it understands its own identity? This is less a question of movement, although we talk about guerrilla wars and different levels of movement and we could develop a totalizing framework in which we thus see clandestine movement pitted against exoteric movement, we could call it asymmetric warfare, but really what it should help us begin to understand is that war is not primarily about the soldiers who meet on the battlefield, but about how humans organize themselves as collective organisms within ecosystems. The problem of the refugee is not that their movement is being restricted: the problem of the refugee is that they are forced from their habitat.
To bring it back around, what’s interesting to me about what Deleuze and Virilio say here is how much it relies upon a worldview in which human meaning is expressed through movement, which is a phenomenon not historically restricted to the modern era but which becomes dominant in the age of oil. Hence the very concept of “total mobilization,” which emerges first with Lenin in the Russian Civil War but is most thoroughly developed by Ernst Jünger: an entire society expressing its meaning through movement, which of course is inextricable from violence. It begins to seem, following this lineage, that perhaps industrialization is necessarily fascistic, in a futurist, accelerationist sense, while also being ultimately anarchic.
One thing I Heart Oklahoma! is concerned with, however, is the fact that this worldview is already old-fashioned, already out-of-date. Expressing freedom through the machine, à la The Fast and the Furious, has been superseded, at least in the moment, by the expression of freedom as control over history, through Twitter activism, for example, or cosplay, or Trumpian MAGA. The unfolding of the internet into global human civilization is transforming human freedom and meaning-making in profound ways, in ways whose ends are as yet impossible to foresee. And yet these older ways of making meaning have not simply disappeared: they exist as substrate, and for some are still preeminent, as for the fans of the series of films just mentioned.
I’d like to conclude by focusing on the Giradian idea of originary violence. This is a pretty normalized understanding; indeed, we only need to walk into any natural history museum to see the dominant evolutionary understanding that we begin from violence played out as a historical and scientific truism, which underpins most notions of civilization. Why do you think it’s important to retain this position, and what does it offer in terms of developing a viable critique of violence in the contemporary moment?
The first thing I would say is that I don’t think we should “retain a position” on originary violence, but rather that we can observe as an anthropological fact the phenomenon of humans organizing their collective life through such narratives. This is one of the major arguments of Total Mobilization: that violence is a way humans make meaning. Violence is endemic to human history; some acts of violence are narrated as having generative power, others not so much. The point isn’t to insist yet again in some naïve way that human society begins in violence, but rather to bring a more sophisticated analysis to the question of how such stories come about, how they change, and how they are ritualized as practice, e.g., through sacrifice or through trauma and recovery.
The second thing I would say in response to your question would be to ask what you mean by a “critique of violence.” Do you mean it in the Kantian sense that Benjamin used in his essay of that name, “Critique of Violence,” which is to say asking about the conditions for the possibility of violence? Or do you mean some notional effort to decrease violence in human society? In the first case, I think my analysis in Total Mobilization might go some ways toward helping us understand the conditions for the possibility of certain kinds of meaningful violence achieved through sacrifice. And in the second case, I would have to say that we must hope (despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary) that understanding in itself may help liberate us from our compulsions. A better comprehension of how and why we make our collective lives meaningful through narratives of violence may allow us to inhabit those narratives with greater detachment, irony, and perhaps even freedom.
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.