Histories of Violence: Violence to Thought

THIS IS THE 10TH in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with David Theo Goldberg, who is the director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, and executive director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. His most recent books include Are We All Postracial Yet? (Polity, 2015) and the co-edited volume Between Humanities and the Digital (MIT Press, 2015).


BRAD EVANS: I’d like to begin this discussion with a straightforward conceptual question. How do you understand the relationship between violence and intellectualism?

DAVID THEO GOLDBERG: Violence is not in contradiction, nor is it necessarily even in opposition or contrast to intellectuality. It seems almost trite to say this. Intellectual intervention, theory too, can be violent in the operative senses of the term. Violence can disrupt, bring up short those at whom it is aimed. This disruptive sense of violence — what we might call the “violence of critique” — can be productive in some ways. It can get people to place into question the taken for granted, to strike off in a different direction, to unsettle the all too easily given and settled practices.

While the critique doesn’t necessarily intend maliciously to harm, sometimes it may nevertheless end up, if inadvertently, doing so; for those in a position of received orthodoxy the critique may be taken as an attack upon their belief and value systems. But the violence of a dismissive attack can also be more destructive. It can prevent the enactment or achievement of worthwhile pursuits or goals, or force people to abandon or defer compelling commitments. And it can do so through threat, veiled or explicit, humiliation or belittling, or refusal to take seriously, or indeed by willful misdirection.

Consider the broad, concerted, and enormously well-funded attack not only on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement but also on the person of anyone publicly supporting the movement, from undergraduate students and faculty to celebrity critics like Roger Waters. Tactics have included seeking to establish legislation and campus policies branding as anti-Semitic any critic of Israel’s debilitating treatment of Palestinians or even pointing out disturbing characterizations of Palestinians by Israeli politicians, military personnel, or ordinary citizens.

There’s another alternative but no less related sense in which intellectualism can enable or feed violence. Intellectualism can service violence by initiating, aiding, or advancing it instrumentally. It can calculate the odds that violent intervention will achieve the sought-after goals; it can calibrate the most “effective” measure of violence to bring about those ends; it can rationalize the violence already enacted; and so on. Think of the arguments, legal and political, made in the United States around the use of waterboarding or torture or to support building a border wall or the rounding up of the undocumented. Intellectualism and the credibility it gives to violence in these registers are hardly innocent.

There is, no doubt, the counter-consideration of intellectuality to all of this. Ethical and political arguments — transcendental or categorical or communitarian or for that matter utilitarian — seek to establish the just grounds for political relation and action. Here, in contrast to the violent uptake of ratiocination, thinking seeks to establish the grounds and means for reasonable living together, to treat all with dignity and decency, to curb if not eradicate the violent treatment of any and all.

Hannah Arendt contrasted a thinking praxis with thoughtlessness, the moral imperatives to engage others without violence against the instrumentalizing calculations that bring about violence without limit. Arendt is not signaling, as she is too often accused, that the likes of Eichmann has obliterated all thinking, that they have acted completely without the cunning of calculus. She is pointing to their evasion, itself almost calculated, of grappling with the humanity of the violated. To treat the radically violated as such requires their more or less complete dehumanization, what Fanon is the first to characterize as “racialization.” It necessitates denuding themselves of their own capacity to be (potentially) thoughtful, feeling, caring — ethical — beings.

Picking up on this in the context of the dangerousness of thinking you allude to here (something which Arendt understood all too well), like many academics who have a public profile in the humanities and social sciences, you have been subjected to a number of personal attacks and troubling threats to your physical well-being. How do you deal with these attempts to ultimately suffocate your work?

This has become all too often of late, alas. There’s a difference, to be sure, between criticisms or dismissals of one’s work that are the product of a failure, sometimes crude or silly, to understand what one is arguing or critical about, and ad hominems and threats to one’s well-being. These personal threats may of course be in response to one’s critique or attempts to get one to cease or (as you say) suffocate one’s critical engagement. If the former at least acknowledges one has something worth responding to, the latter is far more insidious, if not sinister.

My responses in the latter such cases will vary by instance. After the initial surprise, or shock, or occasionally even disbelieving laughter at the crudity, there’s a choice to be made. Does one simply dismiss it, putting it out of mind, and get on with one’s day, one’s critical life? Putting it completely aside is not necessarily easy, as it will niggle at the mind, prompting one to look out for other instances around the corner, over one’s shoulder. Does one make it public, easily done in a more or less limited way through social media or more broadly by publishing about it in print media or a more formal publication?

This serves to warn others similarly engaged in such work while forcing the surreptitious out into the open. This too has an important social dimension, reminding one that you are not alone in facing up to these insidious attacks. That in working for justice, one is part of a community. When I decide to go public in this way, I will try as best as the evidence allows naming the person or site from which the attack or threat is emanating, along with its nature. The effect of such a response has sometimes sent the attacker diving for cover, which can be quite satisfying. There is also the weighing up of whether one reports the instance to authorities, to institutional officers or even the police? The more personally intrusive the instance — a call to one’s home, a demeaning message or death threat on one’s personal voicemail or (usually anonymous) email, ugly caricaturing posters with one’s image plastered across one’s workplace, that sort of thing — the more encouraged I am to report this to the police. This at least establishes a file, a paper trail, should things persist or ramp up.

In going public in this way, the response of colleagues invariably, though the institution only sometimes, has been terrifically supportive. It is important to know one is not alone in these cases. I have had people I barely know who have heard about an instance approach in public or at a convention offering support, encouragement, solidarity. That sense of collegiality, of intellectual and political community is enormously fortifying.

I have caught myself sometimes rewording expression in the wake of such attacks, seeking greater precision or clarity, sharpening the critique. Not a bad thing in itself, if not for the insidiousness giving rise to it. But in all, I must emphasize that my response, even if sometimes after a momentary stocktaking, is invariably to speak back, to extend the critique, to sustain the political pursuit, to insist on the critical scalpel. After all, that the attack is so crazed indicates its perpetrator must be unnerved to begin with. It signals a crack in their sense of dogmatic self-righteous absolution. The overriding response to the attempt to suffocate is to breathe deep and speak back with more cutting critique.

For many decades you have been mapping out the changing contours of racial violence and the intellectual conditions that naturalize divisions among people. What most perturbs you in the current political climate?

You make me sound so old! Unfortunately, while the expressions, forms, logics, and contours of racial violence have shifted across time, such violence persists. Racial violence waxes hard, wanes some, only to harden again. It does so in relation to shifting and interacting conditions of political economy, social, cultural, and legal considerations, not to mention the rhetorical opportunism of politicians.

What’s most disturbing today is not just the resurrection of racism, or even its proliferation, as bad as these are. It is the license to say and act in blatantly racist ways with little restraint, magnified by a deafening lack of condemnation and constraint by those in a position to delimit the expression. Curiously, this renewal of racism without constraint or public condemnation operates in the name of “postraciality.” The postracial insists that racial reference or classification is irrelevant, that structural racism is a thing of the past, no longer worthy of consideration, that the most disturbing racist expression is the charge of racism against white people. In the name of these claims the extension and renewal of historical racisms — racism proper — are being obscured. The force of the postracial today lies not in the claim to be beyond race, even in its aspirational sense. Rather, it is the subterfuge in the name of which the most violent and vile forms of racism are being recharged. The postracial, it turns out, is but the contemporary modality of racisms’ renewal and recharge. License is given, as a consequence, for those so inclined to express themselves publicly in blatantly racist ways with far less consequence than in the post–Civil Rights era past.

These expressions can take the form of words and deeds, sometimes with physical and certainly invariably with expressive violence. They obviously debilitate those at whom these expressions of violence are aimed, usually those in more vulnerable positions than the perpetrators. But in doing so they debilitate and delimit the society at large. And in that sense they issue an ethical and political challenge to all members of the society to insist, “not us!” To remain silent, to insist on not assuming that responsibility is to declare support for the injustice in question, if not enabling the perpetration. The choice to remain silent is to assume responsibility for enabling the persistence of racism in the name of its very denial. It is to erase the very grounds and terms for identifying the racist expressions and practices at work.

Situating this in the context of the struggles taking place in the United States, from the Black Lives Matter Movement, to North Dakota Pipeline Native resistance, what role and ethical responsibilities do you think academics and intellectuals have in this climate?

In the United States especially, but more generally too, there has been an active undertaking to undermine the capacity to think — fallacies are now abundant and unchecked — as well as the authority of facticity. I call this the turn to “make-believe.” Make-believe obviously centers the drive to fabricate both in the sense of falsifying whenever convenient and to fashion a narrative web designed to mislead and misdirect to realize political interests. But make-believe also involves compulsion, forcing belief on the polity, on threat of dire consequences, pain, or violence for any resisting. The anti-intellectualism of our times — consider as one instance among many the attempts to close the Central European University by the Hungarian leadership — is at one with this prevailing culture. Trumpetarianism is a product of this confluence of forces.

Academics and intellectuals obviously have been targets of these contemporary developments. It is our work to know, to be in possession of the prevailing facts, to think clearly, compellingly, critically. So in the face of fact dismissal, “alternative facts,” the political ignoring and outright rejection of scientific findings — in short, of the political recourse to pushing make believe — we have a driving responsibility to speak up. To make a case for and from the facts, for and from critical thinking, for and from conscience, for and from the possibility of a better, an ethical and just life for all.

Global pollution and climate change impact everyone, most notably the most vulnerable. Institutional violence, murderous practices, and unsubstantiated criminalization against people of color, immigrants, and refugees are affected in the name of all of us in society. This fabrication shapes how we live. Corruption, hypocrisy, and narrow self-interest undercut sociality to the demise of us all. Recall Thatcher’s insistence that there is no such entity as society, only individuals and their families. Courageous citizens — often the youth — have been concerned to speak out against these rampant injustices. Academics especially have an institutional platform, resources, rhetorical skill, and domain expertise, and so have special responsibility to speak out against these injustices and to support the critical work of those on the ground seeking to ensure a decent and dignified life for all, and especially for the most vulnerable.

To conclude, I’d like to return to an important phrase you used previously, “working for justice.” What do you understand justice to mean? And how might it help us rethink more ethical and peaceful relations among the world’s peoples?

By justice, I mean, minimally, a commitment to the dignified and decent conditions for all to live fulfilled lives. It follows that a fulfilled life for one, whether individual, group, or state, should not be achieved at the expense or on the backs of others. That the world today is so thoroughly interconnected and co-dependent, that human life is one of deep relationality, entails that in fulfilling our own lives we are bound to enable the same possibility for all others. Each of us is defined by the same baseline that should acknowledge the human, economic, and political rights irrespective of individual or collective background. Individuals or groups might be fulfilled differently. But at a general level the pursuit of justice and peace will be measured in light of whether these baseline rights and the dignity and capacity to live decent lives of people affected by one’s actions are fully respected. Which is to say are fully considered in and on their own and not imposed terms. 

Given social conditions inherited historically and exacerbated today in both their local and global relations, any commitment to pursuing justice now must attend to considerations of repair. Reparation, as Achille Mbembe most notably has made clear, need not be narrowly construed to focus simply on a question of “returns.” If we consider it rather in broader terms, repair has to do with remaking and reconstituting, a putting together and a making whole. Repair as return assumes that in some prior state things were as they should have been, that justice somehow prevailed, or even if it did in part that we could now somehow magically return to a disappeared state. Repair as remaking, as a reconstituting, is a commitment to establishing the grounds for making things together in a way in which the interests of all would have equal voice in the design and (re-)construction. Here the commitment is to (re-)making a world together, fully, where those hitherto set aside are recentered in the reconstituting. It is this sense of justice that I see serving as a horizon for which to strive, to reach for a co-constituting world in which in our complex of entanglements we can all live dignified, peaceful lives together.


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.


Artwork: Chantal Meza, “Génesis”. Oil on Cedar. Museo de Guadalupe, Zacatecas. (2017)