Histories of Violence: When Freedom Turns Ugly

August 30, 2021   •   By Brad Evans

THIS IS THE 51st in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Elizabeth Anker, an associate professor of American Studies and Political Science at the George Washington University. She is the author of Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Duke, 2014) and Ugly Freedoms (Duke, forthcoming in 2022).


BRAD EVANS: Let’s begin this conversation by talking about freedom — or more to the point when freedom turns ugly (to invoke your provocative vocabulary). We can often think about freedom as being the opposite of oppression. And yet as your latest book, Ugly Freedoms, testifies, freedom can be the condition of possibility that allows violence to thrive. Can you explain how you understand this relationship between freedom and violence?

ELIZABETH ANKER: Freedom is considered one of the highest values in politics, the very opposite of oppression, enslavement, and violence. Throughout modern history, freedom has taken shape as individual liberty, collective control over governance, and emancipation from tyranny — but it has also taken shape as the right to exploit and the power to subjugate. Perhaps the most obvious example is the American Revolution, when former colonial subjects liberated themselves from the yoke of unjust monarchy in a radical act of political worldmaking. Yet this liberation was only possible because of widespread land theft from indigenous peoples who had inhabited the land upon which they declared independence. Violent and world-destroying acts of dispossession were practiced by the founders as freedom of independence. The American Revolution also relied on and was funded in part by the enslaved labor of millions of Black people. Slavery, legalized by US juridical processes, was interpreted by white enslavers not as the opposite of liberty but as a practice of liberty. It entailed the freedom of local control and citizens’ self-rule, and the freedom of property. The system of slavery was thus not merely considered the opposite of freedom but also an iteration of freedom: the freedom of the master. Throughout modern history, practices of freedom have included enslavement and exploitation alongside independence and emancipation. This ambivalent legacy demands a full reckoning.

“Ugly freedom” names a dynamic in which practices of freedom produce harm, brutality, and subjugation as freedom. The injuries produced by the pursuit of modern freedom are well documented in feminist, Black, indigenous, and anticolonial political thought, among others, which detail how philosophies of free practice can rely on a metaphysics of gender, race, and civilizational enlightenment that harm and exclude those considered too dependent or barbaric to practice freedom or be worthy of its responsibilities. The concept of ugly freedom relies on those formative accounts, while arguing that those harms and exclusions are not only the violent effects of freedom but can also be considered free practice.

We can see this dynamic play out in current practices of eviction, the capacity of landlords to remove nonpaying tenants from their property. This capacity draws from freedom as property ownership and freedom as the capacity to make a profit in a free market, two of the central tenets of liberal freedom in capitalism. The freedom of landlords to evict poor tenants both requires and disregards systems of political economy that make one person’s poverty a source of profit for others. Those evicted are primarily poor women and their children, especially Black and brown women, who cannot make enough money in minimum-wage jobs to both support their family and pay high rent, nor do they have enough legal or social support to stay housed in one of the most economically unequal countries in the industrialized world. In a neoliberal era when wages are depressed, state support for impoverished families is minimal, and rent prices have skyrocketed in a deregulated housing market, the entire housing system prioritizes owners’ profit over renters’ lives. Evictions, and their support in legal policies and law enforcement, show how the legacies of dispossession, mastery, and patriarchy are not historical embarrassments but present structures of power that continued to be practiced as freedom.

While I find this focus on the master’s freedom to be such an important intervention, is there not however a danger here that by evoking the term “ugly freedom,” we end up romanticizing or even beautifying a certain account of freedom, which as we know historically can be equally prejudicial?

The opposite of ugly freedom is not beautiful freedom, as if the capacity for shared worldmaking grounded in free action, collaborative flourishing, and equal power for all is an act of beauty, an ideal vision of purity, or an object for disinterested contemplation. Instead, Ugly Freedoms also emphasizes a second and different type of ugliness. From the perspective of standard visions of freedom, there are political and economic conditions deemed “ugly” and undesirable precisely because they seemingly cannot offer opportunities for freedom: these include deep dependence, obstructed agency, and moral debasement. In response, I examine what is possible within these rejected conditions for cultivating less conventional yet generative practices of freedom. I examine a range of actions, peoples, and spaces traditionally considered waste, deviance, or worthy of neglect, in order to study their suppressed possibilities for living free. I explore the co-presence of alternative freedoms, overlooked as unworthy or demeaning by conventional standards of freedom’s exercise.

The phrase “ugly freedom” thus has a double meaning in this book. In its first meaning, it is an attack on certain freedoms understood as unproblematic political ideals. In its second meaning, it identifies alternative visions of freedom in practices rejected or disparaged by the first version of ugly freedom — freedoms that might otherwise be deemed too inconsequential, repellent, or deflating to qualify as such. In this second way of using the term ugly to identify unvalued freedom, I am interested in forms of freedom that arise out of ambivalent situations and noncathartic actions, similar to those Sianne Ngai examines in her book Ugly Feelings, from which my own title riffs. The freedoms I examine in this second use of “ugly freedom” take shape not as the most powerful or invigorating enactments of liberation, but as more ambivalent, trivial, or uneasy expressions. I examine these ugly freedoms in practices of theft, local bureaucracy, eyerolls, awkward sex, sugar production, gut microbes, and the navigation of toxic landscapes. These ugly freedoms take shape in historic places from the rise of the sugar plantation in Barbados to neoliberal urban neighborhoods in Baltimore, in the multimedia artwork of Kara Walker and Dalia Baassiri, and in political moments like the Jim Crow South and California climate regulations. They each showcase freedom in uninspiring, deviant, and displeasurable acts, those seen as unworthy of reverence. Both uses of ugly freedom aim to revise the typical terms of freedom. In the first, I use ugliness to disrupt and de-idealize iterations of freedom. In the second, I identify practices of freedom in the discarded spaces and disparaged practices of the freedoms reflexively deemed ideal. In emphasizing the work of ugly freedom in its second valence, I examine a range of actions, peoples, and spaces traditionally considered waste, deviance, or worthy of neglect, in order to study their possibilities for living free.

The second form of ugly freedoms also shows how free action need not be a hallowed or monumental practice. Ugly freedom in this second valence does not require a virtuous actor, an upstanding citizen, or an ideal political subject explicitly yearning for liberty. To insist on moral purity, as James Baldwin argued, can be a violent and dehumanizing expectation that denies the lived experience of moral complexity and only grants worthiness to those who demonstrate virtuous victimization for others’ sentimentalized salvation. Instead, I focus on practices of freedom in situations deemed unvaluable because they do not conform to aspects of freedom deemed ideal, because the people practicing them do not fit neatly into modern categories of exemplary political subjectivity, or because they can thrive in mediocrity and disgust.

I am taken here by the moral complexities and the double meaning of the term you invoke. Pressing further on this, what does this term offer you in developing your own aesthetic critique of the violence that plays out as part of the everyday?

By using the term ugly to describe freedom, I draw partly from an aesthetic category of interpretation to challenge the veneration of actions practiced under freedom’s mantle. Ugliness names an affective experience of antipathy or dissonance, an aesthetic judgment of things with subjectively determined displeasurable properties. I draw on these aesthetic categories in a political way by examining how they connect to political and economic deployments of freedom; to call an iteration of freedom ugly is to emphasize how a celebrated ideal of nondomination or uncoerced action can be practiced as brutality, which also leaves this brutality discounted or disavowed. The ascription “ugly” draws attention to this disregard and disavowal, gnawing away at the ceaseless affirmation of freedom’s virtue, challenging the veneration of actions practiced under its mantle.

Yet ugliness as a description of freedom does more. The category of the “ugly” has historically served as a social and political judgment, one that in Euro-American philosophy has often appraised the worth of peoples and cultures in a hierarchical fashion, placing elite European-derived practices and features as the standard for the beautiful and desirable. Aesthetic claims of the beautiful and the ugly frequently map onto constructed political distinctions: modern and backward, rich and poor, white and Black, Christian and Jewish and Muslim, pure and dirty. In the 18th and 19th centuries, aligning with systems of enslavement, industrial capitalism, and colonialism, designations of ugliness helped to lubricate the politics of servitude and extermination. Calling freedom ugly highlights how freedom is imbricated in politico-aesthetic judgments of degeneracy, worth, and power, judgments that cultivate xenophobia, colonization, and the emphatic rejection of collective mutuality.

Ugliness as I use it, however, aims to disrupt the boundary that demarcates desirable from undesirable things, ideal from nonideal instantiations, pleasurable from unpleasurable sensations, or perfect from debased forms. There is a minor tradition in political theory of learning from the ugly as both a vital resource for political critique and a site of expansive possibilities for divergent sensorial experience that can contribute to a more equal polity. Theodor Adorno, for one, emphasizes the diagnostic qualities of ugliness; the world is full of injustice and barbarity, and this demands sustained attention to the things and people deemed degenerate and despised, since those affective judgments often indicate problems of social subjugation. Adorno argues that ugliness “stands witness for what domination represses and disavows” and thus attends to those discarded by violent social ideals of worth and beauty. Moses Mendelssohn also tarries with the critical generativity of ugliness. Leah Hochman shows how Mendelssohn generates a politico-aesthetic philosophy in which encounters with ugliness — with the things and peoples labeled repulsive, irrational, and outmoded — can supersede socially produced revulsions, and inspire social conviviality through difference. Mendelssohn revalued politico-aesthetic categories that idealized uniformity over difference to instead encourage diversity over purity, disorder over order. As a practicing Jew, he aimed to both generate access for “ugly” minority participation in the social, and produce new forms of sociality that did not rely on aesthetic hierarchies of beauty. For Mendelssohn, encounters with ugliness can help to imagine, articulate, and feel what a polity disentangled from domination and constituted by diverse mutuality might be — even when the actions or peoples deemed ugly do not and will not reflect idealized forms of action or beauty. For both Adorno and Mendelssohn, encounters with ugliness do not turn the peoples or situations deemed ugly into ideal, pure, or normatively beautiful subjects. Instead, they challenge the very ascription of “the beautiful” as a form of political violence.

Inspired by their claims, I argue that negative politico-aesthetic experiences are valuable for freedom in their own right, without having to reclaim them as beautiful or grand for this to be the case. Ugly Freedoms does not argue that the practices it investigates only have value once they are recategorized as beautiful and awe-inspiring. Instead, in examining the second form of ugly freedoms, I find worth in actions otherwise derided as ugly without recouping them back into claims of beauty, especially if those claims are themselves crafted out of brutal forms of power. Encounters with ugliness produce different ways of seeing and feeling possibilities for freedom, even or especially when they don’t feel grand or cathartic. It is a common assumption that beauty gets us through the challenges and struggles of the world, but what if it is ugliness that gets us through?

Throughout your project, I sense you have a rather torn relationship with Hannah Arendt, who no doubt is a pivotal thinker when it comes to understanding the freedom to commit acts of violence. What can we take from her thinking today? And what also are the limits of her thinking as you see it?

Arendt articulates a version of freedom as participation in public action that I find deeply generative, in part. For Arendt, freedom entails performing something new in the world alongside others, courageous action in the creation of public life with fellow citizens. Attentive to the violence inherent in sovereign power, she argues that freedom does not entail acts of willing or sovereignty, as they demand control and obedience from others and thus negate the plurality of worldly action. Freedom as inventive nonsovereign action in public, and as political worldmaking alongside others, opens vast new possibilities for envisioning freedom’s practice. Yet it also truncates the space of politics to public action and narrows the practice of freedom to courageous and virtuous gestures modeled on a European canon of value; Arendt celebrates the individual heroics of Achilles, for instance, but disparages the collective actions of the Civil Rights movement. Nor does she include practices of freedom that could be grounded in ordinary daily concerns practiced outside spaces recognized as political, or that take other models for free action besides courageous speech and deeds.

Arendt argues that freedom and violence are antagonistic, that acts of violence are always the mark of unfreedom. In this sense, she shares the views of both liberal and republican political theory, as they each contend that freedom ends where violence begins: freedom is limited by the harm principle in liberal theory, freedom is the condition of nondomination in republican theory, and violence undoes the relations of mutuality necessary for political freedom in Arendt. Yet by insisting that violence, domination, and harm mark the limit point of freedom, these arguments can conflate normative investments in nonviolence with political analysis of modern freedom’s exercise. They miss a range of complex practices when freedom’s exercise entails both nondomination and dominating violence. The problem is not that normative visions of freedom as nonviolent are wrong, but that when normative visions are also taken for definitional limits they exclude other forms of freedom that operate in modern life, especially those that challenge the interpretation of freedom as always ideal.

The trouble with violent iterations of freedom like the free-market exploitation of evictions, or the settler colonialism of the American founding that continues to the present, is not that these practices demonstrate a failure to embody freedom. Nor is it that the virtue of freedom is tragically subverted by bad actors who erroneously use freedom to legitimate their predation. The problem is that ideals of freedom can be produced out of and within what Saidiya Hartman calls “scenes of subjection” — that freedom can be practiced as subjugation. Freedom can entail both nondomination and domination, both worldmaking and world destruction, both challenges to and impositions of unjust authority. Rather than arguing that subjugating freedoms are either insincerity or false consciousness, I use the ambivalence and violence of freedom’s expression to interrogate which freedoms must be fought against, and which are worth fighting for.

When thinking about this in terms of the freedoms worth fighting and indeed dying for, often such concerns tend to fall back to discussion on the freedom of speech. Now leaving aside my own reservations with how such debates too easily fall back upon liberal enlightenment/social contract theories, how does shedding light on ugly freedoms allow us to navigate through this fraught minefield?

In one sense, ugly freedoms can help navigate the freedom of speech minefield, not necessarily by adjudicating what is okay to say in public and what is not, but by showing how certain forms of speech can be juridically defined as “free” even when they work to enforce domination — I think here of racist, sexist, and other forms of speech that uphold hierarchies of power even when they are legally protected as an expression of freedom.

Yet perhaps more important, ugly freedom helps to highlight how forms of speech, ideas, and actions gain legibility as protected by law while others are discounted as not even qualifying for political expression or too degrading to be worthy of consideration as “speech.” Questions of free speech are in direct engagement with questions of public space and disciplinary power. We can see this dynamic in the aptly named “Ugly Laws,” laws created in different American cities around the turn of the 20th century that forbade visibly poor or disabled people from inhabiting public space. Ostensibly to celebrate and beautify public life by removing “an unsightly and disgusting object […] an improper person to be allowed in public” as the language of one municipal code explained, the Ugly Laws generated free movement and free speech in public by denying access to people whose poverty, malnutrition, and physical struggles emerged out of war, industrialization, and bodily difference, as Susan Schweik has analyzed. The Ugly Laws named these conditions unworthy of and disconnected from American political experience, while deeming nonnormative bodies and unfamiliar cultural practices incompatible with public expression; the speech and actions of poor and disabled people were rejected from public life and thus unavailable for evaluation as “free.”

The Ugly Laws make explicit a how a process of instantiating public freedom — including freedoms of speech, association, and movement — can work by rejecting and practicing violence upon bodies whose experiences and modes of communication are deemed too degrading and thus nonpublic, and who are denied political legibility even as they are available to state violence. From this perspective, debates about free speech are shaped by extant determinations of what counts as speech, which ideas qualify for public deliberation, and who counts as able to speak. Ugly Freedoms examines how political worlds are constructed in ways that enable modes of free speech (or freedom more broadly) that are violent, oppressive, and exclusionary, and deny other exercises of freedom as contemptible or even undetectable.

To conclude, I would like to ask you to consider a very straightforward and no doubt predictably Foucauldian question, namely: the question of power! When it comes to the regulation of freedom, what we ultimately end up discussing is that seemingly timeless issue of who gets to decide. Who decides, for example, the limits to free speech? This is where I find myself often dissatisfied with responses, not least since many calls to curtail freedoms (especially those that could be deemed vocally injurious) seem to come from authors who display the very types of moral puritanism you warned about previously. So, I guess my question here is that confronting the forces of fascism today, is there not an inherent danger if we seek to empower by recalling the sovereign right to ban?

I am not against banning fascist forms of power, but banning something is never as potent as it may seem in imaginaries of sovereign power. I would ask instead: What is the world we want to live in and fight for, and how do we do it within and against extant relations of violent power? I don’t think this happens only by banning oppressive forces like fascism, nor by arguing that they are not really freedom, that they are only a fake or false claim to real freedom — i.e., by moving the fight into a debate over what modes of power hold the true claim to freedom. Fascism, for one, articulates within practices of freedom — freedom found both in individual protection by a strong state and in violent domination over enemies within. It is too reassuring to claim that fascism is only falsely justified as a type of freedom, as this claim preserves freedom as a righteous, hallowed ideal. But the problem is not that fascism is a fake freedom but that this system of freedom constructs a brutal and subjugating world. How can different freedoms, grounded in different relations of power, both thwart fascist practices and militantly invest in composing its opposite: a nonhierarchical and livable world that builds from and celebrates difference within its communal power?

Fascism is obsessed with beauty as both rigid order and Aryan features, so it is also worth asking the question that propels ugly freedom: What freedoms are found in the places, peoples, and worlds that fascism rejects as ugly? What freedoms are practiced in its discarded or eliminated places, practices that might otherwise seem too disturbing, minor, or compromised to qualify for the grand descriptor of “freedom”? Ugly freedom finds inspiration in actions and alliances not only in familiar places like revolutionary action, social justice movements, or legal fights for equality, but also in small actions dismissed as worthless, or as being too ineffectual to build common worlds, or too puny compared to vaunted acts of revolutionary transformation. These manifestations are often scorned or disregarded precisely because they operate in maligned registers deemed inconsequential, gross, or embarrassing within traditional discourses of freedom — not only in fascist orders but in liberal ones.

This is the main question that propels my analysis of freedom: How do alternative freedoms divest from certain key iterations of modern freedom — including individual sovereignty, private property, appropriation, and possession as key values — while emphasizing how subjects act to make a just and equal world together? The freedoms I am interested envision political agency and freedom in dependence with other people, as well as nonhuman lives, which thrive in varied forms of mutual partnership, and which together make a bid for a world of equality and conviviality amid our common mess. It calls for a solidarity not necessarily of love, and certainly not of beauty, but of collaborative commitment to difficult alliances built from dependencies that cannot be willed away but can be negotiated or intensified to fight for equality, nonhierarchy, and reciprocity in co-composing our shared world — and this as an ongoing process of 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.