Histories of Violence: Violence Still Demands a Conversation
By Brad EvansNovember 28, 2022
BACK IN NOVEMBER 2016, I instigated a meeting with the then-editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tom Lutz. I was ending a series of conversations on violence I had been leading for The New York Times. Inspired by the late Richard Bernstein’s point that societies don’t really like to talk too much about the subject, the series reflected a real need to have rigorous intellectual discussions dealing with a problem that appeared to be both timely and timeless. Writing for the Times was an enriching experience, yet I always felt the series could and needed to go further.
Mindful of the fact that violence was still being framed in very regimented ways, I was motivated, in my conversation with Tom, by the need to broaden the debate. In particular, I wanted to create a forum that would bring leading critical voices together with artists, writers, and cultural producers, along with practitioners and advocates. My goal was to give an equal platform to various publicly engaged persons and, especially, to insist upon the need to take more seriously the importance of the arts and humanities in developing a viable critique of violence.
At the time I began conducting the first conversation with the acclaimed film director Oliver Stone, parts of the world were bracing themselves for considerable political upheaval. As a majority in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. We are still working through the divisive implications of this today. These events have also had a marked bearing on this series, instigating a number of conversations on the links between violence, identity, and the social media spectacle.
Since launching the column, we have also needed to deal with the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and have tried to reflect on the violence of 9/11. Among my proudest achievements are the volumes I put together with the editorial staff at LARB, as we complemented the interview series with “The Quarantine Files” and the symposium “When the Towers Fell,” which were also published in ebook format.
It’s always nearly impossible to gauge the success or failure of any kind of intellectual public initiative. I have no idea whether the series had any impact, though I remain truly humbled by the trust shown to me by so many brilliant thinkers along the way. The column continues to lead to inquiries from major trade and university presses, a fact that I can only take as a measure of some reputational achievement. The series has run for six years and featured 58 discussions. I increasingly recognized, however, that it was time to bring it to a close and take the conversation in a different direction.
When I set out to run the column, it was my intention to avoid simply speaking with persons I agreed with. I wanted to create a space where challenging ideas could be presented, where open discussion was tolerated, and where I could also learn to be challenged and have my own assumptions questioned. I still maintain that this is necessary. But I am troubled by the notion that maybe I didn’t go far enough. Could the series have been even more inclusive? Was it, on occasion, following predictable trends? Was I still operating within certain intellectual comfort zones? And, worse still, had I been shamefully, if subconsciously, compromising or complicit in policing the boundaries of what passed as acceptable “critical thinking”?
So, instead of engaging here in some final self-congratulatory statement, as we draw the curtain down on this series, I believe it’s important to recognize its limitations so that another conversation becomes possible. I strongly believe that violence demands a conversation. But what does that conversation look like? With whom do we speak? Whom do we invite onto our platforms? And is it really worth the effort to reconcile our differences?
There are three areas I would now like to address, which I think are important moving forward. They derive from the ways my own thinking on violence has changed as a direct result of the conversations in this series, which were not in any way divorced from the violence of the world.
First, staying true to my pedagogical commitment to critique violence in all its forms, if there has been one question that has guided each of the conversations, it has simply been to ask, “what exactly is violence?” Of course, this is a fraught question, but it is one that is inescapable in terms of how we ethically conceptualize all our most cherished ideas, including security, freedom, rights, and justice. Yet in this pursuit, had I not been guilty on occasion of flattening out the topic? I am not talking here about falling back once again on crude quantitative measures of battlefield deaths. But how do we still make the case that there is a fundamental difference between a concentration camp and a single targeted killing? Or how can we still retain some perspective when dealing with persons who endure decades of structural violence in conditions of dire poverty by contrast with someone who is offended by something a faraway stranger happens to write on Twitter? I understand that language can be injurious. But I have also learned that we can go too far in the direction of affective response and lose sight of actual bodily assault, as the material conditions of life are superseded by subjective, at times dubious, emotional claims to truth.
Second, the period during which this series has appeared has been notably defined by an acceleration in identity-based divisions, largely prompted by responses to brutal state killings, and further dynamized by the vapid technologization of politics. While this has instigated important conversations on the continued legacies of historical persecution, I have become increasingly troubled by the ways that politics has become bound to narratives of victimization, which has inevitably turned suffering into a competition. This led to one of the most important conversations in the series, with Vincent Brown, as we sought to make sense of the vexed relations between power, violence, and privilege. Moreover, while conservative voices have had recourse to their familiar moral indignations, I have watched in dismay as the “radical voice” has become indistinguishable from a position of ethical certitude that places particular groups unquestionably on the right side of history. Those who continually cried “reactionary” became the most insufferable. But had I not also contributed to this in some way? Was I imposing the reductionism of privilege onto the experiences of those who materially had very little? Was I becoming too seduced by a bourgeois language and a desire to be accepted in the new critical playgrounds that took the conversation further away from class?
Finally (and related to this), our political discussions have over the past decade only become more insular and reaffirming. If the hardest thing to do is learn to outlive one’s own willful capture, the most challenging is to learn to listen and engage with those who see and feel the world entirely differently. Over the period the column has run, I have watched in dismay as those who rightly criticized the ways the mantra “we don’t speak to terrorists” denied a necessary solution to intractable geopolitical problems were replaced by a new digital army who insisted that “we don’t speak to fascists.” What would the situation in Ireland look like today if, 30 years ago, communities insisted that they wouldn’t speak to those whom they had found intolerable for decades? What might the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq look like today if, after 9/11, a nonviolent solution was sought? Do we really believe that anything but a political solution will resolve the war in Ukraine? We need to talk and not preach, just as we need to listen and not cancel, respectfully disagree and not shame. But have I not also been bound by my own limitations? Should I have reached out more to the “wrong” kinds of people? Might we all learn something more by engaging with those who, at the level of their ideas, seem to us properly “Other”?
I would like to conclude with two anecdotes. Earlier this year, my wife, Mexican artist Chantal Meza, and I traveled to the United States to give a series of lectures at Harvard University and the University of Oregon. This was a tale of two Americas. The latter in particular had a profound impact. Portland was an assault on the senses. We were used to seeing extreme poverty in Mexico and even parts of the United Kingdom, but the bleakness of the downtown area was truly unsettling. How is one to properly make sense of a shadow city of homelessness, with thousands of the destitute, addicted, and mentally ill living in makeshift tents outside of art galleries and restaurants? This was as close as I had experienced to a dystopian realism.
The focus for my Portland talk was the violence of absent space, notably attending to how digital technology was authoring its own forms of disappearance and annihilation. After my lecture, I was brought to task by an inspirational and unquestionably radical Black rights activist who was working with local housing projects. His criticism, however, sent me sideways, not because he disagreed with me, but because, in his argument, he cited Jordan Peterson, asking me if I was familiar with his work. What was so perturbing as he passionately talked about Peterson? Was I disappointed, and if so, why? Did I expect him to cite W. E. B. Du Bois or passages from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth? Or was I guilty of invoking a different kind of prejudice, which once again compartmentalized and essentialized in the name of a supposedly authentic radicalism? Was I demanding and expecting a particular conversation that conformed to my ideas of what Black radicalism should be like? Maybe, then, I needed to learn a lesson about a more open kind of engagement — one that doesn’t prejudge, isn’t selective or self-validating, and doesn’t seek to impose predetermined truths, however orthodox or radical they may claim to be.
Shortly after the very first conversation was published, in January 2017, I was contacted by the comedian and commentator Russell Brand to see if I would be willing to appear as the inaugural guest on his podcast Under the Skin. We have since become good friends, and I have followed in admiration his journey along the way. What’s been interesting to observe is how Brand went from being a vilified figure for both the right and the orthodox left to becoming the scorn of cancel culture radicals (unsurprisingly, perhaps, given his outrageous and free-spirited style). Could it simply be that he exposes how irrelevant the outdated categories of left versus right, liberal versus conservative, and radical versus normal have actually become in these times?
It seems that many people simply cannot abide the fact that most things are far from obvious, clear, and certain. While I may have sharp disagreements with some of Brand’s ideas (including his faith in the power of cosmic spirituality), what he has come to embody is, I believe, a calling for a new metacentrism, which just might be the kind of fresh political imagination we need right now. Big ideas still matter. But how do we put them forward in a way that lets us heal divisions and create a better future without precluding those who have the temerity to see the world differently? Moreover, as Brand shows, this demands a conversation with persons with whom we may fundamentally disagree and whose thoughts we may even feel to be violent. That is the challenge we face, as it always has been when it comes to human conflict.
Respectful of this, I would like to end with a paraphrased quote from Kafka, adapted to fit the ethos of the kind of conversation that will be necessary as we look to take our discussion forward:
I think we ought to [engage in conversations] that wound or stab us. If the [conversation we’re having] doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we [speaking] for? So that it will make us happy, as you [listen]? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no [conversations], and the kind of [conversations] that make us happy are the kind we could [have with] ourselves if we had to. But we need [conversations] that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A [conversation] must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.
Professor Brad Evans is the Director for the Centre for the Study of Violence at the University of Bath, UK. He is Chair of Political Violence & Aesthetics. More details on his work can be found here: www.brad-evans.co.uk.
Featured image: Marsden Hartley. Abstraction: Blue, Yellow, and Green, circa 1913. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Morton D. May. www.lacma.org. Accessed November 11, 2022.
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