Without Exception: On the Ordinariness of Violence

THIS IS THE 21st in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Lauren Berlant, who teaches at the University of Chicago. Her most recent books are Sex, or the Unbearable (with Lee Edelman, 2013), Desire/Love (2012), and Cruel Optimism (2011). She is currently working on affects like inconvenience and humorlessness, and in 2019 will publish The Hundreds (Duke University Press), co-written with the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart.


BRAD EVANS: I’d like to begin this discussion with a rather generic question on the concept of “violence.” What do you understand by the term? And how might we think of its relevance in the contemporary climate where we are witness almost on a daily basis to declarations and liberation of prejudice in the so-called “mainstream”?

LAUREN BERLANT: Politics is a war of attrition. In the contemporary moment from so many positions of structural privilege and vulnerability the friction is ratcheted up, disinhibited, refusing to constrain itself along the lines of an older mask of aspirational civility or the liberal model that calls on natural empathy to ground inclusion in the social and political field. But the current intensification of what feels like the direct action called “violence” does not point to a new kind of violence. Calvin Warren and Fred Moten have argued that the worlds of white privilege have long been held together by the pervasive violence of their reduction of black being to the something that is deemed a nothing. Wendy Brown has argued that the enjoyment of class and gender inequality and the righteous affect of contempt among the privileged include the weapon of the “toleration” of difference, which actually fixes subordinating hierarchies. Michael Dawson and other theorists of racial capitalism show how these histories saturate modernity.

But both structural and direct violence have intensified during the current phase of the global rise of the reactionary, national-xenophobic right. The very multiplication and convergence of activist genres now tell us something about the contemporary breakup of what were always thin hegemonic coexistence agreements. As Lyotard and Rancière have written, politics is constituted by a disagreement about whose representation of the event will secure protocols and resources for valuing some claims and grievances over others. This is why people’s moods and gestures appear so out of scale now — activists of all ideologies are refusing to be reasonable — flexible, adaptable — in the old ways. Lots of this is reactionary: among the structurally privileged there’s an epidemic of complaint that repudiates belonging and wishes for the expulsion of people with whom they have lived, politically speaking, side by side. But also, thanks to the refreshed consciousness among subordinated publics of the ordinary of sexual, racial, national, and class privilege and violence, there are fewer and fewer agreed-on principles in place for assessing pervasive assault, insult, and injury. I’ve called one symptom of this new exposure “genre flailing.” We see it everywhere in attempts to find analogies for events that disturb how we process cause and consequence in the historical present. For example, the concept of the “microaggression” had to be invented to create a disagreement about whether events that happen between people are specific to the unique situation or are general expressions of structural inequality. Of course the answer is always both. But even if we agree that a microaggression is a macroaggression that appears in an episode, and see that its smallness is not evidence of its unimportance, we may not agree on how things add up and where accountability lies. Then we debate the genre of the event, drawing lines across what feels singular and personal and what’s a predictable expression of the general social infrastructure (racism, misogyny, homophobia, class prejudice, national exceptionalism, religious bigotry). Often, to serve the privileged, what appears in the capital letters of scandal is amplified to whisk attention away from the social infrastructure toward a localized scene of urgency. Scandals blow over but structures don’t.

So I would say that, in this intense moment of orchestrated movements and shifting alliances, this renewed dream of an awakened civil society, we’re in a transitional time in our assessment of the relation of the incident and the event to our sense of how to shift the scale and texture of violence. We are fighting for new ways to care about, redress, and refuse the reproduction of the ordinary of violence. We are fighting to pay a different price for struggle and to force consequences on those who historically have minimized their exposure. It is a hard and necessary time for activists to be suffering the enigma of a suffering that doesn’t, at the visceral level, feel very enigmatic at all. But refusing the self-evidence of violence, insisting on tracking its intricate technologies, finding new genres for naming and responding to it (see all the proliferating Twitter handles) are necessary for reconceiving and doing damage to the reproduction of structural — predictable and conventional — violence.

We know that violence is something much more than mere bodily violation. Mindful of this, not only is there a need, as you have stressed in your work, to appreciate more rigorously the politics of time and how this often shapes modes of perception (especially regarding endangerment), there is also a need to address what is heard and unheard from victims of history. How do you understand the act of silencing?

For many of us who’ve lived on the bottom or in the dark corners of social value, the desire to make a claim on the world is accompanied by fear, shame, and a history of humiliation both directly, by other people, and indirectly, in the sense that one comes to expect nothing while wanting to force into existence so much. Much of what we call silence isn’t silence at all but political speech and communication that are not listened to. So if some of the violence of silencing is a genuine suppression of speech, most of it is really the experience of communicative impotence: the experience of others’ aversion to taking in and becoming different in response to the force of what one says.

More concretely, during teaching quarters I tattoo a phrase on my arm: “What would it mean to have that thought?” It points us to the inadequacy of the silence/speech dichotomy. It’s not that we aren’t talking, or aren’t being heard in a way that could be repeated technically. It means that people often can’t bear to be changed by what they hear. “What would it mean to have that thought?” means, what would it mean to see the world through those lenses, that framework, that proposition? What would it mean really to take in what we hear and to walk around the world with it and test it out, rehearsing what it would mean for it to be the case? When even our political allies phrase proposals and demands that jar us, to “silence” them means to rest with our first resistance to what we’ve heard: and to allow it to be speech means to sit with it, to generate cases and examples — to give the speech potential life. It’s much harder to de-silence inconvenient speech than it seems.

Your work is widely accredited for pushing forward thinking on the issues of vulnerability. In particular you have insisted upon moving away from universalizing tendencies, which often risk flattening out gendered-, racial-, and class-based distinctions. What does vulnerability offer us today in developing a meaningful critique of violence?

A few things. As a scholar of affect I tend to look at the difference between a structure and an experience of the impact of the world. So structurally everyone is vulnerable. We are all taking in the world and responding to it, being disturbed even by people and institutions we’re attached to and people we don’t know but somehow take personally as though their very existence were a challenge to us. Authoritarians are motivated by many things, such as to consolidate ownership and control of the whole scope of life, but they also recognize their vulnerability to the uncontrollability of labor power and non-normative minds; so much terrible bullying and aggression live in the same space as the vulnerability that feels like an unbearable tenderness. The question isn’t how does vulnerability provide a measure for restorative justice — it doesn’t — but, what are the different costs people pay for defending themselves? That’s another way to measure privilege: by way of the available cushions and defenses against the impediments of vulnerability.

Secondly, the structure of vulnerability — from living in toxic and unequal intimacies, working unlivable worklives that barely sustain our bodies and the comfort worlds we scavenge together — isn’t always felt as vulnerability. It can be felt as desperation, numbness, realism, misery, mania, rage at others, radical confidence loss, or exhaustion and depletion. So one thing thinking with “vulnerability” can do is to expand our understanding of the difference between structural vulnerability and the piercing social atmospheres it generates. Another thing it can do is to make us realize that the ambition not to feel vulnerability is an asocial desire, since sociality produces being vulnerable to each other at many scales, in many senses.

I could go on, but thinking with your question makes me realize a few things. One is that the reason many of us choose “precarity” over vulnerability to describe a wearing state of exposure is that the latter seems more personal and visceral whereas the former always also points to what’s formal and structural — impersonal — about what pressures ordinary living on at the moment. The other resistance is that I don’t share your desire for levers that allow for “a meaningful critique of violence,” if “meaningful” means that a good critique will shift the terms in which violence reproduces its banality or predictability. I don’t believe that a well-phrased critique will break the world-sustaining processes that protect the privileged, although that brokenness won’t happen without critique. To break the back of the reproduction of the violence we repudiate (inequality, unfairness, racist/sexist/class biopolitics, for example) we have to disturb the intelligibility of the world, the terms of fairness, responsibility, and of consent, which actually is more likely in the short term to increase the experience of vulnerability rather than protect us from further proximity to it. That’s another way to describe the machinery that animates the intensified frictions of the crisis of the historical present.

I fully accept here your concerns with “meaningful” critique as a critical leveler and the need to shift the terms of engagement in the order of what is rendered (in)telligible. I’d like to connect this back to your powerful phrase “unbearable tenderness.” Can you explain a bit more about this in the context of the nomalization of violence and abuse?

We call things unbearable when we are at a breaking point or broken one; we call things unbearable when we have to bear them. Unbearable tenderness is the state of recognizing that there’s no protecting oneself from the world one is trying to survive — unwelcome, under-resourced, or with exhausted defenses. It points to an unrelenting receptivity that resists defenses. For activists, the ambition to survive the world and further disturb it produces psychic loads so very difficult to carry, seeking out breathing room for life while seeking to make more disturbance.

You have continuously warned of the dangers of focusing on the politics of the exception. Why do you think political philosophy has such a fascination with the concept? And what might we do differently when thinking about those ritualistic abuses, which are so normalized and part of the social fabric, they appear hidden in plain sight?

People are so powerfully attached to an image of the ordinary world as offering potentially a smooth life that they have to classify radical disturbance as an exception. Plus, critical theorists tend to cite Walter Benjamin’s “state of exception” as though this is what he meant. There are lots of problems with this model of interruption, but to me the strongest problem is that to exceptionalize trauma presumes too much about the scale of the event, as though the first moment of intensity reveals an ontology of the event’s significance. This especially matters in relation to the ordinary abrasions of unfairness or inequality, and is deeply ahistorical. Traumas happen within life, over time; so do ordinary disturbances. They spread throughout the lifeworld, the tradition, the constraints on imagining consequences, the projection of qualities on kinds of persons, the association of some kinds of person with some kinds of injury, one’s own visceral responses, one’s own dreamlife, one’s conscious and unconscious bargaining and arguing with the world, et cetera. This is why trauma theorists have to talk both about events and environments, the atmospheres that shape one’s capacity to attach to the world. The exception is an argument about and a wish that life doesn’t have to be constantly disturbed this way. But to me, to stay clear-eyed in the scene of violence, we have to follow the many causes that induce incidents with a world-jolting force that shakes our confidence in how to live. Exceptionality as a genre and desire gets in the way of that.

To conclude, I’d like to ask your thoughts on the recent high-profile cases and political responses to sexual violence in the workplace. How do you understand the intimacy of such violence, and what might we learn from this as it relates to academic settings where power relations are so apparent and also the capacity for abuse increasingly exposed?

Apart from my essay “The Predator and the Jokester,” I’ve mostly been holding my public tongue on this topic because so many of the public writers on #MeToo and sexuality in academia are friends or ex-friends, and I can’t depersonalize the debates sufficiently. My previous responses on genre flailing in the face of specific incidents point to the symptomatic distortions that we are by necessity offering in this early phase of the public exposure of the open secret of abuse, manipulation, and desire in workplaces.

Workplaces are at once vertical — demanding deference — and horizontal, demanding collaboration. You see in the terrible examples of cajoling, seduction, and threat that toggle between the equality presumption of collegial interdependence and the enforcement of deference hierarchies when power feels neglected or insufficiently amplified. Virginia Woolf predicted this long ago in A Room of One’s Own, representing woman as that being who’s forced, simply by convention and not by extraordinary monsters, to lubricate every situation of difference by magnifying the power source back to himself as twice his size. Femininity as a training in flattery and the going-underground of critique.

My main response to this moment of revolt is to be flooded by flashbacks to all of the crap I’ve given and eaten in my career. I needed and continue to need an education in how to deal with the queasy combo of interdependency and violence involved in maintaining a gatekeeping hierarchy, as academia is. Then there are all of the manifest and tacit misogynist insults I’ve been hit by that are not just against women in general but against the way I wear gender — all my desperate attempts to be a clarity machine but not too scary, but being too scary and compensating with an amped-up warmth, while committed to being reliable and direct but not a jerk, and not always succeeding at that. Then there’s the difficulty of bearing the pressure of what feels like an over-personal commentary stream — women are policed, including by each other, like crazy. Then there’s trying to propose concepts that might clarify the costs of the difference machine whose wreckage is everywhere around us.

Living as the negative subject of any inequality requires so much creative energy to be taken up in microadjustments and improvised defenses: at least the intimate publics of subordinated peoples communicate these strategies and provide life-affirming solace and generative direction. Thus it’s a moment of increased and uncomfortable exposure here too in #MeToo, where a better adjudication of injustice is being worked out but only in some places, and there, inevitably, awkwardly. To change our genres we have to be stupid and exposed in front of each other; it’s no good to retreat into some free past that was never free, but to unlearn the habits of maintaining a system just to get through the day, the week, the month, the life.


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.