Building Education for the Commons
Violence & the Poetic Subject
Prof. Evans is a renowned political theorist/cultural commentator who writes extensively on the problem of violence.
Contemporary liberal societies are saturated by images and representations of violence. From twenty-four hour news coverage, the extreme torture of Hollywood blockbusters, to increasingly brutal gaming formats, the realities of violence have arguably never been so embedded in our cultural, economic and social fabric. Some might even argue that violence has become so normalized today that it is reaching the point of the banal, as its entertainment value supersedes any considered political and ethical questioning.
I want to open some discussion on this by specifically dealing with the question of violence in the age of the global spectacle, and to use this as a brief segue into the more urgent issue of how we might rethink the very idea of the political in the 21st century. Before I go into this, I would however like to outline some of the defining features of modern liberal societies (as I see them), which I believe to be important to this debate:
With these points in mind, lets now turn more specifically to the spectacle of violence. I would like to provide the following definition that comes from mine and Henry Giroux’s forthcoming book titled Disposable futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle (CityLights, 2015):
The spectacle of violence represents more than the public enactment and witnessing of human violation. It points to a highly mediated regime of suffering and misery, which brings together the discursive and the aesthetic such that the performative nature of the imagery functions in a politically contrived way. In the process of occluding and depoliticizing complex narratives of any given situation, it assaults our senses in order to hide things in plain sight. The spectacle works by turning human suffering into a spectacle, framing and editing the realities of violence, and in doing so renders some lives meaningful while dismissing others as disposable. It operates through a hidden structure of politics that colonizes the imagination, denies critical engagement and preemptively represses alternative narratives. The spectacle harvests and sells our attention, while denying us the ability for properly engaged political reflection. It engages agency as a pedagogical practice in order to destroy its capacity for self-determination, and autonomy, and self-reflection. It works precisely at the level of subjectivity by manipulating our desires such that we become cultured to consume and enjoy productions of violence, becoming entertained by the ways in which it is packaged which divorce domination and suffering from ethical considerations, historical understanding and political contextualization. The spectacle immerses us to experience violence as pleasure, positively invested in its occurrence, while attempting to render us incapable of either challenging the actual atrocities being perpetrated by the same system or directing our collective future in a different direction
There is however another side to this story. It was against twentieth-century forms of human disposability that we also began to appreciate the political potency of the arts as a mode of resistance as dystopian literatures, cinema, music, poetry, along with the visual and performing arts challenged conventional ways of interpreting catastrophe. Indeed, if the reduction of life to some scientific variable, capable of being manipulated and prodded into action as if it were some expendable lab-rat, became the hallmark of violence in the name of progress, it was precisely the strategic confluence between the arts and politics, which enabled us to challenge the dominant paradigms of twentieth-century thought.
And yet, despite the horrors of the previous Century of Violence, our ways of thinking about politics have remained tied to the types of scientific reductions that history warns to be integral to the dehumanization of the subject. What is more, as accelerating digital and communication revolutions radicalize the very contours of the human condition such that we are now truly “image conscious,” so too is life increasingly defined and altered by the visual gaze. This hasn’t led, however, to the harnessing of the power of imagination when dealing with the most pressing political issues. Indeed, regimes of power continue to eviscerate those irreducible qualities that distinguish humans from other predatory animals—namely love, cooperation, creative wonderment, and the drive to imagine and explore more just and egalitarian worlds than the one we have created for ourselves.
Neoliberalism is violence against the cultural conditions and civic agency that makes the political as understood to be the creation of new modes of existence possible. Critical theorists are of course well aware of the intellectual stakes here. Dogmatic advocates of “political science” and “analytical philosophy” often accuse critical thinkers concerned more with the irreducible qualities of the human condition as being too abstract or esoteric. This has led to the notable marginalization, subjugation and outright discrimination of those who argue that the forces of creativity, imagination and love for their fellow citizens are an emancipatory pedagogical force. And yet as Hannah Arendt understood all too well, for the most part, political violence is not carried out by irrational monsters. It is reasoned, rationalized, calculated and premised upon all too scientific and analytical claims that some lives are worth killing for the greater good.
Countering this requires more than a rigorous discussion on the ethical subject of violence. It demands an entirely new concept of the political. This brings me to a an important quote from Jacques Rancière’s recent book Figures of History, which resurrects what is an all too familiar (if unresolved) debate – to quote:
So we have to revise Adorno’s famous phrase, according to which art is impossible after Auschwitz. The reverse is true: after Auschwitz, to show Auschwitz, art is the only thing possible, because art always entails the presence of an absence; because it is the very job of art to reveal something that is invisible, through the controlled power of words and images, connected or unconnected; art alone makes the human perceptible, felt.[i]
Rancière’s revision of the Adorno question should be taken seriously. It’s purpose is to rethink the political function of art and aesthetics, and in doing so, allow us to reimagine a more artistic conception of the political that is not simply tied to perceptions of endangerment and the pure task of human survival. Along with Henry, my attempt to engage with this specifically is through the idea of what we are terming “the intolerable”. Indeed, it is our contention that by facing the intolerable we are provided with a view into what we might term truly “exceptional art”, wherein violence is dutifully considered against the terrifying normalization of its spectacles. The political function of aesthetics as such is more aligned here with forms of poetic intervention, speaking directly to the problem of human disposability in a way that disrupts the spectacle of violence and its aesthetic regimes of mediated suffering and abandonment.
By confronting the spectacle of violence with a more imaginative response, poetics allows us to offer a damning indictment of the contemporary moment. But we do need to take this idea of a poetic subject a stage further. What is needed is a critical and transformative discussion on the art of the political. Instead for instance of seeing aesthetics as integral to a concept of the political, the political itself should from the outset be recognized as a creative and imaginative process – an art for living tasked with the creation of better futures and peoples to come. This requires us to restore the political power of imagination and creativity, and it requires us to reclaim the idea that politics is an art and not a science. Perhaps then we might be able to take seriously Michel Foucault’s majestic demand: “From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art […].”[ii]
[i] Ranciere, Figures of History p. 49, 50
[ii] Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics
Brad Evans is a senior lecturer in international relations at the School of Sociology, Politics & International Studies (SPAIS), University of Bristol, UK and a member of the faculty at the Global Center for Advanced Studies. He is the founder and director of the histories of violence project. In this capacity, he is currently leading a global research initiative on the theme of “Disposable Life” to interrogate the meaning of mass violence in the 21st Century. Brad’s latest books include Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously (with Julian Reid, Polity Press, 2014), Liberal Terror (Polity Press, 2013) and Deleuze & Fascism (with Julian Reid, Routledge, 2013). He is currently working on a number of book projects, including Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle (with Henry Giroux, forthcoming, City Lights: 2015) andHistories of Violence: An Introduction to Post-War Critical Thought (with Terrell Carver, Zed Books, 2015).