Review of Violence: Humans in Dark Times

Evans, Brad & Lennard, Natasha, Violence: Humans in Dark Times. San Fransisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2018, 335 pp., ISBN-10 0872867544

In her writings on violence and totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt famously used the term “dark times” to refer to not just the monstrosities of the 20th  century, but the necessity of countering violence with sustained intellectual engagement. Speaking of the importance of challenging abuses of power in all its forms, Arendt writes that, “even in the darkest times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth (Arendt 1968, p 7). In Violence: Humans in Dark Times, authors Brad Evans and Natasha Lennard take these words as inspiration, or rather, provocation, to examine the myriads of ways in which violence operates in the world today, and subsequently, how to confront it. In a series of conversations with theorists, activists, and artists, Evans and Lennard attempt to explore the role that violence plays in modern politics, culture, the media, public speech, intellectualism, and against the environment. This is a work that is meant for both scholarly and general audiences, as it combines nuanced critical analysis and personal testimony to create an accessible, albeit cerebral, picture of violence.

First published in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Review of Books, the twenty-nine interviews in this volume attempt to confront the complexities of violence in all the ways it is expressed and normalized. This begins, in the volume’s introduction, with a nuanced examination of the concept of violence itself. Evans and Lennard approach violence through an ethical lens, arguing that it is not some abstract or theoretical problem, but a “violation in the very conditions that constitute what it means to be human (p. 3).” Victimization, they contend, is not the only characteristic of violence. It is an intellectual and pedagogical force that is sustained through normalization via the media and rationalized via cultural definitions of what is permissible versus what is impermissible (p. 4). In their approach to violence, Evans and Lennard see art as integral to the political field, and thus, to the study of power. Subsequently, this volume consists of interviews with renowned critical scholars, artists, performers, writers, and thinkers, and it is in this treatment that Evans and Lennard present a powerful, complex, and thought-provoking understanding of violence in its varied forms, scales, and architectures. The medium of the interview, while limiting the depth of inquiry, allows for an increased scope of discussion and a degree of equity between interviewees, which in itself exemplifies the perspective through which Evans and Lennard approach the question of violence. That is, they contend, a discussion on violence demands an ethical platform based upon reciprocity, authenticity, and the inclusion of different voices and perspectives (ibid.).

While all of these interviews offer valuable, poignant, and intriguing conceptualizations of violence, Violence: Humans in Dark Times is structured around a few lines of inquiry that see multiple treatments. In “The Perils of Being a Black Philosopher” and “Violence to Thought,” George Yancy and David Theo Goldberg speak of the link between violence and the intellectual in the public arena (p. 31, p 213), discussing their experiences in the Trump era as a way of understanding the violence of “post-racial” America. In “The Violence of Forgetting” and “Living with Disappearance,” Henry A. Giroux and Allen Feldmen talk of ignorance and disappearance, discussing how denial affects the capacity for critical thought (p. 65, p. 291). These conversations on the threat to intellectualism are presented in tandem with thoughts on modern violence by noted thinkers such as Zygmunt Bauman (p. 43), Brian Massumi (p. 249), Elaine Scarry (p. 263), and Michael J. Shapiro (p. 301), all of whom eloquently discuss the ways in which their scholarship conceptualizes the problem of violence today.

As previously noted, the authors are particularly interested in the ways in which art and aesthetics can confront violence.  As Evans and Lennard suggest, art, when done properly, allows for a fundamental questioning of politics. It is directly concerned with questions of oppression and injustice, and has the potential to inspire new dialogues through alternative mediums of public engagement (p 199). To this end, they present interviews from a number of artists and performers. Simon Critchley discusses how the Roman tragedy affords us a unique perspective of modern U.S. politics (p. 19); Bracha L. Ettinger argues for art as a form of political and ethical intervention (p. 107); Gottfried Henwein examines the role of violence in his own work as an artist (p. 159); and Christopher Alden critiques the gendered politics of the opera (p. 225).

The breadth of analyses experienced in Violence: Humans in Dark Times is both integral to the volume’s argument, and a limiting factor in the search for a thorough conceptualization of violence. It is through these snapshots of how violence is conceptualized in different fields of study and experiences that Evans and Lennard highlight how it is an organizing principle of our modern times — not merely a matter of direct experience or structure, but an ontological phenomenon. However, the structuring of the book via interview, and not, for instance, topic, results in an unfinished, or perhaps uneven, conceptualization of violence. Readers are left wondering as to how these interviews connect to the overarching understanding of violence as an ethics.

While Evans and Lennard note that they are interested in considering the importance of both art and activism in reactions against and understandings of violence, the series would be well suited by the continued inclusion of theorists able to discuss how specific manifestations of violence — for instance, gendered violence, colonial violence, and/or violence against LGBTQ communities — can be understood and acted upon through art and intellectual engagement.

In its introduction, Violence: Humans in Dark Times channels Hannah Arendt in calling for illumination in the darkness. This darkness, Arendt explains, is the disorder and the hunger, “the massacres and the slaughterers … the despair… the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse (Arendt 1968, p 6)” that defines our modern times, and yet remains invisible, justified through systemic explanations and obfuscation. The metaphor of light and dark as a way to suggest the concepts of visibility and invisibility is intriguing in this aspect, as it suggests that the darkness itself is a kind of violence; an existential violence that begets acts and systems of violence. It is this violence, this ignorance of violence, that the illumination that Evans and Lennard present attempts to confront. The interviews in this volume, as small kindling or tiny flames, in the dark, begin a discussion on modern violence by speaking to those who experience, learn about, and utilize it in their lives and their work. While the editors do not engage directly with the question of what now, their interviews are perhaps meant more as a “spark” to inspire their readers into action, as a challenge that asks us to re-think our relationship with violence itself. In this way, Violence: Humans in Dark Times is an intriguing beginning to a much-needed sustained intellectual and aesthetic response to the horrors of modern times.

References:

Arendt, H., 1970. Men in Dark Times, First edition. Mariner, San Diego, CA

Evans, B., Lennard, N., 2018. Violence: Humans in Dark Times. City Lights Books, San Francisco, CA.

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