Review published in Art Monthly no. 446. May 2021
You can buy issue 446 of Art Monthly here.
Tidily packaged in these few hundred pages is a history of histories, each one shaped and structured by forms of violence, prevailing politics, aggressive systemic inequalities and the lived experience of them: conversations with 30 of the world’s most informed voices on the diversity of violence and how it is understood today. And one conversation with Russell Brand.
The topics explored through these various conversations, from life in the unofficially segregated West Side of Chicago (the first discussion) to the political viability of pacifism (the final entry), give an insight into world views that are as intricately and politically connected as they are culturally distinct. They traverse the globe and cross academic, social and political boundaries to feed the reader just what is necessary to understand how violence applies to, for example, the history and legacy of slavery or the uses of algorithms within predictive policing. It would be an epic challenge to dive into the bibliographies and back catalogues of each of the invited interviewees, but the book comprehends its remit fully: meaningful conversations that cut through the weight of past achievements and the pleasantries of career highlights to illuminate unnoticed patches of violence in the world in order to bear witness to, and offer voices against, these violences.
Both editors, Brad Evans and Adrian Parr, have prodigious and multifaceted outputs that share remarkable similarities in the way they engage the public. Evans is the engine behind the Histories of Violence project, which aims to explore the violence of the human condition through books and essays, videos, a podcast series and published interviews. Parr is an eminent scholar, philosopher and activist in the fields of climate change and water security, using books and engaging conversations through the TAFTtalks and H2OTalks webseries to communicate how pressing these issues are. While this collection easily slots into Evans’s Histories project, the inclusion of Parr as co-editor demonstrates how violent climate degradation is, and how much violence is of global and ecological concern. What it also does is continue both editors’ method of Socratic debate.
Long-form conversations are personal and are one of the few forms that favour anecdote, the uncitable and the unsubstantiated as much as they value deep academic research and theoretical insight. The editorial decision to present the 31 conversations without a framework of arbitrary or conceited themes works in the collection’s favour. The tragedies and traumas of George Floyd’s murder, the subsequent reignition of the Black Lives Matter protests and the social upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic hardly make mention;these issues aren’t consciously ignored but are shown to be symptoms of a much longer history of violence.
To ask if the contemporary moment is an age of violence is to ask the wrong question. Conversations on Violence is not about quantifying or even defining something that – as is stated in the book’s introduction – should be “intolerable”. The correct questions, which this book does incredibly well to illustrate and strives towards, are: how can we view the scaffold that allows this violence to occur? Are there meaningful ways we can affect, resist and counter violence?
The two overarching figures here are Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, whose works are referenced throughout, from the introduction to the final discussion. From Arendt, there is an insistence on thinking and rethinking violence productively, in a sustained and targeted manner. Likewise, from Benjamin, we get an interrogation of violence that considers the structure behind its often-devastating manifestations and how these are tailored to their times. When violence is most evident, when governments are bearing arms and inciting riots or allowing murder, then those regimes are at their weakest; when violence takes place is just as important as how it occurs.
Although there are many references to Arendt and Benjamin, however, I think that despite comparatively scant references to him throughout the book (only Lewis Gordon directly engages with his writings) it is the legacy of Frantz Fanon that holds the most weight.That is to say the need for decolonisation and decolonial moments across so many spheres of life is urgent. To live in a world that demands decolonisation is to live in a world shaped by imperialism – the ‘highest form of capitalism’ (to quote Vladimir Lenin). And so, whether it is the rise of predictive policing (Davide Panagia), mass climate degradation and ecocide – and its denial – promoted by profits (Santiago Zabala, Martha Rosler, Parr) or recent changes in humanitarianism (Mark Duffield, Zabala again, Gareth Owen), so much of the critique hinges on resistances to neoliberalism and modern capitalism as the motors driving the disastrously manifest and perniciously tacit violence we recognise today. At every turn, I would argue, following Fanon, this necessitates a counter violence. The voices brought together here by Evans and Parr provide many of the tools, if not the starting kit, to do so.