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Histories of Violence: Anatomy of Destruction

THIS IS THE 22nd in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Gil Anidjar, who teaches at Columbia University. His most recent book in English is Blood: A Critique of Christianity, published in 2014.

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BRAD EVANS: We cannot think about violence without some relationship to destruction. Whether we are talking about the destruction of bodies, lives, cities, or potentially the entire planet, to maim or to kill something implies a certain devastation and negation. And yet, as you have argued, the concept of destruction itself is under-theorized. What do you understand by the concept, especially in terms of violence and its affects?

GIL ANIDJAR: Following the conversation we had for the “disposable life” project, I began to work on weapons, and more broadly, on means of destruction, a topic that seems to have interested primarily military historians and students of science and technology, rather than philosophers debating power or violence. Beyond the question of means, however, and specifically with regard to destruction, I found myself predictably looking for a vocabulary. [1] In the nuclear age (the phrase seems as quaint as it remains accurate), which is also the age of drones, of global immiseration, and of environmental devastation, it would be banal to assert that the word “violence” has lost its capacity to describe and its power to affect us. Its numerous qualifiers notwithstanding (ethnic and religious violence have long been at the top of the list, along with political violence, with sexual violence perhaps rising in the current consciousness), we seem to have endowed every aspect of existence with a measure of violence, at the same time as we continue to dream (awake, as Steven Pinker seems to) a world with less, or even without, violence. A more positive way of saying this is simply that the word “violence” (just like the word “war” — on cancer, drugs, poverty, or terror) is made to bear too much of a burden, made to account for too much. I am still uncertain of the value of what I seek, but I do wonder whether we might gain a different measure of understanding were we to disentangle violence from destruction.

One consequence, it seems to me, would be to recognize that, just as worlds may end with a whimper, destruction can occur with no violence to speak of. Consider plastic (it might once have seemed trivial to juxtapose it to war) and what it is doing to oceans and to life as a whole. Or think of the effects of corn syrup on human health, think of antibiotics or of radioactivity, of animal extinction. Much is being destroyed with no violence at all, far away from any field of open conflict, and short of immediate lethality too (but we know very well that death is not always the worst that can happen, that much can occur that brings life to unthinkable thresholds of unbearability, with torture techniques or entire camps, for instance, or else a “health system” seemingly designed to keep death somehow at bay, and letting in much worse). Granted, it remains possible to identify a certain kind of violence in these, in survival itself, in the privatization of water or of schooling, which makes both inaccessible. One might also argue that violence is always destructive. But even then, it would mean thinking violence under a different, perhaps a larger, more differentiated heading. It would require that we suspend, if only for analytic purposes, the question of violence and turn our attention to destruction. It would mean altering the map of our concerns and render thinkable a different range of things in their vanishing, however extended, complete, or final.

A second aspect of my sense of an impoverished vocabulary has to do with the manifest expanse of our lexicon of action and of production, of making and of doing, of work and agency, construction and performance. The no doubt necessary hegemony of activity and activism (barely countered by a few thinkers of passivity, and fluctuating victimologies) has left us with little resources to think destruction outside of dialectics (the proverbial omelette), or as anything else than a kind of waste or “collateral damage.” Destruction, although it is clearly ubiquitous, and increasingly visible around us, has no analytics, no typology, no dedicated perspective — assuming such is even possible. Even violence, unleashed in and by collectives and, of course, by states, can often be discussed with no considerations of the means by which it is exercised (even Clausewitz could not be bothered to think about weapons in any serious manner). Everything is as if politics (what Hannah Arendt insisted on calling “world-making”) is only destructive, world-destroying, by a kind of unfortunate necessity, by accident, perversity, or evil. The misuse, perhaps, of a technology that could go both ways, always both ways. Law, to take, perhaps, a different example, has destroyed countless lives (from property to slavery and genocide) but it is doggedly conceived as “constructive,” a realm of deeds, actions, and decisions. “Just do it” is a ruling motto as we strive to be, or imagine ourselves, make ourselves (great again) into some version of homo faber or homo laborans. Never homo vastans. Like Aristotle, we appear to think that becoming-nothing is merely the reverse, if not a mere side effect, of becoming, of coming to be. [2]

Destruction is, as I said, everywhere. And it is many. We are surrounded by it and it is all over the news, all over history. Think of the old and not so old gods of destruction, of biblical or medieval plagues (one could go, literally, kabbalistic on the beginning and the end of the world); think of “creative destruction” (Marx, Schumpeter) or think, again, of the ongoing destruction of the environment. We know that destruction is upon us, and we can recognize it in everything we see, watch, and read (the spectacular destruction that takes place in film and popular culture would deserve a discussion of its own). We are, you could say, witnesses to it, albeit hardly passive witnesses. Few, at any rate, have seriously pondered destruction in a sustained manner.

Learning from Avital Ronell, I have tried to argue that Heidegger is among a handful who did pursue a thinking of destruction. Heidegger did not advocate for destruction — he was no Nietzsche — but he proposed a typology of destruction (incidentally, a highly troubling one, as troubling as other and very much related issues that have attracted much more attention), where he discriminates between destruction, extermination, and devastation. [3] Anticipating Foucault, who distinguished oppressive and coercive power from productive and enabling power, Walter Benjamin had earlier identified three modalities of power: constructive, preserving, and destructive. It is, I think, crucial that Benjamin placed that last one in radical discontinuity with the previous two and called it “divine.” [4]

Simona Forti intrigues me, therefore, when she argues in New Demons that, under the “Dostoevsky paradigm,” power is dominantly thought of as primarily destructive. On the one hand, I completely agree. On the other hand, I keep encountering, and puzzling over, iterations of the Foucauldian doxa I just mentioned (one might call it a Vichian doxa, after Giambattista Vico and his “verum factum” principle). Georges Bataille could have put it even more paradoxically than he did in The Accursed Share, when he wrote that “[w]e can ignore or forget the fact that the ground we live on is little other than a field of multiple destructions. Our ignorance only has this incontestable effect: it causes us to undergo what we could bring about in our own way, if we understood.” But “we” (whoever this we might be) are bringing it about, and Bataille’s prophetic tone is sadly warranted as this ignorance “consigns men and their work to catastrophic destructions.”

When we encounter forms of destruction in our media-saturated age, often the focus is concentrated upon exceptional events that have a distinct temporality and spatial reckoning. Such destruction often centers on the spectacular eruption and apocalyptic narratives of ruination. What happens to our understanding of violence if the speed and intensities for worldly destruction are slowed down and re-concentrated?

It would be excessive to propose that there is always something manifest or spectacular in every instance of violence. Violence can be hidden, covert, and most importantly, denied. If I insist on the need to disentangle violence and destruction, it is because the temporality of destruction is not only distinct from the temporality of construction (the atomic bomb vaporized people and buildings in an instant, at a speed which no construction site could ever match, let alone repair or redeem). Destruction may also be distinct from the realm of action (at least any legal model of action), or again, from any recognizable violence (Atomic Homefront, the HBO documentary, exposes the radioactivity still found in St. Louis, Missouri, the effects of the uranium imported from the Belgian-colonized Congo during World War II for the making of the bomb). The role of the bulldozer (a word with roots in the violence inflicted on blacks in America) in what we still call the reshaping of the American landscape is as evident — and as invisible in its destructiveness — as the effect it continues to have on Palestinians. In this country, nonwhite and poor minorities have been repeatedly displaced, their dwellings destroyed by this “constructive” technology.

But how do we even measure the destructiveness of BPA, of insecticides, and of the endless array of chemicals that are now an “active” part of our environment? What do we make of surveillance as a destructive weapon? [5] Ivan Illich spoke of the siren of an ambulance as destroying the most basic of solidarities. In a proximate register, what might we recognize as “economic weapons”? What national and international laws? What policies? And what exactly is the nature of our current regime of consumption (a word which the dictionary still lists first as a synonym for destruction)? What “destructive drives” (to invoke psychoanalyst André Green) have ruled and governed us? And if they have, should we not think of regimes and of conditions, of modes and means of destruction? In addition to documenting instances of violent destruction, or counter them with more destruction, should we not try to formulate an account of destruction? An account of ourselves as and among vectors of destruction?

I sense your work has been notably indebted to many scholars within the so-called continental tradition, notably Jacques Derrida. I have always been struck by his often forgotten work on ruins and how this allows us to rethink the violence of time. How do you understand ruination and are we not already walking among the ruins of the present?

Derrida has been a constant inspiration, yes. I had not realized the extent to which destruction is inscribed throughout his work. [6] From the first book to the last, for instance, Derrida returned to Husserl’s Ideas, and to a paragraph in it (§ 49) that formulates the phenomenological approach as a kind of apocalyptic exercise, in which consciousness operates as a remnant of the annihilation of the world (Weltvernichtung). But destruction, the destruction of the book and the famous destruction by fire of The Postcard’s correspondence, Freud’s death drive and the Holocaust, and yes, you are right, traces and ruins, are found all over his work. [7] Derrida early on made clear that deconstruction stood in a difficult proximity to Heidegger’s Destruktion and to Husserl’s Abbau (these two concepts were cited again and again in Derrida’s early work). The oft-repeated claim that none of these terms have anything to do with destruction (every word purified to some catachrestic core) opens a space of interrogation, the rudiments of an analytics. The necessary possibility of death that is the condition of possibility of writing, of the mark, in general, implies a sustained reflection on the question of destruction, on technology as a means of destruction, and it is one that Derrida sustained in his writings on Heidegger and Freud, Benjamin and Celan, and more. The seminars on the death penalty are meticulous in their attentiveness to the means of execution. But I have barely scratched the surface in what I have written about destruction in Derrida and elsewhere.

If Nietzsche was true in his claim about nihilism as being the devastating motor of modern history, then we might see the capacity for destruction as something intimately woven into the fabric of those societies that claim to eradicate its presence. How does the destructive impulse lead into self-destruction and the self-authoring of a certain will to extinction?

I hesitate to equate destruction with nihilism (and vice versa), or even to historicize destruction. Since Vico, history is, after all, the history of making and of production, which may have to be recognized, albeit too easily, as ultimate markers of nihilism. On the other hand, I am certainly struck by the fact that modern weapons have all originated in the West (which would finally come to existence, perhaps, as a series of exercises in “destructive creation”), but I am trying not to draw familiar conclusions, unavoidable as they might be. Nor would I presume to offer an account that ties destruction in a determined manner to the desire to eradicate it, to destroy it. We do know (from Derrida, among others) the violence involved in the effort to eradicate violence. And I very much agree with you that, as we think about destruction — with and without psychoanalysis — we must attend to self-destruction. I already mentioned André Green, but after Sabina Spielrein, after Freud and Melanie Klein, and also away from them, it was Donald Winnicott who famously established destruction a necessary condition for learning to cope with and make “use” of reality, an essential moment in the relation of parent and child (the fear and willingness to be destroyed), though I imagine the psychoanalysts, like the Heideggerians, will rightly say that destruction does not mean destruction here either. Catachresis returns. And yet …

Derrida’s elaborations on the auto-immune, whereby a protective mechanism functions as a vector of destruction away from production as its binary opposite, provide another opening. There is crucial guidance here (closing all borders to everything “foreign” would not be a good plan, would it? Then again, there is cause to wonder, in this context, about the meaning and consequences of the claim, or the desire, for autonomy and independence). Let me refer to the nuclear, again. Joseph Masco has brilliantly described in Nuclear Borderlands how the USA is a country that has bombed itself — and poisoned itself — to an extraordinary extent, and always in the name of self-defense and self-preservation, protection and security. Every nuclear “test” (which is to say, the actual, devastating explosion of a nuclear device above or under ground) has raised the level of radioactive contamination and caused untold damage to the country, to the planet, and to life as a whole. Is this protection or destruction? Does it matter, in this context, that the word “fence” (think: the art of fencing) bears the meaning of both offense and defense? That each of these terms is, to some extent, pleonastic? The best defense is offense, we often say. But are we so certain of the difference? Erecting a wall — forgive me, a security fence — is hardly a friendly gesture, nor is it merely protective, if at all. And what to make of the fact that the Israeli nuclear option (which does not officially exist, but is well documented) was named “the Samson option”? Is this not — in the 1950s — the introduction of suicide bombing in the political imaginary of the region? A collective program of suicide bombing? But “the suicide state” takes many forms. [8] Hannah Arendt understood the launching of Sputnik as strictly parallel to the development of the atomic bomb: the “making” expendable of the planet. The path to its destruction.

I’d like to conclude by turning to a quote from Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended lectures in which he argues, “We are always writing the history of the same war, even when we are writing the history of peace and its institution.” We know that war is often carried out in the name of the human. And that in the name of civilization and global security, we are able to bring our very existence and survival into question. But how might we rethink the violence and destructive impulses of the human in more intimate ways? Might a return once again to the concept of blood (which you wrote about extensively) allow us to open a better ethical discussion into the wounds of the earth?

I admit to having long been intrigued by historicism, and by Foucault’s version of it in particular. History — whatever that word designates today — is certainly something to learn from. But there are other concerns, other ways of knowing that seem to me equally important to consider and deploy. And Foucault himself, protean as he was in the objects he studied and the way he studied them, could certainly not be content with war and peace. At this late hour, it is ever so daunting a challenge to know what it is that we are studying, what it is that we should be attentive to, and whether we are truly capable of learning. We know many of the ways and means through which the planet has reached its present stage. Do we still want to call it progress? Talal Asad has pointed out a peculiar “style” of the West. Asad recalls that, for the longest time, the accomplishments of progress were claimed — are still claimed — by one particular segment of “humanity.” This segment saw itself, still sees itself, as more advanced, more discerning, than what it called the “lower races.” Now that the planet may be past the point of no return, it would be all of us, all of us humans, who, finally equal (in responsibility if not in privileges), are supposed to assume responsibility for what “we” have done. I find this puzzling too.

The spread of blood as the element of Christianity was for me an attempt to contend with political transformations that occurred and implicated the state, the making of race and of nations, science and political economy. I am now curious about destruction, but again, primarily as a collective problem, indeed, as a political vector or dimension. I do not mean to sound heretical, but I am less sanguine about locating or studying destruction in terms of subjectivity or subjectivation. I do not think the question is whether guns or people kill people. Ethics cannot replace politics, for it takes more than individual men to mass produce and market guns, to create a culture of impunity, where one can demean and assault women — or kill black men; more than a village to invent and spread race as a mode of governance, extract oil and palm oil too, make corporate law, deregulate banks and cage children at a border, or drown thousands into the sea at another; more to create Sarin or napalm, build ICBMs or fleets of drones, and declare the war on terror, transform every airport in the world as well as the way we “communicate” with each other in an age of echo chambers. If destruction takes us away from the formation of subjects and from social construction, what remains with and after destruction? What is war? What is peace? What is destruction? What destructions are there?

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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.

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[1] Anidjar, “The Dignity of Weapons,” Law, Culture, and the Humanities (2015) 1-11; Anidjar, “Means of Destruction” in #Political, Jelisaveta Blagojević, Mirjana Stošić Orli Fridman, eds. (Belgrade: FMK, 2017) 405–412.

[2] https://tif.ssrc.org/2017/11/15/becoming-nothing/

[3] Anidjar, Qu’appelle-t-on destruction? Heidegger, Derrida (Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2017)

[4] https://tif.ssrc.org/2017/11/15/becoming-nothing/

[5] Anidjar, “Oversight,” Ethnic and Racial Studies (2017) DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2017.1346268

[6] Anidjar, “Weapons (Inscription, Destruction, Deconstruction),” Political Theology (2017) DOI:10.1080/1462317X.2017.1396393

[7] Anidjar, “Ashes to Ashes: Derrida’s Holocaust” in Desire in Ashes: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, Philosophy, Simon Morgan Wortham and Chiara Alfano, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) 19–41.

[8] Anidjar, “The Suicide State,” Boundary 2 44: 4 (November 2017) 57–75.

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