I completed a PhD in political theory at Yale University in spring 2020. I hold a BA in philosophy and an MA in history from Yale, as well as an MPhil in political thought and intellectual history from the University of Cambridge. You can view my CV here (.pdf).
My dissertation, entitled What Violence Was: On the Limits of a Political Concept, presents the first detailed history of contemporary debates about the concept of violence in anglophone political thought. Today it is common to hear both popular commentators and specialized scholars worrying that the category of violence has expanded to include too much and that the concept risks becoming meaningless. Where did this anxiety originate? When did the question that it asks—“What is violence, really?”—become intelligible and significant at all? In my dissertation, I investigate how the definition of the term “violence” became itself an object of political and theoretical contestation, and I trace the development of the vocabularies through which this debate has circulated in order to evaluate the uses and limits of the resulting discourses for emancipatory politics today.
I uncover the origins of the definitional problem in the history of political nonviolence and in early academic attention to civil disobedience. I assess philosophical attempts to construct a general definition of the term “violence,” and I examine the complex development of terminologies such as structural violence,sexual violence,and epistemic violence.On my account, the contemporary confusion over the meaning of the concept is best understood as a symptom of an underlying tension between two competing tasks: the critique of power and the criticism of behavior. This contradiction has shaped the conceptual discourse on violence since its beginning, and it reflects, I argue, the deeper dilemmas of political thinking within the social conditions of contemporary capitalism. In the end, I reject the claim that the concept of violence has become meaningless; instead, I suggest that precisely because of how much it has achieved, it may be approaching the end of its usefulness. We will need new theoretical tools to carry on the philosophical and political work that the discourses of violence have begun.
The dissertation project is an expression of my broader interest in both the historical transformation of political concepts and in the methodological dilemmas of contemporary critique. In recent publications in venues including Constellations and the European Journal of Political Theory, I have explored problems ranging from the complexities of Quaker nonviolence in apartheid South Africa to the relationship between utopian queer theory and the Frankfurt School tradition. Unifying these various projects is a deeper twofold commitment: first, to investigating how political discourses and ideas are shaped by structures of power; and second, to critically refining the theoretical tools necessary to understand such dynamics as they unfold at the intersection of the material and ideological worlds. In my future work, I hope to focus more intensively on the questions about capitalism that have emerged in my dissertation research, exploring what kinds of political critique could be adequate to the forms of technological domination characterizing our contemporary information society.