what violence was
an essay on the limits of political language

In my current research-fellowship year at the Institute for Advanced Study, I’m completing a book manuscript on contemporary debates about what, exactly, violence is. Sample chapters are available upon request. This excerpt from the preface gives an overview of the project.

Spend time in activist and academic debates in the United States about culture, language, and identity, and you will soon encounter the claim that silence is violence. You will just as quickly hear that speech can be violent as well. Silence is violence, and so is speech: this might appear a strange juxtaposition, at best ambiguous, at worst absurd. Yet this double invocation of violence is more intelligible than it might seem, and the evident tension between its two parts displays the contradictions of the language of politics—and the politics of language—in our time.

By now it has become something of a cliché for philosophical work on violence to begin by proclaiming that there is much confusion about the meaning of the term itself. The contemporary problem, it seems, is not that “violence” says too little; instead it signifies so very much. No longer is violence imagined only in the twin specters of war abroad and disorder at home. While terrorism, mass shootings, military action, and crime rates remain prominent in public discourse, the rhetoric of violence ranges beyond these too familiar exemplars and shapes how activists, academics, and commentators understand everything from the most complex dynamics of cultural attitudes and sexual behaviors to the most expansive structures of racial inequality and mass incarceration. Many now identify violence with the forces of order itself—with the logic of police departments and financial institutions—or see it at work in the social dynamics of privilege and subordination—in offensive expression and in workplace harassment.

All too often, “as if the task were the dialectical balancing of concepts, and not the grasping of real relations,”* philosophers and social theorists have tried to reconcile these wide-ranging senses into a unified definition, or to winnow them down to a core idea standing behind them all, or to defend some conceptions against others. We will meet some of the thinkers who have made such attempts, but I will not pretend to resolve their disputes. For the deeper question is not that of how we “should” define “violence”; it is that of how and why the term has become, simultaneously, so significant and so confused, so useful and so contested. Everyone is asking what violence is, but few are asking why that question seems so important in the first place; the history of the political work that the definitional problem has made possible remains mostly fragmentary, never critically engaged as a whole.

I tell a story in two parts. In the first half, “The Language of Violence,” I uncover the origin and examine the development of the contemporary debate about this apparently abstract question, that of how violence should be defined. The story begins with political nonviolence and civil disobedience. The rise of activist tactics that repudiated violence but embraced illegal action raised new questions for how violence itself should be understood. Philosophers and social theorists responded to these questions enthusiastically—first by challenging the traditional definitions of violence in terms of force and authority, and then by developing new approaches to its meaning in terms of behavior and power instead. The political and philosophical problems posed by nonviolence thus led eventually to the formulation and popularization of vocabularies like institutional violence and sexual violence. Through such new terminologies, the idea of violence has taken on an ever more significant role in organizing wider debates about justice, identity, oppression, and experience. Yet such debates are as a result shaped by a deep tension, for the two social tasks toward which the language of violence has been directed—the critique of oppressive power and the regulation of wrongful behavior—have not proven as easily held together as one might expect.

In the second half, “The Violence of Language,” I examine the meaning and significance of this tension by investigating how the new accounts of violence have reshaped our understanding of language itself. In contemporary debates about linguistic violence (and, indeed, about whether there is such a thing at all!), the tension between systemic critique and individuated regulation assumes a specific form, playing out across two competing frameworks for the politics of language. One approach emphasizes discourse and power; the other, speech and harm. The unresolved interplay of these competing accounts of language and its politics underpins the fraught dynamics of controversies about violence today, but it is itself a product of more fundamental social forces. I argue that the individualizing logic of neoliberal common sense continually (if imperfectly) reshapes the critique of power into the regulation of behavior. Yet a simple return to the discourse and power sensibility would not be enough to overcome the depoliticizing tendency on display in the speech and harm approach—for language itself is no longer what it was when these frameworks arose.

In moving from the language of violence to the violence of language, what appears at first an abstract problem or merely conceptual question unfolds as an “arena…for the living interaction of social forces,”* illuminating ever more concrete dimensions of political life. The generative incoherence of a term like violence cannot be understood without acknowledging it as an index of far-reaching social transformations. Faced with the endless proliferation of competing accounts of what violence is, I nevertheless do not conclude that the term itself has become “meaningless” (as too many are wont to proclaim). I suggest instead that, precisely because of what it has achieved, it is approaching the end of its usefulness. The book concludes by reflecting on how the work of social and political theory should respond to the possibility that we will no longer be able do as much with “violence” in the future as we have in the recent past.