Frantz Fanon wrote “Concerning Violence,” the opening chapter to his final book, “Wretched of the Earth,” in 1961 against the backdrop of the Algerian War of Independence. What Fanon invoked against the cacophony of overlapping voices—endless unique hermeneutics of the social and historical phenomenon of decolonization—was the existence and centrality of violence in this specific social process.
Fanon recreates violence as an object and an active agent for change. When we talk about violence, we might try to understand the consequences of violent acts, but we fail to capture the centrality of violence or open new lines of questioning. We fail to ask what the place of violence is in modern society.
Where does violence live? How do we structure society against and through it? What does violence do and how does it move? Decolonization and violence are linked, the latter always originating from the former. Still, we should be able to isolate violence and define it as a unique and identifiable mode of social relationship, or even as a phenomenon that lingers through entire historical relations.
Violence can slice between relations and incorporate itself into different social spaces where it may play different roles in different moments. This essay is about these moments.
A compromise must be struck between the prevalence of discourses of peace, negotiation or diplomacy, and the logics of violence that are too often submerged under the surface of social consciousness. By not inviting violence into conversations about everyday settings, we prevent redefinitions of violence.
On December 12, 1991, the DC-local hardcore band “Fugazi” played a short, loud, pungent set in Lafayette Park. In front of the south side of the White House, a banner read, “THERE WILL BE 2 WARS.” It’s punk folklore that the concert, an organized demonstration against the inevitable invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces, kept President George H.W. Bush up all night as drums and guitars blared in full volume.
An account by the organizers of the event read, “the country prepared for war.” This moment erupted with meaning, and the true conditions of material existence burst onto the surface. “War on poverty, not in the Middle East,” was one of the organizing slogans used to bring thousands of punk fans and community organizers to the National Mall.
Violence breached the surface, not as tanks and drone strikes, but in the often unseen relations that make modern society possible. Poverty is a war already being fought, the question is whether we intervene or not.
In the introduction to his book, “On Suicide Bombing,” published in 2007, Talal Asad argues that it is when we refuse to hold conversations about violence’s place in modern Western society that there is an existential threat. By allowing violence to appear alien to our social world, as a relic of primitive societies—always there but never capturing our full attention like news bulletins on Times Square ribbon screens—we refuse to allow violence to truly change us.
What does it mean to invite violence into conversations about the way we live today? Would it mean allowing the idea to enter ourselves and to live, morph and change us? By imagining violence as an organic, dynamic, plastic concept, as glue that keeps workers in their place or as wet cement that holds together the solid bricks of powerful traditional structures of race and gender in America, we instill conversations about inequality with a new and promising lens.