12 essays
Compiled by Annalisa Pellino

In its epistemic, symbolic, and material forms, violence is an integral part of the (in)visible regime that rules the relationship between institutions, knowledge, and subjectivities that are gendered, sexualized and racialized. In his 1921 essay “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin distinguishes legal/institutional violence from revolutionary violence, questioning the erroneous separation of “legitimate and illegitimate violence.” No wonder the German word Gewalt means both violence and power, intended etymologically as potestas: the authority of state apparatuses. Violence occurs both flagrantly as trauma, horror, or brutality, and, more subtly, as systemic and structural violence. This latter kind of “original violence” can be user-friendly and portable; it haunts everyday life and penetrates our collective unconscious, imaginary, and language, supporting the patriarchal, racist, and classist discourses inscribed on our bodies.

Annalisa Pellino is a PhD student in Visual and Media Studies at IULM University, Milan, and is a co-founder and member of AWI—Art Workers Italia.

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Franco “Bifo” Berardi
Time, Acceleration, and Violence
Originally published in September 2011

What do you store in a bank? You store time. But is the money that is stored in the bank my past time—the time that I have spent in the past? Or does this money give me the possibility of buying a future?

Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle
Editorial—“Structural Violence”
Originally published in October 2012

To get rid of violence, you have to get rid of people, Tariq Ramadan once said in an interview. Of course, Ramadan meant this as an impossibility and a warning against overzealous idealism. But what an idea! By getting rid of people completely, we could have totally frictionless surfaces for exchange. Removing the human factor would effectively erase the difference between ethical and unethical behavior, visible and invisible infrastructure, finally relieving the increasingly tedious obligation to explain how political orders function, how economic transactions are guided. Those still living would only need to deal with the end products of systems whose functions are too complex, too tedious or technical, to merit attention. The entire world would assume the appearance of an iPhone interface.

Hito Steyerl
Missing People: Entanglement, Superposition, and Exhumation as Sites of Indeterminacy
Originally published in October 2012

In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger devised an insidious thought experiment. He imagined a box with a cat inside, which could be killed at any moment by a deadly mixture of radiation and poison. Or it might not be killed at all. Both outcomes were equally probable.

Antke Engel and Renate Lorenz
Toxic Assemblages, Queer Socialities: A Dialogue of Mutual Poisoning
Originally published in April 2013

An imposing drag queen in a leopard-print top flaunts her décolleté after the show. She totters through the glitter, tinsel, and pills scattered on the floor and walks over to a massive tropical plant, from which she fishes out a lighter, lights a cigarette, and breaks out in a terrible cough, exhaling glitter from deep in her throat. In the background, a slideshow displays oversized portrait figures wearing fanciful masks made of various trashy but glamorous materials, partly referencing protest cultures and queer subcultures since the 1970s.

Ute Holl
Farocki’s Cinematic Historiography: Reconstructing the Visible
Originally published in November 2014

Farocki’s work consists in pointing towards the visible. His art consists in opposing the visible and the obvious. Farocki’s political claim is to demonstrate that in reality nothing is veiled, sealed, or concealed. Meticulous perception is his strategy for emerging from self-imposed nonage. His images do not deal with ideological mist or the ontological mysteries of an image, but with the inertia of our perceiving eyes, with laziness or a lack of mental audacity. His voice-over commentaries prove that the visible differs from the evident. Vision is stratified by implicit historical structures. These organize the gaze and sometimes blind our sight. Based on historical investigation, seeing with one’s own eyes is a matter of political resistance. Observing against the grain of the habitual, against all evidence and blind spots, is the responsibility that remains in a world of machines that have appropriated human sight—or rather, as the installation Eye/Machine and the film War at a Distance (2003) show, machines that have soldered eyes, optical instruments, and industrial weaponry. It is not a matter of pearls, specks, or splinters in our eyes, but of Pershings and Patriots.

Keti Chukhrov
In the Nebulous Zone between Class Antagonism and Violence
Originally published in October 2016

Brexit, US elections, Russian elections, Georgian elections: after so many political disasters, the limits and goals of emancipation seem to be blurred. Yet they have to be reinstituted again in the midst of a most dispiriting situation—when the Left has fallen into the trap of populism, when liberals resort to conservative moralism, when neoliberals claim avant-garde subjectivity, and when a reversion to tribalism is mistaken for anticapitalism. Reactions to the Brexit vote from the cultural and enlightened Left have demonstrated a paradox: not only have many grassroots emancipatory movements collapsed into reactionary beliefs, but the agents of politically progressive thought—the cognitive Left—have in their turn also demonstrated an amazing lack of concrete knowledge, support, or understanding of the living conditions and social motivations of underprivileged social groups. The poor find more recognition of and affinities for their hardships and habitus among nationalist and conservative elites than among the transnational cognitive Left. It is in light of this situation that new forms of inequality, class antagonism, and violence are at stake.

Nina Power
The Language of the New Brutality
Originally published in June 2017

The alt-right may not believe that what they are doing is “rational,” but they certainly think that they are a lot more reasonable than the “social justice warriors” they oppose, and that tactics of irony and scorn are ways of undermining perceived irrationalisms on the part of the liberal left. We need to think much more carefully about the word-images that surround us, to make distinctions between the way violence is described and presented, and not think that all images are equally interchangeable. We need to remember all the words and ways of speaking we have forgotten, and note the way in which certain words, such as “cuck,” come to dominate our ways of speaking and thinking. We need to remain, not with Trump’s idiotic exclamation mark, but with the question mark, “the most important of all punctuation marks. A position in direct opposition to National Socialist intransigence and self-confidence.”

Elizabeth A. Povinelli
Horizons and Frontiers, Late Liberal Territoriality, and Toxic Habitats
Originally published in April 2018

Two imaginaries of space have played a crucial role in the emergence of liberalism and its diasporic imperial and colonial forms, and have grounded its disavowal of its own ongoing violence. On the one hand is the horizon and on the other is the frontier. These two spatial imaginaries have provided the conditions in which liberalism—in both its emergent form and its contemporary late form—has dodged accusations that its truth is best understood from a long history and ongoing set of violent extractions, abandonments, and erasures of other forms of existence, and have enabled liberalism to deny what it must eventually accept as its own violence.

Tom Holert
Epistemic Violence and the Careful Photograph
Originally published in January 2019

Photographic images could be considered particular forms of violence spurred by a given power/knowledge that is responsible for “general violence.” Conceived in this way, images could be performative as they enact ideology, as they exemplify, codify, and translate written and unwritten laws and social hierarchies, as they bestow or remove citizenship, and as they exert epistemic violence. Images do all these things in a particular mode and manner depending on the specificities of their respective medium and form. Visual activism, or the realm where images are put to militant use, like in the cases of Akhter and Ferdous, is one of the customarily invoked strands of practice that supposedly enables the production of visualities that oppose and contradict the “general violence” in which photography arguably takes part. So what exactly is the place of violence in activist image journalism and in modes of visual protest? And what may be the limit of such violence with regard to the violences of the (neo)colonial order?

Françoise Vergès
Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender
Originally published in May 2019

In this symbolic and material economy, black and brown women’s lives are made precarious and vulnerable, but their fabricated superfluity goes hand in hand with their necessary existence and presence. They are allowed into private homes and workplaces. But other members of superfluous communities—such as the families and neighbors of these workers—must stay behind the gates, unless they are willing to risk being killed by state police violence and other forms of the militarization of green and public spaces for the sake of the wealthy. For these workers, the special permit to enter is based both on the need for their work and on their invisibility. Women of color enter the gates of the city, of its controlled buildings, but they must do it as phantoms. Racialized women may circulate in the city, but only as an erased presence.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
Imagine Going on Strike: Museum Workers and Historians
Originally published in November 2019

Imagine experts in the world of art admitting that the entire project of artistic salvation to which they pledged allegiance is insane and that it could not have existed without exercising various forms of violence, attributing spectacular prices to pieces that should not have been acquired in the first place. Imagine that all those experts recognize that the knowledge and skills to create objects the museum violently rendered rare and valuable are not extinct. For these objects to preserve their market value, those people who inherited the knowledge and skills to continue to create them had to be denied the time and conditions to engage in building their world. Imagine museum directors and chief curators taken by a belated awakening—similar to the one that is sometimes experienced by soldiers—on the meaning of the violence they exercise under the guise of the benign and admitting the extent to which their profession is constitutive of differential violence.

iLiana Fokianaki
Narcissistic Authoritarian Statism, Part 2: Slow/Fast Violence
Originally published in March 2020

In 2004, artist Abdel Karim Khalil organized an exhibition in a small Baghdad neighborhood. It was a group exhibition of artists from the area who felt the need to position themselves against what was occurring in the city. Khalil’s sculptural installation A Man from Abu Ghraib (2004) is a set of realistic marble figures depicting torture: a visual documentation of a historical moment that disrupted and destroyed a society and a people and initiated a new wave of exiles and refugees. It is one of the rare examples of artistic practice that manages to directly confront eso- and exo-violence, in both its slow and fast forms. The work unearths the violence imposed by the Iraqis and the Americans equally in instantaneous bursts of fast violence during the Gulf Wars, but also throughout the interim periods, during the rise of ISIS and through today.

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