We Have Become Spectators of Instead of Witnesses to the Violence of Our Times


The following is an excerpt from the new book  Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle by Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux (City Lights Books, 2015): 

Despite the daily spectacles of violence to which we are all continually subjected, never before has the selection and careful manipulation of violent aesthetics been so heavily policed, in terms of both their representation and their authenticating narratives. Some images are simply deemed too sensitive for public consumption due to the “raw realities” they force us to encounter. Such policing is not, however, about adhering to set principles or ethical standards concerning the circulation of violent imagery.

As we have shown, our societies are flooded by images of violence, albeit in ways that serve to prioritize the spectacle over more complex compositions. Rather, regimes of mediated power and subjugation render certain images “intolerable” for the administration of neoliberal social control. When it suits its purposes, power uses spectacle to completely overlook the humanity of the people and communities victimized, and denies purposeful discussion about the broader political and historical contexts necessary to interpret events.

What of the thousands of civilian children, women, and men inadvertently being killed, quietly rendered “collateral damage” of targeted assassinations? Would it not be intolerable if we were to learn of them and their lives? Could the killing continue if we did? Intolerability, therefore, pivots on conscience. For those in power, the intolerable is that which can catalyze people, networks, communities, and movements to challenge both the prevailing conditions and the brutalizing simulacrum that isolates and alienates as it entertains.

Spectatorship thus represents the veritable death of the witness, which Primo Levi and others show to be integral to both a somber reflection on the human condition and its capacity for political and social transformation. For the intensifying mediation of violence replaces reflective viewing by a militant consumerist ethos whose purpose is to harvest our attention, while foreclosing possibilities for diverse political reflection, collective response, dissent, and autonomous action.

That which appears intolerable must therefore be the site for rethinking the politics of visual communications, media, and aesthetics. For it is precisely the intolerable which allows us to defy the aesthetic regime of power and subjugation, along with the seductive nature of its spectacles of violence that are integral to normalizing the notion of disposable lives and to the imposition of disposable futures. This, however, requires a fundamental reworking of the concept of intolerance in a more politically astute way, so that we don’t simply fall back upon the question of sovereign protectionism and the threshold between legal and illegal violence. We need to rethink the terms of intolerability in direct relation to both conscience and ethical claims on the future as imagined in the present. As Balibar warns:

To locate qualitatively what we call “extreme” in the register of violence is not to proceed to typologies or descriptions in the juridical sense, even given the development of jurisprudence and particularly the evolution of its definitions (for example, when it criminalizes rape or genocide). Rather, it is to problematize the very notion of threshold, above all because violence as such cannot be the object of undifferentiated anathema.

Such anathema is vain; it would immediately mask, in the form of denial, that anthropologically fundamental fact that violence in its diverse forms (I would even say the social invention of diverse forms of violence), its very “creativity,” pertains both to human experience and to history, of which it constitutes one of the “motors.” Because violence and politics, violence and aesthetics, violence and moral experiences, and so on are inextricably associated, we feel the need to locate those thresholds associated with the idea of the intolerable.

We place such thresholds in relation to a legal limit of the very possibility of politics. We might thus consider thresholds of the intolerable as manifestations of the element of inhumanity without which even the idea of humanity is meaningless. 

Violence should be intolerable. That is the point. But in the age of the spectacle it needs a different registry beyond the juridical. If the task of ethical political discourse is to draw from both social imagination and social conscience in order to speak to the intolerable such that we might confront structural injustice and subjugation in the world, this needs to be connected to multiple political strategies that allow us to see through the darkness, challenge what remains hidden in plain sight, imagine better worlds, and make plans for manifesting them through transformed social relations free of dominance and coercion. 

This places remarkable demands upon artists and critical pedagogues as facing the intolerable requires us to do more than expose with greater ethical care and consideration issues of human disposability. It also requires rethinking the classical problem identified by Jacques Rancière, namely that the problem of aesthetics has been to effectively draw a “straight line from the intolerable spectacle to awareness of the reality it was expressing, and from that to the desire to act in order to change it.”

Facing the intolerable requires novel strategic alliances so we might reimagine the art of living politically in the contemporary moment. Intolerable violence thus understood is markedly different from fetishizing spectacles. It allows us to counter the spectacle, exposing the limits of mediation that actually render violence tolerable for public consumption. And it provides the basis for reclaiming politics as an art form to meaningfully counter the banalization of violence so widespread today. 

Our conception of the intolerable does not propose some framework for understanding levels of individual tolerance to exposure to violence. Every individual and community has different standards. It works instead by looking at what is being occluded at the systemic level, locating within what is deemed intolerable a particular ethical challenge and response to the hidden order of political disposability. Approached this way, the intolerable is akin to what Simon Critchley would identify as a poetic intervention. 

“Poesis,” he explains, may be defined as “the creation of disclosure, the difficult bringing of things to birth through seemings, through words or images or whatever. If there is a mystery to things, it is not the mystery of the hidden, it is the mystery of the absolutely obvious, what is under one’s nose. The labor of the poet or artist is the difficult elaboration of the openedness within which we stand.” There are alternative histories of the human experience—a history of resistance and the fight for the liberation of political subjectivities—which start from the presupposition that the political itself is a creative act dedicated toward the idea of what Jacques Derrida termed a “democracy-to-come.”

Genuine democracy is a social process, and when it is not deterred or denied by competing systems such as neoliberalism, it draws from and is driven by the social imagination: every act of social change begins with imagining a better world, imagining better conditions, imagining a better everyday life. One only has to look to the autonomous Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico, to see evidence of one the most poetic of autonomous democracies, one that thrives on the imagination, memory, and dignity of its people and does so in open defiance of all forms of encroachment and neoliberal power. 

If the spectacle is nothing but an entrancing sham, a soft violence waged through LED screens and mobile devices in order to embed consciousness with its own self-destructive malware that deters and subjugates the very agency that makes us creative, ethical, social, then poetics is all about reclaiming those powers and their unfettered exercise through social imagination, in the service of pioneering modes of living and relating that are free of violence and domination. At the crossroads between hope and despair, it is through poetics that we can begin to start thinking about politics as radical creation, as the possibility of what Rousseau called the “perfected act” . . . an art of politics capable of conceiving “new associations.”

The question is, by what means might social conscience be awakened, and how might its rousing lead to social formations that can catalyze widespread divestment from the spectacle and successfully challenge systems of subjugation and power dominating society today? Asking emphasizes the importance of rethinking the art of the political today. 

In this regard, there is still much to be learned from the Zapatistas of Mexico, whose struggle for dignity and justice is full of imagination, theater, poetry, art, and the affirmation of otherness and difference. The indigenous Maya have been witness to 500 years of persecution and suffering. And yet, despite this continual history of persecution, they have embarked on a remarkable journey that has embraced non-violence as a political strategy. In doing so, they have sought to outlive the dialectical tides of history.

This conscious decision was enshrined in their First Declaration of La Realidad, released on January 1, 1996. This declaration directly called for a new “image of the world” that is “not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us.” A sentiment later repeated by Zapatista insurgent Major Ana María, who, speaking at the opening ceremony of the “Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity against Neo-Liberalism,” noted to many non-indigenous attendees: 

Behind our black face, behind our armed voice, behind our unnameable name, behind that, we see you . . . behind that we are the same simple ordinary men and women that repeat themselves in all races, that paint themselves in all the colors of the world. [Because in] this corner of the world we are equal because we are different.

Crucially, for the Zapatistas, this prioritization of difference has led to a reconceptualization and re-articulation of the concept of the political that is all about the affirmation of oppressed identities—those from below who have been subjugated and marginalized by power. Subcomandante Marcos elaborated:

We are “other” and different . . . we are fighting in order to continue being “other” and different. . . . And what we are—far from wanting to impose its being in the “other” or different—seeks its own space, and, at the same time, a space of meeting. . . . That is why Power has its armies and police, to force those who are “other” and different to be the same and identical. But the “other” and different are not looking for everyone to be like they are. . . . The “everyone doing their own thing” is both an affirmation of difference, and a respect for other difference. [Thus] when we say we are fighting for respect for our different and “other” selves, that includes fighting for respect for those who are also “other” and different, who are not like ourselves.

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