On Violence: Rupture and Saturation of the Contemporary Experience
“But I have tamed myself,
I have stomped on the throat
of my own song.” — Mayakovsky
One day, while working at the service desk of a local public library, a man came up and said something which lent several chuckles after the fact. In all seriousness, he asked me and my colleague, “I hear the internet is all the rage these days, but I am looking for microfilm. Do you have any?”
More than the content, it’s the form of this statement that explains how I often feel in the profession. If I were coming up to a metaphorical service desk of God, I would say, “I hear librarianship is all the rage these days, but I am interested in violence.”
In the early process of professionalization, that is, while being enculturated into the job, the head of the research department told us how to write our final reports: state facts clearly and do not use adjectives. Present findings and let them be. The myth of “data that speaks for itself” was reinforced again and again. I thought to myself, God forbid the audience is subjected to a descriptor, to a hand of the author who conducted the research and thus be led down a path of confusion and an imperative to think for themselves. Later, a senior administrator clarified the role of research within the institution, “Don’t spend too much time on theory.” There is little space for the “why” in a practical, hands-on environment of the learning factory. What’s more, is that the understanding of research has not changed much since the early 20th century of practice of librarianship where it was seen as merely reporting of statistics and compilation of facts. Jackson, Herling, and Josey’s 1976 work A Century of service : librarianship in the United States and Canada, is a staggering reminder of how little has, indeed, changed in 150 years of doing the job. Upon reading it, I saw clearly how the implied purpose of researchers to “go into the world and find us facts that support the vision of the institution” was suggested between the lines. Power operates very smoothly in the workforce. To be a poet is to add intensity to the rapids of experience. And so, like my undergraduate Design instructor and sculptor Roy Mills taught us, I learned to sneak a bit of freedom into the client’s world. To give them what they want but also maybe just a bit of what they needed, hopefully without their noticing. What saddens me now is to see the degree to which such subversions are seen as the extent of available liberation. All the essays written about how texts subvert the status quo nevertheless affirmed how power re-establishes itself in the face of such subversions. What a frisson of radicalism we feel when we bring a mug that says “Fuck you, 2020!” into a meeting, yet the meeting itself does not get cancelled. Reports must be written, education must be enacted, and the clock still runs clockwise.
In trying to draw a link between the soft violence of the workforce and knowledge, I have been reading Byung-Chul Han’s theory. Positioning himself as a philosopher of 21st century psychopolitics, he classifies our current moment as having passed both the modern formation of the subject of control and the postmodern formation of the subject of discipline, claiming that we are all projects of the contemporary burnout society. We now inhabit, according to Han, an achievement society of self-exploitation: “The achievement-subject exploits itself until it burns out. In the process, it develops auto-aggression that often enough escalates into the violence of self-destruction” (Burnout Society, p. 47). As great as that sounds, my impression is that there are still plenty of people in North America wishing to be exploited by an employer, because then, they would at least have health benefits and some semblance of stability. As most LIS students will tell you, they enroll in the graduate program to seek a chance at remaining shreds of middle-class life.
What strikes me as so pressing and relevant about Byung-Chul Han’s work, nevertheless, is the clarity with which he is able to convey the contemporary experience of alienation. While control of bodies is still in operation today — one passes the prison in the North East on the way out of the city — through excessive positivity and promise of freedom, neoliberal capitalism pervades the psycho-social more than the physical through immaterial means of texts, social and traditional media, the web, etc. Yet if contemporary violence is based more “on the conformity of consensus rather than on the antagonism of dissent”, then how do we understand the militias proliferating across North America today? I believe that in Topology of Violence, Han’s biggest contribution is to clarify the difference and relationship between the concepts of power and violence. The former is conceived as a productive, organizing, and spatializing force while the latter is destructive, eliminating, rupturing. In this way, reading the events of January 6, 2021 is helpful to see violence used as a way to attack symbolic power. After all, the armed extremists did not attack sites of commercial power (ie. The New York Stock Exchange), disciplinary power (ie. prisons, schools), or material power (ie. pipelines, mines). Han reminds us that “Spaces of power are spaces of language. They are saturated with symbols, signs, and meanings. To destroy a space or body of power, it must be divested of its language.” This is how I interpret the theft of Pelosi’s lectern and the selfie-posing with Capitol sculptures. This is also why the same groups oppose progressive activists’ toppling of statues of imperialists and colonialists. Nevertheless, I am not naïve enough to limit the interpretation of this week’s attempted coup to symbolic outbursts of violence. These groups carried guns not just to intimidate, but to hurt, and news of stashed bombs is revealing the extent of the rupturing intentions of this event. The insurrection does indeed have a philosophy of freedom, and it is a deeply regressive one.
According to Han, “Exogenous violence is replaced by self-generated violence, which is more fatal than its counterpart inasmuch as the victim of such violence considers itself free.” And yet, in the face of so much negative violence, I can’t help but wonder whether the excess of positivity to which Han refers exists in highly-developed, wealthy countries like South Korea, Germany, and Denmark, where broadband internet access is pervasive and limits exist only on the physical capacity to pursue all our human desires. It’s hard to take the concept of excess of positivity seriously when there are communities in Canada and the US that lack clean drinking water, where 1 in 4 of Toronto’s youth live in poverty, and where one risks death by giving birth. Perhaps, like Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra, Han is identifying a fracturing of the social experiences where negative and positive violence can exist simultaneously. Or, as Stuart Jeffries puts it, “surely the truth is that torture chambers, the gig economy and the precariat as much as smartpolitics are our political reality: the pleasing and fulfilling of Han’s psychopolitics, paradoxically, exist alongside Klein’s repressive shock doctrine to keep us docile.” This is the contradiction of late capitalism. Nancy Fraser might call it uneven distribution, while others might call it injustice. Nevertheless, the two words are intimately intertwined.
I realize that the connection between violence and institutions of ideological reproduction (the university, the school, the library) may be a bit tenuous. Nor am I interested in the discursive analysis of the concept of violence as “speech acts” that Judith Butler proposes in the Force of Nonviolence. Fundamentally, I share Werner Herzog’s existential philosophy that the unifying force in life is not harmony, but destruction, violence, and despair. Anyone who has doubted entropy should come over to my house on any given Thursday. Or is it merely to affirm Judith Butler’s thesis to see the daily acts of injustice in the speech and acts of power (in the workforce, in the community, in the news) as internalized forms of violence? I am not interested in exploring the concept of micro-aggressions necessarily, but more the objective forms of violence as experienced on the subjective level. This is ultimately what Zizek does in his 2008 book, Violence. Perhaps what I am fundamentally interested in, then, is the intimacy of domination as the process of establishing oppression, both interpersonally and socially. What’s clear, however, is the lack of conceptual tools that librarianship has when talking about violence and domination. Given how many outbursts of violence we are witnessing in Canada and the US, seemingly daily, librarianship as a profession, still generally sees it as an idealism problem.
Billy-Ray Belcourt beautifully touches on this contradictory power of ideas. In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail on his book A History of My Brief Body, he reminds us that what we desperately need is a “politics that is for flourishing.” I agree with Indigenous thinkers like Belcourt, Nick Estes, Eve Tuck, Leanne Simpson, among many others who are interested in formulating an Indigenous futurity, and envisioning a world outside of colonial relations in which we currently live. Each of these writers has documented in their own way the survival of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Peoples in North America. This act of survival is a refusal to disappear in the face of capitalism. I think librarianship, like education more broadly, has a lot to gain by abandoning the maintenance of power that serves colonial capitalism. Like Maggie Nelson, like Billy-Ray Belcourt, like so many poets and thinkers, I too am not “interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live.” I would like to believe that this yearning for something beyond the current predicament is an ethical stance that is not predicated on domination. The challenge for us is how to bring it about into actuality, into material practice before climate catastrophe threatens the existence of human and non-human life.