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Public Intellectuals Resisting Global Violence: An Interview With Brad Evans

Brad Evans, the founder and director of the online multimedia project called the Histories of Violence, speaks with Grace Pollock.

In the following interview, Brad Evans, the founder and director of the online multimedia project called the Histories of Violence, speaks with Grace Pollock from the McMaster Centre for Scholarship in the Public Interest. Since its beginning in 2010, the Histories of Violence project has become an important space of global resistance to prevalent modes and legitimations of violence. By offering introductory lectures and other educational resources on the subject of violence and a special series that presents critical insights on the violent responses to 9/11 by important public figures such as Zygmunt Bauman and Noam Chomsky, the Histories of Violence project has already engaged over 60,000 users from 120 different countries.

Grace Pollock: The Histories of Violence Project began, I believe, as a cultural and intellectual intervention to address the escalation of global violence in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. In your work, you’ve stated that our collective response to 9/11 represented nothing short of “a profound failure of the political and philosophical imagination.” I’m wondering if you could elaborate on what you meant by that, and what kind of trends emerged from 9/11 which led you to that conclusion?

Brad Evans: One of the impetuses for doing the film “Ten Years of Terror” was to make sense of what was taking place in the post-9/11 moment, particularly in the UK, around the July 7, 2005 bombings in London. At the time I was living in the city of Leeds, and I was also living in the Hyde Park area, which was where a number of the suicide bombers had a particular association, so it was quite literally the war on terror coming home. And what you found in the UK, which was similar to the whole discourse around 9/11, was very much a sort of “we have no complicity in this whatsoever, these people just simply hate us” and “this is an exceptional moment which demands an exceptional response.” There was no understanding that there was a history prior to 9/11. Of course now we’re in a moment a decade on from 9/11—which allows for much broader political and philosophical reflection.

A number of academics, sometimes with the best intentions, were caught by this politics of the exception—and this happened on the right and on the left. The discourse on the right was “this is profoundly exceptional, let’s have an exceptional response” such that “shock and awe” became the natural outcome. The left equally, particularly those familiar with the work of Giorgio Agamben, followed this idea of “we are living in a state of exception, there’s the abandonment of morals,” and so forth.

If we just simply the take date of 9/11 however, and look ten years prior and ten years afterwards, you can see that actually 9/11 is more of a continuum in a much wider historical process. And a lot of the dynamics that had taken place which led up to the violence of 9/11 had been slowly maturing for considerable time. It’s there in the ideas of Carl Schmitt, from whom Agamben borrows his terms. Carl Schmitt says what comes after a state of exception is a state of emergency. And the emergency is the return to the norm, and equally—of course Walter Benjamin writes about this—there’s this move from exception to emergency, exception to emergency—so actually states of exception are not that exceptional in the broad sweep of history.

That was one of the main issues I really wanted to start bringing out: this idea that actually clinging to this politics of exceptionalism represented a failure of the political imaginary in our ways of thinking about 9/11 historically. And also, tied to that, is to question, how did this discourse of exceptionalism—”the world begins with 9/11,” Ground Zero becomes Year Zero, all history projects forward from this moment—how did that particular memorialization of the event lend itself to the discourse of war?

If we see the response to 9/11 as actually something that’s not exceptional, but altogether normalized, we begin to enter into a new political discussion. And this discussion centers on the realization that none of us was actually surprised by the intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan—there was nothing exceptional to it. The way that Western Liberal societies—and that’s Liberal with a big L—the way we deal with violence is through violence and retribution. Such is the altogether normal way of dealing with problems which exceed our limits of expectation. So, in other words, our response to 9/11 wasn’t in any way exceptional. It was actually from the perspective of our political history “business as usual.”

There was a wonderful piece written in the New York Times on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 by Simon Critchley called “The Cycle of Revenge.” Simon posed the simple question, “what would have happened if we had done nothing after 9/11?” What if there had been no intervention in Iraq, no intervention in Afghanistan, if there had been instead a politics of forgiveness? It might seem absurd for us to say this now. It would certainly have seemed absurd in the immediate 9/11 moment. But I think Simon is onto something significant here in that a nonviolent response to 9/11 would most certainly have been an exceptional politics. Not violence as usual. So in that sense all we have done, as Simon suggests, is perpetuate the cycle of violence. And this is what I meant by a profound failure of the political and ethical imagination.

Grace Pollock: So approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11, you saw an opportunity to make an intervention. The Histories of Violence project compiled a series of video interviews with eminent public intellectuals talking about how we can rethink violence in ethical ways. I’m wondering what informed your choice to have critical, publicly engaged scholars at the forefront of this kind of intervention?

Brad Evans: Well, it was painfully obvious to anybody within and outside of the academy when you were looking ahead to the tenth anniversary that it was always going to be a very sentimental affair. It also evidences a certain sacrament—by this I mean there were a lot of political-theological discourses circulating around that time. The sentimentality you could understand from the victim’s perspective—I’m not in any way critiquing that—there is a need to memorialize violence such as 9/11. But, as an academic, you do have an ethical obligation to say, “What is the politics of this memorialization? How do we understand the events of 9/11 historically, so we can think better about the future?” And I think that is the move which is incumbent on the public intellectual.

I’m very hesitant and I’m immediately turned off when you read an academic book, or any authored book, which basically tries to prescribe the future. Whilst we all have ideas about what better democracy and better justice look like, those academics who speak the universal truth for everybody I find completely totalitarian. But I do think the one way we can think about the political better, to echo Judith Butler here, is in terms of framing the problem. So, for me, it is, how do we frame the problem of 9/11 at the tenth anniversary in a way which brings the political back into the discussion?

There was also another question: What did it mean to arrive at that tenth anniversary? In many senses you could take the in-between period of “ten years of terror” as a point of temporal departure that would allow us to bring into question whether we were actually talking about a much broader sweep of history? It seems there were a number of critical scholars who were writing about this in a very fragmented way, and there were a number of key questions which needed to be addressed about 9/11 which weren’t being addressed in the mainstream media. So “Ten Year of Terror” was my attempt was to bring those questions to the fore—even just posing the questions seemed to me an important intervention.

Grace Pollock: So there were individual academics addressing these types of questions, and one goal of the Histories of Violence project was to bring them together as a group of critical voices. But they are by no means homogenous in their perspectives—there is quite a diversity of voices being represented.

Brad Evans: I think that has to be central to the way we need think about critical pedagogy, and the way we try to deal with such a colossal event as 9/11. There is this narrative which comes out—that 9/11 is the day the world changes forever—but if that’s the case then shouldn’t we spend a bit more time reflecting on the philosophical significance of this horrifying moment rather than in twenty days we declare war?

One of the major problems we’ve had in terms of the buildup to the militarization—and this is not unique to 9/11—is that you have a catastrophic event and then you have a single truth which appears. And that singular truth is “these people hate us, this was an unprovoked attack, 9/11 happens,” and so forth. This is not in any way to justify the violence of 9/11, which was quite clearly abhorrent. But it is to understand that even in terms of the discourses and narratives of people’s experiences with 9/11, and also certainly within the academic world, there are many different problematics. A number of the academics who were filmed for the project, I profoundly disagree with. But you have an obligation to critical thinking to acknowledge that actually this is a contested space of politics. Otherwise I would just be offering another universal truth of 9/11, which is just as bad, for it follows what led to the mobilization of war in the first place.

Grace Pollock: The project was largely about posing the questions?

Brad Evans: Absolutely, and to understand that the legacy of 9/11 is contested as much as it is a contested history, as it is a contested experience of the meaning of the event, and so forth.

Grace Pollock: You work within the university and also with cultural organizations outside the university. The university at the present moment—is there potential there for resisting violence? I’m thinking in terms of pedagogy and in terms of collaborative work with other scholars, in terms of looking to models of public intellectuals—where would you draw your inspiration from for the future prospect of a collective non-violent world?

Brad Evans: My inspirations are very widespread, and they stem from within academia and beyond academia, but it’s generally from those academics who put their necks on the line and are precisely willing to ask the questions which don’t get asked. There’s nothing conspiratorial about this—it’s about revealing what is painfully obvious to many people. So it’s not about unearthing some magical secrets behind the operation of power, it’s actually to question what is altogether normalized. I have a deep fear of normalization. The norms. For they often conceal the more formidable forms of intellectual violence.

If only the world was all about the “state of exception,” that would be easy for us. We could say, “yes we’re going to condemn Guantanamo Bay.” And we should condemn Guantanamo Bay, but that would be easy for us. It’s those academics I find inspiration from who are willing to question the norm, question the everyday violence, question the everyday abuses of power which happen right throughout society. There are obviously a number of pioneering figures, particularly people like Zygmunt Bauman, Henry Giroux—certainly Simon Critchley, Michael Shapiro are also great examples as well—academics who are willing to go that extra step and just basically say, “okay, how can we think a new angle of vision on this problem, which everybody doesn’t see as a problem”? So it’s to question what is not being questioned, that is my first source of my inspiration.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the logic that politics is a science. I’m deeply skeptical of political science as it is conventionally understood—as if it’s some objective, literal, perceptive study or inquiry as to the way people behave. Not that there’s no room for some of that type of investigation, but I prefer to side with the poetic elements of the political. As much as philosophical poetry, politics has to have an affective relationship with you, it has to have performance with you. Why can’t we try to make political language beautiful and poetic? Why does it have to follow structures, or “this is the right way you write things”?

So, certainly the academics and the scholars whom I find most compelling write in a wonderfully poetic way that appeals to, resonates with you. Not just in terms of the problems you’re dealing with, but also in a very affirmative, creative way which also highlights deeply troubling, necessary problems—a way which gestures towards “actually things can be thought otherwise.”

Grace Pollock: I would like to go back to the idea that, before the Histories of Violence project, there was no medium through which these critical voices who were presenting different ways of thinking could be brought together, and be placed in conversation for the public to hear. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the choice to use a website, to use digital media—but also how they present an alternative to what might be called the dominant media and the perspectives represented there?

Brad Evans: Coming from my teaching experiences in the university, I quickly learned that in the age of new media, students are much more new-media savvy than my peers. And that’s just one generation. You know, as an academic, I strongly believe that we have an ethical obligation to use the new media. But when we do, we must address more detailed questions of what new media can enable, while being alert to the potential closure of political space. New media is ambivalent, they can be enabling or disabling. There’s a wonderful essay written by Gilles Deleuze on the idea of control societies, and this should inform our critique of new media technologies.

But also to say that we won’t engage with new media at all is preposterous. There’s one thing I find completely compelling about new media in terms of the political. If we say that 9/11 is a global event, then it has global political significance and the aftermath has global political consequences. Surely the way we theorize about this has to be de-bounded from any sense of sovereign territoriality and new media provide us with that opportunity. They not only allow us to transcend—that is, take on different critical questions beyond any sense of territorial confine—but also allow us to intellectually break down the borders as well.

Again, the video “Ten Years of Terror” quickly jumps from a philosopher to a sociologist to a social scientist to a linguist to a world respected literary scholar, so there is this whole shift or breaking down of institutional boundaries, national boundaries, intellectual boundaries, which new media allow us to do. The lesson for me was therefore straightforward. The way you have to do this, making it meaningful, is to connect it to a problematic, and my problematic is violence. That is the way I found it meaningful to address global violence. And judging by the amount of visitors to the site, we arguably really touched upon something.

Grace Pollock: So in terms of your motivation and ongoing work with the Histories of Violence Project, is it possible (without speculating too much on the future) that the present itself is something that can be transformed so as to lead to a better, more hopeful future?

Brad Evans: Well absolutely. Social transformation always happens. We can’t speculate on the future—who knows the future might be worse than the contemporary—but we can always say abuses of power, and fascist abuses of power, always eventually get overturned in one way or another, because there’s always resistance. Now, where that resistance comes from sometimes resides in the most unexpected places. Who would have thought in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement was declared that the poorest people of Southern Mexico would ignite a global resistance movement?

Now, where the spaces for intervention in the future come from, we’ve got no idea. And how that’s going to look, we have no idea. But we can be sure in some senses that it will arrive. Not even the horrors of Nazism were so total that it could destroy the affirmative politics of people’s demands for freedom, justice, and right—and effective resistance will not be conceived in a universal “this is the one truth” because you know all those terms of “freedoms, rights and justice” are very contested across different cultures and different spaces, and we have to be open to that idea as well.

But certainly we can remain 100% confident that there will be sites for new interventions and new ways of thinking about the political which will erupt in the most unexpected places, and that is, I guess, the wonder of politics—that we have no idea where this is going to erupt, but we can be certain that it will erupt somewhere. And so that always gives you affirmative hope: people—the poorest of the poor sometimes—find ways to exercise their political subjectivity in the most creative and wonderful ways, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to a cult of violence.

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