David Simpson. Engaging Violence: Civility and the Reach of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2022. 304 pp.
13 July 2023
Review by Kevis Goodman
David Simpson has been thinking for a long time about civility and the practices that have defined and disseminated it since the seventeenth century, especially the circulation of reviews, conduct books, magazines, and other literature. In this latest superb and timely book, he reengages this terrain more intensely than ever, but differently, with the introduction of violence as a third term. The treatment of civility is acute as always, yet, while guarded, less suspicious than in earlier work; this book focuses attentively on civility’s antinomies and the wider world history that has made it such a contradictory thing. In the wake of the Trump years, in which a loud far-right brandished its incivility as a badge of pride and displayed it in acts of violence, it can be harder to dismiss civility as mere neoliberal blandishment. Yet civility seems hopelessly, even laughably, insufficient as a response to unrelenting incidents of international and domestic—racial, ethnic, capitalist, religious, and other—conflict. Simpson therefore returns to the civility-literature axis as it has “rub[bed] up against the edge of violence,” in order to assess “the claims to attention that literature and civility can plausibly make in the recognition and response to current violences” (pp. 82, 31).
Engaging Violence is dialectical criticism at its best. It follows the overlapping histories of civility and literary pedagogy over time as both engage with different forms of violence, and it renders the complex historical process by which each term shifts as it moves between contexts but never admits of monolithic conclusions. The cases discussed in the book’s six chapters are heterogenous and wide-ranging, extending from early eighteenth-century Britain through the racism, oppression, and killing of Black and Native Americans in nineteenth-century America, and culminating in a long, detailed final chapter on our current moment of global conflict. Throughout, civility has had its own quieter violences—its tacit acts of exclusion, silencing, distinction, and discipline. It works better, Simpson notes often, in small groups and over short distances, but when stretched to cover larger international spaces and diverse populations, the seams show and the fabric tears. Yet for all that familiar ground, Engaging Violence is not ready to dismiss civility as violence in kid gloves. As a verbal exchange, a virtual medium, it can slow down the hasty discharge of violence into irreversible actions, keeping things at the level of representation and thus subject to the gradual, temporal unfolding of words.
Engaging Violence therefore calls for a reconception of civility, one that acknowledges the constitutive presence of violence everywhere in social, political, and cultural life and, rather than seeking to overcome its manifestations, instead analyzes them—in short, a civility able to function as immanent critique. Here Simpson draws on Étienne Balibar’s proposal to supplement the categories of emancipation and transformation with that of a civility that insists on the “inconvertibility” of violence (p. 5). Simpson calls it “civility . . . with violence” (pp. 23, 113, 186); Balibar’s term is “antiviolence” (distinguished from “counter-violence” and “non-violence,” each impossible if for different reasons) (pp. 180, 30, 44). In Balibar’s compact and complex formulation, quoted by Simpson: “The task is to ‘introduce the antiviolence I call civility into the very heart of the violence of social transformation’” (p. 180, my emphasis). Yet one of the remarkable aspects of Engaging Violence (and Simpson’s vast reading) is that Balibar is not alone: “civility with” acquires a flickering and fascinating prehistory—often in unexpected places. These begin at ground zero of the early eighteenth-century culture of civility—the Earl of Shaftesbury, who insisted that liberty depends on “amicable collision” between men, which, if restrained, is “a destroying of civility under the pretence of maintaining it” (quoted on p. 83).
For Simpson as a literary critic, theorist, and teacher, the question is what these conceptualizations mean for the agency of literature in the global world. Literature can and has served as agent of or incitement to violence, but can it also be a vehicle of antiviolence? Yet literature, an abstraction, is not exactly the right word here; Engaging Violence is not remotely interested in defining what is and isn’t literary. Rather, its interest is in reading (and rereading), or more precisely reading that “takes its time” (a recurrent phrase), slow consideration, and sustained discussion (p. 7). It is similarly concerned with literary pedagogy inside and outside of the classroom as occasion not for unanimity and consensus but for testing conflicting interpretations, arguments, and opinions—a version of William Blake’s unceasing “mental fight.” While Simpson is not one to separate those texts that can be vehicles of antiviolence from those that cannot, he makes well-developed cases for two bodies of writing. "The first, theory, he has defended often in earlier work (Romanticism and the Revolt Against Theory  and 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration ) for its incisive and “rebarbative density,” which distinguishes it from the less technical, more easygoing conversational criticism in the Anglo-American tradition (p. 201). The second, the global and especially subaltern novel, is newer ground for Simpson but necessary here because of the novel’s capacity to cross national boundaries and subalternity’s unanswerable challenge to aesthetic universality.
Engaging Violence exemplifies its own commitment to the “slow time of reading” and reflection: topic is also method in this book, as objects are patiently revolved for different angles of view (p. 184). Sequences of consecutive interrogatives occasionally punctuate the critical narrative—as if to signal do not stop—starting with the first of the three-question epigraph from I. A. Richards: “Do literary and linguistic studies or discussions of education have any effects commensurate with the needs of the world?” We certainly do not lack for nos to this shared question. Many come from outside humanities departments and beyond the university; others, less obvious, have emerged within literature departments from those who feel that critique has gone too far, endangering literature’s specificity or autonomy while claiming unearned heroism for the critic. Simpson makes no claims to heroism, but he is not willing to give up hope. The nontriumphal but powerful envoi that ends the last chapter balances hope and doubt in equal measure, down to its final six words: “If it is not too late” (p. 233).
Engaging Violence does not address specific classroom situations or pedagogical practices. But they were always on my mind after a semester in which I thought less often about COVID-19 than about ChatGPT. ChatGPT is nothing if not quick; it gave me four bland essays on Paradise Lost in under four minutes. Not all of my students want the slow time of reading or writing. And that makes this book’s troubled questions all the more pressing.
 William Blake, “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time,” Milton: A Poem in 2 Books (London, 1804), l. 31, p. xix.