Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

The Violence of Violence

Gil Anidjar



They say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Well I think the gun helps. If you just stood there and yelled BANG, I don’t think you’d kill too many people.

Eddie Izzard


All their effort, all their exploration, is strained toward this.

Jacques Rancière


Numerous, and ostensibly polar, distinctions famously traverse and absorb past and ongoing reflections on violence. Idelber Avelar conveniently lists them as he reviews the way in which “debates about legal or illegal, legitimate or illegitimate, just or unjust, ‘real‘ or ‘symbolic‘ forms of violence have been revived, with positions, as rule, being now more entrenched than ever.”[1] One can easily add to this particular series of dichotomies—means and ends come readily to mind, as do life and death, war and peace, perpetrator and victim, intention and effect, and so on. In this context, it may or may not be surprising to consider that little thought has been given to an equally ubiquitous, if monotonous, fact: the continuous gradation of violence in these very reflections.[2] As far as its examples go, as far as its illustrations are concerned, violence can always be located on a continuum that belies (or undermines) the dichotomies that otherwise frame and structure its understanding. From ancient and spontaneous personal instances (Abel’s murder, say) to the latest, organized, and most extreme genocidal violence; from the utterly punctual or solitary encounter of individual bodies to the asymmetric clashes of states and empires, violence is depicted—it is regarded and witnessed—across its entire range.[3] Guided by our confidence in the bounded nature of violence and the sound ethical principle that the suffering of one is already too many, that the death of one means the loss of an entire world, our thoughts on violence take their measure from the lack of measure that lexically and conceptually binds its most narrowly isolated cases with the broadest excessive conflagration.[4] Violence appears eminently translatable.[5] This in spite of the obvious hermeneutical break that always makes violence go partly and partially—always partly and partially—unnoticed, open to contestation as to its very nature or even occurrence, permanently subject to the force of denial.[6] Violence is, as it were, exposed to violence. What remains unthought of this unjustifiable and all-too justifiable continuum in the occurrence of harmful and destructive force is something Talal Asad has strikingly and compellingly called our attention to in his work and which I propose to render here with the word effort.


Here and elsewhere, Asad is asking us to consider violence as effort, the strenuous expenditure of force and a particular form of exertion, the deployment of varied and variable forces as and toward the act of violence, its performance and its execution, its maintenance and recurrence too. With regard to effort, the polar divisions that sever violence from itself recede from view, allowing a rigorous analytic focus toward a sharper understanding of violence and its forms.[7] What emerges instead with terrible clarity is a singular measure (or indeed démesure, as the French have it) for violence and something other than instrumentality as well. The “promiscuity” (as Jacques Lezra has it), the accumulation, breadth or depth of actors and implements, of persuasion and action, of vision and institutions is what “effort” means here.[8] Just as the pull of a knife is distinct from a team of covert assassins, an unauthorized demonstration from a drone strike controlled—and legitimated—from halfway across the globe, violence changes with effort. Effort is simply the force, or forces, deployed and activated in the exercise of force, the violence of violence. What forces? In the present essay, most clearly law and humanitarianism, and the making and selling of ever more efficient weapons too, political and economic means, claims of civilization and benevolence, the conditions of application of which are themselves always “complicated” or indeed effortful. Asad thus explains and writes of “the contrary work done by legal disciplines and political structures”; of the way in which “compassion and benevolence are intertwined with violence and cruelty, an intertwining that is not merely a co-existence of the two but a mutual dependence of each on the other.” He writes of the “rearrangement of the relations between violence, ethics, and sovereignty” and of the novel agencement of emotions, the dynamic “emotional complex shaping relations of domination and subject: colonial as well as domestic, male as well as female, collective as well as individual.” Rights and emotions “each feed off and seek to control the other,” and this too constitutes an effort. Accordingly, there is effort in the emotional and intellectual distinction whereby “states that kill in the course of their claim to be engaged in a universalizing project, that of raising ‘the best part’ of humanity in the name of humanity as a whole, must be distinguished from the violence of ‘lower’ societies.” There is effort in empathy as well, which is “not simply a mode of generosity toward the other but may be a condition of insinuating oneself into and manipulating social and psychological structures to one’s own advantage.” And consider the mindful effort, “the ingenuity that has gone into the technology of war . . .  the ingenuity in constructing law so as to expand the scope of legal killing by complicating responsibility.” Such achievements, Asad wryly comments, are “equally impressive.” After all, “premoderns—including ‘primitives’ did not engage in such calculations.”


Contrary to most thinkers of violence, then, Asad does not partake of the general concern with suffering as the privileged lens through which violence, and contemporary violence in particular, ought to be understood (he does not privilege “physical” violence either, nor for that matter does he endorse the ever popular “myth of religious violence,” which expansively provides fodder for the violence—and security—mill).[9] Though he has had much to say about the changing landscapes of pain, Asad’s attempt to understand violence is not primarily focalized on the vulnerability of its victims, the all-too obvious horrors of its impact and the guiding principle of our perverted immunity drive.[10] Rigorously Benjaminian, Asad attends rather to the art of violence (which is neither identical with nor reducible to the proximate, and more notorious, art of war) with an acute sense that “in the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful . . . No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience.”[11] Similarly, as Benjamin also explained, in the evaluation of a murder – or of a war – consideration of the receiver must be suspended as well. No violence is ever intended for its victim (in the Derridian idiom, “the condition for it to arrive is that it ends up and even begins by not arriving.”[12] No victim is ever the proper addressee of the violence inflicted on them.[13] Benjamin insists that “the realm of ends” must be ignored and that distinct kinds of violence must be attended to “independently of cases of their application”[14] An understanding of violence, in other words, cannot be found “in what the deed does to the victim, but in what it does to God and to the doer” (251). In the contemporary lexicon, we might say that violence is always disproportionate; that it always and only occurs as collateral damage.[15] But such a perspective enables a refocalization of our attention away from effects and ends (as important as these might be otherwise) and toward an understanding of violence as an operation or a technology, a discipline and indeed a self-discipline: the effort, the violence of violence. More precisely, violence becomes visible as a practice or set of practices toward the making and unmaking of a particular self. It is no longer a question of the universality of violence, or of the violence inherent to human nature, nor of the violent “character” of this or that subject (Asad explicitly opposes “capacity” to “character,” the finding that “foregrounds character . . . in place of capacity”). Instead, violence must be considered as a “capacity,” the means that are put at the disposal of violence, that build and expand into a self – a capacity—of sorts, of a peculiar and particular sort.[16]


Asad provides a crucial corrective to Hannah Arendt’s claim that violence is merely instrumental. He also makes clear that Arendt was shrinking away from her own insight regarding the way in which power and violence interact. For if it is true that “power is ‘an end in itself’” and the question “what is the end of government? does not make much sense,” the situation is dramatically altered when that question is answered: the end of government is its own survival.[17] For by then power (in Arendt’s sense) has entirely morphed into its opposite, violence, thereby abolishing the distinction between ends and means. By then, what comes into existence is precisely what Arendt denies when she writes that “no government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed.”[18] By then, violence happens very much as the result of people getting together and acting, violently, in concert.[19] One can only wonder, then, what Arendt would have made of the “Forever” U.S. stamp available since 2007, which not only renders the rising cost of postage invisible but makes manifest the final and ultimate priority of survival, the hyperbolic claim to eternity of the state. Well beyond a thousand years.


Arendt herself was pointing to the devastating consequences of the hegemony of survival when she wrote that when “the means-ends category” is “applied to human affairs . . . the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means which it justifies and which are needed to reach it” (4). She was explaining that “the heritage of the American Revolution is forgotten and the American government, for better or for worse, has entered into the heritage of Europe as though it were its patrimony—unaware, alas, of the fact that Europe’s declining power was preceded and accompanied by political bankruptcy, the bankruptcy of the nation-state and its concept of sovereignty.”[20]


The effort that brings about the particular constellation Asad refers to in his title is constituted by a rapport to life and to humanity, a particular conception of the sacred as well as a specific tradition of benevolence. It is also characterized by the endurance of a distinction whereby the Christian West conceives of itself in simultaneously comparative and superlative terms vis-à-vis the rest of “humanity.” It also gives itself—effortfully—the means of this conception and of its application—and endurance. Asad graciously engaged with my contention that his reflections demand that we rethink Christianity, that we consider it otherwise than as a religion (and perhaps as effort).[21] Asad disagrees even though he keeps providing compelling illustrations of the Christian genealogy of legal practices, modes of sensibility, ethical dispositions, and political institutions—not to mention an understanding of life itself—that not only transcend what we might mean by “religion,” but also bring into clearer view the complex and straining integrity of “the modern West.” One of the key terms deployed by Asad to indicate that Christianity is no longer at stake is the startlingly recurrent adjective “new,” of which I found more than twenty instances in this essay. With the advent of the new, “today’s militarism,” for instance, cannot be “seen as a direct descendent of medieval attitudes, still less as Christianity in disguise.” Not a direct descendent, but the resemblance remains striking, does it not? Besides, the rhetoric of novelty is something that Asad himself has taught us to interrogate. More important, he has also demonstrated that the new—if that is what this is—often constitutes a mere shift, a slight transformation of established sensibilities, habits, and institutions (like the law). Given the pertinacity of what I have referred to as “effort” here, might we think in terms that are neither filial (“a direct descendent”) nor arcane (“Christianity in disguise”)? Is this not what Asad himself is suggesting when he writes that the state’s “claim to sacredness is at once familiar from Christian history, and yet entirely new in its secular perspective”? This is indeed “no simple move.” But what if Christianity—the very advent of the new and the valuation of the new as such —were at once the history of its transformations and the endurance of its efforts to change the world benevolently and violently? What if it were the particular history of an enduring exertion, a peculiarly rich deployment of effort (think: work ethic; think the “good news” of the Gospel). The debate between Las Casas and Sepulveda, to which Asad refers, was about the convertibility and enslavement of the New World’s natives. The options were already convertibility and death, compassion and cruelty. In the nineteenth century, the debates over the emancipation of the Jews invoked proximate terms: assimilation or expulsion, religion or race, integration or deportation (or extermination). Today “the emancipation of humanity” is enforced by the violence of military humanitarianism (and the use and sale of drones, which helps) and by the deepening spread of predatory capitalism. But what if compassion and cruelty, faith and works—the killing of countless for the salvation of their souls (for their own good)—were the surest sign that we live not in a new era but in the well established “modernity” of a tradition of violence (where killing the infidel is not a sin but a means of purifying sin, as Asad explains), a tradition of lavish and liberal exertion, that has long claimed and proclaimed the new and the good news for itself and, God protect them, for others as well? 


[1] Idelber Avelar, The Letter of Violence: Essays on Narrative, Ethics, and Politics (New York: Palgrave, 2004) 1.

[2] In “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” Jacques Derrida famously insists that “within history—but is it meaningful elsewhere?—every philosophy of nonviolence can only choose the lesser violence within an economy

of violence.” [J. Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass [New York: Routledge, 2001] 400n21).

[3] Slavoj Žižek proposes distinguishing “subjective” from “objective” violence, but he moves seamlessly from “the traumatic character of the Neighbour” to the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia (S. Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections [New York: Picador, 2008] 55). Žižek insists on the structural violence of capitalism, but implicates “Buddhism” just as easily. The illustrations he brings, in other words, are located on a continuum that links the murder of the founder (“we know that a founding figure has to be killed”) to “white racist ideology” and its “performative efficiency”; that associate individual crimes of whatever nature with the—ubiquitously exemplary—horror of the Holocaust (70-72 & 112-113).  And consider John Keane’s typical version of this continuum, which juxtaposes “a bank robber’s accomplice who wants the robber to beat him up in order to throw the police off the scent,” “the drunk driver who ran into a cyclist,” the “careless group of head-phoned youths” who knocked down an elderly shopper, or “the British soldier who forcibly entered the dwellings of a Muslim, with sniffer dogs on the leash,” all toward an understanding of “violence and democracy.” Reflecting on such examples, Keane assuredly asserts, builds “a razor-sharp sense of complexity [which] helps alert democracies to the contingent character of violence in its various forms” (J. Keane, Violence and Democracy [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004] 39-40). Aside from Asad, only few among the thinkers of violence I know stubbornly resist this continuum, and yet as Charles Tilly insists, “collective violence is not simply individual aggression writ large. Social ties, structures, and processes significantly affect its characters” (C. Tilly, The Politics of Collective Violence [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003] 4).

[4] See Uday Mehta, “Violence” in  Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon, available online at

[5] For a pertinent problematization, see Talal Asad, “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology” in his Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) 171-199.

[6] Consider e.g., W.G. Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Random House, 2003) and the responses it occasioned, and see, on denial, Marc Nichanian, The Historiographic Perversion, trans. Gil Anidjar (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[7] “Violence challenges analytical focus because of its ubiquity and multifarious forms,” writes Mehta in “Violence.”

[8] “The promiscuity of the act,” in this case torture, is what Lezra describes, “its division and seepage across spaces, agents, and times” (J. Lezra, Wild Materialism: The Ethic of Terror and the Modern Republic [New York: Fordham University Press, 2010] 3).

[9] Significant segments of Asad’s books are dedicated to pain, offering thoughtful considerations that contrast the medieval and the modern, and consider the changing sensibilities that govern our responses to pain. On “the myth of religious violence,” see William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[10] Asad observes critically that “our sense of horror thus seems to be largely directed at individual acts,” thus accounting for the growth of “security concerns” that mask and morph into personal and national dimensions, the drive to protect that which cannot be owned, but nonetheless favors immunity over community (the distinction between communitas and immunitas is traced by Roberto Esposito in Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community, trans. Timothy Campbell [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010] and see as well his Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life [Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011]).

[11] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings. Volume 1. 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996) 253.

[12] Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987) 29.

[13] “The addressees are dead,” writes Derrida further on, “the very idea of destination includes analytically the idea of death” (Derrida, The Post Card, 33). Like the letter, in other words, violence “is immediately dispersed or multiplied . . . its destination is immediately multiplied, anonymous” (79). Like the letter, like the violence of the letter, violence “can always – and therefore must – never arrive at its destination” (121).

[14] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings.

Volume 1, 237.

[15] For an essential account of the rule and effects of “proportionality,” see Eyal Weizman, The Least of all Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza (London and New York: Verso Books, 2011).

[16] After Fanon, Sartre’s famous position on violence as healing and regenerative (“c’est l’homme lui-même se recomposant”) must be seen as derivative of what Asad identifies as the role of violence in the making of the violent self, the capacity for violence granted to the self, and the exercise of violence toward violence (Jean-Paul Sartre, “Préface” in Franz Fanon, Les damnés de la terre [Paris: La Découverte & Syros, 2002] 29). As Hannah Arendt points out, Sartre partakes of a peculiar “leftist humanism,” which is at once individual and collective (H. Arendt, On Violence [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970] 12-13).

[17] Arendt, On Violence, 51, and see 67 (“for the sake of its own safety”); as Asad puts it, “limitless violence (and the terror unleashed by such violence) may be necessary if that is held by a sovereign state to be a mater of its survival,” a condition that is essentially related to the corporative tradition, “the assumption that the sovereign state is a legal person” that “has the right to exist and therefore an absolute right to defend itself.” Sacred life indeed.

[18] Arendt, On Violence, 50.

[19] “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert,” writes Arendt. She goes on to say that “it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow” (52). Earlier, Arendt had described “the most despotic domination we know of, the rule of master over slaves,” as resting not “on superior means of coercion as such, but on a superior organization of power—that is, on the organized solidarity of the masters” (50). Are these not masters of a superior organization of violence, “those engaged in the perfection of the means of destruction [that] have finally reached a level of technical development where their aim, namely, warfare, is on the point of disappearing altogether by virtue of the means at its disposal”? (4-5)

[20] Arendt, On Violence, 6; later in the book, Arendt returns to make the diagnosis more precise, arguing against the devastation brought by what she calls “bigness” and mass bureaucratization, where “the monopoly of power causes the drying up or oozing away of all authentic power sources in the country. In the United States . . . we are confronted not merely with the disintegration of power structures, but with power, seemingly still intact and free to manifest itself, losing its grip and becoming ineffective” (85). This, for Arendt, is the precise condition for the advent of violence: “every decrease in power is an open invitation to violence” (87).

[21] Talal Asad, “Response to Gil Anidjar,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 11:3 (2009) 394-399.

  • Image: Soldiers from Charlie Company 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment set fire to a Taliban safehouse discovered during Operation Catamount Fury, 2007. Photo: SSG Justin Holley.