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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Arendt, Fanon, King on Violence

Upgraded and adapted from an exchage with "Kate" in the Moot:
Are you saying that in order to be remembered in the future as having made some kind of progress towards "peace" one must occasionally resort to violence, or that in some cases the only way to make any kind of difference in the direction of peace one must occasionally resort to acts of violence that might put them in an unfavorable light in future historical lenses?
It is obviously true that sometimes people make recourse to violence because they see no alternative, and it is true that in retrospect such rationales are sometimes accepted as justifications and sometimes they are not, just as it is also true that sometimes efforts at nonviolent resistance fail either to accomplish their ends or even fail to be accepted in retrospect as nonviolent at all (they are remembered as disturbances of the peace, they are associated with incidental property crimes, and so on). The only generalization I have proposed so far suggests very much the contrary sort of principle, namely, that the resort to violence always unleashes forces at least as bad as the ones it would combat.

 You wonder:
when someone in such a situation would know that the only recourse left is violence?
The crucial thing to grasp is that you cannot know. Think about King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." The bumper sticker people tend to take from that piece is that "Injustice Anywhere Is Injustice Everywhere," as though King is proposing that we already know of what justice consists in all its instances. Of course, reading the text itself we realize that this particular sentence arises in the context of a dispute, not at all a universally accepted assertion, between King and the "dear fellow clergymen" whose editorial he directly addresses in the Letter, a dispute in which the question at hand is what does it mean to describe somebody as an "outside agitator" in a world of complex mutualities.

Much more substantially, King later declares that it can be just as much a demonstration of one's fidelity to the rule of law to violate the letter of the unjust law in the full expectation that one will suffer the unjust penalty for that violation as to obey the letter of the just law in the full expectation that one will escape any unjust penalty thereby.

Is King an "outside agitator" or one of "we the people"? Do his action violate community rules or appeal to the Constitution? Are the judgements to which he testifies, the deeds to which he is committed making the world more deranged or more capacious, more brittle or more enduring? What matters about King's declaration is that in judging the law unjust and soliciting its unjust penalty through a violation, one expects to expose its injustice and so contribute to its improvement. But one cannot ever actually know whether or not one's judgments in these matters are indeed the right ones or whether this strategy is one that will vindicate your judgment or rewrite the law in your own image of its more perfect justice.

It may be that your violation is judged as a violence and its punishment just and the letter of the law will be consolidated in the image of injustice by your lights. This is especially true in the sorts of struggles King is writing about, in which, as he also says in the Letter, it is so easy to mistake the exposure of social violence (through demonstrations and civil disobedience, say) as the commission of social violence (undermining conventional mores, disrupting public order, fomenting unrest, say). And so, as you say:
[T]here's no clear event or moment at which attempts at peaceful reconciliation is beyond possibility, when violent action is the only way to bring about change (which obviously won't in any way assure peaceful change). Isn't that how oppressors manage to keep the victim group in a disadvantaged place for interminable amounts of time -- by claiming that change must come slowly and peacefully?
That's right. King pointed out that the privileged rarely relinquish even their unjust privileges voluntarily, and hence pleas for moderation (nonviolent resistance is not, in its nonviolence, also automatically "moderate") often amount to de facto endorsements and enforcements of the unjust status quo, whatever the expressed convictions of the "moderators" toward the unjust realities at hand.

But again, the lack of a palpable guarantor that one's judgment will be endorsed, that one's resistance will succeed in re-enacting the rule of law differently is inescapable, since these are political phenomena we are talking about, phenomena arising out of and in the midst of the ineradicable diversity of the peers with whom we collaboratively and antagonistically share and substantiate and change the world, peer to peer.

This is the risk of the political as such, the register of its freedom. It is a mark of this very risk that while King is canonized as a prophet of nonviolence Fanon is often viewed as a glorifier of violence, despite the fact that it is the historical conditions into which they would intervene that distinguished them most in many cases, while their radicalism reveals profound continuities (of course the domestication of King's radicalism by way of his distorted mainstream canonization in the US is part of this story).

All of this provides some context explaining why for Arendt political judgment is illuminated by reference to aesthetic judgment: we release meaningful and beautiful forms into the world, we assess forms as meaningful and beautiful, and in so doing we offer up our judgments to the tribunal of public assessment. That the aesthetic object or event is valu-able is objective and universal, that it is valu-ed is subjective and contingent. Of course, like all universals, the valu-able will always be exposed retroactively as contingent, as human beings are not gods, but its distinctive force is aspirational. To be judged as valu-able is always to be offered up as a candidate for enduring value, that value making and partaking of the world that exceeds us, while to be attested to as value-ed is a measure of the worldly pleasures afforded by and within that durable excess.

In offering up the judgment -- or our political opinions -- to the hearing of our peers and owning up to it we engage in a transaction in which we are substantiated (even if our judgments are not always so substantiated) as judges, as agents, as peers among peers, as worldly worldmakers, an experience of freedom (the Founding Fathers described this experience as "public happiness") we cannot produce on our own, on which we depend on the presence of a diversity of others. It is crucial to grasp that politics so construed is the opposite of violence -- indeed, Arendt describes "nonviolent politics" as a redundant expression.
I read... that some people interpreted [Fanon's] text as saying that the only effective means of change was violence, but I also heard that this interpretation was in part due to Sartre's rather passionate introduction to the book, that it was Sartre who was advocating violence, not Fanon. Also, didn't Arendt promptly write a counter-argument to that section of the book?
I definitely do not agree that Fanon is making an argument that the only effective means of change arises from violence in some general way. I think that even when he is backed up against the wall and argues that violence is justified by the ubiquitous inescapable violence of organized criminality in colonial administration based on the "irrational rationality" of racist pseudo-science, he also knows that the "effectiveness" of this means is profoundly undermined by the afterlife of violence in the new order it would establish and also he pines quite clearly in "Concerning Violence" but even more stunningly in Black Skin, White Masks for the life-giving world-building practice of politics, peer to peer, in terms very close indeed to Arendt's own.

While it is true that Arendt is one who declares Fanon to be glorifying violence in her "Reflections on Violence" -- albeit recognizing the sophistication of his case and the circumstances that probably justify his acceptance of violence in the colonial instance -- it seems to me her understanding of the political provides one of the best ways of grasping the significance of Fanon's project as an emancipatory one. It is one of the great frustrations of reading Arendt that she did not seem to recognize the kinship between the anti-colonial struggles testified to by Fanon and the anti-Nazi struggles of the French Resistance she celebrates so forcefully in the preface of Between Past and Future, and that she did not fully connect the racism she examines in the Antisemitism volume of The Origins of Totalitarianism with the American racism she treats with terrible clumsiness amidst the insights in her "Reflections on Little Rock" and elsewhere. 

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