Violence and the Visible

Aug 08, 2015

In contemporary society, catastrophic images constantly bombard our short attention spans, which are truncated by the ever-increasing speed of information delivery and consumption. In this blog post, intern Alanna Rebbeck explores the invisibility of "slow violence" in our media-centric world, and the role of cultural institutions in visualizing and resisting this culture of violence.

In his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, scholar Rob Nixon calls our attention to violence against the environment and its social ramifications. He introduces the term "Slow Violence" to call attention to the latent effects of pollution, which often take decades or even generations to manifest, both ecologically and socially.

"Decoupled from its original causes by the workings of time," slow violence silently destroys the earth and further disenfranchises already marginalized communities. This crisis in representation, as concerns both social and environmental disasters, is for Nixon another act of negligence if not a form of structural violence in itself. It both under-represents and misrepresents the experience of others, and in this sense restrains the agency of those who would seek to resist it.

Slow violence is also underrepresented in public memory because it is neither beautiful nor dramatic. We are conditioned to salivate over spectacular violence, on the other hand, which satisfies our desire for instantaneous entertainment. It has become the primary mode of representing and understanding violence itself in a media-saturated culture of rapid visual consumption.

With these considerations in mind, Nixon asks the important question, "How do we make slow violence visible yet also challenge the privileging of the visible?" By prioritizing instances of spectacular violence, we perpetuate the distribution and consumption of this form of representation. It is thus imperative, Nixon argues, that we ensure that all instances of violence receive attention, while also reflecting on what violence looks like and whose violence it encompasses. In so doing, we can develop a capacity to visualize and empathize with those affected by slow violence.

One method of resistance can take the form of compelling personal narratives, either journalistic or academic, that engage and expose people to otherwise hidden instances of slow violence. Nixon particularly stresses the power of memoir to evoke an empathetic response from the reader, while also legitimating the events themselves. Moreover, memoir and other forms of narrative enable a culture of empathy to develop. This enables the transformation of the passive bystander into a potential witness, one who is more inclined to actively reflect on or even combat slow violence.

How can arts and culture organizations contribute to this transformation, both institutionally and with their publics? How can they avoid "privileging the visual," as Nixon has cautioned, and encourage new forms of empathy and witnessing? We can begin by conceiving of every work of art, and aesthetics in general, as a gateway to further critical thought and understanding about forms of slow violence. Guided by a redefined aesthetic and a discursive sensibility, we can explore narratives that encourage critical acts of interpretation and internalization. Moreover, by privileging the slow over the spectacular, we enable a new institutional mindset that questions the politics of speed and encourages our publics to question our representations.