Rob Nixon: Slow Violence

Rob Nixon Slow ViolenceI love this book, and not just because this term ‘slow violence’ encapsulates so brilliantly what I have been fighting my entire life — particularly visible in fighting slum lords who made their money by providing tenants with rats, roaches, lead-poisoning, mould, asthma, rashes, depression, harassment, fear, overflowing toilets, uncertainty and a horrible dingy water-stained shade to life twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for years. But this kind of violence becomes visible in so many ways in the lives of people and communities where I have lived and worked. It has shaped so much of who I am, it is the violence of poverty and powerlessness — until a stand is made against it. Nixon writes:

…we urgently need to rethink–politically, imaginatively, and theoretically–what I call “slow violence.” By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. (2)

Given how media and public attention works, how do we gain attention for slow-moving accumulating disaster? Especially important and requiring both thought and action because:

it is those people lacking resources who are the principle casualties of slow violence. Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibility of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives (4)

This is also complicated because such environmental struggles are never ‘pure’, but form part of larger social and cultural struggles.But again, returning to their scope and duration, one of the greater challenges is that of scale:

how can we imaginatively and strategically render visible vast force fields of interconnectedness against the attenuating effects of temporal and geographical distance? (38)

…slow violence involves more than a perceptual problem created by the gap between destructive policies or practices and their deferred, invisible consequences. For in addition, slow violence provides prevaricative cover for the forces that have the most to profit from inaction…doubt is… a bankable product. (40)

It is this terminology and thinking through of slow violence that I find most useful, but I enjoyed the varied stories through the book as Nixon explores how slow violence is described and made prominent through

the complex, often vexed figure of the environmental writer-activist. (5)

He looks at their work as a way in to this, a way to act upon this:

To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats who fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects. To intervene representationally entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency. (10)

On the nature of slow violence

I love this quotation from Edward Said:

“the normalized quiet of unseen power.” This normalized quiet is of particular pertinence to the hushed havoc and injurious invisibility that trail slow violence. (6 — quote from ‘Wordly Humanism v. the World Builders, Counterpunch 4 August 2003)

and adds an interesting comparison this with Fanon’s work on violence, and how different this understanding of violence is as it

addresses environmentally embedded violence that is often difficult to source, oppose, and once set in motion, to reverse. (7)

Not that it is anything but complementary. In both

For if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post: industrial particulates and effluents live on in the environmental elements we inhabit and in our very bodies, which epidemiologically and ecologically are never our simple contemporaries. (8)

It is this very time scale that makes it so difficult to grasp and force action around. Others who have sought to grapple with it include Johan Galtung who coined the term ‘indirect or structural violence’, and sought to widen understanding of what constitutes violence from personal violence to include and ‘foreground the vast structures that can give rise to acts of personal violence and constitute forms of violence in themselves.’ (10)

However:

structural violence is a theory that entails rethinking different notions of causation and agency with respect to violent effects. Slow violence, by contrast, might well include forms of structural violence but has a wider descriptive range in calling attention, not simply to questions of agency, but to broader, more complex descriptive categories of violence enacted slowly over time. (11)

Just one example is how we too often look at, talk about, understand war. It is bracketed in talking of casualties between firm dates, but things like land mines, agent orange, depleted uranium all stretch out those casualties through years and decades. A whole chapter here describes Gulf War Syndrome — much of this violence is ‘invisible’ to certain or all views, purposefully hidden or erased while other views and perspectives are privileged.

Slow violence of landscape and maps:

In the global resource wars, the environmentalism of the poor is frequently triggered when an official landscape is forcibly imposed on a vernacular one. A vernacular landscape is shaped by the affective, historically textured maps that communities have devised over generations, maps replete with names and routes, maps alive to significant ecological and surface geological features. A vernacular landscape, although neither monolithic nor undisputed, is integral to the socioenvironmental dynamics of community rather than being wholly externalized–treated as out there, as a separate nonrenewable resource. (17)

This made me think so much about writers like Oliver Rackham describing the changing countryside of England through processes of enclosure, and of course this is equally true of conquest and colonialisation around the world. Nixon continues:

I would argue, then, that the exponential upsurge in indigenous resource rebellions across the globe during the high age of neoliberalism has resulted largely from a clash of temporal perspectives between the short-termers who arrive (with their official landscape maps) to extract, despoil, and depart and the long-termers who must live inside the ecological aftermath and must therefore weigh wealth differently in time’s scales.

More than material wealth is here at stake: imposed official landscapes typically discount spiritualized vernacular landscapes, severing webs of accumulated cultural meaning and treating the landscape as if it were uninhabited by the living, the unborn and the animate deceased. (17)

There is so much here, the imbrications of the cultural, spiritual, physical, environmental, political…I like this poetic acknowledgement of different relations to the land.

Our perspective on environmental asset stripping should include among assets stripped the mingled presence in the landscape of multiple generations… (18)

I also love this, more resonant with indigenous struggles but also with asset-stripped inner cities and barren countrysides:

I want to propose a more radical notion of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss of the land and resources beneath them, a loss that leaves communities stranded in a place stripped of the very characteristics that made it habitable. (19)

Slow violence of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concretize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long term in a world whose resources and increasingly unshared. The wall, read in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow violence, materializes temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of sight out of mind. (20)

There is some (but I would have looked forward to more I think) about walls, boundaries, what can be imagined and what can be said.

From a postcolonial perspective, the most startling feature of environmental literary studies has been its reluctance to engage the environmental repercussions of American foreign policy, particularly in relation to contemporary imperial practices. (33)

Some smart things about capitalism, that I have found echoes of in Jason Moore’s work (Capitalism and the Web of Life, which I am only partly through and also love)

capitalism’s innate tendency to abstract in order to extract, intensifying the distancing mechanisms that make the sources of environmental violence harder to track and multinational environmental answerability harder to impose. (41)

And then a number of profound thoughts around various writers and struggle and how connections have been and can be made between them. Perhaps my favourite is this mural found in County Mayo of Ken Saro-Wiwa, connecting the struggle of both communities against Shell Oil with his poetry translated into Gaelic…

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Dance your anger, Dance your joys, Dance the guns to silence, dance, dance, dance…

Nixon writes:

A quarter century ago, Raymond Williams called for more novels that attend to “the close living substance” of the local while simultaneously tracing the “occluded relationships”–the vast transnational economic pressures, the labor and commodity dynamics–that invisibly shape the local. (45)

A call I hope to respond to alongside (but probably not nearly as well) as the many writers looked at here — which has generated a whole new list of books I hope to read (and numerous essays, and the below is by no means the full list but this gives you a brief idea of the scope):

  • Animal’s People by Indra Sinha, in a context of the Bhopal distaster, how this compares to Chernobyl
  • Abdelrahman Munif Cities of Salt — five novels exploring petroleum industry and deal between Saudi Arabia and the US
  • Genocide in Nigeria (and others) by Ken Saro-Wiwa, on Shell Oil in Nigeria
  • Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed on Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and the planting of trees
  • Anna Tsing – Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection
  • Richard Drayton — Nature’s Government, on Kew gardens, and network of imperial gardens, and the ideology of improvement
  • Jamaica Kincaid on gardens! Woot!
  • Ramachandra Guha – Environmentalism: A Global History

There is more on megadams, the American pastoral and its problematic nature, wandering and etc etc.

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