This piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.
by Andrew Stefan Weiner
Over the past several years it has become more common for scholars and activists to rely on the concept of structural violence, along with the closely related ideas of systemic and institutional violence. In the US, these concepts are typically invoked in critical analyses of problems like climate change, mass incarceration, and the complex networks of discriminatory oppression associated with class, race and ethnicity, able-bodiedness, and gender and sexuality. Although such thinking was once confined mainly to social scientists, it has become increasingly integral to the discourses of popular social justice movements, most notably Black Lives Matter and the prison abolition movement. Given the versatility, power, and utility of this discourse, it is no surprise that it has begun to inform much of the critical response to the Trump election and its aftermath, which have of course manifested any number of modes of violence.
Yet while many of us who work in art-related fields wish to align our practices with these incipient movements of resistance, if we want to do so effectively we must attend to the fact that the relations between art, aesthetics, and structural violence have yet to be persuasively articulated, especially in our new emergent conjuncture. Though there have been robust discussions of art, media, and violence for some time now—one thinks here of the American reception of Harun Farocki’s later work, or the many critical responses to the Bush-era War on Terror and its continuation by other means under Obama—these have tended to focus on warfare, torture, and confinement, and often fail to register different kinds of immaterial assault or abuse. By the same token, critical debates around structural violence typically discount or ignore the various ways in which such violence becomes manifest in various sensate forms; not necessarily as art, but through the countless technical operations of the mass media, as well as through the subject’s own perception and judgment, the very faculties that philosophical aesthetics takes as its object of reflection.
In what follows, I want to begin to think through some of the connections that link art, aesthetics, and structural violence in what we are now forced to call the Trump era. I want to propose that a better grasp of these relations can help us determine the most promising means of disrupting the realization of oppressive agendas, and, conversely, that such resistance will be difficult to sustain without an understanding of these transformed modalities of power. A quick note on terminology: I will use the term aesthetics in its general, non-philosophical sense, denoting the field of the sensible together with the many forms and phenomena that depend on it for legibility. From this perspective, “aesthetics” bears no necessary relation to art; while its broader range of reference makes aesthetics closer to what is usually called visual culture, it is not strictly linked to either visuality or to representation, at least not in the sense with which we typically use these terms. Though such questions are not our concern here, it seems entirely possible, even likely, that the aesthetic field as such is constituted through particular forms of structural violence, and moreover that our awareness and understanding of such violence depends on its assuming a sensible manifestation. Insofar as art is invariably and irreversibly caught up with questions of aesthetics, it would then appear that any attempt to outline the prospects of “art after Trump” would have to account for art’s relationship to the particular forms of power and violence characteristic of the incoming regime.
The concept of structural violence was first elaborated in the late 1960s by the Norwegian sociologist and pacifist activist Johan Galtung, who used the idea to describe conditions within which contingent social, economic, and political forms of domination prevent certain populations from exercising fundamental rights and accessing the means required to fulfill basic needs. Though I have yet to come across a genealogy or discursive history of the term (if no such study exists, one clearly should), my sense is that until relatively recently its usage was mainly restricted to critical social scientists and to social justice activists. What one might call the rhetoric of structural violence—the larger field of cognate terms and tropes pertaining to institutions, systems, cultures, and so on—was typically invoked in efforts to analyze and resist the sort of widespread, persistent oppression that is all too often manifest in public education, health care, or the criminal justice system. Over time, such forms of radical, comprehensive analysis were taken up by a broader range of actors, to the extent that references to structural violence are relatively common, even in general-interest publications like the Huffington Post.
Although this is surely a welcome development, one can nevertheless imagine several potential problems with the concept, at least as it is now widely used. The first is that it is liable to conflate different modalities of violence, which might well have distinct causes or conditions of possibility; this could naturalize types of oppression that are contingent, making them seem immune to resistance. Another issue is that the metaphor of “structure” can lend a transcendental and even ahistorical aspect to relations that are culturally situated and historically specific. A third objection could be that such language doesn’t do justice to other, concurrent types of violence that are decentered, networked, and dynamic, even chaotic.
Such problems cannot be wished away, and they deserve careful consideration. With that said, in the current conjuncture they appear to be outweighed by the powerful need for concepts and language that speak to the complex, even overdetermined status of violence as a nexus of forces that are at once physical and psychic, institutional and discursive, material and immaterial, singular and yet transindividual. It is equally critical to call attention to the ways in which violence can come to seem automatic, architectural, or somehow machinic; we also need to think about situations, like global climate change, in which its operation is so obstinate and imperceptible that it makes sense to speak in terms of what Rob Nixon has called “slow violence.” It could even be that in certain cases what might appear to be the liabilities of the concept of structural violence can actually function as assets; for instance, its propensity toward conflation might usefully capture the ways in which different types of violence can overlap or interact.
With these considerations in mind, I want to propose that Trump’s campaign was closely related to a specific form of structural violence, one that is mainly social and economic in character, and has become manifest through the progressive dispossession or precaritization of numerous demographics as a result of the macroeconomic changes of the last four or five decades: the progressive hegemony of neoliberalism, the transition to post-Fordism, the globalization and financialization of the world’s economies, and the loss of jobs through offshoring and automation.
The vulnerability of the US working class is not news; neither is the fact that this has increasingly become a problem for whites. What does seem new, however, is the extent and intensity of this crisis (along with the amount of publicity it receives), together with its increasing proximity to ascendant forms of white identity politics. Worsening matters is the fact that the forces that have historically protected workers from such dangers—labor unions and the Democratic Party—have become progressively more powerless, in part as a result of their own fecklessness or incompetence.
It may have appeared to many in the first part of the election cycle that this increasing inequality was only an issue for Bernie voters. After all, when was the last time a Republican politician spoke frankly about economic injustice? What became all too clear all too late was that Trump had stumbled upon a crucial change in mainstream American politics, namely that inequality has expanded to the point where Republicans can’t simply ignore it or invoke trickle-down economics to reframe it as the pretext for more tax cuts.
To many observers it seemed painfully obvious that as the beneficiary of such policies—not to mention the heir of a big-league shyster whose business plan consisted in large part of exploiting ill-gotten tax breaks—Trump was exactly the wrong person to campaign on a message of reducing inequality. Though of course perfectly sensible, what this position missed was that Trump’s status as an accidental, rogue Republican enabled him to broach topics that were considered off-limits by the rest of the GOP, whether in its “mainstream,” Christian fundamentalist, or Tea Party wings. Like Bernie, although for entirely different reasons, Trump foregrounded the fact that he recognized and empathized with voters’ sense of disenfranchisement.
Numerous pundits have claimed that the 2016 election was essentially about anti-Washington (or anti-establishment or anti-elite) sentiment and about a desire for change. Like most partial truths, this view is mainly important for what it conceals. Here, what falls out of the frame is economic inequality. Although Hillary was the only contender with a viable plan to address this issue, her perceived lack of empathy, not to mention her ties to Wall Street (Goldman Sachs) and to neoliberal globalization (NAFTA, TPP), destroyed her credibility among enough Rust Belt voters that Trump could eke out a small margin in the Electoral College. For enough voters in the right states, Trump’s promises to ease their suffering outweighed (or perhaps supplemented) the possibility that his presidency would act as a wrecking ball aimed at the nation’s capital. They may not have fully believed the promise to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, but they did allow themselves to hope that this reputed billionaire could at least pull enough strings to bring some decent-paying jobs back.
Trump’s genius—which is to say his cruelly cynical opportunism—was to sense the gravity of the economic situation and to encourage, then exploit, the hope to transcend it. The voters most exposed to this dispossession are those who live outside the cities and exurbs of the coastal “bubble,” which have tended to benefit from recent economic changes, of course not equally. Such voters have rightly insisted that people in the bubble have failed to grasp just how grim the situation has become in many places outside it. According to the most recent study by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, for American workers whose yearly income measures below the median, the average income is $16,000, which is under the poverty line for a family of three or more. For tens of millions of Americans, economic experience is not just defined by stagnation, but by a pronounced downward mobility that inverts the American dream. 2015 was the first year in decades in which the average US life expectancy was down; the reason for this was a sharp reduction in the life expectancy of whites, due primarily to opioids and gun-related deaths (the majority of which are in fact suicides).
If Trump managed to con large numbers of voters into believing he understood and could fix such massive problems, his highly mediagenic, ratings-bolstering antics meant that much election coverage tended to ignore economic policy, and instead framed the election as the kind of battle between nemeses one finds on shows like The Apprentice. This was especially true of the cable TV and internet-based outlets on which Trump compulsively relies. Within such a space, it was virtually impossible to find any meaningful, reasoned discussion of the pronounced split in the post-2008 recovery (and around which a more capable, less hated candidate than Hillary could have easily built a winning campaign). It was thus actually impossible to view this ever-widening gap as an intensification of the different forms of structural violence that have attended neoliberalism, first in its moment of ascendance and most recently in its protracted moment of crisis.
Plenty more remains to be said about the connection between this type of violence and others, particularly the many channels through which Trumpism manages to displace white reactions to economic and social dispossession. Closer attention must be paid to the intense ambivalence that characterizes certain modes of Trumpist political affect, which combines demands for dignity and help with vengeful fantasies of degradation, deportation, and retribution. Part of what has made Trump so appealing, so successful, and so dangerous is his ability to tap these desires and promise to fulfill them.
It could be said that Trumpism mobilizes its own kinds of violence, even that on some constitutive level it is a type of violence. Trump and his voters share a politics of discrimination, blame, victimization, and hatred. Never before, at least not in living memory, have political institutions and the media-entertainment complex served so transparently as instruments of collective aggression. This hostility is not just a form of acting-out, but part of a larger political strategy whose goal is to deny recognition to anyone who fails to conform to the most retrograde, normative fantasies of what it means to be American. Such a will-to-exclusion is ultimately its own kind of radical violence, one that operates on the aesthetic structures that are the condition of possibility for any kind of political association or action. If we are to resist the countless dangers posed by Trump and Trumpism—whether through activism, art, or thought—we will have to understand how profound and systematic these threats are. We will have to think rigorously, act bravely, and work together tirelessly while exerting the utmost vigilance.