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Editorial—“Structural Violence”


To get rid of violence, you have to get rid of people, Tariq Ramadan once said in an interview. Of course, Ramadan meant this as an impossibility and a warning against overzealous idealism. But what an idea! By getting rid of people completely, we could have totally frictionless surfaces for exchange. Removing the human factor would effectively erase the difference between ethical and unethical behavior, visible and invisible infrastructure, finally relieving the increasingly tedious obligation to explain how political orders function, how economic transactions are guided. Those still living would only need to deal with the end products of systems whose functions are too complex, too tedious or technical, to merit attention. The entire world would assume the appearance of an iPhone interface.

The term “structural violence” is used often in sociology, anthropology, and human rights circles to explain how endemic cruelty between individuals or groups becomes institutionalized. It is a way of understanding how the violence of entrenched social differences or unresolvable civil strife ossifies and becomes sealed into cultural pastimes. And while systemic political and economic violence is often assumed to be a problem to eradicate, it is often in its very nature impossible to distinguish from that of its host society. Furthermore, it is a kind of violence without clearly identifiable actors—humans who can be expected to appear as part of a legal process. In many cases, structural violence assumes precisely the form of the legal process itself.

After all, legal systems are state and municipal bodies, and are subject to crimes and transgressions that take place within the borders of their jurisdiction. No wonder, then, that judicial systems have become increasingly inadequate for providing oversight on activities that take place across and between borders. The recent slew of extradition hearings only become more surreal in their rationales—just look at the case of UK citizens Babar Ahmad and Syed Talha Ahsan, who were arrested in 2006 for posting to a UK website years before US prosecutors construed it as having supported the Taliban; unfortunately for Ahmad and Ahsan, the justification for extradition was that the service provider for the website was physically located in the US state of Connecticut. Meanwhile, the bizarre case of Julian Assange’s political asylum in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the arrest of Megaupload’s Kim Dotcom, the FBI’s seizure the of server, and of course Obama’s continuation of the US extraordinary rendition program, to various degrees all speak to the futility of pulling supranational activities back into the scope of domestic institutions.

The information, finance, and even art systems find comfortable nests in this globalized in-between terrain, and their infrastructural advances now compete with and often surpass those of sovereign states. What defines this realm is transit, velocity, logistics, and abstraction—fluid dynamics that smooth surfaces for the business of anything from warfare to humanitarian work, from financial arbitrage to everyday trade in products like toothpaste. And though we are deeply familiar with the paradigm of globalization and its effects, we continue to struggle to understand whether, and how, all of this traffic can be seen as a structure because it fundamentally assumes such fluid forms. And yet they are forms nonetheless, which is why this issue attempts to identify the indices where an infrastructure that evades representation nevertheless leaves its imprint by displacing violence into forms of culture and exchange, into emotional relations and into language.

Read the full article here.