Hannah Arendt noted in 1969 that Georges Sorel’s remark in 1906 — that “the problems of violence still remain very obscure” remained true.[ref]Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, “Introduction to the First Publication” (1906), New York, Collier Books, 1961, p. 60; Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Violence,” Special Supplement, New York Review of Books, February 27, 1969. Accessed December 23, 2010.[/ref]

An additional half-century has elapsed since Sorel made his observation, but his remark remains true. The essays in this dossier place multiple perspectives on the problems of violence in proximity with each other, in an effort to explore some genealogies of violence and its relationship to “the political.”

In late 2009 at the Humanities Initiative at New York University, a small group of NYU scholars convened an interdisciplinary panel of speakers who had provocatively addressed the topic of violence in their work.[ref]The scholars in question were Elena Bellina, Martin Daughtry, Crystal Parikh and myself, together with the NYU Humanities Initiative’s Director Jane Tylus.[/ref]

Our goal, as suggested by the title of the panel, was to “think through violence” together. More specifically, we asked the panelists to grapple with a set of questions that emanated from our own works-in-progress on violence, questions that we gave to each speaker some weeks ahead of the event. These included:

  1. Do you understand violence as always involving a productive dimension? In the situations you examine, what results does violence produce?
  2. How do we conceive of the ethics of non-violence? Do nonviolent movements always involve a moment of violence, e.g., to oneself, as M.K. Gandhi, for instance, argued?
  3. How and when does an act or situation acquire the label “violence” or “conflict”? What forms of violence are privileged in our discourse and which ones are naturalized?
  4. Is structural or institutional violence often overlooked in favor of violence-as-event, in favor of “newsworthy” conflict? What is the relationship between catastrophic and everyday forms of violence? How does one theorize conflict, a phenomenon that is so radically situational?
  5. More broadly, how can the problem of scalability (between macro and micro, between the institutional and the individual, between the symbolic and the corporeal, etc.) be thoughtfully treated within scholarship on violence?
  6. How have you conceived of and worked through any ethical implications that might arise from your work on violence? Specifically, what different forms of obligation do methods such as ethnography or literary study or philosophy evoke when applied to violent situations?

The essays gathered in response indicate a move away from the assumption that to treat violence as an enduring phenomenon in its own right, with its productive and repressive qualities, is to reify or even endorse it. Rather, observing both its persistence and its specificity across varied contexts, the authors ask what kinds of work violence does, and how diverse readings of violence, including the act of naming it, are necessary in attempting a counter-intuitive genealogy of the phenomenon and its implications for politics.


Arvind Rajagopal is Professor in the Departments of Media, Culture and Communication, affiliated to Departments of Sociology and Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU. He is currently a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

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