Slow violence, gender, and the environmentalism of the poor

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We are accustomed to conceiving of violence in terms that are immediate, explosive, and spectacular, as erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But as environmentalists, we need to engage the representational and strategic challenges posed by the relative invisibility of what I call slow violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead is incremental, as its calamitous repercussions are postponed across a range of temporal scales.1 In so doing, we can complicate conventional assumptions about violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is event focused, time bound, and targeted at a specific body or bodies. The temporal dispersion of slow violence impacts the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social afflictions-from domestic abuse to post-traumatic stress-but has especially powerful implications for environmental calamities. Hence, a major challenge facing us is how to devise arresting stories, images, and symbols adequate to the elusive violence of delayed effects. Climate change, the thawing cryosphere, toxic drift, deforestation, soil erosion, the radioactive aftermaths of wars, acidifying oceans, and a host of other slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes confront us with formidable representational obstacles that can hinder our efforts to mobilize and act decisively. Crucially, slow violence is often not just attritional but is also exponential, operating as a major threat multiplier; slow violence can fuel, long-term, proliferating conflicts wrought from desperation as the conditions for sustaining life become geometrically degraded. If, as Edward Said notes, struggles over geography are never reducible to armed struggle but have a profound symbolic and narrative component as well and if, as Michael Watts insists, we must attend to the "violent geographies of fast capitalism," we need to supplement both of these essential injunctions with a deeper understanding of the slow violence of delayed effects that structures so many of our most consequential forgettings.2 Violence, above all environmental violence, needs to be seen-and thought through-as a contest over time. Faulkner's dictum that "The past is never dead. It's not even past" resonates with particular force across landscapes permeated by slow violence, landscapes of temporal overspill that elude rhetorical cleanup operations with their sanitary beginnings and endings.3 "Is the 'Post-' in 'Postcolonial' the 'Post-' in 'Postmodern'?," Kwame Anthony Appiah famously asked, and as environmentalists we might ask similarly searching questions of the "post" in postindustrial, post-Fordist, post-Cold War, and postconflict.4 If the past of slow violence is never past, then 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.5 Something similar applies to so-called postconflict societies whose leaders may annually commemorate, as marked on the calendar, the official cessation of hostilities while ongoing intergenerational slow violence (inflicted, say, by unexploded land mines or by arms dump carcinogens) may continue hostilities by other means. Ours is an age of onrushing turbo-capitalism in which the present feels more abbreviated than it used to, at least for the world's privileged classes who live surrounded by technological time savers that often compound the sensation of being time poor. Consequently, one of the most pressing challenges of our age is how to adjust our rapidly eroding attention spans to the slow erosions of environmental justice. If under neoliberalism the gulf between enclaved rich and outcast poor has become ever more pronounced, ours is also an era of enclaved time in which speed has become for many a self-justifying, propulsive ethic that renders "uneventful" violence (to those who live remote from its attritional lethality) a weak claimant on our time. The attosecond pace of our age, with its restless technologies of infinite promise and infinite disappointment, prompts us to keep flicking and clicking distractedly in an insatiable (and often insensate) quest for quicker sensation. Politically and emotionally, different kinds of disaster possess unequal heft. Falling bodies, burning towers, exploding heads, avalanches, and volcanoes have a visceral page-turning power that tales of slow violence, unfolding over years, decades, and even centuries, cannot match. Stories of toxic buildup, massing greenhouse gases, and accelerated species loss due to ravaged habitats may all be cataclysmic, but they are scientifically convoluted cataclysms in which casualties are postponed, often for generations. In an age when the media venerates the spectacular and when public policy is shaped primarily around perceived immediate need, how can we convert into image and narrative disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and star nobody, disasters that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world? How can we turn the long emergencies of slow violence into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant political intervention in these emergencies, whose repercussions have given rise to some of the most critical challenges of our time? To address the challenges of slow violence is to confront the dilemma that Rachel Carson faced almost half a century ago as she sought to dramatize what she called "death by indirection."6 Carson's subjects were biomagnification and toxic drift, forms of oblique, slow-acting violence that, like climate change, pose formidable imaginative difficulties for writers and activists alike. In struggling to give shape to amorphous menace, both Carson and reviewers of Silent Spring resorted to a narrative vocabulary. One reviewer portrayed the book as exposing "the new, unplotted and mysterious dangers we insist upon creating all around us,"7 while Carson herself wrote of "a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and obscure" (238). To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats whose fatal repercussions are strewn 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 the iconic symbols to embody amorphous calamities and the narrative forms to infuse them with dramatic urgency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEnvironment at the Margins
Subtitle of host publicationLiterary and Environmental Studies in Africa
PublisherOhio University Press
Number of pages29
ISBN (Print)9780821419786
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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