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The Violent State

Whose headless body is this

Whose scarlet shroud

Whose torn and wounded cloak

Whose broken voice? (1)

I Meditations on violence 

The macho encounter between Simon Critchley and Slavoj Zizek over competing ethics of violence staged in the recent Naked Punch Supplement left me with the distinct feeling that violence is too important a matter to be left to philosophers.  The problem with violence is that it is not just a concept, or a representation, or a problem of epistemology (though it is a problem for epistemology): violence changes the world, in its various ways, and always violently. Amidst the violence of the various late-Bush invasions of the last month of 2008, I tried running a test to see how Critchley and Zizek would help me both to understand the situation and to transform it. Zizek would deride those leftist liberals and even non-leftist liberals who simply deplored the use of violence without seeking to change the system that sustained it. That left me with very little, however, for even if I had wanted to change the system, and had been able to do so single-handedly, what exactly was ‘the system’ here for me to change, and how would I change it all at once? World revolution? What is the relation of the state to ‘the system’? Can we have a revolutionary practice, even internationalist, that is not tied to the nation state? On the other hand, Critchley’s account of the prohibition against violence as a guiding idea, rather than an absolute prohibition, on which to ground ethical behaviour however attractive as a maxim for personal practice would at the same time seem too open to utilization as a defence for its use by the state—‘it’s justified this time’, as the perpetrators and supporters of recent violence duly claimed. 

As Critchley suggests, the problem with Zizek’s account of violence, in his book called simply On Violence, is the way that an emancipatory revolutionary violence is equated with Benjamin’s ‘divine violence’ or power and that nothing less will do.  All other forms of political action seem to be collapsed into Zizek’s favourite trope, that opposing views are simply the two sides of the same coin. So, according to Zizek, the subjective reaction of those left-liberals who deplore the violence of suicide bombings are simply the other side of the same coin as those who carry them out, for the liberals fail to recognise the underlying systemic violence of the system that sustains their own (interrupted) peaceful existence. When, though, is an opposition a genuine dialectical opposition and when is it merely the other side of the same coin? Only, it seems, when violence sets itself against the system tout court. Yet will Zizek’s emancipatory violence change the entire global system at once? Moreover, does Zizek’s revolution promise to remove all forms of violence subsequent to the revolution? Neither seems likely or possible. The cost of Zizek’s espousal of a Leninist emancipatory violence comes with the assertion that all other forms of violence that happen around the world are simply not worth our attention: disregard them, for they are mere symptoms, not the cause. But isn’t this exclusive emphasis on revolutionary violence just the other side of the coin of the time-honoured Marxist-Leninist devaluation of all non-statist forms of struggle? Its vanguardism devalues the very involvement of the population in the violence of the system which Zizek accuses the liberal of ignoring. Whether the other side of the same coin or not, it is certainly the case that human violence operates within aggressively dialectical relationships. 

II Violence as a historical performance

How then do we, how can we write about violence? How can it be defined? Is it an object? An event? Neither a material phenomenon, nor a spiritual one. It does not erupt from just anywhere, and nor from nowhere, and though often senseless in the colloquial sense, it is rarely without any kind of meaning, because it emerges as a response to a situation that has already been given meaning. It’s for this reason that it is rare that one meaning or another cannot be produced from it, or that meaning cannot be attached to it metaphorically, as in the phrase ‘epistemic violence’. At one level, of course violence has no meaning as such. It is simply an act, an act that can belong equally to the private or the public realm. The difficulty with all discussions of violence is precisely the tension between its meaning and its performative nature, an act which is known in its effects, and which its victims find hard to voice, caught in its remorseless dialectic. Yet violence also speaks. It is a different kind of communication, the alternative to ordinary language, which is the language of ‘diplomacy’, for the impetuous, for the inarticulate, for those who stutter, for those who suffer, for those without another political language, for those without power, and for those with power: ‘the language of pure force’ as Fanon puts it.  

If violence works as a performative form of language, can it be spoken of in the language of ethics? This is the question that has worried philosophers, from Hannah Arendt to Judith Butler. Can it ever be judged as ethical or unethical, legitimate or illegitimate, or, should it, outside of ‘divine violence’, as Walter Benjamin suggests, simply be considered as either authorised or unauthorised by power—which, in German, is exactly the same word? Which means that the violence is simply either authorised or unauthorized by the institution which embodies it. The state’s armed forces versus the workers who are on general strike, state terror versus the terrorist. This raises another issue: aside from the question of its authorisation, and its use as a justified or unjustified means, are there different forms of violence, or is it a constant entity? The same word (in English—the situation is much more complicated in German) is used to describe a man kicking his dog as a state carrying out genocide. So in the collection, Violence in War and Peace, we move seamlessly from George Orwell talking about the English class snobbery to detailed accounts of Nazi practices in Auschwitz.  Is violence against women, against children, prisoners, distinguishable from violence against the state—or from the violence of the state, the original meaning of the term ‘terror’, at the time of the French Revolution? Is the unethical violence of 9.11 fundamentally distinguishable as violence from the retributive violence that followed? History repeats its violations. It is a dialectic without transcendence. New acts of violence do not cancel each other out. They simply accumulate, added on to previous acts, creating the violent debris of history. Surrounded by such piles of wreckage, how far are forms of domestic and social violence legitimated by the public display of violence of the state? What is the relation between violence that goes on within the state to the violent practices of a state externally? Some states seem to exist only in order to exercise more and more violence. Yet sometimes, even such repetitions can be broken. Consider the history of Ireland, one of the longest narratives of violence largely produced by colonial rule. Since independence, however, the state of Ireland, Eire, has remained resolutely neutral, and refused to conduct itself according to the too-normative logic of violent state power. What is the secret of a state that can abjure violence? How does it affect the social polity, the behaviour and mores of its citizens? We should be spending more time looking at states of violence and how they function, and similarly states where violence is hidden, as well as states which have succeeded in reducing violence as close as possible to zero. Every state should be made aware that historically, states which have practised the most violence have not survived in that form. That is the great lesson of colonialism.

‘It was not of my own free will, nor with any lightness of heart, that I allowed the war in Algeria, to invade my thoughts, my sleep, my every mood’.  Like de Beauvoir, I have written about violence many times now, lived with it, been haunted by it, by the alterity and ambivalence of a violence that operates in two ways. First, there is the act, which achieves impact, destruction, maiming, death. And then, ever more, violence operates as a kind of haunting: Sethe waiting for her Beloved’s ghostly return in Toni Morrison’s novel, the state still haunted by its own former fury, the torturer possessed by his victim’s ghostly faces. But the victim is haunted too, can remember the face, still hears the voice, echoing in her sleep, preventing peace. And even those who have only lived it imaginatively, as everyone has, cannot get away from its lingering whispers. We hear it every day of our lives: the news broadcasts a litany of violence, threatened violence, retribution for violence, accidental violence, natural violence. Our lives, however tranquil, remain haunted by its insistent spectral repetitions, some visible, and others secret, by its tortured interruptions.

Working for years on the histories of the anti-colonial movements,  my mind was always somewhere else from the gentle space of writing: with the delegates to Baku being bombed by the Allies as they tried to sail over the Black Sea to the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920, with the Indian Mutiny of 1857, with the extermination of whole peoples in the Americas, with the March of Tears, the struggles in the Congo, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Indochina, in every continent of the world. But above all in Ireland, and in Algeria, and in the Middle East. What struck me so forcibly, alongside the nightmare of history as it unfolds from decade to decade, was how monstrous imperial rule had been when countering those liberation struggles which amongst the freedom fighters were for nothing more than the ordinary, the struggle for the right to ordinary life. They sought nothing more than the dignity of the banal day-to-day existence that we lead in the west. One of the markers of colonial violence is that the demand to which it forms a response is for something that the coloniser assumes so easily and so casually that it does not even have to be thought about. Colonialism was the origin of the concept of one state, two systems.

Violence is never an abstract concept for the colonised. He or she knows that it is always a product of an interaction between two or more people (even if one of these is a person embodied in or mediated by a machine), in which one takes the position of agent and the other of victim. Violence is never single, for its form is already dialectical, split between subject and object in a world cut in two. Always double, always billed as a double act between human subjects, subjects whose experience of violence interpolates them in a repetition effect from which they cannot free themselves. The same is the case for states too. Violence ceaselessly translates itself, as it transmutes from violator to the violated person or object, from impact to its disrupted effects, to live on as an afterlife in cultural memory, from which it then erupts and repeats itself anew. Among the fidayines, for example, for whom the repetition of violence involves a suicidal act, a repetition of violence that then always echoes out to embrace others. What desperation do you have to be driven to, to commit such violence? Such acts are always routinely condemned, and others are punished for them. Yet it could be argued that it also marks an indictment of the state against which such violence is done, that it has not enabled any other language, that this has become the only means of expression. Why is the violence of the suicide bomber considered by Westerners to be so morally different from the violence of the aircraft pilot who drops his bombs indiscriminately from the safety of the skies? If states only have the legitimate prerogative of violence, what does a state have to be like, to drive people to such acts? Why is it, typically, more likely the ‘democracies’—the US, the UK, Spain, Israel, India, Sri Lanka—which seem to produce the suicide bombings? Acts of despair, attempts at transcendence of impossible circumstance through the finality of a vengeful death. Why do these states never consider that this might be an indictment of themselves, that someone is driven to that unimaginable utterance? While refusing to speak to what she called ‘the men of violence’, even Mrs Thatcher found herself finally forced to listen to the Irish hunger artists when they began to die. There are countries that have the freedom to speak, but more often than not they are those that have lost the freedom to listen. 

Walter Benjamin argued that violence is intrinsic to law: violence ‘alone’ guarantees law—being at once law making and law preserving. He demonstrated that the claim for justification of violence (or force, power, gewalt) in terms of its legitimate end overlooked the degree to which the state was always founded on a contract to which violence was foundational. For Benjamin, though not for Derrida, only language as ‘understanding’ remains ‘inaccessible to violence’.  Benjamin’s argument that ‘violence … is the origin of law’ stakes out a significant revision, before its time, of Fanon’s opening chapter in The Wretched of the Earth. Benjamin, writing in 1921, assumes a state that has some semblance of legitimacy—even if beneath the law, you will find violence hidden. Fanon was to define violence, not ‘civilisation’, or ‘law’, as the constitutive condition of colonialism, for according to him colonial rule is merely the legitimation of an originary colonial violence. Sartre synthesized the two to argue in the first Critique that colonial violence is merely an after effect of the founding violence of the bourgeois metropolitan state, which continues to repeat through its remote anarchic offspring. All agree that, in different ways, violence is foundational. It thus, Benjamin argued, perpetuates itself and lives on, through time. It is a kind of writing. Violence renews itself and returns. Where violence has been, there it shall be, continue to play itself out, repeating those transformative effects, as Sartre argued, from generation to generation. Violence is part of a syntagmatic chain, through which it evolves as it repeats. Violence is not a single act, but like decolonisation, a three-dimensional historical process, with a past, a present and a future. Violence, as Blanchot puts it, is continually remembered forgetfully.

This suggests that we should try to understand violence not so much as an act in the here and now, but as a phenomenon that has a history. The history of violence as a response can show that it is driven as much by the dynamics of historical repetition, which authorise it and naturalise it, as anything else: violence as an historical phenomenon, as the strategy and presumption of power, above all violence as the colonial effect, violence as the continuing repetition of colonial history, even as the monads of violence repeatedly interrupt history and confound historical understanding. Fanon’s analysis of colonialism begins and ends with the question of violence. In what follows, I want to consider this analyses of violence in the forms through which he argues that it is articulated: colonialism, and torture.

III Zones of Occult Instability

For Fanon, anti-colonial struggle took a common form of working the dialectic: only revolution would heal the psyche of the wretched, and only revolution through violence: ‘violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect’. 

Violence is justified in ethical terms, according to Fanon, by the fact that colonial rule is itself founded on violence, sustained by violence, and offers no scope for other forms of response. Contrary to the strictures of Hannah Arendt and many others, Fanon’s view of violence was specifically tuned to the colonial situation. In the first place, as he makes clear in his speech, ‘Why We Employ Violence’, the choice of violence was produced, by the form of the Algerian colonial state.  Everything that Fanon says in ‘Concerning Violence’ in Wretched of the Earth, is mediated by the opening description of the extreme colonial condition, a remorseless Manichean binary, which he is addressing. The colonial state is not only openly predicated on the historical violence that initiated colonial power, but reinforces its power through ‘pure force’. This may produce something that looks like consent on the part of the natives, because they do not always openly rebel, but it nevertheless has the effect of dislocating their society, of inflicting a wound beneath the surface. It is, we might say, not the location of culture in which Fanon is interested, but the dislocations of culture. Faced with such dislocations, Fanon comments in a famous passage that:

It is not enough to try to get back to the people in that past out of which they have already emerged; rather we must join them in that fluctuating movement which they are just giving a shape to, and which as soon as it has started, will be the signal for everything to be called into question. Let there be no mistake about it; it is to this zone of occult instability where the people dwell that we must come….  

Come to where? To the place of the people themselves. Fanon is resolutely opposed to any kind of vanguardist elite group who initiate violence against the colonial power in order to try to galvanise the masses: the intellectual, he says, must situate him or herself at the hidden point of dislocation within the people that the violence of colonial culture has produced. 

For Fanon, violence could form part of a process of healing. To understand this view you have to make an analogy with the different kinds of medical intervention, surgical or therapeutic, western or ayurvedic. In this connection it is important to recall that in fact Fanon was a trained doctor, who continued to practice his healing skills whenever called on even as he simultaneously carried on his day-to-day commitments to violent revolution. This apparent paradox, an ethics of healing through revolutionary violence, remains at the heart of the lives and works of both Fanon and other revolutionary doctors, Che Guevara and Agostino Neto. 

Culture emerges from the ‘zone of occult instability where the people dwell’ (ce lieu de déséquilibre occulte). Fanon’s term, ‘occult instability’, like the popular postcolonial word ‘interstitial’, is in fact a medical term, in this case from orthopaedics, suggesting an instability of the muscle or tendon beneath the surface of the skin, particularly the shoulder. ‘Occult instability’ is defined as ‘subluxation’, or hidden dislocation, the underlying mechanism responsible for a broad spectrum of conditions of shoulder dysfunction.  

While ‘occult instability’ describes the condition of a muscle disability, a subluxation or partial dislocation, Fanon uses the evocative phrase (cleansed of its medical resonance in the recent translation as ‘place of hidden disequilibrium’) in a positive way for the violent transformative process, struggling beneath the surface, of a national culture in formation as a part of the liberation struggle. He illustrates this dynamic model of culture with a long poem by the Guinean poet Keita Fodeba, which tells the story of an African village which sends its strongest man, Naman, to fight in the French army against the Germans in World War II. Naman survives the war, even of being a prisoner of war, but is ‘machine-gunned by the police force at the very moment he comes back to the country of his birth’.  The poem is not just about double standards, the subluxation of local culture and its people, the hidden instability of the practice of colonial rule, the repression of the independence movements after the war. What Fanon draws from the poem is that national culture is in some sense not about culture, in its usual sense, at all:

To fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible. There is no other fight for culture which can develop apart from the popular struggle.  

Fanon’s point is very clear: the popular struggle and the national culture are synonymous, the culture is the struggle—what Fanon calls the ‘terrible stone crusher, the fierce mixing machine’ of popular revolution. This, for Fanon, positive anti-colonial violence forms part of the healing process of a culture that is repairing itself, prompted by its unstable, dislocated muscle. Culture is formed through the dialectical responsive violence of the colonised, a process that transforms and heals their society.

Violence, then, in Fanon, is seen from a medical perspective as something whose effects require healing, but this healing can also take the form of revolutionary violence, like a surgical intervention. This is not a general, apocalyptic revolutionary violence but a violent healing that starts from the place of disequilibrium that the original violence produced. Fanon does not merely deplore originary colonial violence, but explains the ongoing violence of a society in terms of why, and from where, it has been produced. For Fanon, the opposition is not between violence and non-violence in the abstract, but between the kinds of societies which produce antithetical effects. The only opposite to the violent colonial state is a non-violent non-colonial state which would be able to organise a consensual civil society, which Fanon equally defines in terms of its common culture.  

IV The violent state

Civil society functions through assent and consent: a modern society that does not qualify as a civil society, that lives through violence internally, is generally recognized today as dysfunctional. A colonial society in which the threat and practice of state violence (the military, the police, torture) represses dissent will find other forms of violence occulted, but not removed. They are shifted to the unstable zone where the people dwell. Similarly a state that chooses to exist through violence whether to its own citizens, its immediate neighbours or more distant ones, can be defined as a dysfunctional state. What is the relation between internal violence and external violence in a state? Is there a direct correlation between the two? 

Just as we can differentiate between the different methods of anticolonial struggle, between violence and non-violence, so too with the practice of states.  Just as the colonial state is a violent state, so too any violent state can be seen as a version of the colonial state, a state that by definition has not been able to organise and structure itself by consent. In that situation, any consent that exists, as in Gramsci’s account of capitalism generally, remains a form of power—in other words, it is a form of coerced consent. Modifying Gramsci, we can say that in addition to the historical distinction between a sovereign and a colonial state, it is possible to take a different perspective and characterise all states according to whether they use the mechanism of colonial rule, that is violence, to survive. Violence is the marker of a colonial state, but also of all states that operate according to a colonial system, whatever their ostensible political status. The colonial state is a violent state; the modern violent state that operates according to forms derived from the colonial state, can be called, quite simply, a violent state. Its methods are neo-colonial, that is, it is structured politically like a colonial state, whose power is based on violence. To avoid historical confusion, while at the same time showing the historical continuity, we can define the modern neo-colonial ‘violent state’ not in the sense of an ostensibly sovereign state being covertly run by the interests of an outside power, but in the sense of states that operate according to the state structure of colonial rule, that is, according to the rule of violence.

Following Fanon, we could say that the violent state is dysfunctional in the same way as the dysfunctional family. It is a state that cannot organise itself internally so as to produce a productive consensual culture between its members. Its violence may be open or masked, but such violence will always produce hidden zones of disequilibrium, which if they do not heal will produce more effects of violence and of pain. As with dysfunctional families, the colonial state may turn its violence equally inside or out, while at the same time the violence of the state externally encourages those within it to utilise forms of extra-legal violence. The unethical practice of the politicians sets the ethical norms for the behaviour of individuals throughout the state. The prevalence of violence within the state in turn encourages the government to practice it beyond its borders, if it has the power to do so. A state which practices violence towards its neighbours is playing out the instability of its own socius on others. Its apparent power, a bullying violence, is a symptom of the fragility of its internal power as a state, which lacks the stability of rule by consent. The victory of violence over power, Arendt argues, ultimately produces the destruction of all power: ‘rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost’.  In such a situation, as Fanon suggests, those subjected to violence can only respond with more violence. This violence will only make the important move of becoming a healing process if the ultimate object is the removal of colonial forms of rule, and the inauguration of government by consent.

In this way, Fanon goes beyond the analysis of colonialism as a question of imperialism or national sovereignty, and pushes at the role of violence in the operation of the state itself. Even if it can be argued that all states are founded on some originary violence, in the real world not all states are equally dependent on violence: there are different kinds of states. It has become customary to talk today of failed states, which are by implication opposed to successful states. Alongside the lists of ‘failed states’, of ‘terrorist states’, we should be producing lists of states of violence, ‘violent states’, and putting them on the agenda for discussion and transformation. The practice of violence by the state shows that it is, in its own way, a failed state. The world political stage can be seen as also made up through this dichotomy between violent and non-violent states, between states that survive by, and found themselves on violence (whatever their nominal form of government) and those that are organised by consensual agreement and allow their citizens, and those of other states, to live in peace. The world is riven between non-violent states and neo-colonial violent states: and we are not just speaking here of empire. 

Colonialism, as Sartre argued, is a system, and a system that begins at home. The modern neo-colonial violent state need have no metropolitan centre which controls it: indeed it may very well be the metropole itself, and may be the only ‘colony’ in its empire (though many sovereign states have different forms of internal colonies at the peripheries of their borders, which are used to legitimate the state’s practices of violence). The violent state can be defined as the state for which violence is the rule, not the exception. The consensual, non-violent state, by contrast, is the state for which violence is the genuine exception. The modern violent state is, in its own way, a failed state, for a failed state is marked by a necessity for violence, no less than in a dysfunctional family. Some of that violence may be hidden, but its dysfunctional nature will always be marked by its violent zones of occult instability. A sure symptom of the presence of such violence in a state will always be the use of any kind of torture. The use of torture is the de facto mark of a neo-colonial violent state, as it was the colonial state, and this is also a question that Fanon addresses specifically. 

V Torture

There is another way in which violence involves a zone of occult instability, and this occurs through its resonating after effects. The occulted zone is temporal, as well as spatial. Looking at Wretched of the Earth, we can see that formally the book is framed by an opening chapter on violence, and a closing chapter on colonial torture. The formation of a national culture comes in between—no wonder it is dislocated. This radical framing through a violence turning inwards provides the context in which the response to anti-colonial violence operates in a personal and a gendered way, but in a way also in which its interactive hauntings continue. Fanon describes the persistence of these hallucinatory after-effects in the often-disregarded last chapter on ‘Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders’. It is striking that in the extraordinary description that de Beauvoir gives of Fanon at Rome airport, these two sides of Fanon’s text seem to have been united in Fanon himself:

 We saw him before he noticed us. He was sitting down, getting up, sitting down again, changing his money, collecting his baggage, all with abrupt gestures, agitated facial movements, suspiciously flickering eyes. In the car, he talked feverishly: in forty-eight hours, the French Army would be invading Tunisia, blood would be flowing in torrents.  

In the final part of my discussion, I want to consider the other side of violence in Fanon’s account, where the impersonal violence of random bombing turns into the direct encounter between colon and native as individuals—in the realm of torture. It is at this point that colonial and revolutionary violence begin to merge with other forms of violence in civil society against the body, against women, against children: with the specific individual violence of torture. In Wretched of the Earth, Fanon focuses on the psychic effects of colonial war, particularly of a regime of torture, in individual patients. In Algeria, as in Indochina, torture constituted a systematic practice of inhuman violence that formed the history of the French propagation of its ‘civilization’ in its colonised territories overseas and the fighting of what the army called its ‘subversive war’ against local freedom movements. Simone de Beauvoir remarked simply how ‘Torture was being used as the normal and indispensable method of obtaining information; it was not a matter of “incidents”, of isolated excesses, this was a system’. 

Torture had always been standard colonial practice without boundaries. Even the French word ‘le supplice’ indiscriminately and symptomatically means without distinction: corporal punishment, torture, torment, pain, anguish—and execution. Torture was just the means of extra-judicial execution. Those who refused to die under such procedures were simply taken out in helicopters by the French army and dropped into the sea. No one has ever been prosecuted for war crimes for torture in Algeria, or for the torture of Algerians in France during the same period. It was not just a colonial issue, of an army out of control elsewhere: it was also the practice of the state in the metropolitan centre. Maurice Papon, the former Vichy minister accused of deporting more than 1,500 Jews to Nazi death camps during the Second World War, also supervised the massacre of hundreds of Algerians in the centre of Paris by police under his command in the 1960s. 

In his analysis of colonialism written during the Algerian war of independence, Sartre points out how the violent relations between the two contrasting societies of Algeria and France were defined from the first by General Bugeaud’s soldiers, and by the ‘atrocious massacres’ perpetrated by in the initial ‘pacification’ that followed the French invasion of Algeria in 1830: ‘Violence and destruction were an integral part of the desired objective…’. In Algeria, this originary violence of the invader never went away, but continued down the generations into the conflicts of the twentieth century. State violence repeated itself at once collectively and in an individual process of transmission:

For the child of the colonialist, violence was present in the situation itself, and was a social force that produced him. The son of the colonialist and the son of the Muslim are both the children of the objective violence that defines the system itself. 

According to Sartre, in a colonial system defined by objective violence, torture becomes an intrinsic part of the system. In making this argument, Sartre is following Fanon, who wrote an essay on torture in Algeria in El Moudjahid of September 1957, called ‘L’Algérie face aux tortionnaires français’ (‘Algeria Face to Face with the French Torturers’). In this essay, Fanon is concerned to refute the argument (repeated in our own time) that proven cases of torture were just the overenthusiastic aberration of particular warped individuals, and that the problem of torture can be solved by taking action against them. Fanon rather argues for the role of torture as an intrinsic element of a colonial society: ‘torture’, he says’ ‘is inherent in the whole colonialist configuration’.  Fanon thus shows the dialectical relation between the behaviour of the state and the individual—torturers both. The systematic planning and authorisation of torture at the highest levels in our own times enforces Fanon’s main argument that torture is not an aberration for colonial rule but its necessary correlative—as he puts it, ‘torture as a fundamental necessity of the colonial world’. Torture is part and parcel of the technology of colonial rule, and at the same time an indication of colonial status as such. This is how Fanon describes it:

The Frenchmen who cry out against torture, or deplore its extension, inevitably remind one of those sensitive souls described by a certain philosopher, and the label of ‘tired intellectuals’ that their compatriots Lacoste and Lejeune attach to them is very pertinent. One cannot both be in favor of the maintenance of French domination in Algeria and opposed to the means that this maintenance requires.

Torture in Algeria is not an accident, or an error, or a fault. Colonialism cannot be understood without the possibility of torturing, of violating, or of massacring.

 Torture is a means and an expression of the occupant-occupied relationship. 

Torture is both a means and a language: it cannot be separated from all the other practices and institutions of the occupying military power which are founded on an originary violence. The manifestation of torture to public knowledge in the West through accidents and breakdowns in the system confirms the basic structure of the system itself: colonial rule. Merely to condemn specific instances of torture, Fanon suggests, actually means that by definition you are, without even necessarily being aware of the implications of what you are saying, condemning the occupation altogether—as a colonial occupation. 

One of the many lessons of colonial history is that the dismantling of power comes as much from loss of ethical self-justification as from military defeat—rather in the same way that financial power evaporates at the moment when confidence is lost. The ethical and the military loss often go together, just like violence and torture. The beginning of the end sometimes comes with the admission of torture, for which, unlike violence, the state cannot claim an ethical justification. Torture is a twisted, tortuous hidden violence, but, as we have seen, it is not to be unexpected, for it constitutes the habitual systematic complement to any project of colonial violence within the colonial system. Torture is generally an occult violence, the violence of the state secreted out of sight which it claims not to authorise, in order to exercise its power over the bodies of its subjects and the space of its occupied territory. At the same time, the state always allows the practice of torture to leak, whether in a clandestine or publicised way. It leaks in the sense of leaking out into the domain of public knowledge, but it also leaks into the general system in part because torture, as Zizek suggests, only makes up a part of similar practices within the system and therefore operates as part of the culture that initiates the domestic population into subjugation, part of the general practice of domestic ‘securitization’.  For the violent state the practice of violence internally against its own populace and externally against other states is, as Zizek would put it, merely the two sides of the same coin. 

The colonial world may be a world cut in two, with peoples divided into an antimony between ‘humans’ and subhuman ‘dogs’. But as Fanon showed, the sulcus, the fissure, of the Manichean system of colonialism produces a division whose violence binds the antagonists ever closer, as their subject positions become ever more unstable in relation to each other, undoing the colonial differentiation between the human and the non-human. The zones of occult instability that the symbiotic forms of violence and torture produce through time will unfold and continue to dislocate the surfaces of the violent state playing out its neo-colonial practices. Any state that engages in such practices is itself, by definition, a violent state. While we live within such inflammatory territories of subluxation, those harrowing hauntings of modern neo-colonial rule will not cease, and mere condemnation cannot protect us or excuse us.

(1) Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmad Faraz in Jamal (1986) 100. Many thanks to Tanya Fernando and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan for their constructive comments on this essay.

This publication can also be viewed and downloaded from:


Arendt, Hannah (1970), On Violence. London, Allen Lane

Benjamin, Walter (1996),  ‘Critique of Violence’, in Selected Works, eds Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Harvard, I, 236-52

de Beauvoir, Simone (1968), Force of Circumstance [1963], trans. Richard Howard. Harmondsworth, Penguin

Critchley, Simon (2008), Violent Thoughts about Slavoj Zizek, London, Naked Punch Supplement

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