Trump, the Paris agreement and ‘slow violence’

I really wish someone would force-read Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor to not only the current U.S. President but to all of us across the western world. It applies not just to those who – cotton wool firmly in their ears – deny the urgency of the climate crisis, but to those who while acknowledging it, stand idly by and watch an inexorably slow violence upon the natural world unfold before us.

A student shared this fascinating reading with my class during a seminar on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, terrorism and violence. As a postgraduate unit on Shakespeare and modernity, I had them looking at current interpretations of violence in today’s media, and conversation quickly turned to the difference between ‘spectacular’ and ‘slow’ violence. Spectacular violence is characterised by its excessive, visual, sudden nature – terrorist incidents serving as examples of this.

Slow violence, though, is far more insidious. This is where Nixon is so pertinent:

[W]e urgently need to rethink – politically, imaginatively, and theoretically – what I call ‘slow violence.’ By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 2.

It’s always fascinating to me how Shakespeare Studies intersects with and illuminates contemporary social and political climates. My class focus this week on Coriolanus, terrorism, and expressions of martial and civil violence in Shakespeare – especially in terms of the portrayal of the public as opposed to those in power – resonates on multiple levels with the global politics playing out in the past two weeks.

Nixon goes on to ask:

How can we turn the long emergencies of slow violence into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant political intervention, these emergencies whose repercussions have given rise to the most critical challenges of our time? (p. 3).

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement is, make no mistake, an act of (slow) violence. But the problem with slow violence is that it seems very difficult to counteract. How do you react effectively to something that is out of sight, incremental, dispersed temporally and spatially, whose effects cannot be instantly seen or felt?


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