Sizing Up ‘Slow Violence’
At the core of Rob Nixon’s book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, is a question of representation: how can the protracted temporality of environmental harm–particularly as it disproportionately effects the poor–be adequately portrayed so as to generate sufficient awareness of that violence so that it may be justly ameliorated, mitigated, or redressed? There is no doubt that the question is a formidable one and one worthy of pursuing answers to. Yet, as Nixon’s book unfolds, his own representational choices actually make this formidable challenge harder than it already is for both him and his potential allies.
Nixon’s analytical prose do a great deal of scaling work on behalf of the perpetrators of slow violence that he would otherwise oppose. His representational strategies turn those agents into bigger and more powerful actors than they already are–thus making resistance or opposition to them even more difficult to imagine, let alone enact. Early in the book a reader is confronted with agents of slow violence which are “hidden” and “imperceptible” (except, obviously, to Nixon himself as the analyst) while also being huge in size, embodied as Nixon claims, “in a neoliberal order” (p. 10). Approached in these terms the perpetrators of slow violence have power ready-made for them by Nixon, as if it were a standing reserve of ‘stuff’ from which they may draw on and deploy to their advantage at will. An example that is emblematic of the overall analytical tone of the book occurs in Nixon’s discussion of Indra Sinha’s fictional account of the Bhopal disaster in the novel Animal’s People and the corporation responsible for it, Union Carbide. Nixon writes that,
In 2001, Union Carbide disappeared through that act of corporate necromancy known as the merger. Dow Chemical bought out Union Carbide, and so the name indelibly associated with disaster evaporated, further confounding the quest in Bhopal for environmental justice, compensation, remediation, and redress (Nixon 2011, 63).
As a reader sympathetic to Nixon’s project I am left frustrated by this representational strategy. I am to confront, resist, and oppose an enemy that is not only huge and vastly wealthier than I am, it is also capable of magic and transubstantiation? Yet, there is nothing magical about the legal infrastructure that has been created and is maintained so that business entities are treated as legal persons. That history can be traced, the decisions and documents identified, its moral grounding critically examined, and specific proactive counter action taken (see Bakan 2004 for one especially good example). I find Nixon’s representational strategies for his analysis paralyzing. How can I fight an entity with wealth, size AND magic on its side? And this is what I find so frustrating with Nixon’s book. If a key challenge of slow violence is how to adequately represent it so that it may be investigated, opposed, and redressed why represent its power as more formidable than it already is? There is poetry in the law, but legal personhood for corporations is not magic. It’s infrastructure. An entity with magical powers is difficult, at best, to oppose. Infrastructure, on the other hand, has to be built and maintained–and as such it could be dismantled and rearranged.
Instead of a ‘neoliberal order’, give me diverse economies (Gibson-Graham 1994) and networks of corporate ownership (Vitali et al 2011). Instead of giving the perpetrators of slow violence the benefit of ‘hidden’ and ‘imperceptible’ forces as well as magic, open up ‘the Big Leviathan’ (Callon and Latour 1981). Represent the infrastructure so I can see how it works. That way I might be able to imagine real ways to rebuild it.
Bakan, Joel. 2004. The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. New York: Free Press.
Callon, Michel, and Bruno Latour. 1981. “Unscrewing the Big Leviathan; or How Actors Macrostructure Reality, and How Sociologists Help Them to Do So.” In Advances in Social Theory and Methodology: Toward an Integration of Micro- and Macro-Sociologies, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Aaron Victor Cicourel. London: Routledge.
Gibson-Graham, J. K. 2006. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. U of Minnesota Press.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vitali, Stefania, James B. Glattfelder, and Stefano Battiston. 2011. “The Network of Global Corporate Control.” PLoS ONE 6 (10): e25995. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025995.
3 thoughts on “Sizing Up ‘Slow Violence’”
Josh – your reflections I think are on-point, and important. Attending to the actual practices and infrastructures of corporate morphology is essential. But, as we’re to some extent talking about scale here, it also seems crucial to consider that these corporations are themselves composed of real people – shareholders, board members, CEOs, but also technicians, PR and janitorial staff, etc. Can we deepen this archaeology to include them as well? How?
Thanks very much for your response Ingrid.
Can we deepen this archaeology? Yes and doing so requires a lot of painstaking work. You are right, I think, to want to decompose corporate bodies into other constituents. CEOs, technicians, PR, janitors all have different ‘interests’ in play. Ethnographic methods could be put to good use, but no single approach will do it all. The anthropology of corporations literature offers one useful jumping off point. Useful parallels can also be made with the disaggregation of the state as an actor by writers in IR and political geography.
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