Violent Attachments

Date01 February 2020
Published date01 February 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2020, Vol. 48(1) 4 –29
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591719861714
Violent Attachments
Hagar Kotef1
Drawing on feminist and queer critiques that see violence as constitutive
of identities, this essay points to subject-positions whose construction is
necessarily conditioned by exercising violence. Focusing on settler colonialism,
I reverse the optics of the first set of critiques: rather than seeing the self as
taking form through the injuries she suffers, I try to understand selves that
are structurally constituted by causing injury to others. This analysis refuses
the assumption that violence is in conflict with (liberal) identity, and that,
therefore, the endurance of violence of liberal states/societies is dependent
upon mechanisms of active blindness (or denial, deferral, and other forms of
dissociation). I argue that this assumption, which is shared by many critiques
of violence, fails to perceive that people can desire the violent arrangements
supporting their communities. They therefore fail to address political settings
wherein violence is an affirmative element of political identities.
violence, denial, settler colonialism, Israel/Palestine, visibility, subject
A standard critique of empire holds that imperial rule nourishes and feeds off
the cultivation of ignorance, that empire is in the business of limiting, distorting,
and obscuring knowledge and that with more of it, empires would be more
vulnerable to critique; . . . that knowledge pierces what obscures the workings
of power, weakens its hold, and, with sustained exposure, could be made to
1Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS, University of London, UK
Corresponding Author:
Hagar Kotef, Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS, University of London,
Thornhaugh St, Russell Sq, London WC1H 0XG, UK.
861714PTXXXX10.1177/0090591719861714Political TheoryKotef
Kotef 5
crash. . . . I argue that these accounts . . . may be for us to question, if not refute.
—Ann Stoler
This essay asks about the shape a critique of violence should take, about its
scope and conditions of possibility, when violence is both visible and
embraced rather than denied. It seeks to unpack a “structure of feeling,” in
Raymond Williams’s words,1 in which violence becomes an explicit part of
collective identities. The theoretical–political question driving this analysis
can be put in these terms: how should violence that is woven into what gives
meaning to our lives be theorized—but also resisted? The concrete geopoliti-
cal setting that informs both my query and my analysis is Israel/Palestine, but
the argument potentially stretches beyond this context, albeit with necessary
adaptations. To allow this potentiality to echo, I move, at times, between vari-
ous threads and fields, between different kinds of “selves” (individuals,
groups, states), and between different modes of violence, which I will often
refer to here as modes of generating injury.
At its core, the essay questions one main mode of critique of violence,
which works along the lines Ann Stoler questions in the epigraph: the assump-
tion that, at least in the case of democratic/liberal contexts, violence is sus-
tainable only as long as it remains hidden or somehow unacknowledged. It is
the assumption, to repeat Stoler’s words, that “knowledge pierces what
obscures the workings of power, [thereby] weakens its hold.” Accordingly,
the work of critique within this framework is to render violence visible; to
expose the degree to which it dominates political arrangements. If only peo-
ple would see, this violence would end or be fractured. This account—still
with Stoler—“may be for us to question, if not refute.”2
I follow here Yves Winter in proposing that we should consider an alterna-
tive framework: not one in which “invisibility . . . allows violence to be
repeated and reproduced,” but one that sees “repetition and reproduction [of
violence]” as the source of what Winter calls violence’s invisibility, but what
I contend is its normalization (a significant distinction, as the visual field is not
re-called-on in order to mark a presumed absence of that which is there).3 The
argument will progress in four parts.
I begin with a brief illustration of two ways of situating the self vis-à-vis its
own violence. My illustration is located in Israel/Palestine, yet it is but one
example of other political formations in which the existence of some—their
lives, their bodies, their security, and their prosperity—is conditioned on
inflicting violence or insecurity on others. This is therefore as much a question
of capitalism as it is a question of national identities or white supremacy. For
me, however, it is primarily a question of settler colonialism, where the very

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