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Militarized Violence Is Miserable-Making: Accounting for the Misery of Being Violent For the State

Fri, October 9, 10:00 to 11:45am, Sheraton Centre, Chestnut West


How can epistemologies of misery explain or memorialize the functioning of state violence? Further, how do we understand the emotions of those enacting violence on behalf of the state, and how might that understanding offer us the possibility of resistance or abolition? It is common, especially in affect theory, to see trauma as a result of having violence inflicted upon a subject, such that trauma is both the violence and the aftermath of that violence. As Halberstam, Cvetkovich, Berlant and Brown, among others, have shown, emotional trauma from experiencing violence persists, returning over and over again, and requiring its own methodologies and modes to be understood. However, neither trauma studies nor affect theory have turned to the trauma of inflicting violence. Meanwhile, historians of war from Binneveld to Van Creveld, alongside historians of psychology and psychiatry like Benjamin and Grob, have long recognized mental dis-ease as a result of participating in war, even while the nomenclature has changed (from nostalgia to shell shock to battle fatigue to PTSD). For professionalizing and medical epistemologies like psychiatry and psychology in the early 20th century, the bodily ‘solution’ was to turn to eugenics and the already-vulnerable to prevent ‘weak-willed’ soldiers from signing up or being sent to war. A hundred years later, police officers are increasingly likely to report experiencing PTSD alongside their increasing militarization. As importantly, these emotional epistemologies – PTSD, shell shock, what’s being loosely termed ‘police PTSD’ – appear in defenses of police violence, especially in the aftermaths of Ferguson. As white police officers around the country justify the killing of young Black men (among other populations) by pointing to their own fear, emotion clearly plays multiple roles in sanctioning narratives of state violence.
In “Militarized Violence is Miserable-Making,” I ask, what are the stakes for questions like, is militarized violence emotionally damaging to the people inflicting that violence? Itself a kind of memorializing of trauma, this question tends to spark two responses: first, a reluctance to extend what we understand as a humanizing, compassionate gesture to a group of people who inflict such socially sanctioned violence; second, a justified resistance to expanding medicalizing epistemologies which are already imbricated with eugenics, sexual violence, the pathologization of women and queer folks, among myriad other disciplinary functions. But to move ourselves beyond immediate affective responses enables us to ask about the affective residues of being violent against other humans, and how we might chart or track the ways militarized violence is actually bad - maybe even miserable-making - for everyone. This paper reads psychiatric survivors’ challenges to the medicalization of their lives (also called “mad liberation”) alongside a raciality of emotion (in which a white man’s fear of a young Black teenager legally ‘justifies’ the latter’s death). As such, it levies emotionality as both organizational schema and weapon, arguing for the possibility of resistance in the messy and often contradictory epistemologies that we use to explain and commemorate trauma, emotion, violence, and the police.


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