Overview of topic: Violence

The materiality of violence can take different forms in ways that are not always clearly or immediately visible, being more or less direct or explicit. This section will provide a brief review of the types of violence that are often interlinked and overlapping, outlined in Chapter 5. Structural violence is that produced through structures which create material and symbolic inequalities, and physical violence can be made possible by this. Structural and physical forms of violence are therefore closely linked. For example, institutional racism, as a form of structural violence through which racial ideology is articulated and reproduced, is interlinked with racial violence in that it enables and normalizes police violence (as an arm of the state) against racialized minorities.

The life chances for racialized groups, including in education, career, and health, are evidence of how structural violence operates diffusely through a range of different institutions and structures. Different health outcomes and higher death rates among racialized groups in the US compared to white people demonstrate the absence of an equality of chances or opportunities, rather than being the result of natural causes. Authorities dismiss the notion that higher levels of poverty and gun violence, lower levels of educational achievement, and uneven access to health care among certain groups are actually facilitated rather than ameliorated by histories of racialization and hierarchy that continue to inform the distribution of resources. While the violence that operates through the dispositions and practices within institutions and structures is not visible in the same way as direct physical force, it remains salient for understanding the lived experiences of groups positioned differentially according to categories such as race, class, gender, nationality, and sexuality.

Imminent violence is linked with both structural and physical forms through its role in helping to create the conditions in which they can exist and are often rendered invisible. This is violence that is located in taken-for-assumptions and in the granularity of inherited belief systems and logics, making it sometimes difficult to identify in everyday life.

To think more closely about how or why violence is legitimated, or framed as necessary, we can refer to Judith Butler’s (2009) concept of ‘grievability’. The suggestion that certain bodies (marked as normative or representing that constituting the norm) can be considered grievable, even if implicitly, is related to her thinking on normativity. The social world is shaped by norms, which are ways of being that are presented as ontologically certain or occurring naturally in the world. These norms are constructions but ‘create the effect of the natural, the original and the inevitable’ (Butler, 1990: xxix). This makes them difficult to simply overturn, as they form the fabric of everyday life which creates our sense of consistency and reality. This function of norms extends to the meanings that we impute to bodies. Bodies must reference particular symbols and practices of race, class, gender, and sexuality, for example, to be recognizable as individuals. The concept of grievability illustrates how violence against certain bodies is justified and normalized as it is presented as part of the natural state of things, a fact that is unavoidable and often necessary. Identity, for Butler, is a ‘normative ideal’ rather than ‘a descriptive feature of experience’ (1990: 22-3); this further sheds light on how identities, especially those given to a group or a subject, rather than being essential, are bound up in the reproduction of violence when they are deemed its legitimate target.

In the following quote, Butler suggests that due to the contingency of norms on wider contexts of power relations, the recognizability of the subject as such is never guaranteed and can be withheld.

Case Study Box 5.1

Normative schemes are interrupted by one another, they emerge and fade depending on broader operations of power, and very often come up against spectral versions of what it is they claim to know: thus, there are “subjects” who are not quite recognizable as subjects, and there are “lives” that are not quite – or, indeed, are never – recognized as lives. Judith Butler (2009) Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso), 4.

Butler uses the idea of intelligibility to explain the framework of norms that polices who is recognizable as an authentic subject. In order to lead what is called a “liveable life,” or a life that is deemed valuable and legitimate, a person must be intelligible according to dominant norms. If they fail to fulfil the criteria for legitimacy and intelligibility, they may be dismissed as worthless. Butler writes that “a life has to be intelligible as a life, has to conform to certain conceptions of what life is, in order to become recognizable” (2009: 7). Intelligibility is therefore related to Gayatri Spivak’s (1988) idea of epistemic violence, or the violence enacted through the hierarchies through which some forms of knowledge and therefore ways of being are assumed to be superior to others. Epistemic violence, read as part of the normative order, might deny some bodies the status of human subject.

In the following quote, Butler elaborates on normative violence – that which is sustained through the epistemological and ontological truth claims constituted by norms. When a person is not recognizable according to gender, sexuality, or racialized classifications of the norm as the self of a political community, their life may be understood to be unworthy of protection or preservation.

Case Study Box 5.2

In fact, a living figure outside the norms of life not only becomes the problem to be managed by normativity, but seems to be that which normativity is bound to reproduce: it is living, but not a life. It falls outside the frame furnished by the norm, but only as a relentless double whose ontology cannot be secured, but whose living status is open to apprehension. Judith Butler (2009) Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso) 7-8.

Section 1: The Invasion of Iraq


The different forms of violence discussed here can be developed through their intersections in the case of the 2003 Iraq War. The physical violence that led to deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians was imbricated with global forms of structural violence in which the US acted as global police presence, shaping discourse about politics at the international level while Iraqi citizens were inaudible as authentic political actors in the same way.

1) War on Terror

The discourse of the War on Terror that appeared in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US illustrates how imminent violence operates in a particular context. This discourse, portraying Islam and non-western epistemologies – including anti-western sentiments – in the Middle East through the lens of civilizing rhetoric, was made possible by existing Orientalist forms of knowledge about the Middle East. As Edward Said’s influential work on postcolonialism, Orientalism, demonstrated, the idea of ‘the West’ as geographic space and epistemic unit depended on the simultaneous construction of an imagined counter space, ‘the East’. Enlightenment thinking that relies on binaries between reason and emotion, or rationality and irrationality, and civilized versus backward, continues to inform taken-for-granted assumptions about the world and is therefore implicated in imminent violence. Maryam Khalid (2011) traces such binaristic thinking within War on Terror discourse to argue that the latter reproduced an Orientalist epistemology in which residents of ‘the East’ were dangerous, mysterious, backwards, and uncivilized. Images deployed of Iraqis, including gendered constructions of Muslim women needing to be rescued by western soldiers, portrayed them as morally inferior, which served to legitimate the allied invasion and ensuing civilian deaths and economic and political chaos that appeared in Iraq as a result.

The language of the War on Terror that portrayed the invasion as a necessary project led to the growth of Islamophobia in the west, with Islam securitized in public discourse as naturally extremist and violent (Hafez, 2014). The War on Terror therefore contributed to structural violence in which Muslim citizens in European states, often part of generations of migrants from formerly colonized countries, were politically and economically marginalized. In France, residents of deprived banlieues (neighbourhoods) are often citizens with North African heritage. During the period of formal colonialism, colonized peoples were assumed to be inferior culturally and uncivilized, which can be understood through the notion of epistemic violence rooted in colonial domination. In 2005, young people in these economically depressed suburbs in France rioted against structural violence, including their economic and social oppression, and discrimination from police (Dikeç, 2007). These riots were dismissed by many media outlets as rabble rousing, rather than as symptomatic of economic and social deprivation, attitudes traceable to colonial epistemology.

To return to the example of Iraq, epistemic violence formed the context in which the invasion of the country became an urgent policy issue, despite a lack of evidence for Saddam Hussein acquiring weapons of mass destruction, one of the main stated justifications for the attacks. Iraqis were treated as passive objects to be saved from their own inability to decipher or appreciate political and social ‘freedoms’. Saddam Hussein was pathologized as almost subhuman rather than a political actor using agency in strategic ways similar to the US administration and its allies. Knowledge production about Iraq was therefore a form of epistemic violence, relying on Orientalist thinking about the Middle East, distinct from the civilizing role of the US as bringing democracy and order.

2) Grievability

This example also demonstrates the concept of grievability. Victims located at the different sites of the War on Terror, including civilians in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, are not grievable as were the victims of the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001. Their deaths were almost unmarked, unworthy of such scrutiny and emotion. It was possible to put these deaths down to “collateral damage,” or the unfortunate fallout of a necessary war. Related to this is the visual representations of the forms of violence conducted under the banner of the War on Terror, which depicted the effects of the war according to the strategies and imaginaries of the US military. This produced the sense of what David Campbell (2012) calls an “eternal present” in which the context for the violence was erased along with the reality of deaths and material destructions of the wars.


Butler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith (2009) Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso.

Campbell, David (2011) From Absence to Absence: The Visual Culture of The ‘War on Terror’. E-International Relations. Available online: https://www.e-ir.info/2011/11/09/from-absence-to-absence-the-visual-culture-of-the-%e2%80%98war-on-terror%e2%80%99/

Dikeç, Mustafa (2007) Badlands of the Republic: Space, Politics and Urban Policy. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hafez, Farid (2014) Disciplining the ‘Muslim Subject’: The Role of Security Agencies in Establishing Islamic Theology within the State’s Academia. Islamophobia Studies Journal 2(2): 43-57.

Khalid, Maryam (2011) Gender, orientalism and representations of the ‘Other’ in the War on Terror. Global Change, Peace & Security 23(1): 15–29.

Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Spivak, Gayatri C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? In Carry, N. & L. Grossberg (Eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, pp. 271–313.

Back to top