On Violence

Hats on parade
I’ve driven from Minnesota on I-35 across Iowa to Kansas City and then down the length of Missouri to Arkansas so many times in my life it’s hard not to be sick of it. In June 2018, attempting to make things at least a little different, we were going to cut across to central Iowa and down through the heart of Missouri. We pulled off at a truck stop a little north of Ames and a bit past the crash site of Buddy Holly’s airplane (the day the music died). Anticipating arriving in Arkansas through Harrison (perhaps the white supremacist capitol of the midwest), I snapped a photo of a hat display. Krista bought ice cream and pulled out a book to read.

She was working on an essay dealing with digital aggression, and felt that she needed to read “On Violence” by Hannah Arendt. She asked me if I’d like to be entertained, volunteering to read it aloud. I realize that this isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but for us, it qualifies.

Written in 1969 in reaction to the movement toward violent methods in student protests, the essay was amazingly relevant to thinking about technology and a fine gateway into a number of oft recited truisms that I was considering. Assistive technologies are often born during wartime. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the heart of the civil war, found inspiration in the new forms of mechanical limbs being created in his essay The Human Wheel, its Spokes and Felloes, for example, and Krista’s focus on hearing aids has meant facing how involved Bell Laboratories wartime listening technologies are in these peaceable devices. However, I never considered the possibility that technologies themselves are inherently bound to violence, an idea presented as fact at the outset of this essay.

Since violence– as distinct from power, force or strength– always needs implements (as Engels pointed out long ago), the revolution of technology, a revolution in toolmaking, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the means-end category, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of of being overwhelmed by the means which it justifies and which is needed to reach it. (106)

“He who lives by the sword, dies by sword,” as the cliché goes. Arendt goes on to also connect violence with arbitrariness; the action of instruments of violence are almost always bound to an unpredictability of outcome. Something can always go wrong. Arendt connects this with violence itself; others have laid the blame for this characteristic on technology. The introduction of technology always has unintended consequences, and frequently technologies simply fail.

Since the end of human action, as distinct from the end products of fabrication, can never be reliably be predicted, the means to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals. (106)

We left the highway and headed across Iowa towards the center, pausing for another stop near Pella– one of the largest window manufacturers in the country. Big trucks and bleak landscapes. Iowa is flat, and the signposts are artificial landmarks in an indistinct, unnatural terrain.


At the onset of the anthropocene, this was tallgrass prairie. There are no interstate highways, only two lane state roads. As we crossed the border into Missouri, it dawned on me that I’d never been here before. The major highways run along the Mississippi, through St Louis to the east and through Kansas City on the western border. The landscape there is different. Just north of Kansas City there’s a tourist trap dedicated to the outlaw Jesse James, the James Farm– just off of the route I usually took. But closer to the center, it’s greener with a bit more agriculture. Krista noted that they were beginning to mow hay in early June.

Jesse James Ranch

In the nineteenth century, farmers were frustrated by their ability to penetrate the dense sod with wooden plows. John Deere of Illinois developed the steel plow, which allowed the destruction fo the tallgrass prairie to turn it into more “productive” land, which in turn lead to the muddying of the Mississippi river and more intense flood cycles downstream. In the early twentieth century, the boom and bust of flooding had altered the landscape of the entire center of the country, ultimately turning it into a place that people simply pass through on the way somewhere else. Jesse James and John Deere are symbols of two different sorts of violence. Swords and plowshares are violent implements.


Arendt rightly points out that framing history as the progression of one state of being to another created by antagonistic forces rests on a metaphor (rather than a fact) of continuity:

Of course, there are a few melancholy side effects in the reassuring idea that we need only march into the future which we cannot help doing anyhow, in order to find a better world. There is first the simple fact that the general future of mankind has nothing to offer the individual life, whose only certain future is death. (128-9)

Krista continued reading across Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, etc., all the way into Virginia where we visited James Madison’s slave-built mansion. The hay harvest proceeded, apace.