A pamphlet in disguise

A book is illustrated if it has pictures in it. A history is illustrated if the events it constructs are shown in the pictures that accompany it. Admittedly not everyone will sign up to my definitions, but I’m not too convinced that Portraits of Violence fits the second of them. Its pages are laid out like a comic, and I bought it initially because it was marketed as one – I have a thing for non-fiction comics, so I was quite excited to see the ideas of some very interesting thinkers given graphic form, in the same manner that the poetics of the comic book were in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. But this is much closer to an ‘illustrated book’ than a comic.

It is also not, despite its front-cover claim, a history of radical thinking: it is a collection of short outlines of aspects of a number of thinkers’ work, those aspects which relate to the theoretical, cultural and social understanding of violence. The introduction by Henry Giroux seems to have been written on the understanding that the book is a pedagogical tool, and that it is aimed at a young readership – there is nothing on the outside of the book to suggest that is its intended audience, but it seems implicit in the introduction that this can be assumed because it’s a comic. This act of symbolic violence, directed from a privileged medium of discourse at another, much less-well endowed with cultural capital, seems an extremely poor fit for a publication such as this, but leaving that aside, I found it an interesting read.

Ten influential thinkers have their critiques of violence summarised concisely. These critiques are all extremely powerful, and will be thought-provoking for most readers; in them, various ways in which violence is structured into social relations are exposed, and the consequent injustices laid bare. I was surprised to find Pierre Bourdieu missing from the roster, given the importance of his discussions of symbolic violence in the fields and processes in which social and other forms of capital are produced and distributed. However, the book makes no claim to be comprehensive or definitive, and the thinkers it does include will certainly be enough for anyone new to this area of thought to get their teeth into. The summaries are faithful to the thought of their subjects, and clearly written; some of the material is fundamentally difficult, however, and I’m unconvinced that anyone who needs persuading to read about them by the inclusion of illustrations (since that seems to be the agenda here) will be arsed to follow the arguments.

Ultimately it’s hard to tell what this book is for. I infer from the introduction that it’s meant to introduce young people to these important ideas, but the rest of the book doesn’t seem to bear that out. It is essentially a rather densely written pamphlet, with some pictures in it. The visual narrative usually consists of the thinker in question explaining their ideas to some interlocutor, or a montage of biographical and historical events. The specific affordances of the medium of comics are neglected, and I would tend to argue that it is not, in fact, a comic. Comics may or may not have words: most do, but some don’t. Usually, those with words can be roughly understood if they’re removed, although obviously sometimes they cannot; however, they can never be understood without the pictures.

The name for a narrative text like this, in which the verbal component continues to cohere in the absence of the visual, is a book. Portraits of Violence calls itself an illustrated book, so no argument there, but it seems a missed opportunity. Comics are an excellent medium for the exploration of abstract ideas, but such comics require real imagination and creativity to write. This book contains rather literalistic visual components, which seem to be there largely for the sake of making sure that each paragraph of text is accompanied by a visual component. If they were removed, we’d be able to see what we were reading.

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