Forms of violence

by Jonathan T.D. Neil


In 2010, the latest year for such statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Smith & Wesson manufactured 124,681 .38 caliber revolvers, more than the total number of revolvers manufactured by all other gun makers that year.[1]

 According to a year 2000 report by the Youth Gun Crime Interdiction Initiative, the .38 Smith & Wesson revolver was the number one crime gun for all age groups—adults, youths and juveniles combined; the report notes that 3,418 .38 Smith & Wesson revolvers were involved in the commission of crimes, 1050 more than the next most popular make and model, the Ruger 9mm semiautomatic pistol.[2]

Between 2006 and 2010, 34,544 murders were committed in the United States using handguns; during the same period, 9,075 murders were committed using knives or other cutting instruments.[3]

In 2010, 137,857 aggravated assaults were committed in the United States using firearms; 127,509 were committed using knives or other cutting instruments.[4]


Of all that has been written on Robert Lazzarini’s sculptures of the past decade, very little has failed to mention the profoundly “phenomenological” character of this work. Which is just to say that Lazzarini’s deft use of planar distortions and compound waves as strategies for distorting the forms of familiar though not always “everyday” objects animates their viewers’ sensorimotor perceptions in such a way as to call attention to that animation itself.  No matter how you try to force a kind of détente between what you see and what you know, things will simply never “line up.” Not the object itself, then, but what the object seems to do to you, your experience of it as you attempt to reconcile what you see with your patterned or habituated expectations, is to some extent just what the work is about.

Nevertheless, though the phenomenological character of Lazzarini’s work connects it to a well recognized and deservingly venerated history of past art, phenomenology alone does not get us all the way to what kind of experience Lazzarini’s sculptures model for their audience. It does not get at the ‘content of the form’ of that experience. But what kind is it, and what is its content? I think the kind of experience Lazzarini’s work affords its viewers is akin, formally, to a kind of violence. And what I will want to say moreover is that Lazzarini’s series of guns, knives and brass knuckles—instruments of violence all—go furthest in modeling the form of this violence, of showing this form to be itself, in its content, a kind of violence.  Not one that we experience and so fill with our own content, but a form that does violence, in the case of the guns, by suspending our aesthetic and symbolic experience, and in the case of the knives and brass knuckles, by suspending that suspension itself.

Now, it would be easy to take the statistics with which I began as so many indictments of the .38 Smith & Wesson revolver, of handguns and firearms more generally, or of the sublime landscape of violent crime in the United States. But I am more interested in the way that certain objects, objects such as guns, are subject to this kind of measurement, this statistical accounting, simply because of the kinds of objects that they are, which is to say, objects of violence.

What is more, this kind of accounting, which we so often associate with a distancing effect that not only allows us to look past or ignore our genetic aptitude for empathy, for feeling and being affected by others’ suffering and pain, by the shock that surely must attend every individual act of violence, but which also provides us the technocratic means by which to manage the concrete particulars of the guns themselves—this kind of accounting can work in opposition to such a distancing effect by bearing with it its own kind of affect, one that makes violence that much more present to us, or present to us at all. It is often only through this kind of accounting that violence comes to touch us, both because it is so obviously offensive, intolerable, and maddening (“How can there be so much violence in the world?”) and exactly because it is an accounting of objects and only secondarily of the people, the subjects, who wield them (“If they could just get rid of the guns, then all of this nonsense would surely stop.”).

It’s worth pointing out, I think, that this focus on the objects of violence reflects what we could call a neoliberal approach to the problem of violent gun crime, because it is an approach that largely leaves untouched the markets for the weapons that assailants use in the commission of those crimes. Those markets are subject to regulation, but what is not questioned is the sanctity of those markets when it comes to questions about controlling the kinds of violence that comes from having access to guns.[5]

My point in making this distinction is not to argue one side of the debate on how best to confront the problem of gun violence in the United States; rather, it’s to call attention to the way that this debate over guns is divided between, even structured by, attention to subjects on one side (perps, victims, families, communities) and objects on the other (guns, and the markets for them). The violence that brings these subjects and objects together is almost always taken either as a given—the albeit tragic condition of our human (all too human) nature—or as some unfathomable, unspeakable, and ultimately unrepresentable rent in the social tissue which has no positive substance of its own and is thus only thinkable through the manifestation of its effects. In other words, there is no treating violence “in itself” because, as such, it is either inevitable or indescribable.

That we continue to approach it as either inevitable or indescribable does not mean that we have failed to confront the question of violence in itself. Walter Benjamin, for example, took it upon himself to produce a “Critique of Violence” early in his career as a social critic, a critique which discarded the then conventional framework for considering violence within the dual perspectives of its just, or unjust, means or ends. Instead, Benjamin framed violence as always subject to Law, and so to the State, which by its very definition must hold a monopoly on the violence that occurs within its jurisdiction. The problem of violence in Benjamin’s hands then becomes a question of the “meaning” of what he describes as the “distinction” between “historically acknowledged, so-called sanctioned violence” and its opposite, “unsanctioned violence.”[6]

It is important to note that some of the “historically acknowledged” violence that would have been occupying Benjamin’s mind in 1920 when he was working on his “Critique” was the civil war that had followed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. But there was also no shortage of material to occupy his thoughts much closer to home, such as Germany’s own November Revolution of 1918 and its violent power struggles, which led to the constitution of the fragile and politically compromised Weimar Republic the following year. Within this context—daily reports of strikes and skirmishes, the ambiguous fronts, the shifting factions—the question of sanctioned and unsanctioned violence (which is which?) would have been all the more pressing; its critique, on the other hand, could be achieved only with a divorce from the necessity of adjudicating such immediate, contemporary events. The question is this: How to judge when the criteria and institutions of judgment themselves are exactly what is at stake?

The violence of such moments is, as Benjamin rightly understood, “lawmaking” violence; it is the violence that institutes law and underwrites its force and authority. The violence that subordinates citizens to the law once instituted, however, “violence as a means of legal ends,” which Benjamin illustrates with the example of forced conscription of citizens into the military, Benjamin identifies as “law-preserving” violence; and “law-preserving violence,” Benjamin writes, “is a threatening violence” (285).

There is one “institution of the modern state,” according to Benjamin, that embodies both law-preserving and lawmaking violence, and that is the police. Police violence, Benjamin writes,

is violence for legal ends (in the right of disposition), but with the simultaneous authority to decide these ends itself within wide limits (in the right of decree). The ignominy…lies in the fact that in this authority the separation of lawmaking and law-preserving violence is suspended. If the first is required to prove its worth in victory, the second is subject to the restriction that it may not set itself new ends. Police violence is emancipated from both conditions. It is lawmaking, for its characteristic function is not the promulgation of laws but the assertion of legal claims for any decree, and law-preserving, because it is at the disposal of these ends…The “law” of the police really marks the point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the immanent connections within any legal system, can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any price to attain…Its power is formless, like its nowhere tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states. (286-87; emphasis added)

Ever prescient, Benjamin’s brief passage on police power, one that is nowhere directly confronted but rather felt through the fabric of coercion that covers “the citizen as a brutal encumbrance through a life regulated by ordinances,” foreshadows the more generalized conditions of our own contemporary societies of control.[7]

I take it as symptomatic of such conditions that the “dream factory” of the culture industry has gradually succumbed to a fascination with representations of police power as at once capricious (lawmaking) and threatening (law-preserving). Stretching back to films such Orson Welles Touch of Evil (1958), but gaining grater purchase with Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) and Philip D’Antoni’s The Seven-Ups (1973) (as well as with the other “Dirty Harry” movies of the later-1970s and ’80s), fully flowering with Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), and migrating to television with shows such as The Shield (2002-2008), the “suspension” of any distinction between Benjamin’s two registers of violence has been packaged as entertainment for audiences who live at an increasing remove from the uses and abuses of power that such narratives depict. The somewhat condescending distinction that Benjamin makes regarding the “ghostly presence” of police power in “civilized states” is nevertheless essential to keep in mind, because it is exactly this power’s removal from the sphere of direct, confrontational experience—which is to say, from the sphere of politics—that renders it both viable and attractive as entertainment.

It is here in the realm of representations then that the kind of violence manifest by Robert Lazzarini’s guns finally becomes legible. The .38 Smith & Wesson Model 10, on which Lazzarini’s sculptures are based, was once known as the Smith & Wesson Military and Police after all.[8] Designed specifically for military and police use, this model of revolver was the one most widely produced and distributed to police forces not only in the United States but also around the world. The gun is thus something more than a mere object; it can stand as a synecdoche for “the police” in general, and so for the police as the embodiment of a violence at once lawmaking and law-preserving, of that “formless” power that, in itself, is “nowhere tangible,” at least for those of us who would like to believe we live in one of Benjamin’s “civilized states.”[9] (Can one find a more direct equation of the gun with such formless power than the movie posters for Siegel’s, D’Antoni’s and Ferrara’s films, all of which show their main characters pointing their service revolvers at the camera?)

But if the Model 10 can already stand on its own as a symbol of “formless” police power, how are we to understand the deformations to which Lazzarini’s guns are subjected? Paradoxically, we have to admit that these distortions actually impose form on the guns, and importantly, a form that is not in anyway immanent to them. The planar distortions to which the guns are subjected require the use of an open lattice or bounding box to which the coordinates of the gun are mapped. The sides, or planes, of the bounding box are then subject to so many translations and rotations which, when remapped to the coordinates of the gun, achieve what Lazzarini calls the “mathematical distortions” that we see. The deformation arises in the translation between the gun’s own form and that of the rotated and translated bounding box, a form, as it were, imposed from outside.

This form so imposed then operates at the same level as the symbolic work being done by this particular model of revolver, its significance as the ubiquitous police service revolver and thus—akin to a blue uniform or gold shield—something that becomes representative and even emblematic of “the police” itself. This content accrues to the object from outside, as a function of its use (the model’s reliability is what made it a favorite) and marketing (which was aimed at police and military forces in particular) and is thus in no way immanent to the object on its own.

Yet symbolic content does not accrue to things of their own accord. They gain this content through our using them and coming to understand them, and from our interpretation of others’ use and understanding of things. Any symbolic dimension that we might ascribe to an object or artifact from a critical reading or interpretation of its historical and social embeddedness—the kind of reading that renders the thing “concrete” in its particularities—is a function of some kind of transaction that we conduct in our confrontation with that object or artifact. In this it is analogous to the process of translation whereby the bounding box of our attention picks out things in the world and frames them so that we can begin to work on transforming them into things of significance. Any critical project worth its name is one that deforms its objects in order to recode both their forms and their contents. And what are Lazzarini’s deformations of the .38 Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver if not so many readings that are, formally speaking, critical?

It is essential then that Lazzarini’s deformations also implicate just the kind of transaction that we undertake in our confrontation with works of sculpture, which is to say our embodied, phenomenological experience of such works. Just what is the character of one’s phenomenological transaction with works of sculpture, or of art in general, is a question (and conflict) bequeathed to the history of art at least since Minimalism posed it and brought the sculptural “object” to its asymptotic limit of legibility as such. Of course works of art had always implicated their audiences in some manner, but these implications had always been folded into one aesthetic program or another, such as that of “describing” or “absorption,” which privileged visual or discursive models of aesthetic experience, even though the history of these programs could only be articulated after the development of a thoroughgoing “phenomenology of experience.”[10]

So it is inevitable that discussions of Lazzarini’s sculptures would connect this work to Minimalism’s legacy, which Robert Morris, one of the best writers about, and practitioners of, this kind of art sums up as “the transformation of experience from the optical to the haptic,” in which “the self-reflexive body's perception of a dualistic gestalt/space [i.e. the thing in the gallery and the gallery at once] came to form the stronger formal core.”[11] Subsequent artists, Richard Serra primary among them, would key into the duration of such experiences in order to reposition the proper content of their work as exactly the spatiotemporal unfolding of one’s embodied aesthetic experience over and above the apprehension of any final, well-defined sculptural form. In other words, what a work of Richard Serra’s is about is the sense one gets while walking “in, through and around” (Serra’s refrain) one of his torqued ellipses or toruses, for example.

The way in which Lazzarini’s guns implicate the viewer in this kind of self-reflexive embodied perception has to do with the fact that their planar distortions in three-dimensions are equivalent to what we call “accelerated perspective” in two. As we know, the overlap between these two registers of representation never “lines up”: the two conflicting mappings at once animate our attempt to reconcile our perception and confound the possibility of that reconciliation. We are in a very real sense denied access to a functional representation of the object, which is to say we simply do not “con-front” it: our failure to line things up is a failure of confrontation.

By staging this non-confrontation, Lazzarini’s guns break with the kind of experience afforded by Serra’s sculptures and the arc of art history they set in place.[12] Where the phenomenology of Serra’s work (and the Minimalism that preceded it) is one of embodied “duration,” an experience understood as a self-conscious cognitive and perceptual process that unfolds in time, the phenomenology of Lazzarini’s work is rather one of embodied suspension, insofar as the work both invokes and, importantly, interrupts just this kind of experiential unfolding. And if suspension is the form of this encounter, then it is reflected at the level of content as well—that is, as a non-confrontation that is structurally analogous to the experience of a police power whose “ghostly presence,” to return to Benjamin’s language, is “nowhere tangible.”

We can get a sense of the specifically “spectral” character of this power from Franz Kafka’s short parable “Before the Law,” which Kafka wrote six years prior to Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.” In that story, a man “from the country” comes “before the law” in the form of a gateway—i.e. a border crossing, the incarnation of law itself. The man seeks to pass through the gateway, but he is prohibited from doing so by a “powerful” gatekeeper who blocks his way. The man waits for permission, which never comes, and year after year he attempts to bribe, cajole, and otherwise persuade the gatekeeper to let him pass, which the gatekeeper never does. When, finally, “close to the end,” the man asks the gatekeeper why no other has ever come “before the law,” the gatekeeper says, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you.”[13]

In an important essay on both Benjamin’s “Critique” and Kafka’s fable, Jacques Derrida notes that Kafka’s character’s seemingly miserable suspension “before the law”—which Derrida calls “both ordinary and terrible,” in other words, inevitable and indescribable—is a function of the fact that he “cannot manage to see or above all to touch” the law “because [the law] is transcendent in the very measure that it is he who must found it, as yet to come, in violence.”[14] Such a moment of violence “always takes place and never takes place in a presence”; rather, Derrida continues, “it is the moment in which the foundation of law remains suspended…by a pure performative act that would not have to answer to or before anyone.” The “supposed subject” of this act would be “before the law,” as in prior to a law “not yet existing, a law yet to come” (991-993)

In agreement with Benjamin, Derrida describes the law’s foundation as a necessarily violent act (the force of law), but as distinct from Benjamin, Derrida holds that it is an act at which we who found the law can never be wholly present, because who “we” are, as subjects, as citizens, only finds consistency with respect to the law once it has been founded (by force). Before such a founding, whoever we are, like the man of Kafka’s parable, cannot be fully present; “we” are unable to see or to touch the law because “we,” as subjects, as citizens, do not, indeed cannot, come before it. We find our consistency as subjects only in and through the law, which means “we” must logically come after it.

But perhaps it is too quick to state that the suspension that Lazzarini’s guns stage for their viewer is directly analogous to the suspension experienced by the man of Kafka’s fable and, more generally, by those who find themselves alienated from the law but nevertheless subject to its prohibitions.[15] For sure, Derrida’s description of the man “who cannot manage to see or above all to touch” the law sounds very much like a description of ourselves when we come before Lazzarini’s deformed .38 Smith & Wesson revolvers. After all, here we are “before the law” as before the law’s very emblem.

But the generalized condition of this suspension, where we find ourselves subject to a law to which we do not properly belong, or one that we are subject to (“this door was assigned only to you”) by our very exclusion from it, does not seem to square with what we sense when we (fail to) confront these works. For the experience of that suspension also tends to disrupt the connection between the work’s form and its content, insofar as that content points back to what Lazzarini calls the “normative object,” the thing as it would exist in the world had it not been subjected to the critical reading of Lazzarini’s distortions. Paradoxically, Lazzarini’s “readings” disrupt his objects’ legibility. In other words, the feeling of suspension itself, the sense that things do not line up no matter how we move, twist, or turn, interrupts the significance that normally accrues to the normative object when it is served up “readymade” so to speak. The deformations to which these things have been subject tears at the symbolic fabric that normally secures our capacity to see or sense them as having something like a reference, of their pointing to some underlying meaning. What this troubled sense—in the sense of ‘significance’—amounts to then is a distillation of sense—in the sense of ‘affect’—on its own.[16] To put it differently, we can’t make sense of the guns exactly because we get caught trying to make sense of them.

But this suspension of significance itself is further suspended in the companion works to the guns, the brass knuckles and knives, which Lazzarini has subjected to compound sine-wave distortions. These wave deformations do not produce in us the same tension that results from the intersection of planar and perspectival forms. Instead of the imposition of one form upon another (the bounding box upon the gun), it would be more accurate to describe what happens with the brass knuckles and knives as the “integration” of a form and an operation, or rather, of a form and a “formalism.” A wave is never really visible on its own, after all. Alone it never really has a determinate shape. Rather it is better described by a set of internal relations (amplitude, period, length) that give us its description, and those relations are most succinctly and accurately described by the equations that map a wave’s contours and behavior.

What we need to acknowledge here is that, in contrast to the guns, Lazzarini’s wave distortions decouple their objects, the brass knuckles and the knives, from any hint of their reconciliation with a standard view or normative appearance.  These works double down on suspension.  What we witness is the cancellation of the very possibility of a reconciled perspective itself. The promise of that reconciliation, so tantalizingly held out to us in the guns yet forever withheld, is itself now withheld. The circuit between our senses and our recognition holds no promise of normalization, and thus no similar affect.  There is no longer any suspension here, only its double negation. And this should come as no surprise to us, because here we are also no longer before the law.

What after all are things like kitchen knives and brass knuckles? If knives are things of utility which do double duty as objects of violence, brass knuckles can be little more than the latter. And if guns are weapons of the state, not just weapons used by the state but ones that are licensed, regulated, and tracked by the state, weapons that are productive of an archive of state information and so are also productive of certain kinds of subjects and so a certain kind of public, then knives, especially Lazarini’s knives, must be thought of as weapons of the home, of proximity and intimacy, of passions and vengeance, of the private lives of subjects that are kept out of the state’s supervision—that is, until the violence of which they are capable dissolves the home, or creates a vacuum of it, into which the state rushes like so much stale air.

Brass knuckles, in their turn, are weapons of the wilderness, of a place that is well away from the law, a place that is “outlaw” itself, but one which can exist in plain sight, which is to say in public view (online, for example, another quasi-outlaw space) or completely out of such view, as when at home, in private.[17] No wonder then that the brass knuckles appear as the most abstract, as the least linked to their normative object, of the three series of works. Brass knuckles appeal to fantasies of brute and capricious violence (what Benjamin would call “mythological”). And here their tie to the symbolic dimension has been placed under the greatest strain, has been rendered the most fantastic.

There are then two different suspensions at work between the guns, knives, and brass knuckles. When we are before the guns, and so “before the law,” the violence embodied by the law and emblematic in the guns is suspended; or rather, it is itself a form of suspension, which finds its analogue in Lazzarini’s planar distortions. When not before the law, and so before the knives or brass knuckles, that suspension itself is suspended. Cut free from one form of violence, we come face to face with another: the utter contingency of an informal violence, at once domestic (these knives are always utilitarian and potentially harmful) and outlaw (brass knuckles have no utility other than to inflict harm).

Such informal violence would seem to serve no greater purpose than the dictates of force itself.  In this, it points to the backdrop of that mythic “state of nature,” the “war of all against all,” out of which Hobbes’s Leviathan of the state emerges, producing itself by producing form—in the form of law—and so producing us as subjects of it. But importantly, it is not part of that backdrop. It is more like a reflection or parallax view of it, or better yet, like the wave form itself, an energy signature that ripples through the world, at once inevitable and indescribable.

Violence is the subject of Lazzarini’s recent sculptures, just as much as we—insofar as we attend to them, insofar as we take the time to look at and to think about them—are subjects of his sculptures too. The question is just how we are such subjects, and as I understand it, the answer to that question can only come from the objects themselves, and more particularly, from the very specific productions of form these objects simply are, which in the end can be nothing more, and nothing less, than objects of violence.


[1] Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative (2000), “Crime Gun Trace Reports (2000).” Accessed at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Calculated from Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Uniform Crime Report, Crime in the United States 2010; accessed at:

[4] Ibid; accessed at:

[5] The equation in this case is very simple: no guns, no gun violence—just, one presumes, regular violence, committed with, say, a knife. Which is why my final opening statistic is so important: nearly as many aggravated assaults were committed using knives as guns in 2010. The disparity in homicides between 2006 and 2010 speaks to the sheer effectiveness of the latter in taking lives and to the reason why guns are subject to (not enough) regulation in the first place. Nevertheless, any discussion of violence alone is often left out of such debates, because that discussion often only serves to manifest the politics that structure the debate in the first place: liberals treat gun violence as a systemic problem (“It’s poverty!”) and look for solutions in social programs; conservatives treat it as a problem of individuals (“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!”) and look for solutions in the law enforcement and justice systems. There is a third-way approach that does appear to work, however: confronting the subjects that commit the majority of gun violence and literally telling them to stop. See David M. Kennedy, Deterrence and Crime Prevention (New York: Routledge, 2008) and John Seabrook, “Don’t Shoot,” The New Yorker, June 22, 2009, p. 32-41.


[6] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 279.

[7] The phrase is of course Gilles Deleuze’s; see his “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (Winter, 1992).

[8] In 1957, the company moved to numerical designations for all of its models. See Dean K. Boorman, The History of Smith & Wesson Firearms (Guilford: The Lyons Press, 2002).

[9] The gun’s symbolic connection to police rather than military forces is really the only one worth considering given that the sidearm is the primary, we could say “everyday,” weapon of the police whereas it would have to be something like the rifle or carbine for the military; and even this would be a stretch given the full panoply of military weaponry.

[10] See Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

[11] “Stronger,” that is, than the visual empiricism first articulated and put into practice most notably by Donald Judd, Morris’s rival for what we might well call the “soul” of Minimalism. See Robert Morris, “Size Matters,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), 478-9.

[12] I am taking the guns here as representative of all of Lazzarini’s work that incorporates planar distortions, such as violin (1997), hammers (2000), phone (2000), chair (2000), the skulls (2000) and payphone (2002).

[13] Franz Kafka, “Before the Law” (1914), trans. Ian Johnston, accessed at kafka/beforethelaw.htm

[14] Derrida, “Force of Law: ‘The Mystical Foundations of Authority’,” Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 11 (1989-90), 991.

[15] Political philosophy has many names for such people: the “Other,” the “part of no part,” the “uncounted.” We know them more concretely by other names: refugees, illegal immigrants, Palestinians.

[16] “Affect,” not “embodied perception,” which belongs to phenomenology, because though affect is certainly indexed to the body, it is not self-reflexively so; it does not presuppose, as phenomenology  does (in particular the phenomenology of perception articulated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty), the body as our given horizon of meaning.  On the “autonomy” of affect, see Brian Massumi, Parables of the Virtual (Charlottesville: Duke University Press, 2002).

[17] Of course knives are much more than domestic weapons, to which the numbers regarding aggravated assaults in which they figure more than attest, but it is important that Lazzarini bases his knives on kitchen knives, rather than on knives that are designed and marketed for other purposes, such as hunting or defense. In this, Lazzarini’s knives are inherently domestic and so speak of the space of the home.