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Babel, or, The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution

Profound, disruptive, beautiful. BABEL, OR, THE NECESSITY OF VIOLENCE has won awards and has been excluded from consideration for awards by racist reactionaries. It would pair well with the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline. I loved everything about this book: the prose, the characters, the plot. My only very slight quibble is that there is only rarely a single point of vulnerability within an empire that can be plausible targeted by a single small group of rebels. Real-life Death Stars don't generally have an exposed thermal exhaust port. This complicates the book's argument, that violence is necessary to move the weight of empire. Violence may be necessary--but is it possible? Maybe, maybe.


This question in no way reduces the power of the argument. And Kuang does let the book muse on it:


"'But if this is a war, then you've lost.' Still Robin refused to take the gun. 'There's no way you win on the battlefield. Your ranks are, what, a couple dozen? At most? And you're going to take on the entire British Army?'


'Oh, but that's where you're wrong,' said Griffin. 'The thing about violence, see, is that the Empire has a lot more to lose than we do. Violence disrupts the extractive economy. You wreak havoc on one supply line, and there's a dip in prices across the Atlantic. Their entire system of trade is high-strung and vulnerable to shocks because they've made it thus, because the rapacious greed of capitalism is punishing. It's why slave revolts succeed. They can't fire on their own source of labor--it'd be like killing their own golden geese.


'But if the system is so fragile, why do we so easily accept the colonial situation? Why do we think it's inevitable? Why doesn't Man Friday ever get himself a rifle, or slit Robinson Crusoe's neck in the night? The problem is that we're always living like we've lost. We're all living like you. We see their guns, their silver-work, and their ships, and we think it's already over for us. We don't stop to consider how even the playing field actually might be. And we never consider what things would look like if took the gun.' Once again, Griffin offered the gun to Robin. 'Careful, it's front-heavy.'


This time Robin accepted it. He aimed it experimentally at the trees. The barrel did, indeed, tip downwards; he tilted his hand up against his wrist to keep it level.


'Violence shows them how much we're willing to give up,' said Griffin. 'Violence is the only language they understand, because their system of extraction is inherently violent. Violence shocks the system. And the system cannot survive the shock. You have no idea what you're capable of, truly. You can't imagine how the world might shift unless you pull the trigger.' Griffin pointed at the middle birch. 'Pull the trigger, kid.'"

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