Review of A Tyranny Against Itself: Intimate Partner Violence on the Margins of Bogotá By John I. B. Bhadra‐Heintz, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2022. pp. 258.

Reviewed Book

A Tyranny Against Itself: Intimate Partner Violence on the Margins of Bogotá By John I. B. Bhadra‐Heintz, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2022. pp. 258.

Cover, featuring a set of open hands against a black background
Cover of A Tyranny Against Itself (2022)

Emma Louise Backe

George Washington University

In A Tyranny Against Itself: Intimate Partner Violence on the Margins of Bogotá, John I. B. Bhadra-Heintz proposes to explore the rationales and power configurations that underwrite intimate partner violence in Colombia. The book is situated in Usme—a city marked as a “backwards” margin to Bogotá, despite its contribution to the capital city’s construction and resources. Bhadra-Heintz sets out to answer three seemingly simple, yet nonetheless pernicious, questions: How is it possible to commit violence over an extended period of time? How is this chronic violence made “permissible”? What is at stake for both the perpetrators and the victims of such violence, particularly in a context that is already marked by decades of land expropriation, military mobilization, and political instability. Bhadra-Heintz is careful to indicate his desire to avoid reducing partner violence to a cultural pathology or individual impulse. His interviews with perpetrators provide a greater understanding of those who use violence in intimate relationships, a phenomenon that has been historically difficult to study due to the challenges of recruiting participants who identify as perpetrators. This recruitment was possible through a local organization, Comisarías de Familia, which assists those experiencing intimate violence, particularly those who seek out orders of protection or denuncias. Comisarías features throughout the research as a key locus for recruiting individuals imbricated in the complex politics of intimate violence and for considering what these ruptures in domestic relationships mean for reparation.

The bulk of the narrative about Usme, which considers the violence that occurs within the home, is shown through key figures that Bhadra-Heintz follows throughout his fieldwork—from bus stop to library and from Comisarías meetings to dinners in their family homes. Each chapter begins with a richly textured ethnographic vignette about Usme residents, people like Luz, Diego, and Luisa who have each come to Comisarías for assistance. These ethnographic vignettes sparkle with observations of person and place, and help to ground some of the more dense theoretical parts of the book. After these ethnographic interludes, however, the voices of these figures tend to fade into the background, as the book explores broader philosophical challenges behind understanding why male perpetrators “make themselves into surrogate agents in their own subjugation” (102). The main proposed intervention offered by A Tyranny Against Itself regards that of sovereignty and how we might understand sovereignty at a more “intimate scale” within the spatial and social structures of romantic relationships and home life. Through sovereignty, Bhadra-Heintz argues, we can better understand the forms of control that “seek to inscribe boundaries into the social geography of everyday life” (78) operationalized by perpetrators. This framing—which draws heavily from Max Weber, Antonio Gramsci, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Carl Schmitt—is then applied to the kinds of “sovereign subversion” employed by women who experience violence, not only in their intimate relationships but also in relation to the state and the market. The framing is also used to understand the justifications and legitimations for violence amongst perpetrators. The use of sovereignty, while provocative, at times feels disconnected from the more micro-level specificities of the lives of people like Luz and Diego, especially since more thorough engagements with these theoretical underpinnings of sovereignty come later in the book (chapter 3) or are placed in the footnotes. It is not always clear to what extent framings around authority and legitimacy come from the Usme citizens Bhadra-Heintz worked alongside, a point of clarification that could benefit from more dialogical encounters with the stories of Luz and other residents from Usme. By drawing upon theorists like Weber, who focus on sovereignty in terms of governance and the state, situating sovereignty in the context of domestic relationships could shift who and what determines a “monopoly” on violence and how perpetrators might position themselves in quasi-sovereign positions of power, the states of exception they invoke or strain against. Yet these theoretical possibilities seem intended primarily to provoke, rather than be resolved, in the book itself.

There are other moments in the text when Bhadra-Heintz offers novel terms to move beyond “traditional” understandings of partner violence (such as intimate terrorism and coercive control)—some of these terms include “tengentics” and “interpositional independence.” Readers would benefit from greater explanation and exploration of these terms in the text, particularly to better situate how these new terms engage with or complicate broader theoretical and methodological debates amongst researchers and practitioners within the field. Bhadra-Heintz argues in the introduction that theories like intersectionality, coercive control, and structural violence are not sufficiently explanatory to understanding dynamics of partner violence, so a more deliberate engagement with this line of inquiry, and summarily the opportunities offered by a micro-level analysis of sovereignty, would provide readers with a greater understanding of the particular places and spaces that sovereignty occupies in the lives of victims and perpetrators in Usme. Given the postcolonial, feminist, and disability scholars working on systems of selfhood and care in intimate settings often shot through with violence, we must consider what sovereignty offers us instead or if this framing of sovereignty reinforces a different kind of theoretical hierarchy.

The men featured in A Tyranny Against Itself frame their violence as a kind of benevolent paternalism, purportedly acting on behalf of the interest of children, although these children are, in several cases, born as a result of sexual violence. Bhadra-Heintz argues that many of these perpetrators find an immense sense of self-worth within their intimate relationships, so much so that he argues that we should understand violence as an emanation of these men’s dependence, rather than complete hegemonic control or domination. Questions of gender in family structures, culturally specific attenuations of masculinity, and how these relate to a man’s sense of self are touched upon in the text but could be more deeply engaged such that readers can gain a greater understanding of the ecosystem through which “paternalistic exceptions” are breached. Social, if not physical, vulnerability informs the stories of men like Diego, who fear the porous boundaries between their homes when violence occurs, as well as how violence within the home is perceived by members of the community. This vulnerability is one, ultimately, of relationality, a framing that Bhadra-Heintz also hopes will promote the kinds of permissive structures of reflection, and even transformation, needed amongst perpetrators. This line of questioning should certainly be read in conversation with masculinities scholars in other settings in the Global South, who have similarly argued for a relational approach and understanding of masculine subjectivities, specifically an understanding that men who use violence are themselves bound by other forms of structural, social, and symbolic violence.

A Tyranny Against Itself: Intimate Partner Violence on the Margins of Bogotá will be of interest to scholars of violence, conflict, and security. The theoretical engagement is such that the book would likely be pitched at graduate students exploring how scales of violence are rationalized and interposed through conflict between couples. The writing itself is rich, but it sometimes strays from the ethnographic particularities of the fieldwork. To work with perpetrators of violence while accounting for the stories of their victims remains a challenge—one that many postcolonial, feminist scholars elucidate and orient around matters of care. If abuse, as Bhadra-Heintz argues, is a product of tensions, it also displays the tense relationship between our theories of violence and how those who commit violence rationalize it.