Theorising the history of violence after Pinker

Pinker’s 2018 work Enlightenment Now maintains his earlier commitment to Norbert Elias’ sanguine reading of post-Enlightenment human history. It replicates the problems that historians identified with his 2011 work, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Moving past Pinker’s theory does not, however, necessitate a rejection of theoretical or meta-historical approaches to the history of violence. Other recent works concerned with the history of violence offer rival theoretical positions and insights that are central to their success as works of history. Pushing past Pinker’s claim that Elias’ work is ‘the only theory left standing’ for historians of violence, this article demonstrates how theory has been used successfully by other historians. It interrogates the characteristic theoretical claims and concerns of four major approaches: new imperial history, comparative genocide studies, histories of war and society, and the history of gendered violence, and negates Pinker’s claim that no other theoretical tradition is appropriate for the study of the history of violence.