Judith Butler’s new book The Force of Nonviolence : An Ethico-Political Bind published by Verso portrays violence and non-violence as both socio-political and psychic. Johnny Rodger sees it as a continuation of her previous work and reads it in new and unexpected contexts too.
At the 1990 ‘Self Determination and Power’ conference 81-year-old philosopher George Davie took the stage on unsteady feet, and in a quivering and sometimes inaudible voice, raised a point of difficulty that he had with the previous speaker, Noam Chomsky. As keynotes, and as the central debate of the event, both speakers expatiated ad-hoc on their themes for around 30 minutes. ‘One curious and very disturbing consequence, according to experience’ of the liberal revolutions, said Davie, and one which Chomsky ‘leaves in the background’, is the terror. The largely male audience drew collective breath as the intellectual battle ensued…
1990 was also the year of the publication of Judith Butler’s seminal text ‘Gender Trouble’ exploring relationships between the performative constructions of sex, gender and sexuality. How far we seem to have travelled -with Butler as guide – in our notions of self and power since that time! Yet at bottom, how much of the trouble seems to be still the same. For here, thirty years on, is Butler with her latest book The Force of Nonviolence, apparently staying with the same trouble that disturbed Davie in the form of ‘violence’.
As the chronicler, and arguably the last representative of the Scottish Common Sense school, George Davie brought attention again to the work of Adam Fergusson and others in establishing the social basis of Scottish Enlightenment thought, and its opposition to the Romantic and German Idealist originary myth of ‘man’ (viz. the noble savage and Robinson Crusoe) as an independent individual. Given her research interests, and the influence of the Common Sense school in North American philosophy – particularly through Princeton – it is surprising that Butler doesn’t make anything of this alternative intellectual tradition. Western thought, in Butler’s presentation of it, seems to be a unitary tradition with human origins envisaged with the independent male individual, and this, according to her narrative, is where the trouble of the ubiquitous field of violence gestates as something imposed by the rule of society or the state, to quell the nasty and brutish violence between those independent individuals. Hence violence is everywhere … in all history. To be fair to Butler though, if the true damage done to our social relations by the enduring ideal myth of the original single independent man is to be exposed, then declining any help from putative allies in the form of social theories from a tradition (Scottish Common Sense) rooted in a Christian patriarchal ruling class enmired in class snobbery, in colonialism, slavery, and in developing (and theorising) capitalism from the ruins of its own feudal regime, to start with a clean oppositional slate, has distinct attractions.
Not that Butler comes out of nowhere, nor operates as some sort of lone intellectual voice in the wilderness. Far from it – her ‘tentacular’ relationships to a whole range of scholarly fellows, activists, and schools of thought, including Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, and the art of relational aesthetics (to name a few) are made so evident throughout her text that her intellectual methodology wears its own relational heart on it sleeve and is indeed a fine model of the interdependency that she seeks to define as beyond the damaging individualistic tradition.
Butler has been criticised in the past for the obscurity and impenetrability of her prose style. This work is admirably free of any such tendency. As regards style indeed, she may be described as the philosopher of the noun of adjectival potentiality – concepts like ‘liveability’, and here ‘vulnerability’, ‘killability’ and ‘substitutability’ have done a deal of work in her published theses, and in this book, probing the possibilities of nonviolence, the notion of grieveability is pivotal. In order to understand how society and the state legitimates practice of violence against certain enemies, minority groups and so on, she uses this concept, grieveability, to encapsulate how the full humanity of some people is ignored, denied, dismissed, or deemed irrelevant. In large part the ethical practice of exclusion, rather than egalitarianism or equality, finds its roots in those mythological male origins of the cultural species, and in the simple, straightforward prose we find here, Butler asserts that ‘the social contract is already a sexual contract’, and that the gendered structure of the family has been taken for granted. She goes on to write that,
For only a departure from a prescriptive individualism will let us understand the possibility of an aggressive nonviolence: one that emerges in the midst of conflict, one that takes hold in the force field of violence itself. That means such an equality is not simply the equality of individuals with one another, but a concept that first becomes thinkable once a critique of individualism is waged.
This is indeed a key passage in understanding –and appreciating the importance of – the philosophical effectiveness of the performative style Butler has developed. In adopting, and applying concepts full of live potential (eg grieveability) she gives space for the understanding of social relations to adapt, change and evolve, to manoeuvre beyond the conception of a static complete and independent body as a unit, and towards the body as porous, as a threshold for continuing and continuous relations with the world and society. Again the philosophical style is the model in action. Thus the universal quality of Butler’s work demands, ironically, that you find it, not as some pristine, independent already perfected example, but as situated in the relational context of, and with all the potential of, your own local world.
When it comes to the content of The Force of Nonviolence (inasmuch as the content can be separated from the style) it is not clear things are performed so smoothly. Butler tells us that ‘violence and nonviolence are at once socio-political and psychic’ and accordingly, the first part of the book is given over to a socio-political analysis of violence and nonviolence, and the latter part to a discussion of the psychoanalytical view of violence and the individual. Hence she first looks at when, and by whom violence is invoked and who is vulnerable to it? Following Benjamin, she rejects the instrumental understanding -for once violence is unleashed (–always in self-defence, even, and especially, by the state -) how would it be possible to control that ‘instrument’, who is the ‘self’ being defended, who gets to decide their defence is needed, and who does the defending? The paternalistic overtones are already clear, and demographics looms, as Butler declares it, ‘a practical problem concerning the management of demographic differences and the ethical ruses of paternalistic forms of power.’
It is here that the biggest problem for the reader becomes evident. For it is not clear what is the relation between that historical, political and social configuration of the operations of violence at mass and institutional scale, with the view of the destructive potential inherent in every individual as presented in the pages which follow dealing with the psychoanalytical view.
For a long section of the book, focussed on a series of despairing letters which passed between Freud and Albert Einstein, Butler seems to follow the pessimistic view that violence is inevitable and will out every so often given the eternal tussle in the human psyche, as described by psychoanalysis, between Eros and Thanatos, the pleasure principle and the death drive, and love and hate. It is here, however, that we can truly appreciate with Butler, what she and other writers –notably Donna Haraway – mean when they insist on ‘staying with the trouble’. Paul B. Preciado said somewhere that the struggle against the patriarchy would take one thousand years. At a recent meeting I asked him if we should take that millennium metaphorically? – ie meaning simply for a very very long time, or even that the struggle would never end? No, he meant one thousand years, he replied – 30 generations – the struggle needs patience and commitment. Equally, writer James Kelman, who was one of the main organisers of the ‘Self Determination and Power’ event, bringing Davie and Chomsky together in Glasgow in 1990 (see first para.) has written of his grass roots political activism, that the aim in organising a campaign is never just simply to win. Most campaigns fail, he observes, and what concerns him in his activism is the engagement with oppressive structures and hierarchies, bringing the relationships and workings of power to light, and exposing them in public space.
For Judith Butler too, there is the understanding that vulnerability to suffering – to violence – is not an attribute of the passive individual but a feature of social relations. Her prescription for the practice of nonviolence is then that a new imaginary is required – an egalitarian imaginary that apprehends the interdependency of lives. Yet how long will that take? Well, Foucault famously tells us –more or less – that freedom is not a state but it is the struggle itself. Butler, like Kelman and Preciado, ends on a bitter sweet note of staying power – ‘Sometimes continuing to exist in the vexation of social relations is the ultimate defeat of violent power.’