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Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence advocates for pacifism but neglects much of the tradition’s philosophy and feminist theory. Is it possible to merge Butler’s insights with a serious concern for how nonviolent politics can be effective?
August 31, 2020
Judith Butler’s ‘The Force of Nonviolence’ advocates for pacifism but neglects much of the tradition’s philosophy and feminist theory. Is it possible to merge Butler’s insights with a serious concern for how nonviolent politics can be effective?
The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind
Verso Books, $24.95 (cloth)
Nonviolence is easy to dismiss as naive or self-defeating, presuming too much about the good faith of oppressors while offering too little to the anger and grief of the oppressed. There is cruelty in telling protesters—for example, Blacks who call for an end to police violence—to bravely suffer violence rather than stand up and fight for their lives. Elite invocations of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the face of mass protests are so common as to be cliché. Such calls for nonviolence, like those from politicians and pundits in response to this year’s uprisings, discipline dissent under the guise of moralizing conflict.
Protesters blocking traffic are accused of violence; a privatized health care system that leads Black, brown, and poor people to early graves is not. Accusations of violence are always shaped by gender and race.
What such skepticism overlooks, however, is the diversity of activist struggles fought under the banner of nonviolence. The recent history of feminist nonviolence offers one example that expressly rejects the fantasies of purity and the valorization of sacrifice that mark both Gandhian satyagraha and Christian nonresistance. In the early 1980s, British and American women constructed a series of peace encampments around nuclear weapons depots in opposition to NATO’s installation of Pershing II rockets in Western Europe and Turkey. These occupations were more than acts of civil disobedience obstructing the movement of weapons; they served as laboratories for reinventing nonviolence as a feminist practice of resistance without perpetuating the will to dominate.
Within the feminist counter-public that emerged in connection with the camps, activists crafted an expansive critique of violence, framing military violence within a spectrum of violence extending to domestic abuse and sexual assault, while at the same time challenging the patriarchal biases of the pacifist movement itself. Against the machismo of sacrifice and emotional repression, this was a pacifism rooted in empowerment and resistance. Anger was something to embrace as a source of power for fighting back against violence, not a failure of nonviolence.
The debate that emerged from these actions both reimagines nonviolence in distinctively feminist terms and reimagines feminism through the lens of nonviolence. A touchstone for this feminist critique is Barbara Deming’s 1971 essay “On Anger.” Deming (1917–1984) was a veteran of a half century of nonviolent struggles. She first became a convert to nonviolence in the nuclear disarmament movement of the 1950s before history swept her into the whirlwind of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and later gay liberation.
Deming’s writings record an ongoing experiment with nonviolence as both an idea and a tactic in response to the ever-shifting terrain of U.S. and international liberation struggles. “On Anger” argues that pacifists have often failed to understand the ways repressed anger and fear have driven their commandments to love—and that pacifists must face up to this if nonviolence is to become an emancipatory force rather than the high-minded moralism its critics accuse it of being. Anger can be a source of solidarity with others in a common struggle, especially with those who reject nonviolence. Being good comrades means being honest about pacifists’ own deep ambivalence toward their creed.
Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence reads, in a certain sense, as a continuation of this feminist tradition of reinventing nonviolence. Like Erik Erikson did in his psychoanalytic biography of Gandhi, Gandhi’s Truth (1969), Butler warns of how moralism can serve as a mask for aggression. Like Deming, she calls for a realistic pacifism that forgoes the false security of moral principles and faces up to ambivalence and disavowal. However, Butler’s foray into nonviolence often feels detached from history. Gandhi and King are honored with epigraphs but otherwise relegated to the occasional footnote; major theorists of nonviolence such as Deming, Richard Gregg, A.J. Muste, Reinhold Niebuhr, Krishnalal Shridharani, Vinoba Bhave, Bayard Rustin, Albert Luthuli, Dorothy Day, James Lawson, Daniel Berrigan, Septima Clark, David Dellinger, and Thich Nhat Hanh—never mind historical canonists such as Leo Tolstoy or Adin Ballou—receive no acknowledgment. The result is an urgent call to reclaim the idea of nonviolence that lacks the conceptual and political resources to effectively answer the question of what that would mean.
• • •
What, Butler asks, would it mean to respond to injury not with revenge but with grief? What might grief reveal about the human condition that is foreclosed when we instead cling to ideas of sovereignty?
Taking stock of how The Force of Nonviolence continues themes from Butler’s earlier work helps to shed light on why the book takes the shape it does. Its origins reach back to Butler’s 1990 Gender Trouble, a work born out of the debates over gender and sexuality within the feminist movement of the 1980s. A founding text of queer theory, it also contains the foundations of a distinctive critique of violence that has oriented Butler’s writing over the past three decades. At the core of Gender Trouble, as Samuel Chambers has shown, is an analysis of normative violence. Norms become sources of violence by fixing terms of social intelligibility. Heterosexist gender norms naturalize certain performances of gender and pathologize others. The violence that operates through norms enables the conditions for physical violence inflicted on the bodies of gays, lesbians, and gender-nonconforming people.
The violence of norms lies in their ability to delimit who can be seen as human. Compulsory heterosexism, which naturalizes gender as an expression of sex, pathologizes gender performances that deviate from its code. As Butler writes in the preface to the tenth-anniversary edition of Gender Trouble, “The point of this text is . . . to show that the naturalized knowledge of gender operates as a preemptive and violent circumscription of reality.” Her critique of violence has long been aimed at showing how physical violence naturally flows from the violence of norms.
Butler’s approach in The Force of Nonviolence illustrates both continuity and innovation in the development of her critique of violence. Violence, she argues, is not a thing like mass or speed that can be neutrally described. Protesters blocking traffic are accused of violence; a privatized health care system that leads Black, brown, and poor people to early graves is not. Definitions of violence are always inflected by tacit frameworks of intelligibility, and in the United States these frameworks are shaped not only by gender norms but by race. White supremacy, like heterosexism, is a regime that at once enables and disguises violence. A workable theory of nonviolence, Butler insists, can’t be founded on a humanistic faith in the power of sacrificial suffering to convert an aggressor. It needs to take its orientation from an analysis of how racial frames inflect perceptions of suffering and sacrifice.
This critique is reinforced by a psychoanalytic analysis central to Butler’s writing since The Psychic Life of Power (1997). We are not simply shaped by the violence of norms but bound to this violence libidinally and perceptually. The Force of Nonviolence takes up the challenge of recovering nonviolence from within this complex circuit of social construction and psychic attachment. Racism, for example, becomes conceptualized as a “phantasy,” in the sense that psychoanalyst Melanie Klein wrote of unconscious preconceptions that shape our experience of the world. Butler offers police violence as a telling example of this deadly circuit of intelligibility, perception, and affect. The police officer who shoots a Black driver at a routine traffic stop is not shooting a human being. He is reacting against a racist phantasm, an embodied existential threat against which murderous violence is, in this inverted logic, mere self-defense.
Naming violence, then, is often an act of violence itself, transcribing the motives of the aggressor onto his or her raced and gendered victim. A critique of violence, Butler writes, must therefore “also be a radical critique of inequality.” Whether reactionary or revolutionary, violence in the name of self-defense implicitly distinguishes between a national/racial self and others, creating a cleavage that makes some ways of living indefensible and some lives ungrievable. And it is in this concept of “grievability”—a radical equality in who is worthy of being mourned—that we arrive finally at what Butler identifies as the “utopian” core of her project. Affirming nonviolence is an expression of the equal grievability of lives against a racial order that systemically denies this basic moral fact. It is upon this notion that Butler bases her critical theory of nonviolence—which she repeatedly contrasts with the straw man of “peaceful” pacifism.
Butler’s counterintuitive thesis is that nonviolence is not the antithesis of self-defense but rather is self-defense. Once the self is seen in relational terms, the goal of defending the self is turned inside out.
Grief is the cornerstone of what has been called Butler’s ethical turn, a trajectory that commenced with the publication of Precarious Life (2003), where nonviolence also first entered into her philosophical lexicon. Precarious Life approaches both the explosion of Islamaphobic violence and the outbreak of the War on Terror as expressions of a national refusal to grieve. What, Butler asks, would it mean to respond to the experience of injury not with revenge but with grief? What might grief reveal about the human condition that is foreclosed when we instead cling to ideas of sovereignty, whether national or individual?
The lesson grief teaches is that we are inextricably bound to one another. To experience the loss of another is to feel the loss of some part of oneself because the self is constituted through social relations and bonds of interdependence. We flee from this mutual interdependence into fantasies of individuality and sovereignty because we are frightened of our shared vulnerability. The ethical challenge of grieving is the challenge of responding to the experience of injury in the face of interdependence: Will we flee from injury into acts of vengeance to repair a wounded sense of sovereignty? Or will we break the cycle of violence by learning to dwell with grief, its insights about our social constitution, and the right of everyone to be equally grieved? The final chapter of Precarious Life envisions how one might break the cycle of revenge through an “ethics of nonviolence,” which Butler bases as much on the writings of Sigmund Freud as on Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy of the absolute obligation to the Other.
These many threads all finally converge in the counterintuitive thesis of The Force of Nonviolence: that nonviolence is not the antithesis of self-defense but rather is self-defense. Butler raises this provocative claim as a rejoinder to left discourses of violent resistance. Counterviolence, so the argument goes, is required to defend the oppressed from the systemic violence they suffer. The Force of Nonviolence responds not by challenging the tactical wisdom of these arguments, but instead by questioning the very idea of self at their core. Once the self is seen in relational terms, sustained through bonds that exceed sovereign control, the goal of defending the self is turned inside out, since it must now encompass protecting and expanding the social infrastructure through which lives can be more equitably lived. Acts of violence that put these bonds at risk are not simply immoral, they are self-defeating. “Violence against the other is, in this sense,” Butler writes, “violence against oneself, something that becomes clear when we recognize that violence assaults the living interdependency that is, or should be, our social world.” Nonviolence is the practice of tending to this web of “living interdependency,” or as she calls it elsewhere in the book, life itself.
• • •
What does it mean to call this tending to life “aggressive nonviolence,” as Butler describes her proposed reinvention of nonviolence? It is here that Butler leans most heavily on psychoanalytic theory, and where the archive of pacifist praxis might instead provide richer answers than those she offers.
Bonds of interdependence are the sources of both life and aggression. They endow us with worth and care, yet they also continually remind the ego of the limits of its power and its dependency on others. Eros and Thanatos, Freud taught, are ambivalently bound together as the cost of civilization. In The Force of Nonviolence, Butler seeks a way to break the tyranny of having only two options: redirecting aggression inward upon the self or outward upon others. And she finds it in Freud’s writings about mania. In Mourning and Melancholia, Freud defines mania as a way of expressing melancholia in which one refuses to acknowledge loss. Mania breaks from reality in order to denounce the lost object rather than suffer the hostility and self-beratement with which the melancholic conscience clings on to it. Butler reads this dissociative impulse as the ego’s desperate attempt not to be consumed by loss but rather to survive it. This is the utopianism of mania, one Butler clings to as promising a kind of affective solidarity in the service, not of race or of nation, but of life itself. Mania “introduces this unrealistic desire to exist and persist, the one that seems based in no perceptible reality and has no grounds for being so within a particular political regime.” Just as grief teaches the interdependence that underpins our obligations to others, mania offers a lesson in the ambivalence required to honor these bonds in nonaggressive ways.
The force of nonviolence, for Butler, is the public performance of the body crying out for life. The refugee who sews her lips closed demands public acknowledgment of her humanity through an act of self-laceration.
Butler is at pains to stress that mania is not a model for political action, yet the only examples of political resistance her book proffers seem better described as manic nonviolence than as aggressive nonviolence—more expressions of exhaustion than maneuvers to disarm an adversary or seize control of a conflict. One of Butler’s examples—a favorite that will be familiar to readers of her other recent work—is Erdem Gündüz, the so-called “Standing Man.” On June 17, 2013, Gündüz, a Turkish artist, stood in the middle of Taksim Square for eight hours in response to the government’s crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in nearby Gezi Park. Because Gündüz was not overtly protesting—indeed, he wasn’t doing anything at all—he complied with the letter of the law even as he violated it in spirit. Over the course of the night, his silent protest eventually gathered a large sympathetic audience, at which time the police dispersed the group and arrested Gündüz (he was quickly released, since there was nothing he could be charged with having done). Butler is also interested in the acts of self-mutilation and lip-sewing performed by refugees confined to camps at the edges of Europe. Such acts of self-harm are neither conventionally nor unproblematically nonviolent, yet Butler offers them too as exemplary of “a form of theatrical political that asserts their power and, at the same time, the limits imposed on that power.”
But can this really be called power? The fact that Butler does reveals much about her understanding of the “force” of nonviolence. These are performances of human vulnerability, through which—by exposing the body to the blows of clubs, the threat of law, or the violence of indefinite detention—the violence of governance is exposed. They dramatically illustrate at once the violence of the status quo and the humanity it denies. “For embodied performance brings that specific exposure to violence to the fore; it makes the wager and the demand of its own performative and embodied persistence.” The “force” of nonviolence, for Butler, is the public performance of the body crying out for life. Manic dissociation from reality, then, is a fitting metaphor for Butler’s analysis of these dissident gestures. These are expressive acts of refusal. The refugee who sews her lips closed demands public acknowledgment of her humanity through an act of self-laceration.
This dissociative quality of nonviolence is perhaps related to Butler’s persistent underscoring of the “unrealism” of nonviolence. To insist on the equal grievability of all lives—in the face of a racial and political order that denies this—is not a failure to face up to reality but rather a kind of statement of faith in a “counter-realism,” the anticipation of a new reality to be built in the shell of the old. And indeed, for Butler, nonviolence is foremost a way of life, a spiritual achievement informing every element of one’s conduct.
In this way, Butler’s account fits neatly within the familiar dichotomy between ethical and strategic approaches to nonviolence. Gandhi and King espoused deep moral commitments to nonviolence as a philosophy but many satyagrahis and marchers who followed them only ever embraced it as a workable movement tactic. This distinction fails to capture the ways Gandhi and King forged a new kind of realism oriented around the dynamic relationship between moral and strategic concerns, as recent scholarship by political theorists Karuna Mantena and Brandon Terry has shown. This dynamism of nonviolence lays less in its relationship to violence and more in the relationship it reinforces between ethical practice and political struggle. Satyagraha, Gandhi insisted, was a lived experiment.
It is therefore something of a historical irony that nonviolence’s contemporary champions find themselves consistently reifying the false dichotomy of nonviolence as either ethics or strategy. Gene Sharp, the so-called Machiavelli of nonviolence, did much to reiterate this distinction during his decades-long advocacy of strategic nonviolence as a mode of disruptive noncooperation. Through Sharp, the distinction has become commonplace in the social scientific literature on the advantages of nonviolent tactics, as well as among nonviolent direct action activists themselves. The most powerful arguments for nonviolence we hear today, in other words, are pragmatic ones, and meaningful debate about its future often turn on the question of under what conditions it effectively “works.”
Although it does not engage with this scholarship, Butler’s book represents an implicit challenge to the nonviolence-as-strategy discourse from the nonviolence-as-ethics pole. Sharp’s cooperation-oriented analysis of pragmatic theories of nonviolence often trades in an oversimplified account of power that fails to grasp the complex discursive and affective dynamics Butler brings to the foreground. This is a welcome provocation.
And yet, Butler’s critique arrives at a counterintuitive conclusion, most on display in the book’s treatment of the question of whether nonviolence is, in fact, effective. Butler seems genuinely agnostic as to whether nonviolence “works,” practically speaking: “One of the strongest arguments for the use of violence on the left is that it is tactically necessary in order to defeat structural or systemic violence, or to dismantle a violent regime. . . . That may well be true, and I don’t dispute it.” This is an incredible concession for a book aiming to make a persuasive case for nonviolence, not least because it is empirically false. As sociologist Kurt Schock and others have shown, nonviolent struggle holds a distinctive advantage, especially under authoritarian regimes.
Taking seriously the practical questions of how and why nonviolence works need not mean dismissing the emotional and psychological questions Butler raises.
What drives this puzzling conclusion is not simply a failure to consult the relevant literature; it is a consequence of framing the problem of violence in terms of a philosophical sovereignty. The challenge of nonviolence, as Butler has consistently framed it since Precarious Life, is how the subject ought to respond to injury, to experiences that deflate the fantasy of sovereign mastery. For Butler to seriously engage debates about whether nonviolence “works,” then, would mean conceding to frame the challenge of nonviolence in terms of mastery, and hence succumbing to the dehumanizing logic of sovereignty. The consequence of so conflating violence with control, however, is an account that leaves little room for understanding force as anything more than an expressive claim. The “force” of nonviolence, so understood, comes to look a great deal like the pacified portraits of civil disobedience as noncoercive “mode of appeal” put forward by liberals such as John Rawls.
But taking seriously the practical questions of how and why nonviolence works need not mean dismissing the emotional and psychological questions Butler raises. Consider the question of comportment toward the enemy, a basic ethical and tactical concern in the nonviolent tradition but one awarded only a paragraph in Butler’s book. The enemy, seen from a nonviolent point of view, is at once an adversary you seek to defeat and a human being deserving of your respect. As King explained, loving the enemy does not entail any duty to like the police officer brutalizing you, but it does entail a duty to resist reducing them to their social role. Resisting this kind of dehumanization is no easy task. Deming writes that doing so demands a disorienting kind of political double vision attuned to the intersectional nature of oppression. Both the self and the enemy always occupy complex and sometimes contradictory identity categories.
Admitting this ambivalence toward the enemy is not simply an exercise in chastening one’s will to dominate, as Butler seems to suggest. It instead creates the conditions favorable to seizing control of the conflict. “The more the real issues are dramatized,” Deming explains, “and the struggle raised above the personal, the more control those in nonviolent rebellion begin to gain over their adversary. For they are able at one and the same time to disrupt everything for him, making it impossible for him to operate within the system as usual, and to temper his response to this making it impossible for him to simply strike back without thought and with all his strength.”
Deming calls this seizing the enemy with “two hands,” and it is the central metaphor of her philosophy of nonviolence. The one hand forces him to act against his will. It disrupts his plans, refuses his orders, coerces him into concessions he does not want to make. This is nonviolence as disruption and coercion. But it is paired with a hand that cares: nonviolent resistance intensifies conflict even as it seeks to interrupt the dynamics of escalation. It does this by refusing to personalize conflict, by dramatizing oppressive structures and the roles people play within them rather than faulting particular individuals. This kind of nonviolence is not peaceful, nor is it empathizing or acquiescing. It is the art of coercing bodies without undercutting the possibility of persuading minds.
Deming’s metaphor suggests a different way of understanding the “force” of nonviolence. Seizing the enemy with two hands is a dramatic act, a way of staging one’s claim before an audience. The audience extends beyond the enemy alone to include allies, adversaries, bystanders, comrades, and sometimes international onlookers. There is therefore no one public but many. Coupling confrontation and care means to do more than simply “expose” unseen violence, as Butler repeatedly suggest; it means to meet people where they are and help educate their judgments to see some issue—and their own relation to it—anew. This is interdependence as something to be made not found, a political project of constructing a new public around an issue rather than returning people to some existential facts of the human condition.
Deming’s nonviolence is not peaceful, nor is it empathizing or acquiescing. It is the art of coercing bodies without undercutting the possibility of persuading minds.
In the final pages of The Force of Nonviolence, Butler suggests that part of the popular prejudice against nonviolence is an implicit misogynistic judgment linking passivity with femininity and weakness. The same conclusion informed Deming’s lifelong attempt to show that nonviolent ambivalence can in fact offer a more effective source of control, an argument she made by reclaiming Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961) as a text for pacifists in her most widely read essay, “Revolution and Equilibrium” (1968). As Deming came into new consciousness in the feminist movement and more openly acknowledged her lesbianism, she came to see that the response to this misogyny was not to show that nonviolence could be a manly show of force, but rather to show how nonviolence subverts the normative violence of compulsory heterosexism that delimits our ability to see one another as human. This is another face of radical equality, not one defined as equal grievability in death, but rather a queer experiment with living the truth that “no human being should be thought of as The Other,” Deming explains.
Deming’s final essays on her experience of sisterhood at the Seneca Lake peace camp reiterate her longstanding view that nonviolence remains something to be invented. It names more than a body of techniques of self-discipline and disruption; nonviolence is a process of building a new world. This is like the “unrealism” of nonviolence as Butler frames it, yet Deming, like Gandhi and King, never decoupled this liberatory vision from a realism of action, power, and consequences. Reclaiming nonviolence, Butler writes in a previous book, means embracing it as “a social and political struggle to make rage articulate and effective—the carefully crafted ‘fuck you’.” Deming and the history of nonviolent struggle, by contrast, suggest that making a compelling case for the “force” of nonviolence—as a framework for contemporary struggles for a more equitable and less violent world—means asking more of it than just this.
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