Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

S. Shankar reviews The Force of Nonviolence

Judith Butler. The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. New York: Verso, 2020. 209 pp.

Review by S Shankar

8 July 2020

Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind is best approached through its core methods and concepts: psychoanalysis; a thoroughgoing attention to the social, sometimes regarded as constructivism; equality; the constitutive ambivalence (violence/nonviolence) of a relational self subsisting within a relational bond; the ethical work of mourning. Out of these elements, some familiar to readers of her previous work, Butler has fashioned a wide-ranging—though, perhaps, not wide-ranging enough—vindication of nonviolence.

In brief, Butler’s argument is that nonviolence should be understood as “a social and political practice” (p. 21), a constant and always unfinished “ongoing struggle” (p. 23). Why and how forms the substance of Butler’s book, largely articulated through a psychoanalytic framework drawing on Melanie Klein, Frantz Fanon and Sigmund Freud supplemented by other thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Étienne Balibar. Butler’s typically ambitious critical theoretical endeavor is to wrest a place for forceful nonviolence out of the constitutive ambivalence of the relational self/bond (consider the book’s title). Given Butler’s stature, this venture places the problem of nonviolence—and it surely is a problem—now firmly on the contemporary agenda of critical theory, an institutionalized discursive field to whose emergence and constitution Butler has been indispensable.

Butler opens up several powerful avenues for exploration in her timely recovery of nonviolence. One is to insist on the fraught semantics of nonviolence. Butler repeatedly draws attention to politically motivated namings and renamings. State violence, she notes, is routinely resemanticized as nonviolence; and conventionally accepted practices (jogging), simply because of association with a particular (black) body at a particular place and time, are conversely necromanced into violence. Linked to this opening, and of immense ethical and theoretical consequence, is the expansion of the idea of violence beyond the “figure of the blow” (p. 2). In discourses of nonviolence, structural violence—violence perpetrated by social structures, for example through institutionalized racist policies—is often occluded in the pursuit of a moral drama largely centered on “the intimate dyad of the face-to-face encounter” (p. 2). Butler vigorously contests this frequent occlusion. To my mind, the most interesting avenue of exploration opened up by Butler concerns equality. She finds a radical egalitarianism to be foundational to nonviolence, basing this contention on the twinned postulates of the interdependency and grievability of lives. Here lives is a biopolitical step around individualism, and in a sustained argument of much nuance she suggests that to regard lives as interdependent and grievable is to adopt “an egalitarian approach to the preservation of life,” thus yoking nonviolence with “radical democracy” (p. 56).

The felicities of The Force of Nonviolence, then, are many. Nevertheless, in the end Butler’s defense of nonviolence feels muted, as if, notwithstanding the powerful arguments in its favor, nonviolence can be nothing more than a hope and a prayer. Why? Surely, the answer lies partly in Butler’s idea of a relational self/bond. Since both self and bond are constitutively ambivalent when it comes to violence (that is, violence even if contested remains intrinsic to them), it follows that the nonviolence emerging from them can only be, as the motto goes, a provisional “always already” threatened achievement––the result it would seem of just “our occasional admirably decisive efforts at vigilance” (p. 183). But must it be so?

There is an intellectual tradition that imagines a stronger defense of nonviolence while engaging some of the same concepts (self, equality, structural violence) that motivate Butler. It would seem Butler is aware of this tradition, for she gestures toward it in a handful of places by invoking the name of Gandhi (but without engaging Gandhianism itself in any meaningful way). This lineage of thought, centered on the idea of ahimsa, meaning nonviolence or alternatively and intriguingly harm-less-ness, is more than two thousand years old and in addition to Gandhi includes (more interestingly to my mind) the Buddha and the twentieth century Dalit thinker B. R. Ambedkar (especially in the posthumously published The Buddha and His Dhamma). This tradition is most especially associated with South Asia, where it has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, but cannot be restricted to that part of the world. Viewed from the perspective of this tradition, Butler has indeed written a wide-ranging book of European critical theory on nonviolence, and in the process has raised the tantalizing and delectable prospect of traveling even farther afield into terrain for which critical theory is yet to make proper room.