Cover image for The force of nonviolence : an ethico-political bind
The force of nonviolence : an ethico-political bind
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x, 209 pages ; 22 cm
"Situating non-violence at the cross-roads of the ethical and political, The Force of Non-Violence brings into focus the ethical binds that emerge within the force field of violence. Non-violence is very often misunderstood as a passive practice that emanates from a calm region of the soul, or as an individualist ethic with an unrealistic relation to existing forms of power. This book argues for an aggressive form of non-violence that struggles with psychic ambivalence and seeks to embody social ideals of inter-dependency and equality. Only through a critique of individualism can the ethical and political ideal of non-violence be understood in relation to the ideal of equality and the demand for grievability. In this psycho-social and philosophical reflection that draws upon Foucault, Fanon, Freud, and Benjamin, Butler argues that to oppose violence now requires understanding its different modalities, including the regulation of the grievability of lives. The book shows how "racial and demographic phantasms" enter into the rationale for inflicting state violence and other modes of "letting die" by investing violence in those who are most severely exposed to its effects and subjugated to its lethal power. The struggle for non-violence is found in modes of resistance and movements for social transformation that separate off aggression from its destructive aims to affirm the living potentials of radical egalitarian politics"--


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Judith Butler's new book shows how an ethic of nonviolence must be connected to a broader political struggle for social equality. Further, it argues that nonviolence is often misunderstood as a passive practice that emanates from a calm region of the soul, or as an individualist ethical relation to existing forms of power. But, in fact, nonviolence is an ethical position found in the midst of the political field. An aggressive form of nonviolence accepts that hostility is part of our psychic constitution, but values ambivalence as a way of checking the conversion of aggression into violence. One contemporary challenge to a politics of nonviolence points out that there is a difference of opinion on what counts as violence and nonviolence. The distinction between them can be mobilised in the service of ratifying the state's monopoly on violence.
Considering nonviolence as an ethical problem within a political philosophy requires a critique of individualism as well as an understanding of the psychosocial dimensions of violence. Butler draws upon Foucault, Fanon, Freud, and Benjamin to consider how the interdiction against violence fails to include lives regarded as ungrievable. By considering how 'racial phantasms' inform justifications of state and administrative violence, Butler tracks how violence is often attributed to those who are most severely exposed to its lethal effects. The struggle for nonviolence is found in movements for social transformation that reframe the grievability of lives in light of social equality and whose ethical claims follow from an insight into the interdependency of life as the basis of social and political equality.

Author Notes

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of numerous books including Precarious Life (Verso, 2004), Frames of War (Verso, 2009), and Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard University Press, 2015).

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

UC Berkeley philosopher and gender theorist Butler (Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly) explores the meaning and ethics of nonviolence and its relationship to systemic racism and other repressive social structures in this scholarly yet boldly articulated essay collection. In contrast to prevailing associations of nonviolence with calmness and passivity, Butler redefines it as an "aggressive" and "sustained" form of resistance to social inequality. She reveals how racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny render certain lives "grievable" while others are deemed unworthy of grief, and applies that theoretical framework to discussions of the Black Lives Matter movement, various refugee crises, and violence against cisgender and trans women in Latin America. A piece on Freud's development of the concept of the "death drive" (Thanatos) in the aftermath of WWI veers somewhat from Butler's core theses, but intriguingly describes how "aggression and hatred" might be channeled to oppose nationalism and "war-mongering authority." Butler's academic prose and close readings of Foucault, Frantz Fanon, and other theorists may be difficult for general readers to follow, but her avowal of "global interdependency" as a positive force for equality resonates, as does her discussion of the ways in which state powers twist the definition of "violence" to stifle protest. Political activists with a background in philosophy will appreciate Butler's insights. (Feb.)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. 1
1 Nonviolence, Grievability, and the Critique of Individualismp. 27
2 To Preserve the Life of the Otherp. 67
3 The Ethics and Politics of Nonviolencep. 103
4 Political Philosophy in Freud: War, Destruction, Mania, and the Critical Facultyp. 151
Postscript: Rethinking Vulnerability, Violence, Resistancep. 185
Indexp. 205