The radical equality of lives


Judith Butler talks with Brandon M. Terry about MLK, the grievability of black lives, and how to defend nonviolence today.

Judith Butler is arguably the most influential critical theorist of our era. Her early books, such as Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), anticipated a profound social and intellectual upheaval around sex, sexuality, gender norms, and power. Like many readers of my generation, I was introduced to Butler’s work just as these changes began to accelerate, and her ideas became part of mainstream discourse. In recent years, Butler has turned her insights about norms and exceptions, the psychic life of power, and the politics of resistance toward political ethics. In December Butler and I discussed her latest book, The Force of Nonviolence, which explores “nonviolence” as a project capable not simply of disclosing structural and repressive forms of violence, but also of productively channeling the tensions of social life away from retribution and resentment toward a radical and redemptive notion of equality.

—Brandon M. Terry

Brandon Terry: You begin The Force of Nonviolence with a problem that hangs heavily over contemporary debates within social movements and in some corners of academia: How does an apparently moral argument about whether to be for or against violence quickly turn into a debate about how violence is defined and who is called “violent”? For example, activists in the Movement for Black Lives have described a wide range of social phenomena, from mass incarceration to dominant norms around gender and sexuality, as state violence. Their critics meanwhile have accused them of promoting or inciting violence, especially against police officers. And as you point out, these attributions have real consequences, as we can see with DeRay McKesson, the Black Lives Matter leader being sued by a police officer injured at a protest McKesson organized.

‘Violent criminals are sent to prison to punish their violence, and yet what they enter into is another form of violence, one that is understood as legally justified.’

Some worry that the idea of violence today has become an unsustainable inflation of the concept that renders it incapable of doing the normative or analytical work that some activists and scholars are asking it to perform. They worry that without a clear and constrained definition of violence, one on which we could get some consensus, our uses of the term are going to lead our moral judgment astray. It will make public debate even more acrimonious. You seem to be skeptical about these criticisms, and you even charge them with a bit of political and critical naivete. How do you see the link between the ethical critique of violence and the interrogation of how and why we name certain practices or phenomena violent?

Judith Butler: The Force of Nonviolence is not primarily about violence, it’s about nonviolence, and whether it can still be defended, given all the realistic and strategic arguments against it. And yet, in order to make an argument for nonviolence, one needs to know what violence is; if the book’s general claim is that we ought to be refraining from violence, we still need to be able to identify violence. That’s where this complex question arises: How do we identify violence? What forms does violence take?

There’s no easy answer to that question, but I would say that very often moral arguments about nonviolence tend to imagine an individual making a decision about whether or not to engage in an act of violence, either to hit someone, or to use an instrument to injure somebody, to use a gun or some military weapon, and yet violence cannot be restricted to the form of the single blow. We know that there are forms of violence that don’t involve inflicting a blow on another person. The minute we accept that there is such a thing as institutional violence, or indeed symbolic violence, we are in a much more complex field. But I don’t think we should throw up our hands and say, “Oh well this is all too fuzzy, we can’t make our way here.” Michel Foucault distinguished between forms of sovereign violence, whereby a king, a monarch, or someone vested with a sovereign power, decides who should live and who should die. And there’s a form of violence that he called biopolitical and that Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics: violence that leaves a set of people to die, abandons them to death, or refuses to offer the assistance that is necessary in order to save their lives.

Those policies and institutions that let people die—that take away food stamps, or take away health care, or take away shelter—are not only exposing people to mortality, they’re exposing people to mortality at differential rates. In the United States, we see that black and brown people, who are disproportionately poor in this country, are differentially exposed to that kind of violence and that kind of mortality rate. So maybe nobody is hitting them with a stick, or shooting them in the head, but there is an institutional violence at work, one which distinguishes between lives worth preserving and lives regarded as not worth preserving. So a differential calculus is at work, and it’s an implicit feature of policies and institutions like that. That’s one way of understanding institutional violence.

We could also look at the violence of carceral institutions in the ways that Ruth Gilmore, or Angela Davis, or Michelle Alexander have done. Violent criminals are sent to prison to punish their violence, and yet what they enter into is another form of violence, one that is understood as legally justified. It’s not called violence, it’s called “necessary coercion,” or “necessary containment,” or incarceration, but it is often a form of violence, especially in the way people are treated and how their lives are regarded, and the kind of violence to which they are subjected—daily, psychically—within the prison facility. So we can start to think about institutions as violent. But they’re not just inflicting institutional violence. They are themselves violent institutions.

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