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Do More Than No Harm: On Judith Butler’s “The Force of Nonviolence”

By Mark TreckaJuly 17, 2020

Do More Than No Harm: On Judith Butler’s “The Force of Nonviolence”

The Force of Nonviolence by Judith Butler

ONE MORNING in mid-April, in the town of Beacon, New York, word spread about the digging of several fresh graves with unmarked headstones in the Fishkill Correctional Facility cemetery. A local prisoner advocacy group cobbled together a press release highlighting the burials — and their likely relationship to COVID-19.

Reports of poor sanitary conditions, limited access to doctors, and a lack of personal protective equipment are coming steadily from the incarcerated, through family members, to advocates and whatever media and public will listen. Meager safety practices undertaken by state prisons are part and parcel of a systemic disregard for the lives of incarcerated people.

The outcome of that disregard: blank headstones.

The Highlands Current of Philipstown, New York, reports that, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the dead buried in early April were “not claimed by relatives.” One might take that as the final statement on the matter, as if this simply makes the situation tolerable. Or one may imagine entirely different outcomes. One may ask, as Judith Butler does in her latest work, The Force of Nonviolence: “What leads any of us to seek to preserve the life of the other?”

In an economical 200 pages, she brings to bear on the question no less than Freud, Einstein, Foucault, Fanon, Benjamin, Gandhi, Kant, Hegel, and Melanie Klein. The last two converge to form a key moment in Butler’s project, concerning Hegel’s objective idealism and Kleinian phantasy. “Some abiding truth of infantile life continues to inform our political lives,” Butler writes, “as well as the forms of dissociation and deflection out of which phantasies of sovereign self-sufficiency are born.” We encounter ourselves in each other. We are, as it were, always given over to another, to others. This idea flies in the face of self-sufficiency and is the foundation for Butler’s argument that we are, all of us, fundamentally interdependent.

Violence thrives in our denial of this given-over-ness through complex fantasies of self-sufficiency. Butler suggests that “no one actually stands on one’s own,” contrary to the liberal political state of nature myth: the already upright, self-sufficient, adult male who, for Hobbes, necessarily wants what another has and so must restrict himself or be policed. Violence thrives in policing. But whatever else one thinks of this story, Butler points out that for all its claims to what is natural, it really seems to begin “in the middle of a history that is not about to be told.”

The Force of Violence is at times pointedly beautiful, particularly on these matters, as Butler contends that metaphysics, which considers the body “an extended being with discrete boundaries” in fact fails to get at an adequate understanding of the reality of bodies, and the ways in which bodies depend on one another. “The body,” Butler writes, movingly, “is given over to others in order to persist; it is given over to some other set of hands before it can make use of its own.”

Over the last few months, citizens of countries the world over have been implored to wear masks, wash hands, and keep a safe distance from each other precisely because that interrelatedness is inescapable. But what is it about the way that we deny our relations to each other that could result in the dismissal of the reality that prisons make these precautions critically difficult, if not impossible? “Without that overarching sense of the interrelational,” Butler writes,

we take the bodily boundary to be the end rather than the threshold of the person, the site of passage and porosity, the evidence of an openness to alterity that is definitional of the body itself. The threshold of the body, the body as threshold undermines the idea of the body as a unit.

In denying the threshold-ness of the bodily boundary, we allow ourselves every reason to dismiss the suffering of others, or to assume that certain violences are necessary, provided that they happen elsewhere. Justifications for violence in fact function in just this way: “there are those I am willing to hurt or murder in the name of those with whom I share a social identity” — but then again, as Butler asks: “What is demography doing in the midst of this moral debate about exceptions to the interdiction against violence?” Never so swiftly has nationally justified violence been brought to its knees.

Butler’s decades-long work in theorizing embodiment cannot be overstated. There are few famous living philosophers, and Butler is among them. Her contributions to the worlds of gender studies and modern feminism run deep. Thirty years after its publication, Gender Trouble continues to shape ever-evolving discussions of gender theory, phenomenology, and ethics. While her last few books have dealt less directly with gender, one can draw an effectively unbroken line from her early work, through to the present. In Gender Trouble, Butler writes that a body liberated from the “shackles of the paternal law” can experience no return to a “natural” past, but only “to an open future of cultural possibilities.”


At the heart of all of this is Butler’s concept of “grievability,” which first began to develop for Butler during the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. As Butler explained in a recent interview with Masha Gessen, while so many people were losing their partners to AIDS, a devastating lack of recognition of those losses poisoned the public response. This lack of recognition, this treatment of love and loss as though there were no love and loss results in what Freud called melancholia. “Not just individual depression but shared melancholia.”

In her 2002 essay “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” Butler explores an early version of the question of grievability. She begins that essay: “What makes for a livable world is no idle question.” Indeed, 18 years later, the question presents itself rigorously in The Force of Nonviolence. And elsewhere, everywhere, the demands of that question and the perils of melancholia seem to reassert themselves daily anew, just a few short months after the book’s publication.

Is this, in fact, a livable world? For whom is it livable? How much love and loss is treated as though it were no love and loss?

The Force of Nonviolence was written before the onset of COVID-19 and so it is not, of course, about the pandemic. And although Butler several times makes mention of prisons, neither is it primarily concerned with prison conditions or the implications of prisons. But it is about the violence that is done in refusing to acknowledge all lives — and indeed, all life — as grievable. And this is something we are seeing uncannily exploited by this virus and the way that it is mishandled by the dominant systems in which we invest.

Indeed, if institutions were structured according to a principle of the radical equality of grievability, that would mean that every life conceived within those institutional terms would be worth preserving, that its loss would be marked and lamented, and that this would be true not only of this or that life, but of every life. This would, I suggest, have implications for how we think about health care, imprisonment, war, occupation, and citizenship, all of which make distinctions between populations as more and less grievable.


To the noteworthy but limited extent that The Force of Nonviolence is an exploration of the strains of political philosophy in Freud’s work (including an analysis of his correspondence with Einstein), it is such in the service of a theory of the potential for refocusing the negative power of hatred toward violence. Butler invests deeply in the idea that this negative power persists in all human relationships. Love is not the answer. And neither is dwelling in some “pacific region of the soul.”

Butler refuses to dispute that violence may well be “tactically necessary in order to defeat structural or systemic violence, or to dismantle a violent regime,” which may disappoint some readers. Perhaps it is unjustified to say that there are bigger things at issue than violence and nonviolence, especially considering the book’s title and evident focus. But violence, as Butler writes, is not concerned with whether or not it is, itself, being used as a tool. Violence is always interpreted. And so “the practice of nonviolence requires an opposition to biopolitical forms of racism and war logics that regularly distinguish lives worth safeguarding from those that are not.”

This book does not stray from Butler’s canon in any formal sense: this is a work of philosophical inquiry as meticulous as any of the work that it builds upon. But like its finest antecedents, and even outstripping some of them, the text at times rises up fiercely, even poetically. As a work of political philosophy, it is precise and relevant, undoubtedly, precisely reiterating and regenerating its relevance only months after its publication. But this clarity and survival through these few months during which much else will quickly become dated must have something to do with that way in which it haunts.

In fact, though Butler does not explore the idea of hauntedness per se, there is something of it, well, haunting this book. Grievability of course in some way requires an imagining of the loss of some particular person or persons. How might we be haunted by this loss? For all the formal philosophical rigor, the toughest demand that The Force of Nonviolence makes, ultimately, is on our imaginations. We need “an altered state of perception, another imaginary, that would disorient us from the givens of the political present,” the givens of prisons, of policing, of military occupation: the givens of violence. We need not love each other, Butler tells us, but we must be haunted by the potential loss of one another.

Butler acknowledges the difficulty in all of this. And when she does, it isn’t hard to imagine that she is speaking directly about the anonymous dead prisoners buried in the Fishkill Correctional Facility cemetery. “It is notoriously difficult to get the message across that those who are targeted or abandoned or condemned are also grievable […] that the failure to preserve them will be the occasion of immense regret and obligatory repair.”

But in response to that notorious difficulty, Butler recalls Greek tragedy, where lament, she says, follows rage, and often too late: “sometimes there is a chorus, some anonymous group of people gathering and chanting in the face of propulsive rage, who lament in advance, mourning as soon as they see it coming.” Streets around the world are today filled with such chanting, calling out the names of Black people murdered by police. Those chanting know they do not do so only to memorialize the dead.

There are no action steps outlined in The Force of Nonviolence. It is a work of philosophy which seeks to trouble the ethical systems so many of us take for granted. But with the suggestion of the chorus, there is certainly some call to join in, to “lament in advance,” and to build new ways of being together as the thresholds that we are, whether or not that brings us a sense of peace.


Mark Trecka is a Chicago-born writer, artist, and performer. His writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Beacon Press’s Broadside, Salon, The Creators Project, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Mark Trecka is a Chicago-born writer, artist, and performer. His writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Beacon Press’s Broadside blog, Salon, The Creators Project, and elsewhere. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.


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