The Virtue in Violence

By Faisal DevjiJuly 17, 2020

The Virtue in Violence

The Force of Nonviolence by Judith Butler

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NONVIOLENCE, CLAIMS JUDITH BUTLER, echoing the views of virtually all its theorists and practitioners, is neither a virtue born out of weakness nor an unrealistic ideal, but something that exists even in the exertion of force. As M. K. Gandhi put it in his commentary on the Mahabharata, evil depends on goodness, since even an army deployed for the most sinister purpose must rely upon the courage, friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice of its troops for one another more than on the war’s ostensible cause. Violence, then, arises from evil’s failure to master its own instruments, and therefore from virtue itself, which must withdraw from evil to enable its collapse in a process the Mahatma called “noncooperation.” Butler’s book addresses the problem posed by the intertwined character of violence and nonviolence.

For Butler, however, violence is linked to nonviolence by the fact that they must both deploy force, which therefore needs to be appropriated in such a way as to ensure its dedication to nonviolence defined by a focus on the equality or “grievability” of all lives. The importance of force as a morally ambiguous category is clear both from the way it appears as a paradox in her book’s title, The Force of Nonviolence, as well as in Butler’s references to Jacques Derrida’s essay on Walter Benjamin, “Force of Law,” and, indeed, the latter’s own essay on the “Critique of Violence,” to which this in turn refers. But the genealogy produced by this predictable play of cross-references, nicely described by the English phrase “going up one’s own arse,” should give us pause for thought. Why must it be force that joins violence to nonviolence?

An essay Butler does not cite is Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force.” In it, Weil argues that force, which she uses as another word for violence, turns its victim into a thing frozen by fear, undone by humiliation, or dehumanized in death. But force also turns its perpetrator into a thing made inhuman by refusing to recognize the humanity of others. Like the touch of Midas, therefore, which by transforming everything into gold ends up destroying its own eager beneficiary in the process, the ambiguity of force is defined by the inner contradiction of its own desire. But this does not make it a participant in the work of nonviolence, for which Butler wants to enlist force in order to give it some political teeth in the struggle for justice.

Gandhi, by contrast, saw nonviolence in practices like withdrawal and noncooperation, acts as well as terms that were negative in form, which is to say dependent on their opposites, and so lacking any positive reality of their own. Surprisingly, Butler does not consider the negative form nonviolence takes even as a name, whose refusal of autonomy and independence, perhaps even of being itself, meant that it could neither be described as a force in Butler’s sense nor derived from one. Indeed, the fact that nonviolence relied even as a grammatical form on its opposite suggested to the Mahatma that, while it was capable of transmuting violence by the sacrificial practice of withdrawal or noncooperation to the point of death, it could never eradicate the latter as a positive force defining all life.

Violence for Gandhi was linked to nonviolence not as the fatal necessity of Butler’s vision but in a relationship that allowed one to be converted into the other instead of each remaining a radically separate and so unchanging entity. This conversion was made possible, moreover, not by the moral deployment of force as with Butler, but rather by its abandonment. This is why the Mahatma, like Tolstoy, understood nonviolent practices as being invariably sacrificial, and so renunciatory in nature, which did not mean that they were in any way passive or weak. This conclusion surely follows from Butler’s otherwise very Gandhian recognition that nonviolence cannot be part of some moral calculus, but must be a pure means that, by abandoning all ends, seeks to prevent the reproduction of violence as a form of instrumentality.

Relying upon an argument of the social contract theorists, among whom she cites Rousseau, Butler maintains that the mutual dependence of human beings on each other produces nonviolence as a necessity. Its betrayal results from the delusion of individual autonomy, whose psychic mechanism she traces to the “mirror stage,” made famous by Jacques Lacan. Butler explores this dependency and its repudiation in the work of Melanie Klein, while the intertwined relations of violence and nonviolence that result from its psychic economy are examined in Sigmund Freud’s theory of drives. By individualizing such relations in biographical terms, however, she turns them into the indirect causes or effects of social life. Gandhi had sought to do the opposite, by playing out the relationship of violence and nonviolence in social and political terms.

As the most celebrated thinker and practitioner of nonviolence, the Mahatma’s name is indelibly associated with this idea, whose short history has been dominated by non-Western or minoritized figures and struggles. These are notable by their absence from Butler’s book, which relies on a small number of familiar European authorities instead. The casual manner in which she dismisses those outside this canon can be gauged from the careful way Butler cites Benjamin’s essay in English as well as the original German, whereas her few mentions of Gandhi are drawn either from a secondary source or a collection of his excerpted works. Martin Luther King Jr., meanwhile, is confined to an epigraph and a footnote. Nelson Mandela, to say nothing of Tolstoy, is altogether ignored.

This is not a question of minority representation, as these obscured figures were at the forefront of developing nonviolence as a name as much as a practice. And it is Butler’s refusal to take them seriously that has resulted in her repeating many of their arguments without either attribution or engagement, while at the same time ignoring others. It is I who have had to put her in conversation with Gandhi on the ambiguous relations between violence and nonviolence in the paragraphs above. Yet Butler is always ready to acknowledge European authorities even for trite statements like, “The state monopolizes violence by calling its critics ‘violent’: we know this from Max Weber, Antonio Gramsci, and from Benjamin.” A lengthy footnote is appended even to this banality.

Having lifted the idea of nonviolence from its own history, Butler impoverishes it in various ways. One of these is by ignoring what I have described as Gandhi’s understanding of nonviolence in terms of negation and even nonbeing. Another is to understand the relationship of violence and nonviolence as that between death and life. Doesn’t this reinstate both terms as alternative rather than interdependent realities, one negative and the other positive? Butler’s notion of “grievability,” where each life is given value from the perspective of its potential ending, is the closest she comes to recognizing the interdependence of life and death. Perhaps she follows that line of thinking from Hegel to Heidegger, in which it is the consciousness of one’s own death that makes one human.

Yet “grievability,” as the prospective consciousness of another’s death rather than one’s own, ends up becoming little more than a morbid vision of equality. Its most powerful example, in fact, might be the one offered not so long ago by Osama bin Laden when he argued that terrorist killings were necessary in order to address the unequal valuing of lives by an equalization of death that forced a recognition of human interdependency. Gandhi, for his part, neither saw life and death as alternatives nor identified them with nonviolence and violence. In a conversation he had in 1937 with Roland von Strunk, Hitler’s henchman in charge of supplying the fascists with arms during the Spanish Civil War, the Mahatma questioned precisely the value his interlocutor placed on life.

Von Strunk had come to see Gandhi because, as a good fascist, he was interested in issues of diet, health, and the enhancement of life. Upbraiding him about Germany’s antisemitism, itself justified for the protection of Aryan life, the Mahatma went on to dismiss his professed concern about the lives lost in Spain by saying that the problem of violence lay elsewhere. The ability of Europeans to recklessly throw their lives away in war, said Gandhi, was admirable because it showed that such forms of sacrifice remained possible even when their motives were wrong. It was not from the ability to die that violence emerged, but out of the desire for life. Made into the ultimate value only in modern times, life defined as the most fundamental of human rights could only result in more death.

On the one hand, suggested the Mahatma, medical research in the cause of prolonging human life depended upon the destruction of subhuman life; on the other, it was the value placed on one’s own life that justified the deaths of others. Only by displacing life as the ultimate value defining humanity might it paradoxically be protected, if only in the acceptance of voluntary death as a duty of greater value. It was not enough, in other words, to define life as a human right, which would, as Carl Schmitt might have said, end up dehumanizing one’s enemies. Instead, it was crucial to make life into a negative form, like nonviolence itself, and not least for its own sake. For Gandhi, life and death might constitute the subjects of nonviolence but could not define its purpose, which was truth.

Butler’s inability to move her analysis beyond life as an ultimate value ensures that she is trapped in what Michel Foucault would call the language of biopolitics. She is left trying to divide one kind of life force from another in an impossible task. Her description of how the violence of the ego, in Freud’s account, is surmounted by the superego in another kind of violence, against which Butler offers mania as a kind of tragic escape, provides a good example of this failure (which she calls an “ethico-political bind”). The political outcomes Butler wants to ensure by the appropriation of force at the beginning of her argument are vitiated by the argument’s inability to free itself from violence at the end. Is this the conclusion to which Butler’s brilliantly original and career-long focus on bodies has finally driven her?


Faisal Devji is a professor of Indian history and fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.

LARB Contributor

Faisal Devji is professor of Indian History and fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (Harvard University Press, 2012) and Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Harvard University Press, 2013).


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