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Judith Butler’s nonviolence, a reprise

After they saw my previous post here on Judith Butler’s Frames of War, the folks over at Guernica magazine asked me if I would interview Butler about the book. I would, and we did, so now you can read our conversation about the politics of grief, the prospects of nonviolence, and the uses of philosophy. Here’s a sampling:

Guernica: Your account of nonviolence revolves around recognizing sociality and interconnection as well. Does it also rely on the kind of inner spiritual work that was so important, for instance, to Gandhi?

Judith Butler: I am not sure that the work is “inner” in the way that Gandhi described. But I do think that one has to remain vigilant in relation to one’s own aggression, to craft and direct it in ways that are effective. This work on the self, though, takes place through certain practices, and by noticing where one is, how angry one is, and even comporting oneself differently over time. I think this has to be a social practice, one that we undertake with others. That support and solidarity are crucial to maintaining it. Otherwise, we think we should become heroic individuals, and that takes us away from effective collective action.

Guernica: What can philosophy, which so often looks like a kind of solitary heroism, offer against the military-industrial complexes and the cowboy self-image that keep driving us into wars? At what register can philosophy make a difference?

Judith Butler: Let’s remember that the so-called military-industrial complex has a philosophy, even if it is not readily published in journals. The contemporary cowboy also has, or exemplifies, a certain philosophical vision of power, masculinity, impermeability, and domination. So the question is how philosophy takes form as an embodied practice. Any action that is driven by principles, norms, or ideals is philosophically informed. So we might consider: what practices embody interdependency and equality in ways that might mitigate the practice of war waging? My wager is that there are many.

I think it’s very encouraging to see a major, mainstream contemporary philosopher like Butler taking up the language and objectives of nonviolence—and all the better that she does so critically, rather than the simple lip-service that we often hear. She treads cautiously around the Gandhian approach, questioning its assumptions and its spiritual proclivities, but that’s exactly what we need at a time when old thinking isn’t doing enough to inspire the current generation of activists. The point is, she insists on resistance, and she insists that doing it with violence won’t do any good.