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Judith Butler on the blurry line of violence

A year since my first interview with her appeared in Guernica, The Immanent Frame asked me to have another exchange with the feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Once again, we talked about violence, nonviolent resistance, power, and the problem of Israel-Palestine. This time, though, the backdrop was different: the Arab Spring, or the Middle East uprisings, or whatever we’re to call it (or them). On the one hand, there was the successful, largely-nonviolent movement in Egypt that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power after weeks of patient protests. On the other, there’s Libya, where the US and its coalition have joined a so-far intransigent firefight against Muammar el-Qaddafi.

In this interview, Butler stressed a theme that is actually the starting point for the discussion of nonviolence in her recent book Frames of War: the co-implication of violence and nonviolence, where neither can quite escape the other. I pushed back a bit, and so did she.

NS: Do these popular uprisings affect how we should think about power and sovereignty, as armed dictators are being coerced by nonviolent movements?

JB: I understand the desire to come up with theoretical generalizations. I spend a good deal of my time doing precisely that. But even though nonviolent practices have been important in some of these uprisings, we are also seeing new ways of interpreting nonviolence, and new ways of justifying violence when protestors are under attack from the military. The events in Libya are clearly violent, and so I think we are probably left with new quandaries about whether the line between violent and nonviolent resistance ever can be absolutely clear.

NS: Where in particular do you see that line blurring?

JB: We have to be careful to distinguish between nonviolence as a moral position that applies to all individuals and groups, and nonviolence as a political option that articulates a certain refusal to be intimidated or coerced. These are very different discourses, since most of the moral positions tend to eliminate all reference to power, and the political ones tend to affirm nonviolence as a mode of resistance but leave open the possibility that it might have to be exchanged for a more overtly aggressive one. I am not sure we can ever evacuate the political frame. Moreover, it is important to think about how one understands violence. If one puts one’s body on the line, in the way of a truck or a tank, is one not entering into a violent encounter? This is different from waging a unilateral attack or even starting a violent series, but I am not sure that it is outside the orbit of violence altogether.

NS: President Obama sometimes seems to be policing that distinction in his rhetoric about these uprisings: demanding that protesters and regimes both remain nonviolent, and then bringing U.S. military force to bear in Libya when the state turns to military force. But I would think the difference between how the movements in Egypt and Libya have progressed actually reaffirms that the line between violence and nonviolence is a useful one.

JB: Well, it is interesting that the U.S. affirms that the anti-government forces in Libya are resistance fighters and seeks to provide aerial bombing support to their forces on the ground. So it seems that even liberal public discourse makes room for justified armed resistance. What is most interesting is to figure out when certain forms of violence are considered part of an admirable struggle for freedom, and when, on the contrary, violence is understood as the terrorist activities of non-state actors. Do you have an answer to that?

NS: I certainly can’t think of a consistent rule that would apply to all cases, and probably for good reason. The case of Israel-Palestine comes to mind.

JB: Indeed, it does.

Read the rest at The Immanent Frame.