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  • Nonviolence Both as an Ethical Obligation and a "Realistic" Practice Against Hegemony:Critical Review of Butler
  • Dersu Ekim Tanca, Graduate Teaching Assistant (bio)
Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (Verso, 2020), ISBN 9781788732765, 209 pages.

The use of violence or nonviolence has been generally debated vis-à-vis its strategic usage in achieving targeted goals in social movements and political theory, which largely neglects its ethical and normative dimensions. [End Page 980] While counter-violence is adopted as a form of resistance in some circles of the political left, nonviolence as an ethical position is either regarded as a naïve or an unrealistic practice against subjugation and hegemony. In her book, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind, Judith Butler suggests otherwise, favoring the pursuit of nonviolence as an ongoing struggle for social equality and interdependency. Nonviolence has usually been considered as a passive practice or a nonaggressive apolitical activity. For Butler, who is known for her emphasis on performativity in political action, nonviolence should not be embraced solely for its ethical considerations. An aggressive form of nonviolence, for her, is both an assertion of radical egalitarianism and a powerful technique of resistance to challenge inequality and ensure solidarity. Butler's work offers substantial theoretical justification that underpins the political character of nonviolence and connects such practices with varied political narratives; yet, her book falls short of providing new perspectives for social action and fails to offer specific performativity practices for the contentious character of the contemporary social movements.

Rather than adopting a fixed definition of violence, Butler stresses how violence has been interpreted differently through discursive, social, and state-centric perceptions and opens up space for performative and phantasmic characters. For Butler, the argument of self-defense and self-preservation, which has been regarded as a conventional justification for the violence/counter-violence, has two significant shortcomings: While such rationale presumes a circular and continual nature of violence, insinuating inevitability; the notion of self-defense may address, and therefore legitimize various embodiments of the "self," including one's culture, nation, regime, or even whiteness.1 Butler's active and assertive nonviolence entails a radical critique of individuality, the presumption of the equal worth of lives, and equal grievability. The strength of nonviolence should be evaluated beyond the instrumental framework and has the potentials to celebrate life and livability as a way to practice resistance in our broader social world. Butler associates her version of nonviolence with a critique of individualism and underlines the theoretical pitfalls of violence but leaves discussions on the current practices of nonviolence unaddressed. Based mainly on states' reaction towards nonviolent acts, like sentencing "Academics for Peace" signatories of scholars, held in indefinite detention in Turkey, Butler does not mention any potential for a related resistance against power structures.

In defense of the force of nonviolence as a sustained commitment to creating social bonds, Butler centers the aggression as a form of practice for the demand for new social equality. For her, contractual political philosophers, dating back to Thomas Hobbes, legitimize or presuppose violence at false premises: First, the portrayal of the state of nature and the perception of men with selfish-aims and saturated self-love have always been considered in a certain way.2 This only serves to legitimize the argument for sovereignty and the use of violence. Second, such narratives are not only based on Carole Pateman's The Sexual Contract, but also depict an unreal, fiction, adult "man" without any dependency.3 [End Page 981] Deviating from presumptive individualism, militant pacifism reminds us of our dependencies and, therefore, reinforces our global obligations, from migrants to women and from the struggle against racism to queer-phobia. For Butler, regarding interdependency as a condition for equality is imperative to live together and maintain social solidarity. Revoking Michel Foucault's biopower, Butler argues that the exceptions to killing begin with group identifications, war logic and by distinguishing deaths as grievable or ungrievable.4 In contrast, Butler believes in the radical equality of lives, and therefore, opposes any biopolitical forms and supports the right to persist as a social right and as an open-ended struggle for nonviolence.

The distinction which...


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pp. 980-986
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