The Force of Nonviolence, COVID-19, and the Ambivalence of Interdependency

Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence could not have arrived at a more propitious time.  Not because this time is a particularly urgent one with regard to the claims made in the text. Rather, because all times would have been equally urgent: this is the theoretical call to non-arms we have needed to wrestle with a long time now.

The title of the book–the Force of Nonviolence–teases that a neat inversion of our sensibilities regarding violence will take place. But to no avail. Instead, in Butler fashion, the epistemological foundations of our very understandings of violence, of force, of nonviolence, of resistance, are pulverized. One core admonishment in the book is this: don’t dare to square off “violence” and “non-violence” as mere binary oppositions, one of which must be justified and the other eschewed, especially if you aim to do so from a moralistic perspective.

Recognizing the violence is in the eye of the (power) beholder, Butler instead makes three key claims: (1) there are two distinct bases for approaching the question of violence–independence versus interdependency; (2) it is a fool’s errand to wish away the aggressive and destructive impulses baked into our social bonds and thus we must wakefully, and ambivalently, learn to live with them rather than disavow them; and (3) for that reason, we must not rally around vulnerability as an admission of weakness and thus an occasion for protection but rather as an illumination of persistence and thus an invitation to imagine different conditions of livability.

Throughout these claims, Butler weaves a defense of radical equality insistent on the equal grievability of lives–that all lives should be worthy of mourning and grief if they were to be lost, and not just in the abstract but as materialized in the social structures that sustain life (including non-human life). And she is resistant throughout the book of the quick-fix approaches that undergird war logics themselves, instead opting for the unfinished, the equivocal, the irresolute as the site of sustainable social engagement and defendable, if frustratingly so, programs of equality. This is where, in her analysis, comes the “force” of nonviolence as an always unfinished ethics.

Though a theoretical treatise, Butler herself provides enough material to straightforwardly relate the book’s insights to migration, terrorism, feminicide, transphobia, police violence, and other sites at which the unequal grievability of lives is acute and appalling.

Her insights are also playing out in real-time as we struggle, or not, with not just the reality of COVID-19 but also the ethics of acting given that we know so little about it. Much of the response to COVID-19 as depended on our recognition of our interdependence–and in a country so divided by politics and power, this is a big ask. I wonder, then, how much of the hesitancy in taking “drastic” measures (or even a willingness to call out certain measures as “drastic”) is also an acknowledgment of our ambivalence about our interdependency in a country so divided, and how much reluctance to act out “drastic” measures roots itself in an antipathy toward institutionalizing interdependency as a logic of governance. After all, the insistence that this is not “my” (read: youngish, healthy, health insured) problem attempts to divide and conquer a disease that does not care about our social categories, our political differences, our fantasies of invulnerability. Of course, lives will not be equally impacted by the virus (they won’t, for a variety of factors at the fusion of the social and the biological), but that does not solve the ethical question of whether to double down on individualism or advance a vision of interdependency that dispels with the notions of “my versus your” problem (while also, as Butler insists, embracing the uneasy ambivalence that that necessarily implies). Sociologist Patrick Sharkey sums this up well:

To raise his questions in Butler’s terms, has interdependency exited the realm of the abject for those of us in the US? COVID-19 will tell us a lot in this regard.

For now, I’ll end with this alternative vision from Butler, one that is thoroughly, and uneasily, ambivalent.

The “unrealism” of such an imaginary [of nonviolence] is its strength. It is not just that in such a world, each life would deserve to be treated as the other’s equal, or that each would have an equal right to live and to flourish–although certainly both of those possibilities are to be affirmed. A further step is required: “each” is, from the start, given over to another, social, dependent, but without the proper resources to know whether this dependency that is required for life is exploitation or love.

With COVID-19 and many other social problems and policies, we cannot know. And yet, we still–by omission or commission–find ourselves compelled to act, to accept, to resist. The radical invitation Butler provides is to approach the “not knowing” not as an unfortunate condition to be exterminated and expelled but as a productive, generative space in which we can live out the exhilarating, if frustrating, condition of human lives deemed equally valuable and equally grievable.

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