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Judith Butler has achieved a status that few other living academics have acquired: For each published work that she issues, reams of discussion and critique are produced in response, so much so that they have engendered microdisciplines in the many fields in which she is an expert: gender, politics, literary studies, and more. Her argument for gender as performative, which first gained attention through her 1990 book Gender Trouble, established her as a leading gender theorist before subsequent works directed greater focus toward the exercise of state power via, among others, rhetoric and violence.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Butler began working on a series of essays, later collected into Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), in which she elaborated her thesis on “grievability.” She argued that the loss of certain communities—generally First World, white, middle class, heterosexual—produces a national mourning that is recognized and amplified—in obituary pages, news channels, and public commemoration services. Others seen as weak or different (such as people with AIDS in the US and the Muslim casualties of Western coalition attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan), conversely, lack that grievable quality that is central to generating a sense of solidarity with those we do not know. The process, she wrote, works to exclude certain people from consideration as human: “They cannot be mourned because they are always already lost or, rather, never ‘were.’”
In February of this year, Butler published The Force of Nonviolence, which advances her argument for a nonviolent ethic to take hold through forms of solidarity that cut across lines of difference. Drawing on Michel Foucault, Frantz Fanon, and others, it examines violence in its many complex forms, encouraging recognition of the insidiousness of violent acts beyond “the blow”—those that are issued through, for instance, political, economic, or legal institutions. To respond, she argues, nonviolence must be understood not as passive but as an active politicoethical position, one that materializes through recognition of the interdependency of humans in forms of protest and acts of solidarity, which states often seek to undermine by reframing as violent.
Butler—who is the Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley—spoke to The Nation as the Covid-19 pandemic continued to reveal deep structural inequalities in many Western nations, bringing into sharper focus the words of the French philosopher Étienne Balibar, whose work she refers to in the book: “Our world is one marked by…the radical inequality of the forms and experiences of death itself.” The Trump administration’s response to the effects of the pandemic among low-income communities provided a lens through which to examine forms of nonphysical violence—in particular, those of neglect and discrimination—that Butler seeks to throw greater light on. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
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Francis Wade: There is, as your book argues, a clear problem with the tendency to view violence as a physical act, for it ignores the more institutional forms of violence playing out right now in the US and beyond. What would the adoption of a wider view allow us to see?
Judith Butler: A single act cannot stand for repeated patterns or for structural or institutional forms of violence. The physical blow is most graphic and imaginable, and when violence takes that form, it is easier to find and hold the person accountable for its delivery. Accountability becomes more complex and no less urgent when the person who strikes the blow claims to be following an unjust police or prison policy or acting in the name of national security. And it is complex in another way but still no less urgent if whole populations are “left to die,” as Foucault put. Farmworkers crammed into small housing spaces and deprived of medical care are exposed to serious illness and death under the present conditions of pandemic. Something quite similar could be said about the population of Gaza, where confinement is imposed by force and where a slow genocide may well take place.
In such cases, we also hold to account the state, the conditions of siege, carceral institutions, the policy-makers, and even the economic system that treats some workers as dispensable and replaceable. The way I see it, it is less a matter of who is a friend and who is an enemy but who counts as a life that matters and whose lives are regarded as dispensable. Prisons tend to keep those populations inside the nation but with a disenfranchised status, and in the US they are instruments for containing and suppressing black and brown lives to a disproportionate degree. With migrants, they are meant to be kept outside. But the border and its modes of indefinite detention are neither quite inside nor outside. That kind of threshold can be a special kind of hell.
FW: One the surface at least, the phrase “left to die” seems somewhat passive—a form of neglect. Members of black and/or poor communities in the US who are dying at a disproportionately higher rate from Covid-19 are experiencing the final result of, among many other things, neglect. Should neglect therefore be read as violence, the active rather than passive work of a state that prioritizes certain lives over others?
JB: As the pandemic became widely recognized, some policy-makers seeking to reopen the markets and recover productivity sought recourse to the idea of herd immunity, which presumes that those who are strong enough to endure the virus will develop immunity and they will come to constitute over time a strong population able to work. One can see how the herd immunity thesis works quite well with social Darwinism, the idea that societies tend to evolve in which the most fit survive and the least fit do not. Under conditions of pandemic, it is, of course, black and brown minorities who count as vulnerable or not destined to survive.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez remarked that being black is a “preexisting condition,” by which she clearly meant that black people in the US have been among those who have been disproportionately deprived of basic health care. The elderly also belong to this group who are most vulnerable (and the elderly black community, especially)—as do the poor, the disabled, the incarcerated, the homeless, the detained migrant, as well as all those with preexisting medical conditions whose social existence belongs to all or most of this list of categories. One could say that herd immunity does not contain in itself a death verdict, and yet its implementation would certainly lead to the increased isolation, unemployment, and ostracism of those considered to be most vulnerable—it also makes explicit assumptions about mortality rates linked with rates of productivity. These populations are considered as on their way to death anyway, not worth safeguarding, and a metric is implicitly or explicitly adopted that determines whose life is valuable and whose is not.
Any policy or institution that creates increased mortality rates for a group is engaged in a form of death dealing. When that group is black, it is a racist form of death dealing with clear links to other forms, including the carceral ones. Once the rationale for herd immunity is accepted by those who wish to open up industry and even universities, the assumption going forward is that the young and healthy will get sick and recover, increasing the number of people with antibodies [who will be] ready to work. What that rationale does not consider is that the worker or student in the prime of life without any medical issues will spread the virus, affecting people who belong to the vulnerable class. The result is that the vulnerable class is left to die by a policy that has decided in advance which lives are valuable—productive, useful—and which lives are dispensable. And the markets remain open through adopting an epidemiological strategy that brushes off social Darwinism for the present.
This is not an explicit death sentence of the kind that judges make. But death is a known and acceptable consequence of a policy that has the recovery of economic growth and profit as its explicit aim. I would not call this move passive. And it is something more than complicity with someone else’s violence. It is, rather, a eugenic calculation that depends on dispensable and replaceable workers to realize its aim of revitalizing a productive industry in the midst of pandemic. There is a good chance that it may become normalized in the course of restarting the economy.
FW: The act of deprioritizing vital services to already vulnerable communities is especially insidious because it begins in legitimate spheres—policy, legal, health, and so on. That makes it and the forces reproducing it harder to detect and therefore counteract.
JB: Recently an increasing number of articles have drawn attention to the structural racism that has produced disproportionate suffering in black communities in the US. Many reasons are given—redlining, poverty, access to health care, insurance and the kinds of jobs that provide insurance, and racist practices in testing and communication. The failure to collect racial data on who has been tested makes it harder to expose racist practices in health care. The formulation of racism given by Ruthie Gilmore has fresh relevance: “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
She was thinking about prisons, but it is also true about pandemics and especially true about the devastating loss of black and brown lives in prisons. It is tempting to hold accountable a single person for racism, but when racism is structural, it is always many people who are reproducing the structures. The failure to communicate information about the disease, to test adequately, especially in areas where many black people live, is a way of letting people get ill and letting them die. The failure to provide universal health care is also a way of potentially sacrificing all those who have no affordable access to health care. The opposition to universal health care is a tacit agreement to let people die, and to make distinctions between who can be more easily left to die than others. This calculation is both insidious and brutal in its racism.
FW: The state is ostensibly there to protect us from violence in its various forms. Yet in The Force of Nonviolence, your argument is that, by using semantic trickery, it reframes its own violence—in all its forms—against citizens or noncitizens as acts of safeguarding and thus shifts the violent narrative and perhaps a portion of public support in its favor. How does that aid its status as the sole legitimate guarantor of our safety?
JB: Of course, it all depends on what kind of state we are talking about. The notion that one of the key tasks of the modern state is to provide laws that settle conflicts that occur in prelegal settings is one that is regularly accepted within liberal political theoretical understandings, dating back at least to Hobbes. In that mode of thought, the state puts an end to “natural” violence by transforming violent conflict within the state of nature into juridical processes. That transition requires a story line from violence to law, and yet it cannot account for the violence of the law. State violence is very real, and legal regimes governed by racist aims—including laws, policing, and incarceration—can and do constitute forms of legal violence targeting minorities. So if those targeted by legal violence turn to the law to seek relief from violence, they find that the accused and the arbiter are the same. And that story follows a nightmarish circularity worthy of Kafka.
The semantic trickery to which you refer appears in its most obscene form in those trials or proceedings in which white policemen in the US explain why they killed, choked, or tortured a black person who was unarmed, constrained, or running away with their back to the police. Under what conditions can such a police officer claim to be exercising legitimate self-defense? If the police say that their use of force was legitimate (and hence not violence), they have to narrate a scene in which a blatant act of murder is understood as a necessary security precaution or an act of self-defense. That narration has to prove plausible in a court of law or before a review board. It does so under imaginary conditions in which blackness is always interpreted as potential or imminent violence. Those racist presuppositions run deep, and they facilitate accepting the wanton destruction of a life as justifiable.
The violence that the state inflicts against migrants at the border or that European states have inflicted against migrants at sea—very often letting them die rather than permitting them to enter the territory under international law—justifies itself by claiming that migrants are threats to the nation, sometimes figured as a violent threat, and that denying them their rights and, indeed, their lives, is a matter of national self-defense. All these examples point to the fact that both violence and self-defense have to be understood as legal terms used in specific fields of power to achieve certain clear aims. To criticize those strategic uses, we have to be able not only to define violence but also to situate the definitions we accept within a field of conflicting and contradictory usages.
FW: Before any progress can be made toward a less violent world, you argue, the emphasis that liberal thought places on individualism must be challenged. How does your argument apply to societies, historical or contemporary, in which liberal individualism isn’t perhaps as strong a force as communitarianism yet where violence is no less?
JB: The book makes two related arguments, one about individuals and another about groups. Both of these arguments are meant to highlight the problem of setting up exclusionary boundaries of selfhood. Nonviolence requires understanding a relational version of selfhood, one that seeks to sustain social bonds beyond communitarian and national limits. The critique of individualism reengages feminist critiques of liberal individualism, maintaining that forms of disavowed dependency prove to be essential components of masculine norms of self-sufficiency. Nonviolence demands that we understand relations to others as constituting who we are.
Individualism is based on the denial of that relationality. If we impose regional, national, religious, racial, gendered limits on the relations by which we are defined, we adhere to group identifications that reproduce the exclusionary logic that nonviolence opposes. It has to be the stranger—the one I have never known, the one who lives at a great distance from where I live, who speaks another language I do not know—to whom I have an ethical obligation. An understanding of global interdependency, manifest now in acute forms in the pandemic world, brings to the fore these kinds of global obligations. In my view, an ethics and politics of nonviolence must be global in character, recasting the border as a vexed but crucial site of relationality.
FW: But even in many advanced democracies, this idea of a self as fundamental to the good of a whole carries little weight. So if most, if not all, societies are in some way already conditioned against that notion of interdependence, what might it take for this kind of ethic to take hold?
JB: Of course, the highly bounded and exclusionary versions of selfhood pertain mainly to those parts of the West where markets are supported by liberal precepts. But something similar surely happens with groups that may well depend on individualism than on forms of group identity that are internally relational. In other words, a group may well conceive of itself as interdependent, but [it limits] the scope of that interdependency. Of course, in many religions we can find spiritual versions of interdependency. This breath is mine but also not my own, always drawing from the air, which is filled with the exhalations of absent and unknown others. The virus makes this truth clear in a potentially frightening way, but it is important to remember that it is an interrelationship that connects our bounded selves and proves them to be less bounded than those of us formed within individualism might believe. Life exceeds the person in forms of interdependency that we should all learn to affirm, even though that condition may well seem imperiling at the moment.
I am also mindful right now of many of the indigenous communities at risk of destruction in the Brazilian Amazon. The relation to land, to ancestors, to others, to the world makes reference to a bounded self, and that surely seems like a paradigmatic Western imposition. Indeed, the practice of deforestation is an attack on the community not only because it requires the forests to live but also because the forest belongs to an extended sense of selfhood and belonging. It would be important to understand food distribution, deforestation, and health care not only in light of the idea of global interdependency but also in relation to the rights of migrants to cross borders and petition for asylum or residency. For the most part, we have good reasons to understand dependency as a condition of exploitation, but it can, when recast as interdependency, become a global ethic and politics committed to social equality.