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THE RADICAL EQUALITY OF LIVES

Judith Butler interviewed by Brandon M. Terry

JUDITH BUTLER IS arguably the most influential critical theorist of our era. Her early books, such as Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), anticipated a profound social and intellectual upheaval around sex, sexuality, gender norms, and power. Like many readers of my generation, I was introduced to Butler’s work just as these changes began to accelerate, and her ideas became part of mainstream discourse. In recent years, Butler has turned her insights about norms and exceptions, the psychic life of power, and the politics of resistance toward political ethics. In December Butler and I discussed her latest book, The Force of Nonviolence, which explores “nonviolence” as a project capable not simply of disclosing structural and repressive forms of violence, but also of productively channeling the tensions of social life away from retribution and resentment toward a radical and redemptive notion of equality.

brandon terry: You begin The Force of Nonviolence with a problem that hangs heavily over contemporary debates within social movements and in some corners of academia: How does an apparently moral argument about whether to be for or against violence quickly turn into a debate about how violence is defined and who is called “violent”? For example, activists in the Movement for Black Lives have described a wide range of social phenomena, from mass incarceration to dominant norms around gender and sexuality, as state violence. Their critics meanwhile have accused them of promoting or inciting violence, especially against police officers. And as you point out, these attributions have real consequences, as we can see with DeRay McKesson, the Black Lives Matter leader being sued by a police officer injured at a protest McKesson organized.

Some worry that the idea of violence today has become an unsustainable inflation of the concept that renders it incapable of doing the normative or analytical work that some activists and scholars are asking it to perform. They worry that without a clear and constrained definition of violence, one on which we could get some consensus, our uses of the term are going to lead our moral judgment astray. It will make public debate even more acrimonious. You seem to be skeptical about these criticisms, and you even charge them with a bit of political and critical naivete. How do you see the link between the ethical critique of violence and the interrogation of how and why we name certain practices or phenomena violent?

judith butler: The Force of Nonviolence is not primarily about violence, it’s about nonviolence, and whether it can still be defended, given all the realistic and strategic arguments against it. And yet, in order to make an argument for nonviolence, one needs to know what violence is; if the book’s general claim is that we ought to be refraining from violence, we still need to be able to identify violence. That’s where this complex question arises: How do we identify violence? What forms does violence take?

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About Boston Review

Anger looms large in our public lives. Should it? Reflecting on two millennia of debates about the value of anger, Agnes Callard contends that efforts to distinguish righteous forms of anger from unjust vengeance, or appropriate responses to wrongdoing from inappropriate ones, are misguided. What if, she asks, anger is not a bug of human life, but a feature—an emotion that, for all its troubling qualities, is an essential part of being a moral agent in an imperfect world? And if anger is both troubling and essential, what then do we do with the implications: that angry victims of injustice are themselves morally compromised, and that it might not be possible to respond rightly to being treated wrongly? As Callard concludes, “We can’t be good in a bad world.” The contributions that follow explore anger in its many forms—public and private, personal and political—raising an issue that we must grapple with: Does the vast well of public anger compromise us all? FORUM Lead essay by Agnes Callard. Responses by Paul Bloom, Elizabeth Bruenig, Desmond Jagmohan, Daryl Cameron & Victoria Spring, Myisha Cherry, Jesse Prinz, Rachel Achs, Barbara Herman, Oded Na’aman. Final response by Agnes Callard. ESSAYS Judith Butler interviewed by Brandon M. Terry, David Konstan, Martha C. Nussbaum, Whitney Phillips, Amy Olberding.