Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Ghetto of Nonviolence

Karen comments on a previous post that nonviolence as a topic is in a "ghetto" in the academy. Anyone have any thoughts on this? I'm keen to see the lie of the land as I proceed to think about that keynote.


zareen said...

I couldn't tell you exactly why this is, or point to any literature discussing it. However, I have experienced pretty sharply the 'ghetto' of nonviolence, even in places where it seems like it should be welcome (for instance, among vegan critical animal theorists).

My impression is that it is largely an assumed attitude. When I asked about it, all the replies I received were more or less some variation of the following:
1) "Nonviolence doesn't work."
2) "Nonviolence is stupid."
3) "Violence is unavoidable."
I will not hesitate to add that none of these positions were well supported, and they were typically formulated in an abusive manner.

The best reasoning I have heard is along the lines of the first position. It stated that nonviolence does not work because it serves the interests of the ruling classes. I presume this would be because it is assumed that nonviolence fails to disturb hegemonic relations in a meaningful way, but this wasn't stated explicitly. (Truly, this is a generous reading of what was said to me. In reality, it went something more like: "Nonviolence? You're making things worse, you useless bourgeoisie fuck!" No, really.) The question, then, is obviously: why think nonviolence necessarily fails to disturb hegemony? Aren't there obvious examples where it did? If the advocate for violence thinks these examples failed to disturb hegemony, I believe the burden of proof is on them to show how, since we would be discussing relatively noncontroversial examples of successful nonviolence.

The third position is just sad, of course. Often, the people who went this route would admit that nonviolence is perhaps ideal, but that it is impossible. One such person couched this as a Spinozist ethical position---"Do what works"---as though this would proscriptively require the killing of some government official if that one death could avert some other tragedy or social ill.

All of these viewpoints seem to hold in common an impoverished conception of compassion as a vehicle for social and political change. This is confusing, since compassion seems to be a positive and fruit-bearing approach, whereas violence as a revolutionary force must always be reactionary, or at least retributive. Lex talionis does not strike most people as an effective ethical principle, so why found a politics on such slippery sands?

Summary: Nonviolence is awesome.

Thomas Gokey said...

I've wondered for years now why most continental philosophers just ignore Gandhi and his legacy.

In my view Gandhi is the greatest 20th century philosopher (or 19th cent. if we want to put him there). His philosophy was less like the kind of things that academic philosophers do, but compare him to the ancient philosophers (eastern, Roman or Greek) and he fits right in.

I maintain that no one probed more deeply the question of what it meant to be alive and how one should live than Gandhi. And his ideas are actually threatening!

Within the continental tradition it's just expected that you're supposed to figure out what you think about figures like Kant, Hegel, Marx, etc. I'd love for Gandhi to be on that list. Eventually every philosopher worth their salt is going to have to wrestle with Gandhi.

In the spirit of trying to pressure people into taking this stuff seriously I think you should write a book on non-violence.

karen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karen said...

Cast to the margins, poor and counter hegemonic, nonviolence is given scant attention in any academic context. Much like anarchism, it is placed on the lunatic fringe, an impossible utopia OR it is some kind of afterthought. I have been teaching both ideas in history and political theory at University for a number of years and despite my constant attempts to have nonviolence and anarchism written into the subjects they are not. It has been up to me to bring them in,often the amusement of students.

It is clear that both of these bodies of thought are dynamic and that they are supported at least in theory by large majorities everywhere.

Perhaps one of the reasons the University system survives as some kind of weird feudal system overlaid with corporatism is that it has managed to keep marginalising those ideas and practices that are most threatening. Those who have a something to gain by maintaining the current systems will not push for the full disclosure of and attention to nonviolence and non violent action.

As far as I know there is not much specific literature that discusses this explicitly in relation to the academy. There are some links on my blog to Brian Martin an Australian academic and activist who has worked fearlessly against the grain.

For an interesting look at contemporary debates see where Simon Critchley entertains violent thoughts about Slavoj Zizek.

Could there be a violent nonviolence and how would this work? Is democratic violence the answer to this?

It comes as no surprise that the richest history of theorising and practicing nonviolence emerges in both religiosity and anarchism.

These are conversations that need urgent attention across disciplines. Nonviolence has many enemies and they wont tell you the truth about it, to echo Berkman's thoughts on anarchism.

AnaLouise said...

It depends on which part of academia you're exploring. Some women of color theorists, like Leela Fernandes and Gloria Anzaldua, do address issues of nonviolence. Academics thrive on oppositional discourse which could itself be viewed as a type of violence.

karen said...

I am not suggesting there is no attention to nonviolence in academia. Clearly the feminist slogan take the toys away from the boys might still be very relevant and comes out both activist and feminist conversations.

Women have also contested the consent theory of power that is often used in nonviolence and nva.

If academics thrive on oppositional discourses then Bruno Latour may be right when he suggests that critique has had its day? And as you say this addiction to oppositional discourses may itself be a type of violence. Do you think it is?

Thanks for entering the conversation on nonviolence.

My thoughts are that it needs much more attention. Feminists of all shades and queer theorists have and are doing a lot to break through or wither away oppositional and binary ways of thinking. Tim sets a great example in his queer ecology essay. This kind of thinking, actually interdisciplinary rather than just a call for it, is ripe for an explicit injection of nonviolence and nonviolent action.

zareen said...

Comment repost with some further thoughts here:

karen said...

Zachary. I think you are right, obsfucating and deferring to metaphor gets us nowhere in terms of challenging violence. I make no defense of these positions.

In the context of this conversation I simply hoped to bring to light the links between the culture of violence that is endemic to contemporary society (omnicide) and the role of the University system in general in maintaining this.

Of course AnaLouise and any one else jumping up and down there are always exceptions.

People, thinkers, who go out of there way to teach in what is omitted or obscured, sidelined and marginalised.

I love Tim's work and have found it incredibly inspiring. I would also love to see him take a more explicit position on nonviolence and nonviolent action.Perhaps this is coming in Budhaphobia.

The obliteration of meaning you speak about on your blog, might be a form of fear and nonviolence practitioners and thinkers have long noted it is freedom from fear that is essential to nonviolence in practice.

zareen said...

Mmm, fear. "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." (Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Dune) The problem remaining here, I think, is the "I". Clinging to ego, which is the real source of fear. Absence of clinging will take us far.

I'm glad to be on the same page regarding metaphor and overgeneralization of the concept of violence. As for the role of the University system (and probably the system of capitalism in general), I hoped that my comments on inarticulateness approached something like a useful discussion of how this role functions.

zareen said...

Some further thoughts, for those who are interested: