Book review: The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political

Judith Butler. New York: Verso, 2020; pp. ix – 209. $26.95 cloth. ISBN: 9781788732765

In its shift away from traditional approaches to security studies that implied work done through the frame of war and a state-centric approach, debates regarding the discursive and theoretical implications of the concepts, grammars, methodologies, and schools that traditionally upheld the architectonics of critical security studies have dominated recent scholarship in the field. To paraphrase Columba Peoples and Nick Vaughan-Williams, as the field has broadened and deepened its agenda, studying security’s relationship to the environment, the economy, and the socio-political sphere, while also incorporating new referent objects (e.g., institutions, human individuals, and the biosphere), “what is common” across contemporary critical security studies scholarship

“is an insistence on the important of paying close attention to the ways in which the discourse of pre/post 9/11 world works politically in order to justify particular policies and interests” (p. 9).

In her most recent book-length project, The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political, Judith Butler takes back up the argument concerning non-violence’s semantic and pragmatic ambiguity that she began in Frames of War, arguing that discourses concerning violence (by way of defining violence and/or using violence) often do work politically and affectively to justify particular policies and interests. As a text that carefully explores some of the field’s most important vocabulary – i.e., violence and non-violence – this manuscript compliments Butler’s continued significance to critical security studies, adding novel utility to concepts like grievability, performativity, and vulnerability that have helped shape the form and arc of contemporary scholarship in security studies writ large. 

”This book is especially a call to ask oneself not whether nonviolence and resistance are necessary, but how and where one should resist in order to save lives”

Tracing the double-helix of critiquing violence and doing violence, in The Force of Nonviolence Butler argues against the false binaries often erected between aggressive action (violence) and passive paralysis (nonviolence). Such binaries empty nonviolence of any agency and are a byproduct of powers taking advantage of the dialectical movement of violence and language through time, a play at turning resistance to constructed explanations of what is right and what is violent into acquiescence at best and execution at worst. Butler’s thesis in this project is that “the power of nonviolence, its force, is found in the modes of resistance to a form of violence that regularly hides its true name” (p. 201). Nonviolence, in other words, is not the absence of violence, and it does not “necessarily emerge from a pacific or calm part of the soul” (p. 21). Instead, it is less a “moral position” than a “social and political practice undertaken in concert” with others, a rhetorical and material (re)action which exposes and resists the infrastructures of “justified” violence, infrastructures that take advantage of the obfuscating nature of beginnings and ends, bringing into the light those bodies, the ungrievable, the marginalized, that, by their very negation, are condemned to subtend what Butler calls war logics of individuality, sovereignty, and rule of law – logics, in other words, that emphasize self-sufficiency and the kill-or-be-killed ethos so popular in traditional security studies and the West. 

Over the course of an introduction, four chapters, and a postscript, Butler moves from diagnosing violence and nonviolence as always oscillating between conflicting political frameworks, to arguing that a critique of subjectivity and individuality is necessary to dispel the narrative fantasies that are used to justify such frameworks, to finally an appeal to recalibrate nonviolence as a style of exposure and critique that reveals systems of violence and oppression rather than just condemning individual acts of aggression and erasure. As Butler emphasizes in the “Post-Script,” “whether we are caught up in rage or love” (p. 204) both of which are drives that can be used to subvert or reify frameworks that detain, incarcerate, expel, and execute living bodies, a commitment to nonviolence is not a disavowal of violence’s negating capability, but a way of using violence’s negation against those structures that use violence to negate other lives in the name of conquest, material and surplus accumulation, and Othering. Nonviolence is indeed a force, then, not a rejection of action but a style of engagement with the negating power of violence itself. 

”In a year of political uncertainty and pandemic, with questions asking after what is to be done, Butler’s work in The Force of Nonviolence is particularly appropriate for our moment in time”

Reading The Force of Nonviolence entails an encounter with the concept of violence at two levels. On the one hand, Butler seems to argue that the ontology of violence, like the ontology of language, seems premised on the negative, a negating of this not that, which is inescapable insofar as the capacity to negate establishes the conditions for life’s diversity and evolution and language’s grammar and capacity for definition. This is to say that the potential to call something violent (that is, do violence) and so to negate it, is endemic to the process of living and being. On the other hand, Butler argues that a particular enactment of this ontological negation can be (un)consciously weaponized by systems, like governments, in order to intentionally 1) convince people that there are others who violently threaten the “safety” and “security” of “law and order,” and that 2) these others deserve to be killed with impunity and without recognition of loss (sans grievability). In my reading, it’s the “conscious weaponization” of negation-as-violence that Butler wants to grapple with at the discursive level of interplay between the individual and the social, while recognizing the indelibility of the ontology of negation, suggesting nonviolence as a way to reroute the (un)conscious weaponization of negation away from death and destruction motivated by racism, sexism, and so on, and toward efforts to dismantle the infrastructures of those same life-negating -isms (in addition to the already mentioned: militarism, nationalism, positivism, realism, liberalism, and so on) that do unnecessary harm to demographics singled out because of how Western narratives of colonization and imperialism, tied up with state-sovereignty and militarism, have depicted such groups as expendable, less-than-human, even a threat to humanism as a concept and a practice.  

Judith Butler’s book will be useful to those scholars interested in violence and non-violence in general, but also will aid those interested in post-positivism’s and critical constructivism’s influence on the field of critical security studies, particularly with how the rhetoric of violence and the violence of rhetoric found at the hinge between traditional and critical security studies often establish a parallax that confuses the difference between the two lines of inquiry, perhaps especially in contemporary critical security scholarship. For a broader audience, academic and otherwise, I recommend this text for its careful analysis of the terms – violence, racism, law – we find used, explicitly and implicitly, in every policy-building situation, politically, militarily, and otherwise. This book is especially a call to ask oneself not whether nonviolence and resistance are necessary, but how and where one should resist in order to save lives, including, Butler would say, your own. In a year of political uncertainty and pandemic, with questions asking after what is to be done, Butler’s work in The Force of Nonviolence is particularly appropriate for our moment in time – a time of grief, a time of loss, a time pregnant with the potential for radical, non-violent change. 


Butler, Judith. (2020) The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political. New York: Verso.

Peoples, Columba, and Nick Vaughan-Williams. (2014). Critical Security Studies: An      Introduction. London: Routledge. 

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