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Judith Butler on precarity, vulnerability, embodiment, and resistance


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The LA Review of Books has published a wide-ranging interview with Judith Butler where she discusses public assembly, precarity, and nonviolence:

In the last year I’ve been particularly interested in demonstrations against precarity, or sometimes in the European context, demonstrations against austerity, which obviously reference fiscal policies that produce rather stark economic consequences for a vast number of people. In general the right of public assembly has been with us for some time, I think originally posited as a right on the part of laborers to assemble and decide whether or not they wanted to be part of a union, or to negotiate their wages. That right of assembly has often been understood as an abstract right, without thinking about the fact that it requires bodies to come together, and it’s a right that presupposes mobility, the freedom to gather and the freedom to speak. Rights of assembly struck me as different from rights of association or rights of free expression. They fundamentally involve the body in a collective, embodied set of acts …

When people are demonstrating about precarity, for instance, it’s not just that they get up and say, “We’re against precarity.” They are also embodied creatures in public space who are calling attention to the embodied character of their lives: this is a body that doesn’t have shelter, or this is a body that deserves shelter, or this is a body that ought not to be hungry, or this is a body that ought to have some sense of future, about its work or possibilities for flourishing. In other words, the body is not just a vehicle for the expression of a political view, but it’s the common corporeal predicament of those who need to be supported by proper infrastructure or social services, proper economic conditions and prospects. So that struck me as another way of making this point, and one that, I guess, for obvious reasons, is as important to me as it is to many other people at this point…

I myself defend a principled account of nonviolence. It’s not easy to do, especially in light of the kinds of challenges people present to me, but I think the world would be a poorer world if no one were defending nonviolence. It’s not for that reason alone that I defend nonviolence, but I do think that it’s important to think about what the justifications for violence are, and what kinds of contradictions they entail. What interests me in part is how nonviolent action is sometimes called violent, and even Benjamin in that essay sometimes seems to be naming what is violent and what is nonviolent. If you look closely you see that within the perspective of a certain legal regime, any challenge to the legal regime is called violent. And what’s being opposed in naming a resistance to the legal regime as a violent one is the loss of the monopoly on violence that the state has. In fact, many nonviolence resistance movements are called violent, not because they use force or even have violent aims, but because their effects, say their delegitimating effects, are understood to be destructive in some more amorphous sense.

You can find the full interview, in both written and video form, here.