Wade, F. “Judith Butler on the Violence of Neglect Amid a Health Crisis. A conversation with the theorist about her new book, The Force of Nonviolence, and the need for global solidarity in the pandemic World.” The Nation May 13 (2020).
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.
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.