Must all movements re-assemble the square?

In a recent article titled “Protest, Violent and Nonviolent,” Judith Butler restates the gist of the argument from her recent book, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly.

In her view, protests are “a way of voting on and with the streets,” an assertion of the unrepresented or disenfranchised whom “the electoral count has failed.” Yet their overriding goal nevertheless remains, according to Butler, to rally the ‘we’ of “the people” “within the sphere of politics that can activate the true majority to drive Trump and his crew out of office.” She states that “[f]or those who no longer feel represented by politics, or never did, and especially for those forcibly barred from participation, there is profound hopelessness and outrage, and understandably so.” She suggests this ought to be addressed.

But, “[t]he task,” as she sees it, “remains to rally the “we” with the power and desire to build the just and livable world,” “within the sphere of politics.”

At first glance, it is difficult to reconcile the tenor of this piece with that of an interview which Butler did in the immediate wake of the election of Trump as president.

This is not to say that Butler’s ultimate argument changes. On the contrary, her point is much the same: to “break open the constraints on political representation in order to expose its violence and oppose its exclusions,” and that the efficacious aim of “extra-parliamentary … assemblies [is] to alter the public understanding of who the people are.” Both are elegant, aesthetic affirmations of electoralism. Which is to say, that the emphasis falls on a performative figuration of “we, the people” that, in many respects, echoes Rancière’s political aesthetics of dissent as the means by which representations of “the people” are stretched, become more inclusive, and so on. Butler’s is a phenomenological account of the variety of representation progressively embraced or recognized within an ideal form of politics.

What shifts between these two statements is not Butler’s overall argument. It is that whereas, in December 2016, Butler readily describes Trump as a fascist, in this latest piece she draws further back from doing so because of the implications that such a description holds for retaining a performative theory of assembly. That Butler steps back from describing Trump as a fascist, and takes a few steps towards implicitly trying to identify which groups are not a valid part of the movements (that assemble), is remarkable. But it is also, I think, the implication of adhering to a theory about change that questions the legitimacy of governments but not the premises and representational terms of of popular sovereignty, and the contract theory on which that understanding of legitimacy rests. Where she focuses on Trump in the interview, in the subsequent text Butler tries to press all movements into the representational square of the political. Perhaps the most troubling thing that emerges from this is the selective, speculative effort to identity potentially violent actors on the Left. There is no mention of the murders, shooting, and assaults by the far Right. Nor is there any mention of the vicious campaign of harassment against transgender people, women and queers through which Yiannopoulos built his career as an employee of the Mercers and Bannon. But, aside from broken windows, a prospective violence is attributed to groups whose tactics are, as Butler admits, not distinguished by violence but, rather, distinguished from the appeal to popular sovereignty that conventionally demarcates a permissible assembly and speech in the constitutional sense. That boycotts, strikes, divestment campaigns, blockades of bridges, or, for instance, actions which deny fascists  a platform or the space in which to organize are not (necessarily) the expression of representational or electoral politics might suggest that a representational politics is not the only way in which to define one’s politics. Still, Butler insists on turning each of these (and any concept of infrastructure) toward the retrieval of an idealised political sovereignty.

Some time ago, I suggested that Austin’s account of linguistic performativity was, in its detail, the delineation of a set of contractual statements (Contract & Contagion, pp.20-21). Butler’s performative theory of assembly is, I think, a version of political contract theory, or a socio-aesthetic contract theory in that it involves an extra-parliamentary dimension which treats the staging of the political as theater, the demonstrable expression of “the people.” Butler admits that many people are violently excluded from the political or social contract. Yet, as with most contract theorists, it is the dissolution or absence of the social contract which signals a collapse into violence, whereas the political contract is assumed to be, ideally at least, endogenously free of violence, if only it could attain its presumably eternal form. Ideally, in other words, the space of the contract is claimed to be nonviolent—even if no one, including Butler, is able to give any evidence that it is or has ever been. This is not history, in the sense that it does not tell us about how this or that government was formed, how these borders were made. Even less does it give an account of colonisation (except as a European version of the ‘state of nature,’ more or less exotic or brutal as in Rousseau and Hobbes respectively). It is a metaphysics, a seemingly eternal idea of the political that seems to appear as if it were unconditioned by the history in which it emerged.

While contract theory poses a recurrent question about whether this or that government is legitimate according to a criteria of whether it adequately represents “the people,” it never poses a question about the legitimacy of “the people” that—as an epistemic assumption about unique, shared properties—normatively validates the often-racialized, certainly gendered obsession with controlling the movements of actual persons across the categorical borders of the political. At best, it yields an argument for popular sovereignty, or political populism, for better or worse. At worst, it repeats that preoccupation with controlling the movements of people in the name of rescuing the political contract from a fall into violence—a hypothetical fall, since no one can point to that moment when violence disappeared, least of all that violence that circumscribes the contract. In either case, it treats fascism as exceptional to the workings of the rule of “the people” (the kratos of the demos), a temporary anomaly to the democratic norm that arrives out of nowhere, or perhaps somewhere, but heaven forbid anyone suggests it arrives from within democracy (as indeed, it historically has done).

The more difficult question, then, might be how an idealized concept of the political—from Plato to Schmitt and beyond—has given credence to the fascism whose explicit aim it is to restore a true representation of “the people” and the preservation of its purportedly unique properties.

UC Berkeley

the tactical disposition of groups such as Antifa is not the defense of ‘one’s own family,’ but ‘the self-defense of diverse communities’

Despite Butler’s suggestion that violence knows no qualification, this rule of familial-national preservation is exactly how violence is routinely qualified as legitimate or permissible violence by fascists and white supremacists. That is what abstract encoding in the presumably ideal means, I think. Indeed, one of the examples Butler gives of where violence becomes legitimate in these seemingly abstract terms is precisely this, the hypothetical case of “what would you do if someone attacked a family member?” What this scenario misses, of course, is that the tactical disposition of groups such as Antifa is not the defense of ‘one’s own family,’ but ‘the self-defense of diverse communities,’ an active refusal of the reduction of politics to its familial-biological tropes.

It seems odd to me that a metaphysics of the political (or, less metaphysically, the nation-state) and its futurial preservation has become codified as ‘hope.’ Then again, I am not sure that I understand the insistence on framing the collapse of metaphysics as if that is what entails despair and violence. In any case, I prefer the aesthetics of physics, the kinetics of movements that need not be expressive of a recognizable representation but which, nevertheless, is far more careful in its consideration of the material distribution of causes, effects and affections.

2 thoughts on “Must all movements re-assemble the square?”

  1. I am not entirely sure what’s going on. The piece implicitly reverts to a dichotomy between ideas/representation and matter so as to be able to distinguish between speech and violence, ignores the violence that the far Right has brought during this ‘free speech’ tour of campuses and rallies, lapses into defining broken windows as violence …. I would think it theoretically incoherent if it weren’t for its otherwise coherent position of denouncing those tactics which aren’t reducible to elections. And even then, the mention of practical impediments (further disenfranchisement if Kobach and Sessions have their way, not to mention the delineations of citizenship) are treated dismissively so as to render the attachment to electoralism plausible in a practical sense. I found the article troubling, and difficult to write about, because in all honesty I would like Butler to be smarter, better than the respectability politics this piece echoes.

    *Also, I should perhaps note that I considered posting pictures of Antifa and the Black Bloc from the Berkeley protests, so as to illustrate why Butler’s depiction of the latter as a group of “white men” was false, but I could not do that without showing people’s faces. I am less invested in challenging Butler’s representation than in not partaking in endangerment.

    As for the charge of “the new anti-feminism,” what can I say other than to suggest that there are debates I’ve been involved in about the gender, racial politics of Antifa – but never have I or others who have participated in those debates ever thought that was continuous with denunciations of violence by antifascists. The vanishing of Yiannopoulos’ ferocious anti-feminist, anti-queer campaign is astonishing.

    cf also. Sanmati Verma’s piece on the counterprotests against Australian neo-Nazis, which unlike Butler’s is not a discourse on violence but of the framing of those counterprotests as an act by (white) citizens. Butler for her part wants the counterprotests to be framed in nationalist terms.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.