Last week I met Judith Butler GRD ’84. I didn’t just “meet” her amongst the 300 or so people who showed up for the Tanner lecture series; I had the opportunity to sit down for lunch with her, along with 15 or so current Directed Studies students, to discuss Frantz Fanon’s “Concerning Violence.”
To put it lightly, I was nervous about the event; all 15 of us were. We stammered out our names, which usually roll so readily off the tongue. Even those of us who were usually the most confident students in philosophy section tentatively asked questions, tripping over simple words like “how” and “can”. But, in spite of our nerves, it was worth it.
During lunch, Butler talked about a metaphor that Fanon consistently uses in his work. Fanon — an important critical theorist and revolutionary thinker — primarily discussed topics of race, colonialism, psychoanalysis and class in his texts. When describing how colonized bodies must overcome colonialism, he often says that we must “gouge out our eyes;” in other words, we must learn how to see for ourselves and create a form of pedagogy that is distinct from that of the European tradition.
Butler also discussed the role of violence in our daily lives. When we talk about violence we often think of it as physical. We view violence as a blow to the head or as a shot to the body. But it can be more than this. In her lectures, Butler referred to violence as an ethos that is systemic, and that works through our bodies, emotions and power structures. Is it not violence when one is emotionally abused? Is it not violence when systems of power work to deprive certain bodies of resources that they need to survive? And, perhaps most pertinent to Yale students, is it not violence when our education is carefully constructed to exclude certain perspectives? In another lecture that I attended this weekend as part of workshop on African intellectual history, Achille Mbembe — another contemporary critical thinker — echoed this sentiment. He argued that colonialism operates through the university, because it is responsible for institutionalizing and framing the ways we think about language and power.
Although I am often critical of Yale, I am glad that Butler made an appearance for the lecture series. These lectures spoke to many relevant questions about the nature of racism and of violence itself. Although much critical theory today seems to be framed by academic institutions that are steeped in white supremacy, theory is often a necessary starting point for developing practice.
While I’m not sure if I agree with her method of adopting a complete politics of nonviolence, I do agree with her composite depiction of nonviolence as an ethos. When discussing issues of police brutality, faculty diversity and the hypersexualization of certain bodies, it is worth remembering the interlocking character of these forms of violence. Violence operates on a higher level than microaggressions or assaults to political correctness. It is real. It is not simple, nor is it reducible to a single man being killed for selling loose cigarettes. Now that we have the theoretical language to describe systemic violence, we must find the tools to address it.
Isis Davis-Marks is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at email@example.com .