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Friday, June 19, 2015

Teaching, Atheism and Nonviolence

The least study of the theory and history of nonviolent resistance turns up its conspicuous connection to religious belief. Some of the earliest formulations of the notion appear in foundational Buddhist and Christian texts, the examples of nonviolence readiest to hand tend to have religious movements in tow, Tolstoy, Gandhi, King, Day, Nhat Hanh, and on and on.

The premise of my Berkeley summer intensive course "What Is Compelling?" is that persuasive discourse is a site for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes, not because it is an "outside" to violence -- the naive distinction of persuasion and violence disavows, after all, both the threat of violence that inheres in so much persuasion as well as the deeper trouble that any testimony to violation secures its legibility as such only through a circumscription of norms that constitutes an epistemic violence of its own, rendering other possible testimonies to violation illegible -- but because rhetoric, with its definitive focus on the traffic between literalization and figuration in signification attends to the terms on which these legibilties are conferred and volatized and hence provides the opening for dispute over the ongoing constitution of violence and hence competing claims in dispute that would be nonviolent.

This premise is, whatever else, separable from questions of theology. For me personally, as an atheist and both a scholar and activist of nonviolence, this separability is hardly surprising, but for me that doesn't quite get at the connection at hand, because my interest and commitment to nonviolence was not only preceded by my arrival at atheist conviction but was provoked and shaped by that atheism. Obviously, mine is not the only path to nonviolent commitment -- nor, would it seem, the usual one -- but it is my path, and hence a possible one. For me the arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice, but bends from just us: that the world is what we make of it and that all we have is one another seems as firm a foundation for nonviolence and the democratization with which it is connected as any faith to my eyes.

That is why it is striking to me how rarely this connection is elaborated in such terms. The Levinasian distinction of discourse from violence (with which the influence of Judith Butler has given me affinities) is leveraged explicitly on the Biblical injunction "Thous Shalt Not Kill"; the Arendtian account that has (unsurprisingly) long been an influence is a formalism (I take quite seriously, on literally her terms, her assertions that "nonviolent politics" is a redundancy and "violent power" a contradiction in terms), regard her assimilation of violence to instrumentality useful but incomplete, and note that when the account is fleshed out, things get theological quite soon after all: forgiveness is a "miracle," political action "redeems" political cycles of retribution, natality resonates with its Augustinian genuflection to "a child is born unto the world," and Eichmann must hang. The Foucauldian supplement of productive power is still mucked in the red thread of disciplinarity, the repressivity of which is (at least chronologically) continuous with the formulation of the power without a Kingly head (it got chopped off, you know). Zizek's little book on violence is some help, perversely enough, but his usual glib recourse to "Lacan" is, I don't know, Jesuitical.

We take up some of these questions in class today, but in a way that reflects my frustration, reading essays claiming pretty much everything but what I would want to myself: various religious believers asserting that atheism supports and implies violent politics, various atheists asserting that religious belief supports and implies violent politics, and strategists of nonviolence who circumvent questions of faith in a way that also divests nonviolence of an ethical dimension.

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