CSSR Presentation: Ontologies of Violence

Ontologies of Violence

Deconstruction, Pacifism, and Displacement

Maxwell Kennel

Webinar Panel. Canadian Society for the Study of Religion (CSSR). October 29, 2020.

Judith Butler begins her recent book The Force of Non-Violence by suggesting that before any debate about the ethical and political use of violence there must be some agreement on what qualifies something as violent or nonviolent.[1] Following this suggestion and other questions raised in her book, the question that I ask in this presentation, and in my dissertation in progress, is – very basically – what is violence?

My interest is not in trying to theorize the specific violence of something like war or murder, or engage in debates about just war and pacifism, but instead my project attempts to understand what ontological and epistemological background work needs to be done before a shared concept of violence could be developed. Before we can ask whether violence is justified or not, and before we can ask whether something is violent or not, we first must ask: what is our measure for violence?

I begin from the assumption that the word ‘violence’ does not name something stable that one could either appeal to or categorically oppose. Calling something violent, without a clear explanation of what boundaries are being violated, says very little about what is being identified or condemned when the term is used. My solution to this problem is to consider violence in relation to boundaries and the values that define them. In each use of the term ‘violence’ the user points to certain boundaries that are violated, and these boundaries are defined by certain values. One’s concept of violence, in this sense, reflects one’s values – meaning that violence is a very useful diagnostic concept because its uses point back to the values held by its users. No one calls something violent without a normative foundation that they consider to be under threat, and we can tell a lot about what someone values by examining what they think is violent.

I will return to this working definition of violence later in this presentation by using it as a way to read my sources. But here at the beginning I observe that – conspicuously – there is no shared definition of violence in our current social and political discourse. Instead, violence is a concept that is put to many different instrumental and political uses. In The Force of Non-Violence Butler sees something important in the diverse uses of the term ‘violence.’ She writes that “some people call wounding acts of speech ‘violence,’ whereas others claim that language, except in the case of explicit threats, cannot properly be called ‘violent.’”[2] Butler identifies a conflict between those who understand language to be violent, and those who do not – which is an important distinction for the sources I study in my dissertation. Butler addresses this problem by contrasting “the figure of the blow” with structural or systemic violence, arguing that

any account of violence that cannot explain the strike, the blow, the act of sexual  violence (including rape), or that fails to understand the way violence can work in the intimate dyad or the face-to-face encounter, fails descriptively, and analytically, to clarify what violence is…[3]

Here Butler sets out what I think are the basic conditions for understanding violence. Writing in light of recent protests against police violence in the United States, Butler writes that when “states or institutions” use the term violence to delegitimize forms of political dissent that do not take recourse to physical violence, “they seek to rename nonviolent practices as violent, conducting a political war, as it were, at the level of public semantics.”[4] Here Butler is critiquing those who use the term to demonize and vilify groups who commit acts of protest and civil disobedience (for example, antifascist or Black Lives Matter protestors). In short, Butler critiques those who use the term ‘violence’ as a mere means to legitimize the use of lethal force by police and thereby delegitimize civil disobedience and nonviolent protest.[5]

With this introduction to the political uses and conceptual problems of violence before us, I now want to field the main argument of my dissertation, which is titled “Ontologies of Violence: Jacques Derrida, Mennonite Pacifist Epistemology, and Grace M. Jantzen’s Death and the Displacement of Beauty.” My project critically examines the ontological significance of the concept of violence in the early work of Jacques Derrida (Ch. 1), the works of Mennonite philosophical theologians Chris K. Huebner and Peter C. Blum (Ch. 2), and the Death and the Displacement of Beauty trilogy by feminist philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen (Ch. 3).

Although Derrida, the Mennonites, and Jantzen each use the term ‘violence’ within different academic disciplines and with different priorities, each understands violence to refer to something that has an ontological and epistemological character. What makes these three sources unique and justifies bringing them together for comparative study is that Derrida, the Mennonites, and Jantzen each consider violence to be an ontological problem. In each of their work, violence not only names physical violations of the body but also describes ontological terms like ‘Being’ and the use of persuasive force or rhetorical coercion in the domains of thinking, knowing, and speaking. In this way, each of my sources fall into the category, provided by Butler, of those who call wounding acts of speech violent.

For the purposes of this summary I will focus on their most succinct formulations of the problem of violence, beginning with Derrida.

Jacques Derrida: “Predication is the first violence”

In Derrida’s long essay on Levinas, “Violence and Metaphysics,” language – specifically predication (when one says one thing of another, joining subject and predicate) – is the original violence. Throughout the essay Derrida entangles his voice with that of Levinas and makes strong declarative statements like “violence did not exist before the possibility of speech,” “violence appears with articulation,” and “predication is the first violence.”[6] Although Derrida often rephrases Levinas’ ideas without making clear distinctions between what he thinks is the case and what he thinks Levinas is saying, it is clear that Derrida thinks that language itself is violent.[7] The notion that violence inheres in language is a complex matter for Derrida, but his underlying idea that we cannot be without violence is something that his critics and interpreters take up and use in different ways. My dissertation examines the reception of Derrida by Mennonite pacifists who want to think and know peacefully, and by philosopher of religion Grace Jantzen, who is critical of just exactly how Derrida thinks language is violent. With this very brief account of Derrida in mind, I will now turn to the Mennonite reception of Derrida.

Mennonite Pacifism and Ontologies of Violence: ‘Peace is Impossible’

In the Mennonite engagement with an Anglican theological movement called Radical Orthodoxy (whose lead figure is John Milbank), philosophical theologians Peter Blum and Chris Huebner situate their work in relation to what they call an “ontology of violence.” In this debate between Mennonites and Milbank that took place during the 2010s the term “ontology of violence” most often refers to the idea that the ontological structure of the world is violently ordered. For both Mennonites and Milbank, it is Derrida’s work that most exemplifies this ontology of violence.

While using Derrida as a foil to talk about the problem of violence, Huebner outlines a “pacifist epistemology” (a peaceful way of knowing) and Blum challenges the possibility of an “ontology of peace” (questioning whether we can ever be without violence). Although Huebner’s work represents an important application of pacifism to epistemology which focuses on the precarious character of peace, here I will focus on Blum’s response to Milbank and Derrida because it is most relevant to the question of what defines violence.[8]

In his work, Milbank argues that Christian theology must oppose the notion of an “original violence” because, for him, violence is by definition “a secondary willed intrusion” on the divine order.[9] Milbank categorically rejects the notion (expressed by Derrida and others) that violence goes all the way down into the foundations and origins of language and Being. Following Milbank’s expression of this idea in his book Theology and Social Theory, several Mennonite thinkers responded to his notion of ontological peace, in a debate that can be helpfully understood by distinguishing between two theopolitical options. In his essay on the topic, Travis Kroeker presents a dilemma between an educative violence that justifies the use force to ensure the peaceful ontological order it seeks, and a suffering love exemplified by a weak messianism that refuses to secure its ends by means of violence.[10]

On one hand we have Milbank who believes that violence is what distorts the true meaning of things by ruining something’s essence or diverting something from its teleological end.[11] Under this definition of violence the world is peacefully ordered at its point of origin when things are in conformity with their essence and aligned with their right teleological heading. For Milbank, ontological violence arises when the essences of things and their proper orientation are disturbed and caused to deviate (a position that puts him at odds with the ‘radical evil’ school for whom evil has a positive status instead of being defined by the absence of the good). However, Milbank not only thinks that evil and violence are defined in relation to an original and intended order, but he also argues that it is defensible to coercively and forcibly ensure the preservation of this order and its essences and ends. Milbank argues for “a qualified, teleological use of coercion grounded upon an ontology and eschatology of peace.”[12]

My dissertation shows just exactly how Milbank’s defense of coercion could not be more at odds with the historical and contemporary rejection of force and coercion that defines much of the Mennonite identity, as well as its 16th century Anabaptist background. For most – if not all – Mennonites thinkers, peace cannot be achieved by means of force and coercion. In the discourse this is often referred to as the ‘myth of redemptive violence.’  Kroeker’s essay presents the other side of this dilemma as the one that rejects the use of ‘educative’ coercion and force to secure essences and ends, and instead is willing to serve and love others in ways that willingly suffer violence. Rather than believe that the world is originally and essentially ordered in ways that require forcible and coercive ordering by Christians, the epistemological model of suffering love that Kroeker suggests is defined by its critique of the desire to possess and control origins and ends (and in this way, the distinction between Mennonites and Milbank is as much about time and history as it is about peace and violence).  

For the authors who I study, a lot hinges on the question of whether faithful Christian beliefs and practices entail or allow the exercise of coercive power. For Milbank these questions are metaphysical; he states that “when I am talking about peace I am also talking about the nature of signification and the metaphysics of participation.”[13] Milbank’s ontological peace proceeds from a conservative Christian ‘radical’ orthodoxy in which radicality is understood as a return to the root (conservative in the sense that it seeks to conserve and preserve an ordered relationship between origins, essences, and ends). By contrast, Mennonite radicalism – which inherits the complex category of the sixteenth century ‘Radical Reformation’ – understands the peace it seeks to be something that cannot be secured but must remain precarious (as Huebner argues) and potentially impossible (as Blum argues).

This stark contrast is an important part of the dialogue that occurred between Mennonites and Milbank (or between proponents of ‘Radical Reformation’ and ‘Radical Orthodoxy’), in large part because it was not the central point of the discussion – a conspicuous absence that may be explained by the fact that metaphysical reflection has not been central to Mennonite theology. Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy may at first appear to be quite a bit more philosophical and metaphysical than the Mennonite tradition, which is known for its lack of systematic theologies and its aversion to transcendental systems. But much of my research programme attends to exceptional Mennonite pacifist thinkers who use philosophical resources and make metaphysical claims.[14] One exemplary expression of what I have argued elsewhere is a recent philosophical turn in Mennonite theology, can be found in the work of Peter C. Blum – a theologian who intervenes between Milbank’s original peace and Derrida’s original violence.

Rather than a pure nonviolence – as some Mennonites have advocated for, and which Derrida refuses in “Violence and Metaphysics”[15] – Blum calls for a kind of pacifism that says ‘no’ to violence “even though this saying does not itself escape violence.”[16] Blum does not retreat from violence or deny that there is violence in the world (and even in language), but instead he calls for an ontologically inflected pacifism that says ‘no’ to violence without saying that there is no violence. Unlike Derrida, Milbank thinks that there is an original peace from which we diverge when we do violence. But Blum is more inclined to follow Derrida’s idea that language is almost entirely violent, and he suggests that although there may be no way to be apart from violence, his readers need not consign themselves to the two bad options of “counterviolence” or “the abdication of responsibility.”[17] Instead of understanding pacifism as either passivity or ignorance of violence, Blum wants to say that there are ways to negate and resist violence without denying the presence of violence in the world, and without intentionally using violence against violence.

This is an abbreviated account of the tensions that my dissertation explores and extends. Most succinctly, (1) Derrida suggests that because language is violent we cannot achieve pure nonviolence, (2) Milbank argues that ontological peace precedes the violent disordering of the world, and posits that a Radically Orthodox Christian politics ought to use coercive force to set the world in order, and (3) Blum responds by arguing that although we cannot avoid violence altogether, there are ways to resist it that do not use force and coercion to order the world.

Stepping back for a moment, I observe that the term “violence” in these debates is used in very abstract ways,[18] often referring to the use of force and power to coerce or persuade using language. But if we consider Butler’s suggestion that “any account of violence that cannot explain the strike, the blow, the act of sexual violence (including rape)… fails descriptively, and analytically, to clarify what violence is” then we must see that there are significant limits to this very interesting dialogue that has unfolded along the line from Jacques Derrida, to John Milbank, and Peter Blum.[19]

One thinker who has clearly attended to the limits of Derrida’s identification of language with violence, and who has sympathies and connections with the Mennonites, is Grace M. Jantzen, a feminist philosopher of religion who grew up in a Mennonite community, later became a Quaker, and taught at Manchester University until her death in 2006.

Grace Jantzen: Against the equivocation of language with violence

Contrasting with Derrida and the Mennonite theologians who I examine in the first two chapters of my dissertation, Jantzen argues in her final project – titled Death and the Displacement of Beauty[20] – that the cultural habitus of the west is founded on an obsessive relationship with death and mortality that violently displaces beauty and natality. For Jantzen, violence is the main feature of the cultural habitus of the west, from its Jewish, Christian, Greek, and Roman origins through modernity to postmodernity, most evident in an obsessive fear and love of death that fixates on mortality, and displaces beauty, birth, and creativity.[21]

Jantzen’s work resonates with the Mennonite critique of violence, and she affirms the Mennonite commitment to peace, justice, and nonviolence in her final book A Place of Springs. But most importantly for my investigation, Jantzen critiques Derrida’s association of violence with language. Jantzen argues that when Derrida says that language is violent, the term ‘violence’ no longer serves to distinguish “the force of an argument and the force of a bomb.”[22] Citing Derrida’s claim in “Violence and Metaphysics” that “Violence appears with articulation,”[23] Jantzen argues that in these formulations “the language of violence has lost its moorings.”[24] Whereas Derrida seems ready to use the term ‘violence’ to describe the very foundations of language, Jantzen is suspicious of any use of the term that would diminish its usefulness in distinguishing between the force of a sentence and the force of a bomb. In this way, Jantzen is much closer to heeding Butler’s call for thinkers of violence to account for the figure of the blow.

Deconstruction, Pacifism, and the Problem of Displacement

Despite being situated in very different discourses – Derrida within and against philosophy, the Mennonites within Christian theology (and more ambiguous philosophical theologies), and Jantzen within the broad bounds of the feminist philosophy of religion – they share similar basic questions. At stake for each is the ontological question ‘is the world violently ordered?’ and the corresponding epistemological question ‘can I come to knowledge of the world in a way that is not violent?’

The main goal of my project is to show how Derrida, the Mennonites, and Jantzen consider violence to be a uniquely ontological problem. Beyond this task, however, my contribution to this conversation is to take a step back from projects of advocacy and preservation and use violence as a diagnostic concept in order to detect which values are being marked off or protected by means of its use.

For Derrida, the Mennonites, and Jantzen, ‘violence’ reflects values. Common to Derrida’s deconstruction, philosophical expressions of Mennonite pacifism, and Jantzen’s critique of violence, is a similar desire to keep discourse open and resist closure. Derrida uses the term ‘violence’ to condemn totalization and protect against both the closure of language and foreclosure of the possibilities of the future; the Mennonites use the term to condemn the use of force and coercion in discourse and protect a Christian vision of peace; and Jantzen uses the term to condemn the displacement of beauty and natality by an obsessive fear and love of death and mortality.

In addition to having similar goals, my three sources also proceed by similar means. Derrida’s desire for openness resists the ‘either-or’ enclosures of classical philosophical oppositions by means of a ‘neither-nor’ negation; the Mennonites attempt to exceed dualistic thinking by pursuing a ‘third-way’ between passivity and violent action; and Jantzen articulates a creative vision of human flourishing that seeks to move beyond the enclosing structures of patriarchal violence that displace beauty with a possessive obsession with death.

Following a reconstruction of the debate between my sources, and proceeding from my identification of their similar goals (‘keeping discourse open’) and means (‘resisting either-or thinking’), I conclude the dissertation by demonstrating how both deconstruction and pacifism are challenged and enriched by Jantzen’s attention to the problem of displacement.

The priorities of each of my sources – Derrida’s commitment to ‘neither-nor’ thinking against philosophical oppositions, the Mennonite attempt to think and know peacefully outside the bounds of passivity and violent action, and Jantzen’s focus on natality rather than mortality – each challenge the notion that the world is a violent place in which things necessarily exist at the expense of other things and boundaries are violated by the agonistic displacement of one thing by another.

However, it is Jantzen who attends most clearly to this problem when she self-consciously refuses to replace one master narrative with another in her critical genealogy of violence. Jantzen’s term ‘displacement’ helps to name a major problem that each source attempts to address, but never clearly states, namely, the problem of reproducing a problematic binary structure within a way of thinking intended to critique or resist it. Jantzen’s core argument in her final trilogy is that the western habitus is defined by an obsessive fixation that both loves and hates death. Jantzen argues that this ‘necrophilia’ (as she calls it) focuses on death and the fact that we are mortal, at the direct expense of its opposite: natality, the fact that we have each been born, and can create. Jantzen’s most evocative illustration of this contrast is that while we may well die alone, we cannot be born alone. This, for her, is evidence that there are better resources for social and political life in re-emphasizing natality.

In conclusion, what I think is unique and important in Jantzen’s work is that she does not seek to relace or displace mortality with natality. She does not argue that violence will be remediated once natality wins out over mortality as the main feature of the habitus. Instead of making compulsory the agonistic displacement of one key term by another, wherein one thing must exist at the expense of another through relations of dominance and submission, Jantzen critiques the violent obsession with death in the west without repeating violent displacement in her critique of its results.


Following from Butler’s helpful account of the problems of violence outlined at the beginning, I think that in conclusion it is important to distinguish between ‘ontological violence’ in which language itself is violent, ‘epistemological violence’ in which I know and advance my knowledge in coercive or abusive ways, and ‘physical violence’ or ‘corporeal violence’ in which one person injures, harms, or kills another. Butler serves us with the helpful reminder that each of these kinds of violence must be accounted for when we try to understand what is going on in the use of the term. If we pose this question to each of my sources, it is only Jantzen who comes close to accounting for the range of phenomena that the term ‘violence’ is used to name.

In response to each of my sources I want to suggest that neither the relativization of physical violence by means of ontological and epistemological language, nor the dismissal of ontological and epistemological violence because of their lack of corporeal verifiability are sufficient to account for the complexity of violence. Much depends on how the term ‘violence’ is used to mobilize the images of horror to which it often points to, for it can be put to work to explain away horrors by relativizing them, or it can be used to demonize others and clear the way for supposedly justified legal violence. Butler is right to suggest that any concept of violence that cannot account for what happens when one strikes another or violates their person is not adequate to what it purports to name. But the reverse is also true – and it is true in a way that ought not to displace Butler’s critique: any concept of violence that cannot account for how ontology and epistemology are players in its drama is inadequate to the social and political problems that the term attempts to name.


[1] Judith Butler, The Force of Non-Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind (London: Verso, 2020), 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cf. Daniel Loick, “‘But who protects us from you?’ Towards a Critical Theory of the Police,” in We Protect you from Yourselves: The Politics of Policing. Ed. Felix Trautmann (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).

[6] Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics,” in Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 117, 147.

[7] This original violence, in the words of one important interpreter, “enables the relation to others by breaching from the start the uniqueness (the atomicity or monadic nature) of the other and the pure idiom that would have been required to reflect upon what properly is.” Rodolphe Gasché, Deconstruction, Its Force, Its Violence, together with Have We Done with the Empire of Judgment (New York: SUNY Press, 2016), 72.

[8] Related questions, for these thinkers, include: Can we be without violence? Do we live in a violent world? Does the presence of violence in the world define the world? Did the world begin peacefully and become violent? Is violence defensible in the pursuit of peace and justice?

[9] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 5-6.

[10] P. Travis Kroeker, “Educative Violence or Suffering Love? Radical Orthodoxy and Radical Reformation” Conrad Grebel Review 23.2 (2005): 19-24.

[11] John Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), 27.

[12] Milbank, “Foreword,” in The Gift of Difference: Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation. Ed. Tripp York and Chris Huebner (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2010), xvi.

[13] Ibid, xvii.

[14] See my entry on “Philosophy” in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Update to the original 1989 entry by J. Lawrence Burkholder. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Philosophy (April 2020).

This entry updates and summarizes my article “Mennonite Metaphysics? Exploring the Philosophical Aspects of Mennonite Theology from Pacifist Epistemology to Ontological Peace” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91 (July 2017): 403-421.

[15] Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics,” 146.

[16] Peter C. Blum, “Two Cheers for an Ontology of Violence” in For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2013), 153.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Something of what the term ‘violence’ attempts to name is violated when acts of physical violence are epistemologized or ontologized by being explained away in interpretive gestures that say, ‘this is really about that.’ In his two-volume analysis of the Nazi Freikorps Male Fantasies, Klaus Theweleit argues that fascist violence is not explicable by interpreting killing and rape as stand-ins for abstract desires or symbolic goals, but instead he argues that these acts of violence are exactly what are desired by those who commit them.

Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies (2 Vols.). Trans. Stephen Conway, with Erica Carter and Chris Turner (Minnesota, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987-1989). See Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Foreword,” I, xi.

[19] Ibid, 2.

[20] Grace Jantzen, Foundations of Violence: Death and the Displacement of Beauty. Volume I (London: Routledge, 2004), Violence to Eternity: Death and the Displacement of Beauty. Volume II. Ed. Jeremy Carrette and Morny Joy (London: Routledge, 2009); A Place of Springs: Death and the Displacement of Beauty. Volume II. Ed. Jeremy Carrette and Morny Joy (London: Routledge, 2010).

[21] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 3-11.

[22] Jantzen, Violence to Eternity, 18.

[23] Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics,” 147-148.

[24] Jantzen, Violence to Eternity, 24.

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