Ontologies of Violence (Dissertation)

My dissertation – funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and defended in early May 2021 – is on the concept of violence in Jacques Derrida’s “Violence and Metaphysics,” the works of Mennonite philosophical theologians, and Grace M. Jantzen’s Death and the Displacement of Beauty trilogy. I am currently revising and expanding the dissertation for publication in a new Brill series called Political and Public Theologies.

For those who are interested, in Fall 2020 I presented a summary of the project in a webinar series hosted by the Canadian Society for Studies in Religion. See below for a recording, starting at 36:00.

Ontologies of Violence traces the entanglement of violence and ontology through the works of Jacques Derrida, Mennonite pacifist political theologians, and feminist philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. Although they approach the problem of violence from very different frames of reference, Derrida, Jantzen, and certain Mennonite political theologians understand violence to have a distinctly ontological and epistemological character, while also arguing that ontology and epistemology themselves are vulnerable to charges of violence. Through readings of Derrida’s essay “Violence and Metaphysics,” debates between Mennonites and the Anglican theologian John Milbank, and an interpretation of Jantzen’s late trilogy Death and the Displacement of Beauty, this book provides a new paradigm for thinking about violence as a diagnostic concept that implies the violation of value-laden boundaries. By tracing the reception of Derrida through the philosophical turn in 21st century Mennonite thought, and by following and developing Jantzen’s critique of displacement, this study uncovers the shifting normative foundations of violence in our present public and political discourse.

In 2022, a revision of part of the third chapter of my dissertation will appear in the UK journal Angelaki, providing the first comprehensive interpretation of all three volumes of Grace Jantzen’s trilogy, Death and the Displacement of Beauty.

In general, I see the critique of violence as a postsecular opportunity, and I first addressed some of these themes in a long preparatory article called “Critique of Metaphysical Violence” which was published in Dialogue in late 2017. This article explores some of Jantzen’s work and her critique of Derrida, while also summarizing several strains of thought in political theology.

Elsewhere I have published preliminary materials on the secular, literary, philosophical, and political Mennonite thinkers who I draw from in the second chapter of my dissertation. My project on Mennonite Studies approaches these topics from a broader standpoint and attempts to develop a notion of Mennonite identity beyond confessional or theological categories.