Ontologies of Violence (Dissertation)

Ontologies of Violence: Jacques Derrida, Mennonite Pacifist Epistemology, and Grace M. Jantzen’s Death and the Displacement of Beauty

My dissertation project, funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and schedule for defense in 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. 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 here for a recording).

In Ontologies of Violence I explore how the term ‘violence’ knots together description and prescription, and is often used to protect certain values and priorities. I understand violence to be a keyword that points not only to deep social and political problems, but also to ontological and epistemological problems. Each of my interlocutors consider ontology and epistemology to be terms that are profoundly vulnerable to charges of violence, and also understand violence to name something epistemological and ontological.

To clarify the ontological and epistemological characteristics of violence I look to the early work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida (Chapter 1), the works of Mennonite philosophical theologians Peter C. Blum and Chris K. Huebner (Chapter 2), and the Death and the Displacement of Beauty trilogy by feminist philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen (Chapter 3). Although Derrida, the Mennonites, and Jantzen use the term “violence” within different disciplines and with different priorities, each understands violence to refer to something that has a distinctly ontological and epistemological character. In their work, violence not only names physical violations of the body but also describes ontological terms like ‘Being’ and the use of rhetorical force or coercion in the domains of thinking, knowing, and speaking.

The main goal of the project is to show how Derrida, the Mennonites, and Jantzen each consider violence to be a uniquely epistemological and ontological problem. My analysis of their major texts examines their uses of the term violence and uses the term as a diagnostic concept, assuming that it will reflect the values of those who use it.

By critically illuminating the remarkably similar priorities shared by Derrida, Jantzen, and the Mennonites, I demonstrate how the discourse on the ontology and epistemology of violence in their work contributes to a greater understanding of the social and political problems that the term violence names and critiques. I conclude the dissertation by pointing to how each source challenges the notion that the world is necessarily a violent place in which some things exist at the expense of other things and boundaries are violated by agonistic displacements.

In general, I see the critique of violence as a postsecular opportunity, and I address some of these themes in a long preparatory article called “Critique of Metaphysical Violence,” 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.