Violence and Nonviolence

Motionless in White: Slaughterhouse

From the outset of his famous essay Towards the Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin ([1921] 2021) asks the question “whether violence in general, as a principle, is moral, even as a means to just ends” (39). In The Force of Nonviolence, Judith Butler (2020) attempts to answer this question. They argue that what state violence really expresses is an unequal distribution of the grievable (Ibid., 77). This distribution is discursively constituted through legal systems and reproduced through state violence. In order to escape this, they argue that a nonviolent approach is necessary. Similarly, in their song Slaughterhouse, Motionless in White delineate unequal degrees of grievability. However, they see violence as a necessary means to overturn this distribution. In this short paper, I aim to reflect on both approaches, as well as their benefits and shortcomings.

In seeking to establish a politics of nonviolence, Butler argues that violence and inequality are mutually constitutive and thus always presuppose one another. Therefore, any movement towards a politics of nonviolence, must be a project towards radical egalitarianism (Butler 2020, 25-26). For this, they invoke the concept of ‘grievability.’ Not all lives, Butler proclaims, are attributed an equal sense of grievability. Those lives that will be grieved when lost are signified as grievable, while those that are not compose the ‘ungrievable’ (Ibid., 77-78). Butler poses that the legal codification of this biopolitical distribution of the (un)grievable is violence. Using the example of police killing innocent black citizens, Butler claims that this violence precedes the act of the murder itself. It is ingrained in the socio-political and legal apparatus of our sociality (Ibid., 84-85). The project towards a situation in which all lives are equally grievable must, therefore, always be a project of suspending legal violence.

The question remains how this suspension can be effectuated. Slaughterhouse by the metalcore band Motionless in White and Bryan Garris (2022) offers one potential answer to this question. Slaughterhouse is a call for an anti-capitalist revolution from the perspective of the subjugated. “Break down the wall again”, screams Garris as Slaughterhouse commences (Ibid.). A similar sentiment to Butler’s distribution of the grievable underlies the song: the lives of the lower classes are degraded and deemed ungrievable, equated to pigs in a slaughterhouse, and “packaged up and sold for scraps”, while the rich “auction off our backs to buy your crown” (Ibid.). The ungrievable populations live their lives in a Hobbesian state of nature, in which the capitalists “sit back as we collapse, left to fight over scraps” (Ibid.). Similar to Butler, Motionless argue that to transform this distribution of the ungrievable, an overturn is necessary. However, the approach here is strictly violent. Exemplified by the song’s warlike drums, belligerent vocals, macabre vocabulary, and ominous background melody, Motionless and Garris pose that the only way to escape the condition of ungrievability is to “Flip the script and oppress the oppressors”, to “Kill ’em all, kill ’em all, no successors” (Ibid.). Phrased differently, a rupturing of the legal order requires, for Motionless and Garris, an ultimate ‘divine’ form of de-posing violence (Benjamin [1921] 2021, 60).

Additionally, Slaughterhouse expresses a sentiment close to that of Frantz Fanon. Violent oppression, Fanon notes, “will only yield when confronted with greater violence” (Fanon 2001, 48). However, besides instrumental in altering material conditions, violence serves a second function. Because of the total self-alienation and psychological inferiority complex violent domination established in the oppressed subject, counter-violence not only changes material conditions, but liberates the subject from this inferiority complex. From the ashes of violent revolt, the individual is formed, the subject created. Violence serves not only as a means to material liberation, but also to psychological emancipation (Blackey 1974, 193). Slaughterhouse expresses this cathartic element of violence by its very existence. Motionless and Garris’ violent assertion of individuality is in itself a means to escape this inferiority complex. It is thus not only a plea for transforming material conditions, but an expression of subjectivity just as much.

For Butler, however, a violent revolution is ineffective. Instead, Benjamin’s notion of divine violence should be interpreted as an essentially nonviolent suspension of legal violence (Butler 2020, 89-90). Invoking Étienne Balibar’s analysis of Hobbes, Butler poses that any form of anti-violence must be nonviolent. Otherwise, the suspension of state violence will only be an oscillation – a double violence (Ibid. 95-96). Additionally, my contention is that a redistribution of the grievable, as Slaughterhouse forcefully proposes, does not lead to radical egalitarianism. Rather, it simply transfigures the hierarchy and categorisation of the grievable and ungrievable. Consequently, what we end up with is a different distribution of the grievable, which ultimately yields the same result.

In this short paper I have offered a brief reflection of two positions regarding the overturn of legal violence. Using Judith Butler’s concept of grievability, I have illustrated how state violence and social inequality are mutually constitutive. Any project to end state violence must therefore presuppose radical egalitarianism. With the example of Slaughterhouse by Motionless in White and Bryan Garris, I have showcased one possible – violent – means through with the legal order can be overturned. However, such a violent project entirely waives any hope of radical egalitarianism. It only leads to a double violence, and a different distribution of grievability, not its eradication. As such, it must be concluded that a violent overturn of the legal system cannot be the path to end state violence.

Giovanni Prins


Benjamin, Walter. [1921] 2021. Toward the Critique of Violence: A Critical Edition. Edited by Peter Fenves and Julia Ng. Stanford University Press.
Blackey, Robert. 1974. “Fanon and Cabral: a Contrast in Theories of Revolution for Africa.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 12, no. 2: 191-209.
Butler, Judith. 2020. The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. London: Verso.
Fanon, Frantz. 2001. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. London: Penguin Books.

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