To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

Politics and the art of mourning

Feminist theory is a useful tool when it comes to analyzing and understanding the aftermath of cataclysmic events such as the attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9.11.2001. This is clearly demonstrated by reknowed theoretician Judith Butlers new book Precarious Life according to Robin May Schott

FORUM/20.12.2004 Judith Butler has been crowned the "queen of gender" by popular acclaim, a position that she began to earn with the publication of Gender Trouble in 1990, and that she solidified with the publication of Bodies that Matter in 1993. This year sees a remarkable three books published under her name, The Judith Butler Reader edited by Sarah Salih with Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, and Precarious Life; The Powers of Mourning and Violence. These first two books continue her discussion with queer theory, a field that many consider Butler to have founded. The third book, Precarious Life, marks a departure in her work.

The five essays that comprise Precarious Life were all written after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. In these essays, Butler addresses the rise of censorship and anti-intellectualism in the U.S.; the refusal to mourn those that the U.S. has killed; the indefinite detention of prisoners in Guantanomo Bay in violation of the Geneva Convention; the dangers of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism; and the ethics of non-violence.

In this book, Butler does not discuss gender and heteronormativity. Her attention has shifted to focus on the ethical and political issues of censorship, imprisonment, and violence. Her comments on feminism here are brief, though she does chastise the Bush administration for co-opting the issue of feminism to justify the bombing of Afghanistan, and she does chastise American intellectuals who laud the unveiling of women as a victory for the American way of freedom.

Some may be disappointed by this new focus and long for the "bite and urgency of Butler's earlier interventions into the politics of gender," as Heather Love writes in the article "Dwelling in ambivalance" in The Women's Review of Books (Nov. 2004). But they would be wrong. Butler's work, along with other prominent feminist philosophers like Claudia Card, shows that feminist theory has much to say about politics, even when the issues are not specifically about gender and sexuality.

Butler begins her book with the premise that human bodies are fundamentally dependent and vulnerable. Vulnerability is evident both in our desire and our physical injurability. We also are at risk of losing those to whom we are attached, and we are at risk of becoming instruments of violence. She asks: how can we respond to vulnerability so that our politics minimizes violence in the world?

The target of criticism in her book is the way U.S. politicians and the mainstream media have responded to the intensified sense of vulnerability since September 11, 2001. Just ten days after the attack, President Bush claimed that we had finished grieving and now was the time for resolute action to take the place of grief.

Instead of mourning, the U.S. has positioned itself as victim in order to justify military aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq. With the public failure to mourn, politicians, the media, and conservative intellectuals have created a discourse that is itself a form of violence. For although they argue for the sanctity of human life, they really mean the sanctity of some lives (American lives) and not others (Arab and Muslim lives).

This dehumanization is evident in the hierarchy of public grief that is constructed. Although obituaries provide a public recognition of some lives, we rarely hear the names of the thousands of Palestinians who have been killed by the Israeli military with the U.S. support, or the number of Afghan children and adults who have been killed by the U.S. military.

Butler writes of a Palestianian citizen of the U.S. who submitted statements "in memoriam" to the San Francisco Chronicle for two Palestinian familes who had been killed by Israeli troops. The memorials were rejected on the grounds that the newspaper did not wish to offend anyone. These memorials constituted an offense because they violated what was speakable in public.

The hierarchy of grief by which we define who is human is also evident in the media's representation of the war in Iraq. We see romanticized images of "bombs bursing in air" (a phrase from the American national anthem), but the mainstream media refuses to show photos of children maimed and killed by U.S. bombs. Conceptually, what is at stake is not only that some people are treated as humans and others are dehumanized. But that "dehumanization becomes the condition for the production of the human to the extent that a "Western" civilization defines itself over and against a population understood as, by definition, illegitimate, if not dubiously human."

For democratic culture to flourish, we must engage in the critical task of reconceiving the human. In the field of human rights, one must see where the purported universality of human rights does not reach -- as with the prisoners detained indefinitely by the U.S. government in Guantanamo Bay.

In the humanities, cultural criticism helps us look for the human where we do not expect to find it. We must interrogate the framework by which we know, hear, see and sense, and we must understand how this framework is decisive for who can emerge as human and who cannot. Thus, Butler challenges the view held by some university administrators that the humanities have undermined themselves with all their relativism, questioning and critique. Instead, she argues that the humanities can return us to the human and help us "recognize the sanctity of life, of all lives."

With the publication of Precarious Life, Butler has accomplished a certain shift in audience. Her celebrity is based on her work in feminist and queer theory. Although these issues should be central on political and intellectual agendas -- the voters who passed amendments banning same-sex marriages in eleven states were decisive in winning George W. Bush a second term in the presidency -- they are often marginalized by (male) leftists and intellectuals.

Butler's newest book, also her most accessible book, speaks to Americans who are implicated in war, who experience the self-censorship of the press, and who are witnessing the infringement of civil liberties and human rights. As such, it will gain an audience even amongst those who consider feminism, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movements as "one-issue movements" that are not truly political or universal in their reach. Slavoj Zizek writes, for example, of "the new social movements, from feminism through ecology to antiracism....the limit of these movements is that they are not political in the sense of the universal singular: they are "one-issue movements" lacking the dimension of universality -- that is, they do not relate to the social totality." (in the article "Have Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Rewritten the Communist manifesto for the Twenty-first Century?", Rethinking Marxism, No. 3/4, 2001, 6)

Given this shift in focus and audience, it is intriguing to ask: What does Butler carry over from her earlier work? What theoretical shifts does she make? And indeed there are many carry-overs. She stresses here, as earlier, the question of how bodies matter. That is, she asks about what constitutes our bodies, and how some bodies come to matter while other bodies are abjected. In other words, some beings are excluded from being fully human, and this excluded outside produces and maintains what is inside the categories of the human and the political (Bodies that Matter (1993); Antigone's Claim (2000)).

Butler continues to stress the centrality of discourse in forming the phenomenon that it represents. And she continues to explore the problem of unfinished grieving and the public hierarchies of mourning (The Psychic Life of Power (1997); Antigone's Claim). But whereas in these prior texts she focuses on the issues of heternormativity and the racializing of bodies, in Precarious Life Butler turns her attention to the ways in which Arabs and Muslims are dehumanized.

Butler expresses here some very new commitments as well. Responding to the criticisms that postmodernism has contributed to the decline of Western culture, Butler's task here is to show the ethical and political implications of her approach. She argues for an ethical outrage, like the outrage that followed the pictures of children burning and dying from napalm during the Viet Nam war. In turning to ethics, and in particular to the work of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, she moves substantially away from her earlier view that Levinas's philosophy reeks of "bad air" and borders on the masochistic (in the article "Ethical Ambivalence", in Marjorie Garber, Beatrice Hanssen, Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., The Turn to Ethics, 2000). In this book, she looks to Levinas's emphasis on the ethical demand imposed on me by the face of the Other. But in her analysis she shows how the media representation of certain faces -- e.g., of Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat, and Saddam Hussein -- is a form of violence and not a humanizing gesture.

Butler's discussion of dependency and vulnerability in this book leads her also to use the language of relationality. Feminist philosophers have focused a good deal of attention on the relations that constitute human subjectivity, ethics and politics, though Butler has not previously used these terms. In Bodies that Matter, she writes of "subjectivation" and "subjection" to highlight the framework by which power, discourse, and the imaginary precede any actual encounter between people. In Precarious Life, however, she explicitly states her affinity to the term "relationality", but adds, "we may need other language to we not only are constituted by our relations but also dispossessed by them as well."

Butler's primary position in this book in terms of identity politics is not that of a feminist or lesbian, but that of a "progressive Jew". She turns to Levinas to work through "what an ethic of Jewish non-violence might be.". She boldly criticizes current Israeli politics, arguing against the tendency to identify anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. And she argues for the possibility of a revised form of Zionism, a post-Zionist Israel, an autonomous Palestinian state, or a secular, one-state solution. Why does Jewishness have such a prominent position in her current reflection? On the theoretical level, she draws inspiration from Jewish philosophers like Levinas and Derrida. On the political level, by speaking publicly as a Jew who criticizes Israeli policies, she displaces the position of Jew as eternal victim. She notes that the victim is transposable: "it can shift from minute to minute from the Jew atrociously killed by suicide bombers on a bus to the Palestinian child atrociously killed by Israeli gunfire."

Butler's essays are a very timely intervention in the political crises since September 11, 2001. She demonstrates how theories developed to analyze gender and sexuality provide important resources for addressing issues of political violence. Nonetheless, engaging with her work raises a number of questions.

First, what is the relation between human vulnerability and politics? Thomas Hobbes also thought that human beings are vulnerable when he wrote in 1660 that human life is nasty, brutish and short (Leviathan I, 13). Yet the politics that Hobbes endorses is far from what Butler has in mind. The politics that she envisions is one that many progressives want. It is a politics that is opposed to war, to American imperialism, to the violation of human rights and the destruction of human lives. What is the connection between her starting point, that we are vulnerable, and her conclusion, that we must struggle for "a politics that seeks to diminish suffering universally"? Although Butler charts her course through the ethical theory of Levinas, many other progressives reach this political vision by a critique of capitalism, imperialism, racism and war. So her ethical theory is not a necessary step for reaching this political vision.

Second, I wonder whether her own theory can support her call for us to widen the concept of the human. Her theoretical work has elaborated on how the process of dehumanization, which excludes certain lives from being recognized as human, is also constitutive of the concept of the human. If this is right, can one ever eliminate the logic by which some lives are treated as non-human? Is the ethical task to try to limit the number of lives who fall into this category? Or do we merely shift who is considered non-human in different places and times?

Third, what does it mean to make something politically out of grief? Butler notes, "it is not that mourning is the goal of politics, but that without the capacity to mourn, we lose that keener sense of life we need in order to oppose violence". She is right that loss and mourning are inevitably part of life. The emphasis on loss, mourning and failure is part of a tragic tradition in philosophy. And she is right that grief can lead to many things politically besides revenge and retaliation. Mourning can lead to a transformation not only of oneself but of the political conditions in which one finds oneself. Losing a close friend to AIDS intensifies my protest against the racism that made it impossible for him as a black man to reveal his illness. In Michael Moore's movie Bowling for Columbine the father whose six-year old daughter was shot to death by another six-year old in a school in Flint, Michigan began to protest against the National Rifle Association. And in Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 a mother from Flint, whose son was killed while he was a soldier in Iraq, began to organize anti-war activities. So the capacity to mourn can fuel political protest. But it can also fuel racism, violence, and war.

What Butler presumes here is that one can distinguish between proper and improper mourning. Whereas proper mourning involves protesting a system that has caused one's loss, improper mourning would involve hurting the person(s) who caused this loss, in revenge or retaliation. But she needs to give a much more careful discussion of mourning and the basis on which a judgment of grief can be made.

Finally, can a philosophical theory about the nature of being (i.e, human vulnerability) and of ethics (i.e., the face of the Other) carry the political weight that Butler seeks to give it? And why does she turn her attention away from feminism and queer theory in this book, instead of discussing these issues in relation to political violence? As the pictures of the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and the mass war-rapes in Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Congo remind us, political violence is often deeply implicated in sexual systems.

Despite these questions, Butler has in Precarious Life admirably shouldered the burden of being a critically engaged, public intellectual. And she has shown that her work continues to have the capacity to surprise us.

Robin Schott, Ph.D., is lecturer at the Department of Philosophy, Education, and Rhetoric, University of Copenhagen.

Judith Butler, Precarious Life; The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. 168 pages

Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: