📖 eBook - ePub
Frames of War
When Is Life Grievable?
📖 eBook - ePub
Frames of War
When Is Life Grievable?
About This Book
Analyzing the different frames through which we experience war, Butler calls for a reorientation of the Left
In this urgent response to violence, racism and increasingly aggressive methods of coercion, Judith Butler explores the media's portrayal of armed conflict, a process integral to how the West prosecutes its wars. In doing so, she calls for a reconceptualization of the left, one united in opposition and resistance to the illegitimate and arbitrary effects of interventionist military action.
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Survivability, Vulnerability, Affect
The postulation of a generalized precariousness that calls into question the ontology of individualism implies, although does not directly entail, certain normative consequences. It does not suffice to say that since life is precarious, therefore it must be preserved. At stake are the conditions that render life sustainable, and thus moral disagreements invariably center on how or whether these conditions of life can be improved and precarity ameliorated. But if such a view entails a critique of individualism, how do we begin to think about ways to assume responsibility for the minimization of precarity? If the ontology of the body serves as a point of departure for such a rethinking of responsibility, it is precisely because, in its surface and its depth, the body is a social phenomenon: it is exposed to others, vulnerable by definition. Its very persistence depends upon social conditions and institutions, which means that in order to “be,” in the sense of “persist,” it must rely on what is outside itself. How can responsibility be thought on the basis of this socially ecstatic structure of the body? As something that, by definition, yields to social crafting and force, the body is vulnerable. It is not, however, a mere surface upon which social meanings are inscribed, but that which suffers, enjoys, and responds to the exteriority of the world, an exteriority that defines its disposition, its passivity and activity. Of course, injury is one thing that can and does happen to a vulnerable body (and there are no invulnerable bodies), but that is not to say that the body’s vulnerability is reducible to its injurability. That the body invariably comes up against the outside world is a sign of the general predicament of unwilled proximity to others and to circumstances beyond one’s control. This “coming up against” is one modality that defines the body. And yet, this obtrusive alterity against which the body finds itself can be, and often is, what animates responsiveness to that world. That responsiveness may include a wide range of affects: pleasure, rage, suffering, hope, to name a few.
Such affects, I would argue, become not just the basis, but the very stuff of ideation and of critique.1 In this way, a certain interpretive act implicitly takes hold at moments of primary affective responsiveness. Interpretation does not emerge as the spontaneous act of a single mind, but as a consequence of a certain field of intelligibility that helps to form and frame our responsiveness to the impinging world (a world on which we depend, but which also impinges upon us, exacting responsiveness in complex, sometimes ambivalent, forms). Hence, precariousness as a generalized condition relies on a conception of the body as fundamentally dependent on, and conditioned by, a sustained and sustainable world; responsiveness—and thus, ultimately, responsibility—is located in the affective responses to a sustaining and impinging world. Because such affective responses are invariably mediated, they call upon and enact certain interpretive frames; they can also call into question the taken-for-granted character of those frames, and in that way provide the affective conditions for social critique. As I have argued elsewhere, moral theory has to become social critique if it is to know its object and act upon it. To understand the schema I have proposed in the context of war, it is necessary to consider how responsibility must focus not just on the value of this or that life, or on the question of survivability in the abstract, but on the sustaining social conditions of life—especially when they fail. This task becomes particularly acute in the context of war.
It is not easy to turn to the question of responsibility, not least since the term itself has been used for ends that are contrary to my purpose here. In France, for instance, where social benefits to the poor and new immigrants have been denied, the government has called for a new sense of “responsibility,” by which it means that individuals ought not to rely on the state but on themselves. A word has even been coined to describe the process of producing self-reliant individuals: “responsibilization.” I am certainly not opposed to individual responsibility, and there are ways in which, to be sure, we all must assume responsibility for ourselves. But a few critical questions emerge for me in light of this formulation: am I responsible only to myself? Are there others for whom I am responsible? And how do I, in general, determine the scope of my responsibility? Am I responsible for all others, or only to some, and on what basis would I draw that line?
This is, however, only the beginning of my difficulties. I confess to having some problems with the pronouns in question. Is it only as an “I,” that is, as an individual, that I am responsible? Could it be that when I assume responsibility what becomes clear is that who “I” am is bound up with others in necessary ways? Am I even thinkable without that world of others? In effect, could it be that through the process of assuming responsibility the “I” shows itself to be, at least partially, a “we”?
But who then is included in the “we” that I seem to be, or to be part of? And for which “we” am I finally responsible? This is not the same as the question: to which “we” do I belong? If I identify a community of belonging on the basis of nation, territory, language, or culture, and if I then base my sense of responsibility on that community, I implicitly hold to the view that I am responsible only for those who are recognizably like me in some way. But what are the implicit frames of recognizability in play when I “recognize” someone as “like” me? What implicit political order produces and regulates “likeness” in such instances? What is our responsibility toward those we do not know, toward those who seem to test our sense of belonging or to defy available norms of likeness? Perhaps we belong to them in a different way, and our responsibility to them does not in fact rely on the apprehension of ready-made similitudes. Perhaps such a responsibility can only begin to be realized through a critical reflection on those exclusionary norms by which fields of recognizability are constituted, fields that are implicitly invoked when, by a cultural reflex, we mourn for some lives but respond with coldness to the loss of others.
Before I suggest a way of thinking about global responsibility during these times of war, I want to distance myself from some mistaken ways of approaching the problem. Those, for instance, who wage war in the name of the common good, those who kill in the name of democracy or security, those who make incursions into the sovereign lands of others in the name of sovereignty—all consider themselves to be “acting globally” and even to be executing a certain “global responsibility.” In the US we have heard in recent years about “bringing democracy” to countries where it is apparently lacking; we have heard, too, about “installing democracy.” In such moments we have to ask what democracy means if it is not based on popular decision and majority rule. Can one power “bring” or “install” democracy on a people over whom it has no jurisdiction? If a form of power is imposed upon a people who do not choose that form of power, then that is, by definition, an undemocratic process. If the form of power imposed is called “democracy” then we have an even larger problem: can “democracy” be the name of a form of political power that is undemocratically imposed? Democracy has to name the means through which political power is achieved as well as the result of that process. And this creates something of a bind, since a majority can certainly vote in an undemocratic form of power (as the Germans did when electing Hitler in 1933), but military powers can also seek to “install” democracy through overriding or suspending elections and other expressions of the popular will, and by means that are patently undemocratic. In both cases, democracy fails.
How do these brief reflections on the perils of democracy affect our way of thinking about global responsibility in times of war? First, we must be wary of invocations of “global responsibility” which assume that one country has a distinctive responsibility to bring democracy to other countries. I am sure that there are cases in which intervention is important—to forestall genocide, for instance. But it would be a mistake to conflate such an intervention with a global mission or, indeed, with an arrogant politics in which forms of government are forcibly implemented that are in the political and economic interests of the military power responsible for that very implementation. In such cases, we probably want to say—or at least I want to say—that this form of global responsibility is irresponsible, if not openly contradictory. We could say that in such instances the word “responsibility” is simply misused or abused. And I would tend to agree. But that may not be enough, since historical circumstances demand that we give new meanings to the notion of “responsibility.” Indeed, there is a challenge before us to rethink and reformulate a conception of global responsibility that would counter this imperialist appropriation and its politics of imposition.
To that end, I want to return to the question of the “we” and think first about what happens to this “we” during times of war. Whose lives are regarded as lives worth saving and defending, and whose are not? Second, I want to ask how we might rethink the “we” in global terms in ways that counter the politics of imposition. Lastly, and in the chapters to come, I want to consider why the opposition to torture is obligatory, and how we might derive an important sense of global responsibility from a politics that opposes the use of torture in any and all of its forms.2
So, one way of posing the question of who “we” are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable. We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all. We can see the division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war in order to defend the lives of certain communities, and to defend them against the lives of others—even if it means taking those latter lives. After the attacks of 9/11, we encountered in the media graphic pictures of those who died, along with their names, their stories, the reactions of their families. Public grieving was dedicated to making these images iconic for the nation, which meant of course that there was considerably less public grieving for non-US nationals, and none at all for illegal workers.
The differential distribution of public grieving is a political issue of enormous significance. It has been since at least the time of Antigone, when she chose openly to mourn the death of one of her brothers even though it went against the sovereign law to do so. Why is it that governments so often seek to regulate and control who will be publicly grievable and who will not? In the initial years of the AIDS crisis in the US, the public vigils, and the Names Project3 broke through the public shame associated with dying from AIDS, a shame associated sometimes with homosexuality, and especially anal sex, and sometimes with drugs and promiscuity. It meant something to state and show the name, to put together some remnants of a life, to publicly display and avow the loss. What would happen if those killed in the current wars were to be grieved in just such an open way? Why is it that we are not given the names of all the war dead, including those the US has killed, of whom we will never have the image, the name, the story, never a testimonial shard of their life, something to see, to touch, to know? Although it is not possible to singularize every life destroyed in war, there are surely ways to register the populations injured and destroyed without fully assimilating to the iconic function of the image.4
Open grieving is bound up with outrage, and outrage in the face of injustice or indeed of unbearable loss has enormous political potential. It is, after all, one of the reasons Plato wanted to ban the poets from the Republic. He thought that if the citizens went too often to watch tragedy, they would weep over the losses they saw, and that such open and public mourning, in disrupting the order and hierarchy of the soul, would disrupt the order and hierarchy of political authority as well. Whether we are speaking about open grief or outrage, we are talking about affective responses that are highly regulated by regimes of power and sometimes subject to explicit censorship. In the contemporary wars in which the US is directly engaged, those in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can see how affect is regulated to support both the war effort and, more specifically, nationalist belonging. When the photos of Abu Ghraib were first released in the US, conservative television pundits argued that it would be un-American to show them. We were not supposed to have graphic evidence of the acts of torture US personnel had committed. We were not supposed to know that the US had violated internationally recognized human rights. It was un-American to show these photos and un-American to glean information from them as to how the war was being conducted. The conservative political commentator Bill O’Reilly thought that the photos would create a negative image of the US and that we had an obligation to defend a positive image.5 Donald Rumsfeld said something similar, suggesting that it was anti-American to display the photos.6 Of course, neither considered that the American public might have a right to know about the activities of its military, or that the public’s right to judge the war on the basis of full evidence is part of the democratic tradition of participation and deliberation. So what was really being said? It seems to me that those who sought to limit the power of the image in this instance also sought to limit the power of affect, of outrage, knowing full well that it could and would turn public opinion against the war in Iraq, as indeed it did.
The question, though, of whose lives are to be regarded as grievable, as worthy of protection, as belonging to subjects with rights that ought to be honored, returns us to the question of how affect is regulated and of what we mean by the regulation of affect at all. The anthropologist Talal Asad recently wrote a book about suicide bombing in which the first question he poses is: Why do we feel horror and moral repulsion in the face of suicide bombing when we do not always feel the same way in the face of state-sponsored violence?7 He asks the question not in order to say that these forms of violence are the same, or even to say that we ought to feel the same moral outrage in relation to both. But he finds it curious, and I follow him here, that our moral responses—responses that first take form as affect—are tacitly regulated by certain kinds of interpretive frameworks. His thesis is that we feel more horror and moral revulsion in the face of lives lost under certain conditions than under certain others. If, for instance, someone kills or is killed in war, and the war is state-sponsored, and we invest the state with legitimacy, then we consider the death lamentable, sad, and unfortunate, but not radically unjust. And yet if the violence is perpetrated by insurgency groups regarded as illegitimate, then our affect invariably changes, or so Asad assumes.
Although Asad asks us to think about suicide bombing—something I won’t do right now—it is also clear that he is saying something important about the politics of moral responsiveness; namely, that what we feel is in part conditioned by how we interpret the world around us; that how we interpret what we feel actually can and does alter the feeling itself. If we accept that affect is structured by interpretive schemes that we do not fully understand, can this help us understand why it is we might feel horror in the face of certain losses but indifference or even righteousness in light of others? In contemporary conditions of war and heightened nationalism, we imagine that our existence is bound up with others with whom we can find national affinity, who are recognizable to us, and who conform to certain culturally specific notions about what the culturally recognizable human is. This interpretative framework functions by tacitly differentiating between those populations on whom my life and existence depend, and those populations who represent a direct threat to my life and existence. When a population appears as a direct threat to my life, they do not appear as “lives,” but as the threat to life (a living figure that figures the threat to life). Consider how this is compounded under those conditions in which Islam is seen as barbaric or pre-modern, as not yet having conformed to those norms that make the human recognizable. Those we kill are not quite human, and not quite alive, which means that we do not feel the same horror and outrage over the loss of their lives as we do over the loss of those lives that bear national or religious similarity to our own.
Asad wonders whether modes of death-dealing are apprehended differently, whether we object to the deaths caused by suicide bombing more forcefully and with greater moral outrage than we do to those deaths caused by aerial bombings. But here I am wondering whether there is not also a differential way of regarding populations, such that some are considered from the start very much alive and others more questionably alive, p...
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APA 6 Citation
Butler, J. (2016). Frames of War ([edition unavailable]). Verso. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/730910/frames-of-war-when-is-life-grievable-pdf (Original work published 2016)
Butler, Judith. (2016) 2016. Frames of War. [Edition unavailable]. Verso. https://www.perlego.com/book/730910/frames-of-war-when-is-life-grievable-pdf.
Butler, J. (2016) Frames of War. [edition unavailable]. Verso. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/730910/frames-of-war-when-is-life-grievable-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Butler, Judith. Frames of War. [edition unavailable]. Verso, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.