Good Grief

Opaque prose aside, Judith Butler’s new book asks crucial questions about how we tolerate state-sanctioned death.

Kristian Williams

A relative mourns a man killed in an explosion and brought to the morgue of a local hospital in the northeastern town of Baquba, Iraq, on July 30. (Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images )

Whose life is worth protecting? If the question shocks us, it is because we hesitate to declare, by implication, that there are people whose lives aren’t worth protecting. 

Butler hammers the conceptual pillars of the dominant American worldview—including individualism, national identity, progress, and modernity.

Yet, while it may not be put in these terms, this is exactly the sort of judgment that President Barack Obama has to make in deciding how many troops to leave in Iraq, whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and when to authorize drone attacks in Pakistan. The point of combat is to kill the enemy, after all, and in the right circumstances anyone may be expendable – our soldiers, our allies, civilians on all sides. Acceptable losses. Collateral damage.

In her latest book, Frames of War (Verso), feminist philosopher Judith Butler examines the cultural and ideological frames” that deny the fallibility of the powerful and obscure the suffering of victims, thus simultaneously justifying violence while hiding its real character. 

She writes: If the violent act is, among other things, a way of relocating the capacity to be violated (always) elsewhere, it produces the appearance that the subject who enacts violence is impermeable to violence. The accomplishment of this appearance becomes one aim of violence; one locates injurability with the other by injuring the other and then taking the sign of injury as the truth of the other.” 

This unequal distribution of violence, Butler suggests, is implicit in the idea of sovereignty. While others are potentially subject to the state’s violence, the state presents itself as uniquely immune to injury. The sovereign subject poses as precisely not the one who is impinged upon by others,” she writes. Such a sovereign position not only denies its own constitutive injurability but tries to relocate injurability in the other as an effect of doing injury to the other and exposing that other as, by definition, injurable.”

If the state, by definition, seeks a monopoly on legitimate force, then not only are all other actors excluded from its use, but there must also be some who are defined as legitimate targets for violence. The very idea of the state requires these distinct definitions of human worth, and the ideological framework of legitimacy” works to articulate and justify those distinctions.

In opposition to this kind of thinking, Butler proposes an ethics of active non-violence based on the acknowledgment of what all human beings share – the precariousness of life, and our dependency on others for its continuation.

In other words, we all (at least at times) depend on others for our survival; therefore (at least in principle) we all have some obligation to others, those whose survival may come to depend on us. This interdependency is an inherent feature of our humanity. It traces out the limit of any simple notions of individualism or self-sufficiency. And at the same time, the lines of interdependence cut across all categories of group identity – race, class, gender, family, tribe, or nation. 

Making the case against the claims of sovereignty and for an expansive solidarity, Butler hammers the conceptual pillars of the dominant American worldview – including individualism, national identity, progress, and modernity. In so doing, she complicates – or rather, confounds – any point of view that seeks to divide the world into good guys” and bad guys,” or even us” and them.”

And as it proceeds, the conversation takes us into some strange corners: the division (or connection) between religious and sexual identity, the tensions inherent in any ideal of tolerance,” the enactment (or denial) of grief, the criteria for citizenship, and the use (or restriction) or wartime photography.

There really isn’t a coherent narrative or an unfolding argument governing Frames of War, just a series of meditations centered rather generally on the subject of state violence. The parts add up to something less than a whole, though several of the parts need a whole to really function properly.

On the other hand, the abrupt shift at the beginning of Chapter Two actually comes as a relief, since the conceit of the first section is tiresome and unsound. Put simply, Butler argues that because grief shows that we value a life (typically, one that has been lost), a failure to grieve demonstrates a refusal to value that life, a denial of its status as a life.

Now, it is obvious that the U.S. government manipulated public grief (as well as fear) after the September 11 attacks, and did so to broker support for its own agenda. And it is equally true that the government has done what it can to limit American grief over the deaths of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – and even to channel the grief over U.S. casualties. However, Butler’s attempts to generalize from these facts and place grievability” at the center of a broad ethical theory clearly push the issue too far. 

Logically speaking, there is a difference between deaths that we personally don’t grieve and those that cannot be grieved. The word ungrievable,” if it means anything, ought to refer to the latter category – but that category is empty. And so Butler consistently blurs the distinction. Of course no one really denies that people in Iraq have lives, or that Afghans mourn their dead. But because Butler has made grievability” the central issue, she has to act as though U.S. military policy is founded on an ontological mistake. 

What I think Butler is trying to get at is that when our government kills people – even strangers, far away – we do have some real relationship to those deaths. Grief may, in fact, be an appropriate response. There’s no point, though, in pretending that grief is a necessary concomitant to recognizing another person’s humanity.

It must be said here that Butler’s prose style – in particular, her reliance on highly abstract language and declarative generalization – facilitates just this kind of error. This book would have benefited from a good editor, or perhaps a translator. Butler’s writing is not exactly bad; it’s more like a perversion of goodness. Her sentences are carefully crafted, her diction is precise, and her rhetoric is sometimes beautiful – in the way that industrial music may be called beautiful. What it lacks, however, are the virtues of clarity, grace and sympathy for the reader. 

And that’s a shame, really. For the questions Butler is addressing are – or ought to be – crucial. At a time when our rhetoric divides the world between Islam” and the West,” and when the main controversy in American foreign policy is not Is war necessary?,” but rather, Is victory possible?,” understanding the ideological framing of warfare, the mechanisms by which it becomes culturally and psychologically acceptable, are concerns of the first order. Yet Butler seems strangely indifferent to whether her arguments can be understood. That’s bad enough, surely, when her ideas are mistaken – but it is so much worse when they happen to be correct.

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Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination.
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