It took me more than two years to get through this book. I put it down after page 42 in 2012 because of its dense content and academic language. I am a fan of Judith Butler because she has some unique and thoughtful ways of looking at difficult questions. In this book of essays, (some of which she gave as lectures), she is looking at how we frame war and violence to justify it and give it meaning. She touches on how the media manipulates our emotions to reinforce or create our sentiments. This is not a new idea. Of course we all know the power of propaganda. But she has more to say about how we frame the idea of war so that we can bear its negative affects.
According to Judith Butler, each of our lives is “…always is some sense in the hands of others”. She points out that we are nothing but social creatures that depend completely on each other for everything in our lives. And she means everything. From the survival of each infant born to the food on our plates to the infrastructure that provides the food on our plates including the plates. Each of our lives is necessarily dependent on others. She makes a case that our global social entanglement shapes how we view each other as human beings. Or not. Consider that she makes this observation:
“…war [divides] 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…it has never counted as a life at all.”
In a war where the one side (say Hamas) stores armaments in schools, community centres, and houses of worship, the destruction of those armaments means that the people in those places, be they children, women, holy men or teachers do not have grievable lives. Their lives have and had no meaning because they were already dead before they were born. They are not alive and never were. We may believe that the people in those places are being used by the enemy as human shields. Therefore if the enemy does not give their own people the status of living beings worthy of being mourned, missed or valued, why should anyone else? So the bombing of these places becomes justifiable. Butler makes the entire idea of killing ludicrous when seen from this point of view. She is coming from the position that all human life, all interconnected on this planet, is grievable. Yet,we divide the world into those who are worthy of being grieved and those who are not. Otherwise we cannot justify war and violence. In one of her many brilliant statements she writes,
“…war seeks to deny the ongoing and irrefutable ways in which we are all subject to one another, vulnerable to destruction by the other, and in need of protection…[via]agreements based on the recognition of shared precariousness.”
She goes on to assert that “[w]ar is precisely an effort to minimize precariousness for some and maximize it for others.”
Apart from these ideas and some interesting discussion of the impact of media and photography, the essays for the most part left me cold and wanting. I was distressed by her use of language. For example, she uses the word alterity at one point when otherness would have made her point much more accessible. There are also statements and ideas that I found completely incomprehensible. For example, I could not make sense of this:
“The point is not to celebrate a full deregulation of affect, but to query the conditions of responsiveness by offering interpretive matrices for the understanding of war that question and oppose the dominant interpretations — interpretations that not only act upon affect, but take form and become effective as affect itself.”
If you can decipher this, I’d love to know what it means.
I was also shocked that she actually used the (non)-word irregardless (page 178 for anyone that cares). I will give her the benefit of the doubt and consider that an incompetent editor or grad student made the slip-up.
In matters of our global attitudes to war, violence, hatred, and non-tolerance, accessibility of her ideas is important for real change in my opinion. I am not sure she is interested in changing the world so much as she just wants to explore it philosophically and for the fun of it.
(note: this review, slightly edited, was cross-posted to Goodreads on Aug 31 2014)
On Sunday Morning the weekly CBC televsion newsmagazine, a Montreal actor and dubbing director, Michael Rudder, was interviewed from his hospital bed in Bombay. He’d been shot at least four times last week in the Mumbai attacks. He was shot in the arm, the leg, the buttocks and as of this writing, there is still a bullet lodged in his stomach. Eating in the Oberoi hotel restaurant, he had heard shots and asked about them. He was told by restaurant employees, that it was only gangsters. A strange remark indeed. (As strange as the remarks made during a Mexican murder aftermath in 2006. Then, Mexican officials publically declared that an Italian couple killed in a resort near Playa del Carmen was the work of Canadian mobster hit women from Thunder Bay. That murder is another act of violence that outrages me.) Rudder doesn’t understand why, but assumed he and his party were not in danger. Moments later he and the patrons found themselves in a hailstorm of bullets. He believes that extremism is on the rise. I think that this is nonsense. Extremism just is and sometimes it causes loss of life.
With innocence still and perhaps naivety Rudder continues in the interview, ” ...as long as people think that their hatred is more powerful than the wisdom that their mothers’ would have taught them…they will respond in such ways.” This sentiment, of course, assumes that their mothers have a wisdom that prevents hatred. In my skepticism, I am not so sure that is true. I could exercise a generosity of interpretation and suppose that “mothers’ wisdom” is a symbol for an attitude of peace, love and nuturance. In that case his statement is very much worth thinking about. But who is teaching the attitude? I am not sure that human nature has changed in all of recorded history and I fear that the chance of that happening is very slim. Every second a new baby on this planet is born, a stranger in a hostile land, a tabula rasa that his or her culture and economic position will imprint itself on, forever repeating the same patterns be they for good or ill.
Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s humanity. That’s what we do generation after generation. We hate and fear the other and seeking vengence for real or perceived affronts is very human. The philosopher, Judith Butler, discusses revenge in a 2003 interview in The Believer Magazine. She says that when choosing non-retaliation: “Many people consider that refusing to strike back is a masochistic way of handling oneself when one is in a condition of injury, or that such a refusal is tantamount to political paralysis, but I actually think it is an adamant and vigilant stand, a difficult stand against violence itself.” She reminds us that:
“War begets war. It produces outraged and humiliated and furious people…it is precisely because we’re constituted with aggression, it’s precisely because we are capable of waging war, and of striking back, and of doing massive injury, that peace becomes a necessity…[Peace] is a commitment to living with a certain kind of vulnerability to others and susceptibility to being wounded that actually gives our individual lives meaning. And I think this way of viewing things is a much harder place to go, so to speak. One can’t just do it alone, either. I think it needs to be institutionalized. It needs to be part of a community ethos. I think in fact it needs to be part of an entire foreign policy.”
I think these are the things we should be teaching our children.