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precarious life Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 3, 2006



Grief As A Resource For Politics

Judith Butler, Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London/New York: Verso, 2004).

Susanne Buckley-Zistel
Peace Research Institute, Frankfurt


1. In her collection of five essays entitled "Precarious Life" Judith Butler offers a thoughtful analysis of US discourses in response to the events of 9/11. She examines the indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, censorship of public debates, the nation-building politics of mourning, and the demonisation of the Middle East in the media. The central theme of this book is how norms are established to define who counts as human and who is excluded from humanity.

2. The objective of "Precarious Life" is to develop an ethics and politics to resist these tendencies. Butler asks, "what forms of political reflection and deliberation ought [we] to take if we take injurability and aggression as two points of departure for political life?" (p. xii). Since the de-centring experience of 9/11, the US has been engaged in an effort to re-centre itself through a first-person narrative about its supremacy and leadership, which has a profound impact on future hopes and possibilities for global cooperation. In order to resist this tendency, according to Butler, if we conceive of ourselves as global actors within a historically conditioned environment, it is imperative to move away from this first-person narrative perspective of US unilateralism and to reflect upon the impact our lives on the lives of others.

3. Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas, Butler argues for a fundamental dependency between ourselves and an other, which reveals itself in the moment of loss and vulnerability as in the case of the US experience in 2001. Loss and vulnerability are ultimately linked to being socially constituted bodies since it is the attachment and therefore exposure to an other that puts us at risk of violence (p. 20). In her own words, "[i]f my fate is not originally or finally separable from yours, then the "we" is traversed by a relationality that we cannot easily argue against; or, rather, we can argue against, but we would be denying something fundamental about the social conditions of our very foundation" (p. 22). Consequently, the moment of grief might encourage us to challenge our understanding of ourselves as autonomous and sovereign entities. It is a moment when we are outside of ourselves and outside of our control.

4. Butler thus asks how we can turn grief into a resource for politics? Her answer is based on the notion of ethical responsibility. Responsibility emerges in the juncture between acting and being acted upon, and it is magnified once we have been subjected to the violence of others, for the moment of our response is also the moment of decision, requiring ethics and responsibility (p. 16). As for the US, Butler asks whether, instead of retaliation, it is not more responsible "to participate in ... social transformation in such a way that non-violent, co-operative, egalitarian international relations remain the guiding ideal?" This would initially call for an evaluation of who else suffers and why. Butler proposes a different order of responsibility in which we comprehend the forms of global power from a third-person perspective rather than from the first-person. This requires de-centring of the US from its supremacy and attempting to hear beyond what can be heard. With reference to the attacks on the US, this demands asking how these conditions have come about in order to re-create social and political conditions on more sustainable grounds. Consequently, we might start imagining a community in which relationality is not simply a descriptive or historical fact of our formation but an ongoing normative dimension of social and political lives, which would compel us to evaluate our own interdependence. This would lead to reassessing the use of violence since it always exploits "that primary tie in which we are, as bodies, outside of ourselves and for one another." (p. 27).

5. Without wanting to propose a grand, utopian master plan, in "Precarious Life," Butler asks how violence can be minimised by acknowledging fundamental interdependence as the basis of a global community. She suggests that "our political and ethical responsibility are rooted in the recognition that radical forms of self-sufficiency and unbridled sovereignty are, by definition, disrupted by the larger global processes of which they are a part, that no final control can be secured, and that final control is not ... an ultimate value" (p. xiii).

6. "Precarious Life" is a very accessible and passionate book that can be read in two ways: on a more superficial level, it is an eloquent, political analysis of US policies and attitudes post-9/11. On a more profound level, though, it is an attempt to apply post-positivist ideas to political critique and action. While the first reading certainly provides for interesting insights, the second is a prime example that post-positivist ideas provide a means to orient political action rather than being merely relativist, and this is the primary contribution of Butler's book. .

Susanne Buckley-Zistel is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).

© borderlands ejournal 2006



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