Karela Fry

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On grievable lives

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Guernica interviews Judith Butler about her latest book, and her answers could as well be an indictment of Manmohan Singh’s government:

[Judith Butler’s] latest book, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009), reflects on the past decade’s saga of needless war, photographed—even fetishized—torture, and routine horror. It treats these practices as issuing from a philosophical choice, one which considers certain human beings expendable and unworthy of being grieved. The concluding chapter confronts the paradoxical nature of any call for nonviolent resistance—paradoxical because the very identities that we claim and resist on behalf of were themselves formed by violence in the past. Butler does not mistake nonviolence for passivity, as so many critics do. At its best, she writes, nonviolent resistance becomes a “carefully crafted ‘fuck you,’” tougher to answer than a Howitzer.

Butler on Obama: I think we have to learn how to separate our impressions of Obama the man as both thoughtful and inspiring from the policies of the Obama administration. Perhaps then we can begin to see that the politics of the administration are very separate from the impression of the man. This is a painful lesson to learn, and I wonder whether the U.S. public and its European allies will actually learn it.

Those explanations that try to locate all the inertia outside of Obama don’t take into account his own unwillingness to speak and act in face of certain urgent issues. His inability to condemn the onslaught against Gaza was not a matter of some external constraint upon him. No one coerced him into escalating the war in Afghanistan, nor was it a matter of externally situated inertia when he abandoned stronger versions of universal healthcare. Perhaps we should cease to ask the question of what kind of person he really is and focus on what he does.

A president is part of a team, and he chooses those with whom he will act in concert. Summers and Geithner were choices, and they were ones that clearly put technocratic free market thinking above questions of social justice and the kind of political thinking it would take to implement norms of justice. One has to be competent at implementing one policy or another. But there is always the question of which policy, and this is a matter of principle.

Butler on war: It is not a question of how much you or I feel—it is rather a question of whether a life is worth grieving, and no life is worth grieving unless it is regarded as grievable.

One saw this I think very keenly last year when Israel attacked Gaza. The population was considered in explicitly racist ways, and every life was considered an instrument of war. Thus, a unilateral attack on a trapped population became interpreted by those who waged war as an extended act of self-defense. It is clear that most people in the world rejected that construal of the situation, especially when they saw how many women and children were killed.

Butler on non-violence: I am not sure that the work is “inner” in the way that Gandhi described. But I do think that one has to remain vigilant in relation to one’s own aggression, to craft and direct it in ways that are effective. This work on the self, though, takes place through certain practices, and by noticing where one is, how angry one is, and even comporting oneself differently over time. I think this has to be a social practice, one that we undertake with others. That support and solidarity are crucial to maintaining it. Otherwise, we think we should become heroic individuals, and that takes us away from effective collective action.

Let’s remember that the so-called military-industrial complex has a philosophy, even if it is not readily published in journals. The contemporary cowboy also has, or exemplifies, a certain philosophical vision of power, masculinity, impermeability, and domination. So the question is how philosophy takes form as an embodied practice. Any action that is driven by principles, norms, or ideals is philosophically informed.

I am trying to bring together people to think about new forms of war and war waging, the place of media in the waging of war, and ways of thinking about violence that can take account of new forms of conflict that do not comply with conventional definitions of war.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

August 30, 2012 at 4:36 am

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