Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso, 2004)
Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (Routledge, 2004)
Human life is touched upon and yet left untouched. It is life that constantly feels and receives its conditions of existence from outside itself, but that also seems indefinable except through recourse to such external conditioning forces. “Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life,” Hannah Arendt can thus claim near the beginning of The Human Condition, “immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.” Apart from its seeming impressionability and sustainability, human life does not get directly defined here. This strategy of indirection employed to understand how human beings live runs rather deep in philosophy. And it is the philosophical depth at stake in our contemporary conceptions of human life that Judith Butler explores in her two new books.
Human life designates “an unwieldy combination,” Butler suggests straightaway in Undoing Gender, “since ‘human’ does not simply qualify ‘life,’ but ‘life’ relates human to what is nonhuman and living, establishing the human in the midst of this relationality.” Nonetheless, she admits that she would like “to start, and to end, with the question of the human, of who counts as the human, and with the related question of whose lives count as lives, and with a question that has preoccupied many of us for years: what makes for a grievable life?” These are all versions of the same question: why is it that certain experiences of living are understood and valued as such, while others are considered differently and devalued? How we answer depends, Butler will maintain, on how we understand the role of our bodies in ethical and political life. Her expression of her own views concerning the body, as readers of Butler’s earlier work have discovered, tends to be a quite difficult and labyrinthine affair. Much of the same difficulty and density can be seen in the pages of her latest work. But there is a different tenor, a different sense of urgency, to Butler’s writing this time around. Living as we do in a gruesome and garish time of war, entering her labyrinth of categories and concepts now appears more necessary than ever.
Human life can only be grasped on account of the body. With our bodies, we can wield at once too much power and not enough power. Embodied life is equally violent and vulnerable. According to Butler, “The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and to violence. The body can be the agent and the instrument of all these as well, or the site where "doing" and "being done to" become equivocal…Given over from the start to the world of others, bearing their imprint, formed within the crucible of social life, the body is only later, and with some uncertainty, that to which I lay claim as my own.” At its worst, bodily exposure is a kind of photographic exposure, except without a camera lucida: sensitive surfaces are acted upon, or indeed violated, where the timing of the action or violation is crucial for the darkest, most deadening, image to be revealed. At its best, bodily exposure is a kind of public exposure, except without nakedness or celebrity: sensitive surfaces are able to exist alongside similarly sensitive surfaces, to accept such necessary and unavoidable proximity, but toward the end of doing things in common and being together. Either way, we remain essentially exposed, throttled outside ourselves, abandoned to a world that may well, and often does, abandon us.
All the same, Butler thinks that addressing the most extreme experiences of bodily exposure, and the attendant ways they can undo us, is a productive, ethical, and political exercise. Interestingly, she does not overstate the point. With disarming simplicity, Butler merely says, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” What we miss is nothing less than the most essential component of our lives. In our bodies, we may often feel itinerant rather than irreducible. That does not detract, though, from the bodies that we basically are. Such a feeling actually enlivens us to the ecstatic experiences of embodiment that frustrate our avaricious attempts at self-ownership and autonomy. We encounter the embodied lesson of heteronomy, and it teaches us about our ineradicable dependence on others, which is perhaps the biggest lesson we can ever learn about ourselves.
Human life is sometimes neither quite alive, nor quite dead. “Violence against those...who are living in a state of suspension between life and death leaves a mark that is no mark,” Butler laments. “If there is a discourse, it is a silent and melancholic writing,” her lamentation labors onward, “in which there have been no lives, and no losses, there has been no common physical condition, no vulnerability that serves as the basis for an apprehension of our commonality, and there has been no sundering of that commonality.” At issue are those lives that have not been acknowledged as ever having lived. When violence against them gives way to violent death, there is nothing to grieve because nothing has been lost. Not even a weeping without tears can get an emotional foothold. Life so damaged and dispossessed can be found not only among sexual minorities, but also among various ethnic and racial groups throughout the world. “To counter oppression requires that one understand that lives are supported and maintained differently,” Butler therefore argues, “that there are radically different ways in which human physical vulnerability is distributed across the globe. Certain lives will be highly protected, and the abrogation of their claims to sanctity will be sufficient to mobilize the forces of war. And others will not find such fast and furious support and will not even qualify as grievable.”
Human life demonstrates the precariousness of life. “We have yet to become human, it seems,” Butler wagers in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, “and now that prospect seems even more radically imperiled, if not, for time being, indefinitely foreclosed.” She is referring, of course, to our present political predicament, to the inhumane treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, to Arab and Muslim lives being systematically dehumanized, to the self-aggrandizing warmongers of the Bush administration. Our humanity appears out of reach precisely because of how we are currently conducting ourselves in war. But not everyone goes to war like us. Not everyone destroys innocent life and then denies its innocence and its erstwhile existence. Not everyone bombs bodies in Iraq and Afghanistan just because they can. In one of the most resonant passages in Precarious Life, a book that shines with the splendor of engaged thought, Butler contends that if we assume everyone who is human goes to war like us, and that this is part of what makes them recognizably human, or that the violence we commit is violence that falls within the realm of the recognizably human, but the violence that others commit is unrecognizable as human activity, then we make use of a limited and limiting cultural frame to understand what it is to be human. To be human implies many things, one of which is that we are the kinds of beings who must live in a world where clashes of value do and will occur, and that these clashes are a sign of what a human community is. How we handle those conflicts will also be a sign of our humanness, one that is, importantly, in the making.
So violence cannot be a privileged means of recognizing the human dimensions of ourselves. We must be able to recognize more than just the victorious and victimized among us. Recognition occurs when our disputes are not understood as symptomatic of the most irreconcilable differences, but rather as manageable and surmountable, no matter how ideologically entrenched they may be. Arguing about what is valuable in our lives, about what can be legitimately valued and devalued at the level of life, even about what makes life itself into its own value, can be done without bombs or guns having the last word. Disputation does not require decimation. Nor does civility require the ballast of civilization in order to matter. The way we organize our world can offer an enlarged yet humbling reflection of a humanness still not quite made: “This is how the human comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know.”
Human life can reflect a commitment to non-violence in the midst of violence. We may fear for our survival, we may feel threatened by others, and yet remain reticent about hurting them. But these dueling impulses, Butler points out, recalling the later work of Emmanuel Levinas, “are at war with each other in order not to be at war, and this seems to the point...non-violence...does not come from a peaceful place, but rather from a constant tension between the fear of undergoing violence and the fear of inflicting violence.” Whatever we do with this ethical ambivalence will reveal whether we can acknowledge the suffering of others, whether can we countenance bodily needs and desires other than as things we think we own. “Suffering can yield an experience of humility, of vulnerability, of impressionability and dependence,” Butler writes toward the end of Precarious Life, “and these can become resources if we do not ‘resolve’ them too quickly; they can move us beyond and against the vocation of the paranoid victim who regenerates infinitely the justifications for war. It is as much a matter of wrestling ethically with one’s own murderous impulses, impulses that seek to quell an overwhelming fear, as it is a matter of apprehending the suffering of others and taking stock of the suffering one has inflicted.”
Human life does not really struggle with itself so long as the unsightly remains unseen. There is nothing felicitous or noble about that. Human dismemberment and disfigurement—and all the other ghastly gains of murder during wartime—must achieve representation if the bodies and lives that have been killed are going to mean something, if they are going to be given names and faces, if we are going to begin to register the depths of who and what has been lost.
Human life is especially our life when the most awful appearances move us whenever we are faced with them. When we turn away from what faces us, we don’t just look the other way. We embody an inhuman way of seeing in which we can no longer recognize a helpless body as the most unjust site of pain and death.
When we turn away like this, human life is the last thing that is going to touch upon us. We are left wholly untouched.
Morris writes on intellectual culture for Bookforum and other publications.