Judith Butler — Ungrievable Lives


A discussion with Judith Butler on public mourning: Antigone, grieving, victimization, the production of certain populations as “ungrievable”, and the politics of public mourning as the expansion of our ideas of what constitutes a livable life, the expansion of our recognition of those lives that are worth protecting, worth valuing.

Precarious LifeNelly Kambouri: In your latest work, you have become preoccupied with the borders and boundaries of sovereignty.  In what ways do you think that these are sexualized, gendered?

Judith Butler: I think it is possible to consider certain forms of ego psychology as well as Kleinian psychoanalysis as registering the traces of political sovereignty in the psyche.  What kind of ego or psyche is it that prizes its own impermeability over every other form of connection or interdependency?  My sense is that the “border” of the ego works differently under certain conditions of the nation-state, especially those where “invasion” is feared, where “internal integrity” is most highly valued, and where dependency, especially global interdependency, is refused.

It was clear to me that in response to 9/11, the US government in conjunction with an abject media sought to create a national subject, pervasively masculinist, that would be defined as impermeable, invulnerable, relentlessly aggressive, and refusing its important international ties.  The question has to do with how the national subject responds to the sudden awareness of its own vulnerability?  After all, this was the first time that the US had been attacked within its own borders since the attack on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War.  The U.S. could have taken the opportunity to recognize its own vulnerability and to recognize as well the generalizability of that vulnerability, a move which would have empowered international and transnational accords meant to minimize the risk of violence.  But its strategy was to disavow that very vulnerability.

This version of the national subject was created (a kind of coercively instituted imaginary of the nation), through regulating how we understood and responded to death.  The death of those who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center were not only considered deplorable, but elevated to an extraordinary sanctified status.  On the other hand, we were forbidden to see the war dead — and still are — which means that the regulation of the visual field in which death can be encountered remains crucial to the war effort and its underlying nationalism.  Certain lives are grievable, and others not, and this works to sanctify the violence we inflict, and to disavow any conception of our own precarity.  Those the US kills are not really “living beings” but constitute populations who threaten “life” as we know it.  This is a kind of pernicious schism that conditions the culture of war.

Nelly Kambouri: Is it possible to devise strategies and rethink violence in order to produce positive material effects and social bonds?

Judith Butler: I very much like the idea of the relationship between women as a social form that enacts interdependence.  My sense is that certain ethical principles are only made evident and put into play by virtue of political situations.  So for me, there is no ethics outside of social practice and the field of power.  It seems to me that any decision to enact violence or to refuse violence has an ethical dimension, since it pertains to conduct and to the kind of rationale we give for whatever relation to violence we take.  But we would not be in such situations if it were not for the existence of political aggression and, more specifically, social forms of aggression.  The feminist self-defence movement is at once an ethical and political practice.  It would never be necessary if it were not for violence against women.  And yet it embodies ethical principles in social forms.

I think there are also alliances in Palestine, the work of Ta-ayush, Anarchists Against the Wall, and various educational and arts projects within Palestine that are constantly trying to take the risk of non-violence.

Nelly Kambouri: You talk a lot about subjects and social groups whose deaths cannot be publicly mourned.  Repeating Antigone, can these acts of mourning be transformed into forms of dissidence when these deaths are publicly mourned?

Judith Butler: Yes, we can think about the public mourning of the “disappeared” in Chile and Argentina, the major AIDS demonstrations that involved highly theatrical efforts to mark and grieve those lives that were considered “ungrievable.”  The current wars depend not only on the unrepresentability of the war dead, but also on a systematic effort to produce certain populations as “ungrievable.”  It was interesting that Antigone was forbidden to mourn publicly her brother; Creon was trying not only to control the public show of her fidelity, but to decide who counts as kin.  As a result, the way she lays claim to that bond seeks to contest the sovereign control over what counts as kinship and what does not.  More generally, we can see the importance of public grieving when those who are grieved are ‘supposed to be’ ungrievable lives.  A life that is not supposed to be grieved is also a life that is not supposed to have existed at all, whose ‘negation’ is built into its very public definition.  I think that war would be less easy to wage if certain populations were regarded as part of the existing, that is, those whose lives are legitimate.

Nelly Kambouri: It seems, however, that there are also paradigmatic victims whose lives are “mourned” daily in the context of humanitarian policies, missions and projects.  They might be anonymous and silent, but at the same time they tend to be incredibly visible.  Can we think of borders, boundaries, violence and mourning outside the paradigmatic victimization of certain categories (i.e. innocent victims, refugees, women and children, victims of trafficking, Muslim women etc.)?

Judith Butler: Surely it is important to mark and know victimization, but it would be a mistake if we took victimization as a paradigm for political subjugation.  Of course, sometimes no resistance is possible, under situations of extreme coercion, but sometimes coercion is itself subverted through various acts of disobedience, through modes of unexpected solidarity and collective action.  It is not enough to have a politics that has “public mourning” as its final goal.  The point of public mourning is to expand our ideas of what constitutes a livable life, to expand our recognition of those lives that are worth protecting, worth valuing.  This is, importantly, not an individual activity, but something that not only happens in public, but has the power to redefine the public sphere.

I think we have to develop a notion of “critical recognition” which would be the practice of seeking recognition in terms of existing norms (extending norms of equality and justice, for instance), but also interrogating and challenging the reach and character of those norms.  If we only seek recognition, we will be bound to existing norms.  But if we care about those who can never receive recognition from existing norms (or, in fact, their extension), then we have to bring about new social forms, even new norms.  This means interrogating the limits of the recognizable and formulating a politics precisely there.

This interview was first published by Re-public on 6 June 2008 under a Creative Commons license.