Butler Letter-Nuance in a world of polarity

The most overlooked aspect surrounding tragedy seems to be the denial of ambiguity. Emotions cloud our judgement, and lead even smart people down roads they would not otherwise go.

It seems to me, the real problem is that the mainstream conscience has no room for ambiguity or nuance. Part of this has to do with the heuristics we must use to divide and deduce meaning from a complex world.

Authoritarianism is an automatic response to atrocity. Conservative governments often come into power in response to crisis, and we have seen this in response to the attacks in Paris.

These issues are all very difficult, and it is hard to deduce exactly what is going on, and who the players are, and what their motivations are.

Overall, Butler’s letter is intriguing, but her fascination with state overreach seems to be a bit overblown.



Paris, Beirut, and Precarious Life

I think it is safe to say that I was not expecting Butler to even touch on politics, as the beginning of the reading seemed to me almost as a memoir on his experience with loss and grieving.  I have never read or seen someone put an abstract concept so eloquently into words. For someone who has experienced grieving, it was quite fascinating to be able to read these words that you never thought you’d be able to put on paper before.

Anyway: I was instantly able to compare his thoughts on grief and violence to the recent wave of racism and anti-islamic sentiments that has arisen in Western nations and countries around the world in the shadows of the recent attack on Paris and Beirut.  Butler writes,

“Various terror alerts that go out over the media authorize and heighten racial hysteria in which fear is directed anywhere and nowhere, in which individuals are asked to be on guard but not told what to be on guard against; so everyone is free to imagine and identify the source of terror. The result is that an amorphous racism abounds, rationalized by the claim of “self-defense.”” (39)

I’d like to unpack this notion that Butler has stated.  Recent refugee movement from Syria has created the political idea that the Syrian refugees seeking safe territory are the ones to blame for these inhumane attacks on society.  It is interesting that westerners seek to pit Syrian refugees at the root of these attacks when they are running from the same thing that we are.  The idea that we seek to shame them for ISIS in their homeland, when not one of us would choose to live in a land in which they flee from.  These notions of blame come from the idea of Butler’s, that when people are left to freely identify the root of terror, it leads to racism, or as we know it today: anti-islam.   It seems to be that placing these sentiments against the refugees from Syria is exactly what ISIS wanted from westerners, and it looks like they are getting exactly that.

Judith Butler: Violence, Mourning, Politics

Others on this forum have felt the immediate relevance of Butler’s essay on global current events – namely the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and the Syrian refugee crisis. Although Butler did not write this essay in response to these timely and divisive political issues it seems to me that they are in direct conversation with one another. I am thinking specifically about the state governors who have publicly opposed allowing Syrian refugees into their states. Some governors have modified this position to screen for religion, wanting to allow only Christians into the country (because for them, Christian = good and Muslim = terrorist). I have seen pictures and accounts of orphaned and homeless Syrian children and infants on the Internet, accompanied by either empathy or criticism. One critic on Facebook wrote something to the tune of “Look, they’re using children to try and pull at our heartstrings to make us want to let these Muslims into the country. Sorry, won’t work.” I’d like to point out a section of Butler’s essay in response to this claim:

To what extent have Arab peoples, predominantly practitioners of Islam, fallen outside the “human” as it has been naturalized in its “Western” mold by the contemporary workings of humanism? … After all, if someone is lost, and that person is not someone, then what and where is the loss, and how does mourning take place?

I am troubled by that critic’s implication that because a suffering child is from Syria, or is not a white American or European, that they are not worth saving and that the fact of their suffering can be nothing else than a political ploy to sway public opinion. I think that Butler is of the same mindset in this passage. She wonders why some lives are automatically considered worthless, or worth less, than others because of classifying features. I definitely see the parallel to how violence against non-heterosexual individuals and populations, particularly the transgender community in recent years, is portrayed and processed by a population. It seems in general that the life of, for example, a straight person should be met with a greater sense of loss than the murder of a transgender male or female. Our humanity, according to Butler, should mean that each life deserves the same grief due to equal worth, but that goal is not carried out in reality.

-Megan S.

“Queer Necropolitics”

I definitely want to share about the queer politics of death making and creating death, embodied particularly by the homo sacer (Agamben 2004). The homo sacer, according to Roman law: is someone who is banned/exiled and may be killed by anyone, but their death does not count as a religious sacrifice and therefore does not meet the criteria for proper burial or mourning. For many contemporary scholars have named life in terms of “those whose life matters”, “those whose life is precious”, and “those whose life is precarious.” In almost exact terms, Butler describes well the political connectedness, and thus militaristic, between life and death, distinguishing between those who are allowed to live and those who are let to die. Citing the Advocate,

At press time, 21 transgender women have been murdered this year alone, most of them women of color — with one additional victim whose gender identity has been disputed in press reports and among family members and activists. That exceeds the number of transgender women killed in the U.S. in all of 2014, though neither of these totals account for individuals whose deaths were not reported or investigated, nor for victims who were misgendered or not regarded as trans women in death.

Transwomyn – specifically Black transwoymn – are highly susceptible to living in a perpetual condition of vulnerability (housing and workplace discrimination, unsupportive family and community members, education deficit, low access to physical and mental healthcare, etc.). We know this! This is not news. Similar to knowing the increasing rate of new HIV cases among Black men, queer or otherwise in this country and Black men subsequently dying from an AIDS related illness – we know this too. We know of the US military drone strikes and incalculable weapons and bioagents created for the extermination of Black and Brown bodies not only in the Middle East, but right here in the United States. And yet, we do not feel complicit in this violence.

We mourn/grieve/pray for some but not all. We question the responsibility of the death makers in times of outstanding catastrophe, such as in Paris – but in contrast reluctantly in Beruit.

In her essay, Killing me softly with your rightsShakhsari concludes observing the transgender and transexual refugee, and while her focus is upon Iran, contemporary discussion on the placement of Syrian refugees in the “Global North” considers the opportunity and livelihood for queer and/or genderqueer individuals. The juxtaposition, Shakhsari is describing in her title sets the US as a home for gay rights against a backdrop of an oppressive Muslim theatre. In this dichotomy, the US has created supposed “freedom” for LGBT people amidst death and violence occurring elsewhere. The US does not have a problem with LGBT people, it proclaims!, but does the backward Middle East. If this makes sense, the idea that the US reifies their nationalist state, equipping gays and lesbians in the US with a spirit of queer pride (nationalism) and a second spirit of dissent toward refugees, despite the lack of freedoms these marginalized groups have themselves. In other words, by creating a strict, religiously fundamental anti-LGBT Middle East, the US has found backing and support from its most marginalized group.


Paris, Syria, and Instinctual Grief

Butler’s words in “Violence, Morning, Politics” are especially relevant in the wake of the attacks on Paris and the continued deaths in the conflict in Syria. He writes about how we as humans have the tendency to value certain lives over others. “Certain lives will be highly protected”, he writes, “and the abrogation of their claims to sanctity will be sufficient to mobilize the forces of war. Other lives will not find such fast and furious support and will not even qualify as “grievable.”” This phenomenon could explain in part the immense media, political, and cultural response to the 11/13 attacks in Paris, and how the same response did not appear for those who die in the same numbers every day in places of the world such as Syria.

I admit, I was more saddened by the deaths in Paris than I was by the deaths of very similar violence in Syria. Consciously, I hold the value of all lives to be equal. I understand that the loss of a father, a mother, or a child is no greater or less a tragedy in the Middle East as it is in Europe. I understand that humans are humans, created equal no matter the place or the culture. And yet, on instinct, news of the deaths in Paris brought more of a lump to my throat than months of reports of bombings and shootings in the non-western world. Maybe it is the shock of it, the loss of people who live in a usually safe area, whose lives are, as Butler would put it “highly protected” that causes me to grieve more. maybe it is because I, as a Westerner and a speaker of a language that is a mixture of French and Germanic, identify more with the culture of France than I do with the areas of conflict in the Middle East, a region that I am all too ignorant about. And maybe, (And Dear God I pray that this is not the case), deep down on an instinctual level I grieve more for the French Dead because I perceive them as being closer to my race than the families who were torn apart due to a similar violence or due to French missiles on Sunday. Whatever the reason, it is my instinct to grieve more for those who I perceive as being closer to me as a person. I wish that this were not the case, that my instinctual and conscious minds could match in understanding and that I could grieve evenly for the people of the world who must endure greater horrors than I have ever experienced. And I hope that it will change as I get older and I get the chance to travel to new places, meet new people, and read and see new testimonies, and that one day I will be able to collapse my instinctual hierarchy of grief.

Grievable lives

“What makes for a grievable life?” Butler begins with this in “Violence, Mourning, Politics” as a question situated in Western cultural discourse, quoting Freud and his ideas of mourning and how it can be productive—but then builds on it through a discussion of the body, gender, and politics, to also unveil how sometimes the way that we grieve erases an other. When Butler asks, “Is there something to be learned about the geopolitical distribution of corporeal vulnerability from our own brief and devastating exposure to this condition?” (29) Butler is not saying that this kind of tragedy should be placed into a hierarchy, but this reminder that all of our bodies are vulnerable to loss and violence could also shed light on how this violence is unfairly distributed across the globe.

That is something that I think could be productive, if it constitutes mourning or if it doesn’t: how will this particular attack shape the way that corporeal vulnerability will be restricted to certain persons in the near future? We’ve already heard from Hollande that France is at war, which we can assume will be even more involvement in attacks against ISIS (i.e., in not France). But another source said that he’s proposed an additional 5,000 positions to the national paramilitary force in the next few years as well, maybe to patrol the migrants and refugees who might be in France. Are stateless lives grievable too?

Second: Chantal brought up a really interesting point about how the French flag is the only filter on Facebook. I think it goes along with what Butler said about how grieving in public discourse is selective: that FB is acting much like how the San Francisco Chronicle acted in not posting memorials for Palestinian victims in its newspaper (because the SF Chronicle didn’t want to offend “anybody”). This subtle, under-the-table decision on who is grievable and who is not happens all the time, and I think it contributes to the major problem of the media presenting the “Western” world as invulnerable. But I mean, it also nationalizes and politicizes our grief by making the flag (of all things) the symbol for a so-called international community of support. As Butler says in “Mourning Becomes the Law”: “Mourning seems fully restricted within the national frame.” This would be an even further literalization of that, because it means that even our digital lives can only be grievable along national lines. What if we had the opportunity to have flags for other countries? That’s such a provoking question. I’m not sure if any of my immediate social circles would change. My guess is that if we did have that opportunity, we’d see that our type of mourning is too often too selective, to the point of being dangerous. As Butler says, “at what cost do I establish the familiar as the criterion by which a human life is grievable?” (38) Not sure I can answer that rhetorical question, but perhaps the erasure of certain groups of people, to start.

Judith Butler – Precarious Life

Does successful grieving exist and if yes, what does that mean? Does it mean to forget someone we have lost? Or that something/someone else takes the place? Those questions are not easy to answer and it was interesting and at the same unsettling to read Butler’s text with the ISIS attacks that just happened in e.g. Paris and Lebanon on mind. It seems like a tragic coincidence that we are reading Butler’s text just a few days after these attacks happened.

It is just as Butler states; the problem is that terrorism has become “limitless”. I read this article and found it to be quite appropriate: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/14/islamic-state-goes-global-paris-attacks

The article suggests that ISIS has gone global with the Paris attacks. However, can it really be a surprise to anyone that ISIS is trying to expand its campaign of terror? I personally think that this question can only be answered with No. Maybe there was a slight hope that an attack like the one at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 would not happen again/could be prevented next time but the recent attacks should be proof enough that ISIS will not stop until it is completely defeated.

I also thought that Butler’s argument about how we mourn different people in different ways was very thought provoking. The situation can actually be seen right now. How much of the Paris attacks is covered in the news and how much about the recent attacks in Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and Palestine? What is the reason for this? Do we really allow ourselves to value those people’s lives in different ways? And if yes, how can we change this?

One last thought along with this: Why is it that FB only lets us put the national flag of France as the backgrounds of our profile pictures right now? If they offer this option in the first case, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to also offer flags of other countries that have been targeted recently?

-Chantal M.

“Mourning becomes the law” – Judith Butler from Paris

“My wager is that the discourse on liberty will be important to track in the coming days and weeks, and that it will have implications for the security state and the narrowing versions of democracy before us. One version of liberty is attacked by the enemy, another version is restricted by the state. The state defends the version of liberty attacked as the very heart of France, and yet suspends freedom of assembly (“the right to demonstrate”) in the midst of its mourning and prepares for an even more thorough militarization of the police.”


Ticking Timebombs

“Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs-in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity-it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. . . .” -Sam Harris

“Unlike previous wars our enemy now is a stateless network of religious extremists. They do not obey the laws of war, they hide among peaceful populations and launch surprise attacks on civilians. They have no armed forces per se, no territory or citizens to defend and no fear of dying during their attacks.” -John Yoo

The first thing I thought of after reading Erik Saar’s account was this article published a few years ago: “Tortured Sympathies: Victorian Literature and the Ticking Time-Bomb Scenario.” In this article, Rachel Ablow makes the case that the urgency with which we approach torture is actually based in a Victorian understanding of the human, pain, and sympathy. While there are some pretty obvious flaws in her article, the main point is still very relevant.

She discusses the various scenarios in which someone, anyone, could be driven to commit acts of torture in service of extracting vital information. In fact, she says repeatedly that even anti-torture advocates concede that there exists some situation that could drive even them to torture. In the event outlined in the paragraph at the top, the imminent nature of the event and the weight of its catastrophe, the lives of the many very quickly outstrip the life of one. Not to mention, that the one is this case has established a certain contemptibly for the people to be afflicted by his crime. In this event, our natural response towards sympathy, one bolstered by certain ethical evaluations, is diminished, or at least directed strongly away from the subject to be tortured.

This provides a logical basis for how we can arrive at torture as a solution, but perhaps most interesting is how Ablow argues we can determine a talking body. She states that in eighteenth century thought, it was believed that truth could only be delivered through self-reflection in moment of control. However, the notion of a tortured body eliciting the truth stems from an older model of thinking, one that argues a tainted soul will never volunteer the truth; it must be coerced out of the body. She ultimately settles on a distinction that emerges completely in the nineteenth century: “[T]hose who sympathize with others and so are available to our sympathy are ordinarily cast as exempt from or impervious to torture; meanwhile, those who are exempt from or impervious to sympathy are ordinarily described as consistently responsive to pain.”

Ablow argues that this is the position currently active in our modern schema of torture. The lack of human sympathy and the dehumanization of torture subjects lend themselves to this logic. It is impossible to conceive of someone who you can’t identify with as telling the truth without coercion. They are your enemy and, even worse, enemy to all like you, therefore there is no way to extract the truth from a subject in a timely manner. It’s a vivisectionist approach, but it fails to contend with the fact that such a procedure will damage and distort the tissue to be analyzed by the very nature of the operation.

There is, of course, more to this article and her analyses of 24, the television series with Kiefer Sutherland, are quite interesting, especially in the context of our discussions.

How violent is an attack on a person’s religion?

Both the reading from Inside the Wire and our recent discussions about the various forms of “sanctioned” torture in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere got me thinking about how violence and torture can take many different forms, including some that we might not normally think about. It was significant to me that, after the incident where the female MP used the threat of touching the detainee with menstrual blood on her hands, Saar left possibly feeling even more disturbed and ashamed of taking part in the interrogation than he might have if Fareek’s interrogators had used the threat or infliction of physical pain against him. Even without seeing Fareek physically hurt, the spectacle left both Saar and Brooke, the female interrogator, with an equal or greater emotional impression that an act of physical violence might.

It begs the question of whether or not a religious violation like the one Fareek believed he had suffered is an act of violence, and whether such a violation should carry with it the same ethical implications as inflicting physical pain or injury on another person. After all, targeting a person’s relationship with their religion is a kind of attack on the soul. A highly devout believer might prefer to suffer physical harm than jeopardize their relationship with the god or gods that they worship, and in such a case, a violation of their faith or religious practices would carry a greater cost to them than harm to their bodies. Is attacking a person’s religion an act of violence, and what kind of ethical weight does it bear in comparison to physical violence?

-Travis P.