Friday, 12 February 2010

The Function of the Obituary

After finishing the excellent Frames of War: When is Life Grievable, I worked my way back to Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, a book I’d somehow missed when it first appeared. It’s a strange experience to be reading it now, eight years after its ‘moment.’ Her essays are dated by period details from those darkest, most anti-democratic days of the first term of the Bush administration but, chillingly, there’s nothing ‘dated’ about her arguments or what she argues about. The concerns of 2002 - with attacks on civil rights, the prospect of unending war, the responsibilities of intellectuals - are still our concerns. I’m not going to try and review this book, but want instead to share with you some of the passages from it that strike me as particularly important.

It’s easy to forget now the kind of bravery and intellectual clarity that radicals like Butler showed when they, right at the very beginning, opposed the assault on freedoms and human rights carried out under the ‘War on Terror.’ Many readers of Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter complain about their dense and demanding style. It’s a sign of Butler’s moral and political courage that, at the moment when it would have been, professionally and politically, more comfortable to settle into obscurity, she chose to produce writing which is politically provocative but also stylistically limpid. If it makes any sense to talk about traumatic events as tests, then Butler ‘passes’ the test of 9-11. She doesn’t turn from theory and philosophy to journalism and politics (not always a dishonourable course) but instead takes her theoretical work into political discussions, making clearer connections that were there all along. Precarious Life manages to feel measured and urgent at the same time.

So this is a very brave, articulate and important collection. Some of the essays come out of set occasions or respond to particular political junctures while also managing to offer longer-term insights. One on “The Charge of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and the Risks of Public Critique” makes one of those obvious points that forever need repeating: one reason “to oppose the use of the charge of anti-Semitism as a threat and as a means to quell political critique is that the charge must be kept alive as a crucial and effective instrument to combat existing and future anti-Semitism.”

The passages that have stuck with me, though, are Butler’s reflections on violence, mourning, and politics, and on the role of public memory in the political life. This seems to me very insightful:

The obituary functions as the instrument by which grievability is publicly distributed. It is the means by which a life becomes, or fails to become, a publicly grievable life, an icon for national-self recognition, the means by which a life becomes note-worthy. As a result, we have to consider the obituary as an act of nation-building. The matter is not a simple one, for, if a life is not grievable, it is not quite a life; it does not qualify as a life and is not worth a note. It is already unburied, if not the unburiable.

It is not simply, then, that there is a ‘discourse’ of dehumanization that produces these effects, but rather there is a limit to discourse that establishes the limits of human intelligibility. It is not just that a death is poorly marked, but that it is unmarkable. Such a death vanishes, not into explicit discourse, but in the ellipses by which public discourse proceeds.

Butler goes on to discuss how the queer lives lost in the attacks on the World Trade Centre were rendered invisible by the marital and heterosexual ‘norms’ of the national narrative created in the New York Timesobituary pages; how the lives of foreign soldiers, civilians and other ‘collateral damage’ killed in US actions abroad can’t be allowed to be grievable.

For me, these lines are helpful in how they extend the ways left-wing writing and activism needs to approach grief and loss. Contrary to the right’s caricature, anti-imperialism has never been - or should never be - about contrasting one person’s loss to another’s, as if it were a question of ‘choosing’ between grief for Chile’s September 11 or the United States’. That kind of moral arithmetic is obscene. Leftists (‘excuseniks’ etc: Butler reminds me just how virulent the right’s anti-intellectualism was in those months) should see rather how grief can be extended, how it might be understood and, in turn, lead to understanding. A political process is at work that decides what losses we learn about - what lives become public, for public grieving - and we need to understand and unpick that process. But we also need to seek to extend grieving, to find ways to make visible losses denied or unrecognised (Palestine stands in for so much here). Butler - as I read her - isn’t advancing some banal position that experiencing grief oneself will lead to ‘understanding’ another’s in a way which removes conflict. Her focus is, rather, the way conflict is framed, the way certain terms (‘terrorist’ of course, ‘insurgent’ and sometimes even ‘Muslim’ too) are used to shape not only argument, but also what is to be excluded from argument, what’s to be placed beyond the realm of political discussion and contestation:

The derealisation of loss - the insensitivity to human suffering and death - becomes the mechanism through which dehumanization is accomplished. This derealisation takes place neither inside nor outside the image, but through the very framing by which the image is contained.

One conclusion: our task is not only to counter images with images - to document and publicise the atrocities of occupation, vital as this task is - but also to understand and oppose this way these images are contained, the mechanisms of derealisation.

A footnote

There’s plenty in Precarious Life to argue with, and socialists can learn through engaging with her work (Rachel Aldred and Geoff Boucher’s critical but comradely analyses are ones I’ve found helpful). The determinations structuring the US as a state - and its roles as a state - go unexamined, sometimes even being elided with those of an individual (“the United States was missing an opportunity to redefine itself as part of a global community…”), and there’s a certain amount of bet-hedging in tactical formulations, too:

Various routes lead us into politics, various stories bring us onto the streets, various kinds of reasoning and belief. We do not need to ground ourselves in a single model of communication, a single model of reason, a single notion of the subject before we are able to act.

True, of course, and welcome, but what happens after we’re on the streets? Can debates around our notions of the subject be deferred and, if so, for how long? When might differences - in assumption, in method, in aim - between our models, our strategy and those of our allies and partners prevent action?

The fact that Butler’s work leads to questions of this kind shows how ethically engaged she is: her vocation is as activist-intellectual, calling for “a certain collective courage” to take hold, and helping prepare the ground for where it might emerge.

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