Grievable and ungrievable lives

Nathaniel Mehr reviews Judith Butler's Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?

June 9, 2009
5 min read

Frames of War is a searching examination of the intellectual frameworks informing the double-standards which pervade contemporary political, journalistic and academic discourses on the violence of the so-called ‘war on terror’.

Butler assesses the ways in which a variety of methods of control – from ’embedded’ journalism to immigration rules based on highly derivative notions of identity – have served to entrench a perception of a threatening and anti-modern ‘other’, whose torture and physical destruction is thus rationalised. Making a stand for the humanity of the victims of US aggressions, Butler devotes a fascinating chapter to a survey of the published poems of Guantanamo Bay detainees, ‘efforts to re-establish a social connection to the world, even where there is no concrete reason to think that any such connection is possible.’

An insightful section on the US army’s apparent obsession with homosexuality is of particular interest. Noting that, in both Gulf Wars, US soldiers wrote ‘up your ass’ on missiles that were launched into Iraq, Butler asks: ‘What does it inadvertently say about the bombers, those who “ejaculate” the missiles?’ Butler concludes that with such rhetoric the US soldiers ‘secure their place in the fantasised scene in the active and penetrating position, a position that makes them no less homosexual for being on top’.

While there may be more than a little flippancy in this metaphor, the obsession with homosexuality on the part of such a ferociously homophobic and misogynistic organisation as the US army – an obsession which pervades much of ‘macho’ culture in mainstream America – is indicative of a dangerous degeneration into a sexually-fuelled brutalism, which has manifested itself in the sustained use of sexual violence Iraqi prisoners of both sexes.

Butler is right when she observes, with respect to the political, journalistic and academic ‘framing’ of violence, a ‘division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war.’ This division has become so entrenched that even its most prominent critics have difficulty extricating themselves from its discursive norms; Butler, for example, repeatedly uses the shorthand ‘9/11’ to refer to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 – the pervasiveness of this term is perhaps the most significant single manifestation, in recent years, of the very framework which Butler discusses.

Few other historical atrocities can be denoted with fewer syllables, none by reference to a mere two numbers – the exceptional status of the 11 September 2001 attacks, and by extension the victims of that attack, is enshrined in a completely unique shorthand nomenclature which is almost universally accepted across the political spectrum, employed by television newsreaders and left-wing academics alike. This is not to be confused with the British media’s use of the term ‘7/7’ to describe the Tube bombings of 2005, the latter being attributable entirely to a completely separate phenomenon, namely a certain British cultural sycophancy in relation to all things American, a cultural component of the ‘special relationship’ that has taken a variety of forms in the decades following the Second World War.

Whilst Frames of War is an earnest, thought-provoking and uncompromisingly critical work on an issue of singular relevance, this book is likely to exasperate those readers who place a high premium on clear, plain English. For Butler’s prose exhibits a certain presumptuous creativity with respect to the established parameters of vocabulary – that is to say, she invents words – with a frequency and alacrity that suggests a measure of indifference towards existing linguistic norms, if not outright pride in the creation of a number of awkward composite nouns. Indeed, a certain obliviousness is suggested by Butler’s chiding of the French government’s use, in connection with a discourse on the integration of immigrants, of the clumsy term ‘responsibilitization’, towards the end of a section in which Butler herself employs terms such as ‘precarity’ and ‘injurability.’

If an inclination to theme entire essays around such unwieldy terms as ‘survivability’ and ‘aliveness’ may be attributable to a fairly well-established, thoroughly regrettable stylistic tendency within certain branches of the social sciences, the employment by a senior academic of the word ‘irregardless’ (in place of ‘regardless’) is totally indefensible. Butler’s propensity to use a long sentence where a short one will do, and to use an invented word where an existing word – or some small combination of existing words – will do, gives Frames of War something of the feel of a text that was written with only an extremely narrow section of the literate population in mind (namely, students of psycho-analysis and related disciplines), indicating a certain complacency which is at odds with the essence of Butler’s urgent call for an inclusive, re-conceptualised radical politics of resistance.

Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? by Judith Butler is published by Verso Books.

‘Constructive Bloodbath’ In Indonesia: The US, Britain and the Mass Killings of 1965-66 by Nathaniel Mehr is published by Spokesman Books.


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