Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


1