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  

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

Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go

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

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament


1