Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (review)
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Reviewed by
Judith Butler. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?New York: Verso, 2009. 193 pages.

The release of Judith Butler's most recent work, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, marks the expansion of the author's already expansive theoretical corpus by employing the critical models developed therein to explore how modern warfare represents certain lives as more or less worthy of grief. The question of how grievability undergoes framing is politically pertinent. She begins by briefly acknowledging that the election of Barack Obama, which occurred after the book's completion, poses future possibilities (we hope ameliorating) for which she cannot account. This, coupled with the diminishment, though by no means termination, of America's occupation of Iraq may seem to subdue the importance of Butler's inquiry: through what frames are lives registered as recognizable, warranting solidarity or protection, and whose loss spurs mourning? Not only does the salience of Butler's analysis [End Page 1232] outlast Iraq's occupation, the intensification of America's intervention in Afghanistan demands such critical reflection more than ever. News media frame the conflict as a question of whether to escalate troop commitments and what regional authorities to endorse. The logics of military security, national interest, and territorial sovereignty, shroud how Western audiences recognize Afghani lives. It is the project of Butler's work to demonstrate how these frames differentiate what lives appear more and less valuable; they secure not only the interpretive schemes through which some lives appear more like human lives than others but also determine what makes the lives at stake distinctly human lives. At stake, for Butler, is the 'precariousness' of lives. Certain lives do not appear in danger, their precariousness does not warrant recognition, because they are not recognized as lives at all. Such lives share their mutual precarity, and Butler seeks out the possibilities for recognizing them as precarious.

Butler crafts the notion of the frame by reflecting on the practices through which American audiences comprehend the human costs of war. The first chapter posits the frame outside Marxist models of ideology and against epistemologically loaded schemes of interpretation. Media representations and political discourse of life put frames into operation by differentiating "the cries we can hear from those we cannot, the sights we can see from those we cannot, and likewise at the level of touch and even smell" (51). Butler's account of the frame here focuses on its affective dimension; its sensation impacts viewers of America's conflicts viscerally and immediately. The second chapter builds on this treatment of sensation's framed reception by considering its transmission via eyewitness accounts, particularly war photographs. Butler contends that photographs' affect, traversing the ensemble of content, perspective, and context of reception, frames Iraqi life. Photographs themselves advance the argument that the lives they depict are precarious, and deserve to be recognized as such, prior to or independent of an overtly discursive form of argument. Following what is arguably the most incisive, and poignantly delivered chapter, the third turns to the cultural framing of the inter-relation of the rights of different minority groups: specifically, how antagonism informs the relation between religious and sexual minorities. Butler pursues a strategy by which a leftist politics can confront homophobia and anti-Islamic dogma alongside each other. Considering a case in Holland as a primary example, she examines the ways in which the Dutch government mobilizes homosexuality as an emblem of modernity to exclude presumptively pre-modern Muslim communities. By delicately situating seemingly disparate cultural instances in dialogue, from the Dutch Civil Integration Exam to the French PACS (pacte civil de solidarité), Butler demonstrates the possibilities of differently-framing liberal models of hegemonic exclusion that render struggles against religious and sexual recognition incompatible. The frame is thus shown to be a site of political negotiation: it both orients war's representation and is subject to critical reorientations. The fourth chapter, an earlier version of which was published in The British Journal of Sociology, pursues this question of political [End Page 1233] strategy further by revisiting the Hegelian dimensions of her earlier work. Taking the framing of cultural antagonism as her point of inquiry, Butler explores...