- When is a Book Grievable?
I began reading Judith Butler's Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? in a café in Sarajevo—rather appropriate, so I thought, given that a mere fifteen years ago this city was under siege, the scars and grief quite evident still. We have to make something of grief besides a call for war, Butler wrote in an earlier work, Precarious Life; loss and mourning are shared human experiences that can form the basis for political community. It is an intriguing point—that grief turns quickly to grievance is everywhere apparent in our contemporary wars. What we need is the political will to find alternatives to violence, whether on the part of the state or on the part of groups who justify their retributive actions on the basis of prior victimization. This is the discussion to which I hoped Frames of War would contribute.
Publishers Weekly calls this book a "turgid study," an application of "murky linguistic and aesthetic analyses to a hodgepodge of topics" in the usual "jargon-clotted style" for which Butler is famous. Worse yet—for any well-known American academic—the book is slammed for conveying "no fresh thinking." In the end, we are warned, Frames of War is sludgy and banal, virtually unreadable.1 Cornel West, whose acclaim appears on the back cover, gives us an entirely different picture. He endorses the book with enthusiasm, heaping effusive praise on Butler, "the most creative and courageous social theorist writing today." He promotes Frames of War as "an intellectual masterpiece" that is immersed in history and that brings together a new ontology with a "novel Left politics." Intrigued by the disparity between these reviews, I began reading with interest. It didn't take me long, however, to side with Publishers Weekly. Frames of War will be a major disappointment for anyone anticipating an astute political analysis that departs from leftist clichés and feminist, poststructuralist platitudes served up in convoluted, undigestable sentences. It succeeds only in telling us how desperately we need these departures. And how desperately we need political vision.
Butler's stated purpose for this study is to respond to "contemporary war," which is true only if we define war narrowly as U.S. military aggression against real or perceived threats of terrorism. But the scope is limited even further to U.S. military action in Iraq, referenced mostly with regard to the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. She is interested in drawing attention both to the epistemological problem raised by the ways in which war is "framed" and to the ontological problem that war raises for particular lives not considered worth living. These two concerns—framing and the "apprehension" of a life—are elaborated at length in the introduction and chapter 1. Butler relates these themes by asking how life is apprehended in the frames we are given by the media and governments in times of war, frames responsible for dividing humanity into grievable and nongrievable life. This is hardly a novel point. War has always divided people into friends and enemies; those whom we are willing to kill are those we no longer consider human. Once a population is selected for elimination, the job of the warmongers is simply to render it less than human. It worked in Rwanda, in the former Yugoslavia, Darfur, and in countless other regions. It will continue to work unless we formulate preventative political strategies.
Leaving aside the matter of "framing" for now, let's consider Butler's analysis of the apprehension of life. Vulnerability is a popular subject these days, drawing from such concepts as Hannah Arendt's "mere life," Giorgio Agamben's "bare" or "naked" life, and inspired by such actualities as the precarious labor and daily life of non-status peoples.2 For Arendt, mere life is what is left when humans are stripped of citizenship, rendering them ineligible for basic human rights when they are most in need of them. Agamben defines "bare life" as the condition of homo sacer, the Roman figure whose life was not sacrificeable because...