Judith Butler, 2008 Commencement Speaker

August 04, 2008

Philosopher and gender politics expert Judith Butler addressed the Class of 2008 at Grinnell College's Exercises of Commencement, on Mon., May 19, at 10 a.m. on Central Campus. Butler, who is Maxine Elliott Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley, is a prolific writer and author of 10 books and essay collections, including "Undoing Gender" and "Giving an Account of Oneself." Currently at work on essays pertaining to Jewish philosophy, Butler continues to write on feminism, gender and sexual politics, and cultural and literary theory. In 2004, she published a collection of writings on war's impact on language and thought titled "Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning." She was recently selected to membership in the prestigious American Philosophical Society.


I'm honored that you selected me to speak here on this occasion.

Those of you graduating today will be entering into the world in new ways, finding jobs and modes of creative expression. Also making decisions, not only about what you want to do, but who you want to be. Finding your own desire is clearly crucial to this process. Consider as well that you are, as a generation, assuming responsibility for the future of our world. Of course, it's not exactly a fair deal, since prior generations have left you with a host of problems to try and solve. But maybe this is the raw deal that every generation faces. We inherit a world we never made, and yet it is our responsibility to make it anew. It seems to me that you are inheriting, in particular, a set of wars that are affecting the lives of people across the globe, and so today I want to ask this question with you: what does it mean to assume global responsibility in times of war?

Now there surely are some mistaken ways of approaching this problem, and you probably hear them voiced on the media often enough. For instance, those who wage war in the name of the common good, those who kill in the name of democracy or security, those who make incursions on the sovereign lands of others in the name of sovereignty; all consider themselves to be acting globally and even to be executing a certain "global responsibility." We have heard in recent years, for instance, about "regime change" and "bringing democracy" to countries where it is apparently lacking. We have heard as well about "installing" democracy. In such moments, we have to ask what democracy means if it is not based on popular decision and majority rule. If a form of power is imposed on a people who do not choose that form of power, then that is, by definition, an undemocratic process. If the form of power imposed is called "democracy," then we have an even larger problem. Can democracy be the name of a form of political power that is undemocratically imposed? Democracy has to name the means through which political power is achieved, as well as the result of that process.

So we must, I think, be wary of invocations of "global responsibility" that assume that one country has a distinctive responsibility to bring or "install" democracy in other countries. I'm sure that there are cases in which intervention is important, to forestall genocide for instance. But it would be a mistake to conflate such an intervention with a global mission, or indeed an arrogant politics in which forms of government are forcibly implemented that are in the interests, political and economic, of the military power responsible for that implementation. In such cases, we probably want to say, or at least I want to say, that this form of global responsibility is irresponsible, if not openly contradictory. We could say that in such instances, the word "responsibility" is simply misused or abused. That may not be enough, however, since historical circumstances demand that we give new meanings to the notion of responsibility; that we find out what it means to take responsibility in our time and for our time. Indeed, there is a challenge before us to rethink and reformulate a concept of global responsibility that would counter this imperialist appropriation, or what we have described as the effort to impose, from on high or elsewhere, a political form.

To do this, I want to ask who we become during times of war, especially when those wars are fought far away from home and the reasons for the fighting are often changeable or vague. To understand who we are, or rather what we have become, we have to consider how the sense of global collectivity has been fractured. To this end, the opposition to torture is obligatory. We might surely derive an important sense of global responsibility from a politics that opposes the use of torture in any and all of its forms. As a generation, you are in a strange situation, since those of us who came of age prior to the current wars understood that torture was a barbarism that belonged to the past. It is shocking, to say the least, that hundreds of years of progress toward an international legal consensus on the criminality of torture has been brought into question in recent years and reopened to "debate" that is spurious at best.

We can begin to find out who we are during these times of war by asking, "Whose lives are considered valuable? Whose lives we mourn, and whose lives are considered 'ungrievable?'" We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are openly grievable and those who are not. Do we know the names or faces of those people in Iraq who have died as a direct consequence of U.S. military action? If the kind of starvation that is happening in Gaza were taking place in Europe, would we feel more acute concern? Why do we find horrific the deaths caused by suicide bombings, which are surely horrific, but the deaths caused by violent state action seem sad, but somehow "legitimate?" An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all. We can see the division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war in order to defend the lives of certain communities and nations, and to defend against the lives of others.

After the attacks of 9/11, we encountered in the media graphic pictures of those who died: their names, their stories, their families. Public grieving was dedicated to making these images iconic for the nation - which meant, of course, that there was considerably less public grieving for non-U.S. nationals and none at all for illegal workers. The differential distribution of public grieving is a political issue of enormous implication. It has been, since the time of Antigone, if not before, when she chose to openly mourn the death of one of her brothers even though it went against the sovereign law to do so. Why is it that governments so often seek to regulate and control who will be publicly grieved and who will not? In the initial years of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., the public vigils, the Names Project, all broke through the public shame of having died from AIDS, as shame associated sometimes with homosexuality, with the exchange of bodily fluids, sometimes with promiscuity. It meant something to state and show the name, to put together some remnants of the life to publicly display and avow those losses. What would happen if those who are killed in these current wars were to be openly grieved in such a way? Why is it that we are not even given the names of the war dead, those whom the U.S. has killed, that we will never have the image, the name, the story; never a testimonial shard of that life, something to see, to touch, to know?

In my view, open public grieving is bound up with outrage and outrage in the face of injustice or, indeed, of unbearable loss has enormous political potential. It is, after all, one of the reasons why Plato wanted to ban the poets from the Republic. He thought that if the citizens went too often to tragedy they would weep over the losses they saw, and that such open and public mourning would disrupt the order and hierarchy of the soul, and so disrupt the order and hierarchy of political authority as well. Whether we are speaking about grief or outrage in the open, we are talking about affective responses, emotional responses that are highly regulated by regimes of power, sometimes subject to explicit censorship. In the contemporary wars in which the U.S. is directly engaged, those in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can see how affect is regulated in order to support the war effort, and more specifically, to build up a sense of nationalist belonging. You may remember that when the photos of Abu Graib were first released, conservative television pundits argued that it would be "un-American" to show them. We were not supposed to have graphic evidence of the torture that the U.S. had committed. We were not supposed to know whether the U.S. war efforts had violated internationally recognized human rights. It was "un-American" to show these photos and "un-American" to gain information from them about how the war was being conducted. Mr. O'Reilly thought that the photos would establish a negative image of the U.S., and that we had an obligation to defend a positive image. Mr. Rumsfeld said something similar, suggesting it would be "anti-American" to display such photos. Of course, neither considered that the U.S. public might have a right to know what its military has done, and that the ability of the public to know and judge this war on the basis of full information is part of the democratic tradition of participation and deliberation. So what was really being said, it seems to me that those who sought to limit the power of the image in this instance sought as well to limit the power of affect, of outrage, knowing very clearly that such outrage could and would turn public opinion against the war, as it surely did.

To some extent the success of war depends upon the efficacious regulation of our emotions. What we feel, what we can respond to, is in some way conditioned by various media frames. So when you start to think about politics, about some way you might enter, you might start with simply checking out what you feel in relation to the media's reporting of events. In what frame are such events given to you? Can you experience grief, outrage, longing, hope? What has happened to such emotions under current political and representational regimes?

Is there not a way of regarding populations such that some of them are considered from the start very much alive and others more questionably alive, perhaps even "socially dead," the term that Orlando Patterson developed to describe the status of the slave? But if war, or rather these current wars, rely on and perpetuate a way of dividing lives into those that are worth defending, valuing and grieving when and if they are lost, and those that are not quite lives, not quite "valuable," not quite recognizable or indeed "mournable," then the death of so-called ungrievable lives will surely cause enormous outrage on the part of those who understand that their lives are not considered to be lives in any full and meaningful sense. So though the logic of self-defense casts such populations and threats to life as we know it, they are themselves living populations and our cohabitation on this globe entails an interdependency among us.

So I want to insist on this interdependency precisely because when nations such as ours make the argument that our survival is served by war, or nations such as Israel argue that its survival depends on war, a systematic error is committed. Since war seeks to deny the ongoing and irrefutable ways in which we are all subject to one another, vulnerable to destruction by one another, in need of protection through bilateral and multilateral agreements that are based on the recognition of a shared precariousness. I think this is finally a point that the philosopher Hegel made many years ago, but I want to reiterate it here.

"The reason why I am not free to destroy another, and indeed why nations are not finally free to do the same with one another, is not only because it will lead to further destructive consequences, although that is doubtless true. But more importantly, the subject that I am is bound to the subject I am not. We each have the power to destroy and to be destroyed, and we are bound to one another in this precariousness."

In this sense we are all precarious lives. There are of course those who regard themselves as "invulnerable," who think that status, wealth and power will protect them from loss, grief, sudden incursions into a life, illness, fragility. But surely, status and wealth are only ways of trying to deny that vulnerability and to establish some group of "others" as truly vulnerable, the social sight where vulnerability exists. If we say, the wealthy are not vulnerable, then we describe to that logic that thinks that wealth can overcome the condition of human dependency and vulnerability.

So I would ask you to consider the way in which the nation functions as a frame for regulating what we feel, for understanding whose lives count, and whose lives do not. This national subject over here is not finally separable from that national subject over there. They are each bound to one another by need, by dependency, by fear, desire, and a common condition of exposure. So if some "we" tries to destroy another, or indeed to establish another population as more destructible than others or more deserving of destruction, they do so only by misunderstanding the ways in which we are not only bound up with one another, but who we are globally is this interdependency, one that is based in part on a vulnerability to destruction and a shared need to be protected against destruction.

I think this perspective is quite contrary to the one that holds that national identity is to be preserved through pursuing a limitless aggression towards others in order to produce an imaginary sense of the nation's impermeability. I think it was in "Rush Hour 3," you'll have to correct me, that our favorite U.S. criminals -- I think played by Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker -- get into a taxi in Paris. The taxi driver realizes they are Americans and expresses his enthusiastic interest in the impending American adventure. Along the way, the taxi driver offers a keen ethnographic insight. "Americans!" he says. "They kill people for no reason." Now of course, the U.S. government gives all kind of reasons for its killings at the same time that it does not call those killings "killings" at all. It's a scene of bitter comedy, a moment in which the perspective on Americans is suddenly available to Americans, and the mirror is not an easy one into which to look for long.

How do we make sense of those rationalities of defense that lead us in the name of sovereignty to defend a border in one instance and to violate it in another with impunity. The call to interdependency is also, then, a call to overcome this particular division, to move toward a recognition of a generalized condition of precariousness. It cannot be that the other is destructible and that I am not, and it cannot be that I am destructible and the other is not. Life conceived as precarious life is a generalized condition, but under certain political conditions, it becomes radically exacerbated or radically disavowed.

This schism in which the subject asserts the national subject, asserts its own "righteous" destructiveness at the same time that it seeks to immunize itself against the thought of its own destructibility is one in which politics is driven by the horror at the thought of the nation's destructibility or those of its allies. It constitutes a kind of unreasoned rift at the core of nationalism. The point is not to oppose destructiveness per se and to counter this split subject of U.S. nationalism with a subject who wants only peace. I accept that aggression is part of life and so a part of politics as well, but aggression, I want to suggest, can and must be separated from violence. Violence is but one form that aggression assumes. There are ways of giving form to aggression that work in the service of democratic life including open antagonistic debate, discursive conflict, strikes, civil disobedience, speaking out, and even revolution.

It has become nearly impossible to respond with the same horror to violence committed against all sorts of populations. In this way, if we take our moral horror to be a sign of our humanity, we fail to note that the humanity in question is in fact implicitly divided between those about whom we feel urgent and unreasoned concern, and those whose lives and deaths simply do not touch us or do not appear as lives at all. We are already social beings, mired and formed in networks of social interpretations when we feel horror, or when we fail to feel horror at all.

So, when I ask you how you might react to the frames in which global politics are given to you, I'm asking about the beginnings of what we might call "global responsibility." I think we can find them precisely in those perceptions and emotions that go against the frame, that exceed the frame, that inform our active interpretations about what is just and what is unjust. To perceive a life is not yet the same as encountering a life as precarious. To encounter a life as precarious is not a raw encounter, one in which life is stripped bare of all its usual interpretations. I want to suggest that it's only through a challenge to dominant media by alternative media, by critical media, that certain kinds of lives -- thank you -- that certain kinds of lives become visible or knowable in their precariousness. It's not only or exclusively the visual apprehension of a life that forms a necessary precondition for an understanding of the precariousness of life. Another life is taken in through all the senses, if it is taken in at all. But if we consider the framework in which certain kinds of violence are sanctified and others abhorred, that tacit interpretive scheme that divides worthy and unworthy lives works fundamentally through the senses, through differentiating the cry we can hear from the one we cannot, the sight we can see from the one we cannot, but also at the level of touch and even smell. War takes place and sustains its practices through acting on the senses, crafting them to apprehend the world selectively, deadening affect in response to certain images and sounds and enlivening affective response to others. This is why war works to undermine a sensate democracy, restricting what we can feel, disposing us to feel shock and outrage in the face of one expression of violence and righteous coldness in the face of another. To encounter the precariousness of another life, the senses have to be alive, which means that a struggle must be waged against those forces that seek to regulate affect in differential ways. The point is not to celebrate a full deregulation of affect, but rather to query those limits on moral responsiveness that provide the conditions for our consent to war.

As a consequence, we respond with outrage to lives that are injured or killed and which we already perceive as lives. We do not ourselves manufacture the norms through which we come to perceive a life as a worthy life. Neither are the norms of gender through which I come to understand myself or indeed my survivability as a person made exclusively by me. I am already in the hands of the other when I try to take stock of who I am. It follows, then, that certain kinds of bodies will appear more precariously than others depending on which versions of the body of morphology in general support or underwrite the idea of the human life that is worth protecting, sheltering, worth living, worth mourning.

Such views pervade, I want to say, such views pervade and implicitly justify the contemporary wars with which we live. So today I ask you to consider that as you leave these beautiful lands of Iowa, or as you stay precisely within this progressive and admirable state, consider what you might do to change the frames of war, whether it is through photography or writing, through education or through your interactions in whatever institutions you enter. Perhaps you will have a chance to awaken the senses of those around you to the outrage of war. Try to find a way of making it known through your own means and with your own style that the generalized condition of precariousness implies a shared social and political condition of interdependency. War tries to maximize precariousness for some, to minimize precariousness for others, but there ought to be no final way to deny the interdependency that links populations across the globe. We all live with precarious lives, lives that are, as a result, in need of shelter and recognition, radically and equally. And though in some sense, this is a truth that cannot be denied, it is nevertheless a truth denied time and again. Let us work to affirm it in the various labors of our lives. Thank you.


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