Frames of War
When Is Life Grievable?
In Frames of War, Judith Butler explores the media’s portrayal of state violence, a process integral to the way in which the West wages modern war. This portrayal has saturated our understanding of human life, and has led to the exploitation and abandonment of whole peoples, who are cast as existential threats rather than as living populations in need of protection. These people are framed as already lost, to imprisonment, unemployment and starvation, and can easily be dismissed. In the twisted logic that rationalizes their deaths, the loss of such populations is deemed necessary to protect the lives of ‘the living.’ This disparity, Butler argues, has profound implications for why and when we feel horror, outrage, guilt, loss and righteous indifference, both in the context of war and, increasingly, everyday life.
This book discerns the resistance to the frames of war in the context of the images from Abu Ghraib, the poetry from Guantanamo, recent European policy on immigration and Islam, and debates on normativity and non-violence. In this urgent response to ever more dominant methods of coercion, violence and racism, Butler calls for a re-conceptualization of the Left, one that brokers cultural difference and cultivates resistance to the illegitimate and arbitrary effects of state violence and its vicissitudes.
The dehumanizing rhetoric of war, especially the Iraq War, is examined but not illuminated in this turgid study. Berkeley literature professor Butler (Gender Trouble) asks why the lives of Muslims and Iraqis are treated by the U.S. government and media as less important less "grievable" than those of Americans, and develops an obscure theory of the "precariousness" of life as a rationale for opposing this bias, and state violence in general. She applies murky linguistic and aesthetic analyses to a hodgepodge of topics, including the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs, and claims that Islamic sexual puritanism poses a threat to gays and lesbians, a notion she contests at length. Butler's famously impenetrable, jargon-clotted style conveys no fresh thinking. "The state works on the field of perception and, more generally, the field of representability, in order to control affect in anticipation of the way affect is not only structured by interpretation, but structures interpretation as well," reads her laborious statement of the commonplace observation that the government tries to suppress upsetting photos that might provoke opposition to the war. The sludginess of Butler's prose and the banality of her ideas make the book virtually unreadable.