From edition

Review of Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning

In the radically changed cultural and political situation of post-9/11 America, where the visible and invisible control of other voices have rapidly intensified, many, particularly those who are critical of the Bush administration and its foreign policy, have sought to envision another America where voices critical of the narrowing vision of America can be articulated and heard without restraint. In her latest book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler strongly upholds the tradition of dissenting voices in America, even in the midst of climate of fear and censorship that comes close at times to McCarthyism (as implied in Bush’s call that “Either you are with us or you’re with the terrorists”).[1] Throughout the book, Butler argues vigorously about the ways in which forms of visible censorship after 9/11 produce a public sphere in which the culture of fear and control serves as modes of invisible censorship to silence potential opposition while America wages a “holy” war on terrorism. In particular, she notes the extent to which the mode of invisible censorship serves as “the line that circumscribes [not only] what is speakable [but also] . what is livable” (xix-xx). Her argument is that the issue of what can be speakable is not only related to the contents of messages, but that it is closely related to the issue of who can be counted as human or whose lives can be counted as lives. The reason why certain people’s voices cannot be heard, certain people’s images cannot be shown, and certain people’s lives cannot be grieved publicly in the post-9/11 America is due to the operations of a form of racism directed that `Others’ in the extreme, ensuring that “they” cannot be counted as normal human beings like “us.” In Precarious Life, Butler not only deconstructs such a racialized view of others, but tries to suggest an alternative that America can choose in order to make the globe a better place to live.

In her first chapter, “Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear,” Butler argues that “any position that seeks to reevaluate US foreign policy critically in light of September 11 and the ensuing war” should not be regarded as being “anti-US, or, indeed, complicitous with the presumed enemy” (15), or as “exonerat[ing] the individuals who commit [terrible] violence” to America (17). Instead, such a position-which is “open to the explanations” of global events such as 9/11 (8)-should be regarded as the one from which the United States can ask “to assume a different kind of responsibility for producing more egalitarian global conditions for equality, sovereignty, and the egalitarian redistribution of resources” (14), that can even contribute to de-centering-instead of re-centering-American First Worldism or supremacy. From this perspective, we can “imagine and practice another future, one that will move beyond the current cycle of revenge” (10).

In “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” Butler discusses the way in which human beings are tied to one another, even in the form of loss and vulnerability. She reminds us of the simple truth that we can be injured and that others can be injured as well. This human condition of interdependence and vulnerability should be the basis of reimagining-instead of destroying-the possibility of community (20). Therefore, she suggests that the powers of mourning and violence should lead us not to retaliation-jas Bush did in the name of “war on terrorism”-but to the awareness that our life is fundamentally dependent upon anonymous others. But in the post-9/11 America, we see that the mourning of certain peoples, particularly Arabs, is not publicly allowed. The omission or exclusion of Arabic peoples-dead or injured-in the media in the context of “war on terrorism” works to dehumanize them because “the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human: what counts as a livable life and a grievable death?” (xiv-xv) According to Butler, such dehumanization merely “delivers the message of dehumanization that is already at work in the culture” (34) and also “serves the derealizing aims of military violence” by American soldiers (37).[2] For even if we see dead or injured Iraqi people in the media, we can hardly find any place in mainstream American media where their lives can possibly be mourned just like wounded or dead American soldiers, because the value of their lives is considered different from-lower than-that of Americans. This is the politics of obituary in the post-9/11 America.         

Butler follows this discussion up in “Indefinite Detention” by examining how the differential allocation of human value to certain people works with respect to those detained in Guantanamo Bay. She points out that “[t]he decision to detain, to continue to detain someone indefinitely is a unilateral judgment made by government officials who simply deem that a given individual or, indeed, a group poses a danger to the state. . [T]he `deeming’ of someone as dangerous is sufficient to make that person dangerous and to justify his indefinite detention. . [The] decision, the power they [namely, government officials] wield to `deem’ someone dangerous and constitute them effectively as such, is a sovereign power, a ghostly and forceful resurgence of sovereignty in the midst of governmentality” (58-9). What makes us more troubled is that such indefinite detention “does not signify an exceptional circumstance, but, rather, the means by which the exceptional become established as a naturalized norm” (67). In American history, we find that the exceptional-“managing” a population by constituting them as the less than human-became established as a naturalized norm during WWII. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese-Americans were evacuated from their homes, forced into internment camps, and their property was seized, mainly because they were regarded as “potential enemies” even though two-thirds of the over 120,000 internees were American-born citizens.[3] After 9/11 we have been witnessing Arab-Americans through a different form of surveillance, often with their constitutional rights suspended for no specific reason, because they have been regarded as “potential terrorists” in a time of “a war on terrorism.” Butler therefore argues:

[I]t is not that “we” have a common idea of what is human, for Americans are constituted by many traditions, including Islam in various forms, so any radically democratic self-understanding will have to come to terms with the heterogeneity of human values. This is not a relativism that undermines universal claims; it is the condition by which a concrete and expansive conception of the human will be articulated, the way in which parochial and implicitly racially and religiously bound conceptions of human will be made to yield to a wider conception of how we consider who we are as a global community. (90-1)

In chapter four, “The Charge of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and the Risks of Public Critique,” Butler examines how charging somebody or any organization with anti-Semitism “plays to silence certain political viewpoints” (122). The discourse of the charge of anti-Semitism assumes that there are merely the two opposing positions-“pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian.” From this perspective, however, many important distinctions in between this binary opposition are elided (122). She argues that “the threat of being called `anti-Semitic’ seeks to control, at the level of the subject, what one is willing to say out loud and, at the level of society in general, to circumscribe what can and cannot be permissibly spoken out loud in the public sphere. . The exclusion of those criticisms will effectively establish the boundaries of the public itself, and the public will come to understand itself as one that does not speak out, critically, in the face of obvious and illegitimate violence-unless, of course, a certain collective
courage takes hold” (127).      

In such a political situation in which fear and surveillance are working efficiently to control other voices, how can collective courage take hold? Butler proposes her answer to that question by reconsidering the possibility of the humanities in ruins in the last chapter, “Precarious Life.” She suggests:

If the humanities has a future as cultural criticism, and cultural criticism has a task at the present moment, it is no doubt to return us to the human where we do not expect to find it, in its frailty and at the limits of its capacity to make sense. We would have to interrogate the emergence and vanishing of the human at the limits of what we can know, what we can hear, what we can see, what we can sense. This might prompt us, affectively, to reinvigorate the intellectual projects of critique, of questioning, of coming to understand the difficulties and demands of cultural translation and dissent, and to create a sense of the public in which oppositional voices are not feared, degraded or dismissed, but valued for the instigation to a sensate democracy they occasionally perform. (151)   

Butler’s Precarious Life is an attempt to create a sense of the public in which oppositional voices are not feared, degraded or dismissed, but valued for the instigation to a sensate democracy they occasionally perform. As Edward Said suggests, in dark moments of America, “the intellectual’s provisional home is the domain of an exigent, resistant, intransigent art into which, alas, one can neither retreat nor search for solutions. But only in that precarious exilic realm can one first truly grasp the difficulty of what cannot be grasped and then go forth to try anyway” (144).   

In Precarious Life, Butler mourns that America cried for war and gave up being part of a global community by heightening nationalist discourse and extending surveillance mechanisms. At the same time, however, she suggests that the awareness and recognition of the inevitable interconnectedness and interdependency of our lives can be the basis for a global political community to which America belongs. For such a vision of global political community, as she puts it, “is the condition by which a concrete and expansive conception of the human will be articulated, the way in which parochial and implicitly racially and religiously bound conceptions of human will be made to yield to a wider conception of how we consider who we are as a global community” (90-1).

Ezra Yoo-Hyeok Lee is a doctoral candidate in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.

[1] Despite the unfavorable situation after 9/11, many dissents drew their pens against the Bush administration and its public policy, arguing that the activities of the administration go against the tradition of the American democracy. In particular, see Henry A. Giroux’s The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy and Implicating Empire: Globalization and Resistance in the 21st Century World Order edited by Stanley Aronowitz and Heather Gautney, both of which are extremely helpful in understanding the cultural and political changes in the post-9/11 America.

[2] According to Henry Giroux, allocating differential human value to certain people, is a characteristic of neoliberal culture. As he puts it: “At the center of neoliberalism is a new form of politics in the United States-a politics in which radical exclusion is the order of the day, and in which the primary questions no longer concern equality, justice, or freedom but are now about the survival of the slickest in a culture marked by fear, surveillance, and economic deprivation. As Susan George points out, the question that currently seems to define neoliberal `democracy’ is `Who has a right to live or does not?'” (Giroux xxii). In his book The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy, Giroux highlights how heartlessly so-called mainstream America has attacked and plunged into danger the lives of those on the margin since the end of the Cold War and how 9/11 has accelerated a culture of neoliberalism, marked by fear, surveillance, and economic deprivation.

[3] For representations of the internment experiences of Japanese-Americans, see John Okada’s No-No Boy and Erica Harth’s Last Witnesses. For the case of Japanese-Canadians, see Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. Reading these literary representations in the post-9/11 context offers opportunities to think critically about the effects of 9/11 and its relation to earlier situations of racialized emergencies in Western history.

Works Cited

Aronowitz, Stanley and Heather Gautney, ed. Implicating Empire: Globalization and Resistance in the 21st Century World Order. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London and New York: Verso, 2004.

Giroux, Henry A. The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm, 2004.

George, Susan. “A Short History of Neo-Liberalism: Twenty Years of Elite Economics and Emerging Opportunities for Structural Change.” Global Policy Forum (March 24-26, 1999). Available online at
Harth, Erica, ed. Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Toronto: Penguin, 1981.

Okada, John. No-No Boy. 1957. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979.
Said, Edward W. “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.” Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia UP, 2004. 119-144.

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