Tuesday, March 23, 2010


In her recent book, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?,” Judith Butler returns to ideas that have informed her notion of the precariousness of life, and that refer to her earlier thoughts on violence and ethics in Giving an Account of Oneself. Here, in Frames, she extends the notion of norms and of normativity (and the corresponding idea of primary impressionabilty) to the media-sensitive sense of “frames.” In some ways, the notion of the frame (as both a visual determination and an overdetermined gesture, as in “to frame someone”) is the link between Butler’s methodological post-structuralism and the problem of post-war surviving. The close residence of this methodological belief and the questions that are posed to “living” by war comes to a point in the following passage: To say that the norm is iterable is precisely not to accept a structuralist account of the norm, but to affirm something about the continuing life of poststructuralism, a preoccupation with notions such as living on, carrying on, carrying over, continuing, that form the temporal tasks of the body. (169) Although her notion of the “frame” has itself disappeared from the field of reference in this passage and in the last chapter in general, it seems that theoretically, the “iterable norm” does much of the same work. In earlier chapters, the “frame” indeed added aspects of sentience to her discussion of social processes, but it also seems that its larger function was to give a more substantial form to processes that take the form of an imperative in Butler’s work. These processes, which involve the work of being “enacted through” (73ff), signal the problem of selection. For her, the problem is how to act within processes and systems that have not been self-selected and this results in her resolve against the self (or the ego), on the one hand, and in her repeated theoretical discussions of processes of how situations compel and constitute us, which are, more or less the same. Such fixation on the processes of “enactment” is therefore not surprising, but as it seems to happen, the discussion of framing and surviving ends up being about life, or life-as-methodology What this means is that there comes a point at which the series of connections and processes long at work in Butler’s writing seem to crystallize around her belief in the location of life in its processes. The point, however, would not be to catalog the forms of life damaged by war, but to reconceive life itself as a set of largely unwilled interdependencies, even systemic relations, which imply that the “ontology” of the human is not separable from the “ontology” of the animal.” (75) My emphasis is on the similie, “life itself as a set…,” since for life to be “as” a set, even a negative set, and of something unwilled, indicates that the frame, like norms, interdependencies, and relations, dissolves as a matter of perception and reemerges as a matter of apperception. She describes this imperatively, as “to learn to see the frame that blinds us to what we see is no easy matter” (100). The point is that as the task shifts from cataloging to reconceiving, all other functions that could be assumed become automatic. The similiac, analogical relationship between life and system is a figure for the leap of faith, if we can call such a movement between the eyes and the mind, that Butler’s writing seems to exact. This illuminates the nature of the work that Butler imagines our task in the world: not to account for damaged lives, for the particular harm done to a thing, but to rethink the whole, in the form of a new absolute spirit, perhaps, and to let this whole set the terms for iterability. Butler describes this task imperatively: “to learn to see the frame that blinds us to what we see is no easy matter” (100). Butler’s prescription, to my mind, follows a logic of the relationship between self and other which emerged in Goethe’s humanist concerns about the “narrowing” of his world as a national writer, and one which emerges commonly enough in presuppositions about the degree of reflexivity felt by the one for the other.

What I have in mind can perhaps be made more clear by taking an example from Butler’s literary topic in Frames of War, the poems of the detainees of Guantanamo. She puzzles lightly over the words of Marc Falkoff, lawyer of several of the detainees and editor of the poetry, who wrote that according to the concerns of the U.S. government, there was something particularly dangerous about the “content and format of this poetry. Butler’s only comment on the lyric genre is parenthetical, referring to the citational quality of the lyric “I,” and her investigation of what it is about the form seems disingenuous. She finds them, however, to be structured, or revolving around “a repeated and open question, an insistent horror, a drive toward exposure” (57). The question is located in Sami al-Haj’s poem, “Humiliated in Shackles”: “How does a tortured body form such words?” Butler locates the meaning and importance of the question in the fact that it comes from another, the fact that it is an appeal that comes from somewhere else, and this, she contends, means that in turn we can read these poems for the “set of interpretations …. they deliver in the form of affects, including longing and rage…” (57). She imagines this “set of interpretations” as a way of reconceiving the relationship between the forming of words and survival, between the post-strucuralist effort and carrying on. She writes, “The poems communicate another sense of solidarity, of interconnected lives that carry on each others’ words, suffer each others’ fears, and form networks that pose an incendiary risk not only to national security, but to the form of global sovereignty championed by the U.S.” (62). She locates the incendiary threat not in the “content and format” of the poems, but in the structure that is generated by this aporetic question, one which is both a question of the text and of the form of communal life that is imagined as its outcome. Here is Butler’s finest vision of what “responsiveness” is, what interpretation “as a consequence of a certain field of intelligibility that helps us to form and to frame our responsiveness to the impinging world” is (34). The problem of this type of imagined collectivity is that in the end it puts all of the critical pressure on the perceptive (turning apperceptive) powers of the “I,” even where these terms are shifted to the “we,” and where it seems that indeed there is something like the “constitutive sociality of the body” (51). At the same time, however, this “I” totally disappears from the field; I mean that he is not allowed to go there, that we lose a way of talking about the interaction between the “I” and the “sociality of the body,” which is both singular, interpretive, and interconnected. To pause at the level of the poem as a poem, at the level of the questions that it poses for the identity of its speaker, who, in confrontation with a the ugly social fact of his torture, his subjection, his confinement, creates an expressive document which, though it might not itself stand trial, evinces some of the conflicts that constitute appeals to “humanity.” Indeed al-Haj’s question is insistently this one: how does a tortured body make an appeal to humanity? In this sense, the question of what language forms is less a question of survival, although it is also this, and to a much greater extent a question of defense, here of one human being or many human beings, who are in a situation where both the inhuman nature of their treatment and the supposed “humanity” that they are supposed to represent work against the humanness of their particular need for defense. This defense and our role in it, is in large part a matter of the civilian concerns of war suffering, which is not about the guilt of survival, but about the guilt of not being about to do anything to prevent atrocity. For me, this shift involves the difference between Sami al-Haj being a representative of this collective, tortured body, and Sami al-Haj being one who raises a question about the human limits of appealing to humanity.

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