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Precarious, Pointillist.

Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, London and New York, Verso, 2009.

In 2006, Judith Butler visited Sydney, and gave a public lecture in a modern recital hall strikingly panelled with blonde Australian timber and gold leaf. The street address--Angel Place--added a delicious irony, as did the gift of dripping red flowers, and altogether the sense of occasion expressed the high esteem in which Butler is held worldwide. There, Butler chose not to recap her popular and influential philosophies of gender, as she might easily have done and instead spoke intently about being an American citizen during the Abu Ghraib abuses. Butler's increasingly direct contribution to international affairs seemed then to mark the passing of so many of the late twentieth century's major thinkers--Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Said--whose intellectual company she had kept, and who had written in resistance to the offences of political violence. With her homeland launching an apparently limitless war on Others, Butler has responded with critiques of statist political culture.

Following Precarious Life (2004), Frames of War reflects this commitment, bringing together five essays written and revised between 2004-08. Appropriately, Butler notes that she is writing in response to the contemporary situation--Frames is neither treatise nor transhistorical narrative. However, it is concerned with epistemological and ontological problems that are more than incidental. The 'frames' under consideration are Western cultural structures of recognition and of knowledge. Butler demonstrates how such frames shape the representation of war, circumscribe war's meaning, and efface violence's affect. Further, she links these epistemological issues to post-structuralist understandings of socially constructed ontologies, to conclude that in these wars, Others become 'ungrievable' casualties. This paradigm is also explored across a number of other topics including abortion, sexuality, torture, and religion. Thus, the book elaborates an existential politic that Butler locates in the 'precarity' of life. The immediate context is the US-initiated conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Butler aims to contribute an insight applicable to many debates about violence and the human.

Certainly, Butler brings an unimpeachable degree of ethics to writing on war. Her position of responsiveness is reclaimed from its current military overuse, and brought back to Foucault's reflexive ethos, to self conduct amidst cultures of domination and atrocity. War's destructiveness has a compelling gravity that attracts and challenges the writer, but its pitiless light also exposes weakness. Butler does not wield the eloquence of Simone Weil or the practicality of Mary Kaldor, for comparison. At times, Butler's approach is a pointillist semiosis, highly abstracted from its fleshly materiel, a meta-reading of the regulation of affect rather than a close reading of experience. (Even so, the chapter entitled 'Survivability, Vulnerability, Affect' delivers a measure of justice by featuring the poetry of Guantanamo Bay inmates and giving it a far wider audience than it would otherwise have.) Overall, this undertaking tends to exert the question without evoking an alternative.

Nonetheless, her paradigm makes explicit that the interconnectedness of a globalised world, whilst accelerating the waging of war, does not necessarily bring with it an increased sense of responsibility for lives destroyed, lost and abandoned. It is an argument that has to be made repeatedly, and Butler has its measure, reviving a politics of recognition that has lain fallow. These lives are neither abstractions nor distant in time--they are dying every day in wars that we in the West continue to fund--and Butler urges us to embrace precarity, that in precarity 'we are bound to one another' (43). This is in stark contrast to state security discourse, which simultaneously disavows and defends against precarity. Butler theorises the interdependence produced by acts of violence, particularly in the centrepiece essay 'Torture and the Ethics of Photography', on the Abu Ghraib photographs, reaffirming that the entry of the Abu Ghraib photos into global culture was a pivotal event, as striking for political thinkers as the televised coverage of September 11, 2001. The two sets of images are indispensable to Butler's critique of representational frames.

Yet, the audience for this work is unclear, as it sits apart from foreign affairs commentary, from cultural anthropology, from literary criticism, from poesis; it comes closest perhaps to aspects of the feminist International Relations written by Christine Sylvester, Vivienne Jabri, and Jenny Edkins. It works into the broader field of feminist security theory, and articulates a claim for nonviolence (179-184) in human action. Yet, Butler's convolutions tend to impede perspicacity, especially in the introductory manifesto, where she is at pains to specify her terms and cite her predecessors. In this, Butler's intellectual contribution seems stifled by an institutional labour--grinding the academic publication mill--that distances the reader from her most urgent points. Still, Butler clearly wants the book to be an intervention, to 'reorient politics on the Left toward a consideration of precarity as an existing and promising site for coalitional exchange' (28)--and Cornel West's blurb declares this book an 'intellectual masterpiece'. Exactly why the Left needs to be re-engaged to pacifism is a question perhaps best answered by memories of Tony Blair's enthusiasm for the Iraq war. Whether Frames is a major Butler text remains to be seen, but her philosophical detailing can be a useful complement to other kinds of work; for years now, transnational feminism has been oriented to emancipating Dalit communities from caste violence in India, raising children in the orphanages of war-torn Africa, and promoting women's health in South American shanty towns. In those places, the consideration of precarity proceeds from visceral encounter, and dialogue is the necessary site of transformational coalitions.

DOI: 10.3898/NEWF.71.REV03.2011
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Title Annotation:Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?
Author:Staines, Deborah
Publication:New Formations
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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