Last week, Judith Butler gave the 2014 Edward Said Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center of The Jerusalem Fund. It was titled “What is the value of Palestinian lives,” and it was streamed live so that you, too, can listen to it while making dinner for your family.
Butler’s topic of grievability is not new; in fact, it has become her regular schtick in recent years, so much so, that listening to her lectures or reading her book Parting Ways is akin to a kind of academic political brand(ing). Brands are effective and comfortable in part because they short-circuit thought and plug immediately into familiar affective landscapes (reliability, for example, or hipness, or the panache of a certain class). While academic celebrities cannot avoid the “sticky affect” (Sara Ahmed) of this kind of branding, or (worse) the reactionary discursive tyrannies that sometimes devolve from it (i.e., if you want to talk about “X” and you don’t mention person “Y” and keyword “Z” then you are not one of us and we can’t hear you because you’re not political enough), the reception of this kind of celebrity can generate just enough slipperiness between “speaking the truth to power” (justice) and what Wendy Brown has recently termed “the politics of the camp” (dogmatism, show trials) to keep me skeptical.
But I am compelled by Butler’s schtick; I agree with it. I have since Precarious Life. To borrow an aesthetic category from Sianne Ngai, I find her arguments interesting. Butler’s arguments do not set out, for me, the passion of the on-the-ground situation in Palestine or Israel, because I have never been there and have no bodily connection to the place. Instead, the questions by which she frames her analyses generate the odd combination of indeterminate conceptual content and weak affective connection that Ngai posits as the basis of the interesting, and which keeps me returning to the object (her analysis) over and over and over again. Because I am a complete outsider to the situations of the Middle East–except for the rather pertinent imbrications of my tax dollars and my life on this shared earth–the connections that I make with her words are comparatively abstract or meta- (philosophical and ethical), anguished at times, but not on a lived or phenomenological level (because they can’t be), and this removal from proximity probably abets untroubled agreement with her political and philosophical claims. Overwhelmed as I am by what Adrianna Caverero might term the “horrorism” of the bombings in Gaza last summer, and yet knowing that I cannot hope ever to do anything at all to alleviate the black holes of pain, yearning, suffering, mourning, and trauma that striate the relationships of Israel and Palestine, I perhaps too easily escape into the calm though obscure regions of philosophy, of Butler’s philosophy.
In this lecture from last week, I found myself reflecting (again) on her turn from a humanist appeal to human rights to an ontological claim about the normativity of certain affective states (as in dispositions). Each one of us, she says, should be grievable. It’s a brilliant turn from a political stance (human rights) to a position that is at once ethical, political, and non-identitarian. We do not possess grievability, it is not a thing or quality to be owned and deployed; it is a relation, something Foucault would call a “play of forces” between bodies. To be is to be vulnerable, to be undone by the other, to be one-who-will-be-grieved by those who outlive us.
In this lecture, Butler (un)cannily plays on the universality of this ontological grievability in two ways. The first way is by highlighting the wrangling in the discourse about the killing of “women and children,” those, as Butler quietly puts it, who are assumed to be innocent and yet who must be (re)positioned as somehow not innocent or as somehow deserving of their deaths. The ache, the gut-punch elicited by a dead child underscores her claim to ontological universality: how can any child, anywhere, not be grievable? It is an argument of sheer assertion; without spelling it out, it hovers, lurks, in the interstices of her words. The second way is by “associating” the situation in Israel-Palestine with other situations of human tragedy wrought by severe asymmetries of power. Edward Said (she reminds us) denominated the task of the intellectual as that of universalizing any particular situation, not by equalizing it to some other situation, but by “associating” it, by pulling out the specific filaments that resonate and animate other situations. Foucault once positioned himself as the specific intellectual over against the universal intellectuals who claim a mastery of truth and justice. But quite harmonious with Foucault’s historical ontology of the present, Said’s universalizing task of the intellectual shows the discontinuity of the particular through the patterned repetition of structural oppression.