Arts & Culture

Learning to Grieve

We live our lives in frames that grant us an appearance that frequently is not of our own devising.  The camera lens, for instance, puts us in frames as the photographer’s eyes see us; a law or a statute frames … Read More

By / July 7, 2009

We live our lives in frames that grant us an appearance that frequently is not of our own devising.  The camera lens, for instance, puts us in frames as the photographer’s eyes see us; a law or a statute frames us within its strictures, telling us whether we can walk this way wearing those shoes, or whether we are citizens or unreal. When Sophocles’ Antigone mourns for the life of her brother in defiance of statute, she is making a life that the government would rather remain unseen, seen, by her act of grieving; Plato, on the other hand, is deeply suspicious of emotion, and in The Republic, suggests that poets should be banned because if too many citizens go to the theatre and access their emotions, they might be willing to defy statute as well, and be like Antigone. In Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable, Judith Butler argues for Antigone’s position, claiming first and foremost that grievablility is the best sign that life has been lived meaningfully in the face of the other. Butler provides a detailed overview of the apprehension of “otherness” in both philosophical and psychological discourse, from Emmanuel Levinas to Melanie Klein and DW Winnicott, where the morality and ethics of the “I” is constructed in relation to the apprehension of the other. This move, of course, leads to a series of questions that grow organically from Butler’s previous book, Precarious Life (Verso, 2004).  What does it mean to be human? What does it mean that the humanity of someone can be programmatically erased, either by action or inaction on the part of a larger social structure? Does one have to be human in order to be mourned? What, in fact, is a grievable life anyway? As I wrote this essay, the death of Michael Jackson was all over the airwaves.  It’s difficult not to comment on this as a timely affect of the impact of the frames that Butler outlines in Frames of War.  If there is a frame through which we view the world (at least in the United States), it is television.  Today’s news is full of information and reporting on the death of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, and strikingly empty of reporting on the situation in Iran.  The question is whose lives are grievable here? What is the mechanism that creates this disparity in grievability, between Michael Jackson on the one hand and Iran on the other? “…  specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living," Butler writes. "If certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense” (emphasis mine) In other words, in order to have a life, it must be apprehended as a living thing, but it must also adhere to some set of acceptable criteria, be a part of and exposed to “socially and politically articulated forces” that permit the body to continue to live.  It is these articulated forces that are what Butler calls frames: "[Frames] do not unilaterally decide the conditions of appearance but their aim is nevertheless to delimit the sphere of appearance itself.  On the other hand, the problem is ontological, since the question at issue is: What is a life?" Frames of War unpacks a set of categories that delimit and open up questions of personal and political responsibility, apprehension, recognizability, and a recognition of the other that can lead to trust in the very precarious nature of the relational.  The question is what would happen if we lived in that precarious place all the time? There are people today in Tehran who are dying because of the recently questionable election in Iran.  No one is reporting on it, officially.  The Iranian government isn’t taking pictures, and rather like the situation in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, the only information that’s getting out, is getting out via Twitter, a glorified text messaging system.  If you don’t use Twitter, or don’t know someone who uses it avidly and for political purposes, the chances are pretty good that you don’t know that the Iranian government is killing it’s opponents. What do those lives mean in the grand scheme of things? How are we to acknowledge them if we don’t know they exist, or who they are? What is the apparatus by which we can apprehend and recognize those lives as having value and of having been worth living if the government and all bodies around who would ordinarily frame those lives and make them real for us are falling down on their jobs? What is our responsibility to the “other” in this case, the other who cannot be seen or grieved? If we only recognize lives through seeing them on the television screen, for instance, framed by “trustworthy” reportage, then Iran is ungrievable, but Michael Jackson is not. In order to see the other and recognize value in the apprehension thereof, we have to be prepared to apprehend “something which is not us.” Levinas would say that it is the human ability to comprehend the morality and ethics of otherness that sets us apart from other species.  That we see the other, and apprehend in that seeing that it is at the very minimum our job not to hurt it just for being there.  In the look between two people,  a kind of ethics is born.  In order to apprehend this moral imperative, we are required to be able to recognize something like us in the other person, either because he or she has two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, or via some other mechanism. But apprehension that there is another person there is the first step. Then we have to decide not to kill it.  “For Levinas, violence is one “temptation” that a subject may feel in the encounter with the precarious life of the other that is communicated through the face. This is why the face is at once a temptation to kill and an interdiction against killing.” So in this case, per Levinas’ construction of otherness, finding morality in the “face” would make no sense without the violent impulse.  This becomes a built-in ambivalence for Levinas, “a desire to kill, an ethical necessity not to kill. But then, as Butler points out, we can’t recognize that the other person has value if we can’t apprehend their existence in the first place.  “What we are able to apprehend is surely facilitated by norms of recognition, but it would be a mistake to say that we are utterly limited by existing norms of recognition when we apprehend a life," she writes.  "We can apprehend, for instance, that something is not recognized by a recognition.” Thus we are put in the position of having to render something or someone “recognizable” in order for “recognition” to take place at all.  The frames, in this case those “categories, conventions, and norms that prepare or establish a subject for recognition”, make it possible for us to recognize the other as not the self.  So in this sense, for Butler, “recognizability precedes recognition.” The point, however, is to ask how such norms operate to produce certain subjects as “recognizable” persons, and to make others decidedly more difficult to recognize. So what does it mean that we don’t know how many civilians are dead in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or that we haven’t seen the bodies (or even the caskets, except once by accident) of the dead troops coming home? How are we to grieve if the social structures governing our lives are actively conspiring to keep us from knowing the humanity of the “other” that we’re killing and/or losing? How can we value that which we have no access to because that access is being actively blocked? Obviously,  aside from the examples of present-day Iran and Michael Jackson, there are applications for such a comprehensive understanding of what makes things grievable. The act of apprehension aids in the taking of personal responsibility thusly: human responsibility requires recognition of the other as a person first and foremost.  You can’t know to be responsible if you don’t see the other as human.


Thus, when we don’t see the bodies of our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, when the terrorist who blows him or herself up has no name or face, when we’re told children are starving but we never see them, apprehension, recognizability, recognition, are all steps needed to get to the point of responsibility, which is what Judith Butler would claim is at least one way into the frames that keep us from recognizing the “other” as being like ourselves. “So just as norms of recognizability prepare the way for recognition," she argues, "so schemas of intelligibility condition and produce norms of recognizability.” How then, do we take the idea of recognizing the other in ourselves, which will lead us to taking personal responsibility (a la Antigone), and bring it into the public sphere? Butler claims that, “Although it is not possible to singularize every life destroyed in war, there are surely ways to register the populations injured and destroyed without fully assimilating to the iconic function of the image.” When we hurt, it is more difficult for us to acknowledge, apprehend, and recognize the pain of others as something equal to our own pain.  And yet that very thing may well be what it is necessary for us to do in order to level the playing field, so to speak.  If we’re all willing to live in a place of precarity, precarity can save us from our own worst selves, for “to call into question this frame by which injurability is falsely and unequally distributed is precisely to call into question one of the dominant frames sustaining the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, but also in the Middle East.” Judith Butler’s argument is that some form of radical precarity can possibly lead us to a path of non-violence. Where traditional non-violence is a reactive position, what Butler is talking about is active non-violence.  A willingness to risk violence from the other by not acting violently ourselves, first.  Everyone has to, however, be willing to risk this violence simultaneously, in order for this set of non-frames to work.  Grievability is precisely that egalitarian radical notion that is outside the frame of ordinary discourse.