Judith Butler – Courtesy of Google Images
In the first landscape surgery session of ‘Author Meets Critics (Without the Author)’, we discuss a chapter from Judith Butler’s book Precarious Life (2004). The chapter in question, ‘Violence, Mourning and Politics’ (pp.19-50), was selected as many surgeons felt it had continuing relevance in both their own academic work and with recent political events concerning global conflicts and disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire.
The session is led by Oli Mould (Lecturer in Human Geography, RHUL Geography) and Miriam Burke (ESRC PhD, RHUL Geography) who begins with a summary, drawing out many of the key themes from the chapter. Starting with notions of ‘grief’, Oli discusses how Butler questions what it means to grieve. In particular, the idea that we define who we are as humans through what makes a ‘grievable’ life. This questions who ‘we’ are in the collective sense as through the act of grieving we come to realise that we are inherently connected to others, both human and non-human. There is a realisation that there is a ‘you’ in the collective notion of ‘we’ and that part of us is lost when we grieve for others. This notion is aptly summarised by Butler, as she highlights how ‘we are undone by each other’ (pp.23).
These ideas are then applied to notions of the body. Through our connections with others, the body emerges as the consequence of such interactions. The body comes to represent the realisation of our connections to the world. In this way, the body has an inherently public dimension. With this in mind, violence is presented by Butler as an exploitation of the body and a process by which the connections we have with others are abused, manipulated or removed. This process exposes how the body is both at risk of violence but also grants the capacity to act violently.
Miriam goes on to explore notions of violence in greater depth and how violence can manifest itself in many different forms and across generations. In particular Miriam discusses how violence is frequently committed against those without a voice, such as future victims of climate change or against animals. Acts of violence against the voiceless also raises questions around who we choose to grieve. Butler suggests that if we cannot be grieved then the existence of our lives is called into question. This in turn creates a process of ‘derealisation’ where violence against the silent is negated, as their lives are not regarded as ‘grievable’. This raises further questions around the dehumanisation of loss in war, a foci which Butler explores in relation to those killed by the US in Iraq. In particular, she suggests that the US media frequently fails to adequately represent those killed by American forces.
Oli and Miriam go on to highlight how the chapter ends by insisting for an acknowledgement of our vulnerability. Through recognising our vulnerability, we can better empathise with those around us. By recognising and naming the vulnerable, we bring it into focus. This is then applied by Butler to a broader scale, as she considers the application of vulnerability as a political framework through which a more empathetic and critical politics can emerge. A politics that she feels would recognise the complexity of mourning, violence and vulnerability.
Precarious Life by Judith Butler – Image Courtesy of Google Images
After this initial summary there is a brief discussion of people’s thoughts around the text. For many, Butler’s work raises a lot of questions: Miriam is quick to highlight that the relationship between violence and abuse is particularly absent with abuse only mentioned once. This in turn raises questions around when can violence be justified? Oli also raises the issue that Butler seems to equate public media (specifically US media) with public consciousness. Butler presents the media as a proxy for common thought, who are quick to dehumanise those outside of the US. Whilst this might represent the time in which the text was written, greater access to the Internet in recent years has meant that the public are arguably more aware and more willing to challenge acts of violence than Butler acknowledges within her text. This is evident in recent backlashes against forms of dehumanisation by the media in the wake of the death of Alan Kurdi, who was photographed having drowned and found on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey.
Other surgeons also highlighted how the chapter focused heavily on a largely monolithic United States and whilst Butler calls for action to highlight those who are vulnerable across the globe, the text seems to come from a solely western US perspective. Additionally, her interpretation of vulnerability seemed problematic as she presented it as an inherent characteristic rather than something that was caused. This failed to address who the perpetrators of violence might be instead focusing largely on the victims. This also meant that there was a lack of recognition regarding the structures of power in the relationship between violence and vulnerability.
In building upon the questions we raised, Oli and Miriam ask us to pair off and pick out seven key words that emerged from the chapter. These were then used to produce a word cloud, with the most frequently occurring words presented in a larger typeface. From this we were able to gain a sense of how the group interpreted the chapter. Both empathy and abuse were words that were lacking in Butler’s original text but were situated as key to our collective understandings of it. This was also true of power, as whilst it was an underlying theme, many felt that its relationship was not fully fleshed out by Butler’s examination of violence and vulnerability.
Word Cloud – Created by Miriam Burke
Following on from this, we were tasked with creating a seven-word phrase that applied Butler’s ideas to our own research. Whilst there were too many examples to list fully here, the ones that Veronica and I put together were as follows:
‘The systematic violence of forced urban domicide’
‘The epistemological violence of piercing the mantle’
The process of applying Butler’s ideas to our own research certainly exemplified the relevance of violence and vulnerability as concepts to cultural geography. It also encouraged us to think differently and perhaps laterally about our own research and how it might be embedded in wider networks of power, prompting ideas which may have previously been unconsidered. For many, including myself and my own work, which focuses on the demolition of the Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in east London, issues of violence were all too prominent. The physical act of the destruction of a home and the denial of a voice of those forced to move, serve as an ever-present reminder of the state’s complicity in violence. Whereas others, such as Veronica and her research into geographic metaphors of ‘the mantle’ and understandings of global space, a more lateral application of Butler’s ideas was required. For Veronica, the process of ‘piercing’ or exploring knowledges about the mantle became the violent act.
Going around the room and discussing each person’s phrase and research raised yet more questions about Butler’s work. It was evident across the group’s wide research interests, that there were varying scales of violence and vulnerability present from individual micro-transactions to state and global institutions. However, people were concerned about Butler’s ‘scaling up’ of vulnerability to the political level. For many, the notion of vulnerability was disempowering especially if it was imposed upon them by those with power. This certainly reinforced the idea that violence could only be identified by those with power, and that vulnerability itself and the process of naming it could be a violent act. This brought to attention whether geographers should promote a geography of vulnerability, and what such a geography might silence and whose power it might undercut. There was a general consensus in the potential danger of what a geography of vulnerability might mean if taken uncritically.
As the session drew to a close there was agreement that whilst the ideas set out in the chapter were very useful in considering those who were silenced by or targets of violence, the chapters ideas did little to expose the perpetrators of violence. Furthermore, Butler’s language was found to be problematic and somewhat defeatist, with vulnerability implying weakness, pain or submission. The group instead promoted the idea that it would be better to develop a language of hope and love to encourage empathy at the political level rather than one of shared pain and vulnerability. Either way, this week’s ‘Author Meets Critics (Without the Author)’ has provided a platform for an insightful and challenging debate.
Butler, J. 2004 Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Verso, London