Judith Butler, Frames of War

Terie Lea Watkins
University of Central Florida

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2009. 193 pp. $26.95.

[1] During the recent wars in Iraq, rhetorical decisions framed the loss of lives as either grievable or not; invariably the United States government and media treated the lives of Muslims and Iraqis as less grievable than those of Americans. Given this situation, Judith Butler gives an analysis of how different forms of media are crucial players in the waging of modern wars. She also shows how populations who do not conform to Western norms of what it is to be human end up being abandoned, and while these lives may not be physically lost, they are often destroyed. Lives that are not considered grievable become a target for annihilation in order to protect those lives that are worthy of "living." Butler argues that, due to our modern day use of technology such as television, photographs, and the internet, in contrast to historically waged wars, the feelings of horror, guilt, righteous sadism, loss, and indifference individuals and populations feel with regard to precarious lives are transcending wartime sentiments because removed populations are able to see and feel the struggles of those whose lives are precarious.

[2] In Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Judith Butler discusses what it is that determines a life as recognizable. A subject of life, or a person, is situated in and through norms that are reiterated and reinstated through the production and shifting of terms; where a person is situated on the spectrum with respect to his or her alignment with these terms will determine if the person's life is grievable. Butler's prime concern is the ever changing frames that contextualize these norms of intelligibility and recognizability, and how the breaking away and circulation of these frames among grievable populations alienate those populations which the frames exclude. In the text, Butler references Abu Ghraib prisoners and Guantànamo Bay inmates as accurate examples of how this spectrum determines the grievability of lives. She asserts that all lives are born precarious, and because we are all precarious due to the human's social way of living, we are exposed to and dependent upon other persons whom we know, barely know, or have never met – therefore our lives are almost always precariously in the hands of the other.

[3] Butler questions in Frames of War why some human lives are worthy of protection, while others are not, in times of war as well as in our daily lives. She believes that, since humans are such social beings, life requires support and livable, enabling conditions in order to determine those lives as livable. She asserts that, "Precisely because a living being may die, it is necessary to care for that being so that it may live. Only under conditions in which the loss would matter does the value of the life appear. Thus, grievability is a presupposition for the life that matters" (14). Butler also suggests that decisions in life are not, as many believe to be, of one person or of a higher being – decisions are in all actuality social practices. A product of the ever changing frames that determine intelligibility and recognizability, social practices then determine which lives would be grievable when lost. Since precarious lives depend on society for survival, Butler draws the reader's attention to the role that governments, politics, and economics play in the decision making process. Lives and populations that are not considered grievable, especially in terms of racism and violence, usually look to the governments at the state and national level for protection, when ironically those are the very entities these lives and populations should be seeking protection from.

[4] Butler argues that these populations who are in need of protection from their states and related entities have economic and social structures that have failed them, which leaves them vulnerable and at heightened risk of disease, poverty, starvation, displacement, and exposure to violence. Populations such as these have a shared condition of precariousness – they are lives that are not quite lives, and are deemed "destructible" and "ungrievable" because of the lack of social structure and protection. These lives are "lose-able" and can be forfeited because of the frames that deem them already lost or forfeited. Since these frames are repeated amongst "living" societies worldwide, these precarious lives are deemed a threat to living lives, instead of being viewed as living lives in need of protection from famine, violence, and poverty. Butler refers to military efforts on behalf of populations in Darfur and Islamic nations, and credits the surveillance of these populations by the media for changing the frame in which these precarious populations existed before Western involvement. In answering her own question, Butler asserts that this is the twisted logic that promotes the repetition of the frames of war, that when lives such as these are lost they are not grievable because the losses are inevitably protecting the lives of "the living."

[5] One may ask why the West is the cornerstone for the materialization and circulation of norms that have such an impact that they in essence determine the value of lives. While most consider the West a state of mind or a way of thinking, Butler points out that not all parts of the "West" share this mentality. She specifically refers to the "West" as the United States, unlike historical connotations that the "West" is European in nature. The United States, whose population/culture creates and enforces the "Western" way of doing things in modern times, especially when it comes to setting and enforcing norms, is due to the ever growing freedoms that populations in the United States enjoy because of the origination of norms within democratic frames. Even though Butler does not criticize political democracy in particular, she does criticize the false sense of democracy among certain populations, such as those in the States. She reveals that the creation and enforcing of these frames is actually not democratic at all, because the precarious populations are not always able to represent and/or protect themselves. She therefore ponders the relationship between a civilizing mission and a dichotomous, crossover secular/non-secular position. It is this mission that sets up the frames of war against populations who practice (certain, non-Western?) religions and have governments that do not meet the modern (democratic) norms embodied by the West. Butler refers to Samuel Huntington, stating that, "...'the West,' is considered to have undergone modernization, to have arrived at secular principles that transcend and accommodate religious positions, that are more advanced and finally more rational, and, hence, that is more capable of democratic deliberation and self-governance" (124-125). It is this "missionary" claim that enables populations to be destroyed, due to their position outside of the conditions that make lives livable. It is this notion that the West has a progressive history, Butler claims, which positions the West as "articulating the paradigmatic principles of the human – of the humans who are worth valuing, whose lives are worth safeguarding, whose lives are precarious, and, when lost, are worth public grieving" (125). With the cultural frame set on and circulated about this type of conceit over what constitutes modernization and recognizability, wars are begun and populations are destroyed, as well as their homes, infrastructures, and religious and community institutions.

[6] Butler explores the use of photography and other media to differentiate between the resistance to the frames of war within the framework of images from Abu Ghraib, poetry from Guantànamo, European Policy on immigration and Islam, and her discussions on non-violence and normativity. Unlike Susan Sontag, who feels that "the image can only affect us, not provide us with an understanding of what we see," Butler believes that photographs – i.e., whatever visual image that lies within the frames of the photo itself – whether deliberately or not, already determine what can be interpreted (66). She states that, "Thus it is not just that the photographer and/or the viewer actively and deliberately interpret, but that the photograph itself becomes a structuring scene of interpretation – and one that may unsettle both maker and view in its turn" (67). She uses these vivid forms of media to evoke within the reader a response that will call for a rethinking of the Left and the frames within which we live and circulate such norms that determine unprotected lives ungrievable. In order for non-violence to be possible, one must acknowledge that non-violence exists because, in war, populations are mired in violence. The possibility of non-violence is viable when populations acknowledge that violence is a possibility; a disavowing of the fear and the temptation populations (and individuals) feel when faced with encounters with precarious lives. While there is a strong critique of the media and who the responsibility for the circulation of graphic and shock-images lies upon, Butler does acknowledge that without the circulation of these photos, whether it be on the television, internet, or newswires, the awareness of precarious lives would not be brought to light, and the frames that dictate the grievability of these lives would never be forced to shift.

[7] While Frames of War does not focus entirely on gender-occupied arguments, as do Gender Trouble and Making Bodies Matter, for instance, it does allude to the universality of violence against those who do not conform to Western norms. Butler acknowledges that there is no universal plight that all historically subordinated groups share; however, she points out that all members of such groups do face universal struggles, such as those against violence. In Frames of War, the struggle against violence appears universal amongst not just certain racial or gender groups, but entire populations that are framed as already lost or forfeited due to the circulation and repetition of norms that originate in and by culture, created by intelligible and recognizable populations, especially those in the West. Just as those who do not conform to, and perform correctly, those actions that determine if they are legitimately male/female, gay/straight, black/white, are punished, so also are punished those whose social structures fail to fit inside the frames that determine the recognizability, and hence grievability, of the lives inside.

[8] Butler's critique of grammar is entirely typical of her writing, and something that further sets her arguments apart from others in her field. In Gender Trouble, she points out that grammar is what poses limitations on the inclusion of individuals and stifles the universality of a cause; she carries over a similar argument into Frames of War in suggesting neologisms such as "grievability" and "recognizability" and new ways of defining terms such as "non-violence" and "non-thinking," in order to take new control over the cause. By introducing (or reintroducing) terms that reflect the cause at hand, Butler is able to bring to light the need for a new vocabulary, especially when dealing with gender, sexuality, and race. In order to overcome the violence that non-grievable populations endure, Butler believes we must re-think the ways we use grammar and define terminology, and ultimately, that we shall have to exclude from the cause all exclusive words – in the context of feminism, an example would be 'women' – and culturally framed norms in order to truly succeed in combat against the frames of war.

[9] Frames of War thus offers readers an examination of why sentiments during wartime inevitably determine if lives are grievable or not. Butler gives great insight into how, as social beings, humans are intertwined with the societies they live in and can fall victim to the frames they uphold. She analyses how racism and violence are possibilities only because their opposites exist, and calls readers to action in their own moral responsibilities to obliterating the upholding of these social frames, and to reject the continuation of the obliteration of populations who, in fact, have no way to fight their own wars against living precarious lives.