Judith Butler gives an interesting interview to Guarnica Mag titled “A Carefully Crafted F**k You”, in which she talks about her new book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009), elaborates a few thoughts about U.S. foreign policy, and ties the topic of her book to current world affairs. It strikes me that making something like grieving for another human being a topic of conversation in world affairs, particularly in regards to questions like torture and human rights, is a rather productive thing to do. What exactly does grieving mean here?
On the one hand, it could be grieving as an emotional reaction; the feeling one experiences when facing the reality of an other’s life coming to an end. Such an interpretation reminds me of a Richard Rorty essay called “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,” in which he argues that it is ineffectual to continue to think of defending human rights as involving a rational, argumentative strategy. Rather, he advocates a long-term process of sentimental education, where “we”—Rorty always talks from the perspective of himself and people like him, doing otherwise basically made impossible by his anti-foundationalist, perspectivist leanings—learn to empathize with others that are unlike us and feel for them. Similarly, Butler writes that she is “trying to contest the notion that we can only value, shelter, and grieve lives that share a common language and sameness with ourselves,” or in other words, advocating for an extension of the domain of people that we consider worth grieving. She usefully points to the recent Israeli attack on Gaza as an example of an instance in which you find a definite lack of grieving for Palestinian victims on the part of Israeli military actors. In this case, valuation of the life of the Palestinian is made possible not by something like the Goldstone report which poses rational critiques based on logic and doctrine—we all know that doesn’t work in the relevant circles in Israel—but by making possible the ability to grief for the loss of life of the Palestinian.
I have long advocated for approaches that focus on shifting power relations, altering modes of social reproduction, and reconfiguring sentiments to make progress on human rights rather than exclusively doctrinal approaches with sources in documents of international law. Of course, the latter can certainly lead to the former in certain circumstances—detailed reports about human rights violations let people know that there are others suffering abuses that should be grieved. Furthermore, when agencies that are imbued with authority and expertise on the matter, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and to an extent the United Nations Human Rights Council, consistently make statements of condemnation on a certain matter, they can certainly have an effect and influence on particular social fields, depending on how these fields are structured (clearly, it is not so with the above-mentioned Israeli military actors). These are important exercises, but I think it would be helpful if we realize that a large part of the effectiveness of such reports in this context has to do with the way in which it alters the way people feel rather than think, so that we concentrate our energies on other strategies to proliferate human rights regimes as well, or include such reports and statements as part of a multi-prong approach. This is, of course, taking into consideration these agencies and their activities in the service of sentimental education on human rights; their work has a different function in the practice of watchdog-style observation of governments and multinational corporations, and proliferating human rights regimes with concrete political ramifications.
But is this the interpretation that Butler intends to connote with her use of the word “grief”? Let’s ask the question: what does it take to make grieving of another possible? Towards the end of the interview, Butler notes that (for example) the military-industrial complex has a philosophy though not one published in journals, and that “any action that is driven by principles, norms, or ideals is philosophically informed.” I think this is basically right, and it reminds me of Gramsci when he writes that “each man…carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a ‘philosopher’, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.” (“The Formation of the Intellectual”, Prison Notebooks) Each of us, by being socialized in a certain historical era, embodies a philosophy, a weltanschauung, in our practical engagement with the world around us and the people which populate it. Modification of the philosophy that informs our practical engagement with the world therefore results in different habituses in the agents—Gramsci calls this a philosophy becoming historical. I think this is what Butler means: “it is not a question of how much you or I feel—it is rather a question of whether a life is worth grieving, and no life is worth grieving unless it is regarded as grievable.” In other words, when we subscribe to ideas such as, “no innocent life should be slaughtered,” we have to be able to include all kinds of populations within the notion of “innocent life”—and that means subscribing to an egalitarianism that would content prevailing schemes of racism.” In other words, by making our weltanschauung more egalitarian, our the domain of people worth grieving is extended and we will feel sympathy for others that we previously would not feel for.
I want to mention here that I think a synthesis is possible, because the further question of how to actually shift that embodied philosophy is raised. One response, from the Gramscian camp, would be to raise the consciousness of the class which is socialized to embody said non-egalitarian philosophy; this is an intellectual activity, performed by organic intellectuals belonging to the class, in order to alter the cultural hegemony of the non-egalitarian philosophy. However, a sentimentalist, Rortian take on the subject—or perhaps also a Foucaultian take, which I do not discuss here—would be to point out that the best way to cause such a shift towards a more egalitarian worldview would be exactly through sentimental education. As Rorty puts it in that essay, “[sentimental education] sufficiently acquaints people of different kinds with one another so that they are less tempted to think of those different from themselves as only quasi-human. The goal of this manipulation of sentiment is to expand the reference of the terms ‘our kind of people’ and ‘people like us.'” (emphasis added)