To propose that Judith Butler is one of the world's leading thinkers - a feminist philosopher whose writing has influenced a wide domain of disciplinary fields inside the academy as well as political culture in the outside world - is hardly contentious. We are, many of us, deeply indebted to a body of work that has illuminated issues at the very core of life, death, sexuality and existence. The tone of Butler's work conveys a modesty within urgency, a truly delightful need for precision, for caution as to how we proceed when intervening in matters upon which so much is at stake.
In the case of her latest book, the issues explored are: lives that can be grieved and those deemed insufficiently alive to merit the privilege of memorialisation and grief in death; the Iraq War; the media and "embedded reporting"; photography and suffering; the instrumentalisation of feminist and sexual freedoms as a means of demonising Muslim culture; torture and the pornographic pictures from Abu Ghraib prison; and, finally, the possibilities of a new progressive Left coalitional politics of "precarity".
While recent books by Butler - a trilogy of reflections that began with Precarious Life (2004) followed by Giving an Account of the Self (2007) and now Frames of War - may seem far removed from her earliest and still best-known books Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), there is nevertheless a clear thread of continuity.
Her early work drew on Michel Foucault and the linguist J.L. Austin to argue that the seemingly indisputable fact of the sex with which we are born is instead a fictional coherence, a kind of ordering of organs into a duality of gender (male and female) for the sake of "normative heterosexuality". Rather, there is no fact of sex, no beginning with a sex that is then simply expressed as masculinity or femininity. Instead there is a compelled performance, and sanctions for those who do not or are unable to comply. Not being able to live within such dualities condemns vulnerable gay, lesbian or transgender people to threats to their lives, to their viability as subjects. Often their lives are considered not worth grieving, as was the case in the early days of Aids. Since then, Butler has also examined the way in which nation states such as France condemn to pariah status those gay and lesbian people who wish to have or adopt children. Eminent people across the media talk authoritatively of this desire as an imported American monstrosity against which French culture must be protected.
Human vulnerability and the fragility of the lives of those condemned to such profound marginalisation compel Butler to reflect on the ways in which a politics able to "secure conditions for livable lives and do so on egalitarian grounds" could develop. In Frames of War Butler, cognisant of the power of grief and the political potential unleashed through rituals of remembrance, develops a theory of grievability. This concerns the lives of those whom we do not know, who are culturally different from or "other" to us, and for whom we often do not have the resources or the capacity to grieve when they endure losses because their suffering has no visibility, no public or legitimate face.
However, no matter how demonised such others might be - as enemies of freedom, for example - "we" are nevertheless dependent on them. In short, little is gained and much is lost in the shoring-up of what Paul Gilroy called "ethnic absolutism". Butler's writing permits a way of going beyond what we might call the nation-state politics of multiculturalism. This is a substantial achievement and one that merits more detailed attention than I am able to give here. But let me extrapolate the key thematics from the complexity of the argument woven between the five extended essays in Frames of War.
Butler introduces what could be called a "frame theory" of social and political power. She shows how the orchestration of the war in Iraq relied on field of affect, a tide of emotion that supported a notion of whose lives count, and whose lives do not register as having (or indeed having had) value. The concept of frame permits Butler to engage with the media and with the phenomenon of embedded reporting and, along with this, rulings in the US that various scenes could not be made publicly available, including images of rows of coffins of dead American military personnel. Although not all these rulings were duplicated across the Western world, the new theatres of war did produce a visual repertoire that, Butler argues, is an operative feature of the war effort.
She repeatedly describes how the staging of "embedded" cameras, the informal, of-the-moment editing, media outlets' behind-the-scenes agreements with the military and, ultimately, the image-management process produce forms of reporting that render so many lost lives unseen and ungrievable. She takes issue with Susan Sontag, who claimed that although photographs could mobilise the emotions and produce a shock impact they could not, without an accompanying written message or a narrative, do the work of interpretation. Butler counters this argument by situating contemporary media within a sophisticated, semiologically informed technology of war, which on this occasion was mobilised to pre-empt the possibilities of those traditions of critical anti-war reportage. "The photograph", she contends, "is itself actively interpreting."
Nevertheless, frames can be broken, and in the virtually uncontainable dynamics of contemporary new media, this organisation of visual experience frequently falters. Certain images circulate beyond the limits of the frames of war. This occurred most vividly with the photographs of torture and of pornographic scenes taken inside Abu Ghraib. Here, Butler reflects on a homophobic and misogynist US military able to demonstrate its "liberated" sexual might by taking aim at religious and cultural codes and visiting shame and humiliation on Iraqi prisoners. These images were not circulated only within groups likely to approve of such practices, and they eventually became tools of movements opposing the war because they provoked such outrage on the part of a wider public.
This book is not a media analysis of war coverage but rather a philosophical response to the process of image production and dissemination in the context of mainly US aggression following the events of 11 September 2001. Although Butler restricts her discussion to photographs, similar arguments could be made about live video footage: I can recall seeing, on UK television, British soldiers on an upper floor of a house in Iraq shooting downwards through a hole on the floor, after which the viewer heard, for a few seconds, the noise of death. Frames of War also makes a convincing case that the "lawlessness" of the Abu Ghraib photographs exposed the increasingly empty rhetoric of US democracy as pronounced by the Bush Administration.
Butler's theory of grievability, along with her reflections on media, open a pathway for a politics that is ethically informed by our interdependencies and our need for a "network of hands". But even with Barack Obama as President, we nevertheless remain in a world of nation states still prone to invoke the primacy of patriotism and military might against the threat of various "enemies".
Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
An eminent feminist philosopher, she is well known for her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, in which she questions traditional feminist views on sex and gender distinctions.
Butler was introduced to philosophy at a synagogue in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. She went on to obtain her PhD in philosophy from Yale University in 1984.
Before joining Berkeley, she taught at Wesleyan University, George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University, and she has lectured on courses ranging from literary theory, feminist and sexuality studies to philosophy, Kafka and loss, mourning and war.
In her spare time, Butler swims avidly and appreciates fine red wine. She lives in California with her partner and son but has also travelled extensively in Europe.
Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?
By Judith Butler
Verso, 193pp, £14.99
Published 1 May 2009