• On the Relationship Between Precariety and State Power

  • By Judith Butler | 20 Apr 10 | Posted under: Theory
  • As you will see, I am not offering a theory of state power, but wish to focus on certain dimensions that I hope you will find of interest. Although we usually think of the study of media as separate from the question of state violence, I want to suggest that recent efforts on the part of states such as my own to control the visual and narrative dimensions of war have not only resulted in a state effort to control and structure modes of public understanding that are dependent upon the visual and audible fields – what can be seen, what can be heard – but also what can be read. On the one hand, when the state issues directives about how war is to be reported, whether war is to be reported at all, it seems simply to be trying to regulate the understanding of violence, or the appearance of violence within a public sphere which now clearly includes the internet and forms of digital media. But we can ask: is this regulation of violence also violent in some way? And if it is, how do we describe that violence? It seems we are talking about two kinds of efforts. The first seeks to suppress the public understanding of violence, which verges on the denial that violence exists; the second seeks to structure the appearance of violence in such a way that violence is always already interpreted, rationalised, and justified.

    Let me make clear from the outset that although I am attempting to describe how such strategies work, I am very mindful that they do not always work. Indeed, the image is nearly impossible to control by virtue of the contemporary forms of its reproducibility. It travels beyond the reach of those who seek to censor it, and it often turns back on those who think they have controlled it – which is surely what happened with the circulation of the Abu Ghraib photos. But what I want to suggest as well is that the effort to deny violence is itself complicity with violence. And the effort to control its interpretation, including its justification, is its own kind of violence. We might say that state regulations of war reporting, including the prohibition, recently re-affirmed by the Obama administration, on showing the full gallery of torture images, is not the same as bombing or even torture. And that is right: it is necessary to distinguish between modes of violence. But perhaps my point is better made if we invert the argument with a question:

    Can there be the continuation of war or, indeed, the escalation of war, as we are now witnessing in Afghanistan, without first preparing and structuring the public understanding of what war is, and without suppressing any visual, audible, or narrative accounts of war that might break open a popular resistance to war?

    Let us remember that the state can and does exercise legal violence as a way of attempting to manage the problem of democratic resistance to its use of power. We can then rethink modes of censorship or, indeed, obligatory forms of reporting as tributaries of state power, but could state power wage its wars without seeking to limit and structure the senses within the public field? Does there not have to be a war upon the senses that makes it possible for a state to maintain its capacity to wage war? Shall we perhaps expand our idea of how wars are waged in order to understand how the regulation of the visible and audible field seeks to maintain that public understanding and consensus that permits a state to wage its wars without popular revolt? Let us remembers that wars invoke the right to reduce life to death or to living death, to dispose of life through military means, to instil terror, and to destroy the infrastructural conditions of everyday life for targeted populations. In this sense, war is in the business of producing and reproducing precariety. Such lives do not have to be fully eviscerated to be subject to an effective operation of violence. After all, wars are also initiated with the aim of weakening and dominating those populations who will become labourers in the reconstruction of their lands under the auspices of foreign powers and global corporations. So wars are partially waged with the aim of producing and exploiting a desperate labour force to further the economic interests of those who wage war. They are also waged in times of high domestic unemployment in order to exploit and recruit a labouring class with the promise of offering them skills and compensation. State power is clearly enhanced through these means, but so too is its alliance with corporate power. These alliances do not always work, of course, since firms like Haliburton have been convicted of corruption and have lost most of their investment potential in Iraq where, it turns out, the population is much less docile and ready for corporate colonisation than the US ever expected.

    I will try and approach these questions by talking briefly about the photographs of torture in Iraq, the assault on Gaza (that started nearly one year ago), and briefly by considering the legal violence employed in immigration debates in Europe. But before I do, I hope to say a few words about precariety, the regulation of the public senses, and their relationship to the question of how are wars waged now.

    The thesis of Frames of War, my most recent book, is that the frames by which we come to understand the violence of war themselves participate in the making and re-making of war. By “frames” I do not mean only the borders of a picture, but also, the limits of the thinkable. When a life becomes unthinkable, or when an entire population becomes unthinkable, waging war is clearly made easier. The frames that present and foreground grievable lives work to exclude other lives as worthy of grief. And how can any life be valued if it is not grievable, if it is not lose-able? Such frames are operative in imprisonment and torture, but also in the politics of immigration, according to which certain lives are perceived as lives, while others, though apparently living, fail to assume perceptual form as living beings. Forms of racism instituted and active at the level of perception tend to produce iconic versions of populations who are eminently grievable, and others whose loss is no loss and remain ungrievable. The differential distribution of grievability across populations has implications for why and when we feel politically consequential affective dispositions such as horror, guilt, righteous sadism, loss and indifference – and when we do not feel them at all.

    At an abstract level, it is surely possible to agree to the general proposition that there is no life without the need for shelter and food, no life without dependency on wider networks of sociality and labour, no life that transcends injurability1 and mortality, no life that is not dependent on sustaining a sustainable environment. And yet, certain strategies of state violence, including war waging, try to make of this generalisable condition of precariety a differential value: war clearly attempts to maximise precariousness for targeted populations while minimising precariousness for those who are doing the targeting. In my view, this differential distribution of precariety is at once a material and a perceptual issue, since those whose lives are not “regarded” as potentially grievable, and hence valuable, are made to bear the burden of starvation, lack of shelter, underemployment, legal disenfranchisement and differential exposure to violence and death.2

    To understand precariousness as a shared condition is effectively to bring to bear a principle of equality to negotiate the question of how best to meet basic needs and to sustain life as liveable. Starting from the presumption of equality, social policies can be devised that seek to affirm that principle and to organise the support of material needs on the basis of interdependency. And yet, the politically induced condition of differential grievability seeks to deny equal exposure, equal destructibility, through the radically unequal distribution of wealth and the differential ways of exposing certain populations, racially and nationally conceptualised, to greater violence. The recognition of shared precariousness introduces strong normative commitments of equality and spurs the movement to further a more robust universalising of rights that seeks to address basic human needs for food, shelter, and other conditions for persisting and flourishing. We might be tempted to call these “material needs” – and that they surely are. But once we acknowledge that the “frames” through which such needs are affirmed or denied make possible the practices of war, we have to conclude that the frames of war are part of what makes the materiality of war. Just as the “matter” of bodies cannot appear without a shaping and animating form, neither can the “matter” of war appear without a conditioning and facilitating form or frame. The operation of cameras, not only in the recording and distribution of images of torture, but as part of the very apparatus of bombing,3 make clear that media representations have already become modes of military conduct. So, under present historical conditions, there is no way to separate the material reality of war from those representational regimes through which it operates, and which rationalise its own operation. The perceptual realities produced through such frames do not precisely lead to war policy, and neither do such policies unilaterally create frames of perception. Perception and policy are but two modalities of the same process whereby the ontological status of a targeted population is compromised and suspended. This is not the same as “bare life”, since the lives in question are not cast outside the polis in a state of radical exposure; rather, they are bound and constrained by power relations in a situation of forcible exposure. It is not the withdrawal or absence of law that exposes the body to a metaphysically unprotected “bare life”; that view assumes that power is wielded exclusively by the law, and understands the state as the centre of that legal power. But the life that is unprotected by law is still enmeshed in power – the powers of governmentality, of extra-judicial killing, of statelessness itself. The conditions might well be “outside of the law” but they are not for that reason outside of power. Indeed, they may be the results of illegitimate legal coercion itself. Arendt’s idea of the polis could not have anticipated Foucault’s notion of bio-power, but this is one reason why those who lack enfranchisement within an established or recognised state are not thrown back onto a metaphysical ground; on the contrary, they are mired in power relations, even those of the law that work strenuously to keep them out of the polis, or to keep them inside, as its unacknowledged and exploited workers. Disenfranchisement is often the beginning of both regulation and discipline: it is not the end of power. How else would we understand the repeated raids on workplaces in order to find the illegal workers? They are not languishing in a metaphysical elsewhere, but contained and reproduced within state power precisely as the perpetually disenfranchised.

    Let me then make a few points about visual images in war in order to explain my thesis that the frames of war are ways of waging war, and then turn to the situation in Gaza which, as you know, continues to be a humanitarian nightmare. In the US, after 18 years of banning all media coverage of the US war dead, the Pentagon agreed last Spring to lift the restriction and permit pictures of coffins returning from the Iraq war. The ban was put in place in 1991 at the time of the Persian Gulf War. Those who defended the ban said that it was meant to protect the privacy of grieving families. Those who criticised the ban claimed that it was meant to conceal the human costs of war. Now it seems that the families themselves will decide whether or not media coverage should be allowed. Does the state here seek to protect the family? Or does it seek to protect itself? In what ways does the state seek to make use of the distinction between public and private in order to regulate the images of war that are permitted to circulate and incite in the public sphere? Does the population of the warring nation also have a say in this matter? Are there reasons why a population might need to see the war dead, to know how many they were, and to register some visual sign of those deaths, especially when a war is waged in the name of the people?

    The ban on showing the war dead seems to me to be part of a general effort visually to frame the costs of war. We can think about several debates where state control over the visual and conceptual field has been exercised: the debate about embedded reporting, prison photography, including images of torture, and disputes about how to count and publicise the number of war dead.

    In a sense, this is a banal point: one “takes aim” with a camera and with a gun. And most sophisticated forms of bombing have cameras and telescopes built into the very structure of the artillery. But what seems less clear is how the kind of telescopic targeting performed by bombs is related to other visual dimensions of war waging, included embedded reporting, the digital capture of torture, and the shrouding of the war dead. My point is not to say that the war is censored; rather, my point is to say that war is framed. And the point is not to say that we can only know what we see, and that restrictions on the visual field constitute undue restrictions on knowledge. Clearly, there are other ways to know something besides seeing it. My point is rather that such visual and conceptual frames are ways of building and destroying populations as objects of knowledge and targets of war, and that such frames are the means through which social norms are relayed and made effective. In other words, such frames are the way that social norms produce lives considered to be inherently grievable, and lives considered to be ungrievable. Ungrievable lives are those which cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; they are, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed. To destroy them actively might seem like a kind of redundancy or a way of simply ratifying a prior truth. So it is not just that such frames serve as a mechanism through which the living and the dead are distinguished and maintained in times of war. Rather, the time of war is precisely the time of this iteration, that is, this repeated and violent differentiation between the living and the dead. Indeed, we might consider this an ontological way of dividing populations into who shall live and who shall die, one that works by establishing who emblematises the living and who is no longer living and never was – the socially dead.


    Let us briefly consider two cases: the release of the photos of the torture at Abu Ghraib and the public response to the figures of the war dead in the recent assault on Gaza. We might think, for instance, that the publication of the images serves the purposes of recognition – and indeed they did bring widespread recognition of torture. But consider that not only did the torture violate privacy, but in some instances so, too, did the publication of the photographs. During the 18-year ban on showing the war dead, those bodies were not to be seen in order to protect the “privacy” of the grieving families. The presumption was that grief should remain private, or that grieving is itself a private activity (this is, of course, a very particular cultural conceit, since for many cultures, grieving is an intensely social occasion, often taking place in the street, in religious institutions, and with lots of food; indeed, sometimes an entire social network floods the home as a way of keeping the grieving family in contact with the larger world and to guard against the withdrawal into privacy).

    In relation to the photos from Abu Ghraib, the issue of privacy emerged in a different way. There those who were tortured have rights to be protected from further public exposure. Indeed, public exposure through the camera was part of the very torture itself. I have argued elsewhere that the camera was a contributor to the scene, and that it heightened the experience of shame, exposure, and loss of control for the tortured prisoners. So how do we think about a public’s right to know who has been tortured or, indeed, who has died, when that right seems to contradict the rights of those who have been tortured from unwanted public exposure. If the photographs of torture are needed to establish the facts of torture within a criminal court or, indeed, within the public domain more generally, can that only happen by re-iterating the crime? Is the visual means for establishing the crime implicated irreversibly in the visual means by which the crime was committed?

    The problem is, of course, compounded by the fact that the publication of the most extensive set of photographs from Abu Ghraib (more than 1,000) by Salon in February and March of 2006 are constrained by international law to protect the privacy of persons who have been the victims of war crimes. It may well be that the materials received and published by Salon are the same as those which had been the subject of legal battles with the Department of Defense, but even if there are some images missing, the number is extensive. The files, leaked from the Criminal Investigation Command of the U.S. Army included 1,325 images and 93 videos. These images do not represent the sum total of torture, and as reporter Joan Walsh pointed out in 2006, “this set of images from Abu Ghraib is only one snapshot of systematic tactics the United States has used in four-plus years of the global war on terror”.4

    Salon investigated the “captions” that the US Army used to identify the various scenes of torture, and they apparently included misspellings of names and unclear accounts of time and place that had to be reconstructed. The “reality” of the events was not immediately clear on the basis of the imagery alone. The “timeline” had to be retrospectively figured out in order to understand the evolution and systematic character of the torture itself. The question of reconstructing or, indeed, restituting the “humanity” of the victims is made all the more difficult by the fact that faces, when not already shrouded as part of the act of torture, had to be deliberately obscured to protect the privacy of the victims. We are left with photos of people who are for the most part faceless and nameless. How do we speak about “humanity” in such a context? We are left only with the trace of what is human. One does always not need to see or know the face and name, although those are surely conventional ways to humanise a life. And I would like the dominant media to allow the faces, names, and stories of those eviscerated in recent wars. But perhaps the trace can work to remind us that there is no single norm for the human, and that we only find signs of humanity once the single norm for the human has been relinquished. No human life fully complies with any norm for the human; no morphology will establish the human; no ordering or gender, no attribution of intrinsic features of rationality, since rationality takes different social forms, as we know. When the “human” tries to order its instances, a certain incommensurability emerges between the norm of the human and any of the lives it seeks to organise. Those lives are invariably human and animal, and may well incorporate metals and machine-like elements as well, especially in conditions of war. So the idea of the human can only order that life so far. Still, perhaps it is possible to name what links human and animal life as precisely a certain precariousness that obligates us to protect the vulnerable and to mourn those who are lost. This is not exactly an anthropocentric norm, since it situates the human animal in the midst of precarious life.

    With so many pictures of torture that have emerged from the recent US wars, we do not learn the name or see the face. Can we still rage against the treatment? Can we still mourn this loss? Do we need such names in order to testify to the atrocities and to the suffering? Yes and no. Such names are, and are not, ours to know. We might think that our norms of humanisation require the name and the face, but perhaps the “face” works on us precisely through or as its shroud, in and through the means by which it is subsequently obscured. The face and name are not “ours” to know, and perhaps affirming this limit is a way of affirming the life that has escaped the visual control of the photograph. It is against international law to further the exposure, to name the name, to allow access to the victim within the public sphere. The rationale is that to expose the victim further would be to reiterate the crime, so the task would seem to be a full documentation of the acts of the torturer as well as a full documentation of those who were responsible for exposing the scandal – but all this without intensifying the “exposure” of the victim, either through discursive or visual means.

    The state clearly has thought it could control the frame, successfully restrict the circulation of the visual dimensions of war. But those circulations – by the internet and by virtue of digital technology – exceed the control of the state. What openings does this produce for us who seek to counter not only war but the related operation of legal violence, against immigrants, against the stateless? The images of torture not only provide evidence against the justness of war, but also the legality of its treatment of prisoners of war. In this sense, the photos supplied evidence of war crimes, but also, of the broader crime of war. Was the treatment of the prisoners any different than the bombing of the villages? Is this not so much “negligible life” – neither destroyed nor injured because not conceived as destroyable or as injurable? – and not conceived that way because such lives have never been alive, have never become capable of destruction, and because they are already damaged life, to borrow the term from Adorno. They are not yet those whose precariousness lays a claim upon us, establishing their value, their fragility, but also their interdependency – indeed, the basis of their equality and their entitlements.

    Although I have spoken in the first part of this article about frames in relation to visual media, I would like to turn to the problem of numbers, since numbers, especially the number of war dead, circulate not only as part of the representation of war, but as part of the entire apparatus of war waging. Numbers are a way to frame the losses of war, but this does not mean that we know whether, when, or how numbers count. We may know how to count, or we may well rely on the reliability of certain humanitarian or human-rights organisations to count well, but that is not the same as figuring out how and whether a life counts. Although numbers cannot tell us precisely whose lives count, and whose deaths count, we can note how numbers are framed and unframed to find out how norms that differentiate liveable and grievable deaths are at work in the context of war. Invariably, when an assault breaks out, such as the Israeli assault on Gaza last year, we can start with the numbers, counting the injured and the dead as a way of taking stock of the losses. We can also tell and relay anecdotes that, along with numbers, start to develop an understanding of what has happened. At the same time, I am not sure that numbers or anecdotes, though modes of taking account, can alone answer the question of whose lives count, and whose lives do not. Even when it proves possible to know what the numbers are, the numbers may not matter at all. In other words, paradoxically, there are clear situations when counting does not count. Some people are horrified to learn the number of war dead, but for others, those numbers do not matter. Under what conditions, then, do numbers count, for whom, and why? And why is it that sometimes numbers do not count at all?

    Of course, there is something paradoxical here, since we are used to hearing, for instance, that quantitative methods predominate in the social sciences, and that qualitative approaches do not “count” for very much at all. And yet, in other domains of life, numbers are remarkably powerless. This suggests that certain implicit schemes of conceptualisation operate quite powerfully to orchestrate what we can admit as reality; they function through ritualised forms of disavowal, so even the positivist weight of numbers does not stand a chance against them. Indeed, we might imagine that if someone, anyone, were to know how many women and children have died in Gaza that they would feel outrage. That category, “women and children” has a certain salience, makes a certain emotional claim, since both categories designated presumptively innocent populations. Of course, such presumptions may or may not prove true, and we do not know exactly whether all minors – under 18 – are in the category of the child. But let us presume for the moment that there is something like a general disposition to regard the death of women and children as unjust and unacceptable forms of civilian casualties in war. I want to suggest that it may be possible to have this point of view, but to question whether the women and children ought really to be conceived as women and children, whether they operate in the same way that women and children do, or whether, in fact, they ought to be named and regarded in a fully different way. Once that happens, one can hold to the general view that the killing of women and children is an unacceptable part of war, but maintain, through a complicated form of disavowal and rationalisation, that these deaths do not fall under that category. I want to suggest that this form of reasoning was quite popular in the Israeli press in the aftermath of that assault. The numbers were known, but they did not count. And that is because the assaulted and destroyed body was already conceived as a pure instrument of war.

    Let me offer some statistics anyway, and let me also say, at the outset, that I understand that by offering numbers, I am also framing them. Numbers do not speak for themselves. I hope to offer a way of counting the war dead that is not part of the framing of the war – indeed, I am trying to offer something other than an act of war. My interest here is guided by a normative principle that the radical inequality that characterises the difference between grievable and ungrievable lives is something that we all must struggle to overcome in the name of an interdependent world and a more radical form of egalitarianism. So, I offer the numbers here with the aim of trying to ameliorate that inequality, one that pervades dominant schemes of conceptualisation and affect. So yes, there is a normative framework within which those numbers appear, but I want to suggest that it is one that opposes war, and is not part of the war effort.

    The Palestinian Center for Human Rights sought to count the casualties of the 23-day war. They claimed that 1,285 Gazans were killed and 4,336 wounded, and that the vast majority in both columns were civilians. The United Nations special rapporteur, Richard Falk, offered slightly different numbers: 1,434 Palestinians killed in the Gaza invasion, of whom 960 were civilians, and among those civilians there were 121 women and 288 children. Israel has sought to dispute these numbers, accusing Hamas of inflating the number of civilian casualties, saying it can name more than 700 Hamas militants killed in the fighting. Even if we grant that point, that leaves between 500 and nearly 1,000 Palestinian civilians dead. It seems clear that the number we settle on depends upon how we understand the category of “civilian”. And to understand how that category works, we have to ask whether anyone who is understood to belong to Hamas can still be considered a civilian, and then, secondly, whether it is finally knowable within Gaza, or from an aerial view, whether someone is or is not Hamas. Let us remember that Hamas itself has its civilian and military wings, so when we say that the war dead were “Hamas”, we have not said which part of Hamas, and perhaps that makes a difference. If we understand Hamas to have organised and sustained civil society in Gaza, then Hamas is not fully dissociable from civilian life. That would mean that it might not be possible to distinguish between who is Hamas and who is civilian. Indeed, one reason that Israel has been so reluctant to admit humanitarian aid to Gaza is that it does not want the already established food distribution systems, run by Hamas, to be ratified or legitimated by the distribution efforts. This means that Israel – by which I mean the government – acknowledges that Hamas is coextensive with civil society and the material infrastructure of Gaza. If we understand that only some part of Hamas is engaged in fighting (and that in some instances it is splinter groups, themselves opposed to Hamas), and other parts of Hamas are part of a civil police force, and yet others are working on irrigation, water, food, transportation, and shelter, then what do we mean when we say that some of those killed were part of “Hamas?”

    And here are some further numbers, also undisputed: Over 80 % of the population of 1.5 million (compared to 63 % in 2006) is dependent on international food assistance, which  was dramatically reduced, and brought to a full stand-still under the recent siege. The issue of starvation in Gaza has been discussed for some time. Over a year before this most recent assault, 87 % of Gazans already lived below the poverty line, a number that had tripled since 2000. After the recent assault, it is predicted that close to 95% of the population will be living below the poverty line. In a November 2007 report, the Red Cross stated about the food allowed into Gaza that people are getting “enough to survive, [but] not enough to live”. And in the more recent events, we know through a series of documented anecdotes about those who lost their lives without adequate food, especially those with serious and untreated medical conditions.

    It is always possible to listen to such numbers and to set them aside. It may be presumed that anyone who offers such numbers has taken sides, is anti-Israel, or is not interested in the whole story or the full picture. But let us remember that Jewish groups are quite active in the critique of the Israeli state and its occupation, and that even those who care about the future of Israel have surely argued that its militarism is self-destructive – we can talk about this later. But to return: if one sets aside the numbers because one fears the political conclusion that they support, one blinds oneself to the numbers in order to ward off any challenge to one’s already established political point of view. Of course, it is still possible to read or hear such statistics, not deny them, but insist that they do not finally matter – it may be a matter of indifference, or it may be that such suffering is understood as deserved, or it may be something else: a form of righteous coldness cultivated over time through local and collective practices of nation-building, supported by prevalent social norms as they are articulated by both public policy, dominant media, and the strategies of war. These are ways of countering or quelling modes of indignation that might translate into calls for the end to violence. But righteous coldness is not only what it takes to kill, but also what is required to look on the destruction of life with moral satisfaction, even moral triumph.

    We might then analyze some of the cultural tributaries of military power in Israel during the recent assault on Gaza – and the ongoing siege – as attempting to maximise precariousness for others while minimising precariousness for Israel. This is, of course, a strategy that cannot work precisely because it seeks to deny one’s own vulnerability to violence by establishing the other as radically, if not permanently, vulnerable. The generalised condition that establishes equality is denied in favour of a differential distribution of precariety. Of course, this cannot work since to deny the other’s precariousness will lead to certain kinds of consequences, namely, the other will seek to deny one’s own precariousness in turn. But my argument is not precisely a consequentialist one. The denial of one’s own precariousness seeks to deny the social ontology in which we are each exposed to the other, and where precariousness is a generalised condition of social ontology.

    This way of being bound to one another in precariousness is not precisely a social bond that is entered into through volition and deliberation; it precedes contract, and is often effaced by those forms of social contract that depend on an ontology of volitional individuals. It is to the stranger that we are bound, the one, or the ones, we never knew and never chose. To kill the other is to deny my life, not just mine alone, but that sense of my life which is, from the start, and invariably, social life. This generalised truth is manifest in some explicit ways in the relation between Israel (what is called Israel) and Palestine, since they are joined inextricably, without contract, without reciprocal agreement, and yet ineluctably. So the question emerges of what obligations are to be derived from this dependency, contiguity and proximity that now define each population, which exposes each to the fear of destruction, which incites destructiveness. How are we to understand such bonds without which neither population can live and survive, and to what obligations do they lead?

    But this undeniable situation of proximity and interdependency, of vulnerability, is nevertheless denied. Let us return to the category of the civilian in order to understand how this denial takes place. There are those in the Israeli press who say that if civilians were killed, if children were killed, it was because Hamas hides itself in civilian centres, uses children to shield itself, and so sets up the situation in which Israel must kill civilians and children in order to defend itself, legitimately, against Hamas. Hamas is accused of “cynically” using children and civilian centres to hide their own armaments. There are several sources that can document the untruth of these claims, but for the moment, let us consider how this argument works. If the Palestinian children who are killed by mortar and phosphorous bombs are human shields, then they are not children at all, but rather bits of armament, military instruments and materiel, aiding and abetting an assault on Israel. The Israelis, as we know, have targeted schools, open playgrounds, UN compounds, so how far can this argument actually go? Still the hyper-defensive claim is made that this is Hamas’s fault – the use of children as human shields – and we heard the same argument against Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. I am wondering: are all children human shields? Only some? Are we supposed to understand Palestinian children as nothing but so many shields? If this Israeli view is right, then the children who have been killed by Israeli military aggression were already transformed into military instruments, shields that let attackers attack. If one “feels” for the children or, indeed, if one comes to regard the children as those whose lives are being unjustly and brutally destroyed in an instant, and in grotesque and appalling ways, then that kind of “sentiment” has to be overridden by a righteous and cold military rationality. Indeed, it is not only a cold military rationality, but one that prides itself on its ability to see and feel past the vision of massive human suffering in the name of an infinitely expanding rationale of self-defence. We are asked to believe that those children are not really children, are not really alive, that they have already been turned to metal, to steel, that they belong to the machinery of bombardment, at which point the body of the child is conceived as nothing more than a militarised metal that protects the attacker against attack. The only way to defend oneself against this attack is, then, to kill this child, all the children, the whole cluster; and if the United Nations defends their rights, then the UN facility should really be destroyed as well. If one were to conceptualise the child as something other than part of the defensive and manipulative machinery of war, then there would be some chance of understanding this life as a life worth living, worth sheltering, and worth grieving. But once transformed into duplicitous shrapnel, even the Palestinian child is no longer living, but is, rather, regarded as a threat to life. Indeed, there is no life other than Israeli life that counts as life to be defended at all costs. And though we can count the number of Palestinian civilians and children dead, we cannot count them. We have to continue to count them again and again. We have to start to count them, as if we have never yet learned how to count.

    But, someone might object, what about the Israelis in the villages in the south of Israel? Do those lives not count? They surely do, and I say this not only noting that they have counted, that they have been acknowledged, but also that they ought to be counted. Although the numbers show us that the Palestinian losses are enormous in comparison with the Israeli ones (numbering 15 at last count), it does not suffice to simply make a comparison of that kind. The point is not to achieve an equality of losses. One would not want to argue that there ought to be as much destruction on the Israeli side. The point is to oppose the destruction in all of its forms.

    Even if there are significantly fewer Israelis who have died from this conflict than Palestinians, it remains true not only for Israelis but for most every public media that the graphics of Israeli life, death, and detention are more vibrant; it conforms to the norm of human life already established, is then more of a life, is life, whereas Palestinian life is either no life, a shadow-life, or a threat to life as we know it. In this last form, it has undergone a full transformation into an arsenal or spectral threat, figuring an infinite threat against which a limitless “defence” formulates itself. That defence without limit then embodies the principles of attack without limit (without shame, and without regard for established international protocols regarding war crimes). It is a monstrous form of reciprocity, in which spectres fight spectres with deathly consequence.

    Here are a final set of numbers that bring me even closer to the point I want to make. They were published by Btselem, the Israeli human rights network. They are also posted on the Israeli government website. In the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire – the Qassam rockets launched from the north of Gaza into Israel. On the other hand, in 2005-7 alone, the Israeli military forces killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children – and this is prior to the most recent war. Of course, one is struck by the massive disproportion, but consider as well that the numbers – and their distribution over the prior months – suggest that it is wrong to think that Hamas cannot or will not lay down its arms under all conditions.5

    We might all oppose the slaughter of innocent civilians in principle, opposing it no matter where it happens, and no matter who does it, and which people suffer it. But this principle is only effectively applied if “slaughter” is what we are willing to call the destruction of children playing in their school yards, and if we are able to apprehend living populations as lives and not exclusively as bits of military shrapnel. In other words, if certain populations – and the Palestinians are clearly prominent among them – do not count as living beings, if their very life, their very bodies are construed as instruments of war or pure vessels of attack, then they are already deprived of life before they are killed, transformed into inert matter or destructive instrumentalities, and so buried before they have had a chance to live or are worthy of destruction, paradoxically, in the name of life. To kill such a person, indeed, such a population, thus calls upon a racism that differentiates in advance who will count as a life, and who will not. So by the time we seek to apply the norm, “thou shalt not kill” we have already lost sight of what and who is alive, so that it becomes possible to think that killing life in the name of defending life is possible, even righteous. Of course, it is possible, even actual, but what fails to be understood in this circumstance is that the life of the one is bound to the life of the other, and that life is that very bind: intractable and irreversible. 

    Before I conclude, I would like to make one further point or, indeed, perhaps make one further plea. My two examples might be understood as drawn from the multi-valent war against Islam. It was after all the Islamic prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib, and it was the Islamicist party, Hamas, as well that was targeted for destruction by Israel. In each of these cases, the precariousness of the Islamic population was heightened. In European politics, you witness a different front of this war in immigration politics, and this very often has taken the form of defending “Europe” against racial diversity, but also against the imagined assault on its treasured freedoms that people from Muslim countries are thought to plot and perform.

    As part of a queer movement for many years, I am sensitive to this language of freedom, and no one wants his or her sexual freedom restricted by religious means. But I am also sensitive to the ways that claims of sexual freedom have been spuriously used to limit immigration, just as spurious uses of feminist principles were used to authorise the war on Afghanistan. The queer movement, conceived transnationally, has also sought to fight homophobia, misogyny, and racism, and in so doing it has operated as part of an alliance with struggles against discrimination and hatreds of all kinds. The emergence of a queer politics was meant to confirm the importance of battling homophobia no matter what your identity or sexual practices happen to be. But it was also meant to signal the importance of alliance, an attunement to minoritisation in its various forms, a struggle against precarious conditions, regardless of “identity”, and a battle against racism and social exclusion.

    My own affiliation with “queer” is meant to affirm the politics of alliance across difference. Broadly put, a strong alliance on the left requires, minimally, a commitment to combating both racism and homophobia, combating both anti-immigrant politics and various forms of misogyny and induced poverty. Why would any of us be willing to participate in an alliance that does not keep all of these forms of discrimination clearly in mind, and that does not also attend to the matters of economic justice that afflict sexual minorities, women, and racial and religious minorities as well? It is perhaps important to remember the importance of the critique of state coercion and state violence for a robust left political movement, even as we recognise that transnational economic, including state institutions, are responsible for differential and widening poverty levels.

    So this leads me to my final question: Do I want the state to take up its defence of my sexual freedom in an effort to restrict immigration on racist grounds? What happens when seeking recourse to the protective actions of the state in turn augments and fortifies the state’s own power, including its power to articulate a racist national identity? And what happens when lesbian and gay freedoms are instrumentalised to harass religious minorities or to make sure that new immigrants can be denied entry on religious, ethnic, or racial grounds? Under these circumstances, sexually progressives have to become “critical” of the state that appears so enthusiastically to be supporting our freedoms. What precisely is it doing with our freedoms? And are we willing to have our claims to freedom instrumentalised for the purposes of a racist reproduction of European national identity through restrictive and coercive immigration policies?

    If the fortification of the state against established and new immigrant communities involves depriving them of freedom, questioning their own rights of assembly and expression, if it casts its own Muslim population as a threat to the value of freedom, then it protects one claim of freedom only through the intensification of unfreedom, through the augmentation of the state’s own coercive mechanisms.

    There are surely better strategies than appealing to a state that makes use of the defence of “freedom” to reassert its national purity, its racist conceptions of culture, as the precondition of reason, modernity, and civilisation, and to halt all public criticism of the way it polices its borders and patrols its minority populations. A racist discourse can recast itself as the necessary groundwork of morality, reformulating its own hatred as moral virtue. Some crucial part of freedom of speech involves “speaking out” which means, invariably, speaking out within specific scenes of address: speaking with and from and to one another. This implicit sociality in all address demands the recognition of freedom as a condition of social life, but also, crucially, a condition that depends upon equality for its actualisation. At stake is rethinking the processes of minoritisation under new global conditions, asking what alliances are possible between religious, racial, and sexual minorities (when these “positions” are less identities than modes of living in relation to others and to guiding ideals). Then perhaps we can find constellations where the opposition to racism, discrimination, precariety, and state violence remain the clear goals of political mobilisation.


    Article based on Judith Butler’s address at the Third Nicos Poulantzas Annual Memorial Lecture



    1. See especially the discussion of injurability throughout Jay Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
    2. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”, trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture, 15:1 (2003), 11-40.
    3. See my essay “The Imperialist Subject” in The Journal of Urban and Cultural Studies, 2:1 (1991), 73-78. 
    4. Joan Walsh, “Introduction: The Abu Ghraib Files”, www.salon.com/news/abu_ghraib/2006/03/14/introduction/index.html.
    5. This same human-rights organisation notes that Israel interrupted pauses in conflicts 76% of the time, and Palestinians 8%, and the remaining 13% were interrupted by both on the same day. As for longer pauses, what we might want to call “ceasefires”, the numbers are even more telling: in the case of ceasefires that lasted more than two weeks, Israel was responsible for 96% of those interruptions, which means that unilateral violence against Palestinians broke the ceasefire in 96% of those cases, which were 24 instances in all.

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