Book Review: Frames of War


For my book review on Judith Butler's Frames of War, I've chosen to format it as a kind of "annotated abstract" by chapter.



            Judith Butler starts out her book Frames of War with an explanation of her project.  She frames the book as a collection of essays revised to make a cohesive book.  With this collection, she says that she is attempting "to rethink the complex and fragile character of the social bond and to consider what conditions might make violence less possible, lives more equally grievable, and hence, more livable" (Butler, viii).  Through this explanation, she seems to be situating herself and her words on the border between theory ("rethink," "consider") and praxis ("conditions").  


Introduction: Precarious Life, Grievable Life

            In the introduction, Butler suggests a way of perceiving the personal and the collective.  She wants to find a broader way of understanding precariousness, particularly as related to the collective over the personal.  Instead of only seeing individuals as precarious (or not), we need to start to think of everyone as collectively precarious, and of precariousness as a shared condition.  I see this as stemming from her understanding that "lives are precarious by definition" (Butler, 25).  If we understand precariousness outside of the individual and instead as this collective state that she describes, inevitable every life would fall under the category of "precarious". 

            While part of Butler's argument certainly does focus on the recognition of lives that have previously been tagged as "ungrievable," she also wants to make room for those nations (mainly the US) to accept their own precariousness and their own right to grief.  The possible downside to this recognition is a further refusal of certain members of that nation to be included in this acknowledgement of a collective precarious condition. 


Chapter 1: Survivability, Vulnerability, Affect

            The focus of this chapter is on certain questions or problems that are particularly relevant within the context of war.  Butler puts into question who the subject is, especially during times of war, and how wartime heightens a sense of national identity.  National identity during wartime serves to reinforce who fits into the cultural conception of human and who does not.  Butler also indicates the circumstances under which someone is grievable or not.

            To demonstrate her point, Butler brings in the photos and the poetry of Abu Graib prisoners, both in terms of content and of the censorship controversy that surrounds them.  From the content of the poetry, Butler reveals the collective pain that the poets feel, and how torture exploits the vulnerability of the body.  No doubt, she claims, the governmental system that allowed these torture acts to take place do not want the public, to whom they are trying to justify their usage of these methods, to see the "enemy" in a state of vulnerability, either through photos or expressive poetry. 


Chapter 2: Torture and the Ethics of Photography: Thinking with Sontag

            Turning to Susan Sontag's work on photography, Butler examines how photographs have recently been used within the context of war and specifically torture.  She refers mainly to the photos taken of Abu Graib to show how suffering is presented to us and how this presentation changes our reaction. 

            Butler begins by explaining the dominance of "embedded reporting" in the coverage of the Iraqi War.  This is a kind of reporting that is based only on the approved perspective of the government, and specifically of the military.  Butler noted the specific example of the media agreeing not to show images of the coffins of American casualties returning home.

            Turning again to the photos of Abu Graib, Butler points out that they too can be understood as part of embedded reporting as the photos are attempting to show American victory and military prowess.  She notes on Sontag's distinction between narrative and photographs, that narratives inform us, but that photos haunt us.  Sontag also points to the possibility to refuse to be haunted by images, which Butler ties to a refusal that comes from where the viewer sees the subject of the photo within the "frame" of humanity.  If the subject is seen as outside of this frame, the images are not haunting.  Butler argues that without a sense of haunting, there is no sense of loss, and that these individuals are not seen as grievable as they are outside of the frame of what the viewer considers to be human. 


Chapter 3: Sexual Politics, Torture, and Secular Time

            In this chapter, Butler looks at the rhetoric of freedom and how it is used to justify state sanctioned force.  She calls attention to the use of feminism and gay rights to attack Islam both physically and verbally, all while "reaffirm[ing] US sovereignty" (Butler, 105).  Sexual politics are also used for arguably less extreme means; the case that Butler presents here is that of France's secular government.  She links the rhetoric of laïcité (secularism) in France, which maintains that the heterosexual family is essential, to the Catholic argument of the necessity of the heterosexual family (and the rejection of the homosexual family).  This association between the secular and the religious puts into question the origin of the cultural rules that dictate the symbolic order.  Even in a rigidly secular nation, it seems, the symbolic order is maintained through religious norms. 

            Butler maintains that the hypocrisy of these rules is plainly presented, as sexual freedom is not completely open, in spite of the attempt of Western cultures to proclaim a superior tolerance in comparison to those individuals or cultures that are seen as extreme "others".  Presumed Western tolerance is used to exclude presumed non-Western intolerance, in situations ranging from immigration to torture. 


Chapter 4: Non-Thinking in the Name of the Normative

            The issue that Butler brings up in her fourth chapter is the insufficient framework and language that is used to talk about the subject.  She argues that the way the subject is talked about now "presumes specific kinds of subjects" (Butler, 137) that fit into specific categories.  When we speak of the "cultural subject" or the "sexual subject", we are in essence, Butler argues, normalizing the subject in a way that does not allow the subject to be understood as it truly is. 

            The specific example that Butler presents is the "homosexual subject" and the "Muslim subject", two identities that are often thought of opposite and incompatible.  She indicates that simply because a religious has certain rules, these rules cannot reliably show how people exist within them.  Overall, she is indicating that the language we use limits the subject to the normative.


Chapter 5: The Claim of Non-Violence

            With the concluding chapter of her book, Butler examines violence, non-violence, and the subject.  She claims that non-violence cannot be seen as a principle, as it cannot be applied to everything and it cannot exist alone.  This restriction in the way that non-violence can be understood means that it can only be thought of as an appeal.  For Butler, this notion of an appeal for non-violence raises the issue of the time and circumstances required to respond to the appeal for non-violence.

            The subject and violence are connected for Butler as her understanding of the subject implies that the subject is always formed through violence, as subjects are put into categories against their will (for example, gender).  The violence of the creation of the subject continues as the subject exists.  It is through this constant violence and struggle that there is a possibility for non-violence. 

            To explore this further, Butler reviews various theories on violence through mourning, mainly Levinas, Freud, and Klein.  


Overall, I thought that this book offered an interesting new take on questions of violence, most notably state-sanctioned violence and how it is perceived, or how it is supposed to be perceived, by those around it.  Butler offers compelling ways of thinking about how different kinds of lives, or even different kinds of subjects, are understood.   My only critique is that often times, she makes rather large claims that she does not necessary back up, and I did not always feel convinced with the "facts" that she used as a basis for her arguments.  I think that reading her work would be more fruitful if she were to more thoroughly cite her sources.


Thanks, Becky. Did you find writing this "annotated abstract" a useful/productive exercise? Did you find it helpful for understanding Butler's argument in the chapter that we read for class? In future classes would you recommend that I assign the entire book or was one chapter enough? Also, any other chapters that you would particularly recommend for upper level undergrads?

In your last paragraph you suggest that Butler makes some large claims without backing them up and that she should cite her sources more thoroughly. Could you give an example of a large claim and of her failure to cite?

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