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Judith Butler - Media Death - Frames of War

Power, Nina. Media Death - Frames of War. The Books Interview: Judith Butler. New Statesman. August 27, 2009. Short version. and August 30, 2009. Original version.

Nina Power: You've just been awarded $1.5 million to found a "Thinking Critically About War" centre at Berkeley. Tell me what kind of work you hope to do there.

Judith Butler: I hope to be able to help organize faculty and students to think together about the changing character of war and conflict and what that implies about critical intellectual positions. Wars no longer take the same form and do not always rely, for instance, on the integrity of nation-states. The methods and tactics have also changed. How does one formulate a politically responsible criticism of war in the midst of this changing terrain. My hope to is to fund some conferences and fellowships dedicated to these sorts of questions.

Nina Power: In your recent Frames of War you continue some of the work you did in Precarious Life (2004) concerning the representability of life and death. How do you see the link between the two books?

Judith Butler: Well, I think that even though "life" was in the title of Precarious Life, I did not think about it as carefully as I should have. The first book considers questions of public culture and censorship in the aftermath of 9/11, but the second is more concerned with questions of torture and how we conceive of the human body as injurable. I think the second text goes further in trying to think about the kinds of obligations we might have on the basis of our anonymous exposure to others. I hope that it also spells out some ethical and political implications of what it means to be "precarious."

Nina Power: One of the first things a child learns about death, it seems to me, is that the death of a countryman or woman is more important in media terms than the death of someone elsewhere, which we might not even get to hear about. How do you understand the relationship between nationalism, death and the media?

Judith Butler: Yes, I suppose some children do learn this. But it may be possible to learn death first through the media as the death of strangers. I am wondering, for instance, about some of us who were young children during the war in Vietnam. Our first exposure to death may have been from photojournalism. Still, there is a question about whether we regard as valuable and grievable those lives that are closest to us or which readily conform to local and national norms of recognition. In other words, lives that are more readily "recognizable" tend to be regarded as more worthy and more "grievable." I don't think we have to have a personal relation to a life lost to understand that something terrible has taken place, especially in the context of war. In order to become open to offering that sort of acknowledgement, however, we have to come up against the limit of the cultural frames in which we live. In a way, we have to let those frames get interrupted by other frames.

Nina Power: The notion of 'frames' is a very useful one for understanding how lives come to count or be represented, and in Frames of War you do interesting work on the question of photography. The US government has recently lifted a ban on showing photographs of coffins at the same time as the Obama administration has vetoed the release of more torture photographs from Iraq. What do you think these two rulings indicate about how we 'frame' war, or how war is allowed to be understood?

Judith Butler: I think that even in the Obama administration there is the fear that explicit photographs of torture or death will portray the nation in a bad light or possibly turn national or international sentiment against the US. I find this a very peculiar kind of argument since it values how we are seen more highly than whether we are seen in a truthful way. Obama basically claims that it is his job to present a likable picture of the US, but I think that the responsiblity to the national and global public actually is more important than this rather weak imperative. The rulings do confirm that frames are powerful. We saw that already in embedded reporting, and we continue to see it in the censorship of war photography and even poetry from Guantanamo.

Nina Power: You touch upon the question of abortion in your discussion of how we value 'precarious' or 'greivable' lives. 'Life' is an extremely contested term, as you say. How do you understand some of the difficulties attached to this word in the context of the way it has been mobilised, for example by the Christian right in America?

Judith Butler: Yes, of course. But my sense is that the Left has to "reclaim" the discourse of life, especially if we hope to come up with significant analyses of biopolitics, and if we are to be able to clarify under what conditions the loss of life is unjustifiable. These means arguing against those who oppose abortion and making clear in what sense the "life" we defend against war is not the same as the "life" of the foetus. I don't know whether one can be a nominalist about life, since there are so many instances of living processes and beings. We have to enter into this complex array of problems, which means as well that social theory has to become more knowledgeable about debates in the life sciences.

Nina Power: To the horror of many on the left, feminism and (to a lesser extent) gay rights were invoked as democratic values in the case for war in Afghanistan and Iraq ('freeing' women from the burka, for example). How do you understand the contemporary relationship between feminism (and gay rights) and war?

Judith Butler: There are at least two problems here. The one has to do with the sudden instrumentalization of "gay rights" or "women's rights" to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a move that suggests that we are actually fighting a culture, a religion, or an entire social structure rather than a particular state or its government. The notions of emancipation instrumentalized for such purposes are clearly imperialist, and assume that liberation means adopting certain kinds of cultural norms as the most valuable. But this argument is really treacherous in my view, since it overrides the actual political movements already underway in such countries that are working out specific political vocabularies and claims for rethinking gender, sexuality, and domination.

The second problem is that lesbian/gay rights, and the rights of sexual minorities, need to join with feminist, anti-racist, and anti-war movements and are, in many instances, already joined together. There is no bonafide feminism, for instance, that is not also anti-racist. Similarly, there is no struggle for the rights of sexual minorities that is worthy of the name that does not affirm the cultural diversity of sexual minorities. Further, it is important to understand "minoritization" strategies as effecting both sexual and religious minorities - another reason why complex alliances are crucial.

Nina Power: Sometimes, as in the case of the recent Iranian protests, a particular death (that of Neda Agha-Soltan) is captured, disseminated and comes to stand in for a larger horror. Can we separate popular use of media channels (Twitter, YouTube, blogs) from more entrenched, hierarchical forms (state media, newspapers)? How might these new kinds of 'frames' transform our understanding of conflict in the future?

Judith Butler: Of course, this is the key question. I think it is probably inevitable that certain iconic images emerge in the midst of these conflicts, and they can, as we saw, be very powerful in mobilizing popular resistance to a regime. But what was most interesting to me here was the way that mainstream media became dependent on twitter and on hand-held phones to relay video from street demonstrations. It was not that "twitter" and cell phone videos were "alternative" media that showed a different picture from what appeared in dominant media venues. On the contrary, these internet based media became the basis for the dominant media image, and there was no other alternative under conditions when foreign media was barred, as it still is, from Iran. So are we actually seeing the emergence of hybrid media and, as a result, a certain wild region of "source material" and "corroboration." Perhaps this fragmentation and hybrdization will allow for different perspectives - at least until some corporation figures out how best to "own" it all.