Judith Butler on Life

Have just finished reading Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard UP, 2015), which is a bit of a slog since it is repetitive and not leavened with many concrete examples.  But Butler appears obsessed with the same issues and problems that occupy much of my mental space, so I was grateful to find I am not alone in my worries or entirely off the rails.  I also pretty much agree with most of her political intuitions and ambitions.  As when I read Dewey, I find that I think Butler is right 80% of the time—and there are very few writers with whom I find myself in such alignment.

To the point: Butler just forthrightly declares that Arendt is wrong about “life.”  What Arendt fails to register is that the means for life are “differentially distributed”—and that such distribution is a matter of politics, of power.  It is, therefore, not just wrong but a matter of pernicious blindness to place the question of sustaining life outside the realm of politics, at the same time condemning those whose lives are overwhelmingly (out of necessity) devoted to “labor,” to securing the means of survival, to nonappearance in the political space of appearances.

Butler ends up, though she is adamantly resistant to admitting it, in a position akin to that of Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach.  Here is the key Butler paragraph:

“We have mentioned that bodies cannot be understood at all without the environments, the machines, and the social organization of interdependency upon which they rely, all of which form the conditions of their persistence and flourishing.  And finally, even if we come to understand and enumerate the requirements of the body, do we struggle only for those requirements to be met?  As we have seen, Arendt surely opposed that view.  Or do we struggle as well for bodies to thrive, and for lives to become livable?  As I hope to have suggested, we cannot struggle for a good life, a livable life, without meeting the requirements that allow a body to persist.  It is necessary to demand that bodies have what they need to survive, for survival is surely a precondition for all other claims we make.  And yet, that demand proves insufficient since we survive precisely in order to live, and life, as much as it requires survival, must be more than survival in order to be livable.  One can survive without being able to live one’s life.  And in some cases, it surely does not seem worth it to survive under such conditions.  So, an overarching demand must be precisely for a livable life, that is, a life that can be lived” (208-209, emphasis Butler’s).

Butler says a little bit more about this idea of a “livable life,” but not much.  She fights shy, as we would expect (and hope), of identifying any single standard by which we could judge a life’s “worth.”  But her very appeal to the notion that life requires more than just survival, along with her use (throughout the book) of the term “flourishing,” means that her politics must function on two levels.

Level one is the minimalist level/position.  Here the point is to protest stringently against all those forms of power and social organization that deny survival to people (and, perhaps, other beings).  Along with that protest should come attempts to imagine—and even to embody—alternative organizations that do meet the “requirements” of “persistence.”  In seeing those requirements as “preconditions,” Butler points toward what, in my terms, I would consider a “floor,” a minimal set of primary goods (to use Rawls’s terms) all (with no exceptions) can access.  In our horrible political moment, when a resurgent right wing can openly declare its desire to deny such access (to health care, to clean air and water, to safe working conditions, to protection from state violence and from war) to some populations, insistence on that minimum has assumed a new importance.  Egalitarianism in our current context takes, I believe, this form of insisting on a minimalist provision of those things that meet the “requirements of persistence.”

But Butler, like everyone who approaches this topic, takes the position that the minimalist position is not enough.  It is not even clear that it should take logical or political priority.  A minimalist life is not obviously a life that can be affirmed.  “[I]n some cases,” as Butler puts it, “it surely does not seem worth it to survive under such conditions.”  Life shouldn’t just survive, it should flourish.

And it is with that term “flourish,” [which comes from an Aristotelean tradition that Butler, in an off-hand remark earlier in the book calls “outdated” (194)] that Nussbaum’s work can prove useful.  When Butler goes to flesh out what makes a life livable, she highlights “the complex relationalities” in which any body is entangled and advocates a politics that “understand[s] and attend[s] to the complex set of relations without which we do not exist at all” (209).  This thought, not unsurprisingly, leads Butler into a bit of a swamp.  How to think our inevitable dependency (our lives cannot persist, no less flourish without relations to other beings that also make us dependent and vulnerable) without reinforcing all the forms of dependency that power installs?  In short, we need to find ways to manage dependency, to organize it, that do not enable differential access to the means of persistence and flourishing.  To put in another way: the inevitable fact of dependency provides a worrisome perfect opportunity for the establishment of non-egalitarian hierarchies.

Butler’s core philosophical position (her transcendental claim in her recent books) is the dependency of the human condition (to use Arendt’s terms) or, more broadly, the condition of all planetary life.  I use “transcendental” here in its Kantian sense—and Butler is performing what I called elsewhere “transcendental blackmail.”  If we accept that she has identified “necessary,” inescapable conditions of our existence, then she has us where she wants us.  We must come to terms with dependency because we are all dependent, whether we want to be or not.

From there, her argument must operate on three levels.  The first is to oppose those who would deny that dependency is our basic condition.  Here Butler retains the psychoanalytic perspective that has retreated to the margins in her recent work (as contrasted to earlier work like Gender Trouble and The Passionate Attachment to Subjection.)  Humans are prone to “disavow” dependency, to fantasize a self-sufficiency that aims to escape the vulnerability to others that dependency entails.  And the psychic/political costs of disavowal, especially in its generation of aggression against anything that threatens the delusion, are high.

The second level we might call the egalitarian one.  Here we get the political position I have called minimalist, with its commitment to an egalitarian distribution of vulnerability—and to the resources by which we (as a political community) attempt to protect ourselves from “precarity,” from the fact that every life is open to the forces that can end life.  None of us, ultimately, is protected from death.  The actual things that will cause my death and the date of that death are contingent; but the fact that I will die is not contingent.  Politics involves, among other things, an attempt to protect selves against untimely (premature) and unnecessary (gratuitous) death.  That is where “biopolitics” enters: public health measures so I don’t die of cholera or influenza when certain actions could minimize my chances of contracting such diseases, or food distribution systems that prevent malnutrition and starvation, or refugee provisions that protect selves against state violence and/or war.  The idea seems to be that there are preventable deaths, even if death itself cannot be prevented, and that politics rightfully attends to securing “life” wherever possible.  To that extent, Butler is with Ruskin—and against Arendt, Taylor, and (maybe) Foucault, all of whom are deeply suspicious of a politics organized around “life” as a (if not “the”) supreme good.

The third level brings us to flourishing.  Mere survival is not enough.  In some conditions (in prison or a concentration camp) perhaps survival is not even a good.  Such lives, in Butler’s incantatory phrase, are not deemed “livable.”  So a politics should demand more than attention to the conditions of life’s persistence.  Biopolitics is not enough if it only attends to biology, to the requirements of the body.  Here is where the notion of “flourishing” enters—and the only specific thing Butler has to say about flourishing is that it involves the question of our relations to others—where others are not just human beings, but the whole ensemble of beings and things with whom we co-inhabit the planet.  (Is this the Arendtian “world”?  I think yes and no—and may take up the complexity of that question in a future post.)

Nussbaum goes much, much further in trying to specify what would qualify as flourishing.  Nussbaum certainly highlights “affiliation” in her list of ten things that flourishing encompasses.  She (Nussbaum) does not base the need to have relations with others that are sustaining and fulfilling on the basis of a shared dependency as Butler would, but she does recognize sociality (my term, not hers) as constitutive of life itself.  To block the capacity to have families or friends (as American slavery did, for example) is to deny a fundamental requirement of life, even if the person so deprived has enough food and shelter and rest to survive.  The third level, then, of a politics of life attends to those things above the minimalist requirements for survival that are part and parcel of a “full” or “flourishing” life.

Butler does not go into specifics, I think, for a whole host of reasons—and most of them are not good reasons.  To put it most bluntly, I think it’s a failure of courage.  To remain on the level of slogan and abstraction—the level of Butler’s repeated appeal to her notion of a “livable life,” with less frequent employment of the word “flourishing”—is to avoid risking offending anyone by listing concrete requirements for flourishing.  Butler has always been hyper-sensitive (an artefact of her early formation in the schools of Hegel and Derrida) to the ways that any positive term both excludes and relies upon the negative.  So, for example, Butler avoids the difficult issue of autonomy.  Surely, Butler believes that flourishing would include the ability to make some basic choices for oneself: about religious belief, about where to live, about career, about romantic/sexual partners.  But she is clearly also committed to the view that autonomy is precarious at the least, and a delusion at the worst.  How, then, to affirm some kind of autonomy while also acknowledging how a self’s existence in a web of social, cultural, emotional, and dependent relationships qualifies that autonomy?  Or, even worse, how to think through the ways that attempts to achieve autonomy are, in some cases, not only counter-productive but positively destructive?  Butler, as a thinker, is allergic (it seems to me) to thinking through trade-offs and compromises among competing goods.  By remaining on a certain level of abstraction, she can avoid such messiness.

So let me end by laying my cards on the table.  I think that I find Butler’s recent work so appealing, so consonant with my own worries and obsessions, because I think hers is a liberal sensibility in the Richard Rorty way of describing that sensibility.  Rorty calls it “bleeding heart liberalism,” a deep disgust at the suffering that humans inflict on other humans (which can now be extended to a disgust with the way humans treat non-human beings and the environment) and the consequent attempt to organize politics to minimize suffering.  Add to that sensibility the egalitarian insistence that all humans have an equal claim to be protected from suffering—and to live a full life—and you get the fundamentals of liberalism.  The details (where the devil  resides) is in how to organize the polity to advance those goods.  But the emotional bases of liberalism lie in that antipathy to inflicted suffering—no matter what the source (the state, the corporation, the bully) of that suffering.

But there is also another way of thinking about liberalism, the Isiah Berlin way, and here Butler fights shy of liberalism.  Berlin’s focus was on plural goods and trade-offs.  Basically, he was saying that humans can’t get it all to work logically and seamlessly, that our beautiful philosophical models, logically coherent, can never be materialized.  Instead, we live amidst the endless contestation of competing goods, many of which are fully worthy of endorsement, but which cannot be all realized simultaneously.  It is learning how to live with, manage, and tolerate compromises—even as whatever trade-off we have accepted today will be rejected and revised tomorrow—that characterizes a certain kind of pragmatic liberalism.  Call it “good enough” politics (echoing Melanie Klein on mothering), with the added proviso that any arrangement will only be temporary, and will always fail to satisfy someone.  Politics is endless wrangling—and thus deeply unsatisfying.  But the dream of ending the wrangling is the stuff of the ever present frustration with parliamentary democracy—and most often fuels authoritarian visions that hope to transcend the displeasures of pluralism.

I am not accusing Butler of being an authoritarian thinker.  She is as wary of being authoritarian as any writer that I know.  But I do think that wariness leads her to pull her punches fairly often.  She won’t take a concrete stand for fear of seeming to want to legislate.  But I take Berlin’s point to be that legislation is something we need to do, even as every act of legislation is an imperfect compromise, an unsatisfying trade-off.  We can’t get what we want, and all too often don’t get what we need.  But holding out for the perfect is no solution to that dilemma.  As Rorty always insisted, we are in the realm of the comparative when it comes to making judgments about political decisions, actions, and arrangements.  We are not in a position to identify—even less to enact—the best.  We are only in a position to consider if this action, arrangement, law, decision is better than that one.  Butler only does that kind of judging at a very high level of abstraction, where a livable life is better than a non-livable one.

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