Violence, Mourning, Politics (Excerpt from Kessler Lecture)

I’d like to speak to you this evening on the matter of politics and, specifically, how the struggles of
gender and sexual minorities might offer a perspective on current issues that are before us, questions
of mourning and violence, which we have to deal with as part of an international community. I’d like
to start, and to end, with the question of the human, of who counts as the human, and the related
question of whose lives count as lives, and with a question that has preoccupied many of us for years:
what makes for a grievable life. I believe that whatever our differences as a community, and there are
many, we all have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody. And if we’ve lost, then it seems to
follow that we have had, that we have desired and loved, and struggled to find the conditions for our
desire. We have all lost in recent decades from AIDS, but there are other losses that inflict us, other
diseases, and there is the fact as well that we are, as a community, subjected to violence, even if some of
us have not been. And this means that we are constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability
of our bodies, as a field of desire and physical vulnerability, of a publicity at once assertive and
I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human
being. I’m certain, though, that it does not mean that you have forgotten them, or that something else
comes along to take their place. I don’t think it works that way. I think instead that one mourns when
one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one which
changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to
do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which
you cannot know in advance. So there is losing, and there is the
transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or
planned. I don’t think, for instance, you can invoke a protestant ethic
when it comes to loss. You can’t say, oh, I’ll go through loss this way,
and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll
endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me. I think
you get hit by waves, and that you start out the day, with an aim, a
project, a plan, and you find yourself foiled. You find yourself fallen.
You’re exhausted, and you don’t know why. Something is larger than
your own deliberate plan, your own project, your own knowing.
Something takes hold of you, and what sense does this make? What
is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters
of ourselves? To what are we tied? And by what are we seized?
Is it simply the case that we are undergoing something
temporary, or is it rather that, in undergoing what we do, something about who we are is revealed,
something which delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that the ties are what we are, what
we are composed of, and that when we lose them, especially some of them, we do not know who we
are, or what to do. Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation, but
I think it has and can furnish a sense of political community of a complex order.
And it is not just that I might be said to “have” these relations, and sit back and enumerate them to
you, explaining what this friendship means, what that lover meant or means to me. On the contrary, it
seems that what grief displays is the way in which we are in the thrall of our relations with others in ways
that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of
ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous
and in control. I might try to tell a story here, about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in
which the very “I” who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling, the very “I” is
called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness,
but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing.
Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.
This seems so clearly the case with grief, but this can be so only because it was already the case with
desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that
despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the
feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my
sexuality or my gender, as we do, and as we must, we
mean something complicated by it. Since it is not
precisely a possession, but, rather, a mode of being
dispossessed, a way of being for another, or by virtue
of another. It won’t even do to say that I am
promoting a relational view of the self over an
autonomous one, or trying to redescribe autonomy in
terms of relationality. We tend to narrate the history of
the movement in such a way that ecstasy figures in the
’60s and ’70s, and mid-way through the ’80s. But
maybe ecstasy is more persistent than that, maybe it is
with us all along. To be ec-static means, literally, to be
outside oneself, and this can have several meanings: to
be transported beyond oneself by a passion, but also
to be beside oneself with rage or grief. I think that if I
can still speak to a “we”, or include myself within its
terms, I am speaking to those of us who are living in
certain ways beside ourselves, whether it is in sexual
passion, or emotional grief, or political rage.
I’m arguing, if I am “arguing” at all, that we have an interesting political predicament, since most
of the time when we hear about “rights,” we understand them as pertaining to individuals, or when
we argue for protection against discrimination, we argue as a group or a class. And in that language
and in that context, we have to present ourselves as bounded beings, distinct, recognizable,
delineated, a subject before the law, a community defined by sameness. Indeed, we had better be able
to use that language to secure legal protections and entitlements. But perhaps we make a mistake if
we take the definitions of who we are, legally, to be adequate descriptions of what we are about. And
though this language might well establish our legitimacy within a legal framework ensconced in liberal
versions of human ontology, it doesn’t do justice to passion and grief and rage, all of which tear us
from ourselves, bind us to others, transport us, undo us, implicate us in lives that are not are own,
fatally, irreversibly.
It is not easy to understand how a political community is wrought from such ties. One speaks, and
one speaks for another, to another, and yet there is no way to collapse the distinction between the
other and myself. When we say “we” we do nothing more than designate this very problematic. We
do not solve it. And perhaps it is, and ought to be, insoluble. I don’t want to forget that there are
bodies here, and that bodies are in a certain sense our own, that over which we must claim rights of
autonomy: this is as true for lesbian and gays rights claims in favor of sexual freedom as it is for
transsexual and transgender claims to self-determination, as it is to intersex claims to be free of coerced
medical and psychiatric interventions, as it is for all claims to be free from racist attacks, physical and
verbal, as it is for feminism’s claim to reproductive freedom. It is difficult, if not impossible, to make
these claims without recourse to autonomy. And I am not suggesting that we cease to make these
claims. We have to, we must. And I’m not saying that we have to make these claims reluctantly or
strategically. They are part of any normative aspiration of a movement that seeks to maximize the
protection and the freedoms of sexual and gender minorities, of women, defined with the broadest
possible compass, of racial and ethnic minorities, especially as they cut across all the other categories.
But is there another normative aspiration that we must also seek to articulate and to defend? Is there a
way in which the place of the body in all of these struggles opens up a different conception of politics?
The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of
others, but also to touch, and to violence, and it can be the agency and instrument of all these as well.
Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite
ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension: and it is constituted as a social
phenomenon in the public sphere, so that my body is and is not mine. If it is given over from the start to
the world of others, bearing their imprint, formed within the crucible of social life, it is only later, and with
some uncertainty, that I lay claim to my body as my own. Indeed, if I seek to deny the fact that my body
relates me, and against my will, and from the start, to others I do not choose to have in proximity to
myself, if I build a notion of “autonomy” on the basis of the denial of this sphere or a primary and
unwilled physical proximity with others, then do I precisely deny the social and political conditions of my
embodiment in the name of autonomy? If I am struggling for autonomy, do I not need to be struggling
for something else as well, a conception of myself as invariably in community, impressed upon by others,
impressing them as well, and in ways that are not fully predictable?
Is there a way that we might struggle for autonomy in many spheres, but also consider the demands
that are imposed upon us by living in a world of beings who are, by definition, physically dependent on
one another, physically vulnerable to one another. Is this not another way of imagining community, and
imagining it in such a way that it becomes incumbent upon us to consider very carefully when and where
we use violence, for violence is, always, an exploitation of that primary tie, that primary way in which we
are, as bodies, outside ourselves, for one another.
If I might then return to the problem of grief, to the moments in which one undergoes something
which is outside of one’s control, finds that one is beside oneself, not at one with oneself, perhaps we can
say grief contains within it the possibility of apprehending the fundamental sociality of embodied life, the
ways in which we are, from the start, and by virtue of being a bodily being, already given over, beyond
ourselves, implicated in lives that are not our own. Can this situation, one which is so dramatic for us, one
which establishes a very specific political perspective for anyone who works in the field of sexual and
gender politics, supply a perspective by which to begin to apprehend the contemporary global situation?
Mourning, fear, anxiety, rage. And in the US, we are everywhere now surrounded with violence, of
having perpetrated it, having suffered it, living in fear of it, planning more of it. Violence is surely a touch
of the worst order, a way in which the human vulnerability to
other humans is exposed in its most terrifying way, a way in which
we are given over, without control, to the will of another, the way
in which life itself can be expunged by the willful action of
another. To the extent that we commit violence, we are acting
upon another, to put the other at risk, cause the other damage, to
expunge the other. In a way, we all live with this particular vulnerability,
a vulnerability to the other which is part of bodily life, but
this vulnerability becomes highly exacerbated under certain social
and political conditions, a vulnerability which becomes the basis of
claims for non-militaristic political solutions, one which we cannot
will away, one which we must attend to, even abide by, as we
begin to think about what politics might be implied by staying
with the thought of corporeal vulnerability itself.
I think, for instance, that we have seen, are seeing, various
ways of dealing with grief, so that, for instance, William Safire,
citing Milton, writes in the New York Times that we must banish melancholy, so that President Bush
announces on September 21st that we have finished grieving and that NOW it is time for resolute action
to take the place of grief. When grieving is feared, it seeks to resolve itself quickly, to banish itself in the
name of an action that is invested with the power to restore the loss or rectify the world. Is there
something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, remaining exposed to its unbearability
and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence? Is there something to be gained in
the political domain by maintaining grief as part of the framework by which we think our international
ties? If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some fear? Or are
we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives
of one another. The attempt to foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the
expense of every other human consideration, is surely also to eradicate one of the most important
resources from which we must take our bearings, and find our way.
To grieve, and to make grief itself into a resource for politics, is not to be resigned to a simple
passivity or powerlessness. It is, rather, to allow oneself to extrapolate from this experience of vulnerability
to those of others, others whom we may well be able to protect from violence itself.
There is a more general conception of the human with which I am trying to work here, one in which
we are, from the start, given over to the other, one in which we are, from the start, even prior to individuation
itself, and by virtue of our embodiment, given over to an other: this makes us vulnerable to
violence, but also to another range of touch, a range which includes the eradication of our being at the
one end, and the physical support for our lives, on the other.
And there is a further point, which I hope will become clear in my comments to you today. And that
is that we cannot recover the source of this vulnerability, for it precedes the formation of “I” and that this
is a condition, a condition of being laid bare from the start, with which we cannot argue. I mean, we can
argue with it, but we are perhaps foolish, if not dangerous, when we do. And of course, we can say that
for some this primary scene is a scene of abandonment or violence or starvation, that these are bodies
given over to nothing, or to brutality, or to no sustenance, but they still must be apprehended as given
over, and part of understanding the oppression of lives is precisely to understand that there is no way to
argue away this condition of a primary vulnerability, of being given over to the touch of the other, even
if, or precisely when, there is no other there, and no support for our lives. And another part countering
oppression involves understanding that lives are supported and maintained differentially, that there are
radically different ways in which human physical vulnerability is distributed across the globe. Certain lives
will be highly protected, and the abrogation of their claims to sanctity will be sufficient to mobilize the
forces of war. And other lives will not find such fast and furious support and will not even qualify as
A hierarchy of grief could no doubt be enumerated, and we’ve seen it already, in the genre of the
obituary, where lives are so quickly tidied up and summarized, humanized, usually married, or on the
way to be, heterosexual, happy, monogamous. But this is just a sign of another differential relation to life,
since we rarely, if ever, hear the names of the thousands of Palestinians who have died by Israeli military
with US support, of any number of Afghani people, children and adults. What defense against the
apprehension of loss is at work in the blithe way in which we accept deaths caused by military means
with a shrug or with self-righteousness or with clear vindictiveness? Do those who support the war
consider these as lives at all? Do they conform to the notion of the human? And if not, what are the
cultural contours of the notion of the human at work here? And how do the contours that we accept as
the cultural frame for the human limit the extent to which we can
avow loss as loss? This is surely a question that lesbian, gay and
bi-studies has asked, in relation to violence against sexual
minorities, that transgendered people have asked as they have
been singled out for harassment and sometimes murder, that
intersexed people have asked, whose formative years have so
often been marked by an unwanted violence against their bodies
in the name of a normative notion of the human, a normative
notion of what the body of the human must be. This is no doubt
as well the basis of a profound affinity between movements
revolving around gender and sexuality with efforts to counter the
normative human morphologies and capacities that condemn or
efface those who are physically challenged. And it must also be
part of the affinity with anti-racist struggles, given the racial differential
that undergirds the culturally viable notions of the human,
ones that we see acted out in dramatic and terrifying ways in the
global arena at the present time.

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliiot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric
and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
She is the author of Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in
Twentieth-Century France; Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Subversion of Identity; Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive
Limits of “Sex”; The Pyschic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection;
Excitable Speech; and Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and