On April 3rd, 2017, Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley visited Tufts to deliver a lecture entitled “The Politics of Human Rights.” This lecture considered the operations of human rights in critical language studies, political thought, and postcolonial theory, with consideration of situated struggles in various global locations.
Although some have attempted to summarize Butler before, we recognize that condensing her brilliance into a pithy blog post is an impossible task. Therefore, these are selected points from her lecture that left an impression on us.
On Bodies and their Politics
Butler evoked the body several times throughout her lecture. Those bodies which are grievable and ungrievable; the empowered and disempowered bodies; bodies that care and are cared for. Each pair is a conversation unto itself, but I will concentrate on Butler’s final points regarding bodies: 1) vulnerability is an enduring condition and 2) to assemble is to resist.
Few of us are born in isolation, Butler confessed. The labor of birthing rarely occurs out of commune. Instead, as Butler argued, we are “given over,” handed from one to another. Our earliest moments are spent in vulnerability. And this vulnerability is necessary for survival. “The body is given over to others in order to persist” (Butler). Butler claims that we require care. And I find myself wondering how our relationships with one another in these Fletcher spaces changes with this acknowledgment. What is the role of care in the classroom?
How does Fletcher diplomatic practice evolve when we consider interdependence is at the core of our being? If vulnerability must be an enduring condition, what should we expect of the condition of this enduring?
Assembled bodies lay claim to the space in which they assemble. When Butler said this, I could not help but reflect upon my own identity and specifically, the alone-ness of my identity at Fletcher. I was reminded that when I enter my classrooms, I am not taught by faculty who look like me. I walk through the halls and see few peers who share in my blackness. When we speak of the margins and the marginalized, do we also consider those we have pushed to the margins in our own community?
Butler’s statement was also cause for celebration: our blackness is ever defiant. Our choice to attend Fletcher means that we have laid claim to this building and thus our right to be here. This, our, gathering is significant. “The we who are gathering still persist enough to gather” (Butler). The precarious are indeed gathering, at Fletcher, and in doing so we persist.
On the Politics of Care and Vulnerability
While speaking about the politics of care and the politics of vulnerability, Dr. Butler spoke about the nature of vulnerability itself. Vulnerability, she said, is embedded in social relations. Thus, everyone is vulnerable. Terming certain populations as “vulnerable” creates a politics of paternalism. Vulnerability is not the characteristic of a group but of social bonds. When these social bonds are broken by the provider they create a sense of abandonment. At that time, the dependent person in the relationship feels dependency rage. Thus, aggression has a very real place within the politics of care.
A population that is disproportionately exposed to suffering is not inherently more vulnerable. The suffering is created by the practice of abandonment. For example, when European countries refuse to reply to SoS messages on the basis that the call is coming from the territorial waters of another country, they are using sovereignty to abandon their treaty obligations under the Law of the Sea Convention, 1982 the Maritime Search and Rescue Convention, 1979 and the Barcelona Convention of 1975. In this way, by abandoning social obligations, the European countries cause suffering to refugees crossing the sea.
Dependency rage is a concept theorized by Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, which says that the child, dependent on the caregiver, feels intense rage when its needs are not being fulfilled. The caregiver is not always a consensual participant in the relationship since the dependency of the child does not change into independence over time. Thus, the caregiver sometimes abandons his or her responsibilities. While on the one hand the child hates the caregiver for abandoning it, on the other hand it also loves the caregiver because its own survival is dependent on this person. This leads to confusion, anger and anxiety, where the abandoning caregiver can neither be destroyed nor fully loved.
Care can thus be an instrument of damage. Hence, the politics of care is not inherently virtuous.
A question that arises, from this theory, is what makes some communities more ‘abandon-able’, so to say, than others? Why do the social structures on which some communities are dependent fail more often than the structures of other groups? This goes back to Dr. Butler’s opening question of why are all lives not equally valuable? Why are some deaths more grievable than others? Judith Butler says, only equals are grievable.
On Language, Precarity, and Agency
Dr. Butler used the recent refugee crisis to frame her arguments around language, precarity, experiences of vulnerability, and paternalism within humanitarianism. The language we use to discuss the dispossessed, the imperiled, and the abandoned matters.
The politics of human rights surge to the fore again and again within today’s forced migration contexts- shaping new nationalisms, racisms, and militarizations along the way.
The organized character of deprivation and death has extended to the borders of Europe, prompting questions around how to name and understand the organization of populations primed for dispossession and abandonment. Paternalistic language, categorizations, and corresponding care (or lack thereof) of these populations prompt an ethical dilemma: when war extends beyond warzones, can we ethically remain bystanders? What is the best way to intervene?
Notably, in her discussion on language and compulsory categorizations of vulnerable populations, Dr. Butler noted, “there is no refugee without the war.” Those who die in war, those who die because of war, those who die fleeing from war- how do these classifications encourage different modalities of care? How does language shape perceptions of vulnerability and agency?
The current status quo requires when declaring a humanitarian crisis, one must also identify the “vulnerable population” at risk. Dr. Butler questioned this language, asserting that those who have lost infrastructural support maintain their agency. She used an example of refugees who stitched their mouths shut to protest the closing of “the Jungle” in Calais. Here, these refugees used their “voicelessness” to make a point about audibility and agency.
Refugees and other “vulnerable populations,” Dr. Butler noted, are not any more vulnerable than anyone else. “Vulnerability is not an exhaustive title.” Trapping subjects into the frame of vulnerability is a reflex that must be abandoned. Acknowledgement of agency, interdependence, and the precarity of humanity, should instead follow.