Sunday, February 01, 2009

Vulnerability, Injurability and Human Shields

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California-Berkeley, delivered a lecture Thursday night at The University of Memphis entitled "Vulnerability, Survivability: The Political Affects of War." For the most part, Butler's lecture drew upon her recent work in Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence and Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging, elaborating the ethical and political implications of combative, aggressive, First-World, hawkish comportments in and towards the rest of the world. It was a careful, at times sobering, inquiry into what counts as a "mournable" life (a trope that has haunted Butler's work since Antigone's Claim) in an age of war, when our attachment to "nationalist" identities and allegiances tend to foreclose the possibility of seeing all of the effects of the many and varied violent attempts to secure those identities. As you might expect, Butler's work over the last several years has had a profound impact on my own work, and I am especially drawn to this notion of the "precarious life." But she made one particular (new) claim that night that I found curious and intriguing: "vulnerability" and "injurability" are not coterminous.

This distinction is sustainable, I think, only when considered from the first-person perspective of perpetrators of violence, rather than victims of it. That is, I can recognize that I am able to injure someone without recognizing that same someone as "vulnerable"-- for example, think of the way Israeli soldiers view Palestinians who they see as the "human shields" for Hamas. Of course the Israeli army recognizes that these Palestinians can be-- indeed will be-- injured, but that injurability does not disclose the underlying and irreducible vulnerability of humans in war. In fact, it does exactly the opposite, as the very moniker "human shield" suggests that these people are simply a part of the enemy's military armament, who are not themselves the targets of injury, but rather shields for the real target of injury. Hence, the injurability of human shields does not prompt an ethical reconsideration of the violence being perpetrated against them, since their injury is only an instrumental step in disclosing the "vulnerability" of something else-- in this case, the war-enemy Hamas.

However, if I know that I can be injured by you, on the other hand, I assume that my injurability and my vulnerability are the same phenomenon, and it is likely that I assume that you assume that as well. Again, the case of the "human shields" is illustrative: from the perspective of Palestinians who (allegedly) volunteer to be human shields, I think we have to assume that they believe that nakedly exposing their injurability in such an extreme way is, at least in part, intended to command Israeli recognition of their vulnerability. And the exposure and recognition of that vulnerability is intended to challenge the legitimacy and moral permissability of the very violent activities that disclose human vulnerability in the first place. So, for victims of violence, injurability and vulnerability, if not synonymous, are at the very least mutually disclosing. As Hamas MP Fathi Hammad said earlier this year in an Al-Aqsa television speech, Palestinian human shields take on their role "in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine... It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy, 'We desire death like you desire life.'"

Hammad's characterization of what he called the Palestinians' "culture of death" has been roundly criticized, and for good reason. The most sympathetic reading of Hammad's claim, I think, would be to see it as a modified restatement of Hegel's insight from the dialectic of lordship and bondage, in which freedom (or "the certainty of being for oneself... at the level of objective truth") is only won in the willingness to stake one's "bare life" for that freedom to be recognized by another. It is not the case then that human shields "desire death" simpliciter, as Hammad reductively claims, but that they do not desire life as bare existence, what Hegel calls "the mere absorbtion in the expanse of life." Or, human shields do not desire the kind of life that permits the differentiation of injurability and vulnerability, a disjunction which serves as the primary ethical posture legitimizing violence.

If it is the case, as Butler suggests, that recognition of human vulnerability may be the condicio sine qua non for an ethics of nonviolence, then we have to think seriously about how the separation of injurability and vulnerability indicates a particular "subject position"-- namely, that of the perpetrator of violence-- that might be other than the one we want to adopt. To see human weakness and injurability as a kind of constitutive vulnerability that necessarily implicates me, the effects and affects of my actions, and my ethical/political commitments is at its base a recognition of the "interdependence" that, according to Hegel, grounds the freedom of self-consciousness-- that is, the freedom to be an ethical subject at all. To separate injurability and vulnerability, on the other hand, seems to me to indicate a willingness to view some human lives as "bare" lives, merely absorbed in the expanse of life, signifying nothing and commanding even less.


anotherpanacea said...

This is really interesting to me. Was there a recording of the lecture or maybe fulltext available? Some of what you're saying here in terms of locating the blame for human shield deaths strikes me as counter-intuitive, but I'd like to hear more before I comment. Basically, I think Walzer captures the problem of Palestinians pretty well in Part 3 of Just and Unjust Wars: his account of noncombatant immunity in sieges and blockades and the rights of civilian supporters of guerrilla warriors. I want to see if Butler is navigating these issues because I'm working on a paper on democratic deliberation and war with a friend.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

The distinction you and Butler are making here makes some intuitive sense, but I'm trying to get a full conceptual handle on it. To what extent does vulnerability amount to some kind of "subjective" experience and "injurability" an objective experience? Now, I know part of your answer is going to involve how problematic the words subjective and objective are, but I can't think of better ones, and it's also possible that the refusal to recognize the vulnerability of the other (esp. by the state) involves some kind of failure of the subjectivating process, so I'll leave the question in that form...

DOCTOR J said...

AnPan: I don't know if the lecture was recorded or not. I'll find out for you.

Ideas Man: First, let me be clear that the distinction between injurability and vulnerability is one that *I* am making (and not Butler). And your intuition is exactly right, in my opinion-- that is, I am suggesting that that distinction can only be made from a particular "subject" position (namely, the subject/actor/perpetrator of violence) that sees the victim of violence as an "object."

My reading of Butler's recent work inclines me to believe that she thinks that recognizing vulnerability not only can be a "subject position," but indeed ought to be our ethical subject poisiton. That's why I found her claim (that injurability and vulnerability are not coterminous) so curious.