An Analysis of the Book Precarious Life by Judith Butler

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Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, the final essay included in a collection under the same name, is an essay which not only has a unique point of its own but also deftly and succinctly ties together the previous essays included in Butler’s book. In this essay, while she does focus on various points such as the application of the humanities in contemporary society, the changing of the structure of the address, ethics, and pictures that show the true nature of war, the bulk of the essay stems from an idea proposed by the Jewish French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas of “the face.

” This idea of “the face” is something Butler intertwines not only with themes present solely in the essay Precarious Life, but also other essays within the book.

The face, as Butler describes it, is used to explain how it is that others make moral claims upon us, address moral demands to us, ones that we do not ask for, ones that we are not free to refuse” (Butler 131).

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She quotes Levinas in saying “The approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility… the face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death” (Butler 139). Her apparent belief is that the face is a sense of moral responsibility, a humane instinct to care for one another as living, thinking people, emphasized more so by the fact that, as Levinas claims in her quotation, “the face says to me: you shall not kill” (Butler 132), a edict present not only in many religious texts, as Butler and Levinas both point out, but also burned into the morality of all those who have one.

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However, the arguments she presents for this seem to shift as the chapter moves on, expanding to include a broader definition.

Interestingly, Butler’s definition of the face isn’t set to the strict definition she introduces originally. As she continues to examine Levinas’ text, she draws upon an example of “the face” he uses, taken from Vassili Grossman’s Life and Fate: “Persons approaching the counter had a particular way of craning their neck and their back, their raised shoulders with shoulder blades like springs, which seemed to cry, sob, and scream” (Butler 133). It is now that her definition broadens to include the face being “that for which no words really work” (Butler 134), meaning the face is no longer simply a form of human decency and morality, but also empathy and body language. It is at this point that the “Other” is introduced, this being a concept of one’s understanding of the life of another rather than their own, with the idea of why one should want to kill another. This is, of course, examined again through Levinas, in which he suggests the face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace” (Butler 134). This suggestion introduces an interesting sort of duality to the Other, in that one wishes to both spare and to kill it, not only because of its “precariousness,” but also the “defenselessness” which it holds. Of course, Butler questions this, wondering “why… the spring of the shoulder blades, the craning of the neck, the agonized vocalization conveying another’s suffering would prompt in anyone a lust for violence” (Butler 136), referring back to the earlier example of “the face.” However, there does come a point at which Butler stops questioning and completely disagrees, such as when Levinas suggests “murdering in the name of self-preservation is not justified,” she replies that it is “like an extreme form of pacifism” (Butler 136), a sign that while she certainly can understand and comprehend Levinas’ point of view, she most certainly disagrees with it, or at least disagrees with the idea that killing in the name of self-defense is wrong.

There is one stipulation in the text which Butler adds, however- That one should be “frightened for his own life, but anxious he might have to kill” (Butler 136). She expands upon this to again include the Other in her thoughts, arguing that while one may fear for their own survival in a situation such as this, they are still anxious at the thought of having to hurt the Other, and while Levinas does indeed advocate for pacifism, this form of pacifism is born “from a constant tension between the fear of undergoing violence and the fear of inflicting violence” (Butler 136-137). It is soon after this that she begins her explanation of why, exactly, it is relevant in contemporary society.

Namely, she states that Levinas “gives us a way of thinking about the relationship between representation and humanization… [and] offers, within a tradition of Jewish philosophy, an account of the relationship between violence and ethics” (Butler 140), with these two themes recurring heavily throughout the book. Interestingly, while she does re-explore the idea of the dehumanization of the “enemy,” she also begins to explore the arguably more delicate subject of the “americanization” of the countries the United States is occupying, such as with the burka. In this instance, Butler explains, the burka has various social, religious, and cultural implications that average American citizens who were not raised in the same environment may not necessarily grasp. Yet, the media portrays women in the Middle East not wearing the burka as a “sign of the success of democracy” (Butler 141). However, she also notes an interesting side-effect- “they give a face to Afghan women; they give a face to terror; they give a face to evil” (Butler 143). By saying this, Butler clearly does not mean that these women are evil, rather, she implies these women “humanize” the opposition the United States faces in middle eastern countries, when in truth the media has mainly portrayed the U.S.’s enemies in the Middle East as either mask-wearing, cold-blooded terrorists, or singular figures such as Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden.

In this same vein of thought, Butler goes on to discuss the representation of war in general in the media, both in the Middle East, and as far back as in Vietnam, stating that “The demand for a truer image, for more images, for images that convey the full horror and reality of the suffering has its place and importance” (Butler 146). This idea has been shown time and time again, not only with the photos of napalm-affected children in Vietnam, but also the more recent photograph of a child from Aleppo, recovered from an air strike zone. These photographs, as Butler might argue, give a face to the destruction and terror that the people of the Middle East feel each and every day, something similar to what happened with photographs of the Vietnam war, which, Butler argues, “furnished a reality, but they also showed a reality that disrupted the hegemonic field of representation itself… the images pointed somewhere else, beyond themselves, to a life and to a precariousness that they could not show. It… came to develop an important and vital consensus against the war” (Butler 150), in that these shocking images made Americans realize the war in Vietnam was not just, nor was it worth the amount of pain and suffering caused. However, Butler argues that this will not be the case in today’s society, as “we have been turned away from the face,” due not only to the idea of grievability and the lack thereof she mentions in previous chapters, but also in the fact that media coverage has, for the most part, shown sympathy with the United States government, along with the fact that, as Butler explains, society would need to “reinvigorate the intellectual project of critique, of questioning, of coming to understand the difficulties and demands of cultural translation” (Butler 151). Unfortunately, until such a time comes, it seems that conflict will not only remain a quiet constant in American life, but also a much more real one for those countries the United States currently occupies.

Works Cited

  1. Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004.

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An Analysis of the Book Precarious Life by Judith Butler. (2021, Sep 13). Retrieved from

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