Wittgenstein – Lecture on Ethics

Before I begin to speak about my subject proper let me make a few introductory remarks. I feel I shall have great difficulties in communicating my thoughts to you and I think some of them may be diminished by mentioning them to you beforehand. The first one, which almost I need not mention, is that English is not my native tongue and my expression therefore often lacks that precision and subtlety which would be desirable if one talks about a difficult subject. All I can do is to ask you to make my task easier by trying to get at my meaning in spite of the faults which I will constantly be committing against the English grammar.

The second difficulty I will mention is this, that probably many of you come up to this lecture of mine with slightly wrong expectations. And to set you right in this point I will say a few words about the reason for choosing the subject I have chosen: When your former secretary honoured me by asking me to read a paper to your society, my first thought was that I would certainly do it and my second thought was that if I was to have the opportunity to speak to you I should speak about something which I am keen on communicating to you and that I should not misuse this opportunity to give you a lecture about, say, logic. I call this a misuse, for to explain a scientific matter to you it would need a course of lectures and not an hour’s paper. Another alternative would have been to give you what’s called a popular scientific lecture, that is a lecture intended to make you believe that you understand a thing which actually you don’t understand, and to gratify what I believe to be one of the lowest desires of modern people, namely the superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science. I rejected these alternatives and decided to talk to you about a subject which seems to me to be of general importance, hoping that it may help to clear up your thoughts about this subject (even if you should entirely disagree with what I will say about it).

My third and last difficulty is one which, in fact, adheres to most lengthy philosophical lectures and it is this, that the hearer is incapable of seeing both the road he is led and the goal which it leads to. That is to say: he either thinks: “I understand all he says, but what on earth is he driving at” or else he thinks “I see what he’s driving at, but how on earth is he going to get there.” All I can do is again to ask you to be patient and to hope that in the end you may see both the way and where it leads to.

My subject, as you know, is Ethics and I will adopt the explanation of that term which Professor Moore has given in his book Principia Ethica. He says: “Ethics is the general enquiry into what is good.” Now I am going to use the term Ethics in a slightly wider sense, in a sense in fact which includes what I believe to be the most essential part of what is generally called Aesthetics.

And to make you see as clearly as possible what I take to be the subject matter of Ethics I will put before you a number of more or less synonymous expressions each of which could be substituted for the above definition, and by enumerating them I want to produce the same sort of effect which Galton produced when he took a number of photos of different faces on the same photographic plate in order to get the picture of the typical features they all had in common. And as by showing to you such a collective photo I could make you see what is the typical—say—Chinese face; so if you look through the row of synonyms which I will put before you, you will, I hope, be able to see the characteristic features they all have in common and these are the characteristic features of Ethics.

Now instead of saying “Ethics is the enquiry into what is good” I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into what is valuable, or, into what is really important, or I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into the right way of living. I believe if you look at all these phrases you will get a rough idea as to what it is that Ethics is concerned with.

Now the first thing that strikes one about all these expressions is that each of them is actually used in absolute sense on the other. If for instance I say that this is a good chair this means that the chair serves a certain predetermined purpose and the word good here has only meaning so far as this purpose has been previously fixed upon. In fact the word good in the relative sense simply means coming up to a certain predetermined standard. Thus when we say that this man is a good pianist we mean that he can play pieces of a certain degree of difficulty with a certain degree of dexterity. And similarly if I say that it is important for me not to catch cold I mean that catching a cold produces certain describable disturbances in my life and if I say that this is the right road I mean that it’s the right road relative to a certain goal.

Used in this way these expressions don’t present any difficult or deep problems. But this is not how Ethics uses them. Supposing that I could play tennis and one of you saw me playing and said “Well, you play pretty badly” and suppose I answered “I know, I’m playing pretty badly but I don’t want to play any better,” all the other man could say would be “Ah, then that’s all right.” But suppose I had told one of you a preposterous lie and he came up to me and said, “You’re behaving like a beast” and then I were to say “I know I behave badly, but then I don’t want to behave any better,” could he then say “Ah, then that’s all right”? Certainly not; he would say “Well, you ought to want to behave better.” Here you have an absolute judgment of value, whereas the first instance was one of relative judgment.

The essence of this difference seems to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying “This is the right way to Granchester,” I could equally well have said, “This is the right way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time”; “This man is a good runner” simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, etc.

Now what I wish to contend is that, although all judgments of relative value can be shown to be mere statement of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value.

Let me explain this: Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment. It would of course contain all relative judgments of value and all true scientific propositions and in fact all true propositions that can be made. But all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level and in the same way all propositions stand on the same level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial.

Now perhaps some of you will agree to that and be reminded of Hamlet’s words: “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” But this again could lead to a misunderstanding. What Hamlet says seems to imply that good and bad, though not qualities of the world outside us, are attributes to our states of mind. But what I mean is that a state of mind, so far as we mean by that a fact which we can describe, is in no ethical sense good or bad.

If for instance in our world-book we read the description of a murder with all its details physical and psychological, the mere description of these facts will contain nothing which we could call an ethical proposition. The murder will be on exactly the same level as any other event, for instance the falling of a stone. Certainly the reading of description might cause us pain or rage or any other emotion, or we might read about the pain or rage caused by this murder in other people when they have heard of it, but there will simply be facts, facts, and facts but no Ethics.

And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.

I said that so far as facts and propositions are concerned there is only relative value and relative good, right, etc. And let me, before I go on, illustrate this by a rather obvious example. The right road is the road which leads to an arbitrarily predetermined end and it is quite clear to us all that there is no sense in talking about the right road apart from such a predetermined goal. Now let us see what we could possibly mean by the expression, ‘the absolutely right road.’ I think it would be the road which everybody on seeing it would, with logical necessity, have to go, or be ashamed for not going.

And similarly the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs, would be one which everybody, independent of his tastes and inclinations, would necessarily bring about or feel guilty for not bringing about. And I want to say that such a state of affairs is a chimera. No state of affairs has, in itself, what I would like to call the coercive power of an absolute judge.

Then what have all of us who, like myself, are still tempted to use such expressions as ‘absolute good,’ ‘absolute value,’ etc., what have we in mind and what do we try to express? Now whenever I try to make this clear to myself it is natural that I should recall cases in which I would certainly use these expressions and I am then in the situation in which you would be if, for instance, I were to give you a lecture on the psychology of pleasure. What you would do then would be to try and recall some typical situation in which you always felt pleasure. For, bearing this situation in mind, all I should say to you would become concrete and, as it were, controllable. One man would perhaps choose as stock example the sensation when taking a walk on a fine summer’s day. Now in this situation I am, if I want to fix my mind on what I mean by absolute or ethical value.

And there, in my case, it always happens that the idea of one particular experience presents itself to me which therefore is, in a sense, my experience par excellence and this is the reason why, in talking to you now, I will use this experience as my first and foremost example. (As I have said before, this is an entirely personal matter and others would find other examples more striking.) I will describe this experience in order, if possible, to make you recall the same or similar experiences, so that we may have a common ground for our investigation.

I believe the best way of describing it is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’ or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.’

I will mention another experience straight away which I also know and which others of you might be acquainted with: it is, what one might call, the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens.’  Now let me consider these experiences, for, I believe, they exhibit the very characteristics we try to get clear about. And there the first thing I have to say is, that the verbal expression which we give to these experiences is nonsense!

If I say ‘I wonder at the existence of the world’ I am misusing language. Let me explain this: It has a perfectly good and clear sense to say that I wonder at something being the case, we all understand what it means to say that I wonder at the size of a dog which is bigger than any one I have ever seen before or at any thing which, in the common sense of the word, is extraordinary. In every such case I wonder at something being the case which I could conceive not to be the case. I wonder at the size of this dog because I could conceive of a dog of another, namely the ordinary size, at which I should not wonder. To say ‘I wonder at such and such being the case’ has only sense if I can imagine it not to be the case.

In this sense one can wonder at the existence of, say, a house when one sees it and has not visited it for a long time and has imagined that it had been pulled down in the meantime. But it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world, because I cannot imagine it not existing.

I could of course wonder at the world round me being as it is. If for instance I had this experience while looking into the blue sky, I could wonder at the sky being blue as opposed to the case when it’s clouded. But that’s not what I mean. I am wondering at the sky being whatever it is. One might be tempted to say that what I am wondering at is a tautology, namely at the sky being blue or not blue. But then it’s just nonsense to say that one is wondering at a tautology.

Now the same applies to the other experience which I have mentioned, the experience of absolute safety. We all know what it means in ordinary life to be safe. I am safe in my room, when I cannot be run over by an omnibus. I am safe if I have had whooping cough and cannot therefore get it again. To be safe essentially means that it is physically impossible that certain things should happen to me and therefore it is nonsense to say that I am safe whatever happens. Again this is a misuse of the word ‘safe’ as the other example was of a misuse of the word ‘existence’ or ‘wondering.’

Now I want to impress on you that a certain characteristic misuse of our language runs through all ethical and religious expressions. All these expressions seem, prima facie, to be just similes. Thus it seems that when we are using the word right in an ethical sense, although, what we mean, is not right in its trivial sense, it’s something similar, and when we say ‘This is a good fellow,’ although the word good here doesn’t mean what it means in the sentence ‘This is a good football player’ there seems to be some similarity. And when we say ‘This man’s life was valuable’ we don’t mean it in the same sense in which we would speak of some valuable jewellery but there seems to be some sort of analogy.

Now all religious terms seem in this sense to be used as similes or allegorically. For when we speak of God and that he sees everything and when we kneel and pray to him all our terms and actions seem to be parts of a great and elaborate allegory which represents him as a human being of great power whose grace we try to win etc.

But this allegory also describes the experience which I have just referred to. For the first of them is, I believe, exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; and the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. Third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct.

Thus in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be simile now seems to be mere nonsense.

Now the three experiences which I have mentioned to you (and I could have added others) seem to those who have experienced them, for instance to me, to have in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value. But when I say they are experiences, surely, they are facts; they have taken place then and there, lasted a certain definite time and consequently are describable. And so from what I have said some minutes ago I must admit it is nonsense to say that they have absolute value. And I will make my point still more acute by saying ‘It is the paradox that an experience, a fact, should seem to have supernatural value.’

Now there is a way in which I would be tempted to meet this paradox. Let me first consider, again, our first experience of wondering at the existence of the world and let me describe it in a slightly different way; we all know the like of which we have never yet seen. Now suppose such an event happened. Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion’s head and began to roar. Certainly that would be as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine. Now whenever we should have recovered from our surprise, what I would suggest would be to fetch a doctor and have the case scientifically investigated and if it were not for hurting him I would have him vivisected. And where would the miracle have got to?

For it is clear that when we look at it in this way everything miraculous has disappeared; unless what we mean by this term is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science which again means that we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. This shows that it is absurd to say ‘Science has proved that there are no miracles.’

The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of that term. For we see now that we have been using describe the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: it is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle.

Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. But what then does it mean to be aware of this miracle at some times and not at other times? For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express and that all we can say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense.

Now the answer to all this will seem perfectly clear to many of you. You will say: Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don’t mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance.

That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.

This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.

[Delivered in November 1929 to the Heretics Society, Cambridge University.]

Judith Butler – A Carefully Crafted F**k You

Judith Butler
Judith Butler, 2013

[Appeared on egs.edu website, but is no longer available after restructuring. Schneider and Judith Butler. “A Carefully Crafted F**k You.” An Interview with Judith Butler. Guernica. March 2010.]

The gender-theorist-turned-philosopher-of-nonviolence discusses the choices that make people expendable, the violent foundation of nonviolent activism, and the role grief can play in setting a new course.

Judith Butler’s philosophy is an assault on common sense, on the atrophy of thinking. It untangles not only how ideas compel us to action, but how unexamined action leaves us with unexamined ideas—and, then, disastrous politics. Her work over the last few years has been devoted to challenging the Bush/Cheney-era torpor that came over would-be dissenters in the face of two wars and an acquiescent electorate. She does so not with policy prescriptions or electoral tactics, but with an analysis of the habits of thinking and doing that stand behind them. It is in response to the suffering of others, she insists, of innocent victims in particular, that we must come to terms with the world as it is and act in it.

Butler is, at University of California at Berkeley, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature. Her reputation is secure as the most important theorist of gender in the last quarter century, thanks to books like Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993). The thrust of her contribution is to destabilize—to queer—identity by disentangling the fragile performances that give rise to it. Whether in gender politics or geopolitics, her analysis shows how failing to grasp these sources of identity blinds us to the common humanity of others.

Her latest book, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009), reflects on the past decade’s saga of needless war, photographed—even fetishized—torture, and routine horror. It treats these practices as issuing from a philosophical choice, one which considers certain human beings expendable and unworthy of being grieved. The concluding chapter confronts the paradoxical nature of any call for nonviolent resistance—paradoxical because the very identities that we claim and resist on behalf of were themselves formed by violence in the past. Butler does not mistake nonviolence for passivity, as so many critics do. At its best, she writes, nonviolent resistance becomes a “carefully crafted ‘fuck you,’” tougher to answer than a Howitzer.

Many of Frames of War’s reviewers comment about the difficulty of Butler’s prose. It certainly departs from the usual terms of debate about the subject—say, troop levels or international law—in order to point toward something more fundamental. Her books are notoriously dense, but the sensation of density stems from the very expectations we hold that she is trying to challenge. Butler has written about J.L. Austin, who taught philosophers in the deepest throes of the linguistic turn “how to do things with words,” and that is what she does. Reading her prose is a feat, an act. It is performative, in the sense that the text aspires to change us, not simply inform or explain. Apparently clear language can be more misleading than purposeful obfuscation; clarity sometimes depends on the assumptions and vocabulary that deliver us into war after war, or hate crime after hate crime, or refusal after refusal to admit the personhood of another.

Butler’s sentences are an invitation to refute those mistakes, to rethink, and to start again. Whether her particular performance, or philosophy in general, can make any dent in the war machine remains to be seen—though its influence may finally be too subtle to detect.

We had this exchange over a series of emails, during which she traveled to the West Bank and back on a research trip.

—Nathan Schneider for Guernica

Question: This book, you write, is a response to the policies under the Bush administration. How different would a book about the Obama administration be? Have we learned at all how to expand our circle of grief? Have we adjusted our frames?

Judith Butler: The fact is that the war in Afghanistan has escalated under the Obama administration, and though it seems as if there is a firmer policy against torture, and a clear condemnation of torture on the part of the administration, we still are responsible for an extraordinary number of brutal deaths by war. This administration was fully silent during the massacre on Gaza. And Obama himself has agreed not to disclose the full narrative and visual archive on U.S. torture—we have to ask why. I think we have to learn how to separate our impressions of Obama the man as both thoughtful and inspiring from the policies of the Obama administration. Perhaps then we can begin to see that the politics of the administration are very separate from the impression of the man. This is a painful lesson to learn, and I wonder whether the U.S. public and its European allies will actually learn it.

Perhaps we should cease to ask the question of what kind of person he really is and focus on what he does.

Question: That kind of distinction between the man—well, as you say, impressions of him—and the administration is something one hears disappointed progressives making a lot lately. But many still feel that, in Obama, they have an ally on the inside who is doing the best he can against political inertia. Can one afford to trust him? Not doing so could undermine his ability to undo that inertia.

Judith Butler: Those explanations that try to locate all the inertia outside of Obama don’t take into account his own unwillingness to speak and act in face of certain urgent issues. His inability to condemn the onslaught against Gaza was not a matter of some external constraint upon him. No one coerced him into escalating the war in Afghanistan, nor was it a matter of externally situated inertia when he abandoned stronger versions of universal healthcare. Perhaps we should cease to ask the question of what kind of person he really is and focus on what he does. He speaks, he acts, and he fails to act; he is explicitly thwarted by entrenched relations. But let us not make excuses for the man or his administration when his actions are weak or, indeed, when he fails to act at all.

Question: Obama has performed his presidency as a thinker, a reflecting person, perhaps most ironically when deciding how many tens of thousands more troops to send to Afghanistan. Do you find this heartening?

Judith Butler: With Obama, there is thinking. But it seems to me mainly strategic, if not wholly technical. He has surrounded himself with technocrats, especially on his economic team. So how do we understand the disconnect between the domain of principle and that of policy? What is the relation between the moral vision and principles he espouses and the kind of policy he implements?

All I really have to say about life is that for it to be regarded as valuable, it has to first be regarded as grievable.

Question: Let me turn that question back at you. In a world ever more specialized, should articulating a moral vision still be expected of politicians? Might mere bureaucratic competence at the service of their constituent’s interests be enough?

Judith Butler: A president is part of a team, and he chooses those with whom he will act in concert. Summers and Geithner were choices, and they were ones that clearly put technocratic free market thinking above questions of social justice and the kind of political thinking it would take to implement norms of justice. One has to be competent at implementing one policy or another. But there is always the question of which policy, and this is a matter of principle.

Question: In the book’s introduction, you set out a principled vision for how we might go about defining life—

Judith Butler: I am not at all sure that I define life, since I think that life tends to exceed the definitions of it we may offer. It always seems to have that characteristic, so the approach to life cannot be altogether successful if we start with definitions. All I really have to say about life is that for it to be regarded as valuable, it has to first be regarded as grievable. A life that is in some sense socially dead or already “lost” cannot be grieved when it is actually destroyed. And I think we can see that entire populations are regarded as negligible life by warring powers, and so when they are destroyed, there is no great sense that a heinous act and egregious loss have taken place. My question is: how do we understand this nefarious distinction that gets set up between grievable and ungrievable lives?

Question: How does your understanding of life differ, for example, from that of the pro-life movement?

Judith Butler: I distinguish my position from the so-called “pro-life” movement since they do not care about whether or not life is sustainable. For me, the argument in favor of a sustainable life can be made just as easily for a woman or girl who requires an abortion in order to live her life and maintain her livelihood. So my argument about life does not favor one side of that debate or another; indeed, I think that debate should be settled on separate grounds. The left needs to reclaim life, especially given how many urgent bio-political issues face us now.

I am trying to contest the notion that we can only value, shelter, and grieve lives that share a common language or cultural sameness with ourselves.

Question: What do you mean by “separate grounds”? Must we draw a line between death by abortion and death by war? As opposed, for example, to the “seamless garment” of life in Catholic social teaching?

Judith Butler: We cannot decide questions of reproductive technology or abortion by deciding in advance where life begins and ends. Technologies are already re-deciding those basic issues. We have to ask what kinds of choices are made possible by social configurations of life, and to locate our choices socially and politically. There is no way around the question, “What makes a life livable?” This is different from the question of what constitutes life. At what point in any life process does the question of rights emerge? We differ over how to answer that question.

Question: Your account of life depends on being intertwined with other lives; does it really then call on us to be more concerned for the lives of others in distant places and conflicts?

Judith Butler: Along with many other people, I am trying to contest the notion that we can only value, shelter, and grieve those lives that share a common language or cultural sameness with ourselves. The point is not so much to extend our capacity for compassion, but to understand that ethical relations have to cross both cultural and geographical distance. Given that there is global interdependency in relation to the environment, food supply and distribution, and war, do we not need to understand the bonds that we have to those we do not know or have never chosen? This takes us beyond communitarianism and nationalism alike. Or so I hope.

Question: Yes, but surely the lines of interdependency are much deeper and immediate between me and my friends, family, and local community than between me and the average Iraqi in Iraq. Can’t I be excused for at least grieving the Iraqi less, proportionate to my dependence?

Judith Butler: It is not a question of how much you or I feel—it is rather a question of whether a life is worth grieving, and no life is worth grieving unless it is regarded as grievable. In other words, when we subscribe to ideas such as, “no innocent life should be slaughtered,” we have to be able to include all kinds of populations within the notion of “innocent life”—and that means subscribing to an egalitarianism that would contest prevailing schemes of racism.

Question: What does the grief you call for consist of? How does it act upon us?

Judith Butler: If we were to start to grieve those against whom we wage war, we would have to stop. One saw this I think very keenly last year when Israel attacked Gaza. The population was considered in explicitly racist ways, and every life was considered an instrument of war. Thus, a unilateral attack on a trapped population became interpreted by those who waged war as an extended act of self-defense. It is clear that most people in the world rejected that construal of the situation, especially when they saw how many women and children were killed.

The vast majority of feminists oppose these contemporary wars, and object to the false construction of Muslim women “in need of being saved.”

Question: On your recent trip to the West Bank, did you observe any instances of grief at work?

Judith Butler: I certainly saw many commemorations on the walls of Nablus and Jenin. The question is whether the mainstream Israeli press and public can accept the fact that their army committed widespread slaughter in Gaza. I heard private confirmation of that among Israelis, but less in public. Some brave journalists and writers say it. The organization, Zochrot, that commemorates the deaths and expulsions of Palestinians in 1948—the Naqba—does some of this work, but so much of it remains partially muted within public discourse. There is now a resolution under consideration in Israel attempting to ban public funding for educational and arts projects that represent the Naqba—this is surely a state effort to regulate grieving.

Question: Forms of grief are deployed, through certain deplorable exemplars, to justify a military regime—the Holocaust, for example, and now 9/11. Why, then, can’t grief just as easily be used to justify more war?

Judith Butler: Well, I do worry about those instances in which public mourning is explicitly proscribed, and that invariably happens in the context of war. I think there were ways, for instance, of producing icons of those who were killed in the 9/11 attacks in such a way that the desire for revenge and vindication was stoked. So we have to distinguish between modes of mourning that actually extend our ideas about equality, and those that produce differentials, such as “this population is worth protecting” and “this population deserves to die.”

Question: The hawkish wing in the “war on terror” has quite effectively claimed the banner of feminism. Is feminism as it has been articulated in part to blame for this?

Judith Butler: No, I think that we have seen quite cynical uses of feminism for the waging of war. The vast majority of feminists oppose these contemporary wars, and object to the false construction of Muslim women “in need of being saved” as a cynical use of feminist concerns with equality. There are some very strong and interesting Muslim feminist movements, and casting Islam as anti-feminist not only disregards those movements, but displaces many of the persisting inequalities in the first world onto an imaginary elsewhere.

Question: After millions of protesters around the world could do nothing to prevent the Iraq War, what do you think is the most effective form of protest? Disobedience? Or even thinking?

Judith Butler: Let us remember that Marx thought of thinking as a kind of practice. Thinking can take place in and as embodied action. It is not necessarily a quiet or passive activity. Civil disobedience can be an act of thinking, of mindfully opposing police force, for instance. I continue to believe in demonstrations, but I think they have to be sustained. We see the continuing power of this in Iran right now. The real question is why people thought with the election of Obama that there was no reason to still be on the street? It is true that many people on the left will never have the animus against Obama that they have against Bush. But maybe we need to protest policies instead of individuals. After all, it takes many people and institutions to sustain a war.

Question: Anyone who went to an anti-war protest during the Bush administration surely saw the violence of the anger directed personally against the president. People have a need to personalize. It seems to me the strength of your book, though, is that it counter-personalizes, turning our focus not so much to policies or policy-makers as to victims and potential victims.

Judith Butler: It is personal, but it asks what our obligations are to those we do not know. So in this sense, it is about the bonds we must honor even when we do not know the others to whom we are bound.

Question: Your account of nonviolence revolves around recognizing sociality and interconnection as well. Does it also rely on the kind of inner spiritual work that was so important, for instance, to Gandhi?

Judith Butler: I am not sure that the work is “inner” in the way that Gandhi described. But I do think that one has to remain vigilant in relation to one’s own aggression, to craft and direct it in ways that are effective. This work on the self, though, takes place through certain practices, and by noticing where one is, how angry one is, and even comporting oneself differently over time. I think this has to be a social practice, one that we undertake with others. That support and solidarity are crucial to maintaining it. Otherwise, we think we should become heroic individuals, and that takes us away from effective collective action.

Question: What can philosophy, which so often looks like a kind of solitary heroism, offer against the military-industrial complexes and the cowboy self-image that keep driving us into wars? At what register can philosophy make a difference?

Judith Butler: Let’s remember that the so-called military-industrial complex has a philosophy, even if it is not readily published in journals. The contemporary cowboy also has, or exemplifies, a certain philosophical vision of power, masculinity, impermeability, and domination. So the question is how philosophy takes form as an embodied practice. Any action that is driven by principles, norms, or ideals is philosophically informed. So we might consider: what practices embody interdependency and equality in ways that might mitigate the practice of war waging? My wager is that there are many.

Question: Last year, for one, the Mellon Foundation awarded you $1.5 million which you are using to found a critical theory center devoted to scholarship about war. How is it progressing? What are your goals?

Judith Butler: I am trying to bring together people to think about new forms of war and war waging, the place of media in the waging of war, and ways of thinking about violence that can take account of new forms of conflict that do not comply with conventional definitions of war. This will involve considering traditional definitions of war in political science and international law, but also new forms of conflict, theories of violence, and humanistic inquiries into why people wage war as they do. I’m also interested in linking this with studies of ecology, toxic soil, and damaged life.

Question: Do you mean to say that the concept of war might be recovered, as William James proposes, for instance, in “The Moral Equivalent of War”? Is war’s ferocity of commitment possible without the bloodlust and the bloody victims?

Judith Butler: Perhaps the issue is to become less ferocious in our commitments, to question certain forms of blind enthusiasm, and to find forms of steadfastness that include reflective thought. Nonviolence is not so much about the suppression of feeling, but its transformation into forceful intelligence.