[an error occurred while processing this directive]

JUDITH BUTLER: Thinking critically about war

The scholar will use her $1.5 million Mellon Award to fund a Critical Theory Institute at Berkeley

| 02 April 2009

Well, it's critical, and it's a theory...

Explaining "critical theory" to people makes explaining "cellulosic ethanol" seem like child's play. Even Wikipedia, the modern world's Cliff Notes equivalent, starts out by dividing the concept into two main streams, each of which proves headscratchingly challenging to navigate.

Here is how some, at Berkeley and elsewhere, have attempted to define this vital intellectual movement:

"[T]he Frankfurt School intellectuals … established ... a form of social theory that was philosophically informed and also critically engaged with its own historic time ... a successor to the philosophical 'critique' that had defined the European Enlightenment. 'Critique' thus became an operation of a highly reflective consideration of society, offering ways to configure social life along alternative trajectories. Critical Theory sought to understand the social organization of politics, the arts, and ordinary ways of life, in order to imagine alternative social formations and to establish the grounds on which to dispute the value of some existing social forms, especially totalitarian and fascist socio-political regimes....The notion of critique forms a central component of any conception of the humanities and the social sciences committed, regardless of the pressure of the times, to safeguarding thoughtful, open, and grounded inquiry and debate on prevailing norms and values."
"Critical Theory at Berkeley,"
Townsend Center for the Humanities, 2005

"[C]ritical theorists maintain that a primary goal of philosophy is to understand and to help overcome the social structures through which people are dominated and oppressed. Believing that science, like other forms of knowledge, has been used as an instrument of oppression, they caution against a blind faith in scientific progress, arguing that scientific knowledge must not be pursued as an end in itself without reference to the goal of human emancipation. Since the 1970s, critical theory has been immensely influential in the study of history, law, literature, and the social sciences."
— Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

"The term critical theory, in the sociological or philosophical and non-literary sense, now loosely groups all sorts of work, including that of the Frankfurt School, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, disability studies, and feminist theory, that has in common the critique of domination, an emancipatory interest, and the fusion of social/cultural analysis, explanation, and interpretation with social/cultural critique."

When then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers characterized criticism of Israel's policies toward Palestinians as "anti-Semitic," even when it comes from Jews, Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler felt a familiar alarm.

Judith ButlerJudith Butler is the Maxine Elliott Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature (UC Berkeley)

"It's an example of how acceptable public discourse is being regulated," says Butler, the Maxine Elliott Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and newly anointed winner of the 2008 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award.

The last decade has been rife with examples of the stifling of dissent by the powerful, be they institutions (like government and media) or individuals (like a university president), Butler says. And that raises important questions for public intellectuals like herself.

Among the most potent examples came after 9/11. The government and media decided in concert that the lives of the people killed in the twin towers could be openly mourned, Butler contends, while the lives of those killed when the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq could not. Americans who criticized U.S. policy, who grieved Iraqi and Afghan losses along with America's, were called traitors.

"In the last years, we've had a whole question of what's the status of dissent within contemporary society," Butler says.

Simply interrogating the boundary between what's considered an acceptable viewpoint and what's not is risky — but it's essential, Butler argues, and Berkeley's interdisciplinary program in critical theory, a designated emphasis for graduate students in the humanities, was created for the task. It aims to develop a "critique" — not necessarily negative or positive, but an understanding — of the social structures behind politics, the arts, religion, and daily life.

So Butler plans to devote her Mellon award — $1.5 million over three years — to creating a "Thinking Critically About War" project within the critical theory program.

Berkeley was the first U.S. university to offer graduate students a designated emphasis in critical theory, starting in 2007. The program now brings together 30 faculty from across the humanities and has 30 graduate students actively enrolled, with a third class soon to enter. It is a joint project of two divisions within the College of Letters and Science — arts and humanities, and social sciences.

"Thinking Critically About War" will involve faculty-student seminars, visiting professors, postdoctoral fellowships, and support for dissertations in the field of critical theory, Butler wrote in her Mellon award proposal.

"Our common task will be to think about how the shifting nature of war changes our idea of critical theory as an effort to understand and transform social relations in ways that ameliorate war and its effects," Butler wrote. "We will also consider the public role of intellectuals in the active criticism of these new forms of war."

Butler further proposed that these efforts lead to the creation of a Critical Theory Institute at Berkeley, with continued funding by the campus after her award runs its course. Together, the designated emphasis and institute would be known as the Critical Theory Initiative.

A small part of the award will fund a traveling colloquium on feminism in translation.

"I am especially pleased that the monies might be used to help fund doctoral and postdoctoral research and visiting positions during a time of financial restrictions. My hope is that the award is able to offer UC Berkeley something important during these times," Butler said upon learning of her award.

Janet Broughton, acting executive dean of the College of Letters and Science and dean of the college's division of arts and humanities, said she is "delighted that Professor Butler's remarkable work is being recognized in this way, and I'm deeply impressed by her plan to use her Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award to broaden the ways in which the humanities can address fundamental questions about war and peace."

Other Berkeley recipients of the award, which began in 2001, include historian Thomas Laqueur in 2007 and art historian T.J. Clark in 2005.

"I think it's absolutely obligatory that we become able to look at the conditions and constraints under which acceptable public discourse is produced."
– Judith Butler

Butler expanded on the award last week in an interview from her Berkeley home, where she is spending the second half of a sabbatical year working on a book tentatively titled The Critique of Violence and Other Jewish Quandaries, with funding from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Ford Foundation and a Humanities Research Fellowship from Berkeley. Fall semester found her in Paris as an affiliate of two branches of the University of Paris and finishing a book called Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable, due out in May from Verso.

"I think Mellon is going out of its way to support the humanities right now," Butler said. "It's trying to make the case that the humanities have something to say to us especially at times of fiscal crisis, when people always ask, Why do we need to be reading poetry?"

She went on to ask, rhetorically, "Can you imagine a world without poets?"

The Mellon Foundation supports work in the humanities "to remind people that the humanities are central to our culture and to our political lives," she added.

Critical theory grew out of mid-20th-century intellectuals' efforts to understand the social conditions of violence and to develop a critique of the rise of Nazi fascism.

"There were people in philosophy who were not just dealing with timeless truths but realized we have a specific historical situation," said Butler. And they asked how philosophy could be done "in response not just to this specific time but an unprecedented time."

Her new project recognizes the unprecedented character of current times, where the nature of war has changed — it is no longer necessarily between nation-states, it is no longer necessarily reciprocal, and there is no longer necessarily a declaration of war — but the laws and structures governing war have not.

And it attempts a response, she explained, by asking, "What are the tools we have to criticize the dominant forms of power?…How do we ground our criticism? With what resources can we offer criticism? And with what effect?"

Butler's focus on war may seem a departure from her earlier work on feminist, gender, and queer theory (she came to prominence with the publication of Gender Trouble in 1990, and it remains one of the most popular books in the field of feminist theory). But, she said, it's less a shift in focus than a "different way of thinking about power."

The AIDS epidemic provided a bridge, in a way, by provoking Butler to think about the difficulty of mourning the loss of people who died of HIV infection, she recalled. It was a short leap to thinking about issues raised by current wars, about the difficulty of grieving Iraqi or Afghan war victims, which led to Butler's 2005 book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.

"If there's a dominant consensus of whose lives are grievable and whose aren't, if there's a consensus that Guantanamo was necessary because of the security of the nation, then how do you take a point of view that puts you at odds with the dominant consensus?" Butler asked. The cost of dissent may be a job, or tenure, or stigmatization or even criminalization.

"I think it's absolutely obligatory that we become able to look at the conditions and constraints under which acceptable public discourse is produced," Butler said.

The election of Barack Obama as president suggests to Butler that Americans are more open to critique these days than they were immediately post-9/11. People are openly debating Obama's economic program, she says, and the tactics of the Bush administration are no longer part of the norm.

"So something did break," she said — and that's an opportunity for the humanities as well as the nation.

"Obviously what people are so massively drawn to in Obama is a set of ideals, of criticism of existing powers, of new possibilities for ways of living," she added.

In his inauguration address, Butler pointed out, people were enormously moved when Obama said the nation can't compromise its ideals for the sake of security.

"He's not just speaking to people's pocketbooks at that moment, but to their need to have a ground on which to critique existing power and to believe there's a new form of power that will make life more meaningful," Butler says. "That was a case for the humanities — it was rhetorically strong and beautifully put. And it was about values: It reminded people we can have them and put them into play."

At the same time, Butler emphasized, the public infatuation with Obama needs to allow space for criticism of him, as well. Already, she has concerns about his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, among other things.

It's too soon to tell if Obama will prove more responsive to dissent than his predecessor, though "he's clearly an intellectual, and that makes a difference," Butler said.

"I think things are unsettled, and that's probably good."