Precarious Life: On the Invisible and Ungrievable

I was shocked, recently, and seriously saddened by humanity’s potential depravity and estrangement from God, as I read the first few pages of Michelle Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which gives a terribly graphic account of a public torture and execution episode in Paris in the late 18th Century.  It just absolutely blew me away to be reminded that soon-to-be, so-called “modern,” “developed,” or in cruder and more ironic terms, “civilized” nation-states used to do this kind of stuff to people – truly indescribable evil that reminds of Ellie Wiesel’s story from Night, which takes place in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, when the tragedy is told about a child being hanged while others are forced to watch, and someone asks, “where is God now?”  “Here he is,” another replies, “hanging on these gallows.”

If we haven’t felt this anguish at some point – really felt it – and carried for at least a moment the weight of the world in our minds and on our hearts, then I do not think we are prepared to do theology, to be the church, to love and serve others, or, in sum, to live the Christian life.  It can and perhaps should bring us to tears and to our knees – for a time.  I believe human beings also have potential for great good, but ignoring or being ignorant about the bad is perhaps the fastest way to fail at achieving the good.

But alas, our society does not let us grieve, for it tries so hard to keep suffering invisible – especially the suffering that we as a country have caused others and ourselves in recent times.  Foucault makes this argument as well about the function of the prison system, even to the point of saying that the modern life itself is a prison without walls.  Out of curiosity, for example, I have listened to a dozen or so sermons in the past year by pastors in a variety of churches, given on September 11, 2011 – the 10-year anniversary of the attacks – and only one of them even thought to mention to Iraqi death count since the U.S. invasion.  And in that one case, no further comment was made about it – their sermon was still a reflection on how we must learn to forgive – ten years later mind you, and over 100,000 dead Iraqis later.  I’ve expressed my discontents about this elsewhere, so I won’t say anymore here.  Rather, as I was preparing to deliver a sermon myself for the weekend before July 4th, I wanted to stress the relationship between the invisible and the ungrievable, as indicated by the title.  This important reality was better underscored and uncovered for me by Judith Butler in the following passage which I believe is worth quoting at length to conclude:

Indeed, the graphic photos of U.S. soldiers dead and decapitated in Iraq, and then the photos of children maimed and killed by U.S. bombs, were both refused by the mainstream media, supplanted with footage that always took the aerial view, an aerial view whose perspective is established and maintained by state power.  And yet, the moment the bodies executed by the Hussein regime were uncovered, they made it to the front page of the New York Times, since those bodies must be grieved.  The outrage over their deaths motivates the war effort, as it moves on to its managerial phase, which differs very little from what is commonly called “an occupation.”

Tragically, it seems that the United States seeks to preempt violence against itself by waging violence first, but the violence it fears is the violence it engenders.  I do not mean to suggest by this that the United States is responsible in some causal way for the attacks on its citizens.  And I do not exonerate Palestinian suicide bombers, regardless of the terrible conditions that animate their murderous acts.  There is, however, some distance to be traveled between living in terrible conditions, suffering serious, even unbearable injuries, and resolving on murderous acts.  President Bush traveled that distance quickly, calling for “an end to grief” after a mere ten days of flamboyant mourning.  Suffering can yield an experience of humility, of vulnerability, of impressionability and dependence, and these can move us beyond and against the vocation of the paranoid victim who regenerates infinitely the justification for war.  It is as much a matter of wrestling ethically with one’s own murderous impulses, impulses that seek to quell an overwhelming fear, as it is a matter of apprehending the suffering of others an taking stock of the suffering one has inflicted.

In the Vietnam War, it was the pictures of the children burning and dying from napalm that brought the U.S. public to a sense of shock, outrage,  remorse, and grief.  These were precisely pictures we were not supposed to see, and they disrupted the visual field and the entire sense of public identity that was built upon that field.  The images furnished a reality, but they also showed a reality that disrupted the hegemonic field of representation itself.  Despite their graphic effectiveness, the images pointed somewhere else, beyond themselves, to a life and to a precariousness that they could not show.  It was from that apprehension of the precariousness of those lives we destroyed that many U.S. citizens came to develop an important and vital consensus against the war.  But if we continue to discount the words that deliver that message to us, and if the media will not run those pictures, and if those lives remain unnameable and ungrievable, if they do not appear in their precariousness and their destruction, we will not be moved.

– from Judith Butler, “Precarious Life,” in Radicalizing Levinas

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