Livability is a term increasingly detectable in Judith Butler’s work from the early 2000’s onwards. The concept emerges as intimately caught up with Butler’s discussion of grievability and her wider question of “how can we have more viable and livable lives?”, which in many ways ties together her whole corpus of writing.1Elena Loizidou (2008) ‘Butler and Life: Law, Sovereignty, Power’ in Terrell Carver and Samuel Chambers (eds) Judith Butler’s Precarious Politics (New York: Routledge) 145; Moya Lloyd (2007) Judith Butler: From Norms to Politics (Cambridge: Polity) 134. Thus, while a concept explicitly used only in her more recent work, concerns with livability, and the drive to challenge restrictive possibilities for livable life, characterise all of Butler’s work. Engagement with livability in the sense of asking critical questions about which lives are viable and flourishing in particular socio-political contexts is a fundamentally political activity, and one which, for Butler, holds possibilities to direct towards radical social transformation.
To begin to consider the concept of livability we must engage with Butler’s work on precarious life. Stemming from the inherent vulnerability which she sees as characterising all social existence, Butler considers all human life precarious in the sense that all lives “can be expunged at will or by accident; their persistence is in no sense guaranteed”.2Judith Butler (2009) Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso) 25. Precariousness in this sense implies “living socially, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other. It implies exposure both to those we know and to those we do not know; a dependency on people we know, or barely know, or know not at all”.3Butler (2009), above n 2, 14. For Butler, precariousness is an ineradicable part of human nature emerging from the fact that all lives are vulnerable to the possibility of injury and destruction. Yet it is important to note that precariousness does not merely gesture towards an existential condition. Instead, Butler advances precariousness as “a social condition from which clear political demands and principles emerge”.4Butler (2009), above n 2, xxv. Encountering that I am open to injury, violence and, ultimately, destruction in my inter-dependent existence of precariousness holds potential to lead us to profound political insights and, Butler asserts, responsive actions.
In Precarious Life Butler explores the precariousness of life, and the possible responses it may invoke, in the context of political cultures in post-9/11 America. She observes that the violent political responses to the vulnerability and precariousness of life exposed by the attacks of 9/11 served not to bring the American nation and its allies back to the ethical dependence we have on each other across national and international boundaries, but instead served to enhance the precariousness of some at the expense of others. These responses cast some lives as impossible to apprehend as injured or lost, impossible to grieve or mourn because they are not first recognised as living.5Judith Butler (2006) Precarious Life (2nd ed) (New York: Routledge) 12. In Frames of War Butler furthers this discussion, stating that in asking the question “what is a life?” it must be understood that the “being” of life is itself constituted through selective means and the operation of power.6Butler (2009), above n 2, 1. Norms, social and political organisations and other institutions have developed in contexts of power to maximise precariousness for some and minimise it for others, meaning that while all life is equally defined by precariousness, it does not follow that all lives are equally precarious.7Butler (2009), above n 2, 2-3.
The experience of enhanced precariousness created by the operation of power, such as that generated by prevailing discourse in America post-9/11, is what Butler describes as “precarity”. In Butler’s words, precarity denotes a “politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death”.8Butler (2009), above n 2, 25. The heightened state of precarity that some lives experience as opposed to others imposes important obligations on us; we must critically question the conditions under which it becomes possible to apprehend a life as precarious and explore ways to reduce precarity so that the widest possible persistence and flourishing of life can be promoted. It is in this way that encounters with precariousness and precarity hold potential to engender alternative ethical and non-violent responses.
In order to critically consider and advance the persistence and flourishing of human life in contexts of differential precariousness Butler’s work directs us towards a new ontology, a new way of thinking about our lives together. Engaging with precariousness as an ineradicable condition of life requires an ontological move away from a focus on individualism and the protection of life in and of itself and directs attention to the conditions which maintain life, which either enhance or reduce its precariousness in a particular location at a particular time. Making this point Butler stresses that “there is no life without the conditions of life that sustain life”.9Butler (2009), above n 2, 19. In considering what kinds of conditions need to be promoted to advance the flourishing of life the idea of livability comes into view as the ability to sustain a viable social life in conditions of inherent precariousness and the socio-political operation of precarity. Possibility for livable life is affected by basic socio-economic conditions of physical persistence – shelter, food, warmth, for example – but also by conditions of social intelligibility – normative conditions which shape who may be recognised within contingent socio-political cultures as a subject capable of living a life that counts. As Butler states, “when we ask what makes a life livable, we are asking about certain normative conditions that must be fulfilled for life to become life”.10Judith Butler (2004) Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge) 39.
Livability and its related questioning of the conditions sustaining life has been engaged by Butler in diverse ways in order to critically challenge dominant socio-political discourses on life, including in relation to migrant lives, Palestinian lives and black lives in recent killings of unarmed civilians by police in the United States.11See, for example, Butler’s discussion of life in a 2015 interview in the New York Times titled “What’s Wrong with ‘All Lives Matter’?” <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/whats-wrong-with-all-lives-matter/> She also, however, seeks to make clear links between her earlier work on performativity and cultures of precarity and livability. In “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics”, a 2009 article, Butler outlines that the normative framework of gender operates to condition life and enhance the precarity of certain lives who are unrecognisable within dominant scripts of living and being gender. Those who do not live gender in currently intelligible ways are often at heightened risk of violence and harassment, they risk unintelligibility and their possibility to live a livable life is reduced.12Judith Butler (2009) Performativity, Precarity, Sexual Politics. AIBR Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 4(3): i, ii. In contrast, Butler describes intelligible, and therefore livable, genders as those which institute and maintain dominant heterosexual relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice and desire.13Judith Butler (2006) Gender Trouble (London: Routledge) 23.
While Butler uses the concept of livable life and the ontology of precarious life it stems from to challenge individual situations whereby a life’s vulnerability becomes heightened and life becomes unlivable, her work goes beyond the individual level. She states that the wider question of “what makes for a livable world” generates a broader question for ethics when we ask from a position of power what makes, or ought to make, the lives of others bearable.14Butler (2004), above n 10, 17. Thus, livability, as her earlier concept of performativity, fundamentally links to a wider political question of social transformation, a rethinking of life so that its conditions for flourishing are enhanced in sociality more generally and normative discourses of intelligibility and precarity through which life is currently apprehended are critically engaged. Butler outlines that somewhere in the answer to the question of what makes, or ought to make, the lives of others bearable “we find ourselves not only committed to a certain view of what life is, and what it should be, but also of what constitutes the human, the distinctively human life, and what does not”.15Butler (2004), above n 10, 17. Livability operates as a theoretical tool to illustrate that we cannot take the concept of the “human” or the idea of human life for granted, to do so is to fail to think critically and ethically about the consequential ways in which the human is produced, reproduced and deproduced in contexts of precarity, power and the ever present possibility of unlivable life.
Dr Kathryn McNeilly, Lecturer, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast