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Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence
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Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence

4.12 of 5 stars 4.12  ·  rating details  ·  864 ratings  ·  38 reviews
In her most impassioned and personal book to date, Judith Butler responds in this profound appraisal of post-9/11 America to the current US policies to wage perpetual war, and calls for a deeper understanding of how mourning and violence might instead inspire solidarity and a quest for global justice.
Paperback, 168 pages
Published August 17th 2006 by Verso (first published January 1st 2004)
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Stephanie Berbec
With Butler, I could easily flip back to the beginning and read again. Precarious Life, written just after the events of 9/11 in response to trauma, heightened vulnerability, fear, aggression, and our subsequent engagement in perpetual war, remains a timely and necessary read. The book is premised on what has come to constitute a human being: namely, as that which counts as a liveable life and a grieveable death. Anyone, or rather, anything that does not fall within those two categories, as a li ...more
Jun 29, 2007 Lenore rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: my thoughtful friends
This is Butler at her best: lucid, graceful prose that takes to task constructs of what constitutes a liveable life and a greiveable death in American news media: "The task at hand is to establish modes of public seeing and hearing that might well respond to the cry of the human within the sphere of appearance, a sphere in which the trace of the cry has become hyperbolically inflated to rationalize a gluttonous nationalism..." Butler's final chapter in which she grounds her critique in Levinas's ...more
There are a few great ideas in this book, but they could have been expressed in about 3 pages. Or else she could have taken these great ideas and expanded them into an entire book. I was expecting more than it delivered.
At the same time I picked up Judith Butler's Precarious Life, for want of being able to pick up her latest book on gender and was sorely disappointed in the mundane level of critical analysis in her articles. I understand that they are a collection of articles responding to the American "crisis" of 9/11 but they lack any real new insights or complex readings of the events and their relationship to American history. Instead they seemed to rehash the same old questions the left has been left askin ...more
Caitlin Smith
I read most of this book for a class about popular culture in post-9/11 America. Butler makes a very compelling argument for the need to reevaluate the role of violence in the process of collective mourning since 9/11. Her critical assessment of current U.S. domestic and foreign policies flows rather seamlessly into a call for action - one that would put an end to perpetual war and, instead, lead to global solidarity.
While I appreciate the clarity of Butler's writing and agree with the logic of
The book probably would have been more striking had I read it when it first came out-- and hence, not already heard (and/or made), in various forms, many of the awesome arguments Butler employs. Absolutely worth it, though.
Ron Nie
Dec 22, 2014 Ron Nie rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: ace
Held up nicely to a reread. Chapter 2 is still the standout but wowza this whole thing is pretty great!
"violence, mourning, politics" chapter was very very good; the rest was eh.
Joseph Sverker
2014: Reading this a second time together with having read some more Butler made a great difference from the first reading. Having said that, the book stands rather well by itself as well. This is an exploration by Butler in the topic of whose life counts a human life. Whose life is allowed to be mounted and whose is not allowed to be mourned. The starting point is very interesting because it links her initial writing in Gender Trouble with the more political focus that is Butler's main topic to ...more
Nicole Gervasio
Butler's animating question in Precarious Life is "Who counts as human?" Within a global, neoliberal political economy and international mass media obsessed with identifying every cultural catastrophe with a death toll, Butler observes that not all lives count as lives. In order to have had a life, the dead must have been recognized as human. However, not all homo sapiens ascend to the subject-category of the human-- or, at least, that's the story told by American politicians and mass media outl ...more
John Doe
I thought her discussion of a one-state-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was interesting (I had never heard of that before). Occasionally, she takes an analogy too far in my opinion. For example, in her essay on the Gautanamo Bay detainees she notes that the detainees are being detained because there is a belief that if they were freed they would harm others. So, Butler draws an analogy between the detainees and patients in a mental hospital who are being held there involuntarily. It ...more
I was shocked to find a book by Butler that wasn't written in her crazy moon language. Really, in her other books it's as if she's actually from another planet.

Precarious Life has three essays, and I'll mention the first two which are about the interconnectedness of human beings and indefinite detention in the G-WOT (Global War on Terror).

Her first essay seems to be saying that when someone close to us dies we also lose a piece of ourselves. Meaning they are in us and we are in them. I'm too la
Abby Brown
Precarious Life is a book comprised of five essays written by Judith Butler and published in 2004. These essays were written in response to United States (US) government actions and actions of the general US public following plane bombings of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Most North Americans over thirty will remember with vivid accuracy their location the time of these bombings. Either we heard on the radio or we saw on the television the planes crash, people jumping, or towers ...more
Karl Steel
A strange book to read in 2009, as much of it concerns the limits of the sayable in public life (Chapter 1: "Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear") and the empty status of detainees ("Indefinite Detention"); Butler includes several remarks about "the shambles into which presidential address has fallen" (131) and the bloody dynamic of white men saving brown women from brown men (see: the moral justification for the Afganistan invasion). It's easy, then, to relegate Precarious Life to ...more
Vehbi Görgülü
Five abstract essays on post-destruction of the World Trade Center, exploring how an unexpected vulnerability surrounded US public afterwards. Mourning, sure, was a smart way to build consensus among US public by building upon and emphasizing the fact that it was simply a 'Muslim attack', an unbearable threat against the 'Western world'. From this point, Butler questions how this unexpected attack would lead us transform the global and moral universe; but falls short as she utilizes from common ...more
Butler provides some deep insights into the nature of grief within the public sphere before then proceeding to analyse the relationship between executive (governmental) and judicial power with regards to Guantanamo bay. Both of these sections discuss the nature of the human, who we can consider human and who is excluded from this, and what kinds of lives can be grieved or considered worthy of such a response. This is picked up in the final section, in which she discusses Levinas' concept of the ...more
Butler focuses on the central question: whose lives matter? as she rearticulates the history of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also broadens this frame to consider at a much more general level how life, grievability, and corporeality get defined.
Shin Furuya
These essays brilliantly refute many criticisms against her (often intentionally misrepresented and thus misunderstood) arguments such as often distorted her arguments against Israel's policy as anti-semite. The concepts of precarious life, through her correlated collection of essays, provide a great analysis and arguments regarding 'face' of others, 'dehumanization' using issues 'Anti-Semite charges', '9-11' and 'indefinite detention', etc... I'd recommend anyone who cares about the US war, ind ...more
Nikki Wilson
The introduction, first and last chapter were most interesting.
Easier to read than a lot of Butler's other works.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Alex L.
This is a brilliant introduction to a great thinker and critical theorist. It only lightly touches on her more famous work with gender, but asks the valuable question: Whose lives have value, and why. It also addresses issues of the enforcement of sovereignty.

The only downside is that the book can be summarized simply, as poor people are no longer properly people in America, because they haven't got any money, which is what makes you a person. Good book, quick read, excellent for understanding
Very interesting - I didn't understand the last chapter too well though!
Dilan Alma
kimin insan ve yası tutulabilir olduğuna karar vererek uyguladigi şiddeti mesrulastiran batılı anlayışın çok güçlü bir eleştirisi. yalnizca elestiri degil ustelik icerigi daraltilmis pek cok kavramin otesine gecebilmek icin de cok onemli fikirler var kitapta. butler yine pek cok kavram uzerine tekrar dusunmemizi saglamakla kalmiyor bizi listemize duzinelerce yeni kitap ve tartisma konusu eklemeye yonlendiriyor.
In (at times) utterly gorgeous prose, Butler brings to light the problems with dehumanizing others in the world - be it by responding to violence with violence, indefinitely detaining prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, reducing critiques of Israel to anti-Semitism, etc. At the core of each of the five essays in this collection is the question of what it means to be constituted, politically, as a human being. This book is now one of my all-time favourites.
Dubious of some of the language. We need to work on expanding the English language in many areas. We need a new lexicon to understand belated mourning in the twenty-first century. But much of this book is stunning, especially as an immediate response to the first few years of the new century in the United States.
Difficult to read, as it just really angers me even more about current political/military state. But at the same time, something everyone should read as an eye opening (though sadly not surprising-to me) analysis and critique of the actions of the executive branch following 9/11.
I think I understood what Butler was talking about. It feels like her writing is impenetrable a lot of the time though. Main topic is how our grief could be used for positive change rather than a reversion to violence and revenge.
This was my first time with Butler's work, and I was deeply impressed. Her comments on mourning and solidarity with regard to Sep. 11 are fantastic, as is her take on Levinas' call for ethics (not perfect, though).
Braden Scott
A wonderful inclusion in the literary realm, combining the detatched jargon of institutional theory with a personalised voice that resonates from within the concerned and inspired scholar that is Butler.
Kira marked it as to-read
Nov 28, 2015
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Judith Butler is an American post-structuralist and feminist philosopher who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy and ethics. She is currently a professor in the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature departments at the University of California, Berkeley.
Butler received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1984, for a dissertation subsequently publi
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“When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us. It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well.” 29 likes
“Whether or not we continue to enforce a universal conception of human rights at moments of outrage and incomprehension, precisely when we think that others have taken themselves out of the human community as we know it, is a test of our very humanity.” 17 likes
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