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Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  1,487 ratings  ·  66 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 2004)
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Jul 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I think it is a great book. It achieves what it seeks. In this age of US versus Them, unfortunately, sane voices are curbed, ridiculed, and dubbed as naive across the globe. With thinkers like Butler, one can see what they are trying to do, and what truly motivates them. She tries to build things when most politicians want to erect walls by playing identity politics.

A few days ago, I read Dr. Jordan Peterson. I wonder what kind of conversation he will have with Butler. I can imagine him talking
Stephanie Berbec
Oct 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 11, 2010 rated it it was ok
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.
Feb 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
One of the reviews on the back of this book describes it as one of Butler's most accessible. I agree.

It was an easy and relatively quick read with a lot of insight into the "War on Terror," in the U.S., Middle East, and Guantanamo Bay. I especially liked the middle (and longest) essay for its explanation of a lot of Foucault's ideas around sovereignty and governmentality, set around the case study of indefinite detention.

The book didn't contain as much about "precarity" as I was hoping. It's an
May 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Butler goes off every single time and this is no exception
Apr 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Judith Butler stuns again, academic prose written so eloquently, full of emotion that you forget that this draws from the events of 9/11. The precarity of life is always through face of the other and by relating back to work from Foucault, Agamben and Levinas, her political philosophy is meaningful, powerful and always thoughtful. On page 22 she writes “who am I, without you?”, and just like that, she’s written every love story possible. Bravo Butler, as always you are my hero.
Faiqa Mansab
Jan 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
Rui Coelho
Jun 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book reflects on the world after 9/11. It documents the return of the extra juridical power of sovereignty (as conceived by Foucault) and its impact on the precarization of life (naked life). As a response to this attack on life, Butler advocates an ethical responsibility focused on mutual-recognition and visibility of the excluded, even if the only way to do it is to mourn them.
Great to read along with Butler's Undoing Gender or Agamben's State of Exception.
Apr 10, 2010 rated it liked it
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.
Jul 07, 2010 rated it liked it
"violence, mourning, politics" chapter was very very good; the rest was eh.
Jan 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
"Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something." (23)
Nov 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a very interesting book, although a bit dated. It compiles five essays Butler wrote on the first years after 9/11, commenting on the events as they were unfolding.
Rob Smith
Oct 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: essays
An overall solid book about the post-9/11 world, written in the post-9/11 time. It was a scattershot time, and some of these essays are a little scattershot. They also get more dense as the book goes on, and a little less accessible. While this book is far more accessible than some of Butler's other work, there are times that if you're really not into Foucaultian terms like sovereignty and governmentality, your eyes will glaze over.

The first essay is about the self-censorship, and the shunning o
Feb 20, 2020 rated it liked it
Butler presents an intriguing collection of essays dealing with conceptions of human life, the development of an ethics of non-violence, and contemporary processes of sovereignty and governmentality. Conceptions of the precarity of life and engagement with Levinas' conception of the Face are particularly engaging, although the last section presents quite the theoretical struggle.

The book is hampered somewhat by the fact it remains a collection of essays: little work has been done to ease the lin
Ai Miller
Apr 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
An interesting collection. I think some topics maybe haven't aged well, or at least are really more like sources for a specific time than necessarily have the staying power of other work. The essay about anti-semitism especially feels like it has been more ably taken up, including more recently by Butler herself in her essay about Bari Weiss's book, though both have an element of something missing in their articulations.

The title essay and "Violence, Mourning, Politics," were my favorites; the
Marcus Ogle Luta
Oct 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is gonna be a book that will remain relevant as it ages despite engaging directly with the context of its' times (Butler focuses a lot on 9/11). I was particularly interested in this book for its' focus on mourning and what constitutes "the human" (because that is what my research focuses on). There is something that feels very organic about scholarship that engages with violence, mourning, grief, and bodies. Butler's stuff (in my experience) feels a bit redundant and I can definitely see h ...more
Dec 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
Early post 9/11 rhetoric is overwhelming to me, and I'm often unable to approach it in a productive way, but this essay collection is crystal clear on subjects I haven't been exposed to academically (and therefore have opinions based only on intuition, peers' opinions and experience) but that I'm nonetheless passionate about. This book wonderfully apprehends the nuance of privilege that exists in cultural criticism of the Arab-Israeli conflict, political correctness as it intersects with religio ...more
Mar 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
This has been a great read. All of the essays are quite accessible. I particularly like the second one (Violence, Mourning and Politics) and the last one (Precarious Life), which I think set some important theoretical grounds for Butler's following works that engage extensively and explicitly with the notion of vulnerability (and ethics).

The arguments in first and the fourth essays are rather similar to me. Both seem to try to defend the critical examinations of the 9/11 and the military polici
A very useful book to be interrogated for responses to human vulnerability and political censorship, and that introduces topics for further research. To what degree IS the State open to analysis on the level of a true individual? Is one more various than the other?
Vesna Jusup
Jul 27, 2019 rated it it was ok
Important questions raised but i am not feeling content, intention and style matching. Would recommend it to others who are interested in the issue or just want to update own perspectives but with a note that last 140 pages are really hard to read. Apart from that great book.
Frank D'hanis junior
Sep 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
WWLD? What would Levinas do?
Swathi Muthu
Dec 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The language was too abstract for me to understand her arguments.
Kat Dixon
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
every bit as insightful - and translatable to current political events and conversations - as it was at publication
Janice Feng
"Ethical" turn.
Jan 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Judith 4ever
Aug 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
More accessible than I was anticipating, particularly strong on dehumanisation post-9/11 America and the horrific treatment of "detainees" in Guantanamo Bay.
Karl Steel
Mar 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: theory
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
Nov 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
An intervention into the question of the human, and, more intensely, Bush-era politics and foreign policy. This philosophical and theoretical text argues that the U.S. never "properly" grieved and mourned, but rather moved straight to lashing out, which created (and continues to create, I would argue, as others have, too) an incredible amount pain and suffering, and in the end did not help the U.S.'s mourning. Furthermore, Butler argues, the U.S. at the time of "9/11" (and the aftermath) had an ...more
Joseph Sverker
Jul 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
2019: Always worth a read, and re-read. This time I focused on what Butler says in relation to Human Rights. It is interesting how she doesn't want to take a complete leave of autonomy, or claims to autonomy, while her theory certainly leads that way. Butler justifies claims of autnomy completely on pragmatic lines - it has been a successful way to raise issues of women's rights and so on. Furthermore, she is critical against notions of human rights, but on the other hand argues that human right ...more
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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.” 62 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.” 19 likes
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