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Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  1,782 ratings  ·  86 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 May 6th 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
Dwight Davis
Apr 27, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Still incredibly prescient, even though it was written in the wake of 9/11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan. The essay “Violence, Mourning, Politics” is one of the best pieces of writing from Butler that I’ve read (and I wrote a master’s thesis on her so I’ve done a decent amount of Butler reading) and it really helped me parse and think through the current Western reactions to Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine vs those same reactions to America’s imperialist invasions in the Midd ...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.
Lizzie Stewart
I received this kindle edition of Judith Butler's Precarious Life as part of my Verso book club subscription. In a series of essays, Butler responds to the ways in which the United States reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and outlines the ways in which we determine who is human, and therefore who is grievable. A complex, thoughtful collection, although a little dense. ...more
Jun 29, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
May 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Butler goes off every single time and this is no exception
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
Oct 25, 2022 rated it really liked it
Is a Muslim life as valuable as legibly First World lives? Are the Palestinians yet accorded the status of "human" in US policy and press coverage? Will those hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives lost in the last decades of strife ever receive the equivalent to the paragraph-long obituaries in the that seek to New York Times humanize -- often through nationalist and familial framing devices -- those Americans who have been violently killed? Is our capacity to mourn in global dimensions foreclos ...more
kate harvey
Apr 28, 2022 added it
Shelves: 2022
“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”
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
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
Sep 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Pleased to return to this book and find it just as erudite as the first time around… Butler‘s call for the humanities and cultural critics, as well as everyday consumers of media and political discourse, to examine the ways in which perpetual war, violence, cruelty, and dehumanization of the other are conveyed through disavowals of mourning, vulnerability, and the inherent fragility of human life. Certainly, the first two essays here are the strongest and offer the most (perhaps as theoretical p ...more
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.
Jessica Chretien
"Levinas writes:

"The approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility . . . The face is not in front of me (en face de moi), but above me; it is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. Secondly, the face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death."

. . . So the face, strictly speaking, does not speak, but what the face means is nevertheless conveyed by the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." It conv
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. ...more
Jan 16, 2017 added it
Shelves: favorites
"Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something." (23) ...more
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
Matvey Menetrey
May 04, 2022 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
Read parts of this collection of essays in uni and have come back to it 5 years later. I've been thinking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and also lately about the refugees who are still locked up in indefinite detention by the Australian government. Found myself very troubled by the way Russian soldiers and civilians have been completely dehumanized online and in public discourse - I feel that this vitriolic attitude towards the 'aggressors' in the war constitutes a kind of horrible (and ...more
Julia Latimer
Oct 07, 2021 rated it it was amazing
In this book, Judith Butler presents what I had previously believed to be an impossibility—an ability to derive from consciousness and empathy a principled, structured, and congruous political identity.
Butler encourages a return to both critical thinking and discourse. She leans into the necessity of having nuanced and difficult conversations about some of the most tenuous and tender topics facing the world. She presents carefully and thoughtfully, as well as through the lens of empathy and con
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
Jun 12, 2021 rated it really liked it
This is a brief and powerful book that largely focuses on ethical questions related to the wars that the USA began during George W Bush's first term as president. Having heard about Butler almost exclusively in relation to Woman/Gender Studies (Gender Trouble, mainly), I picked this up after reading the English translation of Cristina Rivera Garza's Grieving.

Although Butler has a reputation (at least in Gender Trouble) for writing pretty opaque prose, but this was fairly easy to follow (apart f
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
Caspar Bryant
Jun 22, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think the subtitle suggests a specificity that may dissuade some. But it's a lovely collection of essays and I recommend.

JB is accused of obscurantism quite often. Having read Excitable Speech in part, I understand that her style is at times academic to the point of turgidity. I'm given to understand that one ought not start Butler there or with Gender Trouble, in part due to their relative difficulty. But Precarious Life is a delight to read! And I'd happily suggest it as an introduction.

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
Sung Hyup
Oct 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A deeply personal yet intellectually forceful series of essays written in the aftermath of 9-11, Judith Butler touches on the meaning of ethics, both personal and political, when it comes to the militarisation and brutalisation of American sociopolitical life. Though written in the early years of the Bush presidency, Butler's critique of American policy and the liberal establishment still rings true in the Trump years. Whether it comes to psychoanalysis, legal theory, or Jewish ethics, Butler is ...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 their Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1984, for a dissertation subsequently pub

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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.” 69 likes
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