the guardian Fri 08 May 2009
War is "framed" in the media so as to prevent us from recognising the people who are to be killed as living fully "grievable" lives, like ours. That is the thesis pursued in this collection of reprinted talks and essays written since 2004. One must suffer through densely superficial jugglings of reified abstractions and tics of academic preening (Butler is fond of warning that what she is about to say might seem "paradoxical"), but at length she will arrive at a concrete subject, and there ensue bracing close readings of the pope, Melanie Klein, Michael Walzer, Susan Sontag and poems written by Guantánamo prisoners.
The best essay is the excellent "Sexual Politics, Torture and Time", in which, addressing the Abu Ghraib photos, Butler notes that "The torture was also a way to coercively produce the Arab subject and the Arab mind", and advances the impressive gambit: "I want to suggest that a civilisational war is at work in this context that casts the army as the more sexually progressive culture." Elsewhere she excoriates lazy rhetoric about "tolerance" and Islamic "taboo", and deplores in a general way the "inversions of discourse" in warlike rhetoric. This last strand of discussion consists, it seems, of promising, or wishing for, a book that never quite materialises. Perhaps someone else has already written it.