Butler, Judith — Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy

Butler, Judith. “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy.” Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. 17-40.  Print.

Butler writes, “I would like to start, and to end, with the question of the human, of who counts as human, and the related question of whose lives count as lives, and with a question that has preoccupied many of us for years: what makes for a grievable life?” (17-18). In elaborating on grief, she says, “Many people think grief is privatizing, […] but I think it exposes the constitutive sociality of the self, a basis for thinking a political community of a complex order” (19). Grief, she writes, “contains within it the possibility of apprehending the fundamental sociality of embodied life, the ways in which we are from the start, and by virtue of being a bodily being, already given over, beyond ourselves, implicated in lives that are not our own.” She suggests that grief as our bodily implication in others’ lives can be used in political spaces to enact physical nonviolence: “the fact that our lives are dependent on others can become the basis of claims for nonmilitaristic political solutions” (22). To make grief a resource for politics is to reduce othering the “enemy,” and to recognize the vulnerability and suffering of one’s opponents.” Butler thus pursues “a more general conception of the human at work […], one in which we are, from the start, even prior to individuation itself, and by virtue of our embodiment, given over to an other: this makes us vulnerable to violence, but also to another range of touch, a range that includes the eradication of our being at the one end, and the physical support for our lives, at the other (23). From this position, Butler contends that humans depend on a recognition of humanity from other humans, that is, they must be intelligible to one another. She elaborates on this concept, and extends it to discursive spaces:

So what is the relation between violence and what is “unreal,” between violence and unreality that attends to those who become the victims of violence, and where does the notion of the ungrievable life come in? On the level of discourse, certain lives are not considered lives at all, they cannot be humanized; they fit no dominant frame for the human, and their dehumanization occurs first, at this level. This level then gives rise to a physical violence that in some sense delivers the message of dehumanization which is already at work in the culture. (25)

Later, Butler promotes a disruption of what it is to be an acceptable body (28). She asserts that new modes of reality can emerge at the scene of embodiment:

These practices of instituting new modes of reality take place in part through the scene of embodiment, where the body is not understood as a static and accomplished fact, but as an aging process, a mode of becoming that, in becoming otherwise, exceeds the norm, reworks the norm, and makes us see how realities to which we thought we were confined are not written in stone. (29)

In short, Butler says, “norms of recongnition function to produce and to deproduce the notion of the human” (32). In the face of non-binaried sexual identities, through which Butler produces her argument, there can be two reactions: violent and nonviolent. The violent reaction does not ask questions and just seeks to reproduce what it already knows to be “true” about the identity of the Other. “The nonviolent response,” Butler writes, “lives with its unknowingness about the Other in the face of the Other, since sustaining the bond that the question opens is finally more valuable than knowing in advance what holds us in common” (35).

What intrigues me most about Butler’s piece is this notion of grief as a way of recognizing the embodiment of the other. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that the self cannot know what pain is or means to the Other, except in some abstract way. While intense emotional pain such as grief may come symptomatically close to physical pain, it is more accessible. Scarry argues that acute physical pain destroys the potential for language. Merging Scarry’s argument with Butler’s might point to a kind of expressible grief that results from physical pain in one’s own body or the Other’s.

But to even begin to grieve another being, one must recognize the humanity in the Other (I mean to use humanity broadly here, and for that term to cross special boundaries). In public discursive spaces, certain bodies are not recognized or are codified to be recognized only under certain circumstances. What, then, can one do when the violence being enacted happens through a lack of language? How can we recognize those previously excluded bodies as human? Could that tension produce new knowledge? How does one define what it means to be human or to have humanity?

—Alexis Priestley

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