What is Judith Butler's argument in Frames of War?

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Judith Butler's Frames of War explores how western society perceives loss of human life through war, abandonment, starvation, incarceration, and war. Butler explores how, when, and why people determine loss of life/quality of life as acceptable within the above framework. Butler urges readers to ask themselves when this loss of life is considered grievable and when it is considered as acceptable or as a necessary consequence in order to protect more societally valued lives. For instance, for hundreds of thousands of people who are incarcerated in the U.S., their loss of freedom is considered to be acceptable as their lives have been deemed as less valuable through societal conditioning and media portrayals of incarcerated people. Butler argues that the media, in particular, has depicted wars waged by Western nations in a way in which the human suffering caused by the wars is heavily normalized, and that the loss of these lives is considered acceptable due to devaluing of non-white/European lives.

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Judith Butler’s Frames of War is generally a thoughtful examination of the prevailing wars, with a keen focus on multiple forms of resistance, gender, and violence. In this piece, Butler examines how the media perceives and depicts state violence, which is a fundamental process in understanding the waging of war in the West. To some extent, this depiction has seemingly altered how people view human life. As a consequence, whole peoples, who are regarded as potential threats as opposed to living residents in need of state protection, face abandonment and exploitation. These individuals are framed as non-existing or absent, either by virtue of starvation, unemployment, or incarceration, meaning that they can easily face abandonment and isolation. In a somewhat twisted reasoning posed to justify the deaths of such populations, their absence is deemed crucial, as it ensures “the living” lead a harmonious and peaceful life.

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In Frames of War, Judith Butler investigates how war has been framed by the state and by the media in such a way as to make the essential act of war—that is, taking human life—morally justifiable. She argues that the left, in particular, needs to reconsider what makes the loss of human lives "grievable." One aspect that she suggests intellectuals and policy makers should think about is the idea of "precariousness," which she argues is actually instrumental in justifying the use of violence. What we need to recognize is that the same state power that produces precariousness of life is deployed in processes that are supposed to protect it. To cite one example, the lives of Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein were portrayed as so precarious that the loss of many thousands of those lives in the war to remove Hussein was not deemed excessive. A great deal of this process, obviously, is due to the media, which Butler argues has become an integral part of the exercise of military power. The media has also been instrumental in portraying people in precarious circumstances, such as throughout the Arab world, as representing such a threat to Americans that their lives, when lost or oppressed (as in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib) are not grievable. These are the two main thrusts of what is a very complex series of arguments wound through several more or less distinct essays.

Source: Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (New York, Verso, 2009) 23-29.a

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