The Books Interview: Judith Butler

In your latest book, Frames of War, you continue the work you began in Precarious Life (2004) on the representation of life and death. How do you see the link between the two books?
Well, I think that even though the word "life" was in the title of Precarious Life, I did not think about it as carefully as I should have. The first book considers questions of public culture and censorship in the aftermath of 9/11, but the second is more concerned with questions of torture and the human body. I think the second text goes further in trying to think about the kinds of obligations we might have on the basis of our anonymous exposure to others.

But one of the first things a child learns about death is that the death of a countryman or countrywoman is more important, in media terms, than the death of someone elsewhere.
Yes, I suppose some children do learn this. But it may be possible to learn death first through the media as the death of strangers. I am wondering, for instance, about some of us who were young children during the war in Vietnam. Our first exposure to death may have been from photojournalism. Still, there is a question about whether we regard as valuable those lives that are closest to us or which readily conform to local and national norms of recognition. In other words, lives that are more readily "recognisable" tend to be regarded as more worthy. I don't think we have to have a personal relation to a life lost to understand that something terrible has taken place, especially in the context of war. In order to become open to offering that sort of acknowledgement, however, we have to come up against the limit of the cultural frames in which we live. In a way, we have to let those frames get interrupted by other frames.

The US government has recently lifted a ban on showing photographs of coffins, at the same time as the Obama administration has vetoed the release of more torture photographs from Iraq. What do you think these two rulings tell us about how war is framed?
I think that even in the Obama administration there is the fear that explicit photographs of torture or death will portray the nation in a bad light or possibly turn national or international sentiment against the US. I find this a very peculiar kind of argument, because it values how we are seen more highly than whether we are seen in a truthful way. Obama basically claims that it is his job to present a likeable picture of the US, but
I think that the responsibility to the national and global public is more important than this rather weak imperative. The rulings do confirm that frames are powerful. We saw that already in embedded reporting, and we continue to see it in the censorship of war photography and poetry from Guantanamo.

Can we separate popular use of media channels (Twitter, YouTube, blogs) from more entrenched, hierarchical forms? How might these new kinds of frames transform our understanding of conflict in the future?
I think it is probably inevitable that certain iconic images emerge in the midst of these conflicts, and they can, as we saw [with the recent demonstrations in Iran], be very powerful in mobilising popular resistance to a regime. But what was most interesting to me was the way that mainstream media became dependent on Twitter and on hand-held phones to relay video from street demonstrations. It was not that Twitter and cellphone videos were "alternative" media that showed a different picture from what was appearing in dominant media venues. On the contrary, they became the basis for the dominant media image and there was no alternative in conditions where foreign media were barred, as they still are, from Iran. So we are actually seeing the emergence of hybrid media. Perhaps this fragmentation and hybridisation will allow for different perspectives - at least until some corporation works out how best to "own" it all.

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the departments of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. "Frames of War" is published by Verso (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years