Saturday, December 22, 2012

Visuality, Corporeality, Grievablity, and Violence

A student in my graduate seminar, Geoff Levin, wrote a great paper in which he turned Butler's notion of grievability upside down and showed how social processes making someone or some group grievable at a distance (across borders) can lead (and has led) to violence rather than peace that Butler expects.

Butler argues that since Iraqi and Afghani lives are not grievable for Americans, we Americans do not resist waging war on them.  Further, she suggests that if they did become grievable for us, we would question and (one hopes) stop the use of violence.  (Did I get that right?)

Geoff argues that in the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the fact that Palestinians are grievable to other Arabs and to other Moslems has led to violence and a continuation of violence.  Making Palestinians grievable is yoked historically to the creation of transnational Arab and Moslem identities.  The conflict is fueled by the fact that to Arabs and Moslems outside the narrow confines of Israel and Palestine one group of Semites (Palestinians) is grievable and another (Jews) is not.  He does not go there, but it seems to me that the normative implication of his research is not that the grievability of Palestinians is bad but rather that Palestinians and Jews must be grievable to each other and to their transnational allies for peace to be possible.

So what flips the switch?  Why are some people grievable and others not?

First the obvious: enemies are generally not grievable.  It is no surprise that Israelis & Jews are not grievable in the Arab world; it is no surprise that Palestinians and other Arabs are not grievable in Israel.  Once an Other takes on the identity of a Schmittian enemy, there is no grief.  (Note that people in Turkey -- not Arabs and therefore not, at least initially, enemies -- are grievable to Israelis, as evidenced by rescue teams sent by Israel when Turkey suffered an earthquake.)

But sometimes, estwhile enemies do become grievable.  How?  One of my mentors, the late Edward E. Azar, and other scholar-practitioners like social psychologist Herbert Kelman used "contact groups" to make influential representatives of groups that are enemies to each other come to have empathy for each other.  Empathy and grievability, I think, are closely related (if not the same).  Contact groups bring people together, their physical presence with each other makes them real in ways that words on page do not.  When confronted with each other's humanity (with each other's Face, in Levinas' terms), the possibility of empathy emerges.

Yet pictures also may make the ungrievable grievable and restore the enemy population's humanity.   I am reminded of Kim Phuc, "the girl in the picture," captured on film fleeing naked from a napalm strike on her Vietnamese village.  Her corporeality, made visual through the picture, restored her humanity and by extension the humanity of the North Vietnamese.

My interest in this is the connection between materiality (corporeality in this case) and information.  In both the face-to-face contact groups and the image, content ("I am human; you are human; if you were me right now you would feel pain.") flows from a source (Kim via the photographer's photo; the influential participants in the contact group) to recipients (those seeing the photo; the "enemy" members of the contact group).

I'm offering no conclusion.  Just an observation.  Back to grading.

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