On Rage and Grief

Judith Butler’s moving speech at the 2014 International PEN conference. Partial transcript below:

“Mourning has to do with yielding to an unwanted transformation, when neither the full shape nor the full import of that alteration can be known in advance. This transformative effect of losing always risks becoming a de-formative effect. Whatever it is, it cannot be willed; it is a kind of undoing. One is hit by waves in the middle of the day, in the midst of a task, and everything stops. One falters, even falls. What is that wave that suddenly withdraws your gravity and your forward motion? That something that takes hold of you and makes you stop and takes you down? Where does it come from? Does it have a name? What claims us at such moments when we are most emphatically not masters of ourselves and our motions, when we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place or a community? It may be that something about who we are suddenly flashes up, something that delineates the ties that we have to others, that shows us that we are bound to one another, and that the bonds that compose us also do strand us, leave us uncomposed. If I lose you under the conditions in which who I am is bound up with you, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself, and this life unbearable. Who am I without you? I was not just over here, and you over there, but the I was in the crossing there with you, but also here. So I was already de-centered, one might say, and that was precious. And yet when we lose, we lose our ground, we are suddenly at risk of taking our own lives or the lives of others. Perhaps what I have lost on those occasions is precisely that sense that I can live without you, even if it turns out that I can live without that specific you that you happened to be. Even if I was surprised to find that I survived when survival was unthinkable. If I can and do live without you, it is only because I have not, as it were, lost the place of the you, the one to whom I address myself, the generalized addressee with whom I am already bound up in language, in a scene of address that is the linguistic condition of our survivability.

[….] A loss might seem utterly personal, private, isolating, but it may also furnish an unexpected concept of political community, even a premonition of a source of non-violence. If the life that is mine is not originally or finally separable from yours, then the we who we are is not just a composite of you and me and all the others, but a set of relations of interdependency and passion. And these we cannot deny or destroy without refuting something fundamental about the social conditions of our living. What follows is an ethical injunction to preserve those bonds, even the wretched ones, which means precisely guarding against those forms of destructiveness that take away our lives and those of other living beings, and the ecological conditions of life. In other words, before ever losing, we are lost in the other, lost without the other, but we never knew it as well as we do when we do actually lose. This being in thrall is one way of describing the social relations that have the power to sustain and to break us. Way before we enter into contracts that confirm that our relations are a result of our choice, we are already in the hands of the other, a thrilling and terrifying way to begin. We are from the start both done and undone by the other, and if we refuse this, we refuse passion, life, and loss. The lived form of that refusal is destruction; the lived form of its affirmation is non-violence. Perhaps non-violence is the difficult practice of letting rage collapse into grief. Since then we stand the chance of knowing that we are bound up in others, such that who I am or who you are is this living relation that we sometimes lose. With great speed, we do sometimes drive away from the unbearable, or drive precisely into its clutches, or do both at once, not knowing how we move, or with what consequence. It seems unbearable to be patient with unbearable loss. Yet that slowness, that impediment, can be the condition of showing what we value, and even perhaps what steps to take to preserve what is left of what we love.”

 

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