Are some lives more ‘grievable’ than others?

This week, Valletta played host to groundbreaking American theorist Judith Butler, who gave a talk on how some bodies are, apparently, more ‘grievable’ than others – an observation more urgent than ever as the migration crisis continues to test Europe’s conscience 

Judith Butler speaking at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta last Wednesday - Photo courtesy of the European Graduate School
Judith Butler speaking at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta last Wednesday - Photo courtesy of the European Graduate School
Lampedusa shipwreck survivors - April 2015
Lampedusa shipwreck survivors - April 2015

Malta has been associated with the perils of boat migration from Africa since the early noughties – matched, at least in the Mediterranean arena, only perhaps by Lampedusa. It’s a predicament that has given rise to both conflicting emotional reactions and equally fractured political viewpoints and reactions. 

Europe still remains in something of a quandary with regard to how to strike the balance between moral duty on the one hand, and ever-increasing concerns on ‘security’, employment and integration on the other. But how do we process the day-to-day facts of this ongoing source of tension and concern? 

But beyond the political numbers game and the ever-knotted problem of racism, migrant deaths at sea remain the most disturbing by-product of this ongoing phenomenon. How we react – and perhaps more importantly, how we don’t react – to the crisis can be a good litmus test for where we are as a society. 

And perhaps significantly, a symbolic mood in this regard is in the offing for Malta. Today week – 17 April – a commemorative walk from City Gate, Valletta to Addolorata Cemetery in Paola will be held in remembrance of the 850 lost at sea when a boat leaving Libya capsized back on 18 April, 2015.

The ultimate aim of the walk – whose organisers are keen to not fly the flag of any particular NGO/s – would be to install a commemorative plaque honouring the dead, at the Addolorata destination which will mark the end of the walk. 

This apparently simple gesture arguably contains multitudes, and it’s these multitudes that the formidable American theorist Judith Butler touched upon during a public lecture held last Wednesday at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta.

Organised under the auspices of the prestigious European Graduate School (EGS) – which has recently set up shop at Fort St Elmo – Butler turned to psychoanalysis to discuss “whose lives count as the living” and whether certain bodies are more ‘grievable’ than others.

During the talk, entitled To Preserve the Right of the Other: Psychoanalysis and the Ethical Claim, Butler, who rose to fame thanks to her groundbreaking work on gender performativity and who holds the Hannah Arendt chair at EGS, used proponents of psychoanalytic theory to dissect how we relate to the ‘Other’, and the way we channel deep-seated sources of guilt and violence when confronted with the pain and misfortune of those deemed to be separate from us.

Butler of course did make an explicit reference to the migration crisis in her talk, but this was only one aspect of what she treated as a wider consideration.

Which is what, in turn, made her analysis all the more urgent: through her discussion of both psychological heavyweight Sigmund Freud, as counter-argued by his later, Austrian-British counterpart Melanie Klein (1882-1960), Butler showed that the ambivalent feelings we may have towards migrants and other ‘outsiders’ could be understood through intimate psychological processes that we have all experienced.

Acknowledging that taking a psychological tack to this otherwise deeply political phenomenon, Butler reassured audiences that there is a ‘second part’ to her analysis that deals exclusively with the political dimension. 

“To say that a life is grievable means that the prospect of its loss should be feared, and prevented at all costs,” Butler said, adding that another truism is that the bulk of us would not want murder to be condoned since we wouldn’t want to live in a world where we could be killed without consequence. 

Challenging her listeners further, Butler then said, “What would happen if it were universally accepted to inflict certain acts of violence in the world?” 

How do we square with the possibility of not being able to save everyone who’s in danger – migrants or otherwise – and how do we decide which or them are ‘grievable’, and which are not? And why would we condone certain acts of violence while accepting others? 

In short, it’s a true moral and psychological challenge, one that – Butler suggests – leaves us in quandaries of guilt and suppressed anger. This gives rise to moral confusion and dissatisfaction, which Butler suggests leads to “persecutory fantasises” and paranoia: we hate the Other for making us feel so guilty and inadequate, which can in turn inspire – and justify – further violence towards them. 

Paradoxically, however, this paranoia binds us closely to the Other: if you’re so aggressively obsessed with someone, it means you’re mentally tied to them in a very real way.

Butler uses this as a starting point to move away from the more traditional Freudian perspective on relationships – which highlight the mental power struggle between the child-like drive of the id and the superego, with the mediating ego in the middle – in favour of Melanie Klein’s perspective. 

According to Klein – Butler says – the desire to make people happy requires us to put ourselves in their shoes. “This isn’t fully an act of abnegation,” Butler says, “it’s a vicarious moment during which we put the Other first.”

By the same token, aggression and hatred can be channeled to political ends when we become sensitive to the empathy required by it. This leads to what is perhaps the most striking point of Butler’s talk, in which she urges a radical re-think of the concept of guilt. Going by the standard Freudian dictum, guilt is to be seen as something punitive. But read through Klein, guilt can be seen as an engine to safeguard “an Other indistinguishable from me”.

Viewing guilt as being primarily about safeguarding rather than punishment would, according to Butler, establish the necessary conditions for lives to be fully ‘grievable’. 

The Walk for Remembrance will start at 10:00, City Gate, Valletta on 17 April. More information:

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