Almost three weeks ago, Americans commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the event that has had a decisive impact on global politics ever since: 9/11. Three years later, in 2004, Judith Butler published a book entitled Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence. I didn’t read this book at the time of its publication. The two books that have formed and informed my understanding of 9/11 was Braudillard’s The spirit of terrorism and Žižek’s Welcome to the desert of the Real. In the former, Baudrillard powerfully argued that ‘events are not on strike anymore’ and in the latter, the Slovenian colossus of cultural theory declared that 9/11 introduced America to ‘the desert of the Real’ in the sense that, as a ‘defining catastrophe’, it represented the culmination of the twentieth century’s obsession with ‘the direct experience of the Real as opposed to everyday social reality – the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality’.

I picked up Butler’s book, partly because I have read her groundbreaking work on heteronormativity and gender and have followed this work in my own scholarship about the precarious position of sexual minorities in Africa. The fifteenth commemoration of 9/11 was also an obvious precursor and so was the fact that, earlier this year, I heard Butler speak at a public intellectual event held on the campus of the University of the Western Cape – an event that was, more or less, disrupted. But the primary reason why I started reading this book twelve years after its first publication has to do with the fact that I recently described our situation in higher education in South Africa as ‘precarious’ to a colleague in legal practice – a description that was repeated by Minister Nzimande at the fee announcement that has enraged so many. In this description, I went on to say that the situation is, at the same time, not remotely comparable to the precariousness of the lives of most South Africans who continue to live in poverty – in unstable, often violent and deeply demeaning circumstances as a matter of everyday life.

What struck me about Butler’s book is how compelling the critique seems to be beyond the 9/11 context and specifically for our situation in South Africa. For starters, Butler asks a question that has become a pressing issue in public discourse in South Africa over the last year, namely whether the experience of loss has to lead straightaway to violence and retribution. Ever since the start of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, the country has witnessed an immense and powerful expression of Black pain and loss. If anybody thought that the violence of apartheid was over and done with, 2015 made it patently clear that, (now) twenty years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we have barely begun closing the book on the past. In some cases, by no means all, the expression of Black pain and loss has been accompanied by a call for and a justification of instrumental, subjective violence. In this version of the politics of pain, it is said that the burning of a few lecture theatres, residences and a library is nothing compared to the structural, objective violence of what now passes by the name of ‘white monopoly capital’. In this respect, the response seems to be a version of Max Horkheimer’s famous statement that those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism. But whatever the rhetorical allure of this retort – which Žižek is fond of quoting – might be, it cannot undo the age old calculus that two wrongs have never equaled a right. Or, to put it in the terms of another one of Žižek’s famous aphorisms: it is not that there is an unequivocal ‘good’ and an irredeemable ‘bad’ here – they are both worse.

Butler argues precisely in the hope of thinking through what might be required to interrupt this seemingly endless cycle of wrongs and counter-wrongs – violations and retaliations. It is in this respect that she considers it crucial to attend to the ‘frame for understanding violence’. Butler’s starting point here is the proliferation of exclusive first-person narratives after 9/11. She writes that this narrative form emerges to ‘compensate for the enormous narcissistic wound’ that opens up after the public appearance of physical vulnerability: ‘[w]e have to shore up the first-person point of view, and preclude from the telling accounts that might involve a decentering of the narrative “I”’. Butler is not saying that there are no stories worth telling from the point of view of the I. Rather, the problematic here is how the I narrative can be and is used to skirt the question of personal and collective responsibility, not necessarily for the source or cause of the loss, but rather in coming to terms with loss.

Ultimately Butler makes these remarks with a view to underscoring that the atomism of the sovereign I has always been hopelessly unrealistic, especially now that we are living, more than ever before, in a global, interconnected reality. More than ever, our lives are ‘profoundly implicated in the lives of others’, yet it is as if the reality of this fact in a world as populated as ours, is too traumatic to rise to the full level of our consciousness. Instead, the profound implication of our lives in those of others is derealised. One of the ways in which this derealisation (which is also a dehumanisation) takes place is through coding the difference of the Other (yet again) as a threat against which any number and manner of defensive formations designed to ward off the Other will do. And this is the case on both sides of the political divide (Right and Left) and in both orders of violence to which I have referred. The result is what Achille Mbembe has referred to as ‘this astonishing age of solipsism and narcissism’.

The political corollary of this ‘personal’ disposition is the politics of enmity, a form of political interaction according to which the difference of the Other turns her into an enemy to be obliterated whereas the similarity of another is the condition of her being a friend to be supported and cared for. The problem of this form of politics is not only that it engenders the polarities that give rise to political violence. A far bigger problem is that it erases altogether and in advance from the political relation the possibility of a politics of equality based in difference. I don’t want to be misunderstood in this respect. I am certainly not arguing that current configurations of power are simply ‘different’ and that for this reason their violence should be tolerated. Power relations and the hierarchies they generate are fundamental in politics. But the assertion of equality always means that a current formation of power (a distribution of the sensible) is called into question, even unhinged. The politics of enmity does not give us a politics of equality, it gives us a politics of dangerous polarity and, ultimately, of violence.

Butler argues that our interconnection implies a fundamental vulnerability of every one to every other one. Violence is always an exploitation of this basic vulnerability. Taking stock of the place of violence in our societies presupposes that we are interested in pursuing a non-violent or, at the very least, a less violent resolution. Such a presupposition cannot, however, be taken for granted in a public sphere where the normalisation, justification and even glorification of violence is at concert pitch. So the first thing to do if we are interested in breaking cycles of violent repetition would be to recognise again how violent and how used to violence we have become – and again, violence in both its subjective and objective/structural appearance. Further, this recognition of violence hinges on what Butler calls being ‘awake to what is precarious in another life, or rather, the precariousness of life itself’. Language in its manifestation as discourse is critical here since it is in and through language that difference is communicated and the Other’s vulnerability communicated to us. Of course, it is not the case that language is over there and violence over here in the sense of a discreet separation – often enough language itself is used and experienced as violence. But the question of a non-violent ethics turns on the possibility of language as a mediator, as a mechanism through which the resort to instrumental inter-subjective violence can be interrupted. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her meditation on violence in the aftermath of the student protest movements of the late sixties and early seventies in America and Europe: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

Borrowing from Levinas, Butler argues that my encounter with the Face of the Other produces two contradictory demands at the same time: the temptation to kill, on the one hand and the call to peace, on the other. Ethics resides in a constant struggle between these two demands: ‘There is fear for one’s own survival, and there is anxiety about hurting the Other, and these two impulses are at war with each other in order not to be at war, and this seems to be the point.’ Non-violence, then, doesn’t come from a peaceful place as such, rather it comes from ‘a constant tension between the fear of undergoing violence and the fear of inflicting violence’. ‘The face of the Other calls me out of narcissism towards something more important.’ That ‘something more important’ is what Levinas calls the situation of discourse, the possibility of speaking, recognition, humanisation, realisation and negotiation.

A lot has happened in South Africa in the last three weeks. And violence, once again, seems to be at the heart of the matter. Causing it, preventing it, not preventing it, responsibility for it, avoiding it, fomenting it. One wonders what it will take for South Africa to return to the situation of discourse. It is certain that the proliferation of violence, left to itself, will only generate a more violent world. Whatever critique one wants to hurl at the imperfect transition that was 27 April 1994 in South Africa, one cannot deny that at that moment we collectively chose to resist the culture of violence with a commitment to bringing into being a culture of discourse (what Etienne Mureinik called a ‘culture of justification’). That there has been immense, unnecessary, illegitimate structural and subjective violence along the way, goes without saying. One does not achieve the shift from a culture of violence to a culture of discourse in the blink of an eye. But attempting to solve the problem of violent structures with more violence is doomed in advance and utterly self-defeating.

Žižek, with reference to Lacan, has argued that the student slogan of 1968, that ‘structures do not walk the streets!’ was, in a sense, wrong. Structures do walk the streets in the sense that they are populated by human subjects who, if they have deviated, can always be brought back to the situation of discourse. And this means that structural violence can be apprehended in ways other than through subjective violence. We need to find more creative and productive ways of bringing the situation of discourse into being in South Africa. Violence is not the only language that structures understand, because structures are formations and creations of people – and the human being, as Aristotle argued, is the only creature who understands language. At this point in South Africa, the starting point of the situation of discourse must be that the explosive events we have witnessed over the last few weeks are ultimately the result of a structural imbalance that can no longer be sustained.


  • Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British Academy's Newton Advanced Fellow in the School of Law at Westminster University and Honorary Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. He is a board member of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and of the Triangle Project, Cape Town.


Jaco Barnard-Naude

Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British...

Leave a comment