In collaboration with the International Book Fair (FIL) and the University of Guadalajara (UdeG), U.S. academic Judith Butler presented the keynote speech at the Julio Cortázar Chair of Latin American Studies on November 26.
Renowned for her research on “gender performativity” as a subconscious means of compliance to patriarchal norms, Butler discussed how race, class and identity intersect with gender discrimination during a seminar entitled “A Critique of Violence for Our Times.”
The third-wave feminist and author of “Gender Trouble: Feminism” and the “Subversion of Identity” articulated theories about femicide signifying more than just murder, but a mechanism to instill “a climate of terror” among the female-identifying population.
This is a relevant subject in Mexico where seven women reportedly perish everyday. The situation is alarming in states such as Veracruz, which has seen more than 167 gender-related homicides so far this year, according to the Attorney General’s Office there.
“The power over their lives and their deaths is in their hands,” said Butler, referring to the social impunity men have under hierarchical systems of power. “There is no natural reason for this form of terror to exist. It is a core part of being a man under dominant norms.”
At the core of Butler’s discourse was a demand for public acknowledgement to disparities surrounding “grievable” versus “non-grievable” lives, posing some tough questions to the audience.
“Under what conditions is it possible to grieve a life that has been lost?” asked Butler. “Whose life is considered grievable within our public world? Whose life, if lost, would not be considered a loss at all? Is it possible that some of our lives are considered grievable and some are not?”
These are terms Butler used to ponder why deaths of marginalized people don’t trigger widespread outrage in today’s mainstream social sphere. By the end of her hour-long lecture, she provided new language and social critiques to better analyze the array of ongoing human rights violations.
“Populations are very often, too often, divided among those whose lives are worth safeguarding at any cost, and those whose lives are considered dispensable, depending on one’s gender, one’s race and one’s economic position in society,” said Butler. “One can feel oneself in the eyes of others to be more or less grievable.”
Throughout her presentation, Butler referenced Julio Cortázar, an Argentine writer who defended the tortured, suppressed or disappeared under military dictatorships. Like Cortázar, Butler stressed the need for robust public outcry when governments or institutions fail to defend the exploited. For example, many women feel dissuaded from reporting sexual violence based on mistrust of law enforcement or fear of further persecution and objectification, particularly in the western hemisphere.
“Consider the victims of femicidio in Latin America, especially Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina and El Salvador, but also here in Mexico, which includes everyone brutalized or killed by virtue of being feminized, and that includes large numbers of transwomen and those who belong to the travesti community,” said Butler. “Often these deaths are reported as sensationalist stories in newspapers, after which there is a momentary expression of public shock, and then it happens again.”
From Butler’s philosophical perspective, the thousands of missing Native American women and trans African American women murdered at a disproportionate rate, are ultimately dehumanized because their lives were never considered valuable in the first place. Accordingly, they linger “in the shadows” of the otherwise privileged members of society who fail to incorporate class and race into the bigger picture.
“If differences of class, of race or of gender enter into our understanding of whose lives are entitled to live, then we see how social inequality plays an important role in how we approach the question: whose lives are grievable,” said Butler. “For if a life is considered worthless or if a life can be destroyed or vanished without apparent trace or consequence, that means that that life wasn’t fully grasped as living and hence it wasn’t fully grasped as grievable.”
Butler’s lecture in the regal UdeG Paraninfo attracted a full house. Many students also listened keenly to Butler speak in a live broadcast screened in the university’s Cine Foro auditorium.