I was doing some research for a new project, and picked up Judith Butler’s book Precarious Life. I had to read it today, because I had to return it to the library by tomorrow – the deadline was fixed. Reading it was the strangest journey, as it became interlaced with deeply personal memories, tweets about US empire, and the news that Hosni Mubarak had passed away. Serendipitous, maybe, that this was what I was reading when I heard the news about Mubarak’s passing, or when I read a tweet from Pete Buttigieg about undeserving lives in Afghanistan. Also unexpectedly painful, in that reading what is an academic text, while seated in my office and firmly in my “work zone,” I ended up coming across passages that took me somewhere else entirely. I want to reflect here on how the readings we do for academic writing seep into other parts of our lives, tearing up any supposed separation between research and life, intimacy and formality.
I began reading the book and taking notes, every now and then checking Twitter. Suddenly, a tweet by US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg appeared on my timeline about the value of US lives versus the un-value of lives in Afghanistan. Butler was an apt reading companion at that moment – whose lives are grievable, she asks, and how does grief tell us who has a life?
I went back to reading. Suddenly I was dragged deep down into a rabbit hole of memories – this time not because of a break, or coming across something else, but because of the text itself. Grief – how do we experience it? Why do we experience it? It took me a long time to grapple with this. The memories were painful. I wallowed, and then I felt grateful to have finally found words that made sense of what I experienced years ago. “Okay, time to get back to work,” I told myself.
I went back to reading. Another Twitter break. A DM from a friend – Hosni Mubarak had died.
This was the end of my reading journey for the day. This last piece of news was too much. In what follows, I loosely trace responses, reactions, and emotions in relation to a single text and the time in which I had set aside to read it for research purposes. What comes up when we read, and what does it mean to be open to all of it? How does intimacy seep into and structure time we think is “work time”? And how does what we read for change the way we read and the notes we might take?
It began as it does on many days – through a decision to log on to Twitter that I quickly regretted.
No weapon remotely resembling what I trained on to serve in Afghanistan has any business being sold for profit near a school, a church, or anywhere in this country.
This tweet from US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, reaffirming his commitment to US empire and militarism. It struck me, on this particular day, because of what I had just been reading. In her essay on mourning, Judith Butler thinks through what grief is, and what makes a life worth grieving.
Butler writes, “There are no obituaries for the war casualties that the United States inflicts, and there cannot be. If there were to be an obituary, there would have had to have been a life, a life worth noting, a life worth valuing and preserving.”
Who is deserving of life in this worldview, one endorsed by so many US politicians, and too many Americans? The lives lost in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries drawn into an endless US War on Terror do not count, are not seen as lives by those in the metropole.
The US military is made up of grievable lives, even as many of those lives are not grievable outside of those uniforms and inside the borders of the US.
We know he is especially militaristic. But as Butler shows, we also know that the US is founded on countless horrors, and is a deeply militaristic society whose wars, invasions and forms of violence are built on deeply felt notions of whose lives matter – both within and without. Curious to read more, I returned to the text.
Another Twitter break (I really should stop).
A friend shared a news story, the headline of which read ”Mubarak is dead.” What did I feel in that moment? Grief, shock, an overwhelming sense of some kind of temporal rupture. Grief for whom, or for what? Was this another phase of grieving for a revolution that seems to have become nothing but a series of memories? Grief for a moment during which news of his death might have seemed more expected? Grief for countless Egyptians who lost their lives, and a reminder of who was able to pass naturally?
The strangest part of all of this was my experience of slipping in and out of the reading. This happened while I was reading the essay Violence, Mourning, Politics. Butler writes:
Freud reminded us that when we lose someone, we do not always know what it is in that person that has been lost. So when one loses, one is also faced with something enigmatic: something is hiding in the loss, something is lost within the recesses of loss. If mourning involves knowing what one has lost (and melancholia originally meant, to a certain extent, not knowing), then mourning would be maintained by its enigmatic dimension, by the experience of not knowing incited by losing what we cannot fully fathom).
On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well. At another level, perhaps what I have lost “in” you, that for which I have no ready vocabulary, is a relationship that is composed neither exclusively of myself nor you, but is to be conceived as the tie by which those terms are differentiated and related.
What happens when we lose someone? Why does it feel as though we have lost a part of ourselves? I have been haunted by feminist writings that say women should be careful not to lose themselves in intimate relationships, in motherhood, in friendship, in professional spaces. And so when I lost myself, a specific instance that was very painful about two years ago, I was lost. I felt as though I hadn’t been strong enough. Reading this text by Butler was emotional because it made me feel reassured, in hindsight. Reassured that the way I had felt then was okay, it was how many people felt when they encountered loss.
One does not always stay intact. One may want to, or manage to for a while, but despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.
Reading this brought back a flood of memories. I was transfixed and felt like something was falling into place, even if I wasn’t sure what it was. The memories were still painful. It still felt unfinished, somehow. But it also felt good to read this, to feel as though what I experienced was somehow a “normal” afterlife of grief.
Perhaps one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which one cannot know in advance. There is losing, as we know, but there is also the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned.
As I continued reading, I found it difficult to focus on what I was reading for. Before coming across this passage, I had been taking notes that were relevant to my research project. After this passage, I was suddenly taking notes that were relevant to the memories I was suddenly filled with. I was focused, but it felt like I had lost focus. What did I need from this text? I felt as though my notes didn’t make sense anymore, that I was not taking done information I would need for my research, and that this had turned into some kind of diary.
I wonder how often this happens? Was I conscious of it now because of how painful the memories were? How often do we read academic texts and dip in and out of intimate experiences? How can this not be the case when what we research is tied to our intimate lives and histories?
Mubarak is dead. He passed away peacefully. Whose lives are grievable? It feels like a rupture, the end of something. But what?
My friend, Lisa Tilley, said: “A peaceful death without justice is the last injustice.” Yes. Yes.
These are the things that I come across while I read Precarious Life. US empire, memories of the Egyptian revolution, and memories of an intimate loss. They are connected and disconnected. They are all connected to grief, to loss, to mourning and to violence. They destabilised me and made me read differently, to look for different things in the text, to respond to the feelings I was encountering. Reading and intimacy, reading and grief – how often do these come together in the work that we do, and how often do we push aside feelings that might open up texts in the most unexpected of ways?
What would it mean to read vulnerably? To worry less about taking the “right notes” or getting what we need from the text?
I took a moment to think about and feel all of these conflicting memories. I had a coffee appointment, a lunch appointment, and then came back to my desk and found the book at the page I had left it when I couldn’t process anything anymore.
All of these markings are layers of use by other people I don’t know. Library books are amazing in that sense – markings guide you but also point to ideas other people found important; the yellowed pages suggest a book used and loved.
I go back to my reading and note-taking, more focused, back on track in trying to find material for my research. I still feel unsettled, emotionally. I push that aside, as we often do, and say I will come to that later.
I hope one day I can be brave enough to sit with it and not feel the need to “get back on track.”