Life and livability
[Trigger warning for oblique discussion of suicide, violence, and abortion. Nothing very triggery, I think, but you never know.]
I’ve been reading Undoing gender for some time now. In fact I’m currently having a break because I got to a paragraph that I found so impenetrable it broke my morale and I haven’t had the grit to try again. But early in the book I stuck bookmarks in a couple of places that prompted some thoughts, and now that I’ve got a day off (because ill blergh) I’ll put some of those thoughts down here. I imagine this is nothing that hasn’t already been said, and probably better, but still.
The following quotation contains cissexism.
Of course, “life” has been taken up by right-wing movements to limit reproductive freedoms for women, so the demand to establish more inclusive conditions for valuing life and producing the conditions for viable life can resonate with unwanted conservative demands to limit the autonomy of women to exercise the right to an abortion. But here it seems important not to cede the term “life” to the right-wing agenda, since it will turn out that there are within these debates questions about when human life begins and what constitutes “life” in its viability.
(From the introduction, Acting in concert, by Judith Butler, 2004.)
What struck me when I read this is the contrast of bare life — life being the quality of not being dead, that property which a being will lose as a result of falling out a cold and mysterious cave thirteen miles above ground level — with viable, livable life. Butler uses the idea of the viable or livable life quite a lot, and as is her custom doesn’t seek to give any formal definition. It’s a slightly tricky concept but essentially the livable life seems to be one that is sustainable rather than precarious, a life that a person can live without any imminent threat that it will become impossible to go on living. A life can become impossible because material necessities like food or shelter are not available or because the life is ended by violence or because the person concerned ends their life because it has become intolerable.
A related concept in Butler is intelligibility or recognizability. Someone is intelligible or recognizable when others (in particular the dominant social group) can grasp what the person is and comprehend their identity without serious error. To be unrecognizable or unintelligible is to be marginal in a particular way. The rich have some understanding of what poverty is. They often don’t understand what it really means, how it works, how intolerable it is, how they perpetuate it, how it is created, and so on, but if you say to them ‘I am poor’ they have some reasonably accurate idea of what you are saying. Similarly white people know approximately what non-white people are, men know what women are, heterosexual people know what homosexual people are, thin people know what fat people are, adults know what children are, and so on. These categories are all actually more complex than most people think, but broadly speaking to be, for example, black or gay is to be intelligible. Doesn’t stop you being oppressed, but it means you’re within the comprehension of your oppressor and can begin to address them.
Other marginal groups are still unintelligible to most people. Most ‘western’ people have heard of trans* people but can’t really be said to understand with any accuracy what a trans* person is. They may think that a trans* woman ‘used to be a man’ (which of course some did but most did not) or that someone isn’t trans* until after surgery or that trans* is a ‘third gender’ or that trans*ness is a type of homosexuality. Similarly many people with disabilities or neuroatypical people will find that people have heard of their ‘conditions’ but have no real idea what they are or, possibly worse, have a distorted idea of what they are. And genderqueer people are still so far outside the realm of intelligibility for most people that they are literally unthinkable (another word Butler likes): people can’t conceive of the possibility of someone being neither a man nor a woman and, even having grasped that concept, struggle to treat the person concerned in an ungendered way because of the depth to which gender is embedded in our collective assumptions. Unintelligible people have to struggle to be recognized as what they are and to have what they are recognized as something a real human being can be.
All oppression attacks the livability of life. It often attacks it materially, by making it harder for people to get food, accommodation, and work, and physically, by subjecting people disproportionately to violence. It also attacks psychologically. For intelligible people the psychological attack is often on self-esteem: sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, albeism, body policing, ageism are forces that tell particular categories of people that they are worthless in various ways. Another form of psychological attack that affects all marginal people but especially unthinkable people is erasure: being implicitly told by the dominant culture that you are unimportant, don’t need to be catered for, don’t even exist. Often erasure and attacks on self-esteem go together when you’re told that being what you are makes you like something else which is in turn a bad thing: if you’re trans* then you have a psychological disorder, which is a bad thing because psychologically atypical people are bad (cissexism + albeism); if you’re a gay man you’re like a girl, which is a bad thing because girls are bad (heterosexism + sexism); if you are Ethiopian then you must be poor and starving, which is a bad thing because poor people are bad (racism + classism). Any and all of these attacks can make life unlivable.
Everything I’ve said so far has been about being oppressed, which is something I normally try not to write about because I’m extremely privileged and nothing I have to say about the experience of oppression is anything other than repetition and rephrasing of things I’ve heard from people who actually have that experience. But I needed to set it all out in order to establish how slightly less familiar concepts like livability and intelligibility fit into the ones we’re more familiar with. Having done that, I can now write about something I do have experience of, namely privilege.
And what struck me when I read the quotation I started with was that perhaps the gap between bare existence and livable life is connected to the gap between the way privilege sees the world and the way others see it. Because the thing about being privileged is: life is good. Life is good. You are recognized and catered for. You’re the person advertisers are trying to appeal to, the person films and books are made for. You have a job, or you can get one pretty easily. You know where your next meal is coming from. You’re educated in the things people expect you to know about. Machines and buildings and tools are designed for you to use. Clothes fit you, people in magazines look like you, your elected representatives come from the same sort of background as you and speak your language. You can hold hands with your lover in the street without fear, and one day you can get married. You have the energy to do the things you want to do. You’ve probably always had all these things. To be alive is to have all these things, either actually or at least within your grasp. Your life is the livable life.
So you don’t understand that there’s a gap between the life you live and just being alive. That for some people life is precarious and a struggle and sometimes doesn’t seem worth it. That for some people being alive doesn’t even mean being recognized by others as a logical possibility. Life for you is an absolute good. That’s perhaps one reason why it’s easy to be ‘pro-life’. Even if you understand it intellectually, you don’t understand viscerally from your own experience that simply being born will not guarantee every child a tolerable life. You can talk about the point at which a foetus is ‘viable’ by looking for the point at which it can physically sustain its own not-dead-ness. You don’t consider whether its life will be viable in the sense of being sustainable and preferable to not-life. Similarly it’s much easier to be a conservative in general when your life is good because, well, what more do people want? They’re alive, aren’t they? As long as you’re alive, how bad can it be?
Of course few people are oppressed on every axis and few people are privileged on every axis. Many people can appreciate to some degree that life is not always a bed of roses without always feeling that it could end at any moment or that they want to opt out of it altogether. But I do suspect that the more privilege one has, the harder it is to conceive the gap between livable life and mere existence and thus the harder it is to perceive the need to act positively to bridge that gap.