The unlivable is the most extreme point of human suffering and injustice. But what is it exactly? How do we define the unlivable? And what can we do to prevent and repair it? These are the intriguing questions Judith Butler and Frédéric Worms discuss in a captivating dialogue situated at the crossroads of contemporary life and politics. Here, Judith Butler criticizes the norms that make life precarious and unlivable, while Frédéric Worms appeals to a “critical vitalism” as a way of allowing the hardship of the unlivable to reveal what is vital for us.
For both Butler and Worms, the difference between the livable and the unlivable forms the critical foundation for a contemporary practice of care. Care and support, in all their aspects, make human life livable, that is, “more than living.” To understand it, we must draw on the concrete practices of humans who are confronted with the unlivable: the refugees of today and the witnesses and survivors of past violations and genocide. They teach us what is intolerable but also undeniable about the unlivable, and what we can do to resist it.
Crafted with critical rigor, mutual respect, and lively humor, the compelling dialogue transcribed and translated in this book took place at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) on April 11, 2018, at a time when close to two thousand migrants were living in nearby makeshift camps in northern Paris. The Livable and the Unlivable showcases this 2018 dialogue in the context of Butler’s and Worms’s ongoing work and the evolution of their thought, as presented by Laure Barillas and Arto Charpentier in their equally engaging introduction. It concludes with a new afterword that addresses the crises unfolding in our world and the ways a philosophically rigorous account of life must confront them.
While this book will be of keen interest to readers of philosophy and cultural criticism, and those interested in vitalism, new materialism, and critical theory, it is a far from merely academic text. In the conversation between Butler and Worms, we encounter questions we all grapple with in confronting the distress and precarity of our times, marked as it is by types of survival that are unlivable, from concentration camps to prisons to environmental toxicity, to forcible displacement, to the Covid pandemic.
The Livable and the Unlivable at once considers longstanding philosophical questions around why and how we live, while working to retrieve a philosophy of life for today’s Left.