Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Resettled, still precarious

In her lecture, Gender Politics and the Right to Appear, Judith Butler critiques the structural systems that marginalize and precariatize populations.  Thus, she expands her discursive inquiry to include minority and stateless peoples. Judith Butler’s lecture resonates with my clinical work, as precarity is very real for many of the refugee clients whom I serve.

Butler describes precarity as “a heightened sense of expendability or disposability that is differentially distributed throughout society.”  And she depicts precariatization as a process, which is “induced and reproduced by governmental and economic institutions that acclimatize populations to precarity and insecurity over time.”  Last week I discussed the case of one of my Bhutanese refugee clients, Bihan.[1]  This week I’ll introduce his son, Daya.

My mental status examination of Daya is as follows: Daya presents as a slight 14-year-old Nepali-Bhutanese boy.  He appears to be well groomed and slouches in trendy American clothing.  Daya is respectful and I observe him to be tense during our meetings.  Daya has a flat affect; I did not observe him smiling or frowning at any point during our encounters. He speaks succinctly—his English is at the intermediate level, so he and I can converse without a Nepali interpreter up to a certain point.  His speech is often interrupted by a dry cough.  He does not appear to have trouble expressing himself and provides pieces of personal information without being solicited.  When he speaks of his dislike for his school, he appears sullen.  IOM doctors diagnosed Daya with a mental illness in 2010 and so he needs to see a psychiatrist in Philadelphia.

Daya was born in a refugee camp in Nepal.  Bhutanese refugees are Nepali-Bhutanese and are referred to as Lhotshampa, a Dzongkha word that means “southerners.”  Due to “Bhutanization” laws and policies in the late 1970s and 1980s, these Nepali-Bhutanese people were revoked of their Bhutanese citizenship.  Growing up in a refugee camp is a precarious situation and the people living there are marked by liminality.  Daya is neither Nepali nor Bhutanese—he is a “stateless” individual.

Daya and his family resettled in Philadelphia on August 1, 2011.  And assimilating into America’s neoliberal morality has created new forms of precariatization for this family. Refugees face many barriers to health care, which is proving to be the case for Daya.  And Daya is precariatized by attending school.  In 2009, Asian students at South Philadelphia High School boycotted the school after a gang of students attacked 26 Asian students on December 3, 2009. http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news/local&id=7156691

This is the school Daya currently attends, and according to him, fights erupt daily.  He and his classmates are “differentially exposed to violence” and are not adequately protected.

Butler points out that the application of market rationality onto social issues creates a system in which all people are expected to be self-sufficient. I agree with Butler when she says that neoliberal morality upholds an impossible ideal and produces “disposable people.”  There are no quick solutions to dispel precarity, but identifying the social conditions is a start. I hope in her upcoming lectures Butler will share ideas about how to enact systemic change so that all people can have “liveable” lives.

[1] Clients’ names have been changed to protect their identity.

Comments are closed.