Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Unchosen Cohabitation in Real Life

I’ve been mulling over Judith Butler’s ethics of cohabitation. Sorry to be such a social worker, but I’m having a hard time understanding how she envisions this cohabitation to emerge in terms practice and policy.

To revisit her exploration of Arendt’s work, Butler states that none of us has the prerogative to choose with whom to cohabitate the Earth. “Heterogeneity is an irreversible social condition.” We are bound in plural action, and without this plurality we have no freedom. I found her discussion of Arendt’s writings on Jewish and Palestinian refugees to be illuminating for my work with refugees resettling in Philadelphia. Arendt’s work emphasizes that refugee populations are continually created. Butler’s ethics of cohabitation thus suggests that the formation of refugee and stateless groups is avoidable. Butler and Arendt both believe that the establishment of a sanctuary for Jewish refugees was important, but Arendt argues that the founding of Israel on principles that restricted citizenship and depossessed land from another people was unethical. So where does Butler presume refugee groups are entitled to gain statehood?

To discuss the plight of Bhutanese refugees again, these individuals have been living in a liminal state for two decades after they were forced to become refugees in the 1980s. Residents of the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal have been classified into four groups: bona fide citizens; those who had surrendered their citizenship and would have to apply again; non-Bhutanese who would not be allowed to go back; and criminals, who would face trial if they returned to Bhutan. And so, many refugees are choosing to resettle elsewhere, and approximately 30,000 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in the U.S.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement’s mission is to provide “people in need with critical resources to assist them in becoming integrated members of American society.” Refugees are given social security numbers, time-limited federally-funded resources, and are taught to assimilate into the American mainstream. But do refugees ever lose their status of statelessness when their only option is to assume that of a completely foreign context? What would the ethics of cohabitation look like applied to their real lives? Often, social workers are judged as lofty idealists, but the nature of our work forces us to be mindful of real life practice and limited resources. So, for now I conclude that Butler’s affirmation of interdependency is a beautiful utopian notion that can only exist in the theoretical.

Comments are closed.