With reference to Judith Butler's Precarious Lives, explain how Chris Abani's novel The Virgin of Flames re-imagines global community in the contexts of violence, war and mourning.

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With reference to Judith Butler's Precarious Lives, explain how Chris Abani's novel The Virgin of Flames re-imagines global community in the contexts of violence, war and mourning.


Chris Abani’s novel The Virgin of Flames is a post 9/11 narrative that inadvertently experiments with Judith Butler’s concept of “reimagining the possibility of community on the basis of vulnerability and loss” (20). This is a novel encapsulated in a theme of violence, war and mourning  and the four mysteries displayed to Black by the angel Gabriel operate as a catalyst of Abani’s perception of how society has unravelled and this understanding could pave the way for a more candid approach to re-organise society. These four stages represent “the subtle movements that made and unmade a life” (143) and the mysteries; the joyful, the luminous, the sorrowful and the glorious serve to represent distinctive features of Butler’s idea of a hierarchy of grief but more importantly they epitomise her concept of how community can be re-imagined.

 First we need to look at Butler’s hypothesis, her main proposition is that the powers of violence, war and mourning should not bring us to retaliate but should provide us with the consciousness that our lives are fundamentally reliant on others. Acknowledging our dependency and susceptibility to others would serve as the first step in the creation of a non-violent global community whereby our actions would “assume a different kind of responsibility for producing more egalitarian global conditions for equality” (14). Butler asserts that violence is a product of our refusal to accept our inherent vulnerability and she regards this vulnerability as the key to understanding why certain lives are more exposed to the dynamics of violence than others, thus making them less grievable. It is therefore this hierarchy of grief, which leads to discrimination and inequality, which must be overcome in order to establish a new worldwide body politic. Butler argues that the grief which follows violence furnishes us with a sense of political community as the changes we undergo after mourning help to reveal the ties that bind us and subsequently challenges the autonomous control we think we have over ourselves. Instead however we continue to exist in a society where a culture of fear and retaliation has taken over from our humanitarian responsibilities, evolved from the fear of losing our First World status. As a society we are stuck in a vicious cycle of loss-mourn-fear-retaliate and our failure to transform is stemmed from our inability to recognise that we are always exposed to violence. In order to break this cycle we must acknowledge our vulnerability, overcome our fear of mourning and realise that we do not need to replace what it is we have lost, instead we must transform from that loss. Once this impulsive habit of revenge is eradicated the hierarchy of grief that exists will deteriorate and society can be re-imagined and reformed.

The “joyful mysteries” Abani portrays not only exposes elements of western society that make a grievable life – the humanising effect a society creates, it also describes how sovereignty seeks to control people and this is evident in how Abani explains this mystery of life; “a girl outside the public library...bent over a book spread like an eagle’s span...the boundless joy of a cold Coca-Cola on a hot day, or the freedom of children playing in a park, and all of it, every bit, weaving into a tapestry of promise” (145). Can this “tapestry of promise” be seen as the promise of protection from violence, a protection that Butler implies leads only to retaliation and inevitably more violence? Certainly the way Abani describes the “weaving into a tapestry” implies Butler’s concept that our body belongs to society, that society, or rather governmentality seeks to control and defend us against anything that threatens our Western livelihood. This livelihood is represented by the “steps” that form the unique elements of society, more importantly American society.  The “steps” in the “joyful mysteries” include a young girl spread like an eagle (the symbol of America) reading which emphasises education, the joy of Coca-Cola symbolises the economic growth associated with American capitalism and our freedom, symbolised by children playing in park to enhance its importance. All of this maintains a system of grief whereby the American way of life is superior and other lives are in some way less humane, thus less grievable. However, Abani emphases the fact that the four mysteries are composed of different “steps” signalling that he is aware that inequalities exist not just within contrasting communities but also within a distinct community suggesting that he recognises the hierarchical system in play within a given society. Regardless, Abani complies with Butler’s egalitarianism and seems to be of the opinion that the joyful mystery should be something universal and not held captive which is evident by the fact that Armenian matrons could also enjoy ice-cold caramel frappuccinos (144).

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The “luminous mysteries” represent our interdependence and interconnections to one another and also submits to Butler’s idea “that each of us is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies” (20). Here, like Butler, Abani displays to us our inherent commonality, by using the classical elements, earth, air, fire and water as a metaphor he implies that despite the development of diverse societies, and the inequalities they create, we all live on the same planet and regardless of how we develop or what we create “time was the sea washing it away” (145). Although Butler ...

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