The Ungrievable Colonization of the Barbarians

The Ungrievable Colonization of the Barbarians


In Judith Butler’s first two chapters of her book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? she addresses her theory of lives being defined as “grievable” or “ungrievable” in times of war and human rights violations. Butler argues that lives are framed as so through administrative action, propaganda, and mass media. She questions what life is, and the apprehension of its precariousness depending on who is being “framed.” Butler discusses the tendency of those in power to “differentiate the lives we can apprehend and those we cannot.”1 After a close reading of her text, I decided that J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians would be a great source to place in conversation with Butler’s arguments. This novel is an allegorical demonstration of the destruction and havoc imperialism wreaks on indigenous communities as “collateral damage.” Butler’s discussion of framing lives as worthy—or not worthy—of living adds context to Waiting for the Barbarians, as it helps to explain why the “barbarians” of this story faced such gross human rights violations in the name of colonial progression.

The most common words found within these chapters of Butler’s are “grievable” and “ungrievable.” She defines ungrievable lives as those “that cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; they are, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed, which means that when they are destroyed in war, nothing is destroyed.”2. When these lives are lost they are simply regarded as collateral damage. Another question Butler answers is how these lives begin to be considered collateral damage in the first place. This is through “framing”: an instrument of war and politics that allows those in power to shape a particular narrative for their benefit. This tactic has an effect that completely changes reality by controlling what a population sees, hears, and believes. Butler argues that “efforts to control the visual and narrative dimensions of war delimit public discourse by establishing and disposing of the sensuous parameters of reality itself—including what can be seen and what can be heard.”3 We see very similar tactics used by the Empire in Coetzee’s novel, and the incidents that follow place Butler’s discussion in context. 

An article titled “The Image of the Barbarian in Medieval Europe,” written by W.R. Jones of the University of New Hampshire, helps to define the origins of the term “barbarian.” This term is often used synonymously with native populations and indigenous peoples during times of imperialism and colonialism invented by the Ancient Greeks “to describe the Scythians and other people who differed from them in not subscribing to the ideals of Greek Culture, other civilized men had expressed similar sentiments toward alien peoples with whom they came into contact”4. It has developed quite a negative connotation over time, describing those colonizers determined to be uncivilized or “less than” because they do not hold the same values, beliefs, and practices. Ancient empires framed these “barbarous” civilizations as in need of change, and “such rhetoric and the prejudices which it embodied contributed toward the fashioning of the medieval opinion of barbarians.”5 This opinion carried on through centuries and even into the present. 

This invented rhetoric of indigenous populations in need of “help” to reach another invented definition of what it means to be “civilized” is discussed in a poem of the same name as Coetzee’s novel. The poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”6 written in 1975 by C.P. Cavafy comments on the subject of barbarian populations. The point of view appears to be of a citizen whose government has framed the barbarian population as uncivilized. One section reads: “Why are they carrying elegant canes beautifully worked in silver and gold? Because the barbarians are coming today and things like that dazzle the barbarians.” The people of this civilization seem to be “waiting” for the barbarians to arrive in their settlement, prepared to wage war and overtake the government. When they never arrive, a question arises: “Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.” The last line of this poem, addressing the barbarians as a “solution” is a very important point. What would a “civilized” population have power over if there were no “uncivilized” to begin with? The barbarians are the solution to this problem. When indigenous populations are framed by imperialist rhetoric as in need of colonization, it allows an empire to remove their status as grievable lives. Butler states that “if certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense,” allowing their deaths to be considered collateral damage.

What is unique about Waiting for the Barbarians is the setting Coetzee chooses to place the novel within. Very few clues are given on where or when the story takes place, minus the main character—the magistrate—displaying confusion toward the use of sunglasses. The abstractness of the novel assumes that Coetzee is creating an allegory, open to interpretation by readers. It allows one to remove bias and historical context, and focus solely on the storyline and characters. Although the setting is abstract, the structure of the colonizer and the colonized remains the same. There is the “Empire” and there are the “barbarians,” and the frame created by the Empire that the barbarians are planning to wage war and destroy all that has been built.

Coetzee builds a “protagonist” within this story that appears as well-meaning and nonpartisan as possible within this setting. He assumes the title of “the magistrate.” Living on the outskirts of the Empire, the magistrate is coming quite close to retirement. He has “not asked for more than a quiet life”7 Throughout the novel, the magistrate tends to speak out against overt displays of torture and violence, but not against covert violence, which he ends up perpetuating himself. He lacks the capacity to analyze events on a deeper level and disguises his covert violence with friendliness. Even after experiencing public humiliation and torture at the hands of the Empire, he continues to insult the barbarian way of life at the end of the novel. He states “when the barbarians taste bread, new bread and mulberry jam, bread and gooseberry jam, they will be won over to our ways.”8 The fact that the magistrate has had little to no conversation with the barbarians themselves—about their feelings, their ways of life, their society—-and continues to internalize the rhetoric of the Empire demonstrates the strength behind the framing of narratives.

Within Waiting for the Barbarians, there are many instances of human rights violations and displays of torture. The first is the story of the “barbarian” boy and his grandfather. Interestingly, Coetzee decides to use these characters as the first example of the Empire’s cruelty. Before we are introduced to the scenario on the second page, readers are most likely expecting to see criminal individuals who have participated in a raid. There is no expectation that the prisoners will be a young boy and his father, especially considering the demeanor of Colonel Joll, the antagonist of this story. The Colonel appears at the beginning of the story and speaks to the magistrate about the prisoners with an unwavering stoic facade. The older man claims to the magistrate that they “know nothing about thieving. The soldiers stopped [them] and tied [them] up. For nothing.”9 After the boy hints that Colonel Joll has beaten him, the magistrate seems to show a sense of concern. But the Colonel continues to push the rhetoric that the two are lying, and believes a “certain tone enters the voice of a man who is telling the truth…in which [he has] to exert pressure to find it.”10 This “pressure” resulted in the death of the old man. The magistrate soon finds him “caked with blood. The lips are crushed and drawn back, the teeth are broken. One eye is rolled back, the other eye-socket is a bloody hole.”11 Yet the story the Empire has fabricated is that “the prisoner became uncontrollable and attacked the visiting officer”12 after becoming enraged and violent. This story is only an addition to the narrative against the barbarians, framing them as inherently violent and criminal individuals, without any consideration towards their side of the story. 

A very large portion of the novel is dedicated to the magistrate and his experience with “the girl,” a barbarian woman he discovered homeless in town. One of the barbarians brought in by Colonel Joll, hungry and significantly injured. “When she stands she must stand on the outer edges of her feet. Her ankles are large, puffy, shapeless, the skin scarred purple.”13 She can barely walk and barely see besides out of her peripheral vision. The magistrate becomes obsessed with who she was before, yet cannot seem to uncover the mystery. It seems as if here Coetzee is using the girl as a symbol of colonization personified, with the girl symbolizing colonized land, and the magistrate symbolizing the colonizer. He spends immense amounts of time trying to feel much of anything for her, whether that is sexual desire, friendship, or love. He sees her as a broken object in need of fixing and keeps her close by for months. The girl remains unnamed throughout the entire ordeal, signifying that the magistrate sees her solely as a body, not a life. When she finally addresses his inability to recognize her as a human being, he decides he has no use for her and plans a weeks-long journey to return her to where she came from, although he has no clue where she came from, as he has never asked. Once she decides to stay with whoever she has been returned to, the magistrate is disappointed. He claims that he wanted her to stay, but never had a conversation with her to determine what she desired. And according to Judith Butler, the woman’s life is not considered a grievable one, as she was considered “lost” from the start. In the very last pages of the book, a woman who did speak to her about her true feelings concerning the situation tells the magistrate “She did not know what she wanted from her…sometimes she would cry and cry and cry. You made her very unhappy. Did you know that?”14

Near the end of the novel, Coetzee paints a scene of the most obvious form of public framing possible. “The word runs like fire from neighbor to neighbor: Barbarians!15 The Imperial army enters the village tailing a quite literal string of barbarian citizens, as “a simple loop of wire runs through the flesh of each man’s hands and holes pierced in his cheeks.”16 Colonel Joll has orchestrated a spectacle of torture for all of the Imperial citizens to see. He writes the word ENEMY on each of their backs, and the soldiers begin to beat them with paddles and canes, allowing the words to melt off their backs from blood and sweat. “The game, I see, is to beat them till their backs are washed clean.” 17 The spectacle comes to a climax when a young girl is called forward to participate in the beating and is cheered on by her peers. The crowd then scrambles for the canes and continues the flogging. In Butler’s text, she argues that administrations utilize tools such as photography and mass media to shape the reality citizens experience. She argues that “the implicit or explicit framing of a population as a war target is the initial action of destruction. It is not just preparation for a destruction to come, but the initiating sequence of the process of destruction” 18 With the absence of technology such as television and photography in Coetzee’s setting, the Empire utilizes different tactics to frame barbarians, such as the literal labeling of “enemy” we see in this scene.

There are many other instances in which the Empire attempts to shift the narrative of the Barbarians. Coetzee’s allegory challenges the reader from the beginning, using the point of view of the magistrate, stating that “the barbarian tribes were arming, the rumor went; the Empire should take precautionary measures, for there would certainly be war.”19 One of the first images perpetuated of the barbarians are their criminality and violence, as there is “no man who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians carousing in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters.”20 Yet even the magistrate challenges this image, as he claims he will believe it once he truly sees a barbarian army. If the magistrate himself has not yet seen a barbarian army, why are the citizens of the Empire in such an episode of hysteria? An episode he claims happens once in every generation. The citizens have been convinced that the barbarians are preparing for war through constant hearsay. At the end of the novel, when it seems as if the barbarians are finally preparing to infiltrate, a narrative is pushed that they have “cut away part of the embankment…and flooded the fields”21 as part of their war tactics, yet no one had seen them do so. In fact, readers are never given an instance in which the barbarians are truly witnessed committing acts of violence or preparing for war.

If one places themselves in the shoes of the citizens of the Empire, what would one believe? Judith Butler argues that the framing of narratives is an entire instrument of war itself. Although storytelling may seem a nonviolent act, they establish and dispose of “the sensuous parameters of reality itself…they frame and form anyone who enters into the visual or audible field.”22 Orchestrating reality is an extremely powerful tool the Empire utilized throughout Waiting for the Barbarians. They have been judged in advance, “without valid evidence and without any obvious means of redress.”23 The power of the Empire prevents the barbarians from challenging this narrative—as of course the citizens of the Empire want to protect their own lives and the lives of their children, who they consider the future. This allegory by Coetzee is a powerful one, as it allows readers to step outside their biases into a world without historical context, and hopefully, apply what they have learned to examine past destructive Imperialist structures.

  1. Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (New York: Verso, 2009), 31.
  2. Butler, Frames of War, 18.
  3. Butler, Frames of War, 10.
  4. Jones, W.R. “The Image of the Barbarian in Medieval Europe,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 13, no. 4 (1971), 376.
  5. Jones, “The Image of the Barbarian in Medieval Europe,” 377.
  6. Cavafy, C.P. Collected Poems. (Princeton University Press, 1992).
  7. Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. (Secker & Warburg, 1980), 11.
  8. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 91.
  9. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 9.
  10. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 10.
  11. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 11.
  12. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 10.
  13. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 23.
  14. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 90.
  15. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 63.
  16. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 63.
  17. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 64.
  18. Butler, Frames of War, 12.
  19. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 12.
  20. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 12.
  21. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 60.
  22. Butler, Frames of War, 10.
  23. Butler, Frames of War, 49.
Back to Top