Thanks largely to Michael at Archive Fire, there has been a flurry of discussion recently on the topic of vulnerability. As vulnerability is a key concept for me, I want to do a bit of aggregation and pull together some of the materials that have been produced or mentioned recently – for my own benefit as an archive and also for those readers who are interested in the concept as well.
First, there is the excellent post by Michael on Theorizing Vulnerability – it’s own sort of aggregation. Here he takes vulnerability to be a fundamental feature of being – as fleshy beings, we are vulnerable, and that vulnerability is an important aspect of the way we interact and interconnect with others. Michael draws on the work of Judith Butler, most notably, Precarious Life and Frames of War. In looking for more in this vein, I came across another article by Butler on Performativity, Precarity, and Sexual Politics, which serves as a good starting point for her theorization of vulnerability. There is also some reference to William Connolly’s forthcoming book The Fragility of Things, with an excellent article by Connolly and a video in which he discusses fragility:
In the comments section of Michael’s post, Arran James shares this quote from J.G. Ballard:
The challenge is for each of us to respond, to remake as much as we can of the world around us, because no one else will do it for us. We have to find a core within us and get to work. … Just get on with it!’
– JG Ballard, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1987, 22 years before his death.
In addition to this post, Michael shares two videos from Brene Brown – the first called The Power of Vulnerability on the way that a radical openness to the world can make us (almost paradoxically) more confident, and better able to cope with the precarity (to borrow Butler’s term) of life. The second, The Price of Invulnerability, looks at the ways we armor ourselves against openness and the consequences of those armoring techniques.
“And what is vulnerability? Just this: the ability to be wrong, to be foolish, to be weak and silly, to be an idiot. It is the ability to accept one’s unworthiness, to accept one’s vanity for what it is. It’s the ability to be whatever and whoever you are, recognizing that you, like the world, like the earth, are fragile, and that in your fragility lies all possibility of growth and of death, and that the two are one and the same”
– Paula Gunn Allen, Off the Reservation (1999: 64)
My sense is that vulnerability is an important concept for understanding and resisting power. “Power” is too loaded, and too transcendental. What we need is an analysis of vulnerability, which brings it back to bodies and their relationship to other bodies and the ways they armor themselves against those others. It’s in these processes of armoring where imbalances are created and maintained – where one becomes powerful, and the other becomes merely vulnerable. That is, rather than seeing some as simply possessing power – either by virtue of some transcendent authority (a divine right) or their position within a hierarchy – we look at power as a progressive and continual shoring up of armor and using that position of relative invulnerability to impose oneself on those who are more vulnerable. Taking this approach (starting from vulnerability and thinking about the building up of armor) rather than what I would call a top-down approach (starting from power and thinking about why some don’t have it) helps us to see more clearly the ways that power works and also the ways it can be resisted.
One last point – Arran and Michael both link this concept of vulnerability to a sense of nihilism or finitude (as Michael puts it). That is, the recognition that there is no ultimate ground of being, that there is no purpose or inherent value to existence, makes us feel vulnerable – and rightly so! Both propose a movement beyond nihilism (a post-nihilism) which is the central idea of Struggle Forever! – it is the politics that emerges when we give up the idea of phallocentric unity in all its forms. Once we give up the idea of an ultimate ground, what’s left is work, and working together – the world is what we make of it. It sounds bleak, but – Arran’s call for a philosophy of ugliness notwithstanding – I find tremendous hope in both the ontology of vulnerability and the politics of Struggle Forever! In a universe without ground, the very fact that I exist is a testament to the creative power of collaboration between heterogeneous beings (for I am a collective), and this gives me hope for the future life and humanity on this planet.