Precarity, Fragility, Vulnerability

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. 

Arran James also has a few posts related to the topic of vulnerability: on Mourning, the Philosophy of Ugliness, and “The New Symptom.” 

My own writings on the topic include a few blog posts (here, here, and here), and an essay for Imponderabilia (pdf) in which I used the following quote as my openning:

“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.

The Map and the Territory: Representation as Action

Thanks to dmf for pointing me to a post over at Attempts at Living called Nihilist Optimism: On Horse Meat, Onto-Cartography and Case Studies. In the post, the author responds to a prompt from dmf about the possibility of producing an onto-cartography of the horse meat scandal in Britain. The problem is that one could never capture all of the connections that make up the horse meat scandal to produce a true onto-cartography – a map of the relations and connections that produce the world of horse meat in prepared meals. It’s true – a long known problem summed up in the omnipresent phrase “the map is not the territory.” In place of a full-scale onto-cartography, dmf and the author propose the case study in the mode of Wittgenstein’s perspicuous representation. Now, I’m less familiar with Wittgenstein than the author, but as the concept unfolds in this post, I have to say that I like where it’s going.

if the horse meat scandal is a case study that manages to ‘make connexions’ without having to make all possible connections then we don’t have to exhaust it or leave it floating in an uncritical space. As Wittgenstein says, PRs involve ‘finding or inventing intermediates’. This would allow us to orient and re-orient ourselves to what is revealed. We wouldn’t be “autistic” to the world we live in, but would understand it in the same way that we do the look on the face of someone we love. A kind of instantaneousness that requires no language to be communicated but that serves as the basis for any possible language. It is the freedom to invent new forms in the knowledge that the old forms were prosthetic after all. We have moved from a world full of matters of fact, to one full of matters of concern [6]. What let’s us see better? What let’s us hold one another better? We could be, as in Francis Bacon’s aporetic phrase, ‘optimistic and totally without hope’.

I see this as a culmination of what I was hinting at with this post a while back. The primary insight from the “map is not the territory” phrase is that we can never hope to fully represent a thing in all its complexity – that, in the end, all maps and models are false. This is an important insight – to harbor doubt about the truth and reality of our concepts and ways of knowing, to take a critical stance towards knowledge production of all kinds. However, as I discussed in that post, there is a second meaning we can take from the phrase. “The map is not the territory.” The statement is as much ontological as it is epistemological. In order for a map to truly represent the full complexity of its territory, it would have to represent it on a 1:1 scale – that is, it would have to exactly mirror the territory. But even a 1:1 map of a territory would not be the territory itself. It would stand aside from the territory, and would undoubtedly enter into relations with it – the map becomes part of the territory it attempts to map. In fact, this is true of all maps and models. The representation has a life and trajectory of its own, which is not synonymous (or even representative of) the life and trajectory of the territory.

If that’s the case, then what is the point of mapping. If we can never represent the truth, then why try? Because representing the truth is not the purpose of maps. In the scenario above, where we produce a 1:1 map of a territory, it becomes apparent immediately that such a map would not be very useful – you could not fold it up and put it in your glove box. Instead, maps are meant to be simplifications (and simulations, in the case of models) that help us to understand some small subset of the world. A road map helps us see the roads and figure out the best way to get from one point to another by car. Political maps help us make sense of the political world and the relationships between nations and peoples. Certainly, accuracy is important to these maps in that we would want a map that accurately represented the information we are seeking to understand. However, accuracy or correspondence to some external reality may not be important in all maps. The maps of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth and other fantasy maps come to mind, but I can see the possibility where a fictional map of a real territory may be useful in certain circumstances.

But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, understanding is not an end in itself. We never understand just to understand, rather, we understand so that we might do something. We look at a road map so that we can travel across the country. We look at political maps so that we can make informed decisions about national and international politics. We observe models of nutrient pollution on the Chesapeake Bay so that we might figure out ways of reducing such pollution in the future. So maps are causal beings that affect our decisions about how we will act in the world. Looking at different road maps of the US – one map presents a more scenic description, whereas the other presents simply the roads and distances – we may choose to take the longer route looking at the former simply to catch an extra bit of scenery. To the extent that our actions alter and affect the world around us, these maps can actually (indirectly) remake the territories they represent.

As people who make maps and models (e.g. ethnographies), I think it’s important for us to bear this aspect of maps in mind. Maps never simply represent reality, they are part of its construction. And this brings me back to the case study idea. Onto-cartography (though I don’t know if Levi would endorse this description) seeks to represent the connections that contribute to the composition of a world – the horse meat trade, for example. The case study as described in the above post, on the other hand, seems like more of an art – a mode of representation whose purpose is the production of new relations and the re-formation of existing ones in order to manifest a different kind of world. This is, to me, exactly the influence I would like the Struggle Forever! philosophy to have over my own (and perhaps others’ if they’re interested) anthropological practice. The question is no longer “how can we represent reality more truthfully?” but “how can we represent reality in such a way that it will make a difference and produce a better world?”

Making a Mess of Modeling

Monday I participated in a workshop on the use of multiple water quality models in the Chesapeake Bay Program – the benefits and drawbacks.  Throughout the day, much of the discussion centered around the ways that multiple models could improve the science of water quality management – there was almost unanimous agreement on that, though there was contention about specifically how it should be done.  The other major issue was the social and political challenges that would arise from a multiple modeling approach.  There was almost unanimous agreement about this as well, and the question was repeatedly raised and then pushed back until the social science panel.  Then we got up there and everything changed.

We did not present on the ways that social science could be used to educate people about or improve acceptance of multiple models.  Instead we discussed the social and political benefits and drawbacks to using multiple models.  In particular, we offered the idea of using participatory modeling methods to augment the existing modeling effort.  From there, the discussion turned into a heated debate about participatory modeling.  I have to say, I was taken a bit by surprise.  I went in expecting the modelers to be receptive to increased participation in modeling, at least in the ideal if not in practice.  I expected them to have practical concerns such as how to incorporate participatory methods into the existing modeling project, or how to solicit participation, etc.  The purpose of my presentation was to suggest that multiple models might be an avenue for bringing in participatory methods in an easier way.  What I didn’t expect was the intensely political opposition to participatory modeling that came out.  The arguments fell into two broad categories:

1) It’s too difficult – we don’t have time or money; how do we get 17 million people to participate; the train has left the station; etc.
2) Modeling isn’t the place for participation – the public doesn’t understand modeling and so can’t participate; the public shouldn’t be allowed to influence the science; model building isn’t the place for participation – decision making is; etc.

The first set of arguments is largely practical and easy enough to address. We’re not talking about starting from scratch with a new Bay Model, nor are we saying to make the Bay Model participatory.  We’re pointing out that a multiple models approach could add to the existing modeling project in social and political ways just as other modelers were earlier pointing out how multiple models could improve accuracy.  No one suggested that they need to get 17 million people to participate in model building – this was a sort of hyperbolic claim on their part that was used to make participatory modeling sound “ludicrous” to borrow a word from one of the modelers.  But participatory methods don’t demand 100% participation any more than government demands 100% representation.  This raises questions about who represents the stakeholders and how to solicit participation, but is very different from saying we need to get 17 million people involved.

Those arguments were frustrating, but it was the second group of arguments that really annoyed me.  These are the political issues, and they strike me as defending a domain of authority even though they are phrased in the most well meaning way of protecting the environment and educating the public. The argument, generally, was that science and modeling is not the right place for including the public. Rather, the public should be included as part of a decision making framework. In this view, modeling is seen as a politically innocent practice that informs a decision making process which can be more or less democratic itself, but that these political issues cannot be made to influence the science. This is just the kind of cliche technocratic thinking that STS and other social sciences have been working to refute. From this perspective, I would argue that the decision making framework and the science cannot be separated. Many important and very political decisions are made in the process of building a model that have enormous repercussions for people who live within the watershed. Therefore, it is precisely in the scientific process that the public should be included – not as mere informants, but as co-constructors of knowledge.

There was one positive outcome, I think, and that was a shift in discourse regarding the role of social science in the Bay restoration effort. Instead of presenting to them the ways we could use social science to get the public to buy in to the scientific knowledge – specifically the value of multiple models – we presented on the social position of science and how multiple models could rework that position. This was not what they expected and it was not what they wanted, but it forced them to consider their position and to look at our role differently. It certainly won’t be a lasting change, but it’s a start.