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 Central Thesis

If there is a central thesis to Struggle Forever!, it is this:

1) That we create the world(s) we live in through the work that we do. That this work is always and inevitably collaborative because we cannot help but engage (alter and affect) others through our work.

2) Struggle is the (collaborative) work of making our world(s) better – more just and sustainable – for all beings.  The struggle is forever because the goal is always moving, changing, and being redefined, and because worlds – even the most just and sustainable – are fragile and prone to failure.

To expand on this a bit, I would emphasize that the “we” that I refer to is not exclusively humans.  We cannot account for the composition of a world without accounting for the work of non-humans.  Even inanimate materials or objects do work in some sense – in that, when we work with them, we are altered and affected by them.  The clay shapes me as I shape the clay. As a result, this philosophy demands a radically symmetrical approach – one which treats humans and non-humans, living and non-living, material and semiotic beings as equal.  This is not to say, of course, that they are the same in capacities, but that we recognize the reciprocal nature of any relationship.

“Struggle forever” is the definition of utopia because utopia is not a place we can go (it is “no place”), it is a goal towards which we can work.  But that goal is always moving because the conditions of existence are always changing.  New beings are brought into existence, old beings fall out of existence, relationships change, form, solidify, and decay.  As this happens, the idea of what constitutes a “better world” becomes different.  Even if we were to create a perfect society, these relations are fragile and may, over time, ossify and decay.  The struggle must, therefore, continue forever because only by working constantly to make the world better can we hope to “crab sideways towards the good.”

Vision and Faith

Existence requires work – we are all the products and processes of innumerable other beings as well as our selves. And our collective existence is not teleological – it has no ends or aims because time doesn’t stop and we share the world with others so we must always be willing to adapt.  Nevertheless, I believe that, as individuals, we require a certain amount of vision.  We need something to work towards, even if it can never be achieved in precisely the way we want. Furthermore, in order to pursue that vision, we need a certain amount of faith that it can be done. Sometimes faith involves diving in, taking a risk, and seeing where it ends up rather than working endlessly to make it happen. 
Vision and faith – the opposites of existence and work.  But all are part of struggle forever!

The Rituals of Electoral Politics

Those who have followed this blog for a while, and those who know me well are aware that I have a general distaste for traditional electoral politics in this country (see here, and here).  Perhaps that’s not so surprising since most people share that distaste.  I see the Presidential election cycle as a meta-ritual encompassing a number of smaller rituals (primaries, conventions, debates, stump speeches, etc.).  There is no inherent reason why these elections should be so dramatic and symbolic when they are, practically speaking, only about selecting a high level bureaucrat.  I think the real purpose behind the grandeur and drama of the Presidential election cycle is to, over the course of the ritual, symbolically deconstruct and subsequently reconstruct (starting on election night and going towards the inauguration) our image of the nation.  In doing so, I think there is a kind of sleight-of-hand at work – reminiscent of the sleight-of-hand that David Graeber describes in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value.  According to Graeber, the value that is created by the mundane work and interactions of ordinary individuals is abstracted and expropriated through the ritualized exchange of money.  In the election ritual, the energies, inspirations, and values of the people are abstracted (and – depending on your point of view, perhaps – expropriated) through the selection of this high level bureaucrat.  In these rituals, we symbolically place our hopes and values upon the body of this individual, and, when this person is elected, those hopes and values are dissipated into a space where they can make little, if any actual difference.  I don’t think that anyone designed it this way, I just think that that’s what it has become without our really realizing it.

It’s not that the President has no power – that is clearly not the case.  It’s that the President’s power is contingent and subject to feedback such that any changes s/he makes will not have to total, systemic effect that we seek.  We saw this in the sudden emergence of the Tea Party.  Certainly there were special interests behind it, egging it along, but there are also a lot of people who genuinely feel that Obama is ruining the country.  This effect severely hampered any attempts by Obama to make significant changes.  There were some partial successes, for sure, but the vast sweeping Change that we sought in his campaign was muffled and muted by the strong reaction from the Right.

What we crave by putting our values upon this person and this office is systemic change – the revolutionary transformation of the nation into the embodiment of our vision.  The problem is that the President is only one piece of a much larger machine.  Changing who occupies the position has noticeable effects for the working of the machine, but these effects are never revolutionary or systemic in the way that the election rituals make us believe.  As a result, the hopes that we place in whoever we select as President are dissipated within the workings of the machine.  The best thing that a President could do is to use his/her symbolic position as the embodiment of a certain set of values to encourage the people to continue to work, to continue to struggle for what they believe in.  I think Obama tried to do this in some ways – especially towards the beginning of his term – but with little success, and he was very quickly overwhelmed with other issues and concerns of the office.

Systemic change is possible. I have said before that it isn’t, but I misspoke.  What I meant to say was that systemic change takes work.  And it takes a lot of work by a lot of different people (and let’s not forget non-humans as well) over a large expanse of space and time.  It can’t be done simply by one person in one office for one brief period.  Think about all of the energy, time, and money that’s put into the election ritual.  All of that just to elect a simple bureaucrat.  Imagine if all of that were channeled into creating a better health care system, or fighting poverty, or improving the environment.  But instead it’s channeled into its own ritualized dissipation.  I’m not saying that we need to get rid of the electoral process or even its ritualization.  What I’m trying to convey is that the work – the struggle – cannot end with the election, and that, in some cases, there are better ways to use your energy and enthusiasm than on working to get a particular individual elected President.  After the election has been won, and the balloons have been dropped, and the parties have been thrown – this is only the beginning.  A new world awaits, but only as long as we continue to work to bring it into existence.