“We inhabit a time when things have become more fragile and urgently in need of delicate tending. At the same time, a large section of the populace is belligerently opposed to recognition of this condition. It is a time when militant pressure to engage the fragility of things must be joined to acknowledgment of the limited ability of the human estate to master the world. It is thus a paradoxical time.” - William E. ConnollyVulnerability is a ubiquitous characteristic positioning us in relation to each other, the state, the earth and the whole of existence. I argue that ecological vulnerabilities, corporeal vulnerabilities, existential vulnerabilities, and sociocultural vulnerabilities are different manifestations of a fundamental ontological vulnerability intrinsic to reality.
All existences and objects are exposed and mingle with innumerable elements and essences, all of which combine, dissipate, re-combine, and affect other bodies in ways that can be only imperfectly or partially foreseen or forestalled. Bodies are fundamentally worldly: open and extended outwards in order to sustain and nourish themsleves. Our bodies are intrinsically processual: capable of touching and being touched by other bodies and things, exposed to possibilities we can neither completely enumerate nor fully articulate.
In her 2004 book Precarious Life, Judith Butler wrote:
"The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life; only later, and with some uncertainty, do I lay claim to my body as my own, if, in fact, I ever do. Indeed, if I deny that prior to the formation of my “will,” my body related me to others whom I did not choose to have in proximity to myself, if I build a notion of “autonomy” on the basis of the denial of this sphere of a primary and unwilled physical proximity with others, then am I denying the social conditions of my embodiment in the name of autonomy?" (p.26)In this sense, my body is ontologically sense-able and therefore response-able to so many other entities (both human and nonhuman) and, perhaps more disturbingly, perpetually open to the precariousness and wildness of being as such. A basic acknowledgment and exploration of this fundamental openness can generate all kinds of social, ethical and existential considerations and conversations regarding human beings. As Merleau-Ponty reminded us, “the world is not what I think, but what I live through” (Phenomenology of Perception, p. xvi-xvii ).
Judith Butler again:
"Mindfulness of this vulnerability can become the basis of claims for non-military political solutions, just as denial of this vulnerability through a fantasy of mastery (an institutionalized fantasy of mastery) can fuel the instruments of war. We cannot, however, will away this vulnerability. We must attend to it, even abide by it, as we begin to think about what politics might be implied by staying with the thought of corporeal vulnerability itself, a situation in which we can be vanquished or lose others. Is there something to be learned about the geopolitical distribution of corporeal vulnerability from our own brief and devastating exposure to this condition? (Ibid., p.29)As an important and productive bridging concept between disciplines, theorizing vulnerability in all its onto-specific manifestations is at the core of what I term applied ontography. Applied ontography as I practice it seeks nuanced, non-dogmatic and pragmatic understandings of the dependencies, individuations, interdependencies, flow patterns, meshworks, connections, boundary limits, causal networks, assemblages and material potencies from which our lives and social institutions emerge. Such provisional understandings are then put to use through direct engagements with the practical and political projects of everyday hominid life. To be sure, the resulting heuristics, working models and tentative frameworks are only the expressive/epistemic dimension of these practical (infra-structural) engagements at work in the world - to be used, revised and refigured in relation to specific contexts of application.
In the introduction to Frames of War (2010), Butler wrote:
"I want to argue that if we are to make broader social and political claims about rights of protection and entitlements to persistence and flourishing, we will first have to be supported by a new bodily ontology, one that implies the rethinking of precariousness, vulnerability, injurability, interdependency, exposure, bodily persistence, desire, work, and the claims of language and social belonging. To refer to “ontology” in this regard is not to lay claim to a description of fundamental structures of being that are distinct from any and all social and political organization. On the contrary, none of these terms exist outside of their political organization and interpretation. The “being” of the body to which this ontology refers is one that is always given over to others, to norms, to social and political organizations that have developed historically in order to maximize precariousness for some and minimize precariousness for others. It is not possible first to define the ontology of the body and then to refer to the social significations the body assumes. Rather, to be a body is to be exposed to social crafting and form, and that is what makes the ontology of the body a social ontology." (pp. 2-3)In the video below participants in The Scholar and Feminist Conference 2012: "Vulnerability: The Human and the Humanities," directly address issues of vulnerability in ways that highlight the importance recognizing vulnerability as a universal characteristic of the world we inhabit. The video features brief but fascinating presentations from eminent academics in a variety of fields, and includes a interesting panel discussion with Martha Albertson Fineman, Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, Colin Dayan, Ilaria Vanni, and moderator Elizabeth Castelli. Each participant discusses the political and practical implications of recognizing and better theorizing vulnerability at multiple scales in the context of their unique projects and research.
This event took place on March 3, 2012 at Barnard College:
In The Autonomy Myth (2005), Martha Fineman discusses the “universal, constant and complex” nature of vulnerability and interdependency at the level of health-care and politics, showing how the metaphysics/ideology of the so-called ‘autonomous liberal subject’ is a (mis)leading assumption at the heart of most dehumanizing Western capitalist cultural activities.
Here is Judith Butler again, from Precarious Life (2004):
"One insight that injury affords is that there are others out there on whom my life depends, people I do not know and may never know. This fundamental dependency on anonymous others is not a condition that I can will away. No security measure will foreclose this dependency; no violent act of sovereignty will rid the world of this fact. What this means, concretely, will vary across the globe. There are ways of distributing vulnerability, differential forms of allocation that make some populations more subject to arbitrary violence than others. But in that order of things, it would not be possible to maintain that the US has greater security problems than some of the more contested and vulnerable nations and peoples of the world. To be injured means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury, to find out the mechanisms of its distribution, to find out who else suffers from permeable borders, unexpected violence, dispossession, and fear, and in what ways. If national sovereignty is challenged, that does not mean it must be shored up at all costs, if that results in suspending civil liberties and suppressing political dissent. Rather, the dislocation from First World privilege, however temporary, offers a chance to start to imagine a world in which that violence might be minimized, in which an inevitable interdependency becomes acknowledged as the basis for global political community. I confess to not knowing how to theorize that interdependency. I would suggest, however, that both our political and ethical responsibilities are rooted in the recognition that radical forms of self-sufficiency and unbridled sovereignty are, by definition, disrupted by the larger global processes of which they are a part, that no final control can be secured, and that final control is not, cannot be, an ultimate value." (pp. xii-xiii)
"[T]here is a more general conception of the human with which I am trying to work here, one in which we are, from the start, given over to the other, one in which we are, from the start, even prior to individuation itself and, by virtue of bodily requirements, given over to some set of primary others: this conception means that we are vulnerable to those we are too young to know and to judge and, hence, vulnerable to violence; but also vulnerable to another range of touch, a range that includes the eradication of our being at the one end, and the physical support for our lives at the other.
Although I am insisting on referring to a common human vulnerability, one that emerges with life itself, I also insist that we cannot recover the source of this vulnerability: it precedes the formation of “I.” This is a condition, a condition of being laid bare from the start and with which we cannot argue. I mean, we can argue with it, but we are perhaps foolish, if not dangerous, when we do." (Ibid., p.31)