Vulnerability and resistance have often been seen as opposites, with the assumption that vulnerability requires protection and the strengthening of paternalistic power at the expense of collective resistance. Focusing on political movements and cultural practices in different global locations, including Turkey, Palestine, France, and the former Yugoslavia, the contributors to Vulnerability in Resistance articulate an understanding of the role of vulnerability in practices of resistance. They consider how vulnerability is constructed, invoked, and mobilized within neoliberal discourse, the politics of war, resistance to authoritarian and securitarian power, in LGBTQI struggles, and in the resistance to occupation and colonial violence. The essays offer a feminist account of political agency by exploring occupy movements and street politics, informal groups at checkpoints and barricades, practices of self-defense, hunger strikes, transgressive enactments of solidarity and mourning, infrastructural mobilizations, and aesthetic and erotic interventions into public space that mobilize memory and expose forms of power. Pointing to possible strategies for a feminist politics of transversal engagements and suggesting a politics of bodily resistance that does not disavow forms of vulnerability, the contributors develop a new conception of embodiment and sociality within fields of contemporary power.
Contributors. Meltem Ahiska, Athena Athanasiou, Sarah Bracke, Judith Butler, Elsa Dorlin, Başak Ertür, Zeynep Gambetti, Rema Hammami, Marianne Hirsch, Elena Loizidou, Leticia Sabsay, Nükhet Sirman, Elena Tzelepis
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About the Author
Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Zeynep Gambetti is Associate Professor of Political Theory in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University. Leticia Sabsay is Assistant Professor in the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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Vulnerability In Resistance
By Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, Leticia Sabsay
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance
We know that those who gather on the street or in public domains where police are present are always at risk of detention and arrest, but also forcible handling, even death. So when we consider police violence against protestors — the killing of forty-three students assembled for a protest in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, in September 2014 is a flagrant example — it is already more than clear that those who gather to resist various forms of state and economic power are taking a risk with their own bodies, exposing themselves to possible harm.
That formulation seems true enough: vulnerability is enhanced by assembling. But perhaps we need to rethink this sequence that gives narrative structure to our understanding of the relationship between vulnerability and resistance. First you resist, and then you are confronted with your vulnerability either in relation to police power or to those who show up to oppose your political stance. Yet vulnerability emerges earlier, prior to any gathering, and this becomes especially true when people demonstrate to oppose the precarious conditions in which they live. That condition of precarity indexes a vulnerability that precedes the one that people encounter quite graphically on the street. If we also say that the vulnerability to dispossession, poverty, insecurity, and harm that constitutes a precarious position in the world itself leads to resistance, then it seems we reverse the sequence: we are first vulnerable and then overcome that vulnerability, at least provisionally, through acts of resistance.
Of course, it will be important to establish a more precise relationship between vulnerability and precarity (they are not the same), but let us consider as a clear example modes of resistance that emerge in opposition to failing infrastructure. The dependency on infrastructure for a livable life seems clear, but when infrastructure fails, and fails consistently, how do we understand that condition of life? We have found that that on which we are dependent is, in fact, not there for us, which means we are left without support. Without shelter, we are vulnerable to weather, cold, heat, and disease, perhaps also to assault, hunger, and violence. It was not as if we were, as creatures, not vulnerable before when infrastructure was working, and then when infrastructure fails, our vulnerability comes to the fore. When movements against homelessness emerge, the unacceptable character of that vulnerability (in the sense of exposure to harm) is made clear. But a question still remains: does vulnerability still remain an important part of that mode of resistance? Does resistance require overcoming vulnerability? Or do we mobilize our vulnerability?
Consider that a movement may be galvanized for the very purpose of establishing adequate infrastructure, or keeping adequate infrastructure from being destroyed. We can think about mobilizations in the shantytowns or townships of South Africa, Kenya, Pakistan, the temporary shelters constructed along the borders of Europe, but also the barrios of Venezuela, the favelas of Brazil, or the barracas of Portugal. Such spaces are populated by groups of people, including immigrants, squatters, and/or Roma, who are struggling precisely for running and clean water, working toilets, sometimes a closed door on public toilets, paved streets, paid work, and necessary provisions. The street, for instance, is not just the basis or platform for a political demand, but an infrastructural good. And so when assemblies gather in public spaces in order to fight against the decimation of infrastructural goods — for instance, to protest austerity measures that would undercut public education, libraries, transit systems, and roads — we find that the very platform for such a politics is one of the items on the political agenda. Sometimes a mobilization happens precisely in order to create, keep, or open the platform for political expression itself. The material conditions for speech and assembly are part of what we are speaking and assembling about. We have to assume the infrastructural goods for which we are fighting, but if the infrastructural conditions for politics are themselves decimated, so too are the assemblies that depend on them. At such a point, the condition of the political is one of the goods for which political assembly takes place — this might be the double meaning of "the infrastructural" under conditions in which public goods are increasingly dismantled by privatization, neoliberalism (the United States), accelerating forms of economic inequality (Greece), the antidemocratic tactics of authoritarian rule (Turkey), or the violent combination of government and cartel interests (Mexico).
I wish to point out that even as public resistance leads to vulnerability, and vulnerability (the sense of "exposure" implied by precarity) leads to resistance, vulnerability is not exactly overcome by resistance, but becomes a potentially effective mobilizing force in political mobilizations. In effect, the demand for infrastructure is a demand for a certain kind of inhabitable ground, and its meaning and force arise precisely when that ground gives way. So the street cannot be taken for granted as the space of appearance, to use Hannah Arendt's phrase — the space of politics — since there is, as we know, a struggle to establish that very ground. And Arendt is at least partially right when she claims that the space of appearance comes into being at the moment of political action. That is a romantic notion of an embodied performative speech act, to be sure, since in any time or place that we act, the space of appearance for the political comes into being. It is not always true, of course — we can try to act collectively, and no space of appearance is established, and that usually has to do with the absence of media, or particular ways that the public sphere is structured to keep such actions from appearing (e.g., zoning, permits, rules against congregating). Arendt clearly presumes that the material conditions for gathering are separate from any particular space of appearance. But if politics is oriented toward the making and preserving of such conditions, then it seems that the space of appearance is not ever fully separable from questions of infrastructure and architecture, as Arendt herself clearly acknowledged. Although Arendt could not have formulated the relationship between contemporary media and the public sphere, for us, infrastructure now includes not only public media, but all forms of media through which, and within which, the space of appearance is constituted. This would include forms of media that constitute, mediate, and monitor the public. Media can function as part of "infrastructural support" when it facilitates modes of solidarity and establishes new spatio-temporal dimensions of the public sphere, including not only those who can appear within the visual images of the public, but those who are, through coercion, fear, or necessity, living outside the reach of the visual frame.
What implications does this notion of supported political action have for thinking about vulnerability and resistance? We are already familiar with the idea that freedom can be exercised only if there is enough support for the exercise of freedom, a material condition that enters into the act that it makes possible. Indeed, when we think about the embodied subject who exercises speech or moves through public space, across borders, it is usually presumed to be one who is already free to speak and move without threat of imprisonment or deportation or loss of life. Either that subject is endowed with that freedom as in inherent power, or that subject is presumed to live in a public space where open and supported movement is possible. The very term "mobilization" depends on an operative sense of mobility, itself a right, one that many people cannot take for granted. For the body to move, it must usually have a surface of some kind, and it must have at its disposal whatever technical supports allow for movement to take place. So the pavement and the street are already to be understood as requirements of the body as it exercises its rights of mobility. No one moves without a supportive environment and set of technologies. And when those environments start to fall apart or are emphatically unsupportive, we are left to "fall" in some ways, and our very capacity to exercise most basic rights is imperiled.
And we could certainly make a list of how this idea of a body, supported yet acting, supported and acting, is at work implicitly or explicitly in any number of political movements: struggles for food and shelter, protection from injury and destruction, the right to work, affordable health care, protection from police violence and imprisonment, from war, or illness, mobilizations against austerity and precarity, authoritarianism and inequality. So, on one level, we are asking about the implicit idea of the body at work in certain kinds of political demands and mobilizations; on another level, we are trying to find out how mobilizations presuppose a body that requires support. In many of the public assemblies that draw people who understand themselves to be in precarious positions, the demand to end precarity is enacted publically by those who expose their vulnerability to failing infrastructural conditions; there is plural and performative bodily resistance at work that shows how bodies are being acted on by social and economic policies that are decimating livelihoods. But these bodies, in showing this precarity, are also resisting these very powers; they enact a form of resistance that presupposes vulnerability of a specific kind, and opposes precarity. What is the conception of the body here, and how do we understand this form of resistance?
If we make the matter individual, we can say that every single body has a certain right to food and shelter, freedom to move and breathe protected from violence. Although we universalize in such a statement ("every" body has this right), we also particularize, understanding the body as discrete, as an individual matter, and that individual body is significantly shaped by a norm of what the body is, and how it ought to be conceptualized. Of course that seems quite obviously right, but consider that this idea of the individual bodily subject of rights might fail to capture the sense of vulnerability, exposure, even dependency, that is presupposed by the right itself and corresponds, I would suggest, with an alternative view of the body. In other words, if we accept that part of what a body is (and this is for the moment an ontological claim) is its dependency on other bodies and networks of support, then we are suggesting that it is not altogether right to conceive of individual bodies as completely distinct from one another. Of course, neither are they blended into some amorphous social body, but if we conceptualize the political meaning of the human body without understanding those relations in which it lives and thrives, we fail to make the best possible case for the various political ends we seek to achieve. What I am suggesting is that it is not just that this or that body is bound up in a network of relations, but that the body, despite its clear boundaries, or perhaps precisely by virtue of those very boundaries, is defined by the relations that make its own life and action possible. As I will hope to show, we cannot understand bodily vulnerability outside this conception of social and material relations.
But we also undergo linguistic vulnerability, and in this sense who we are, even our ability to survive, depends on the language that sustains us. One clear dimension of our vulnerability has to do with our exposure to name-calling and discursive categories in infancy and childhood — indeed, throughout the course of life. All of us are called names, and this kind of name-calling demonstrates an important dimension of the speech act. We do not only act through the speech act; speech acts also act on us. There is a distinct performative effect of having been named as this gender or another gender, as part of one nationality or a minority, or to find out that how you are regarded in any of these respects is summed up by a name that you yourself did not know and never chose. We can, and do, ask with the great nineteenth-century black feminist Sojourner Truth, "Am I that Name?" How do we think about the force and effect of those names we are called before any of us emerge into language as speaking beings, prior to any capacity for a speech act of our own? Does speech act on us prior to our speaking, and if it did not act on us, if it were not actively working on us, could we speak at all? And perhaps it is not simply a matter of sequence: does speech continue to act on us at the very moment in which we speak, so that we may well think we are acting, but we are also acted on at that very same time?
Eve Sedgwick wrote about the relationship between performance and performativity in consequential ways, showing that speech acts deviated from their aims, very often producing consequences that were altogether unintended, and oftentimes quite felicitous. For instance, one could take a marriage vow, andthis act could then establish a public recognition of marriage which then allows, or opens up, a zone of possible sexuality that takes place quite under the radar, taking advantage precisely of its nonrecognizability. The marriage vow provides public cover for forms of sexual life that remain unrecognized, and happily so. In such cases, marriage organizes sexuality as we might expect, in conjugal and monogamous forms, but it also produces another zone of sexuality defined precisely by its lack of overt recognition in the public sphere. Sedgwick underscored the sense of how a speech act could veer away from its apparent aims, and this "deviation" was one sense of the word "queer," understood less as an identity than as a movement of thought and language contrary to accepted forms of authority, always deviating, and so opening up spaces for desire that would not always be openly recognized within established norms.
Discourses on gender seemed to create and circulate certain ideals of gender, generating those ideals. What we sometimes take to be natural essences or internal truths are ideals, phantasms, or norms that have taken hold of us in a deep and abiding way. So the ideals produced by a discourse — in this case, a set of gender ideals — can be inhabited in one's gestures and actions, even come to be understood to be essential to who we are. Indeed, we cannot cast off abiding and governing images, norms, and ideals such as these without losing a sense of who we are. That essential sense of who we are is to some extent the workings of a set of social norms. Having a sense of who we are "essentially" is not for that reason an argument for innate differences; arguments from innate-ness constitute only one form of essentialism, and one can have a sense of what is essential for one's life without exactly being an essentialist.
My early formulation that "gender is performative" became the basis for two quite contrary interpretations: the first is that we radically choose our genders; the second was that we are utterly determined by gender norms. Those wildly divergent responses meant that something had not quite been articulated and grasped about the dual dimensions of any account of performativity. For if language acts on us before we act, and continues acting in every instant in which we act, then we have to think about gender performativity first as "gender assignment" — all those ways in which we are, as it were, called a name, and gendered prior to understanding anything about how gender norms act on and shape us, and prior to our capacity to reproduce those norms in ways that we might choose. Choice, in fact, comes late in this process of performativity. And then second, following Sedgwick, we have to understand how deviations from those norms can and do take place, suggesting that something "queer" is at work at the heart of gender performativity, a queerness that is not so very different from the swerves taken by iterability in Derrida's account of the speech act as citational, but that takes on specific embodied and social meanings in Sedgwick's view.
Excerpted from Vulnerability In Resistance by Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, Leticia Sabsay. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
Illustrations vii Acknowledgments ix Introduction / Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay 1 1. Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance / Judith Butler 12 2. Risking Oneself and One's Identity: Agonism Revisited / Zeynep Gambetti 28 3. Bouncing Back: Vulnerability and Resistance in Times of Resilience / Sarah Bracke 52 4. Vulnerable Times / Marianne Hirsch 76 5. Barricades: Resources and Residues of Resistance / Başak Ertür 97 6. Dreams and the Political Subject / Elena Loizidou 122 7. Vulnerable Corporealities and Precarious Belongings in Mona Hatoum's Art / Elena Tzelepis 146 8. Precarious Politics: The Activism of "Bodies That Count" (Aligning with Those That Don't) in Palestine's Colonial Frontier / Rema Hammami 167 9. When Antigone Is a Man: Feminist "Trouble" in the Late Colony / Nükhet Sirman 191 10. Violence against Women in Turkey: Vulnerability, Sexuality, and Eros / Meltem Ahiska 211 11. Bare Subjectivity: Faces, Veils, and Masks in the Contemporary Allegories of Western Citizenship / Elsa Dorlin 236 12. Nonsovereign Agonism (or, Beyond Affirmation versus Vulnerability) / Athena Athanasiou 256 13. Permeable Bodies: Vulnerability, Affective Powers, Hegemony / Leticia Sabsay 278 Bibliography 303 Contributors 325 Index 329
What People are Saying About This
"This book presents an outstanding chorus of political theorists who are engaged in vivid conversations not only with each other but also with the many activists and citizens invested in devising and practicing different politics in public squares, in courts, and in the media. They ask what resistance is and how to conceptualize the vulnerability that is implicated in it while turning a broad spectrum of lived experiences into reflective practice and informed theory. These fascinating contributions delineate the terrain of civil struggles that have emerged in the last decade and generate an original and much-needed lexicon of counterpolitics."
"Vulnerability in Resistance marks an exciting step forward in discussions of the concept of vulnerability, signaling important and distinctive directions in how we understand human rights, forms of protest, and debates on the 'necropolitical.' Theoretically ambitious, this collection opens up new possibilities for collaborative thinking across the humanities."