The Politics of Human Rights

Butler, Judith, 1956-


  • Lecture by Judith Butler considers the operations of human rights in critical legal studies, political thought, and postcolonial theory, with consideration of situated struggles in various global locations. This lecture was presented as part of the Mellon Sawyer Seminar in Comparative Global Humanities.
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Good afternoon, I think, we'll get started here.
It's wonderful to see this amazing crowd here.
And can you hear me, sort of?
So I'm Joe Honor, I'm a professor of Music and Dean of Academic affairs, and
I'm just going to do a very a short welcome to our very distinguished speaker,
Professor Judith Butler, who is here.
Professor Butler's residency here yesterday, and
today is a culmination of the remarkable series of nearly a dozen major events
in the Mellon Sawyer seminar on the comparative global humanities.
We are so grateful to Professor Lisa Lowe and
the team of faculty she has assembled at The Center For Humanities at Tufts,
who have created this series and worked hard to make all the events so successful.
As you'll be hearing more shortly from Lisa, Professor Butler is one of the most
influential scholars over the last three decades.
Her extensive body of scholarship engages many of the teams that had been taken up
throughout the Sawyer seminar.
And always with courage and a deep ethical committment to action.
As someone who operates on the boards of humanities, arts and now Administration,
I was deeply struck by a passage in Professor Butler's 2014 essay entitled,
Ordinary Incredulous.
Which Lisa actually sent me.
That argues for ways in which we in the academy can define the role of
the humanities in a public sphere increasingly shaped by metrics of value.
We will all recognize such as profitability impact marketable skills,
managerial efficiency, donor appeal, etc.
She makes the case that the very possibility of a public sphere depends on
the crucial role the humanities, and
arts play in what she describes as an education of the senses.
She writes, and this is a great quote, it seems likes a program for the arts and
humanities at tufts.
We have to be both receptive and critical to what should be known, heard, seen, and
debated within the various idioms of public life, whether they are verbal, or
written, visual, or acoustic, architectural, or haptic and performative.
In this way, an education of the senses is a precondition of what we
might call a sensate democracy.
One of which our capacity to hear and
feel is not cut short by the media on which we depend to know the world.
That happens when the sphere of what can be heard, the audible and
the speakable, and what can be shown, the visual and the performative, and
what can be touched, or neared the conditions of mobility
are limited by any number of constraining powers.
The point is not to be perfectly free to hear, speak and show everything, or
to move everywhere, but rather to evaluate the implicit limits imposed upon
the senses, to track their histories, and their spacial organization.
And to come up with critical judgments about how the world has been organized and
how it might be organized better.
That's a great quote.
Thanks so much.
I'll turn things over to Lisa now.
>> [APPLAUSE] >> Welcome.
This is so exciting, thank you all for coming out, and welcome to our penultimate
speaker in the Mellon Sawyer Seminar with our distinguish visitor Judith Butler,
Maxine Elliott Professor of competitive literature and
critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley.
I'm Lisa Lowe.
I'm the director of the Center for the Humanities and with my colleagues
Kris Manjapra and Kamran Rastegar I convene in Mellon Sawyer Seminar.
We're grateful to the Mellon foundation, and also to the deans of arts and
sciences for this opportunity.
It's to sponsor this year long experimental discussion about
the humanities.
It's past, present and future.
Our Mellon Sawyer Seminar, if this is one of the first events that you've attendant,
innovates humanities research by considering how the figure of the human.
So, central to the organization of knowledge, and the humanities,
and human sciences has been defined, contested, and remade.
In literature, history, philosophy, religion, art history, anthropology,
and other disciplines.
We found it generative to compare understandings of
the human species in relation to nature, animals and matter.
And also to rethink western ideas of the human in relation to the practices of
knowing and being human in other parts of the world.
There was no one better than the philosopher, and
critical theorist Judith Butler to speak to us about these issues in relationship
to the politics of human rights.
In the essay that Dean Honor has just quoted at length, Judith Butler comments
on our contemporary conditions within, which it's become necessary to defend
the very basic premise, that the humanities are important to public life.
That is, in the broadest sense that we need to be able to read, and
understand various idioms of public life in order to engage in public life,
and in order to be constituted as a public.
It is, as she puts us, where, quote,
to stress the obvious under conditions in which the obvious is vanishing.
The irony here is of course that while it is still as necessary as it was in
the 1970s and 80s for western philosophers and critical theorists, as well
as post colonial, feminist, and social justice intellectuals to expose the limits
of the claim of the western public sphere as a space of universal reason.
It is now precisely a concept of the public, that powerfully enabling ideal
of the public, even if it never operated as such that we are forced to reinvent,
renew, reassemble and perform.
The irony is that the steady erosion under neo-liberalism
of a fundamental notion of the public good has made it essential for
us to make very basic, basic arguments about the need for
education, for libraries, music, access to information, clean air.
Clean water, roads, the social itself.
Not to mention loftier things like ethics, values, compassion, art, or truth.
How few of us knew that this recent election would exacerbate
these ordinary yet incredulous conditions.
Judith Butler has been over the last three decades a courageous and a tireless public
intellectual, philosopher and critical observer of these conditions of late
modernity, she has with rigor and with responsibility detailed the force and
the cunning of power, and its implications for subjectivity.
Gender, sexuality, race, citizenship, esthetics, culture, politics,
religion, institutions, states, war, life, and death.
Her work on the question of the human details the human not as a universal
condition, or a normative category, but as a dynamic field of contestation,
and it elaborates human precarity as a central ongoing problem for
ethics and politics, asking famously.
Who counts as human?
What makes for a grievable life?
And who falls outside the economy of calculations?
She sustained across a number of works the discussion of the relationship
between grief, and mourning and the possibility of politics.
The intellectual breadth, the relentless intelligence, and the attentive
responsibility and expressed in her many, many books is stunning and unparalleled.
Judith Butler received her PhD.
In Philosophy from Yale University in 1984, and
she taught at Wesleyan, George Washington, and Johns Hopkins University before
joining the faculty at UC Berkley where she is Maxine Elliott,
Professor in Comparative Literature and in the program of Critical Theory.
She's the author of Foundational Texts of Theory and
Criticism that we probably all have on our bookshelves, perhaps.
Most of all Gender Trouble, Feminism and
the Subversion of Identity published in 1990 and Bodies that Matter,
on the Discursive Limits of Sex published in 1993.
In which she proposed and
elaborated her classic ideas of gender performativity that have so
profoundly influenced Feminist studies, **** studies, and performance studies.
In excitable speech, the politics of the performative, in 1997,
she discussed the problems of hate speech and censorship.
Well in the Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection, in 1997,
she presented a theory of the subject that transformed Understandings of
subject formation in fields as traditionally hermetic as social theory,
philosophy, and psychoanalysis.
Her other books include Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in
Twentieth-Century France, Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and
Death, Precarious Life: The powers of violence and mourning,
giving an account of one's self, and Frames of War: When is life grievable?
She's also notably collaborated with other philosophers and cultural theorists,
collected and published exchanges with Ernesto Laclau and
Slavoj Zizek: Contingency, Hegemony, and
Universality; with Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser, and Drucilla Cornell,
"Feminist Contentions." And with Jurgen Habermans, Charles Taylor, and
Cornell West "Power of Religion in the Public Sphere." She co-authored
with Gayatri Spivak "Who Sings the Nation-State." With Talal Assad,
Wendy Brown, and Saba Mahmood "Is Critique Secular?" And Katrine and
Athena Athanasiou, "Dispossession to the Performative and the Political".
Her most recent books include "Parting ways: Jewishness and
the critique of Zionism" in 2012, "Senses of the Subject" in 2015,
and "Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly" in 2015.
Her future projects include work on Messianic gestures in Kafka and
Benjamin, philosophical fictions in Freud's work, and gender and translation.
But of equal significance to Judith Butler's formidable academic
accomplishments is the ethical practice she embodies as a public intellectual.
Time and again she has brought her vigilance and
intelligence to bear upon the injustices of war, bigotry, and abuses of power.
She's responded with courage and with due outrage and moreover urged
collective imaginations and assemblies for making and remaking our world.
She's written and spoken out on LGBTQ rights, the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, prisoners at Guantanamo, the Occupy movement, BDS,
Black Lives Matter, and human rights, the subject of her lecture today.
Judith Butler has been long active in gender and sexual politics and
in human rights organizations.
Currently serving on the Board of the Center for Constitutional Rights in
New York and the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, which I understand some
of you went to Chicago and saw her this weekend speaking there.
She's been recognized many times for
the unique contributions that only she can make.
She was the recipient of the Andrew Mellon Award for
Distinguished Academic Achievement in the Humanities.
In 2009-13, should received the Adorno Prize from the city of Frankfurt in 2012,
in honor of her contributions to feminist and moral philosophy.
The Brudner Prize from Yale University for lifetime achievement in gay and
lesbians studies.
And the Albertas Magnus professorship form the city of Cologne Germany in 2016.
In 2014 she was awarded the Diploma of Chevalier, of the Order of Arts and
Letters from the French Cultural Ministry.
And in 2015 was elected as a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.
I fear if I continue,
I might be misunderstood as somehow attempting to be comprehensive.
>> [LAUGH] >> Which would of course be totally and
completely a failure.
So I would just like to end by saying, I'm deeply honored to have
known Judith Butler for many years, and I'm grateful to count her as a friend.
She is a model of how to be an ethical intellectual, a gracious public figure,
a generous teacher and mentor, and generally a good human being.
Please join me in welcoming
Professor Judith Butler.
>> Thank you, I got exhausted listening to
the description, and then I realized why I am always so exhausted, and.
>> [LAUGH] >> But truly, I am very pleased to be
here, and honored to be part of this Sawyer seminar and lecture series.
But also of course to be once again in conversation with Lisa Lowe,
surely as you now know, a remarkable, intellectual and
an amazing force, you are lucky to have her, okay.
>> So now I have an introduction to
Lisa because I thought that would be reciprocity.
>> [LAUGH] >> Just kidding but I shall do it, okay.
I'm hoping to address the politics of human rights and
to make an argument about why it matters what language we use.
To talk about those who are dispossessed, unparalleled, or abandoned.
We are meeting during a time in which the egregious conduct of our current
president threatens to focus our attention on the nation's state in which we lived.
And yet so much critical work in the last decades has taught us
how to think about global power in ways that traverse the nation's state.
And refuse the assumption that it works as a methodological point of departure.
We're gathered today to reflect on the politics of human rights
in the midst of an ongoing refugee crisis one that has shaped migration policies,
new nationalisms and racisms, as well as modes of militarization and
securitization In a number of regions, some of them overlapping.
The U.S., Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, North Africa, the Mediterranean and
the Middle East.
Whether we are speaking about people trapped in camps along the border of Syria
or launching into the sea where there's no guarantee of rescue.
We are referring to populations that risk death and often die and
whose deaths are a calculable feature of what Mamembe has called a necropolitics.
I won't be belaboring on that notion today but
would like to call our attention first to the organized character of deprivation and
death that has taken place along the extended borders of Europe.
Approximately 3,000 people have died trying
to cross the Mediterranean in the last two years, and
these include the large numbers of Kurdish people trying to migrate over the sea.
The number of civilian deaths in Syria, are enormous.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights reports that the death toll for
civilians has
reached 207,000, augmented recently by the 300 that
are understood to be the result of recent U.S. bombings.
There are many such examples on which I could draw to raise the question of how we
come to name and understand the organization of populations primed for
dispossession and death.
And they would include the relatively recent destruction of Kale,
the brutal treatment of Syrians and Kurds amassed on the border of Turkey.
And the differential ways that anti-Muslim racism works in Europe, in the US and
its convergence with anti-black racism creating the notion
of a disposable people, those who are considered to be on the cusp of death or
already dead, before having died.
We can decide to differentiate between those who died in war and
refugee deaths, but the refugee is tied to the war.
There is no Syrian refugee without the war and
the refugee is living out a condition produced by war.
But those losses are both the result of war and the flight from war.
So it may not make sense to hold too fast to the distinction between those who died
in war or because of war and those who died in flight from war.
In any case, the situation of war extends beyond the war zone, or
rather it brings the war zone way beyond the geographical confines of war.
In this sense, war is always traversing the boundary of the nation-state
as it extends its violence into new modalities,
especially those that police the boundary itself.
We can, I think, pose several different kinds of questions about this situation.
Can all these examples be gathered together under a single category?
Do we need a unifying category to name and understand them?
But there's a question relating to ethics as well.
Many of us wonder how this period of history will appear
from the vantage of hindsight.
Will some of us become named as those who stood by as populations
were effectively expunged from the earth.
Will the policies currently in place including the realpolitik that keeps
us on in power in Syria, appear to be the results of calculations most cruel?
We do reflect back and ask questions such as these of many periods of history.
How was it that one part of humanity stood by as another part of humanity suffered so
What value was accorded to those lives which have been abandoned to destitution
and statelessness, or left to die in the middle of the Mediterranean?
Of course, there are many groups that have organized to address this issue.
My point is not simply to allege that we are all complicit or guilty.
And yet it does seemed that one task for us during this time is to ask
a different set of questions concerned with how we can
conceptualize a grievable life or set of lives and what this implies for
how the value of life is differentially allocated and assumed, and
how both of these questions relate to our broader conception of social, economic,
and political equality.
In a larger project, I'm seeking to link the idea of grievability to the Democratic
principle of equality, arguing that without an ideal of the radically
equal grievability of lives, we cannot realize equality in substantive ways.
Even if that ideal cannot ever be fully realized,
it's status as an impossible and guiding ideal is in my view, obligatory.
In some ways, the success of this broader inquiry only a part of which I can share
with you today, depends on being able to return to very simple questions.
Ones that can easily be dismissed as naive.
Such as why is it that not all lives are considered equally valuable?
Why is it that some lives are more grievable than others?
In fact in general I think we should be returning
to very simple questions about which we feel deeply embarrassed, right?
Like, let's all become uncool together.
>> [LAUGH] >> Right?
I think the pursuit, the active pursuit of the uncool might be ethically obligatory.
Why do we read?
Why is reading important?
Why is the funding of libraries important?
Why do we fund the arts?
What are the arts?
Why do we fund them?
Okay, sorry.
>> [LAUGHS] >> Of course,
when I speak through the pronoun we, I do not mean to imply that there's
some we who's unified, or that everyone thinks the same way.
In fact, I mean only to point out that there are profound
discontinuities among the various ways in which the value of life is asserted and
affirmed, the ways that the value of life can be discounted and disregarded.
Or indeed, the ways in which an active position against the value of some lives
can be taken up by those who justify war, bombing and
overt destruction, and those who, without an explicit justification,
organize methods of covert abandonment, ways of leaving populations to die.
Or as Foucault put it, a power that lets a population die,
that is licensing death without having, precisely, to commit murder.
This last distinction is complicated, of course,
by the fact that European countries can and
do claim that a boat went down in someone else's territorial waters.
And on that basis, relinquish any and
all responsiblity for responding to an SOS call.
Here we see how notions of sovereign territory are currently invoked against
all of those maritime laws that obligate nations to respond to any and all calls.
Those laws include the Barcelona Convention, adopted in 1975.
International maritime law stipulates the obligation to
offer assistance to those in distress without regard to the nationality,
status or circumstances of the person or people at risk.
We find this principle embodied not only in the UN Convention on the Law of
the Sea, 1982.
But earlier in the International Convention on Maritime Search and
Rescue, 1979.
And yet time and again the EU and
separate countries within the EU have refused to assume responsibility for
rescue missions, claiming that this only promotes migration.
It threatens Europe with new Muslim migrants and hey,
what about the cost of assimilation.
So we can see that capital calculations and territorial
sovereignty converge to defeat the claims of codified international law and
universal obligation in such instances.
So though we may have skepticism about human rights and international law,
how it is differentially applied, how it makes its own assumptions about
who is grievable and who is not, there is still, in my view,
some value to be preserved in insisting on international obligations of this kind.
[COUGH] Indeed, for
those of you who have been attending this series, you doubtless know that the number
of debates have emerged in recent years about human rights, and humanitarianism.
Querying whether either of those forms of intervention or adjudication can
adequately address the problem of war, displaced refugees and mass death.
Whether they are forms of power that require criticism and
even do their own damage.
So my first claim in relation to this broad problematic is simply that
to ask the question, what are the politics of human rights,
is already to assume that human rights functions within a broader politics.
That human rights is not sufficient as a politics and
cannot be the name of the politics that it serves.
I would like then to take [COUGH] a moment to clarify what I mean by this phrase.
And then to move to the question of how vulnerability functions
within some human rights frameworks and
how that relates to the broader question of whose lives matter and whose do not.
Even though I am already into this paper, I don't know, I'm starting the fifth page.
I do have a narrower thesis to argue for, namely,
that the current practice of referring to vulnerable groups may well get in
the way of understanding the relationship of vulnerability.
And susceptibility to social relations more broadly, and that we
make an error by claiming that some groups are vulnerable when others or not.
Indeed, it is only when vulnerability is understood to traverse and
condition social relations that we stand any chance of realizing the sort of
substantive equality, to which I earlier referred.
Indeed, as I will argue,
vulnerability, which ought not to be identified with passivity alone,
only makes sense in light of an embodied set of social relations.
Ones that we see in action [COUGH] and in practices of resistance, in particular.
Whereas vulnerable groups are never endowed with the capacity to act.
That is to say, when groups are called vulnerable,
it is assumed that they do not have the capacity to act.
There is, over and against that view, a perspective on vulnerability
that features it as a part of embodied social relations.
And it's this latter view that can help us understand how and
why forms of resistance emerge as they do.
In general, then, I hope my argument will point to the way in which the dominant
frameworks for thinking about dispossession and vulnerability can,
if reconceptualized in light of practices.
In which vulnerability is mobilized and mobilizing, disrupt the ways in
which groups are conceptualized by dominant human rights frameworks.
So as I said, the very idea of a politics of human rights discourse implies,
and rightly so, that the political framework for
thinking about this problem is not the same as the human rights discourse itself.
And yet, what is the broader sense of politics within which human rights
discourse is to be evaluated?
I want to pause here in order, simply, to mark the fact that politics is not
reducible to rights discourse, more generally.
And that it's not reducible to human rights discourse, in particular.
It's also important to distinguish between
the kind of politics that human rights discourse represents, or
perhaps constitute, and the kind of politics it serves.
In the first case, we're talking about human rights discourse as a political form
that fails to exhaust the broader meaning of the political.
In the second case, we're talking about human rights discourse as instrumental
to the realization of a broader politics, which puts
us under an obligation to describe what that broader politics happens to be.
Two different kinds of evaluations follow on the basis of the way
we think about the politics of human rights discourse.
In the first case, we might object to the reduction
of the political field to the human rights framework.
A situation which installs the human rights framework as the horizon,
the limit, and the horizon of the political.
In the second case,
we object to the instrumental use to which human rights discourse is subjected.
But we object less to the human rights discourse itself than to its
instrumentalization by states, for instance,
that seek to deflect from their own violence.
Or by international organizations that refuse to conceptualize systemic
forms of violence or oppressive power in their approach to the problem, right?
So, for instance, in Palestine,
there's an active debate about whether human rights
violations should be listed and documented and known.
Or whether human rights violations have to be contextualized within the broader
practices of settler colonialism.
If we stay within human rights, we can make the list, but
what we've done is we've made discreet incidents, or discreet events.
But we don't have a theoretical way,
a political way of bringing them together within a description of power.
And in particular, settler colonial power,
as it's been historically established there.
So that's one argument.
The other argument, which I think is perhaps more,
which is equally trenched, but different is simply the argument
that the state of Israel treats its gay people so beautifully.
And that it's at the forefront of human rights in the Middle East.
Indeed, the only country that really defends human rights.
Look at our gay people.
They're marching down the street.
They're happy, they're naked.
Or scantily clad, or expressing themselves in loud and happy ways.
So that the touting of an apparent human rights
accomplishment actually becomes a way of
deflecting from a systemic destruction
of human rights, in Palestine itself.
I mean both the West Bank, but also the ways in which electricity,
and water, and mobility are regulated in relation to Gaza.
And I mean also, of course,
the rights of return of those who were forcibly displaced.
Always keep those three in mind.
Anyway, that was just an aside.
That's not my topic.
>> [LAUGH] >> But look,
there are many reasons why my closest pals are suspicious of human rights discourse.
Some humanitarian organizations claim to be concerned only with human rights and
not with politics.
Well, good for them.
>> [LAUGH] >> I'd like to see how they make that
Can they do that without becoming complicitous with political conditions or
with political states?
They are invariably working with political states.
If one were to consider the importance of human rights discourse in Latin America
among groups fighting against feminicidio, for instance,
the targeted killing of women including trans women with outrageous frequency.
Or the role of human rights discourse in the uprisings that brought down
dictatorial regimes and that sought to bring torturers to justice.
Or in the claims made on behalf of the families in Mexico who want to know why
their leftist students were disappeared by the local police, Ayotzinapa.
It would be difficult, if not impossible,
to approach human rights with simply cynical rejection.
I don't think that's possible.
It's functioning politically in certain parts of the world for very,
very important reasons.
In light of war crimes, and now in light of the rights of refugees some scholars
and activists, often feminists have called for
developing a politics of vulnerability or a politics of care.
These are distinct but sometimes overlapping.
Suggesting that greater attention to these conditions deferentially suffered
within a global framework will enhance our ethical and political responsiveness.
I certainly share certain presumptions with this approach,
namely that we are obligated to think about global interdependency,
both in our analysis of issues, such as food, shelter, climate change and war.
The actions of wealthy nations in one part of the world affect
all parts of the world.
And that includes policies on food production, the environment.
And our various forms of waging violence including drone warfare and
the exploited prison systems.
Accordingly forms of solidarity have to reach beyond communitarian and national
boundaries precisely in order to track and oppose global forms of corporate power.
And those forms of state and post national alliances that actively produce radical
inequalities especially throughout the global South.
It seems patently true that some populations are more vulnerable
to economic exploitation, and to death than others.
And so in that sense yes,
I am allied with those concerned with how vulnerability is deferentially allocated,
constituting an essential dimension of social and economic inequality.
But what is the best way to approach this problem of radical inequality and
to relate it to the problem of vulnerability?
I suppose that is my conceptual but also my political task.
First let me say that the unequal access to and
distribution of material resources is one form of inequality.
And lacking the conditions and means of political self determination is another.
But there are, as we know many other forms among which I want to include
the unequal value of lives expressed as unequal grievability.
Who is left to die and who is protected from death?
Injuries against which populations count as injuries and the same injuries
inflicted against other populations do not appear as injuries at all.
So though I endeavor to be part of an intellectual and activist movement against
radical inequalities of this kind I want to caution.
Against too quickly developing a politics of vulnerability or
a politics of care as an immediate pathway.
Some would say that we have to identify vulnerable groups and
offer them protection.
I'm not always opposed to that procedure, but
I do have some questions about its political implications.
All though, I do want to claim that any politics seeking to address inequalities
of this kind has to come to terms with vulnerability and even care.
I want also to suggest that neither can be the basis of a politics
if by basis we mean we found a human disposition.
Or a human condition that gives rise logically or
temporarily to a political framework.
It would be easy and efficient if we could establish vulnerability as the foundation
for a new politics.
But vulnerability can not be isolated from other terms.
Nor can it be the kind of phenomenon that can serve as a foundation.
So if that is the case then what are we doing here?
Well, in a recent volume that I co-edited with Zeynep Gambetti and Leticia Sabsay,
Vulnerability in Resistance, published by Duke University PRess.
We brought the term vulnerability together with that of resistance seeking to
challenge those accounts of vulnerability that either use
it as a sociological adjective to describe certain groups.
Or isolated as a condition that gives rise to a specific version of
the human creature.
The task was not to rally as vulnerable creatures, right new placards.
Or to create a class of persons, who identify primarily with vulnerability.
In the context of human rights work and
humanitarianism we're given to understand that vulnerability sometimes applies to
populations, sociologically considered there are vulnerable populations.
They are understood to require protection and care.
Of course we do speak that way.
Especially in light of those who are without basic human requirements.
A mass number of refuges abandoned by so
many nation states and transnational state formations including the EU.
We also speak that way about the victims of feminicidio in Latin America and
So I do not for a moment want to set aside examples of systematic destruction or
On the contrary how do we understand these situations is very much the issue today.
I worry about the ontologizing effects of language, such as vulnerable populations.
And the corollary elevation of paternalism of
the primary form of power that takes over and
that is posed as the power to be waged against destruction.
When we speak about vulnerable populations we may be thinking that we make no
ontological claim about groups such as these.
But that we're only offering a provisional sociological or
legal terminology for the purposes of description.
The reasonable view seems to go something like this, a population is designated or
demarcated that has become vulnerable under certain historical conditions.
But that population can also be delivered from vulnerability if they're given proper
infrastructural support, including safe refuge and legal rights.
If and when that happens that group loses its status as vulnerable,
though other populations, because of their historical conditions, remain vulnerable.
The task is then to relieve these other populations of their vulnerability.
And that task is presumably undertaken by someone or
some group who is tasked with providing that relief.
Do those called vulnerable still maintain and exercise their own power?
Or is it rather the power of paternalistic care that is now obligated to intervene?
When we ascribe vulnerability to persons in that way we abstract and
isolate vulnerability as a defining feature of human lives
under contingent historical conditions.
And in so doing we occlude the constellation of vulnerability, rage,
persistence and resistance that emerges under these same historical conditions.
In other words we all know that to receive aid or to declare a humanitarian crisis.
Vulnerable populations have to be named by those who wield the institutional and
discursive authority to prompt aid, to engage legal structures,
to facilitate media attention.
At the same time when a population
is described in that way it is
then at risk of being effaced.
Insofar as its own actions, its own forms of solidarity, its own networks
of support, and means of resistance become undescribable under that rubric.
So under those conditions the language by which they're represented risks
misrepresenting them.
Locating power external to their own condition and
their own action named as vulnerable they are deprived of their power.
And this is a bind since we call them vulnerable because they've been deprived
of power.
How do we get around that conundrum?
After all, it does happen that those who have lost infrastructural support have
nevertheless developed networks, communicated time tables,
sought to understand and use international maritime laws
in the Mediterranean to their advantage to move across boarders, to plot a route,
to connect with communities who can provide support of one kind or
another, squatting in vacated hotels or staying with willing strangers.
Those amassed along the borders of Europe are not only,
they cannot be called bare life.
I'm gonna try not to get into a polemic, you know, make a little editing note.
Let your anger subside.
[LAUGH] They cannot be called bare life.
We do not recognize their suffering by further depriving them of all capacity
with the language we use.
They are for the most part in a terrible situation improvising forms of sociality
using cellphones, plotting and
taking action when possible and it is not always possible.
Even as agency is blocked at every turn,
there remains ways to resisting that very blockage.
Ways of making a political demand,
and in making the demand their not precisely overcoming their vulnerability.
They are demonstrating it.
They do not transform vulnerability into strength or invulnerability but
articulate the demand that life has to be supported in order to persist.
In other words, vulnerability is incorporated and
manifest in the making of a political demand.
In the action of resistence.
The mistake that is sometimes made is to think that if there is action,
vulnerability has been overcome.
The vulnerable do not act.
To act is strong.
But, perhaps, we have to rethink the act of demonstrating and
the logic of demonstration itself in order to reevaluate these kinds of assumptions.
Consider for example the German newspaper, Daily Resistance,
published in Farsi, Arabic, Turkish, German, French, and English, which
contains articles by refugees who have formulated a set of political demands.
Including the abolition of all refugee camps, and
the end of the German policy of residence [FOREIGN] which limits
the freedom of movement of refugees within near or
boundaries, to stop all deportations and to allow refugees to work and study.
In 2012, several refugees in the city of Wurzburg, stitched their mouths shut,
protesting against the fact that the government had refused to respond to them.
That gesture has been repeated in several sites, most recently by Iranian migrants
in Kale in March of last year before the destruction and evacuation of their camp.
Their view, widely shared,
is that without a political response the refugees remain voiceless.
And so, voice that is not heard, that is not registered, is not a political voice.
Of course,
they did not put their claim in the propositional form that I just offered.
But they made the point through a readable and
visible gesture that muted the voice as the sign and substance of their demand.
The image of the stitched lips shows that the demand cannot be voiced, and
so makes its own voice list demand.
It displays it's voicelessness in a visual image to make a point
about the political limits imposed on audability.
Consider another example from Turkey, the example of The Standing Man in
Taksim Square in June of 2013, who was part of the protest movement
against the Erdogan government and its policies of privatization,
as well as its emerging authoritarianism emerging in 2013, fully blown now.
The Standing Man was a performance artist, Erdem Gunduz.
Who obeyed the state's edict, delivered immediately after the mass protest,
not to assemble and not to speak with others in assembly.
An edict by Erdogan that sought to undermine the most basic
premises of democracy.
Freedom of movement, of assembly, and of speech.
So one man stood and stood at the mandated distance from another person, right?
So complying with the law.
Who in turn stood at the mandated distance from another one.
Legally they did not constitute an assembly and
no one was speaking or moving, right.
You may not assembly, you may not speak, you may not move.
What they did was to perform compliance perfectly hundreds of them filling
the square at the proper distance from one another.
They effectively demonstrated the ban under which they were living.
Submitting to it at the same time that they displayed it for
the cameras that could not be fully banned.
Demonstration had at least two meanings.
The ban was shown, incorporated, enacted in a bodily sense.
The ban became a script.
But the ban was also opposed, demonstrated against.
That demonstration was elaborated in and
by the visual field opened up by cellphone cameras.
Those forms of technology that elude the interdiction on speech and movement.
The performance thus both submitted to and
defied the interdiction in and through the same action.
For that was an assembly of sorts of both human and
technological action that defined the ban, but
only be revising the ideas of assembly and act presumed by the interdiction.
An assembly beyond assembly as it were, one that made its political demand
by demonstrating the silencing of voice was any of that possible.
Even as I'd tried to offer some examples of vulnerability in resistance.
I do not mean for them to become now
exemplary instances of the point of trying to make in these few minutes.
Performances such as these are linked to the call for an effective global
effort to defeat, quite hideous forms of authoritarianism, and to address
a refugee crisis that brings shame on all the wealthy nations of this world.
On the European Union, the UK,
the US, whose current governments seem to think that global obligations
of this sort get in the way of national autonomy, sovereign territory,
the plan to decimate social democracy in the service of expanding markets.
So let us presume I hope, that here at least we concur that there are or
must be global obligations, that is to say obligations that are globally shared and
ought to be considered binding and post national in character.
Those obligations would be reciprocal rather than paternalistic.
That is obligations based on notions of interdependency that do not
presume that the world is simply divided between those who seek to provide for
others an exit from vulnerability.
And those very others who are suddenly defined in totalizing ways as vulnerable,
a vulnerability implies incapacitation.
Indeed ultimately I want to put forward, I suppose, a social ontology
that understands vulnerability as a feature of embodied social relations.
And that means, that it is neither my vulnerability nor yours, but
rather a feature of the relations by which we are defined, sustained, and imperiled.
In other words, I'm seeking to situate vulnerability within a social ontology
that can account for reciprocal global bonds and obligations.
If and when any of us were to be fully relieved of our vulnerability,
we would have lost the social bond on the basis of which obligations can be grasped
as reciprocal.
I'm gonna just say that one more time.
If and when any of us were to be fully relieved of our vulnerability,
we would have lost the social bond on the basis of which obligations can be grasped
as reciprocal.
Reciprocity depends upon vulnerability.
That, however,
only makes sense if vulnerability is de-individualized to some degree.
A difficult task, given how tenaciously it has been become attached
to the first person in popular discourse.
Consider that vulnerability is not a feature of my singular person hood.
Which certainly does not therefore mean I am invulnerable.
Hardly, it means rather that the rupture in my singularity is required for
my persistence.
And that it also puts me at risk, sometimes at risk of death.
So, one reason vulnerability cannot be the foundation of who I am or
of any politics I might wish to construct.
Is that it is the lack of foundation in my self with which I must live
if I am to live at all.
Even as it cannot serve as the basis of a politics,
it can and does enter politics in a different way.
I want to go further with this formulation but first wish to return to the question.
Is the language of vulnerable populations the right one?
What kind of presumption does it make about who is vulnerable and who is not?
A differential allocation of vulnerability who's use
starts to anthologies the subject it maims.
Indeed my brief suggestion today is that although the suffering that follows from
social and political abandonment from being exposed to unlivable precarity or
systematic or relentless violence.
Surely does produce a way of thinking about those who
are disproportionately exposed to those forms of suffering.
Whose lives are more or less unlivable.
That's surely not because ontologically,
they are any more vulnerable than anyone else.
In other words,
that naming practice should not wield the power to name its subject exhaustively.
The practices of abandonment effectively make those kinds of distinctions.
But that does not mean that those of us who oppose those practices should
reproduce them.
In ways that trap subjects within the frame of vulnerability.
And establishes the rest of us, as paternalistic saviors or
agents of cruel negligence.
Worrisome is when the adjective, vulnerable, becomes a category
that exhaustively defines and subordinates the subject described.
Indeed, the problem with that differential allocation of vulnerability is that it
does not give us a way to understand the ties that we have to one another and
to elaborate a politics on the basis of those ties.
Vulnerability, as I'm trying to suggest,
would have to be redescribed as a function of the tie.
In fact, I want to argue that those ties indicate a form of relationality.
That not only implies a way of thinking about the body, embodied cohabitation, but
also the co-production of modes of life.
Even though we are each aware of feeling vulnerable on specific occasions
linking its emergence and passing to those precipitating conditions.
It does not follow that vulnerability is to be understood first and
foremost as an idiosyncratic and subjective feeling.
Even as vulnerability can heighten our self awareness and
make us very involved with our own singular exposure to harm.
Vulnerability is not a simply subjective state or disposition.
It is always related to an object, a prospect, a impinging world.
And in that sense intentional, in the phenomenological sense.
That is to say not deliberate, but intentional meaning related to an object.
Vulnerability might take the form of excitability,
susceptibility, longing to light, fear anxiety, or dread.
But whatever form it takes, it is already, and from the start, a relational problem.
Presupposing a relational predicament that is to some extent, incalculable.
If I feel that I can be hurt,
that says something about the kind of being that I am.
It also says that I am open to a world, and to others that
acts on me in ways that cannot be fully predicted or controlled in advance.
And that something about that openness is not strictly speaking, under my control.
In other words,
that opening toward the world is not something that I can exactly will away.
It characterizes not only the organic conditions of my persistence,
what Isabelle Stengers calls the tentacular practices of a creature.
Who must navigate an environment and procure its food.
But also the mode of production that organizes the system of needs in which I
find myself.
So the very problem of persistence implies a vulnerability to social form.
That means that I am the kind of being whose persistence is already,
from the start, dependent on a social form for its existence, for it's continuation.
And that means that my life is a social organic life.
And depending on that social form, my life will be more or less livable.
The question of sustenance and
persistence makes clear that nobody can sustain itself on its own.
The body is not and never was a self-subsisting kind of being.
Which is but one reason why the metaphysics of substance, an extended
being with discreet boundaries, was never a particularly good frame for the body.
The body is given over to others in order to persist.
Does metaphysics have a way to conceptualize this?
As interpersonal as this relation is,
it is also socially organized in a broader sense.
We all start with having been given over.
Even Oedipus, he was given over to some shepherd who was gonna let him,
take him up to the hill and let him die in the heat.
That was a fatal, that was a near fatal giving over.
But it does show you that you never know to what you are given over.
And at that early stage when it's absolutely powerless in relationship
to the hands into which one is received.
Let's hope it's not, well,
actually the shepherd then changed his mind and some other things happened.
>> [LAUGH] >> In any case,
the infant is given over by someone to someone else, and
the caregiver is in some ways given over to the task of care.
And sometimes, quite emphatically, prior to any act of will.
Care is not always consensual.
It can be a way of getting wrecked time and again by the demands of a whaling and
hungry creature.
But there is here a larger claim that does not rely on any particular account
of the social organization of motherhood or caregiving or
enduring dependency on social and economic forms of life itself.
Is not something we ever grow out of.
It is not a dependency that converts to independence in time.
When there's nothing to depend upon.
When social structures fail and so to does life falter or fail.
That enduring condition may become more poignant in childcare and
care of the elderly, or for those who are physically challenged.
But there are no exceptions.
What does this mean to be given over?
And does it imply that we are also those to whom someone is given over?
Are we at once given over and those to whom others are given over a kind of
asymmetry that is nevertheless a reciprocity?
To be given over from the start to a social form indicates a constitutive
feature of embodied life.
It may be that we require care or
that we are vulnerable in a way that cannot be overcome.
But these are not just episodes, but enduring conditions.
How do these two terms work in relation to embodied lives that
encounter unlivable situation as a result of unaddressed exposure Or
infrastructural failures of care.
When the world fails us, when we, ourselves,
become worldless in the social sense, then the body exhibits its precarity.
And that mode of demonstrating precarity is itself or
carries with it a political demand and even a condition of outrage.
So the situation of so many populations now subject to unlivable precarity raises
for us and perhaps for philosophical reflection, more generally,
the question of how we view embodied life, this life, these lives.
As we consider not only what makes a life livable.
But what sort of life any of us should live and should be able to live.
My analysis, obviously, has enormative implication.
And I'll return to that in a moment.
But before I do, I want to point out that neither vulnerability nor
care are merely subjective states or dispositions.
They tell us something important about the un-self-sufficiency
of the embodied subject.
And this also gives us some indication of how longing, desire, rage, and
anxiety all figure in this scene.
Especially under conditions when exposure becomes unbearable or
dependency becomes unmanageable.
Indeed, depending on which psychoanalytic school one follows,
if one still follows one at all.
>> [LAUGH] >> I'm not even looking up.
There is, of course, an account of how dependency gives rise to aggression,
even murderous impulse and destruction.
Although Melanie Klein, for instance, sometimes names aggression as a separate
drive, insisting on its unconquerable status in the human psyche.
We might also surmise that dependency, the condition in which
one life is existentially bound up with another, can also give rise to rage.
Whether or not that rage proceeds from a prior operation of the drive.
We might have to distinguish between original and proximate cause, though I am,
myself, not prepared to layout in full terms how that might work.
What I do know, however, is that aggression is not only directed against
the care giver, but also against the infant in the scenes that Klein describes.
Underscoring that vulnerability can be linked with murderousness and
that dependency can be inextricably bound up with rage.
Klein remarks that the infant who is said to have murderous impulse
toward the mother, in particular, finds herself in a bind.
Since, if she destroys the caregiver, and
her own life is fundamentally dependent on that caregiver, then she
risks destroying the mother or the caregiver and herself in the same blow.
Although, that psychic reality may take an inverse form.
As Klein puts it in the last analysis,
it is the fear that the loved person, to begin with the mother,
may die because of the injuries inflicted upon her in fantasy.
Which makes it unbearable to be dependent on this person.
Right, I mean, there's sorta two problems.
If I kill this person, and I can't live without this person, then I, too,
will die.
But there's another problem which is, how can I be dependent on this person
who is going to die because I very much want to kill this person.
So that's a bad idea.
I mean, obviously,
small infants don't reason in the way that Klein attributes to them.
But this is the ex post facto,
Propositional form given to basic anxieties,
okay, We are to take this as indicating that the child
does not understand the difference between what can happen in fantasy and in reality.
But the unbearable dependency opens up another question.
If one does destroy the one on whom one depends for
life, does one also destroy oneself?
Thus we can ask whether it's the possibility of becoming
a murderer that makes dependency so unbearable.
Or whether it is unbearable dependency that leads one to thoughts of murder.
An unbearable or nonnegotiable dependency nevertheless persists within
what I'm calling the social bond that one requires for life.
The important claim that all life is socially organized,
even the most unlivable forms of life,
does not quite tell us about what is unbearable at the core of the social.
The point is that I'm never just vulnerable and never just dependent, but
always vulnerable on a social form, vulnerable to and within a social form.
Whether it is another person or an organized form of care.
Even when no one is there, when we are speaking about extreme forms of
abandonment, the social is still there as the vacated space, the vanished assurance.
What does it mean to be this kind of being who cannot live on its own?
Whose very persistence depends upon some social
ulterity without which life is impossible?
Even in the imagined scene of murder that Klein articulates, the infant somehow
comes to know that it is not fully separable from the one it might just
murder since its own life will be lost in the moment that the other is lost.
So this is admittedly a bit of Hegel that one finds in Klein.
And maybe some of you didn't expect to hear about this.
But taken together, we're left with some rough questions.
The first is whether, in thinking about vulnerability and the politics of care,
we can leave aggression and even murderousness out of the picture.
Yes, there are populations that ought rightly be protected from murder.
That is clearly and emphatically true.
We can include the entire population of women as one instance.
So it is by the way not always possible fully to vacate paternalism under such
conditions when intervention is ethically required.
At the same time, there are forms of vulnerability and
dependency that give rise to their own forms of aggression and
destructiveness issuing from unbearable dependency.
Or forms of vulnerability that articulate
the non-negotiable character of social life.
Including bodily exposure and the need for technical and social support for
the purposes of mobility and expression.
Disability studies has surely taught us that.
So if we think that we can consider vulnerability and
care within a political framework without considering failing or
damaging forms of infrastructure, we're probably wrong.
We have also to ask whether care can emerge precisely as the instrument of
aggression and destruction, an ostensible compensation for
damage done that can be its own way of continuing the damage.
In this way, neither can become the basis for a virtue ethics, for the task is not
just to care more, or to become more caring, or to become more vulnerable.
As if these were virtuous positions that individuals acquire and cultivate.
Ways of countering masculine indifference or defensive mastery.
If neither vulnerability nor care is separable from what is unbearable,
and here I'm reminded of the important conversation that Lee Edelman and
Lauren Berlant had on the unbearable, Sex, Or the Unbearable.
If neither vulnerability nor care is separable from what is unbearable,
unbearable happiness, somebody is there for me, gratitude, passion, desire.
I concede my autonomy here, safety, but also anxiety and aggression.
The sense that it is unacceptable to depend for my life on this person or
this institution.
Then what's demonstrated here is the social character of these states and
dispositions, requiring that we think of them not only as relations, but
as marking the most fraught character of relationality.
I would simply add here that the Klein's image of the potentially murderous and
dependent child leads into an odd insight into the lack of autonomy and
self-sufficiency that is coterminous with life.
For that child is bound up with another in such a way
that imagining the death of the other is to imagine the loss of one's own life.
It is not that the two are identical, but
that dependency articulates the social conditions of organic persistence.
The living character of the relation implies that life is not only over
here with me or over there with you.
That we have to move beyond my life and
your life to grasp the relation that makes life possible, the living relation.
I'm not sure one can leap easily from my earlier discussion of the Kleinian
figure of the child with its desire of destructiveness to a broader social claim
in the way that I have.
But I'm already tenured and I get to kinda say what I want.
>> [LAUGH] >> Sorry, that's not in there, okay.
>> [LAUGH] >> But I do think that there's a dimension
of social theory that is not always taken into account the way in which life and
death are presupposed by the ways we think about social relations.
For it is one thing to say that life and death are both socially organized.
And that we can describe social forms of life and social forms of dying and death.
That is important work, to be sure.
But if we do not consider what we mean by the social in such settings,
in light of issues such as vulnerability and care.
We do not see how the threat of death and the promise of
life are constitutive features of those relations that we call social.
So in some ways, our habits of constructivism have to change in order to
grasp the issues of life and death of bodily persistence
of the fact that there are always conditions for bodily persistence.
And yet there are not always actual conditions for bodily persistence.
A different paper would pursue the question of whether the framework
introduced here.
Calls into question the idea of an individual subject of rights,
even an embodied individual subject of rights.
Individualism, I would suggest fails to capture the condition of vulnerability
exposure even dependency that is presupposed by the right itself.
And which corresponds, I would suggest to a body whose boundaries
are themselves fraught and excitable social relations.
Whether a body that falters and fails is caught by networks of support.
Or whether a moving body has its way paved without obstruction depends on
whether a world has been built for that body's gravity and mobility and
whether that world can stay built.
The skin is from the start a way of being exposed to the elements.
But what is done about that exposure is already a social relation,
a relation to shelter, to clothing, to health.
So if we seek to find what is most essential about the body by reducing it
to its bare elements.
We find that right there at the level of its most basic requirements,
the social world is structuring the scene.
And I think Marx makes this exceedingly clear in the early philosophic and
economic manuscripts.
I would suggest that the basic questions of mobility, expression, warmth, and
health implicate that body in a social world.
Or pathways are deferentially paved, open or closed, bodes of clothing and
types of shelter are more or less available, affordable or provisional.
When we then propose to start with the body, we can not extricate or
abstract the body from the very relations by which it is defined.
Positivism despite it's own claims, becomes the worse form of abstraction.
The body is that which is in variably defined by the social relations that
bear upon its persistence, sustenance, and thriving.
This also means recognizing that human and non human life are also
related by virtue of the living processes they share and require.
Raising all kinds of questions about stewardship that I cannot pursue today.
Maybe you could ask me about it tomorrow,
those of you are coming to the seminar which maybe I'm not suppose to mention.
>> [LAUGH] >> In addition,
one would have to elaborate in a fuller paper on the notion of interdependency.
And not only those among living human creatures,
human creatures living somewhere requiring soil and water for
the continuation of life are also living in a world of non human creatures.
Whose claim to life clearly overlaps with the human claim, and where each are also
sometimes quite dependent on one another for life and for a livable environment.
Interdependency once again raises that
question of the destructiveness that is a potential part of any living relation.
One that can rupture relationality intermittently or permanently.
One that is the rupture at work potentially in all social relations.
If our ethical and political practices remain restricted to an individual mode of
life or decision making, or
to a virtue ethics that reflects on who we are as individuals.
We risk losing sight of that interdependency that establishes
an embodied version of equality.
As well as the possibility of destructiveness
as well as the ethical obligations by which it is restrained.
So if any of us are to survive, to flourish,
even to attempt to lead a good life.
It will be a life lived with others, a life that is no life without those others.
I will not lose this, I who I am under such conditions rather whoever I am
will be transformed by my connections with others.
Since my dependency on another and
even my dependability are necessary in order to live and to live well.
Our shared exposure to precarity is what one ground of our potential equality and
of our reciprocal obligations to produce together conditions of livable life.
And avowing this need we have for one another, we avow as well
basic principles that inform the social democratic conditions of a livable life.
So what I've sought to offer here today is an account of vulnerability in the context
of bodies that suffer, persist, take and give joy, but also live and act together.
The recognition of the relational framework does not by itself,
give us a firm sense of what it is to act together or
as Hannah Arendt would put it, to act in concert.
I've written on that elsewhere, but here I would like to suggest [COUGH]
that social movements
[COUGH] Require forms of network and assembly that traverse the distinction
between embodied and virtual forms of connection.
And that just as every assembly body's now arrives with cell phone technology,
transporting the event across jurisdictional lines.
So every technology is somewhere connected to bodies that bear or operate them.
But where people do assemble in public,
they are making a claim even when they are not speaking.
Since the very assembly of a group of bodies lays claim to space and
that is surely a demand and an action laden with significance.
I don't think we can rely on the immediacy of bodies to make a political point.
I don't have a vitalist position, Someone's got something going on.
>> [LAUGH] >> I don't think that some life
force bursts forth in an unmediated way.
It's rather that the right to assemble does not make sense if I simply speak
that right on my own in a venue such as this.
The right to assemble takes place or
makes sense only on the occasion when assembly can and does happen.
In other words, the right has to be exercised to be the right.
It requires the punctual and plural appearance of bodies to enact
the right and to make clear what the right entails.
Specially when people show up for assemblies or
demonstrations when they are not permitted.
They assert a right that is precisely not one codified by law.
We might call this a human right, I don't object.
But for that to be true, it's neither the right of an individual, nor
really the right of the group.
But a right that emerges from the social relation that it bespeaks and enacts.
In that sense, bodies in assembly are always mediated.
They take shape within a space that is already designated
as a possibly public sphere often quite laden with interpretations and
legacies of prior actions.
We can call this the assertion of a right, even a human right, but
we can also call it a political demand.
It seems to matter which language we use, since we may have a right to make
a demand, but that right remains merely potential, unless the demand is made.
A group can say, hey we have a right and it belongs to us properly and
no one can or should take it away.
But if we ask what the right is for and we learn that it is for freedom,
or justice, or equality then we are already implicated in a political field
where we are obligated to give substantial definitions for those terms.
This is one sense in which human rights only makes sense within a broader
political framework.
And its usefulness has to be judged within the terms of that broader politics.
How then, does the body and vulnerability fit in with this framework, if we're not
compelled to follow a political strategy that's restricted to identifying and
protecting vulnerable groups?
Where and how is the power of the vulnerable, made known
if vulnerability is not lost when the vulnerable take power?
What does that say about how we misconstrue the relation between
being acted upon and acting?
Let us then briefly return to the political demand and this is my, really,
final point.
The one aptly demonstrated by refugee uprisings or
indeed by gatherings of the precarious.
These are conditions that are required for.
Or there are, rather, conditions that are required for bodies to persist.
And the we who gather are still persisting enough together, right?
You have to persist enough to gather, but
the we who persists enough to gather is also objecting to the destruction of those
conditions that make life livable, that make persistence possible.
So who we are, whoever these bodies are that
require the social conditions that make persistence and livability possible.
Are also making a demand for those conditions.
We are not persisting but we are and
we resist is what will destroy the possibility of our persistence.
We're barely persisting but we're still persisting.
We're still persisting but we may not be able always to persist.
And these are the reasons why and that is wrong and we oppose it.
This is circular for sure, but it's one that demonstrates precarity
through demonstrating the body who's precarity and persistence is the issue.
When bodies gather for such purposes they signify the political claim they
are making through enacting the claim itself.
This form of embodiment, we might say, embodied performativity
is saying a great deal even when there is no verbalization.
It's not the body in its immediacy that appears apart from representation.
It is the body represented by its gathering and its plural persistence.
It is social and it is signifying, bodies enact and become the claim.
Such gatherings provisionally assert the infrastructural conditions of
the social at the very moment that they object to its vanishing.
That form of objection is resistance to the condition of being deprived of
the possibility of a livable life, deprived mobility, expression, shelter,
belonging, legal status, work, freedom.
These are not abstract rights but
powers that depend upon a living body whose conditions of livability
are actively reproduced at a social, political and economic level.
The forms of political resistance to precarity do not
convert vulnerability into invulnerability.
As if our ideal is for all of us to become invulnerable.
No, I'm not living in that world.
That's certainly not the task.
Uprisings against institutional forms of abandonment
give embodied form to a political demand.
These are bodies that still matter in a double sense and
given the normalization of destruction in our time
to insist on being regarded and registered as such is a political demand.
The demonstration of the body is not the sudden emergence of raw immediacy into
public view but a mediated demonstration of the body in relation to the threat and
actuality of destruction.
That demonstration opposes what it shows, and in this way vulnerability and
resistance become allied in the struggle,
a struggle that cannot be conceived without that alliance.
Thank you very much.
>> Sure.
>> Do I have some questions?
I'll bring you the mic.
>> Thank you so much for this talk.
I have a question about what would happen if.
So thinking about the politics of vulnerability and
this idea that we need to think about this inter-dependency.
And I was thinking about when we talk about vulnerable populations or
marginalized populations what is then alighted.
And this reminds me of a poster which I don't know if you've seen and
it was the poster that goes around Facebook about how to stop rape.
And it had a list of tips and how to stop rape and
it included things like, don't rape people.
And if someone is drunk, don't rape them and
if you're thinking about raping someone, don't rape them.
And I was think about in this way of thinking about vulnerability
the thing that is sort of a light are those who are the perpetrators, right?
One is not marginalized on ones self, there are also marginalizers.
And I was thinking what happens if, to sort of display the inter-dependency,
we add to the phrase politics of vulnerability phrases like,
the politics of cruelty towards, or the politics of being a groper,
or the politics of lack of empathy for, or the politics of excessive privilege over?
And so I was wondering what you think would happen if we added to phrases like
the politics of vulnerability then you know phrases of domination,
of politics of domination, and politics of cruelty over?
To make visible then those perpetrators who enact these
statuses but then remain themselves always unseen.
>> Mm-hm.
Okay, let me just take questions one at a time.
That's sometimes easier, I have to say, than holding it all.
Thank you very much, well, first of all
I think the injunction against rape, the injunction against cruelty.
It could be addressed to a certain group of people, who are prone to be cruel, or
prone to rape or who have been known to rape.
But the truth is that it's also addressed to any and
all people who at various ages and in various genders,
who may well also needs to be addressed on issues such as those.
So we wouldn't be able to develop a typology, right?
Where they're a rapist and they need to be told not to rape.
There are all kinds of people who can become rapists, and
we don't know who they are.
Which means that the address has to be open,
and even the one who makes the address is obligated by it.
So it also has to be addressed to ones self, it has to be reflexively addressed.
Because if the person who puts that up on Facebook actually is a rapist.
And has some perverse relationship to condemning rape or
telling people not to rape.
Then we have a pretty complex phenomenon going on, but
not altogether idiosyncratic by the way.
Many people who do take strong moral positions against violence
seek to establish themselves as outside as
incapable of the set of actions that they prescribe, right?
And that's part of the moralistic paternalism that I'm trying to get around.
So what would it mean to deliver an injunction not to rape, and
to understand ones self as capable of sexual destructiveness or
sexual injury of inflicting it, of inflicting pain or damage.
And I suppose I worry when that doesn't happen that
we get back into the typological categories that
tend to divide types of people from one another.
And use those kinds of categories to produce a morally
purified position for some, and even a paternalistic one and
a degraded and totalising position for others.
And yeah, I think maybe I'll just say that, I mean empathy is important.
But I've never thought I could develop
a theory of empathy, because it tends to,
or even an adjunction to be empathetic.
Although I like people who have empathy, I try to have empathy in my life.
But empathy is strange,
because it very often relies on an analogical mode of identification.
That is to say, I empathize with you because you are like me, and
I can feel what you feel because you feel what I feel.
Which means that I am the basis on which I understand all others.
>> [LAUGH] >> Right?
And it kind of comes back to this, but what if you're not adequate?
What if you're actually handed something to respond to,
and you don't have the resource in yourself?
You're actually being challenged to expand what you can feel or know, right?
I mean what if somebody comes to you and says, I'm this kid in your class.
And I'm this nice person and you've been giving me straight A's and
I want to go to grad school.
But here's the thing I do have a rape charge on my criminal record, and
you've just been posting on Facebook, don't rape.
And you've got something there, what if you can't identify?
What if that's like a [SOUND] or
another moral framework that is not the same as my own?
Where ethical passions are strongly held, but they're not immediately
understandable in light of the conceptual schemes that I bring to the encounter.
Do I allow those conceptual schemes to be disrupted?
And it's something about that being disrupted by the other or
having one's conceptual schemes interrupted, or
compelled to open unexpectedly that I think empathy can't handle.
I mean, I just have gone on too long, okay.
So I worry about that, which isn't to say I'm against empathy.
Okay, it shouldn't be.
>> [LAUGH] >> If an account of empathy could come
up with, it could accommodate some of what I just said, then I'm open.
>> [LAUGH] >> Okay, anybody else wanna talk to me?
>> [LAUGH] >> I'm gonna take several of it.
>> Let's take four or five, and then we'll see if I'm exhausted or
let's see how friendly everybody, yeah, yeah.
>> [LAUGH] >> No, I like the one at the time.
I know that means a lot of walking for you, okay, all right.
>> Good eve- >> Hello.
>> Good evening, and thank you so much for being here, it's such an honor.
My question is, I mean if I understood right and then vulnerability
arises from the feeling of abandonment of the social relations.
What makes okay to abandon certain groups and not others?
Because it's not that all like is it empirical when it
happens then that particular group which has been abandoned becomes vulnerable or
is there part on that can be determined?
>> Yes, I
guess I would not say that vulnerability
emerges just on the occasion of abandonment, or
that abandonment is the precipitating cause for vulnerability.
I think the fact that we depend on social structures and
infrastructural forms in particular, in order to live,
means that we are all vulnerable on those forms.
Whether or not we are in crisis or whether or not we're in abandon.
We could be taking them for
granted, we could be smug, first world privilege people.
Just like hey, yeah, the road's there for me.
I'm voting against taxes, I don't know who pays for that road.
I don't really care, it's just there for me, right?
I mean so that person thinks maybe there's no
dependency on that infrastructure or that,
that person would not undergo some kind of
crisis if that infrastructure failed.
But that's there, right?
There could be an earthquake, there could be a war.
There could be any number of things that happen that suddenly expose
an infrastructural condition of life as precarious as frail.
So although we can talk about examples in which groups become especially vulnerable.
I would be worried if we only used the term in that way,
as if vulnerability is a special circumstance of a particular
group that has experience something specific.
I think it's actually coterminous with living as an organic, Creature
in a social world and being interdependent and dependent in different ways.
So that would have to be elaborated but
I think we're vulnerable to those structures upon which we depend.
And so that's the more general claim.
And I actually think that once we get that claim,
once we understand that claim, that we can then think about well,
why is it that we do respond to people who are in need?
Or why is it that we call for a restructuring of the world?