Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance: Feminism & Social Change

Women Creating Change

Istanbul Workshop, September 16-19, 2013
Co-directors: Judith Butler and Zeynep Gambetti

There is always something both risky and true in claiming that women are especially vulnerable.  The claim can be taken to mean that women have an unchanging and defining vulnerability, and that kind of argument makes the case for paternalistic protection.  If women are especially vulnerable, then they seek protection, and it becomes the responsibility of the state or other paternal powers to provide that protection.  On the model, feminist activism not only petitions paternal authority for special dispensations and protections, but affirms that inequality of power situates women in a powerless position and, by implication, men in a more powerful one, or it invests state structures with the responsibility for facilitating the achievement of feminist goals. In yet other instances, women struggle to establish practices (self-defense) and institutions (battered women’s shelters) that seek to provide protection without enlarging paternalistic powers.

And yet, there are good reasons to argue for the differential vulnerability of women; they suffer disproportionately from poverty and literacy, two very important dimensions of any global analysis of women’s condition.  So the question that emerges, and forms the focus of this project, is how to think about the vulnerability of women in conjunction with feminist modes of agency, and how to think both in light of global conditions and emerging possibilities of global alliance?  This task is made all the more difficult as state structures and institutions of social welfare lose their own resources, thus exposing more populations to homelessness, unemployment, illiteracy, and inadequate health care.  Hence, the question is how to make the feminist claim effectively that such institutions are crucial to sustaining lives at the same time that feminists resist modes of paternalism that re-instate relations of inequality?

In some ways, vulnerability has been regarded as a value in feminist theory and politics.  This means neither that women are more vulnerable than men nor that women value vulnerability more than men do. Rather, certain kinds of gender-defining attributes, like vulnerability and invulnerability, are distributed unequally, and for purposes of shoring up certain regimes of power that disenfranchise women. We think about goods as distributed unequally under capitalism as well as natural resources, especially water, as distributed unequally, but we should also surely consider that one way of managing populations is to distribute vulnerability unequally in such a way that “vulnerable populations” are established within discourse and policy.  More recently, we note that social movements and policy analysts refer to precarious populations, and that political strategies are accordingly devised to think about ameliorating conditions of precarity. As we extend the economic notion of “unequal distribution” to broader social and cultural spheres, we also are confronted, especially during times of war, with the uneven grievability of populations, that is, the idea that certain lives, if lost, are more worthy of memorialization and public grieving, than others. Populations targeted for injury and destruction in war are considered ungrievable from the start, but so too are populations whose labor is episodic and precarious, or who are considered “abandoned” through systematic forms of negligence. In Turkey, the attempt to establish lives as ungrievable becomes highly relevant for Kurdish women, and women from rural areas, especially informal laborers. The deaths of Kurdish guerillas (and the grief of their mothers) is actively discredited while fallen Turkish soldiers are elevated to the status of martyrs.

When vulnerability is distributed unequally, then certain populations are effectively targeted as injurable (with impunity) or disposable (without reparation).   This kind of explicit or implicit marking can work to justify the infliction of injury upon them (as we see in times of war, or in state violence against undocumented citizens), or we can see such populations as responsible for their position or, conversely, in need of protection from the state or other institutions of civil society.  The sequence does not always work in one way; for instance, precisely on those occasions when injury goes unpunished are certain populations rendered effectively vulnerable (Turkey is a case in point). It is important to note that when such redistributive strategies abound, then other populations, usually the ones orchestrating or effecting the processes of re-distribution, posit themselves as invulnerable, if not impermeable, and without any such needs of protection. Or, in the case of honor killing, it is for the most part men’s “honor” that is figured as hyper-vulnerable and women’s sexual behavior that is figured as waging a lethal force. In each of these cases, vulnerability and invulnerability are taken as political effects, unequally distributed effects of a field of power that acts on and through bodies. If vulnerability has been culturally coded feminine, then how are certain populations effectively feminized when designated as vulnerable, and others construed as masculine when laying claim to impermeability?  And conversely, when it is men and their honor that is figured as vulnerable, to what extent are women expected to function as protection and, when they fail, become cast as threats to be contained?  As we can see from some of these swift inversions, vulnerability and invulnerability are not essential features of men or women, but processes of gender formation, the effects of modes of power that have as one of their aims the production of gender differences along lines of inequality. This has led psychoanalytic feminists to remark that the masculine position, construed in such a way, is effectively built through a denial of its own constitutive vulnerability. This denial or disavowal requires the political institution of oblivion, or forgetfulness, more specifically, the forgetting of one’s own vulnerability and its projection and displacement elsewhere.  At the same time, the production of a hyper-vulnerability (of the nation, of masculinity) establishes a rationale for the containment of both women and minorities.

Although psychoanalytic perspectives such as these are important as a way of gaining insight into this particular way that vulnerability is distributed along gender lines, it only goes part of the way toward the kind of analysis needed here. Since if we say that some person or some group denies vulnerability, then we presume not only that the vulnerability was already there, but also that it is in some sense undeniable. Of course, one cannot make an easy analogy between individual and groups formations, and yet modes of denial or disavowal can be seen to traverse them both. For instance, to certain defenders of the military rationale for the destruction of targeted groups or populations, we might say, ”you act as if you yourself were not vulnerable to the kind of destruction you cause.” Or to defenders of certain forms of neo-liberal economics – you act as if you yourself could never belong to a population whose work and life is precarious, who can suddenly be deprived of basic rights or access to housing or health care, or who lives with anxiety about how and whether work will ever arrive.  In this way, then, we assume that those who seek to expose others to a vulnerable position, or those who seek to posit and maintain a position of invulnerability for themselves seek to deny a vulnerability by which they are bound to the ones they seek to subjugate. This strategy becomes all the more complicated, and paradoxical, when it is precisely masculinist norms that are considered ‘under attack’ by LGBTQ communities, and when feminism is cast as a “threat” to a vulnerable masculinity. How do we  distinguish, if we can, between this tactical deployment of vulnerability and the important view of vulnerability that implies that bodies invariably depend on enduring social relations and institutions or their survival and flourishing, and that this cannot happen outside of relations of equality and justice?  If the concept of vulnerability always operates within a tactical field, how do theoretical affirmations of vulnerability enter into that field?  At stake is whether the assertions of  hyper-vulnerability or invulnerability for women or for men can give way to a notion of bodily vulnerability linked with practices of resistance in the service of social and political justice.

In the context of meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, these questions will be importantly revised and reconceptualized in light of feminist political actions and perceived, inverted, and deflected forms of vulnerability.  For instance, in the 1980s, a group of feminists launched an “occupy coffee houses” movement. Coffee houses are strictly masculine spaces where men spend the whole day. Feminists would go in groups to swarm the men who would otherwise deride them for entering into a masculine space.  Recently, feminists have initiated the practice of carrying the coffins of victimized women during funerals. This is a breach of the religious rule that allows only men to carry coffins. Thus, certain women’s victimhood (in this case death) became the occasion for other women to breach the rule without public objection. Similarly, the feminist initiatives that founded women’s shelters without the permission of the state were important accomplishments that, in turn, compelled the state to respond by building its own shelters. We will also have a chance to understand how secular and religious power are conceptualized, and how feminist and LGBTQ struggles are formulated in relation to that form of juridical power.

This project seeks to bring together a wide range of feminist scholars who work on the problem of women, vulnerability, and social change with an eye to understanding both the risks of establishing women as a vulnerable population (especially when, according to nationalist norms, some women are regarded as vulnerable, and minority women are not), the tactical deployment of the status of vulnerability, and the promise of developing new modes of collective agency that do not deny vulnerability as a resource. We propose to consider both the power differential and modes of agency among women that mobilize vulnerability within tactics of resistance. In other words, we hope to understand global practices of social change that emerge from conditions of social and economic vulnerability, and that demonstrate the relation between vulnerability and political agency.  Our topics will include a gendered analysis of war, literacy and education, economic precarity and inequality, and we hope both to identify sites of social vulnerability and modes of social change.  We hope as well to bring together artists, critics, and philosophers who offer theoretical perspectives on the sources of social change, focusing on modes of alliance that are characterized by interdependency and public action.  Moreover, we will ask about the gendering of perceived or marked vulnerabilities and how they function to expand or justify those structures of power that seek to achieve ethnic, economic or cultural-religious dominance in specific social contexts.  

Please join the Columbia Global Center | Istanbul for a lecture and discussion with Judith Butler, one of the world’s leading scholars and philosophers.  Known for her groundbreaking work in feminist and queer theory as well as political philosophy, University of California at Berkeley scholar and Columbia University Visiting Professor Judith Butler will be giving a seminar parallel to the opening of the 13th Ista