Gareth Davies

Building on the work of her previous books Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (2004), and Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Prof. Judith Butler addressed Trinity College Dublin last week on the subject of Vulnerability and Resistance. Her lecture sought to further debates from the critically acclaimed Frames of War where Butler explicitly dealt with the concept of vulnerability in her chapter "Survivability, Vulnerability and Affect."

Butler argues in her discussion that resistance necessitates that we be vulnerable, and that one of the truest forms of resistance is one in which vulnerable bodies are exposed in solidarity. To protest one must necessarily be vulnerable, as public assemblies are haunted by the police and the prospect of prison. In vulnerability one may then find strength and a way of resisting against paternalistic institutions. The growth of the prison industrial complex makes those who resist more and more vulnerable to police brutality. Citing examples of violent government responses to peaceful action in Gezi Park, we are also reminded of other more recent acts of brutality, such as the killing of Eric Garner, in which disproportionate force is used against the vulnerable.  

Developing her pioneering notion of gender performativity Butler explains that our vulnerability is two-fold. We are not only vulnerable as precariat in increasingly neoliberal systems, but we are also made vulnerable to the symbolic systems which precede our coming into the world and structure how we act and identify with others and ourselves. Precisely because these symbolic systems guide and discipline our gender, and other aspects of our lives before we are able to consciously resist, we are vulnerable.

Our method of resistance should be to accept the chains of dependence which govern human existence, and to unite in vulnerability. Butler’s analysis contributes to our understanding of vulnerability as a position of strength rather than weakness, of resistance rather than passivity. 

Thanks to the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin for arranging this event and making the podcast available.

Gareth Davies is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. Twitter @garethaledavies