A few weeks ago we ran our second reading groups at Sussex University in Brighton and at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS) in Hyderabad. Both groups read Judith Butler’s piece on Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance. Below Vinnarasan and I have written up a short summary and impressions from the two discussions.
Personally I’ve always struggled with Butler’s writing so when my colleague Barry Luckock sent me this paper back in November I didn’t know what to expect. I started tentatively skimming it on my phone and very quickly found myself completely absorbed, and quite relieved to be able to ‘understand’. My second reading of the paper in preparation for the reading group was equally rewarding and I now find myself in possession of a colourful PDF document highlighted at every turn.
I’m also left with the somewhat daunting task of trying to capture and convey a really lively and very interesting discussion of quite abstract and important concepts. I confess that I stopped writing notes halfway through because it was tricky to capture all the responses to the text and I found myself instead completely engrossed and actively participating in the conversation. The text had touched me but it seemed to have also touched others too and there was a certain effervescence to the discussion, a sort of bubbling over that’s hard to capture on the flat page (or screen).
It turns out I’m not the only one to have struggled with other of Butler’s texts and I think there was a certain solidarity in that amongst a number of us present. Pam Thurschwell described it as a performative-yet-still-so-easy-to-read text and I would certainly agree with that.
Moving beyond the excitement of a readable text, reactions included an appreciation for Butler’s linguistic vulnerability. Sara Bragg shared how she had found the text useful for thinking through curricula, self-creation, autonomy and debates of violent media as damaging especially in educational contexts. In many of those context ‘resilience’ tends to be the preferred concept and Sara found ‘vulnerability’ to provide an appealing and nuanced alternative. Rebecca Webb shared how she had used Butler’s writing to think about normalisation of ‘rights respecting subjects’ in primary schools. She also shared how the text had resonated with her on a personal level of starting in a new professional role noting that the text provided words for articulating a political vision for being open and vulnerable at the same time and creating a liveable life in a workspace.
Perpetua Kirby told us that the text reminded her of an evaluation where she had been involved in researching a gallery space opened up for severely disabled people. She remembers how the staff who came into to help with the exhibit, despite being highly experienced in working with severely disabled people found this particular exhibition quite traumatic. The paper made Perpetua think that the staff’s professional experience had been completely upended and that what they had experienced was deep vulnerability. She wondered if there is a space for theorising trauma as a political form of engagement.
We had a discussion about whether Butler’s writing goes far enough with regards to the theorising pre-linguistic experiences, and in particular instincts in infancy such as eating, cuddling or skin contact. It was suggested that Butler had a view of the pre-discursive but not of the pre-symbolic and what had been especially appreciated by a number of those present was the interactive, iterative relationship between the self and the other, and that this was written in a careful way that conveyed the mutual constitution and interdependency.
From a practice perspective of working with young women who have been trafficked, Kristy Hickle said that the text provided a language with which to re-frame the way we engage with these young women, often portrayed as the sad and pathetic, and goes someway to restore their agency. Elsie Whittington related to the text to her research on consent in sexual encounters and relationships, and the process of seeking consent opening up the possibility to vulnerability through refusal. Pam Thurschwell commented on Butler’s engagement with public space and on occupying public space and shared a short clip from the film Examined Life which features Judith Butler and the disability theorist Sunaura Taylor which she found provided an illustration some of the arguments that Butler was making about space.
We had quite a long discussion about the notion of ‘authentic’ vulnerability, that some groups are more ‘vulnerable’ because of recognised power. Jo Morran-Ellis wondered if there was an essentialism in Butler’s argument in making the distinction between performative versus real vulnerability. Valerie Hay drew our attention to some of Bev Skegg’s work and her arguments about value recognition and who is doing the seeing of vulnerability.
I wondered about the meaning of the term ‘infrastructure’ in Butler’s text and how this was different from terms such ‘assemblage’ or ‘dispositif’. There was a feeling that infrastructure carried the meaning of a sociotechnical system and referred to structure. We then discussed the role of structure in Butler’s writing and it was noted how both the text we read and the clip shared by Pam were political in and of themselves.
Somewhere here my own notes become quite apocryphal and hard to decipher. Towards the end of the discussion someone in the group noted that the paper had “taken me on a journey I got lost in”. I clearly quite liked this turn of phrase as I made a point of putting it in quotation marks in my notes. It’s not a bad place to end and to encourage others to read Butler’s paper, which unlike what my notes became, is lucid and accessible.
As most of the members of the reading group were not familiar with Butler’s literature, before we kicked off, I briefly underscored the premise of Butler’s work to foreground this paper, then, we continued our discussion. Through this blog post, I try to summarise some of the interesting conversations we had in the meeting around three major themes fleshed out in Butler’s paper:
As someone new to feminist theories, Sriparna said she was fascinated to read Butler’s work that gender is performative and the notion of gender develops through iterative process. She is also impressed with her ideas of name-calling, and how street forms as a symbol for political assembly, and the coexistence of vulnerability and resistance in gender performativity. Madhavi encouraged us to think about different forms of social norms exist in the society that act upon and shape gender identity in the country. Archana felt the notion of gender choice is to a great extent applicable to queer community and in a patriarchal society where male chauvinism is prevalent women are not given space that is due for them in the society. She also flagged up the misrepresentation of women in mass media and how men caricature women and transgenders in the name of humour and entertainment. Srikanth expressed concern about bipolar representations of women in popular media – on the one hand, women are sexualised in cinema and, on other hand, women are domesticated in soap operas – but, sadly, both these identities are constructed by big corporate houses.
Street as a symbolic space
Then, we moved away to discuss if street forms a symbolic space for political assembly in India? Citing examples from West Bengal, Sriparna was of the view that street still play a prominent role for political assembly from micro to macro level. The recent rape incidence of a nun in Kolkata and its subsequent effects across the state – civil society and children coming on to street for justice – is a case for example, she said. In a similar vein, Srikumar pointed out the ways in which public places, especially coffee houses, facilitate public discussion and traditionally appears to be a politically active space in Kerala. In contrary, Srikanth spoke about designated spaces for political assembly in the country, for example Jantar Mantar in New Delhi where political mobilisation and resistance occurs, including the famous anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare.
Vulnerability and Resistance – Identity politics
While referring to Judith Butler’s argument on dominant groups constructing discourses on ‘vulnerability’, Archana emphasised how radical right wing groups in India are constructing similar discourses in the country. Those groups develop a sense of fear among majority and their recent rhetoric ‘Ghar Wapsi’ (meaning home coming) against religious conversion showcases the kind of ‘insecure’ feeling they want to embed among Hindus. Similarly, the act of moral policing by right wing groups on Valentine’s Day urges because of apprehensive feeling. They fear hybrid culture could contaminate local culture, especially gender norms, in the name of modernisation. She further said gender stereotyping should be broken in childhood itself to overcome this social barrier.
Mohan spoke about pseudo representation in the political institutions and political parities finding excuses for not giving reservation for women in electoral politics. Sriparna suggested redefining gender roles in the socialisation process if we aim social change. Creating public spaces for pluralistic society and developing a society that is sensible towards others are the need of the hour, Srikumar conceded. Madhavi said there is a gulf between reality and textbook knowledge so the school curriculum should strike a right balance in educating children about gender disparities in the country. Srikanth concluded the discussion with Dr Ambedkar’s idea of ‘cultural revolution’ to change people’s perception about gender in the country.