ESR 11 Blog October 2021: Fabiola Fiocco

The concept of vulnerability has been part of my research from the beginning. It keeps coming back in my notes, in various forms and contexts, without finding a proper place. Yet, in this blog post I want to take up a moment to delve on it a little bit further.

Historically, vulnerability has been associated with the sphere of the feminine, as a negative characteristic, a defect that made women unable to undertake certain roles, engage in specific activities and situations. More generally, the trait of vulnerability has been attributed to various groups and categories over time with the aim of constraining their power of self-determination and justifying policies of control and oppression in the name of humanitarianism, without having to question or deal with the causes that produce such fragility and inequality. Feminists have been largely rejecting and resisting this idea of vulnerability as an ontological condition, trying to move away and deconstruct certain images and archetypes. In recent years, it has been possible to observe a renewed interest in engaging with vulnerability as a critical concept in relation to neoliberal biopolitics.[1]

Specifically, the work of Judith Butler has been particularly significant for it initiated a process of re-signification aimed not at discarding vulnerability but at thinking ‘vulnerability and agency together’ to produce new forms of relationality and alliances.[2] In opposition to the neoliberal values of independence and autonomy, generally understood as prime male characters, Butler emphasise the ways in which we are all deeply interconnected, arguing that we are all vulnerable not as weak but as relational beings. In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Butler identified in the recognition of shared social vulnerability a key turning point in the formation of new alliances, mobilising vulnerability as a collective strategy of self-organisation and resistance.[3] Later, in Vulnerability in Resistance, Butler continued to expand and rearticulate her reflections on vulnerability and resistance, suggesting as we are socially constituted beings, with the capacity to constantly affect and be affected, there can be no agency outside of our relationality.[4] By reformulating vulnerability in the light of our interdependence and constitutive openness, Butler undermines the binary classifications that identify certain groups as intrinsically fragile, weak, and thus submissive, positing that our agency is an integral part of our vulnerability.

In the multi-layered ecosystem of the arts, Covid-19 has reinforced existing systemic precarities, clearly exposing the untenable conditions underlying the functioning and reproduction of the system, while pushing for the constant creation of content, taking to the extreme the already unsustainable demand for 24/7 availability and creativity. Within this framework, Friederike Landau argues that the pandemic has represented the perfect moment to initiate an active process of negotiation of vulnerabilities for «being exposed makes always-already vulnerable bodies, institutions, infrastructures tangible and open to productive conflict and change.»[5] Hence, Landau proposes to develop the notion of cultural infrastructures as infrastructures of vulnerability «a new direction that not only captures the systemic lack of safety in funding and infrastructural support, but might more actively extend such concerns to all parts of the cultural infrastructure – things, people, bodies, spaces, thoughts.»[6] To rethink art infrastructures through shared social vulnerability would thus mean to reformulate funding structures, working patterns, and objectives on the basis of the needs of the work force, overcoming the utilitarian, competitive, and productivist criteria in place.

Both Landau and Butler, while operating within different theoretical and political contexts, converge in developing politics of vulnerability from which to collectivise rather individualising instances, overcoming the limits of the art system and interlacing with other fields, groups, and struggles. In reflecting on vulnerability and its political use, I wonder how this has been conceived in the contexts in which I have found myself working and operating. How have we intertwined and joined our vulnerabilities? With whom have this been done? In what terms? And how many times have we instead preferred patriarchal expressions of force and authority? In answering these questions, I started identifying some relational and emotional patterns which I hope I will be able to further address and elucidate.

In the meantime, take care.


[1] See W. S. Hesford and R. A. Lewis (eds.),’ Mobilizing Vulnerability: new Directions in Transnational Feminist Studies and Human Rights’, Feminist Formations, vol. 28, n. 1, Spring 2016; J. Butler, Z. Gambetti and L. Sabsay (eds.), Vulnerability in Resistance, Duke University Press, 2016

[2] J. Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2015

[3] Ibidem

[4] J. Butler, ‘Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance’ in J. Butler, Z. Gambetti and L. Sabsay (eds.), Vulnerability in Resistance, Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 12-27

[5] F. Landau, ‘Cultural Infrastructures of Vulnerability. Reflections on Care during and after COVID-19’, Arts of The Working Class, [last accessed 23/10/2021]

[6] Ibidem

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