Presidential Forum: Vulnerable Times

When I proposed the theme “Vulnerable Times” for the 2014 convention, it was my hope that the idea of vulnerability, and of vulnerable times in particular, would pull together a number of strands. I was thinking of multiple dimensions of vulnerability and hoping to consider them together with colleagues in fields both contiguous to and far removed from my own. I had no idea, however, that the response to an invitation to join this conversation would be so overwhelming. Nearly two hundred of the eight hundred convention sessions were connected to the theme, and they ranged across numerous divisions, discussion groups, allied organizations, and special sessions, across histories, geographies, and subfields.

During 2014, Profession will publish the presentations from four of these sessions: the Presidential Forum, “Trauma, Memory, Vulnerability,” “Public Humanities,” and “The Politics of Language in Vulnerable Times.”

The theme of vulnerable times addresses vulnerabilities of life, of the planet, and of our professional disciplines now and throughout history. Its aim is to illuminate ensuing acts of imagination and forms of resistance that promote social change. My own interest in vulnerability derives from my long-standing feminist work on lives that are marginalized, forgotten, or omitted from dominant histories and narratives. It also emerges from a concern about the precarious place of education, particularly languages, the humanities, and the arts, as a local and global priority in the present moment. And it develops from a commitment to mobilize and promote the textual, historical, theoretical, and activist work that we do in the framework of the MLA in broader social and political platforms.

Vulnerability and its twin notion, resilience, are widely used in the fields of environment, social ecology, political economy, medicine, and developmental psychology to study the predisposition of people and systems to injury and their ability to recover from shocks and unwelcome surprises. Feminist theorists acknowledge the vulnerabilities we share as an embodied species but have also underlined the differentially imposed and socially manufactured vulnerabilities faced by marginalized groups throughout history. They have seen vulnerability—both shared and differentially inflicted—not as weakness or victimhood but as a space for engagement and resistance emerging from a sense of fundamental interdependence and solidarity. Conscious of some of the pitfalls that follow from a claim to vulnerability, they have nevertheless used this claim to imagine and to demand social and political institutions that will lessen injury.

This collected discussion of vulnerable times aims to contribute literary and humanistic perspectives to our interdisciplinary engagements. It looks to the temporalities that follow from an acknowledgment of vulnerability and asks how different historical moments and different cultural contexts have attempted to avert catastrophe by envisioning alternative futures. It aims to reframe dominant narratives of power and powerlessness, perpetration and victimhood, reimagining them, as Rob Nixon suggests, from the perspectives of the vulnerable.

The contributions to the forum share several assumptions about vulnerability: the conviction that it is historically specific; that it is differentially distributed; that it goes beyond the human to other species and life-forms; and that it is not a stigma or weakness but a space of connection that, if acknowledged, can generate an ethics and politics of openness, attunement, and resistance. Thus Judith Butler, looking at the well-known photograph of the woman in a red dress from the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, asks whether vulnerability can be mobilized as a form of agency. The woman in the red dress is only one of several striking images of creative response in the face of what Ariella Azoulay calls “regime-made disaster.” These responses in no way diminish the violence that elicited them, but they do illustrate how vulnerability can become resistance. Azoulay’s paper urges us to refuse an all too common equation: if some people are made vulnerable, it is because others have accepted being made perpetrators. But, she asks, what if we were to claim a fundamental right not to become perpetrators? Or what, in David Eng’s terms, does it mean to apologize for an act for which one is not directly responsible but in which one is implicated? It means to assume responsibility for the unintended consequences of one’s actions, thus engaging in an “unanticipated solidarity” of the vulnerable—the solidarity, in this case, of the Sahtu Dene, an impoverished indigenous group in northwest Canada who mined the uranium used to manufacture the bomb, and of the bomb’s victims in Hiroshima. We see this solidarity also in Diana Taylor’s dance with the Zapatistas and in the Mayan idea of ch’ulel—the interconnectedness of all life-forms—that sustains this utterly vulnerable and yet powerfully resilient group. Claiming vulnerability as a space from which to begin rather than as a stigma to overcome, the forum papers take us to disparate and unexpected sites, all interconnected by the commitment to the tough, incisive, and activist analysis that distinguishes the humanities in vulnerable times.

Marianne Hirsch is William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.

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