Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

On Vulnerability as Judith Butler's Language of Politics: From Excitable Speech to Precarious Life

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

On Vulnerability as Judith Butler's Language of Politics: From Excitable Speech to Precarious Life

Article excerpt

It is often said that philosophy begins in wonder, but it may be the case that political theory begins in a sense of danger - in emotions of fear or dread; in perceptions of impending or potential harm, in experiences of vulnerability or injury. Most famously, Thomas Hobbes made the English Revolution a "state of nature" to elicit and mobilize fear of premature, violent death in the service of a state -building project promising safety. So also, after Socrates s judicial murder, Plato dreamed a republic in which philosophy (and its practitioners) would be safe, not vulnerable. And did Marx not depict communism as the "specter" of destruction haunting the European bourgeoisie? If canonical political thought is animated by representations of danger and harm, which must be apprehended at all to be addressed by action, so political theorists often speak in a voice of warning about "what is to be done."

Of course the other side of warning and injury is (the hope for) safety, even plenitude. So Plato imagines a world safe for philosophy, while Hobbes promises that mortal safety, and indeed material well-being, are possible if people consent to a sovereign power that "overawes them all." The capacity of this mortal god to terrify is the condition of its capacity to protect. As these examples suggest, however, the move from dangerous vulnerability to abiding safety may come at the expense of (democratic) politics itself as a distinctive human practice.

Plato and Hobbes seem to seek safety by imagining sovereign states and extrapolitical truths: by these absolutes they promise to overcome or at least contain the conflict arising from human plurality and social inequality. On the one hand they argue that the absence of sovereign power and truth - and so the messy pervasiveness of politics because justice is not self-evident nor order automatic - is the major cause of human suffering. On the other hand, their critics say, by wedding philosophy and power to secure a sovereign framework of life, they would rescue human beings from danger at too high a cost. Indeed, theorists who value politics depict Plato and Hobbes as making impossible promises: that philosophy can generate a principle of (absolute, extrapolitical) authority that can give political life a secure "foundation," and thereby end it. If it is impossible to transcend conditions of finitude and plurality, however, then politics is not only inescapable, but valuable. For as Machiavelli argues, human beings do face mortal danger unless they generate durable political forms, but they must create order from among themselves by political means, and their capacity to do so is jeopardized - we should say endangered - by despair in their capacity to act, by excessive fear of conflict and by fantasies of escaping the contingencies that make action and choice at once necessary and costly. For Machiavelli, then, the price of false promises of safety is freedom, but conceived politically as an agonistic practice of fashioning a common world out of plural (and often acute) differences, freedom is also the best means to sustain a durable framework for human life in all of its dimensions.

Accordingly, a central element in the "genre" of political theory is argument about danger and how to forestall it. When figures like Machiavelli and Arendt take up the "vocation" of political theory, therefore, they take on the rhetorically complex task of persuading people to face what they are invested in denying: the importance of dangers not yet visible; the necessity (and fatefulness) of choices people would rather defer; the impossibility of moral purity in making them; the burdens, risks, and suffering that inhere to human freedom. Judith Butler surely places herself among those who challenge the illusions and longings that generate subjugation in the name of an impossible safety. Let us assess, then, the value but also the dangers in her argument about the chimera of safety, by reading Excitable Speech, published in 1997, in tandem with her more recent work, especially Precarious Life, published in 2005. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.