Academic journal article Critical Studies

Bodily Vulnerability, Coalitions, and Street Politics

Academic journal article Critical Studies

Bodily Vulnerability, Coalitions, and Street Politics

Article excerpt

The goal of this essay is to reflect on the ways in which bodies come to perform resistance, through vulnerability, coalitions and the logics of the street as a site for public demonstrations. The question of who, when and how spaces are used in resistance-and when the infrastructure itself is both the demand and requisite for mobility-is addressed through considerations of what it means when bodies come to be in spaces. It interrogates how vulnerability goes beyond merely the potential for physical harm, highlighting its relationality, and addresses the possibility for precarity to be mobilized. By enacting political demands, mobilizing bodies, and recognizing vulnerability, the performative dimension of resistance is explored.

I would like to begin by focusing on three issues: bodily vulnerability, coalitions, and street politics, but perhaps not quite to string them together in a fully obvious way. And then I would like to turn to a consideration of vulnerability as a form of activism, or as that which is in some sense mobilized in forms of resistance. As we all know, politics does not always happen on the street; politics does not always foreground vulnerability, and coalitions can be made from any number of dispositions, not necessarily a shared sense of vulnerability. Indeed, our skepticism about vulnerability is, I wager, quite enormous. Women have too long been associated with vulnerability, and there is no clear way to derive an ethics, much less a politics, from that notion. So I concede at the outset that I have a great deal of work to do by suggesting that these three ideas might usefully inform one another and lead usefully to a consideration of vulnerability. In addition, my title promises that I will turn to resistance, and so toward the end of this essay, I will try to do precisely that.

My increasingly urgent sense about speaking in public is not that it leads us straightway to a path for action; it is, rather, a chance to pause together and reflect on the conditions and directions of acting, a form of reflecting that has its own value, and not merely an instrumental one. Indeed, whether or not this kind of pausing is itself part of action and activism is another question, but my considered impulse is to say, yes, it is, but not only, or not exclusively. On this occasion, I want to think about these topics in order to set aside some of the misconceptions that could easily arise from such a title. It may be thought that I will say that bodies in the street are a good thing or that we should celebrate mass demonstrations, and that bodies assembled form a certain ideal of community or even a new politics worthy of praise.1 Though sometimes bodies assembled on the street are clearly cause for joy and even hope-and surging crowds sometimes do become the occa- sion for revolutionary hopefulness-let us remember that the phrase "bodies on the street" can refer equally well to right-wing demonstrations, to military soldiers assembled to quell demonstrations or seize power, to lynch mobs or anti-immigrant populist movements taking over public space. So they are neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad; they assume differing values depending on what they are assembled for, and how that assembly works. And yet, the idea of bodies on the street together gives leftists a bit of a thrill, as if power were being taken back, taken away, assumed and incorporated in some way that portends democracy. I understand that thrill, have even written from it, but here I will review some of my doubts, some of which I suspect are shared doubts.

So, from the start, we have to be prepared to ask under what conditions do we find bodies assembled on the street to be cause for celebration, or what forms of assembly actually work in the service of realizing greater ideals of justice and equality, even the realization of democracy itself?2 Minimally, we can say that those demonstrations that seek to realize justice and equality are worthy of praise. …

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