Bodies and the Power of Vulnerability

By Miller, Elaine P. | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Bodies and the Power of Vulnerability


Miller, Elaine P., Philosophy Today


THINKING DEMOCRACY AND SUBJECTIVITY OUTSIDE THE LOGIC OF CONFRONTATION

In this essay I shall respond to a pervasive and persuasive argument in Debra Bergoffen's work, namely, that body image or an individual's sense of embodiment both reflects and influences political questions, and in particular that there is an indelible link between the modern philosophical conception of the autonomous body and the patriarchal culture of violence and domination (MB, 1). Secondly, I will examine what Bergoffen calls a "politics of the vulnerable body," as an alternative to the patriarchal politics of the autonomous and masterful body. Finally, I would like to consider two examples of vulnerable bodies that become destructive and even violent forces, in order to provoke reflection on how we are to understand the implications of the final political stand, that is, the attempt to effect political change by turning upon one's own body. Can the transformation of one's body into a strategic tool or weapon of violence through self-destruction be understood in analogy to the self-destruction of the anorexic's body (the only thing over which she has control) within the logic of masterful subjectivity, a phenomenon that Bergoffen eloquently analyzes as part of her justification for the need to conceptualize a vulnerable rather than an autonomous subject as an ideal? Or does the case of the hunger striker or the suicide attacker undermine the concept of the politics of vulnerability? When Bergoffen writes in 1990 that "the body politic image is both a metaphor for legitimate political authority and a formula for terrorist politics" (BP, 114), she is thinking of the terrorism of the authoritarian totalitarian state, not of individual stateless suicide attackers. However, I would contend that even if this is not what Bergoffen had in mind at the time, today's terrorism, in a way that can be drawn out of her analysis of the body politic, is not so much a monstrous, irrational aberration of or opposing force against the democratic politics that grow out of the body politic tradition based on the myth of the autonomous body, as it is the myth of the invulnerable body taken to its natural conclusion, following its own monstrous logic to its ultimate end. While I am very sympathetic to the formulation of an alternative conception of subjectivity in terms of vulnerability and trust, I am not certain that overcoming the logic of Oedipus, as Bergoffen puts it, will put an end to violence, or even that it is necessarily a process that we can simply undertake as a political task. This is particularly the case given that it is only in the guise of an autonomous subject that we can choose alternative subjectivities, politics, vulnerabilities. Bergoffen's turn to the politics of the vulnerable body to address the violence and destruction that she argues have evolved out of the logic of the autonomous body seems to overlook the potentially terrifying power of the vulnerable body within that very logic of war and mastery, and the difficulty or even impossibility of eluding that logic. This is to say that as the other of violence, vulnerability may itself constitute or be constituted by violence in a way that puts its appeal into question.

I will begin by revisiting three Bergoffian analyses of embodiment and its relationship to politics: "The Body Politic: Democratic Metaphors, Totalitarian Practices, Erotic Rebellions," published in 1990 in Philosophy and Social Criticism; "Toward a Politics of the Vulnerable Body," forthcoming in Hypatia, in a special issue on evil; and "Mourning the Autonomous Body," forthcoming in Marking the Limits of the Body. I will also make reference to Bergofffen's "Nietzsche's Women: The Politics of Transvaluation," a conference paper given at Lewis University in February of 2002. In all of these works, Bergoffen follows the conviction that the desire for the other exposes the lie of the autonomous body, an exposure that within the logic of patriarchy gives rise to a feeling of threat to the autonomous body. …

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