Judith Butler on Rethinking Vulnerability, Violence, Resistance
We are living in a time of numerous atrocities and senseless death, to be sure, and so one of the enormous ethical and political questions becomes: What are the modes of representation that are available to us to apprehend this violence? Some would say that global and regional authorities have to identify vulnerable groups and offer them protection. And though I am not opposed to the proliferation of “vulnerability papers” that would allow more migrants to cross borders, I am wondering whether that particular formation of discourse and power gets to the heart of the problem. The criticism is now well known that the discourse of “vulnerable groups” reproduces paternalistic power and gives authority to regulatory agencies with interests and constraints of their own. At the same time, I am mindful that many advocates for vulnerability have sought to address this very issue in their empirical and theoretical work. 
What seems clear is that, as important as it is to revalue vulnerability and give place to care, neither vulnerability nor care can serve as the basis of a politics. I would surely like to be a better person and to strive to become that, in part by acknowledging my apparently profound and recurrent fallibility. But none of us should seek to be saints, if what that means is that we hoard all goodness for ourselves, expelling the awed or destructive dimension of the human psyche to actors on the outside, those living in the region of the “not me,” with whom we disidentify. If, for instance, by an ethics or politics of “care” we mean that an ongoing and un-conflicted human disposition can and should give rise to a political framework for feminism, then we have entered into a bifurcated reality in which our own aggression is edited out of the picture or projected onto others. Similarly, it would be easy and efficient if we could establish vulnerability as the foundation for a new politics; but considered as a condition, it can neither be isolated from other terms, nor be the kind of phenomenon that can serve as a foundation. Is anyone vulnerable, for instance, without persisting in a vulnerable condition? Further, if we think about those who, in a condition of vulnerability, resist that very condition, how do we understand that duality?
The task, I would suggest, is not to rally as vulnerable creatures or to create a class of persons who identify primarily with vulnerability. In portraying people and communities who are subject to violence in systematic ways, do we do them justice, do we respect the dignity of their struggle, if we summarize them as “the vulnerable”? In the context of human rights work, the category of “vulnerable populations” includes those who require protection and care. Of course, it is crucial to bring into public awareness the situation of those who lack basic human requirements such as food and shelter, but also those whose freedom of mobility and rights to legal citizenship are denied, if not criminalized. Indeed, an increasingly large number of refugees have been abandoned by so many nation-states and transnational state formations, including, of course, the European Union. And the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are nearly 10 million stateless people now living in the world.  We also speak in such a way about the victims of feminicídio in Latin America (nearly 3,000 every year, with especially high rates in Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and El Salvador), a term which includes everyone who is brutalized or killed by virtue of being feminized, including large numbers of trans women as well.  At the same time, the Ni Una Menos movement has mobilized over a million women across Latin America (and Spain and Italy) to protest machista violence by taking to the streets. Organizing women and trans communities, travestis as well, Ni Una Menos has entered schools, churches, and unions to connect with women across economic classes and different regional communities to oppose the killing of women and trans people, but also the persistence of discrimination, battery, and systemic inequality.
Often the deaths from feminicídio are reported as sensationalist stories, after which there is a momentary shock. And then it happens again. There is horror, to be sure, but it is not always linked with an analysis and a mobilization that focuses collective rage. The systemic character of this violence is effaced when the men who commit such crimes are said to suffer personality disorders or singular pathological conditions. That same effacement happens when a death is considered to be “tragic,” as if conflicting forces in the universe led to an unfortunate conclusion. In Costa Rica, sociologist Montserrat Sagot has argued that the violence against women not only brings into focus the systemic inequality between men and women throughout society, but manifests forms of terror that are part of the legacy of dictatorial power and military violence.  The impunity with which brutal murders are treated continues violent legacies where domination, terror, social vulnerability, and extermination were committed on a regular basis. In her view, it will not do to explain assassinations such as these through recourse to individual characteristics, pathology, or even masculine aggression. Rather, these acts of killing have to be understood in terms of the reproduction of a social structure. She claims, further, that they have to be described as an extreme form of sexist terrorism. 
For Sagot, killing is the most extreme form of domination, and other forms, including discrimination, harassment, and battery, have to be understood as on a continuum with feminicídio. This is not a causal argument, yet every form of domination signals this lethal conclusion as a potential. Sexual violence carries with it the threat of death, and too often, it makes good on that promise.
Feminicídio works, in part, through establishing a climate of fear in which any woman, including trans women, can be killed. And this fear is compounded among women of color and queers of color, especially in Brazil. Those who are living understand themselves as still living, living in spite of this ambient threat, and they endure, and breathe, within an atmosphere of potential harm. Women who live on in such a climate are to some degree terrorized by the prevalence and impunity of this killing practice. They are induced to subordinate to men in order to avoid that fate, which means that their experience of inequality and subordination is already linked to their status as “killable.” “Subordinate or die” may seem like a hyperbolic imperative, but it is the message that many women know is addressed to them. This power to terrorize is too often backed up, supported, and strengthened by police and court systems that refuse to prosecute, that do not recognize the criminal character of the action. Sometimes violence is inflicted again on women who dare to make a legal complaint, punishing that manifestation of courage and persistence.
The killing is the obviously violent act in this scenario, but it would not reproduce with such great speed and intensity if it were not for those who dismiss the crime, blame the victim, or pathologize the killer in the spirit of exoneration.
Indeed, impunity is all too often built into the legal structure (which is one reason local authorities resist the intervention of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights), meaning that the refusal to receive the report, the threats against those who make the report, and the failure to recognize the crime all perpetuate this violence and give license to murder. In such a case, we have to locate violence in the act, but also in the foreshadowing exhibited by the social domination of women—and of the feminized. Violence occurs in the series of legal refusals and failures to recognize it as such: no report means no crime, no punishment, and no reparation.
If feminicídio is understood as producing sexual terror, then these feminist and trans struggles are not only bound together (as they should be) but linked to struggles of queer people, of all those fighting homophobia, and of people of color who are disproportionately the target of violence or abandonment. If sexual terror is related not only to domination, but to extermination, then sexual violence constitutes a dense site for complex histories of oppression as well as of resistance struggles. As individual and awful as each of these losses surely is, they belong to a social structure that has deemed women ungrievable. The act of violence enacts the social structure, and the social structure exceeds each of the acts of violence by which it is manifested and reproduced. These are losses that should not have happened, that should never happen again: Ni Una Menos.
My example does not do justice to the historical specificity of these acts of violence, but perhaps it introduces a set of questions that can be helpful as we seek to understand murder upon murder as something other than isolated and terrible acts. The ethical and epistemological demand to create a global picture and account of this reality would have to include the killings that take place in US prisons and streets, which are the responsibility of the police who often make law on the spot. The right-wing populist embrace of new authoritarianisms, new security rationales, and new powers for security forces, police, and military (and the particular merging of all three that seems increasingly to monitor public space) supposes that such lethal institutions are necessary to “protect” the “people” from violence; and yet, such justifications only expand police powers and subject those on the margins to ever more intense carceral strategies of containment and restriction.
Is there, then, a way to name and counter forms of necropolitical targeting such as these without producing a class of victims that denies women, queers, trans people, and people of color (more generally) their networks, their theory and analysis, their solidarities, and their power to wage an effective opposition? The police seek to “protect” the people against violence and expand their carceral powers in the name of that protection. Are we unwittingly doing something similar when we speak about “vulnerable populations,” and the task thus becomes to relieve them of such vulnerability? That task is undertaken by an organization or agency that seeks to provide that relief. Relief from precarity is good, but does that approach grasp and oppose the structural forms of violence and the economics that dispose populations to unlivable precarity? Why is it that “we” do not forfeit the paternalistic option, as it were, in order to join solidarity networks, opposing such forms of social domination and violence, with those who are at once vulnerable and struggling? Once “the vulnerable” are constituted as such, are they understood to still maintain and exercise their own power? Or has all the power vanished from the situation of the vulnerable, resurfacing as the power of paternalistic care now obligated to intervene?
What if the situation of those deemed vulnerable is, in fact, a constellation of vulnerability, rage, persistence, and resistance that emerges under these same historical conditions? It would be equally unwise to extract vulnerability from this constellation; indeed, vulnerability traverses and conditions social relations, and without that insight we stand little chance of realizing the sort of substantive equality that is desired. Vulnerability ought not to be identified exclusively with passivity; it makes sense only in light of an embodied set of social relations, including practices of resistance. A view of vulnerability as part of embodied social relations and actions can help us understand how and why forms of resistance emerge as they do. Although domination is not always followed by resistance, if our frameworks of power fail to grasp how vulnerability and resistance can work together, we risk being unable to identify those sites of resistance that are opened up by vulnerability.
That said, it is clear that the organized character of deprivation and death that has taken place along the extended borders of Europe is enormous, and that the resistance of migrants and their allies is crucial, if only episodic. Approximately 5,400 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2017–18 alone, and these include the large numbers of Kurdish people seeking to migrate over the sea.  The Syrian Network for Human Rights reports that on the eighth anniversary of the uprising in March 2019, the death toll for civilians had reached 221,161.  There are many examples on which we could draw, in addition to feminicídio, to raise the question of how we come to name and understand the organization of populations primed for dispossession and death; they would include the brutal treatment of Syrians and Kurds amassed on the border of Turkey, and anti-Muslim racism in Europe and the United States, as well as its convergence with anti-migrant and anti-black racism that creates the notion of disposable peoples—those who are considered on the cusp of death or already dead.
At the same time, those who have lost infrastructural support have developed networks, communicated timetables, and sought to understand and use international maritime laws in the Mediterranean to their advantage in order to move across borders—to plot a route and to connect with communities that can provide support of one kind or another, such as squatting in vacated hotels with accommodating anarchists. Those amassed along the borders of Europe are not precisely what political philosopher Giorgio Agamben referred to as “bare life”—that is to say, we do not recognize their suffering by further depriving them of all capacity. Rather, they are, for the most part, in a terrible situation: improvising forms of sociality, using cell phones, plotting and taking action when it is possible, drawing maps, learning languages, though in so many instances those activities are not always possible. Even as agency is blocked at every turn, there still remain ways of resisting that very blockage, ways of entering the force field of violence to stop its continuation. When they do make the demand for papers, for movement, for entry, they are not precisely overcoming their vulnerability—they are demonstrating it, and demonstrating with it. What happens is not the miraculous or heroic transformation of vulnerability into strength, but the articulation of a demand that only a supported life can persist as a life. Sometimes the demand is made with the body, through showing up in a place where one is exposed to police power, and refusing to move. The cell phone image of the petitioner makes the virtual case for the actual life, and it shows how the life depends upon its virtual circulation. The body can only assert “this is a life” if the conditions of assertion can be established, that is, through its emphatic and public indexical demonstration.
Consider, for example, the German newspaper Daily Resistance, published in Farsi, Arabic, Turkish, German, French, and English, which contains articles by refugees who have formulated a set of political demands, including the abolition of all refugee camps, the end of the German policy of Residenzpflicht (which limits the freedom of movement of refugees within narrow boundaries), a halt to all deportations, and allowances for refugees to work and study.  In 2012, several refugees in the city of Würzburg stitched their mouths shut, protesting against the fact that the government had refused to respond to them. That gesture has been repeated in several sites, most recently by Iranian migrants in Calais, France, in March of 2017, before the destruction and evacuation of their camp. Their view, widely shared, is that without a political response, the refugees remain voiceless, since a voice that is not heard is not registered, and so is not a political voice. Of course, they did not put their claim in this propositional form. But they made the point through a readable and visible gesture that muted the voice as the sign and substance of their demand. The image of the stitched lips shows that the demand cannot be voiced and so makes its own voiceless demand. It displays its voicelessness in a visual image in order to make a point about the political limits imposed on audibility. In some ways, we see again a form of theatrical politics that asserts their power and, at the same time, the limits imposed on that power.
Another example from Turkey is the “standing man” in Taksim Square in June of 2013 who was part of the protest movements against the Erdoğan government, including against its policies of privatization and its authoritarianism. The standing man was a performance artist, Erdem Gündüz, who obeyed the state’s edict, delivered immediately after the mass protests, not to assemble and not to speak with others in assembly—an edict by Erdoğan that sought to undermine the most basic premises of democracy: freedom of movement, of assembly, and of speech. So, one man stood, and stood at the mandated distance from another person, who in turn stood at the mandated distance from another. Legally, they did not constitute an assembly, and no one was speaking or moving. What they did was to perform compliance perfectly, hundreds of them, filling the square at the proper distance from one another. They effectively demonstrated the ban under which they were living, submitting to it at the same time that they displayed it for the cameras, which could not be fully banned. Demonstration had at least two meanings: the ban was shown, incorporated, enacted bodily—the ban became a script—but the ban was also opposed, demonstrated against. That demonstration was elaborated in and by the visual field opened up by cell phone cameras, those forms of technology that eluded the interdiction on speech and movement. The performance thus both submitted to and defied the interdiction, in and through the same action. It shows the knotted position of the subjugated subject by at once exposing and opposing its own subjugation.
In such cases, the living character of the subjugated is also brought to the fore: this will not be a life sequestered in its subjugation, deprived of appearance and speech in the public sphere; this will be a living life, and that redoubling means that it is not yet extinguished, and that it continues to make a claim and demand on behalf of its own living character. The bodies that say, “I will not disappear so easily,” or, “My disappearance will leave a vibrant trace from which resistance will grow,” are effectively asserting their grievability within the public and media sphere. In exposing their bodies in the context of demonstration, they let it be known which bodies are at risk of detention, deportation, or death. For embodied performance brings that specific historical exposure to violence to the fore; it makes the wager and the demand with its own performative and embodied persistence. Note that it is not the immediacy of the body that makes this demand, but rather the body as socially regulated and abandoned, the body as persisting and resisting that very regulation, asserting its existence within readable terms.  It acts as its own deixis, a pointing to, or enacting of, the body that implies its situation: this body, these bodies; these are the ones exposed to violence, resisting disappearance. These bodies exist still, which is to say that they persist under conditions in which their very power to persist is systematically undermined.
This persistence is not a matter of heroic individualism, or one of digging deep into unknown personal resources. The body, in its persistence, is neither an expression of the individual nor a collective will. For if we accept that part of what a body is (and this is for the moment an ontological claim) occurs in its dependency on other bodies—on living processes of which it is a part, on networks of support to which it also contributes—then we are suggesting that it is not altogether right to conceive of individual bodies as completely distinct from one another; and neither would it be right to think of them as fully merged, without distinction. Without conceptualizing the political meaning of the human body in the context of those institutions, practices, and relations in which it lives and thrives, we fail to make the best possible case for why murder is unacceptable, abandonment has to be opposed, and precarity has to be alleviated. It is not just that this or that body is bound up in a network of relations, but that the boundary both contains and relates; the body, perhaps precisely by virtue of its boundaries, is differentiated from and exposed to a material and social world that makes its own life and action possible. When the infrastructural conditions of life are imperiled, so too is life, since life requires infrastructure, not simply as an external support, but as an immanent feature of life itself. This is a materialist point we deny only at our own peril.
Critical social theory has not always taken into account the way in which life and death are presupposed by the ways we think about social relations. For it is one thing to say that life and death are both socially organized, and that we can describe social forms of living and dying. That is important work, to be sure. But if we do not consider what we mean by “the social” in such discussions, we may fail to see how the threat of death and the promise of life are constitutive features of those relations that we call “social.” So, in some ways, our habits of constructivism have to change in order to grasp the issues of life and death at issue here: those of bodily persistence, of the fact that there are always conditions for bodily persistence. Where those conditions for bodily persistence are not actualized, persistence is threatened.
If there is a right to persist, it would not be one that individuals maintain at the expense of their social condition. Individualism fails to capture the condition of vulnerability, exposure, even dependency, that is presupposed by the right itself, and that corresponds, I would suggest, to a body whose boundaries are themselves fraught and excitable social relations. Whether a body that falters and falls is caught by networks of support, or whether a moving body has its way paved without obstruction, depends on whether a world has been built for both its gravity and mobility— and whether that world can stay built. The skin is, from the start, a way of being exposed to the elements, but that exposure always takes a social form. And what is done about that exposure is already a socially organized relation: a relation to shelter, to adequate clothing, to health services. If we seek to find what is most essential about the body by reducing it to its bare elements or even to its bare life, we find that right there at the level of its most basic requirements, the social world is already structuring the scene. Thus, the basic questions of mobility, expression, warmth, and health implicate that body in a social world where pathways are differentially paved, are open or closed; and where modes of clothing and types of shelter are more or less available, affordable, or provisional. The body is invariably defined by the social relations that bear upon its persistence, sustenance, and thriving.
The thriving that is bound up with human life is connected to the thriving of non-human creatures; human and non-human life are also related by virtue of the living processes they are, they share and they require, raising all kinds of questions about stewardship that deserve full attention from scholars and intellectuals across all fields. The political concept of self-preservation, often used in the defense of violent action, does not consider that the preservation of the self requires the preservation of the earth, and that we are not “in” the global environment as self-subsisting beings, but subsist only as long as the planet does. What is true for humans is true for all living creatures who require non-toxic soil and clean water for the continuation of life.  If any of us are to survive, to flourish, even to attempt to lead a good life, it will be a life lived with others—a live that is no life without those others. I will not lose this “I” who I am under such conditions; rather, if I am lucky, and the world is right, whoever I am will be steadily sustained and transformed by my connections with others, the forms of contact by which I am altered and sustained.
The dyadic relation tells only part of the story—the part that can be exemplified by the encounter. This “I” requires a “you” in order to survive and to flourish. Yet, both the “I” and the “you” require a sustaining world. These social relations can serve as a ground for thinking about the broader global obligations of nonviolence we bear toward one another: I cannot live without living together with some set of people, and it is invariable that the potential for destruction dwells precisely in that necessary relationship. That one group cannot live without living together with another such group means that one’s own life is already in some sense the life of the other. And then there are the growing numbers of those who no longer belong to a nation, or who have lost their territorial grounding, seen it bombed or stolen; those who have been expelled from whatever category tenu- ously held them within its terms, carrying forth unbearable losses into a new language they have just begun to speak, summarily clustered as the “stateless” or the “migrant” or the “indigenous.”
The ties that potentially bind us across zones of geopolitical violence can be unknowing and frail, freighted with paternalism and power, but they can be strengthened through transversal forms of solidarity that dispute the primacy and necessity of violence. The sentiments of solidarity that persist are those that accept the transversal character of our alliances, the perpetual demand for translation as well as the epistemic limits that mark its failures, including its appropriations and effacements. To avow vulnerability not as an attribute of the subject, but as a feature of social relations, does not imply vulnerability as an identity, a category, or a ground for political action. Rather, persistence in a condition of vulnerability proves to be its own kind of strength, distinguished from one that champions strength as the achievement of invulnerability. That condition of mastery replicates the forms of domination to be opposed, devaluing those forms of susceptibility and contagion that yield solidarity and transformational alliances.
Similarly, the prejudice against nonviolence as passive and useless implicitly depends upon a gendered division of attributes by which masculinity stands for activity, and femininity for passivity. No transvaluation of those values will defeat the falsehood of that binary opposition. Indeed, the power of nonviolence, its force, is found in the modes of resistance to a form of violence that regularly hides its true name. Nonviolence exposes the ruse by which state violence defends itself against black and brown people, queer people, the migrant, the homeless, the dissenters—as if they were, taken together, so many vessels of destruction who must, for “security reasons,” be detained, incarcerated, or expelled. The “soul force” that Gandhi had in mind was never fully separable from an embodied stance, a way of living in the body and of persisting, precisely under conditions that attack the very conditions of persistence. Sometimes continuing to exist in the vexation of social relations is the ultimate defeat of violent power.
To link a practice of nonviolence with a force or strength that is distinguished from destructive violence, one that is manifest in solidarity alliances of resistance and persistence, is to refute the characterization of nonviolence as a weak and useless passivity. Refusal is not the same as doing nothing. The hunger striker refuses to reproduce the prisoner’s body, indicting the carceral powers that are already attacking the existence of the incarcerated. The strike may not seem like an “action,” but it asserts its power by withdrawing labor that is essential to the continuation of a capitalist form of exploitation. Civil disobedience may seem like a simple “opting out,” but it makes public a judgment that a legal system is not just. It requires the exercise of an extra-legal judgment. To breach the fence or the wall that is designed to keep people out is precisely to exercise an extra-legal claim to freedom, one that the existing legal regime is failing to provide for within its own terms. To boycott a regime that continues colonial rule, intensifying dispossession, displacement, and disenfranchisement for an entire population, is to assert the injustice of the regime, to refuse to reproduce its criminality as normal.
For nonviolence to escape the war logics that distinguish between lives worth preserving and lives considered dispensable, it must become part of a politics of equality. Thus, an intervention in the sphere of appearance—the media and all the contemporary permutations of the public sphere—is required to make every life grievable, that is, worthy of its own living, deserving of its own life. To demand that every life be grievable is another way of saying that all lives ought to be able to persist in their living without being subject to violence, systemic abandonment, or military obliteration.
To counter the scheme of lethal phantasmagoria that so often justifies police violence against black and brown communities, military violence against migrants, and state violence against dissidents, a new imaginary is required— an egalitarian imaginary that apprehends the interdependency of lives. Unrealistic and useless, yes, but it is possibly a way of bringing another reality into being that does not rely on instrumental logics and the racial phantasmagoria that reproduces state violence. The “unrealism” of such an imaginary is its strength. It is not just that in such a world, each life would deserve to be treated as the other’s equal, or that each would have an equal right to live and to flourish—although certainly both of those possibilities are to be affirmed. A further step is required: “each” is, from the start, given over to another, social, dependent, but without the proper resources to know whether this dependency that is required for life is exploitation or love.
We do not have to love one another to engage in meaningful solidarity. The emergence of a critical faculty, of critique itself, is bound up with the vexed and precious relationship of solidarity, where our “sentiments” navigate the ambiva- lence by which they are constituted. We can always fall apart, which is why we struggle to stay together. Only then do we stand a chance of persisting in a critical commons: when nonviolence becomes the desire for the other’s desire to live, a way of saying, “You are grievable; the loss of you is intolerable; and I want you to live; I want you to want to live, so take my desire as your desire, for yours is already mine.” The “I” is not you, yet it remains unthinkable without the “you”—worldless, unsustainable. So, whether we are caught up in rage or love—rageful love, militant pacifism, aggressive nonviolence, radical persistence—let us hope that we live that bind in ways that let us live with the living, mindful of the dead, demonstrating persistence in the midst of grief and rage, the rocky and vexed trajectory of collective action in the shadow of fatality.
- excerpted from Judith's Butler's new book, The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political. See all our reading for International Women's Day 2020 here.
1 See Martha Fineman’s website foregrounding the scholarship of her research team at Emory University: “Vulnerability and the Human Condition,” Emory University official website, web.gs.emory.edu/ vulnerability.
2 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Statelessness around the World, UNHCR official website, unhcr.org.
3 “Countries with the Highest Number of Murders of Trans and Gender-Diverse People in Latin America from January to September 2018,” Trans Murder Monitoring, November 2018, statista.com/statistics/944650 /number-trans-murders-latin-america-country. See also Chase Strangio, “Deadly Violence against Transgender People Is on the Rise. The Government Isn’t Helping,” ACLU, August 21, 2018, aclu.org.
4 Montserrat Sagot, “A rota crítica da violência intrafamiliar em países latino-americanos,” in Stela Nazareth Meneghel, ed., Rotas críticas: mulheres enfrentando a violência, São Leopoldo: Editoria Usinos, 2007, 23–50.
5 See also Julia Estela Monárrez Fragoso, “Serial Sexual Femicide in Ciudad Juárez: 1993–2001,” Debate Femenista 13:25, 2002.
6 International Organization for Migration, “Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals Reach 113,145 in 2018; Deaths Reach 2,242,” International Organization for Migration offcial website, 2018, iom.int; “Mediterranean: Deaths by Route,” Missing Migrants Project, missingmigrants.iom.int, accessed May 15, 2019.
7 Syrian Network for Human Rights, “Eight Years Since the Start of the Popular Uprising in Syria, Terrible Violations Continue,” Syrian Network for Human Rights official website, 2019, sn4hr.org.
8 See my “Vulnerability and Resistance,” Profession, March 2014, profession.mla.org.
9 See Lauren Wilcox, Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015.
10 Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2003; and When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.