Katerina Kolozova, Vulnerability Preconditioning Humanity

 Εισήγηση της Katerina Kolozova στην εκδήλωση του Κοινωνικού Εργαστηρίου Διασχίζοντας τα σύνορα, προβολή της ταινίας Σκιές του Μ. Μαντσέφσκι, 2/6/2008

In Precarious Life (2006) and in Undoing Gender (2004), Judith Butler offers an account of the mute suffering of the ones whose lives, whose “loves and losses” have been rendered “unreal”(Butler 2004, 27; 2006, 36) because of their being precluded from legible articulation by means of the dominant and “universally” (globally) communicable discourses. These human losses have suffered de-realization by dominant discourses within which they do not succeed to gain meaning, claims Butler (2004 25, 27). The loves and losses that remain impossible to articulate by means of the universally communicable discourses are the loves and losses of the not-completely-universally-human experiences (Butler 2006, 33-34); the latter would be a space inhabited by a variety of embodied lives that disrupt and elude what institutes itself as the Normal, a group of “abnormal” embodied agencies that include the queer people and the countless and nameless Palestinian victims (Butler 2006, 35-36).
The structural laws of the “intelligible discourses” render these losses meaningless, since they cannot be named – and, hence, ascribed value – in a universally legible way, as prescribed by the globally dominant model of Normativity. The state of being deprived of a meaning, of being absent from “What-Makes-Sense” is an experience of a sense of being deprived of reality. Meaningless is unreal in the – inescapably – eikonically constituted reality. These losses and grieves are not represented, not talked of, and it is impossible to publicly mourn them (Butler 2006, 37-39) – they are not inscribed into the collective narrative, into the imaginable reality. They are banned access from the reality that can be imagined and talked of. By not naming them they have been rendered unreal. The oppression is not only political. At this point it becomes ontological.
In order to gain access to reality one ought to gain access to the legible discourses. One’s voicing about one’s pain, grief and loss ought to acquire legibility within the existing discourses or render meaningful and legitimize one’s dissonant (“subaltern”) discourse.
            In the Chapter titled “Violence, Mourning, Politics” of Precarious Life, Judith Butler writes:

So when we say that every infant is surely vulnerable, that is clearly true; but it is true, in part, precisely because our utterance enacts the very recognition of vulnerability and so shows the importance of recognition itself […] This framework, by which norms of recognition are essential to the constitution of vulnerability as a precondition of the “human,” is important precisely for this reason, namely, that we need and want those norms to be in place, that we struggle for their establishment, and that we value their continuing and expanded operation. (2006, 43)

            Recognition is always already an operation of Language: it is an operation of the eikon, of the sign (visual or verbal/textual). It is the result of signification assigning significance. According to the quoted paragraph, one’s vulnerability and one’s wound, one’s grief and loss ought to gain access into the widely – or dominantly – legible discourse/s in order to obtain legitimacy to be considered as such. In fact, it seems that in order to acquire the status of a vulnerable being one has to translate one’s vulnerability into a language that is spoken by those who constitute the field of reality – i.e., what is recognized as reality. In other words, reality is constituted upon an act of recognition. This is a point that Butler clearly makes in the paragraph just quoted.
            Yet, there is another enunciation present in the cited paragraph that I am particularly interested in exploring. It is a statement which is obviously irrelevant for the thesis advanced by Butler, yet one worthwhile tackling at this point of our analysis. In the beginning of the citation there is a reference to what is considered a commonsensical self-evident truth, to a certain “goes without saying.” And it is precisely the status of a “goes-without-saying-true-yet-not-sufficiently-relevant-for-a-theoretical-investigation” which provokes the question of how the quality of self-evidence of a certain truth is established, legitimized and stabilized (but also destabilized). The self-evident truth which Butler states is the following: “So when we say that every infant is surely vulnerable, that is clearly true.” And she continues by claiming that “it is true, in part, precisely because our utterance enacts the very recognition of vulnerability and so shows the importance of recognition itself.”

            So, according to Butler, it is “clearly true.” It seems so self-evident that it does not deserve theoretical interrogation. “In part,” however, it is true also because of the enactment of recognition through language. It seems that, in our age of post-modernity, this “in part” has always been more important or more worthwhile politico-theoretical exploration than the “clearly true.” The “clearly,” the “goes without saying” has been assigned the status of a commonsensical presupposition, residing within the moral constitution itself of the theorizing subject, and has been, hence, rendered “untheorizable.” However, this absence of recognition of theoretical relevance to a discursive phenomenon that formatively participates in the discourses that are subject to theorizing is telling. It is unrecognized as relevant in a way that would produce a theoretical narrative (of it). It represents a discourse that has been rendered theoretically unrecognizable: within the horizon of theoretical reality today, it has been de-realized. The commonsensical “clearly true” is always and by definition absent from the political theory of the postmodern era. It is theoretically illegible and it is outside the theoretical discourses on subjection (including political subjectivity). It has no access to the theoretical reality, or it does not have the status of a theoretically real.

            I would like to tackle this problem of a theoretical de-realization, and in this respect, attempt to interrogate the contents of that “clearly true” as something that may have relevance to a theoretical investigation into the theme of political subject formation and its aspects of responsibility and solidarity. What seems to be “clearly true,” according to the cited passage by Butler, is not only the mere physical fact about children’s vulnerability, but also that vulnerability means something, contains a certain signification, that it is a function of a discursive structure. Evidently, it is the discursive, linguistic phenomenon of vulnerability that needs to be recognized in order to gain reality. What needs to be recognized in order to be realized is “what it means to be vulnerable” and not the mere fact of physical vulnerability itself. The bare fact of vulnerability devoid of meaning (language) is not what preconditions humanity. The discursive category of vulnerability, the sign and signification that “vulnerability” represents is what needs recognition in order to precondition the “human.” This is how I could summarize and explicate Butler’s main argument in the chapter on “Violence, Mourning, Politics” of Precarious Life.
Building on this discourse advanced by Butler, I would like to take the discussion a step further and raise the question of whether bare life itself, that pre-discursive phenomenon of life exposed to the threat of violence can have a political meaning and/or value. Can we attribute political and ethical value to life and life’s vulnerability prior to attaining its status of a sign/signifier, prior to acquiring a meaning, prior to becoming “what life and vulnerability means”?

            The Spinozian initiation of this Chapter could show us that sheer life, the Being-as-Nature reduced to its determination in the last instance that is the mute labor of self-preservation can contain the foundation of the ethical constitution of the self. Let us recall that in Spinoza’s Ethics pain and pleasure appear as the names of a decreased and an increased level of “presence of life,” respectively.  Let us recall that according to Spinoza the pain that is suffered by others always already acquires presence in our personal life since it inevitably appears on the cognitive level of our existence. Because one cannot ever abstract oneself from one’s human – as well as non-human – surroundings, because one is always already inextricably constituted by all that which participates in the overall Natura naturans, one is always already afflicted by the pain present in the others.

This affliction initially takes place on the cognitive/mental level; however, it is almost simultaneously transmuted into a bodily sensation. This is the inevitable – and logically necessary – result of the immanence of life which represents a link of uninterrupted continuity between the bodily and the mental. It is apparent that in Spinoza’s Ethics it is the body which possesses the status of the determination in the last instance and the identity in the last instance of (individual) life: the “adequate ideas,” and the active emotions that are the product of Reason, are adequate inasmuch as they contribute to a higher power of activity or “presence of life.” The locus par excellence of experiencing and/or of expressing presence of life is the body. The experience/expression of an increased presence of life or “power of activity” takes place in the form of a sensation – and an achieved state – of pleasure (Spinoza, E 3 1, 1p, 3, 9p, 9n,10, 56). Adequate ideas are in service of the state of an ever increased experience of pleasure (taking place through the body), whereas the latter is the expression of the increased power of activity or intensity of life (Spinoza E 3 11, 11p, 11n, 15p, 20, 37p).

            Expounding on these ideas, or perhaps merely reformulating statements that can be found in Spinoza’s text itself, I would like to propose a hypothesis about “the Organic” (about “Life”) as the determination-in-the-last-instance [objasni pogore deka e na Laruelle] of one’s political responsibility. The latter will be also conceived as the kernel of the “ethical” or the origin and the immanent law of the “care of the Other.” Spinoza’s inference of the conclusion about the immanence of the ethical is based on the “selfish” premise that one does not wish the harm of the other simply because it affects him/herself as well. However, there is another premise from which the inference about the ethical being imbedded in the conatus of self-preservation or of preserving (in) life departs, and that premise is the Spinozian thesis about the individual’s constitutive interrelatedness with and inextricability from the rest of the World (=Nature). The essence of the individual is but an expression of and participation in the attributes of God or Nature. Individualism in the sense of self’s radical autonomy is impossible in Spinozian con-text: one does not have to “invent” ways of, reasons for, origins of the Self’s desire to reach the other, to establish a relation of care. The “care of the Other” is immanent to Life, to any individual’s life, as the Other is immanently present in the life of any individual self.

Without subscribing to the entire Spinozian “cosmogony,” and putting into parentheses shis thesis about the constitutive interrelatedness with the world as something that could have the status of the direct motive for ethical acting, let us consider the possibility for life, in the sense of the pre-linguistic – pre-eikonic – conatus, to be the origin of ethics and political responsibility. How can the pre-discursive be the origin of discursivity par excellence (that is “the Political”) immanently containing the laws of its constitution? What makes this heterogeneity between the origin and the identity-in-the-last instance (of the Political) plausible? Before tackling these questions let us investigate whether the pre-discursive source of the ethical can be identified as the experienced (or, put it in Spinozian vein, legitimized through body) interconnectedness with the World, Nature, the others or whether it can and should be determined in its last instance as something else. At this point I would like to revisit and reinvestigate Butler’s thesis about vulnerability as that “precondition of the human.”

In her pursuit for that which is the foundation of human solidarity, of human rights, of political and ontological equality, of human equality, of the Care-of-the-Other, Judith Butler raises the question of the “precondition of the human,” and of its “recognition” (2006, 43). Evidently, in order to establish solidarity with the Other, in order to establish empathy with and political responsibility toward the “human condition” of the Other, this Other has to be recognized as “human.” Hence, the “human” is always already a discursive category since it is the product of the discursive operation of recognition. Yet a category heterogeneous to that of discursivity is that which “preconditions the human” – the instance of vulnerability, the experience of potential or actual pain. 

Pain, even when experienced and categorized as “mental,” “emotional” or “psychological,” is in its identity in the last instance, a bodily category. When the perplexities of the troubled, humiliated soul that has been subjected to violence are experienced as pain, one has to recognize that an immediate transposition of the psychic experience onto the bodily has taken place. When the sufferings of the “soul” become painful we know this through the “body.” Pain can be recognized as pain but through the body. The dichotomy between the two terms is highly problematic, and, hence, the opposition between “body” and “soul” is ad hoc. Further in the discussion, I will try to go beyond the falsity of this opposition and argue that it is life-in-its-last-instance, i.e., the category of the Organic which is the bearer-in-the-last-instance of the unadulterated experience of pain and vulnerability.

Leaving aside the question about the body-soul duality, and the dilemma of which of the two opposed terms represents the topos proper of pain, the instance of vulnerability and pain is still defined, by its determination in the last instance, as heterogeneous to the discursive, to language, to signification. Namely, pain – being wounded and vulnerable – is the instance of the purely experiential, the experiential par excellence, an event, a happening. It is the taking-place-of-the-Real. It is the tuché that thrusts into the automaton. Thus, if vulnerability preconditions the human and provides the basis for its recognition, it needs to be said that, paradoxically, it is the kernel of the lived (echoing François Laruelle’s notion of le vécu), i.e., of the Real, that serves as the foundation of the discursive operation par excellence, namely that of recognition.

Pain is pre-discursive. It is the unadulterated lived (le vécu) put in Francois Laruelle’s terms (1995, 225) [Theorie des Etrangers], or the instance of the evental put in Alain Badiou’s terms (2005 [BE], 173-177), or the kernel of the Real prior to symbolization (signification) put in Lacanian terms (1998, 53-54) [The Four Fundamental Concepts]. In Spinozian terms, it is life at its most fundamental – the bodily experiences of pain or pleasure that are the immediacy of life pulsating with intensity. Nonetheless, the “bodily” is not the material as opposed to the psychic (mental, rational, ideal, etc.) since there is no such opposition in Spinoza’s philosophical universe. Nature is but the expression of the divine essence, and the attributes of cogitatio and extensio are the two chief attributes of the Being which shows itself in the two faces – of Nature and God. Matter and idea are not two opposed categories in Spinoza. Highest category of God (or Nature) is the Being, and it is not split between matter and idea. Moreover, “matter” and “idea” are not among the categories in which Spinoza thinks the Being. The analogous pair of categories, that of cogitatio and extentio, is the binary of attributes which do not either exclude or oppose each other, but are rather mutually complementary. Within this framework of thinking, the Body is not a “material” category or one belonging to the attribute of “extension” exclusively.

The Body is “life” in its identity in the last instance, in its radical immanence, entailing expression through the both attributes equally (of extension and cogitation). The mental, achieved through the emotional, is the reflection of the fundamental, defining state of one’s existence – the one taking place on the level of the body (Spinoza E 5, 14). The body is the location par excellence of pain and vulnerability, i.e., the instance of the radical identity of life. The body is the topos of the radical (pre- or/and meta-discursive) knowledge about a possible threat to the survival of an “I.” This particular cognitive process taking place at the level of the Body in the form of an absolute state of alert is, by definition, automatically accompanied by total mobilization – again, taking place primarily through the body – toward staying-in-life, providing one’s own survival (as both body and soul).

That instance of pre-discursiveness which is the Pain, i.e., vulnerability, participates in a formative way in the per definitionem discursive phenomenon of recognition (of the “human”). In fact, it is the condition of that “discursive category” called humanity.  The thesis about vulnerability as the condition of the “human” implies the formative heterogeneity of humanity inasmuch as it is the experiential/evental instance of vulnerability which makes possible the discursive constitution of humanity. At the root of the “human” lies the organic instance of vulnerability and pain, at the root of the “human” we find the body that suffers. At the root of the human is that which is beyond the human – the body, the organism subjected to pain and confronting the irrevocable call for self-preservation, always already immersed in the struggle for survival.

Drawing on the Spinozian “selfish thesis” [tipot na koj referira od G. Lloyd] about any individual’s compulsion toward avoiding pain including the one experienced by the others that would make itself present cognitively, I would say that solidarity and political responsibility toward the suffering of the others originates from our ability to identify with the pain of the other body. We are able to identify with the body helplessly exposed to a possibility of affliction by pain, with body’s vulnerability. In fact, the less we can recognize the other as human, the less “human” he or she is, such as a child or an old helpless woman or man, the more we are able to revolt against the violence brought upon him or her. The less we see a Subject in control of the potentiality of a violent threat against his or her body the more we are called upon acting toward their protection: the level of vulnerability is proportional with the absence of a masterful subject of humanity.

The less discursive competence they have the more we see them as vulnerable that we are compelled to protect. The less they are what is discursively constituted as human, the more we feel called upon acting humanely. The less they are human the more they meet human solidarity. I would claim that recognition of the Other’s humanity is not only unnecessary for establishing solidarity but also redundant and even an obstacle to it. It is life to life, individualized through bodies, that establishes solidarity and not the product of an operation of recognition called – “a human.” 
Katerina Kolozova