Sarah Stein Lubrano
Vulnerability lies at the core of our social relationships and responsibilities. It may also show us a way of living purposefully.
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain…
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
The above quote struck me when I read The Prophet for the first time this summer because it reminded me of the work of Lou Andreas-Salomé, an obscure turn-of-the-century German philosopher who wrote about the benefits of “primitive” experience. Gibran says that the key to joy is sorrow, just as the key to sorrow is joy; Andreas-Salomé suggested that women understood this best of all. She argued that the very aspects of female life––sex, love and motherhood––that make women most vulnerable, most open to positive and especially negative experience, also make life as a woman most meaningful. For example, Andreas-Salomé believed motherhood represented the ultimate human relationship, and “it is therefore only to motherhood that it is given to realize a relationship fully, from its deepest original source to its topmost pinnacle: from its flesh and its blood to the spiritual self of the Other, in which the beginning of the world is rediscovered” (The Erotic, 84).
The mother recognizes what it means to exist physically and to give this physical existence to another person—not because she thinks about it rationally, but she experiences it. This experience, specifically experience as vulnerability, is key. Motherhood is not only physically but metaphysically painful, as “the mother consciously places that which belongs to her most intimate being outside herself, like an alien creature, with its own existence: in a final painful act of spontaneity, an ultimate relinquishment…” (84). Through direct experience comes painful recognition, but also the deepest understanding of the relationship between two human beings. Thus sorrow breeds not just joy but wisdom and experiential depth.
Andreas-Salomé may have been one of the first writers to stress the importance of vulnerability and its special relationship to female life, but certainly she was not the last. Quite a few modern feminist writers have taken up the topic, always with their own specific understanding. Judith Butler began her 2004 book Undoing Gender with a poetic essay on vulnerability, in which she argued that the experience of “being laid bare from the start, dependent on those we do not know” is inherent in the human condition and the basis for much of the rest of our experiences and relationships. Like Andreas-Salomé, she stressed the value of this vulnerability, this time focusing on how it forms relationships.
Vulnerability exposes us to both the harm we can do each other and the good, to violence and to love. Butler argues that both kinds of vulnerability tie us to each other and are fundamental to human existence: “[i]f we are outside of ourselves as sexual beings, given over from the start, crafted in part through the primary relations of dependency and attachment, then… [this state] is there as the function of sexuality itself, where sexuality is…coextensive with existence” (33). Vulnerability is positive not only because it yields more meaningful experiences, but because it forms inherently meaningful bonds.
However positive, for many feminist philosophers, vulnerability is also an impetus for seeking social and political change. Butler ends her essay by stressing the danger of people being “made unreal” if their vulnerability is used against them. This concern is philosophical and social, but also political. Like Butler, feminist legal scholar Martha Fineman takes vulnerability to be a key part of human nature, using “the concept of vulnerable detached from specific subgroups…to define the very meaning of what it means to be human” (266). Whatever depth vulnerability might bring to individual experiences, especially those of women and other oppressed groups, it is also in Fineman’s view the root of societal ills and societal responsibility, both long ignored and rejected by American scholars, politicians, and citizens. In her article The Vulnerable Subject and the Responsive State (2011), she argues that while political philosophers often stress the need for limited government to promote autonomy, “[a]utonomy is not an inherent human characteristic, but must be cultivated by a society that pays attention to the needs of its members, the operation of its institutions, and the implications of human fragility and vulnerability” (260).
What does this particularly feminist emphasis on the importance of vulnerability suggest about philosophy, feminism, and vulnerability itself? In one sense, these theories about vulnerability constitute a critique of or alternative to the calculated mathematics of utility often used in philosophy, especially in political philosophy. For example, although many mothers might argue that the pleasures of motherhood outweigh the pains, this is not why the philosophers above would characterize motherhood as a positive experience. They imply that motherhood is made meaningful not by the sum total of its negatives and positives, but by the intrinsic value of the journey itself and the relationships involved. Rather, no matter how sparse the pleasures and how deep the pain, the experience of motherhood entails a deep understanding of oneself. It reveals to a woman how she is tied inextricably to others, both reliant on and responsible for them. It is both connection and transformation itself, as the woman becomes both more reliant and more responsible through motherhood.
While this idea that vulnerability is key to experience has wide applications, its most interesting implications arise when considering how the vulnerable individual ought to orient his or her self in the world. Feminism itself is often progress-based, geared toward the achievement of a better social state. Yet, as with all real-life social change, such progress comes slowly, haltingly, and sometimes not at all.
Vulnerability is useful as a philosophical concept because it places a different kind of value on the feminist struggle itself: activism, both individual and political, ceases to be a series of means to an end, instead becoming a way of being in the world. Here, activism is the continuous process of genuine recognition of oneself and one’s relationship to others, through which the individual becomes more enlightened and better connected. Vulnerability and the recognition of vulnerability thus tie advocacy for others with living authentically and fully as an individual. When we live exposed to the world and all its possible harm, we live with direction, tied to others and true to ourselves.