EducationO.O.P.S.Theory & Practice

Butler’s “ethic of vulnerability” and redefining “liberal” in the “liberal arts”

In today’s post I want to do two things. First, I hope to continue my attempt to investigate the connection between engaging in the practice of liberal arts education in an expressly “diverse” intellectual and intercultural context and theorizing the relevant sense of recognizing another who is “like us.” Second, I want to offer an open invitation for anyone who might read and be interested to respond with their own reflections about this connection between liberal arts education and the politics of inclusion and of exclusion.

As my title makes clear, my central focus here is Judith Butler’s practical, if highly abstracted, formulation of how we might best consider the role of otherness in constituting one’s identity under the condition of pluralist democracy. But I am interested in her theoretical view not as an object of thought, but as a tool of practical discourse that we can and should work with in our everyday encounters with an “other,” whether that other is a person we encounter in our daily lives without mediation, a person we encounter through the mediation of traditional reportage and/or the blogosphere, or an abstract other who is nevertheless a concrete part of our self-construction as persons, selves, politically active subjects. In so doing, I am trying to think three things together: my experience of sharing a subway car with “ethnic Germans” and refugees from the middle east (reported in the “closing note” to my reflection on the Paris terror attacks); my more recent reflection on the debates at Bard College Berlin concerning the diversity in/and/of our curriculum; and Butler’s “ethic of vulnerability” in and of itself. Let me begin with this last, most abstract piece and then turn to its relevance for the two concrete considerations.

First, a word on Butler and why her thinking is so necessary and so fruitful — dare I say, canonical — for all three of these senses of the encounter with the other of concern for us here. What I want to borrow from Butler’s works — chiefly, on this point, from Excitable Speech (1997);Violence, Mourning and Politics (2003); and Giving an Account of Oneself (2003) — is what I have called (in my 2012 book on the theme of “identity as a linguistic perfomance” in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves) Butler’s ethic of vulnerability. By this I mean to call attention to the focus Butler has put on the fact that subjectivity (and the mythic “selfhood” that classical theories of subjectivity propagate) is predicated not on our agency, on what we do and what we say, but rather precisely on our exposure. Already before birth we are exposed, on the one hand, to our mother-host but very much also to the linguistic, cultural and political norms that pervade her as a subjectivity and as a physical host. While, at, and after birth, we are ever more directly exposed to and created by those norms. Following upon this radically reformulated subjectivity, Butler has developed a theory of moral responsibility that she derives from this “middle voice” condition, in contradistinction to classical ethical discourse predicated on the “active voice” of moral agency. Butler’s ethic, and her characteristic way of articulating it, understands itself to be an acknowledgement that this situation — our situation — is both impossible and unavoidable, especially for the traditionally marginal (or subaltern) with respect to dominant discourse in which we all find ourselves. Real, but impossible, unavoidable and unlivable: such is the space in which we must make our way in the world, ethically and politically. Must, I stress, and not “ought to.”

Let me try to bring this abstract idea into the concrete context of the debates about diversifying the curriculum at Bard College Berlin. In response to my suggestion (in my post on diversity and empathic response) that we turn to Butler for guidance on “the relevant sense of likeness,” a likeness that is neither sameness or identity, but predicated precisely on otherness and difference, my colleague Jaroslava Gajdosova asked two challenging questions: “Did your female colleagues [suspend the stable boundaries of our collective selves and become more fluid ‘us’ that live on a verge of our race or gender] when they were the first ones to defend the curricula in which female scholars are palpably underrepresented and was it this sense that you call for a liminal mode of existence?” and “Why is it always a minority that is called upon to stretch its boundaries, imagination, or understanding?” She went on to offer the critique that “if I am in the world only through your voice then I am present there through your description (Darstellung) of me, which is a less autonomous position to have than that of my own representation (Vertretung) as a visible, audible, and acting subject.”

This reply places us squarely within the space that I am hoping to inhabit in this comment on what it means to reflect on issues of diversity, within the public space of the academy and within the broader space of our democratic polities. In thinking responsibly with Jaroslava, we are at the same time thinking not just about our curriculum but also about how our curriculum can help us to think through and speak persuasively about the politics of inclusion and exclusion within those polities. Specifically, I am thinking about Hilla Dayan’s comment on “shortcomings” (especially rhetorical) and yet the “importance” of the mobilization around “decolonizing the University” she has seen in Amsterdam. Hilla is troubled by the ways this movement has cast itself precisely within the values of the University it is hoping to reinvent — for instance by “putting up posters such as ‘have you heard of…’ naming all these great black intellectuals who all read their Hegel and Marx and were born and bred in Anglo-American universities.” If I have not misunderstood her, Jaroslava is calling attention to the same dynamic: the way in which (historically or traditionally) marginal voices are called upon to record the injustice of their marginalization precisely in terms of the traditional, dominant discourse.

I am not sure how much I can add to that constellation of concern, save to notice — if I am not mistaken — that Butler’s ethic of vulnerability is meant to respond to precisely this concern. Butler is asking us: given the reality of this unjust situation of dominance and marginality, given its severity, and given also the fact that our way of diagnosing this situation is itself the result of this situation, what mode of response do we owe one another, regardless of the descriptive identities we assign ourselves or are assigned by others? This “regardlessness” is anything but the blind, acontextual, “colonializing” discourse of classic universalism. It is rather a “regardlessness” around which we can mobilize our ethical and political claims on each other. We need this regardlessness in our liberal arts curricula, I would argue; Butler’s is perhaps the voice of this kind in which I find myself most fully represented (there’s Jaroslava’s Vertretung), but not the only one. We cannot keep returning the pieties of the tradition as it was formulated into a curriculum in the 1920s and 1930s as a response to the errors of identity politics, as they continue to recur. Rather, we “curricular conservatives” must find our way into the more recent conversation in order to see the allies who speak both from and for the kind of “situated universalism” (or “contingent foundationalism”) that our contemporary broad-based liberal arts curricula can help to clarify and espouse, for ourselves, for our students, and for the broader public.

But why? Why do we need to do that, if I am right that we do? In order to start to answer that question, I want to return in closing to “the real world” and suggest that the reason why these debates are still going on and still have salience — the reason that matters, the difference that makes a difference in this discussion — is ultimately not about the academy itself or disciplinary knowledge of the past, the present or the future. Thus our conversation is ultimately not about the curriculum, which is itself at most a site of contestation worth entering in order to do something about the academy and/or disciplinary knowledge.

My closing thought in the “invitation for an Online Open Public Seminar (OOPS)” is that hard as these debates might be and circular as they can feel, they are worth our reengagement today because it is only if we think these things through, with care and with mutual attentiveness, that we will be able to have a meaningful influence on the place that issues of identity, diversity, and mutual recognition have in broader public discussions. With so much hatred and mistrust, with so much outright fear, polluting the political scene, I picture myself (there’s Jarsoslava’s Darstellung) on the U9 between Berliner Strasse and Turmstrasse and try to imagine how our debates with one another inside the university can be brought to bear on the unspoken space that exists between and among the radically different human beings who stand huddled near me most mornings as I head north on the subway. My suggestion is: we need to refine a voice that is grounded in the best of the “great conversation” concerning the problem of the human and that is also richly in touch with the paradoxes (including the injustices) of contemporary pluralist democracies not so much for the benefit of ourselves and our students, but more for the sake of educating public discourse, which is in dire need of some content other than unreflective populist xenophobia on the one side, and equally unreflective liberal pieties on the other. I know I don’t need to argue here against xenophobia, but just to make explicit why rehearsing liberal pieties won’t cut it either, let me say this: however much I believe the liberals’ heart is in the right place, I believe the critiques of liberal universalism both within the academy and without hit home in some real ways, not least in terms of the self-delusion we liberals have all-too-often suffered about our own tolerance of, and even appetite for, cruelty.

This is a bold statement in need of a defense. In my next contribution to this conversation I shall offer such a defense, I hope in response to some thoughts that the readers of these posts will share as author/participants in an ongoing conversation. For now, let me make clear the brief I was trying to argue for in making this bold statement. Namely: insofar as public discourse desperately needs an alternative to, say, Trump vs. Habermas, we need to develop a 21st-century understanding of the meaning of “liberal” in “liberal arts” education. Without such an updated understanding, for reasons both good and bad — though more of the latter — we can expect a continuing spread of neo-populism against the stale (if noble) principles of unreconstructed liberalism.

What do you think? What, if anything, does your practice of a liberal arts education contribute to the politics of inclusion of exclusion both in the university and in society at large?

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Michael Weinman

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