“On Being Vulnerable: ‘Crisis’ and Transformation”

MLA explained its choice of theme, “Vulnerable Times,” for its 2014 annual conference by citing precarious conditions facing humanities disciplines: reduced funding, cutbacks in jobs, exploitation of non-tenure-track teachers, the bleak prospects facing language departments, and so on. Underscoring the pertinence of this subject—indeed, extending it beyond the university to include “political volatility, fluctuating financial markets, fear-mongering media, and increasingly hateful acts and rhetoric that contribute to a general sense of malaise”—the 2018 MLA conference is themed “#States of Insecurity.”

In 2016, Duke University Press published a volume titled Vulnerability in Resistance, foregrounding one potential response to vulnerable times. Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay, the volume’s editors, contest the assumption “that vulnerability is the opposite of resistance and cannot be conceived as part of that practice.” Instead, they explore “what in our analytic and political frameworks would change if vulnerability were imagined as one of the conditions of the very possibility of resistance.” Accordingly, the book marshals a set of forceful responses that negotiate the complexities of vulnerability, opening important avenues of reflection through a principled dedication to the practice of critique.

While this approach provides a vigorous model of response to vulnerable times, it also reanimates the crisis to which the 2014 MLA theme drew attention. This is because, in some influential lines of thought, critique, a cognate of “crisis,” has come to designate a compulsive behavior as much as a mode of analytic engagement. Rita Felski, in particular, has divulged how critique often involves an affective posture of detachment and superiority, the antithesis of the openness and amenability to transformation that vulnerability also suggests. What is more, the compulsive quality of critique, its dogmatic insistence and predictability, has contributed to a sense of its seeming exhaustion. Narrowing the circumference of human experience by over-representing a particular type of response, critique contributes to a growing sense of the irrelevance of humanities disciplines to life outside or even within the university.

To be sure, critique continues to hold an important place in humanistic practice, and the critique of critique is not without contradiction and other problems of its own. Nevertheless, the recent turn in literary studies toward the multiple experiential modes through which we encounter and interpret the world opens a provocative space for reflection on the meaning of “vulnerable times” or “states of insecurity.” In particular, it enables us to contemplate vulnerability as an invitation to change. We take a cue here from Hannah Arendt, who argues in The Human Condition that only actions of the most vulnerable kind—self-disclosing, interpersonal, unanticipated, and hence lacking defense of precedent or certainty of outcome—achieve lasting effects. She associates such actions with speech and writing, drama, music—in short, with the arts and humanities—and contrasts them with displays of strength that fortify institutions and bolster economies but ultimately do little to cultivate the human spirit. In effect, she provides a model for the humanities after an era of “crisis,” when humanities disciplines are increasingly portrayed as indefensible and when their greatest chance for survival, ironically, may depend on how their proponents embrace that very trait.

With an eye on the state of the humanities in the US, but with an interest in expanding our purview beyond the US institutional context (and perhaps beyond the university altogether), this symposium will address ways in which humanities disciplines register and promote vulnerability. We will attend especially to the transformations—of our institutions, our research and teaching practices, our students, and even ourselves—that vulnerability suggests or makes possible.